For Vampire Weekend, East Coast prep is out, and L.A. dad vibes are in
It wasn’t always relaxing, the six-year break between Vampire Weekend’s last album and its new one, but not because Ezra Koenig didn’t have time to chill.
Sure, the frontman kept moderately busy with projects outside the band known for its globe-hopping style and arch, prep-school attitude. There was the animated series he made for Netflix and a radio show on Apple’s Beats 1; there was the tune he wrote for the movie “Peter Rabbit” and his performance with Karen O at the Academy Awards.
But come on, Koenig scoffed on a recent afternoon — it’s not like these bursts of activity filled the half-decade since “Modern Vampires of the City” debuted at No. 1 back in 2013 and won a Grammy for best alternative music album.
What threatened Koenig’s calm as he slowly pieced together his follow-up was occasionally hearing something by another artist and realizing he’d been scooped on a cool idea. Or worrying about the relevance of guitar music — the kind he can broadly be said to make — in a pop scene increasingly defined by hip-hop.
“For sure there were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we taking too long?’” he recalled.
Yet to listen to “Father of the Bride,” as Koenig titled the touching and funny Vampire Weekend album due May 3, is to get the sense that he couldn’t have finished it a day sooner. More than anything else, time feels like the crucial ingredient on the group’s fourth record.
In songs that blend organic and artificial, fashionable and un-, Koenig, 35, ponders the stuff of growing older — marriage, parenthood, creating a home — with a knowing warmth that registers as a distinct shift from the clever if chilly character studies of the band’s earlier work.
Where he once was drawn to concepts and archetypes, Koenig now finds inspiration in “emotions and communication and people coming together and going apart,” as he put it — the preoccupations of a new dad in a committed relationship. And after years of reflexively dismissing the sound of classic rock, he’s come to view a tasty riff as “something that brings me joy.”
“We did our thing with the first three records, but it was clear to me that this album needed a different vibe,” said Koenig, whose romantic partner, the actor Rashida Jones, gave birth to the couple’s son, Isaiah, last summer. Over coffee and mini black-and-white cookies, the singer spoke expansively about his new record and responsibilities from a conference table in his manager’s office, not far from his home in Los Angeles. The location signaled another life change for Vampire Weekend, which Koenig formed with Rostam Batmanglij while they were undergraduates at Columbia University.
Koenig, who wore a light-colored Nike track jacket that looked like it had been washed with somebody’s reds, stopped short of declaring that he’d left New York for L.A. “It’s more nebulous than that,” he said, pointing out that most of his belongings stayed behind. But as his personal life coalesced on the West Coast, Koenig began building a new crew of key collaborators, many of them born and raised in Southern California: producer Ariel Rechtshaid, known for his work with Haim and Adele; Steve Lacy of the Odd Future-connected Internet; hip-hop hitmaker DJ Dahi; and Haim’s Danielle Haim, the last of whom Koenig reckoned sings lead or backing vocals on half of “Father of the Bride,” including three male-female duets.
Even Batmanglij, who amicably split from Vampire Weekend in 2016 but contributed to the new album, lives here now. (The band’s remaining original members are bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson.)
The duets with Haim form the heart of the record; they actualize the type of intimate conversation from which all these songs about the comforts and challenges of romance seem to spring. Koenig knew going in that he wanted three duets featuring the same partner, and he had a couple of country-music models in mind: “You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly” by Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn and “(We’re Not) the Jet Set” by George Jones and Tammy Wynette, both of which Koenig heard as a kid at home.
“My dad would always play them, which was funny because my mom’s a family therapist,” he said with a laugh. “Interesting dialogue around the house.” The tone of the songs, he added, “made such a huge impression on me. It’s two people, they still love each other but they’re in this middle-aged, down-on-their-luck moment. There’s something so real about it.”
The rootsy flavor of his own tunes — “Hold You Now,” which opens the album, rides a loping acoustic groove — initially led Koenig to reach out to the managers of a few country stars he left unnamed.
