Vampire Weekend's Chris Baio talks Lazer Tag, Luke Wilson and pushing musical boundaries
The men of Vampire Weekend would like you to know they’re not all upper-crust patricians who pass time on their tour bus by dissecting Russian poetry while pressing their seersucker Lacoste Bermuda shorts.
That said, sometimes that perception isn’t too far off.
“Two of us are reading Gravity’s Rainbow right now,” bassist Chris Baio said in a recent phone interview. “There are elements of people’s perceptions of us — maybe there are things we do to build into that. Though it’s not as extreme as people think.”
Predilections for Pynchon aside, Vampire Weekend finally seem ready to be a band for all people. Following a whirlwind three years in which the Columbia-educated prep-punks rose from obscurity to chart-topping success, the group has managed to outlive the phenomenal online hype (and almost instantaneous backlash) that turned them into magazine cover boys before their first album had even gone gold.
Their sophomore effort, 2010’s Contra, silenced even more critics. The disc, an energetic mix of indie pop, world beat and African folk, debuted at No. 1 and earned the band — Baio, singer Ezra Koenig, producer/multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij and drummer Chris Tomson — comparisons to The Clash and Talking Heads.
We talked to Baio on the road between Albuquerque and Kansas City, where the band was plotting an off-night outing to The Social Network.
Yeah, we’ll try and do funny things if we’re in a city and there’s something near the venue like a Chuck E. Cheese complex, or a Lazer Tag complex. We just showed up — it was two of us, and then a bunch of younger college kids in a frat, who were joking that we were the creepy older guys playing Lazer Tag.
Did you ever think Vampire Weekend would be thought of as creepy older guys?
I guess we’re still so young — I’m three years out of college — but you feel very different when you’re 25 than when you’re 21 or 18. You definitely feel older. Which is ridiculous thing to be saying at 25, but I do feel that way.
Do you get a kick out of busting people’s perceptions of you and your band?
I think it can be an exciting thing, if you’re given the opportunity to play with that perception by reinforcing it, or doing absurd things with it, or by subverting it or doing something wildly different. We’re certainly aware of things that people say about our band. Maybe on less of a micro level than we would have been when we first started playing. But it’s something that I think we can maybe be inspired by moving forward.
Is there something you’ve read about Vampire Weekend that was so mean you had to laugh about it?
People say absurd things, like we took yachts to our first shows in New York, which is pretty funny. First off, I don’t know any way to do that unless you’re playing on another yacht, and you took one yacht to get to the other yacht. (laughs). I just remember our drummer lugging amps onto the subway, which is not an easy feat when there are a lot of people around. Maybe if we got paid, we could take cabs back home. But you read something like that, and you just know that people who are writing about you really know nothing about you. There’s such a disconnect, you can really do nothing but laugh.
What’s something the four of you have in common, aside from your alma mater?
We like watching really terrible rom-coms together on our bus. Bad movies are a good way to unwind after a show. Movies like Just Friends, the Ryan Reynolds movie. Or My Super Ex-Girlfriend, we watched and got a real kick out of.
Yeah, on Twitter, you’ve been on a real Luke Wilson kick.
I find the Wilson brothers very inspiring as artists. They’re pretty compelling people.
Among the four of you, who’s the biggest boundary-pusher, musically?
I think that Rostam’s role as the producer naturally puts him in that role. He’s probably doing the most experimentation with sounds, and with directions of songs. I have some pretty radically different versions of the songs on Contra on my computer, because there are so many different directions you can take it in.
Contra is an album that blends a ton of different styles together. You’re a DJ, and you and Chris were in this countryish band (The Midnight Hours) together. Is there a genre of music that Vampire Weekend hasn’t attempted that you would like to see?
It’s hard to say, because here’s so much that goes into our music. Even something like dance music, you could say, most of our songs have no connection to, but then so many of the drum patterns in our music have four-on-the-floor drum beats, which is a huge part of a lot of dance music. So something that maybe on the surface has little connection to our music is, in one way or another, connected to it.
The legend of Vampire Weekend’s success is inexorably tied to music blogs and online viralness, which predates the massive explosion of Facebook a little bit. Can you tell that Facebook helped your career, musically?
It’s hard to say, because Facebook has grown a lot recently. In terms of it being used for promotion, your band would have a MySpace page, not a Facebook page, when you started out. I definitely remember first getting Facebook when I was a freshman in college; we were one of the first schools to get it. The other guys in the band had profiles. I remember there was this party we played in the fall of 2005, before the band started, but it was the first time we all played together — we did a cover of The Weight, and I played melodica. I know Ezra took some black and white pictures of that party and loaded them onto Facebook. So it’s definitely connected to memories I have of this band.
Are you still a user?
Rostam is not on Facebook anymore; he left over a year ago. The three of us still have profiles, and I think there are some fake profiles for us. It’s a little weird — I got asked to be friends with Fake Ezra Koenig a few weeks ago.
-- Jay Cridlin, tbt*. Photo: Soren Solkaer Starbird.