After a six-year hiatus, Ezra Koenig’s band Vampire Weekend won a 2020 Grammy for their latest album, Father of the Bride. He reflects on the changing landscape of the music industry and how he handles his new-found fame. “We have a deep connection with a certain group of people, and we’ve grown it a little bit, but at a very sustainable rate.” By Shaad D’Souza.
Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig
Since he decamped to Los Angeles from his long-time home of New York City a few years back, a strange thing has started happening to Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig. The 35-year-old will be walking around, perhaps clad in his silver Air Max 97s or the patterned fleece that is a Koenig staple, and out of nowhere – click! – a paparazzo, hidden in plain sight, will snap a photo of him. A quick scroll through Koenig’s tag on Getty Images will reveal a handful of photos of Koenig in this state, going about his day-to-day business and occasionally, when he makes eye contact with the errant lens, looking more than a little ruffled.
Sitting across from me in a conference room at Melbourne’s Langham Hotel – his band in town for a short Australian tour, their first in six-odd years – Koenig doesn’t seem too stressed about this new element of his life. “I find these photos disturbing because it’s just confusing when you see a picture and you didn’t know someone was photographing you,” he says. “But at the same time, I do think that taking six years off from the band put [me] in a good position where, outside of that paparazzi thing, I do feel less famous.”
While he may certainly feel less famous, whether Koenig is less famous is a different – and harder to answer – question. It’s certainly true that Vampire Weekend, the storied New York-based band comprising Koenig, Chris Baio, Chris Tomson and, until 2016, Rostam Batmanglij, have lessened in profile, as they didn’t release music or play shows – outside the occasional Bernie Sanders rally – for many years.
But in the years since Vampire Weekend put down their instruments, Koenig himself has, from an outside perspective, seemed to blossom into a kind of chic, quiet celebritydom – perhaps not known by everyone, but beloved by a select and rarefied few. Since the release of the band’s acclaimed 2013 record, Modern Vampires of the City, the list of careers on Koenig’s Wikipedia page has stretched considerably: no longer simply a musician and singer-songwriter, he is now also known as a television producer and screenwriter for his critically panned but cultishly adored Netflix anime, Neo Yokio; as a record producer, for his work on Beyoncé’s career-best Lemonade; and, perhaps most entertainingly, as a radio personality, for hosting the surreal Time Crisis radio show on Apple Music’s Beats 1 radio station. In 2018, Koenig had a child with his partner, actress Rashida Jones, who is similarly adored in a casual but significant way. On the surface, Koenig is light years away from his comparatively humble existence as a leader of the 2010s indie rock pack.
Still, when I suggest to Koenig that he must now be at least as famous for Time Crisis – which boasts an obsessive fanbase that is self-referential to the point of inaccessibility – and Neo Yokio as he is for Vampire Weekend, he seems uncertain, unwilling to capitulate to the concept of his own fame, perhaps due to an ingrained humility that presents itself throughout our conversation. “Neo Yokio and Time Crisis are both hosted on platforms that don’t share their numbers, so I’ll never really have a sense of how many people watch Neo Yokio, how many people listen to Time Crisis,” he explains. “And maybe it’s a good thing.
“In the music industry you can get so metrics-obsessed, because it’s right there – every day you can see how many streams every song you ever made got on Spotify. Because of that, and because I’m somebody who can really get into the numbers, I don’t have a true sense of the impact of those things.”
For the most part, Koenig feels his relative fame – and the strange “energy” he felt buzzing around Vampire Weekend when Modern Vampires was released – has lessened between that album and Father of the Bride, the band’s Grammy-winning fourth record, which was released to acclaim in 2019. “We have a deep connection with a certain group of people, and we’ve grown it a little bit, but at a very sustainable rate,” he says.
Besides, much of the challenge of releasing Father of the Bride after a lengthy break came from a struggle to reclaim not fame but rather any semblance of footing in a profoundly changed music landscape. When the band released Modern Vampires, the vinyl version arrived with a CD, so that fans could rip MP3 files to their computer. Now, vinyl is largely ornamental, MP3s are seen as ungainly and old-fashioned, and streaming on platforms such as Spotify and Apple Music accounts for the bulk of a musician’s listenership. Indie rock, always a nebulous genre in itself, is no longer really a thing, with many of its most famed generation either experiencing huge dropoffs in their audience or pivoting sharply to writing and producing for pop stars and rappers.
For Koenig, ideological inspiration for Vampire Weekend’s arrival in this new landscape came from a new-found interest in The Grateful Dead, the equally beloved and maligned jam band that have found a new generation of fans in the past few years. An obsession for Koenig’s Time Crisis co-host, Jake Longstreth, the Dead were an ongoing point of discussion for Koenig, critics and fans throughout Father of the Bride’s press cycle, because of how frequently the band were mentioned on Time Crisis, as well as how the Dead were becoming an obvious reference point for the jam band aesthetic manifested in Vampire Weekend’s artwork and merchandise. Go to one of Vampire Weekend’s shows right now and you can buy official merchandise featuring tie-dye designs, a staple of Deadhead attire, and brightly coloured insignia reminiscent of 1990s environmental movements. You’ll also see gaudy, hugely covetable fan-made versions in the style of bootleg Dead merch, featuring Time Crisis-related memes in the place of skulls and bears.
