Vampire Weekends Ezra Koenig: Rock music is dead, so it’s more joyful to me’

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As his band gear up for Glastonbury, the singer talks about his Jewish politics and how there are musicians far more privileged than him

If you have never been to Glastonbury, you will always get people telling you that its just got a different vibe to other festivals, man. Even platinum-selling musicians. Its like being in some weird medieval village, says Ezra Koenig, frontman of Vampire Weekend, who had played Glastonbury three times with the band before going as a punter in 2014, when it finally clicked. I stayed up all night and understood: this is very special. I cant think of many festivals where there are old hippies who do their thing and keep to themselves, and keep that spirit of the 60s alive with arts and crafts. And theres all the secret stuff you find in the woods, the various raves, little mini pubs everywhere … Everybodys walking through the mud and theres a real communal energy to it. Probably a lot of them are on drugs, too.

His band are playing their biggest-ever slot at this years festival, Sunday night on the Pyramid stage just before the Cures headline performance. They released their fourth and best album Father of the Bride in May, and like the previous two, it went to No 1 in the US and Top 3 in the UK. It came six years after the last one, Modern Vampires of the City, with Koenig having taken creative control after fellow songwriter Rostam Batmanglij left the band.

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What has he been doing in the interim, apart from presumably contemplating how massive the universe is from a field in Somerset? After three albums, things were threatening to become a little bit too professional for my taste, he says. When things get up and running, you are quite literally a company. You can reach this place where the marketing outpaces the creativity it kind of feels like rolling the new car off the assembly line. I needed a few years to go back to feeling and acting like an amateur. He wrote an anime series, Neo Yokio, which starred Jaden Smith and Jude Law; he also fell in love with the actor and director Rashida Jones, and they had a child. Koenig is at pains to point out the album was written before the kid came along. Almost everything thats been written about the album references my girlfriend and our baby, and Im, like, I understand why, but He makes a frustrated gnnnn sound. The timeline! Come on! Its the response of a man who, schooled in English and creative writing at New Yorks prestigious Columbia University, has always been hyper-aware of how his band are portrayed.

Were in a hotel bedroom that, being in London, is not big enough even for two chairs. Koenig, chic and handsome, sits cross-legged in the middle of a bed like the founder of a mindfulness app. The 35-year-olds self-awareness stretches back to the bands breakout in 2007, playing peppy guitar-pop influenced by west African highlife in preppy polo shirts and shorts. They were provocative in the slightly priggish manner of the well-educated, cocking a snook at the denim and leathers of the New York guitar bands that had come before them and flaunting their upper middle-class status. Blogs bristled.

The conflict we engendered was performative class conflict, Koenig says in perfect academese. Deep down these people their then critics dont care. Because real class conflict would be somebody saying: lets really talk about this, about what percentage of critically acclaimed buzz bands come from privileged backgrounds. I promise you I wouldnt place in the Top 30 in terms of intergenerational wealth. Maybe Top 50, but not Top 30.

What about calling a song Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa in a world thats more aware of cultural appropriation, doesnt that now seem gauche? If that song came out today wed have just called it Cape Cod and slightly changed the arrangement, and nobody would have said anything, he says. Theres no easy answers, but you have to be thoughtful about it. Theres times when criticism helps you to be more thoughtful, and theres times when its bad-faith clickbait. There are horror stories in terms of the way black musicians were treated and ripped off, and there are stories of black and white musicians creating music together that was part of a greater dialogue. It would be in pretty bad faith to say Koenig isnt in the latter category he tracked down the son of Sierra Leonean palm wine musician SE Rogie to clear a sample on Father of the Bride, featured funk prodigy Steve Lacy on two tracks, and co-wrote Beyoncs Hold Up, a typically pop-culturally aware contribution that reworked a Yeah Yeah Yeahs lyric.

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Koenig,
Koenig, right, and Chris Baio at Coachella in 2008. Photograph: Chris Pizzello/AP

Those Ralph Lauren polos, so irritating to some indie rockers, were another bit of cultural commentary, this time on Koenigs Jewish heritage. I was like: dont they understand that, for east coast Jews, Ralph Lauren is a really funny figure? Hes this guy from the Bronx who changed his last name. I tried to explain that, and for some people it went in one ear and out the other. Maybe it is asking too much of people to get into the hyper-specific identity politics of Jewish people. Well, maybe, especially on your fifth afternoon cider. I wish people would look at it through the lens I look at it through, but maybe no artist can really expect that.

Father of the Bride closes with the elegant ballad Jerusalem, New York, Berlin. It references the Balfour declaration of 1917, which saw Britain set out Palestine as a home for the Jewish people. I know I loved you then, I think I love you still / But this prophecy of ours has come back dressed to kill, Koenig sings, setting his Jewish cultural pride against the infernal perpetual motion of the Israel-Palestine conflict.

