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Published: 2008/01/23
by Jared Hecht

Vampire Weekend and the Vagaries of Upper West Side Soweto

If the future of pop music rests in the hands of Vampire Weekend, then the world is in luck. Given their rapid grassroots rise to blog-stardom as the next big indie sensation, it very well seems like this may be the case. Seldom does a quartet of Ivy-graduates sweep the nation by storm with sophisticated and esoteric melodies appealing to virtually all music fans. With their self-titled debut CD on the horizon, Vampire Weekend is poised to win the hearts of hipsters, hippies, teeny-boppers, and musical elitists. Drummer Christopher Tomson, pre-hiatus Phish veteran, discusses jambands, life on XL, and even the Wetlands. *JH- The first time I saw Vampire Weekend was in a small literary society townhouse at Columbia a little less than a year and a half ago. Since then, youve caught the eye of David Byrne, shared the stage with Animal Collective, and just got off a European tour with The Shins. How has that transition been? *
CT- Ive never done this before with a band thats tried to be a capital B Band so it hasnt felt that weird. It seems like maybe we havent spent as long at each step as some bands coming up but we played the shows at school a lot, a small pizza/candy store in Brooklyn, and the Mercury Lounge in NYC a couple of times so it has definitely felt like a natural progression. It hasnt felt forced. To me one of the better parts of it has been that the main reason weve gotten bigger is because people are interested in the music and what theyve heard. It seems like thats whats driving it. Its not like were on a major label and theyre putting a million dollars into our marketing and all of a sudden were playing the Bowery Ballroom. So I think in that way it hasnt felt forced and its been like were going through these steps. I dont know where were going necessarily but were kind of doing it in steps. *JH- Going to school with you, its exciting to see you play small campus parties and then literally, the next thing you know youre in Europe. Now you have two music videos for A-Punk and Mansard Roof. Do you sometimes feel like its too much too fast, as if this rapid growth might compromise what youre all about? *
CT- I think on our end its not going to compromise us. Were secure enough in what were trying to do and the vibe we have established and the vibe that we want to give out. I think thats not going to change. Those music videos were both filmed in a day each. They werent huge time investments. I think that theyre good objects. Hopefully these things are vehicles which people will see and then search and see you. All of these things are vehicles to hopefully get people interested in the album and the music that were putting out. Ill tell you in two years if this is compromising our career. We feel like its exciting. The really good thing is that we decided to sign to XL and theyve allowed us to have everything thats been put out or representing us to be in our control. I think at that level were secure because everything that people are hearing about us or people will see, weve done. Were confident that its our vibe and its representative of us. *JH- So you still have that autonomy and independence. *
CT- Right. Again I dont know, but I feel like some of the major labels are a little more shaping or directing and pushing into different avenues. XL has been really great because were the ones shaping it and we feel really good about whats out there. *JH- When were your first two off-campus shows? *
CT- The first off-campus show was at a place called Desmonds which I believe is at 28th and Park Ave. Its really just a bar that someone knew about and they had music on the weekends. I think it was May 06 and a couple weeks after Ezra [Koenig] (guitar) and I graduated. We werent doing anything over the Summer so we were just like, Lets play a show! It worked out, we got like $50. The second one was at a place called Petes Candy Store in Brooklyn. It was the same crew of friends who came. Those were the first venues per se. *JH- Is there any jamband influence in Vampire Weekend. Since youre influenced somewhat by African music, have you been touched by the sounds of Antibalas or other afrobeat acts. *
CT- I think the best way to put it is that we probably listen to the same things they listen to. I personally like Antibalas. I actually saw them in high school and was completely blown away. I never heard of Afrobeat and didnt really know that much, I was still in high school. I remember seeing them and being completely blown away. I think that they dont influence us at all. But with that said I think that we probably share some influences. Afrobeat is sort of a sticky thing because its a very specific kind of style defined by Fela (Kuti). I feel like thats one style that we dont really do because its a very repetitive groove funk kind of thing. We dont really do that, nor could we do it convincingly. So Afrobeat is something that I listen to anyways, but its not prevalent. *JH- You were saying that youve been to Phish festivals like IT, Coventry, and the first Bonnaroo. Whats your experience with jambands and the like? *
CT- Well that was kind of my thing. I wouldnt say in terms of the band Vampire Weekend because its really not there, no one else really came from that. I think its cool actually because everyone in the band came from different avenues and we all knew the general pop music or whatever, but everyone has the specific focus. One of mine was jambands. I think Ive seenoh whatever I might as well go for it. Ive seen String Cheese Incident a bunch of times. It was fun, I really liked the shows and the experience of going to the shows. My first Phish show was definitely a huge moment in my life. I remember it was September 17, 2000 at Merriweather Post in Maryland. I remember being there and saying, This is so awesome! I didnt know much about that. I liked whatever I had heard and whatever made me go. I remember really enjoying the music and the experience of the live show a lot. *JH- So you caught them in 2000? *
CT- Yeah, well that was the only pre-hiatus show. *JH- How many shows have you seen? *
CT- I think its something like a solid 20. *JH- String Cheese Incident has a rootsy-Africanesque feel with a bit of Paul Simon thrown in here and there. I feel like some of their more African roots songs have a vibe sort of similar to what Vampire Weekend has going on. *
CT- I feel like theres a similar impulse or similar influences, but I feel like the end result is not the same. Nothing is too obvious. As a drummer I am not trying to do any specific African rhythm. I think that we like this music, but at the same time we know it would be untrue or a little weak if we actually tried to play African music. So when we heard this music there was a really cool vibe and feel to it. Thats what we want to try to do. We dont want to play those specific musical bits. *JH- What a lot of these bands have are very danceable beats. Vampire Weekend delivers this sound which is very modern, sophisticated pop music, but in addition to that its not just car music. You go to see a show and theres a live infectious feel where everyone in the crowd is dancing which you normally dont see. *