Some have taken Koenig’s new Deadhead status as an extension of the arch, irony-speckled tone of Neo Yokio or early Vampire Weekend; in reality, to Koenig, the Dead represent more than just an aesthetic reference. “It’s not hard to imagine why me or anybody in a rock band in 2020 would be kind of fascinated by a band who really lived in the live space,” he says. “Living in the digital space can be so alienating and, increasingly as I get older, boring. There is something kind of fresh-seeming about a band who, every night, does this real-life experience.”
At the same time, this embrace of the Dead has led to, if not an outright misinterpretation, a kind of overreaching when critics try to connect jam band culture to Father of the Bride. Many write-ups of the record or its singles contain backhanded allusions to jam band culture, suggesting that Vampire Weekend are getting daggier, looser or more obtuse. “Sometimes critics reference the Dead because they’re so familiar with them that they’re drawing all kinds of deep and meaningful comparisons,” Koenig says, citing New York magazine’s Craig Jenkins as one such writer. “But for a lot of people, The Grateful Dead means ‘hippie’. I don’t think you need to be familiar with them, but you definitely get a lot of people who get caught in the middle – they’re not really familiar with The Grateful Dead, but they are just [familiar] enough to throw in a lazy comparison that most Deadheads wouldn’t even recognise.”
Koenig hears only one specific moment on Father of the Bride that reminds him even remotely of the Dead – a lick on the song “Stranger” that “has real Jerry Garcia Band vibes” – but otherwise, he sees many references as being “deployed lazily, and in a way that’s very unexamined”. This kind of meaningful – as opposed to rash – engagement with criticism is unusual for an artist, but it may be a natural result of Koenig’s tenure in the music industry. He has been a widely discussed – and occasionally criticised – figure for a long time; he seems keenly aware that it doesn’t pay to be careless with how one discusses their press coverage.
By the same token, this awareness seeps through to the way he discusses his life. Like many, he is reticent to discuss his personal relationships with current and former band members, perhaps out of respect, and in many interviews he mentions his partner and child only in passing. But when I ask about the intricacies of his own life – his finances, for example, and how they’ve changed since Vampire Weekend achieved relative fame – he is almost shockingly frank, happy to discuss at length.
In the band’s early days, critics were obsessed with Koenig’s preppy clothes and highbrow references, pointing at them as markers of upper-class pedigree. The truth, however, is that Koenig had a middle-class upbringing, and although his band eventually started earning him a lot more money, he’s never seemed to cotton on to the financial literacy that so many wealthy people have.
“I felt very nervous about money in the early days, and I felt like I was kind of on the back foot compared to the people that I knew,” he explains, recounting how he realised at the end of university that he was in debt while his friends were, due to family wealth, debt free. “And so there’s an ambitious part of me that thought once I started making money that I’d be smart about investments and stuff.”
But the success of Vampire Weekend taught Koenig something about himself. “Once I feel stable, I don’t really have a killer instinct when it comes to making more money,” he says. “I’m not saying, like ‘Yeah man, there’s more important things in life.’ I was genuinely surprised by how bored I was by it.”
Still, success leads to increased scrutiny from peers and the outside world, and Koenig is no exception. He found himself in hot water towards the end of 2019 after he was featured in a promotional video for Amazon. The tech behemoth was the subject of a boycott from musicians taking umbrage with its direct support of the American government’s Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency and its policies of child removal, among other things. A tweet in December asked the band and Koenig: “Why are you crossing our picket line and doing ads for Amazon? Do you support their backing ICE? Don’t be a scab, join #NoMusicForICE.”
Koenig says, “The funny thing about that is that it wasn’t an ad, I wasn’t paid for it. But I’m learning that I have to be more thoughtful about [what I choose to do], where the boundaries between platforms and advertisers are blurred.” He explains the video was simply pitched to him as part of the press tour for Father of the Bride. “When I heard people talking about the boycott and started to familiarise myself with it, I was like, ‘That makes sense. I can’t do anything about this interview now, but calling out a giant company for providing material support for ICE totally makes sense.’
“I think we all understand that in life, let alone a life in music, you have to make compromised choices every day, probably every minute,” he continues. “There’s no clear-cut morality … I’m only just starting to understand the relationship between privacy and the government and big tech, and I’m only just starting to educate myself about it, obviously on the late side. But if a boycott like that can be effective, you have to consider it.”
Koenig still seems as considered, careful and self-critical as he was when he debuted with Vampire Weekend more than a decade ago. In an era defined by compromise – where a star such as Koenig has lenses trained on him at every second – to keep a hold of those qualities is an impressive feat.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 1, 2020 as "Blood brother".
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