Vampire Weekend plays free show in Aspen Saturday
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
ASPEN – The members of Vampire Weekend didn’t come by their African sounds the way, say, the late Fela Kuti did, by actually being born and raised in Africa. Nor have they studied music in Africa, or had a whole lot of direct contact in their formative years with African culture. The group is made up of four American dudes who met at the New York City Ivy League school Columbia University, where they were studying such subjects as English and Russian.
So does that mean that Vampire Weekend shamelessly ripped off another culture’s sounds on their way to stardom, as some have charged? Chris Tomson, who, as the band’s drummer, is presumably responsible in good part for the rhythmic aspect, doesn’t think so. When Tomson was laying down the beat in the earliest Vampire Weekend rehearsals four years ago, he was just playing whatever he could, whatever seemed to fit the songs being written by his mates – singer-guitarist Ezra Koenig, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij and bassist Chris Baio. Tomson had never played drums – if you don’t count some very casual messing around during his high school years in central New Jersey – before the formation of the band. Vampire Weekend tried out some actual drummers in their first few practices before deciding to stick with the four musicians they had, taking away Tomson’s guitar, and replacing it with a drum kit.
“Some of that may come from me having so little experience,” the 26-year-old Tomson said from Salt Lake City, of the band’s African-leaning rhythms. “I had no licks or grooves to fall back on; I just played whatever the song seemed to need – just like a guitar part would be played. I think music from Africa has always inspired me – not that I can play African licks.”
Tomson said the African sound – Vampire Weekend has referred to its style as “Upper West Side Soweto” – comes from a serious engagement with music. The band’s four members all took music classes at Columbia, and their studies led to a desire to do something beyond the standard beats of rock ‘n’ roll.
“All of us are, as you would say, music lovers. We’d listen to music, talk back and forth,” Tomson, whose first instrument was trombone, said. “After a while, after Led Zeppelin and the Beatles, you want something more. Whether we were in Vampire Weekend or not, we would be doing this.”
The talk of artistic appropriation began quickly after the band made its recording debut, with a self-titled 2008 album that featured songs like “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” which had an overt influence from Congolese soukous music. But Tomson says the chatter has quieted considerably in the last few months, with the January release of the band’s second album, “Contra.” The album, which went to No. 1 on Billboard’s chart, broadens the band’s influences, taking in Jamaican ska, punk, and Eastern Indian ideas, and incorporating not only marimbas but also violins and cellos. More important, “Contra” cements the concept that has probably been the appeal of Vampire Weekend from the get-go – that they have synthesized an array of influences and made of them something unique and their own.
“A lot of the people who have criticized us, or were offended – that’s died down,” Tomson said. “We’ve found our own groove on this second album. I think we proved we had a style and a certain vibe and you can see now it’s more than just a fluke, or something we ripped off.”
Aspen gets its first taste of the Vampire Weekend sound on Saturday, March 20, when the band plays the Aspen Skiing Co.’s Core Party, a free show in downtown Aspen, at the corner of Cooper and Galena.
One aspect of Vampire Weekend that is unquestionably genuine is their look. The group typically dresses in the preppy uniform of collared shirts and neat pants. The cover of “Contra” features a pretty, young, WASP-y blonde, in a Ralph Lauren polo shirt, which seems a lighthearted joke they’re playing on themselves. Tomson said that if Vampire Weekend were to cop the look of late-’80s Seattle grunge, that would be truly artificial.
“It would be more dishonest and less legitimate if we had ripped jeans and T-shirts,” he said. “We’re just making the music that interests us and that we want to make.”