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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.
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.