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Vampire Weekend in Los Angeles: Ezra Koenig Talks Third Wave Ska, Song Construction, the Clash and California

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Tue, Jan 12, 2010 at 10:00 AM

Check out Timothy Norris' photo gallery for scenes from Vampire Weekend's gig at Henry Fonda Theater.

Vampire Weekend spent much of late 2009 in and around Southern California. The New York four-piece, whose second album, Contra, comes out today, are gigging a sold-out show at the Fonda tonight, the biggest in a series of performances that it has done in Los Angeles since mid '09. For much of the fall, the band lived in a rented house in the Hollywood Hills and used it as a hub for a series of rehearsal gigs around the state. West Coast Sound recently spoke to Vampire Weekend singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig about California, Contra and the Clash.

West Coast Sound: Did living in Los Angeles give you a better understanding of what the so-called "west coast sound" is all about?

Ezra Koenig: Well, growing up in the '90s, my first true love was ska music. Partially because I grew up and my dad had '60s Jamaican records and records by the Specials. Me being a kid in the '90s, I listened to a lot of music that was from California -- Voodoo Glowskulls and the like. With a little bit of perspective, I started to think about how third wave California ska is not an imitation of anything else. Obviously, it's in a lineage, but it really is its own thing. And it's fun to think about California being a part of that, too.

Think about the nineties and Sublime being such a huge band. When I first heard them, I was a little hesitant, because to me I thought they represented some fake version of music that I liked. But looking back on it, I have a totally different perspective. And it's kind of amazing to me how that band captured a certain vibe and a certain mythology, and it's the reason people still listen to it today. So it's kind of interesting to think about it all historically.

And it's interesting to think about how music travels from place to place. You can hear any music anytime you want from all over the world, but you don't get a true audio snapshot of say, Los Angeles, until you're walking down the street and hearing the mix of cumbia, hip hop, banda, rock and dance music coming from everywhere at once. You guys recorded part of Contra in Mexico City?

Really, just the song "Cousins." Right in the middle of it all we took a break to do this tour of Mexico, and we had some time off between shows, so we figured we may as well do some recording.

And then you spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. I was at the show at Madame Wong's in Chinatown. What else were you doing,musically out here?

One of the other surprise shows was at Hollenbeck Park in Boyle Heights. That was another free show. We basically announced it the day before, so it ended up being very reasonably sized. We met some kids after the show who'd just walked over to the park from their house. I grew up in the suburbs, so as much as it gets fun and exciting to go into Manhattan for a show, there's something really cool about seeing a show closer to where you live.

So that show was really cool because maybe 300 people showed up. It was in the afternoon, it was so mellow, we got to talk to everybody afterward, which is not really going to happen at 11 p.m. after you just played a theater or something. It was really open. It was a beautiful day. That was a very important show for us.

And the Chinatown show, it was a nice change of pace. That space isn't used so much any more, unfortunately.

Yeah, when you go out on tour, it can get to be kind of a grind because even though you're in very different cities, the vibe of the show sometimes doesn't change much, because the venues can be very similar, and it can become very formalized, what it means to go to a show. So hopefully we'll always be able to go back and forth between those worlds, because it's pretty obvious that a show is not just about the music, it's about the setting, it's about the people that are there, it's about the vibe, and sometimes the only way to shake it up is to play a very unusual place. It just takes a little extra planning.

I want to ask you about the song "Taxi Cab." Can you run through the creation of that song, from start to finish, to get a better idea of how you make songs?

Sure. First, I should say that every song comes together in a different way, even though a lot of it is just really working. But that song was pretty interesting. I had this really old song that I'd made, it was kind of like a rap song, actually, from a few years ago, and I had this bubbly bass line, and Rostam [Batmanglij, keyboard player and produceralways said we should try and turn that into a song. And we tried, a little bit in practice, and it wasn't really working, and I was losing faith in it. And Rostam took some of the ideas from that old song and made something totally different with it. I remember it was just me and him hanging out at the studio, and he just starting working on the drum loop, this big, dubby, bass drum and he worked the bass line, and turned it into something very different. So we had this kind of 'verse beat.;

And some of the songs on this album kind of came about this way, almost hip hop style. Taking the beat and writing lyrics on top of it. So we had that, and then I just spent some time sitting at a desk at the studio listening to the beat and the verses. We experimented a little bit with having a sung chorus, but we didn't find anything we were too happy with. And we have quite a few songs with instrumental choruses - we've always been cool with that. So we started trying to figure out how we could fill that space, and Rostam came up with this piano melody that he had from a longer piece. It was totally beautiful, and we tried putting it in and seeing how it worked, moving A-B from my vocal to the piano melody, and I thought it worked perfectly. So within one day at the studio we had a pretty solid demo. All that was left was to make some arrangement choices, and figure out how the song should end, stuff like that. It's a pretty minimalist song. You can pick out every part with your ears, you can hear everything that's going on.

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