I ask him to explain, and he is initially a little evasive. Every identity has some degree of tension between victimhood and supremacy, nationalism and … whatever the opposite of nationalism is. He remembers a campaign at Columbia that accused Arab professors of antisemitism. Having had personal experience [of antisemitism], I had an emotional attachment. But I was looking at the whole thing, and I could also relate to professors speaking their mind. Perhaps there arent enough people who are so equitable. Clearly not. But I dont know if I was a politician I would be able to do that its easy enough being a musician and just getting to think about things. You dont have to answer any questions, all you do is pose them.

I like to take the broad view that all of these identities we hold so dear are blips on the radar of human history, and whatever ethnicity or religion we call ourselves, at some point an ancestor was probably forcibly converted, or would have had their family murdered. And now we call ourselves a proud member of the group. Its funny. He checks himself. Its not funny, its complex.

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The broad view narrows, though, when he talks himself around to the topic of the American Jewish community. America has a duty to be an honest broker, he says. So if the whole Judaeo-Christian community is building some sick alliance out of Islamophobia, then I cant stomach that.

I dont know what its like to go serve in the military when Im 18, or to have had family members who were murdered when a bus blew up in Tel Aviv. But I do know what its like to be a Jewish person who grows up in New Jersey. So when I see a Jewish person who grew up in New Jersey talking about what the military needs to do and how evil the Palestinians are, I can easily put myself in their shoes and say: shut up. That is where the vast majority of my ire comes from. I can conclusively say: I dont agree with you, I think youre saying horrible things, I think your lack of empathy for the Palestinians is disgusting.

With
With Rashida Jones. Photograph: Todd Williamson/Getty Images

Its not just politics that gets studied in Father of the Bride, but pop itself. It knowingly collides different tropes from across history: country music duets, jam bands, Laurel Canyon hippy folk, metropolitan guitar pop la Paul Simon. I write about romantic relationships, but thats partially just because its a songwriting convention, he says. You can imagine him sending Rashida a Valentines card, but only to poke fun at the heteronormative rituals of love.

Any postmodern cleverness is, however, made tuneful enough to wave a flag to at the Pyramid stage, and Koenig has learned to embrace the simplicity of the best pop. A good Dolly Parton song gets at the ambiguity of the world way better than a song filled with strange images and expensive words does. He compares the man who wrote Father of the Brides downbeat My Mistake with his younger accusatory self, this person navigating this world: people who are more pretentious than me, assholes who want to take me down, idiots who try to tell me what to do, and people who treat me badly in relationships. Now that Im older, a song like My Mistake seems more emotionally interesting to me: maybe its my own expectations that are what are bringing me misery, rather than you.

For a band so associated with sun and shorts, theres as much melancholy in Koenigs songwriting, triggered by relationship breakdowns, and then sometimes just depression and anxiety creeping up. That feeling of: did I do or say something that I can never fix, thats going to haunt me for the rest of my life? Anybody who has dealt with depression and anxiety, which I think is most people, knows that it doesnt have to be manslaughter to keep you up at night. So, what keeps him up at night? Anxiety about professional decisions, and then sometimes stuff you cant always put your finger on. Rather than being surprised at moments when theres professional success but personal emptiness, now its almost to be expected. But equally, who knows when youll turn a corner and feel really happy?

Koenig, then, has become as attuned to his emotions as he always was to the culture around him. He riffs engagingly on how indie-rock has waned: where once hipsters had thrilled to the Strokes or, later, Animal Collective, now theyre into rap, alt-R&B and deconstructed club music, and Koenig says he was glad to be on his sabbatical when the shift happened. For a lot of people participating in music then, that was a stressful time, an existential crisis. But a few years later, the vibe was not so much this big existential question, because to me thered been an answer. Is rock dead? Yes. Are guitar bands relevant? Not particularly. And I enjoyed the straightforwardness of that. He is amused and interested by the honesty of the fashion industry, and its acknowledgment of human caprice. That industry has a straightforwardness: its called fashion! Theres no question about cycles. How come the person who did the same thing year-to-year is not getting the same praise as the person who changed things? Because thats how it works. How come the person who is bringing back something from 20 years ago is getting praise? Because thats how it works.

His real talent is in making music that shrugs at taste. The gods arent showing much favour to guitar music, but that makes playing guitar scales at home even more kind of joyful and cool to me, he says. Its pretentious to say, but theres a line from [Roman philosopher] Cato that I always liked: The winning cause pleases the gods, but the losing cause pleases Cato. And Im like: I feel you Cato! Easy for a chart-topping musician to say, but you already know he knows that, too.

Original Article : HERE ; The Ultimate Survival Food: The Lost Ways