Vampire Weekend: Adventures in Modern Sonics

May 1, 2013 9:00 AM, Mix, By Blair Jackson


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Left to right: Ezra Keonig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, Chris Tomson

Left to right: Ezra Keonig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Baio, Chris Tomson

Just three albums into what is already a hugely successful career, the New York indie band Vampire Weekend continue to surprise and confound expectations. Their latest album, Modern Vampires of the City (XL Recordings), is their most sonically adventurous work so far, at the same time it contains all the hallmarks of the band’s instantly recognizable sound—Ezra Koenig’s dynamic high lead vocals (and intelligent, quirky and sometimes opaque lyrics), the clever blending of lo-fi and hi-fi elements, and a sharp rhythmic attack that often combines unconventional textures in unusual ways. One never senses that they’re pandering to commercial tastes, yet their following has grown with each increasingly idiosyncratic album. They’re making up their own rules as they go along, and thriving.

According to Rostam Batmanglij, the group’s musical guiding light, producer and engineer, making the new album “came about somewhat differently than the first two. With Contra [the band’s 2010 sophomore opus], we had about half the songs that we could perform in some way, shape or form before we set out to record them. Then the other half of the songs was more constructed. With this record, there was a long, extended period of songwriting and trying different ways of writing. Ezra and I got together three or four times a week for about a year, and we also interspersed working in different configurations—such as getting together as a band, though we didn’t find that was very fruitful. The result was we used the recording process as a writing and arranging tool to a greater extent than we ever did before.”

Much of the early work on Modern Vampires of the City took place in multi-instrumentalist Batmanglij’s home studio, which has been evolving steadily through the years as he’s moved up the musical ladder. “The first multitrack recording system I had was a MiniDisc 4-track,” he says. “Then I graduated to a Boss 8-track that recorded onto zip disks. When I was 18, I bought an M-box, and those were great. I recorded a ton of stuff with that M-box that made it onto records.” These days he works in a Pro Tools environment and has amassed an impressive collection of both high-end outboard gear and the latest plug-ins.

Members of Vampire Weekend in the studio.

Members of Vampire Weekend in the studio.

Some songs on the new album emerged from trial-and-error experimentation with beats, melodies and bass lines created on a broad array of synths and boxes. Others were more traditional: “Ezra and I took a writing trip to Martha’s Vineyard [in coastal Massachusetts] and worked together in a friend’s guest house there; really just a cottage. We’d never really done that before. We packed up our van, and I basically brought a guitar, a bass, a MIDI keyboard, and at the time I had a desktop computer that was devoted to recording, and I brought a microphone, and we spent four days with nothing but songwriting as a goal. Out of that came ‘Don’t Lie,’ ‘Everlasting Arms’ and we started ‘Hudson.’ The acoustic guitar in ‘Don’t Lie’ was recorded in that room, and we never changed it. And that was true of a lot of stuff we recorded in my apartment in New York, too—there’s a bunch of piano and other parts we recorded in my apartment that’s on the album.”

For the first time, though, Batmanglij and Koenig also brought in a co-producer as a third set of ears and creative partner—L.A.-based Ariel Rechtshaid, whose diverse list of credits include Major Lazer, Usher, Plain White T’s (the smash “Hey Delilah”) and We Are Scientists. Rechtshaid says he and Batmanglij have been friends for a few years, “and when I had my band, Foreign Born, we had the same booking agent as Vampire Weekend, and Rostam and I met and slowly became friends. He was kind of the in-house producer in his band, and I played a similar role in my band, and somehow that came together. It was all just timing—this is the third [Vampire Weekend] record and I think maybe he just thought the time was right to get some help. The band was spending some time out in L.A. and Rostam had worked with me at my studio a couple of times, and he asked if he and Ezra could come over and work on some stuff.”

Batmanglij adds, “When Ezra and I got to L.A., we weren’t totally sure if we’d written all the songs for the record, but it became apparent that we hadn’t. So we started opening up the sessions with Ariel, and then the process of continuing work on the sessions was totally seamless because Ariel and I had the same Pro Tools setup, and over the course of working on the record, we made our setups identical so we could open up any session on each other’s computers—that was crucial to the process.”

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