“But the idea of me just emailing a song to someone in Nashville I’d never met — it didn’t feel right for this project,” he said. Danielle Haim, on the other hand, he’d known for years, which lent the right air of familiarity to “We Belong Together,” in which the two narrators compare themselves to a long list of paired items: pots and pans, surf and sand, Keats and Yeats, bowls and plates.
“It’s such classic songwriting,” said Haim. At the same time, “Ezra always does things with his melodies that I’d never think of.”
One byproduct of the album’s focus on relationships is speculation about Koenig’s private life with Jones, which the couple has kept under tight wraps. (Word of their son’s arrival didn’t get out until weeks later.)
“I’ve made peace with my, uh, status,” Koenig said with implied air quotes, though he acknowledged that the celebrity thing complicates his natural urge as a songwriter to mingle fact with fiction.
Take the album’s title, for example: Koenig and Jones aren’t married, true, but if you know she’s the daughter of Quincy Jones, then “Father of the Bride” makes you think of more than the Steve Martin comedy that Koenig insists he’s referencing.
“That’s funny, but it’s not really…,” he said, trailing off.
Koenig, who carries himself like the mellowest dude at a black-tie event, doesn’t mind if a listener takes something real in his lyrics for something imagined. But he’s a “stickler,” he said, regarding the reverse.
When we met, the singer had just returned from a promotional trip to London, where he said loads of journalists told him they could hear an L.A. influence in his new music.
“But the last few years have actually been characterized by some of the most intense longing I’ve ever had for the East Coast,” he said. (Indeed, the cookies we ate had been shipped from Zabar’s, the beloved gourmet shop on New York’s Upper West Side.)
“I’m like, ‘You don’t understand — I’m sitting here beneath this burning white sun fantasizing about a week I spent in Vermont when I was 12.’”
How did California affect the sound of “Father of the Bride”? Koenig said he’s learned to appreciate musicianship in a way he hadn’t before; in addition to his friends, the album features appearances by veteran L.A. session pros, guitarist Greg Leisz and bassist Jimmy Johnson — a first for Vampire Weekend.
Jake Longstreth, who co-hosts the freewheeling “Time Crisis” with Koenig on Beats 1, said the singer is “all about examining long-held assumptions,” and in this case that meant Koenig’s twentysomething disdain for the jam-happy likes of the Grateful Dead and Neil Young.
“Father of the Bride” isn’t total dad-rock; it’s got weird beats and processed synth sounds and samples of tracks by Hans Zimmer and the Japanese electronic musician Haruomi Hosono — evidence of the “adaptability” that led promoter Craig Nyman to book Vampire Weekend as one of the few rock acts (alongside Post Malone and Billie Eilish) at September’s Life Is Beautiful festival in Las Vegas.
But pay close attention to “Stranger” — especially the little instrumental section after the second verse — and you’ll catch an undeniable whiff of the Jerry Garcia Band.
“And I’m talking JGB, not the Dead,” Koenig said. “That’s an important distinction.”
Koenig admits to moments of anxiety about returning to a streaming pop marketplace that’s gotten only faster-moving since he was last in the game. He noticed a “fatalism” while he was away, he said. “Now a record gets one week in the sun, and if you don’t nail it, everybody moves on to something else.”
He shrugged. What concerns Koenig more is taking these songs on the road. The long world tour behind “Modern Vampires” was a grind, he said, but he’s excited to play live with the new musicians he recruited following Batmanglij’s departure. In October the band will headline a strong triple bill at the Hollywood Bowl with Tinariwen and Longstreth’s Grateful Dead cover band, Richard Pictures.
Speaking of the Bowl, Koenig was there last year, not long before his son was born, when Paul Simon stopped in on his farewell tour.
“Great show,” he said — no surprise, given that Simon’s album “Graceland” is universally acknowledged as a formative influence on Vampire Weekend. “But when you look at a legend like that, what you realize is that ultimately the true art form — beyond the song, even beyond the album — is the career.
“It’s the story of the songs you write over the course of decades.”
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