Interview with Chris Baio of Vampire Weekend: Musical Melting Pot

In an era where vampires rule everything from books to television and even the big screen, it’s nice to find something related to the genre that doesn’t suck (simultaneous groans may now commence, as corny pun was intended).

If judged merely by the band’s name, someone who has never heard of Vampire Weekend might think the music consists of dark melodies entangled in moody riffs and grumbling lyrics. That couldn’t be farther from the truth, as the moniker merely plays homage to lead singer Ezra Koenig’s amateur film of the same name. In actuality, the New York City rooted quartet—featuring members Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij, Chris Tomson and Chris Baio—produces a sound that is a mix of reggae, indie rock and pop.

“I think the one thing we all strive to achieve in general is to be as open-minded as possible when it comes to music,” said bassist Chris Baio in a recent interview with The Aquarian Weekly. “Hopefully, our music is a reflection of that. Different sorts of sounds and different influences.”

The result is a rude boy-meets-new wave hipster musical creation that originated back in 2006 while the boys were senior year students at Columbia University. Upon graduation, Vampire Weekend produced their self-titled debut album, which was released on XL Recordings. The record received rave reviews, and stellar sales skyrocketed Vampire Weekend to the top of music charts in both the United States and the UK.

In addition to sizzling up the music scene, Vampire Weekend’s melodies also invaded films. From the initial LP, the ska-influenced ditty “A-Punk” was used in the beginning of the movie Step Brothers in 2008. And from opening to closing films, the quirky song “Ottoman” was played during the ending credits of Nick And Nora’s Infinite Playlist, also in the same year.

Vampire Weekend has had a whirlwind career thus far. But 2010 will be just as frenzied for the band as their highly anticipated sophomore album, Contra, is set to be released in the U.S. on Jan. 12. So what does Vampire Weekend have in store for the public and music industry with the unveiling of the new record? Baio divulged information about the upcoming album, what it’s like to be a contra, as well as the power of the Internet and putting songs together as a band.

So Contra is the title of Vampire Weekend’s sophomore effort, and the word is also featured in one of the album’s tracks with ‘I Think Ur A Contra.’ So in the realm of Vampire Weekend, what exactly is a contra?

I think to call someone a contra, in a way, is a way to define them in opposition to yourself, or define yourself in opposition to them. And I think just looking at the word ‘contra,’ which just means ‘against,’ it’s interesting because I think a lot of people define their world as being against other things or seeing things that are cut in their own way. So I think calling someone a contra is to do just that. And I think hopefully we feel like ultimately the world is a more nuanced place, and that’s a better world to have. So there are multiple voices and multiple things going on with that last song, but I think basically you just find yourself in opposition with someone else.

And how does that relate to the album as a whole?

I think if you look at the album in one way or another, you can define or examine conflict and the idea of opposition. A song like ‘Cousins’ is about, in a way, drawing lines between yourself and someone else.

In October, the band released the first single off of the new album, ‘Horchata,’ as a free download off the Vampire Weekend site. Why did the band choose this method as a way to give fans a preview of the new album?

I think we liked the idea of putting our music out there for free and having different ways of unveiling the album. And I think, for us, the most exciting thing maybe was putting out a song first, and maybe seeing how people would react to it. Our first album, most of it was online a year before it came out. We didn’t want to lose that kind of excitement with the way we released this album. So it was a way of starting over with introducing our music to people. We like the idea of putting our first song out, too, because—in a way—it almost mimics the experience that people are going to have when they finally get the full album that they can listen to from start to finish.

What kind of responses did the song receive?

Well, hopefully pretty positive. But one thing I can say is that we put it up on a Monday and we had a show in Toronto on a Thursday. It was kind of surreal. When we started to play it, people started to sing along. And it really does show the power of the Internet as far as getting your music out there.

So Contra is the second effort for Vampire Weekend thus far. What was done differently with this album as compared to the debut?

I think we thought broadly of this album as the next step for our band and not as this kind of reaction against our first album. So we thought of maybe different things that we would hint at on our first record, and now we’re fully exploring them. Like in a song like ‘A-Punk,’ I feel like it has some elements of ska in it, but doesn’t really fully go for it. And in a song like ‘Holiday’ on this record, I think we really did go for it. We also thought of different ways to expand our sound, whether it’s having extra say in the last song, ‘I Think Ur a Contra.’ Ezra sings it all in falsetto. In ‘Taxi Cab,’ he sings it very low in his register. And those are two places his voice doesn’t really go into on the first album. Playing with tempo, having two ballads, having faster songs and longer songs, having—or I guess similarly—short songs. But it’s just more. It’s just wider as an album. There’s more width to it.

Can you describe how one of the songs from the second album came together? It can be any one of your choosing.

Yeah, sure. I would say that the song ‘White Sky,’ for example, that one started out with this beat that Rostam made on his laptop in 2007. He sent it out to the band and we listened to it. I think we all lived with it for a little bit, and started coming up with different ideas. I wrote this bass part that I thought would work well with it. Ezra wrote this sort of melody and vocals and lyrics, which would run through the whole song, and C.T. came up with some drum parts.

Basically, we were doing kind of like a promotional mini tour in the UK and had a couple of rehearsals there. So it was during that time when we had any free time, Rostam would plug in his laptop and start playing the beat. He would play guitar along with the beat and he really kind of just hatched out that song. And when it came time to play the album release show [for the first record] in the Bowery Ballroom in New York like a week later, we thought it would be an exciting thing to unveil a new song. So we played it the day the first album came out.

Do you have a particular favorite song on this album?

My favorite song on this record is probably ‘California English.’ I feel like we were able to cram in a lot of ideas into a very, very quick and fast song. And it really has a lot of heart. I think a lot of material on our first record maybe only had a verse and a chorus. But on this one, there are multiple bridges, there are instrumental breakdowns, there are these cascading strings, there’s auto-tune on Ezra’s voice. I think that song has a good hook. I like the chorus on that song quite a bit. It’s probably the song I’m most proud of.

And which song was the most difficult to produce?

I think it sort of depends. I feel like the song ‘Cousins’ had a very random bass part. So I had a little bit of trouble nailing it when we were recording it. It took me a little longer than it usually does, so that’s probably my personal example of the most challenging part.

What’s in store for Vampire Weekend in 2010?

I think we will be touring for the better part of next year, and I think we are already thinking about our next record. Thinking about recording and seeing how much we can actually get done with all the traveling. Yeah, that’s the next step.

Has anything been put together for a new album or is it just a concept at this point?

Kind of just concepts right now, with little ideas. It’s just starting now.

So if nothing else, what is the one thing you hope comes out of this second album?

I think, hopefully, we establish ourselves as an exciting band. That people think of us as a band that will be around for a while. And as a band that’s always trying different, fresh things.

Contra will be available on Jan. 12. Check out Vampire Weekend at one of three NYC shows; Jan. 17 at United Palace, Jan. 18 at Webster Hall and Jan. 19 at Bowery Ballroom.