Interview: Vampire Weekend's Rostam Batmanglij on His Checkered Ska Past, Confounding Critics -- and Why Vampire Weekend is a Punk Band



If you're reading this, you've probably already made up your mind about Vampire Weekend. Most find the New York quartet's music either delicious or disgusting, with very few people in the "just okay" camp. Speaking to A to Z prior to the band's performance on Sunday night at SLU's Chaifetz Arena, multi-instrumentalist and producer Rostam Batmanglij gave some insight to VW's polarizing career, along with revealing some surprising fascinations with punk and ska.

Ryan Wasoba: Since the first wave of hype surrounding Vampire Weekend has died down and you've become more of a career band, has it changed the band dynamic? Rostam Batmanglij: It's funny becuase even from the very beginning we looked at this as a career. We all left what we were doing in New York to go on tour back in July 2007. It was a conscious decision for us to do this permanently. So we had that sense of commitment, just the four of us in a minivan. From the first time we went out on tour we had this blue CD-R that was ten songs. People said we were hyped but I think that's because that CD-R was sort of a secret. We weren't necessarily self-releasing, but people could download those ten songs if they did a little Googling. People heard the songs and were excited about us, but it felt personal still.

After the secret got out, the band has become the template for the modern backlash victim. Truth is, I don't think we had to face that much backlash. I think we had to face some idiot journalists say stuff we didn't take personally. We have our own internal integrity. We have our own values we've constructed for ourselves, so we don't have to rely on someone's idea of what is or isn't punk.

I think some people miss how DIY your operation is. Wasn't that first record essentially home recorded on entry-level ProTools gear? It was. If you look at our process with making a record, we've never spent 1800 dollars a day in a fancy recording studio. For our first record, we went to a friend's basement to record drums and paid him with a couple pepperoni pizzas. Then we brought it back to my apartment and recorded everything else as quickly as possible. I'd never recorded an album before and I was strangely sure of myself. I don't know if I'll ever be that sure of myself again. But I was against the idea of beauty being tied to money, and that's punk to me.

Do you consider Vampire Weekend a punk band? Yeah, I do think we're a punk band. My dad explained punk to me as this idea that you don't have to subscribe to what other people deem as beautiful or worthwhile. You don't have to buy expensive earrings, you can just put a safety pin through your earlobe.

How does the band fit into that concept? I think punk is a mindset. It's not one we wholeheartedly subscribe to, either. I would never say we were just a punk band, but when I think of what punk was connected to - Andy Warhol, Lou Reed in the '70s -- we're definitely connected to that. And then it became this other thing in the '80s and '90s. I think about the things about punk that I liked and feel connected to.

Speaking of punk in the '90s, I've always suspected that you guys were into third-wave ska when you were younger. Oh, wow. Yeah. All of us were ska kids. I grew up listening to the radio in Washington, D.C., where they played a healthy dose of third-wave ska. When I was a kid I liked Reel Big Fish. I liked some Rancid songs, too. "A-Punk": It sort of came out to me with the guitar hook on "A-Punk." Well, I don't think of "A-Punk" as ska because the guitar plays on the downstroke as well as the upstroke. To me it kind of breaks the groove. I think of ska as a pretty specific groove.

Then what about "Holiday" from Contra? It has sort of a two-tone vibe. I do consider that ska. Or at least, it's in the pot, as Brandon Flowers would say - it all gets mixed up in the pot.

That ska influence comes out of Jamaica, and Vampire Weekend has such an influence from African music. A large part of the mixed reception toward the band has dealt with class issues, with Ivy League school kids borrowing music from impoverished areas of the world. That's functioning on the assumption that poor kids don't go to Ivy League schools. Half of the kids at most of the Ivy League schools are on financial aid of some sort. Both of my parents come from a third world country which I have never been to and could never go to [Iran], so personally I feel connected and disconnected. I have all kinds of fucked up relationships towards class. I think our songs are about class, but it's not championing the upper class.

People tend to make the implication that you're romanticizing the upper class yacht club lifestyle. And to some extent, we let people fall into that. If someone wants to perceive us based on a set of unfounded assumptions, then there's only so much you can do. We let people make their assumptions about us because they reveal more about themselves than about us by doing so.

Do you think people's opinion on Vampire Weekend is almost like a personality test? I don't know. Yes, maybe. I think that would require a lot of psychoanalysis. A lot of people have looked at us from a distance and said, "I want to take a negative stance on this band." And they look at every aspect of our band through the lens of critique. A lot of the criticisms are not really founded on anything. People have said that we're sloppy and other people have said we're so precise, it's an extension of our conservative values. How is it possible for people to say two things so at odds with each other without an agenda?

This whole situation - from recording in your apartment to becoming resentfully successful - must seem surreal. Now when you come to St. Louis, you're playing in a basketball arena. Really? That's funny. I think we've always felt a little like outsiders to some extent and sometimes to a great extent. It's always fun to get to do something really mainstream like play a basketball arena

Does the thought of playing music in a sports stadium give you a Revenge Of The Nerds type of satisfaction? No. I've never thought of myself or anyone in the band as a nerd. I think nerds are kids who talk about shit and never do anything. If we were nerds we'd never have gotten our shit together.

[Correction appended, October 5: The text of this article reflects a clarification from Rostam Batmanglij. In a question referencing Ivy League schools, he responded that "Half of the kids at most of the Ivy League schools are on financial aid of some sort." The original text stated, "Most of the kids at most of the Ivy League schools are on financial aid of some sort."]


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