CT- I think that Rostam [Batmanglij], the keyboardist, he loves dance music and makes it on his own on his computer. Theres definitely a part of that where we want, not really in a groove or jamband way, but there is a thing where we want people if they are so inclined to dance. One element of that is keeping the bass drum four on the floor. That helps the rhythm and music but its also a big thing in dance music since its so steady. So theres definitely a part of that there. *JH- Whats Upper West Side Soweto? *
CT- Thats a nonexistent genre. Again, I think that combination of words and signifiers is more a question of vibe than anything else. It wasnt something where we sat down and were like, Okay, were going to make Upper West Side Soweto. Literally, we started a MySpace page and there was an artist bio section and Ezra put a couple of those things. This is the kind of stuff that we talked about when we started the band – the different things we wanted to mix. That was one permutation of it. But its really not anything specific. *JH- What do you try to do as a drummer? Do you go into a song and try and play it in a unique way stylistically? *
CT- I still think its at the point wheremy kind of musical background is not really in drumming. I was mainly a guitar player in high school and college even. And then we couldnt find a drummer that could do a great job there and I could kind of do it so it ended up just sticking. So really what I try to do is just come up with a beat or a part that sounds good to me in the context of the song. It doesnt necessarily have to be drumming if that makes sense. I dont know like specific drum rhythms or patterns that are drum specific. Hopefully thats a good thing in a way that Im playing it as an instrument as part of the song as opposed to just drum beats. I couldnt even tell you a specific thing that Im trying to do. I want them to be different from song to song. I dont really know what Im doing. Ive obviously gotten better in the two years that weve been playing. *JH- Songs like Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa are highly reminiscent of Paul Simons Graceland, so much so that Vampire Weekend sometimes comes off like a modern day Paul Simon, mixing some modern pop and afro-styles. Who would you say your influences are? *
CT- I can tell you names but it wouldnt be that helpful. Theres African music that I like a lot. Weve obviously all heard Graceland. Its not entirely irrelevant. I think its more like when we started up there were definitely times where we talked about what we wanted to sound like. It was important to us to have a cohesive thing that we were putting out there. One of the things that we talked about was trying not to exclude anything in any way. A big part of it was that we didnt want to sound like a rock band. We heard so many bands come up and a lot of bands sound the same with two guitars and bass and drums playing rock. Thats fine. Some of the bands are very good. We had a conscious decision to not do that and do something a little different. All the stuff that was subsequently done came from that decision. I think that when we talked about that we didnt say, Were going to try to bring the African stuff into it. It was something that we listened to. Ezra brought that guitar lick in for Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa and I remember it being a lot of fun at that practice. It sounded pretty cool and different. I dont think theres a specific driving force other than trying to be as inclusive as possible. If we hear something that we listen to as a music fan or music person, if that fits then well bring it in. *JH- How do you go about writing songs? Does one person come in with the lyrics? Is it a collaborative effort? Does someone come in with all the parts composed? *
CT- The first couple of tunes were Ezra and Rostam having songs written. Before we had our first gig we had like two practices so it wasnt like we wrote any of them together. Since then it has been where someone will have some chords or a little riff and then theyll play that. Well just arrange and work from there. Ezra will have an A part and Rostam will have a B part and well put them together. Usually we build a musical bit and Ezra will go and write lyrics to that. Many times we played songs that were unfinished or ended up in different words or parts than when we first played it. Usually, musically its a collaborative thing where we will take a part and just go from there. *JH- You dont see many Ivy-league graduates other there with an international touring schedule and a new album on XL. How would you say your time at Columbia helped shape your sound? *
CT- I think I would say its more of a New York thing than a Columbia specific thing. Obviously we met each other there. Rostam and I were music majors so we took different harmony and theory classes together and different conceptual classes like Music, Race and Nation. Its not really defined by some sort of Columbia experience other than living in New York and having all this stuff within a subway ride. Thats probably a bigger thing than Columbia. *JH- Tell me a little bit about the new album. *
CT- We sold like a CDR version of this like a year ago kind of. That was the first incarnation of it. This is a more complete fruition. We started in February of 2006 and started recording in April of 2006. Rostam liked producing and recording. It was something we all wanted to do to get some versions of our songs down. It wasnt like, Were recording this album. It was more like we had these songs and wanted to get them down. It was a long process but I think were definitely excited and certainly nervous to have it come out. We actually have our first batch of completed promo CDs and a factory CD. Its very odd to hold that object in your hand after two years of work and touring and all that stuff. This is the product that its going towards. Were all excited. Its a couple of weeks away from coming out and were psyched to see what happens. *JH- How was it playing with The Shins in Europe? *
CT- Europe was definitely a lot of fun. When we tour the U.S. at this point its still just the four of us in a minivan. Its not really that glamorous at all. That really felt kind of weird, being in Amsterdam and playing the set that I remember playing at Columbia. The Shins, theyre a pretty big band, theyre very nice dudes. They werent stuck up at all or anything. Most of the shows we actually played by ourselves. We only played four with The Shins but those were probably the biggest crowds weve ever played for. It was fun. You know a show is a show. Some went well, some didnt. Because XL is based in the UK it seems like were going to be playing for audiences over there, not just in the U.S. *JH- Being a jambands fan, have you ever been to Wetlands? *
CT- I went to Wetlands once before it closed. The whole thing was a cool experience where a friend and I drove up to New York. I think I was 15 or 17 or something. It was in the last two weeks of its existence so everyone was kind of talking shit about Giuliani. I remember it being very cool. I dont know if its a good thing that Ive seen twenty Phish shows

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