To be brutally honest, the Ivy League Afro-poppers in Vampire Weekend kind of look, and even sound, like smarty-pants snobs. After all, the Columbia U. boys have penned thesaurus-necessary songs about the serial comma and something called Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa. They sang about Horchata ("In December drinking horchata / I'd look psychotic in a balaclava.")
But the truth is that, for all their brains and presumed plaid linen shorts, Saturday's headliners at the Big Guava Festival have some earnest populism in them, too. Case in point: Their gushy love of Bruce Springsteen, who just happens to be playing (and playing …) Tampa's MidFlorida Credit Union Amphitheatre two days before the quartet shows up.
A few years ago, VW covered the Boss' I'm Goin' Down in typically puckish fashion; the whimsically maudlin homage to the Side B track on Born in the U.S.A. was later featured on the HBO show Girls. "That's a guy we were all really into," says bassist Chris Baio, on the phone from a tour stop in Austin, Texas. "Four chords going all the way through, incredible melodies, incredible lyrics. We thought it would be exciting to put our spin on it."
The first time they played I'm Goin' Down live, there was a brief, painful misunderstanding. "We were at Radio City Music Hall," says Baio. "My mom was there. After we played it, everyone starting chanting 'Bruuuuuce!' My mom was upset; she thought they were booing us."
Booing has rarely been the case with Vampire Weekend. Merging pop, punk and complex African rhythms (try dancing to these guys and you'll twist an ankle), they have been critically and commercially embraced since 2008's eponymous debut LP. The story goes that the band, including singer Ezra Koenig, was birthed at Columbia, where Baio majored in Russian and minored in math. ("I wouldn't say that the Russian [comes into play in our music], but the math has had more of an influence on what I do now.")
Last year's Modern Vampires of the City, which showed the group incorporating slightly poppier, Buddy Holly-esque frameworks, won a Grammy for best alternative album. "I can't say winning a Grammy is something that was a dream for me," says Baio. "When I was 8, knowing that I would someday play Radio City, now that would have blown my mind. But that said, the Grammy was pretty cool." The far larger Grammy thrill was in all of the hobnobbing: "I'm into getting to see incredibly famous people operating in different worlds. I don't cross paths with Jay-Z and Beyonce that often."
Baio — who, it should be noted, is also a lifelong Queen fan ("They were my first time liking adult, not children's, music") — is hoping to brush shoulders with some of the bold-faced acts at the Big Guava Festival, too: "I have friends in the band Sleigh Bells. I'm hoping to see OutKast."
And then, blowing up that snotty, snobby rep once and for all, Baio gets downright mushy: "But really, I'm just looking forward to being in Florida. My wife grew up in Siesta Key. … Just coming back to Florida and headlining a festival is so special. It feels like life has come full circle."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.