In music, early failure is often a harbinger of later success. New York's Vampire Weekend is another rising case in point. Days after the quartet of Columbia University students formed the band in 2006, they played a campus battle of the bands, finishing third in a field of four.
Rather than responding by adjusting their approach, Vampire Weekend — named for an indie movie that vocalist/guitarist Ezra Koenig had filmed a couple years earlier — delved deeper into the New Wave-meets-Afro-Pop hybrid they envisioned. The rave notices for their just-released self-titled debut album and effervescent live performances prove they chose the proper path.
"We decided to get a band together that would play with Rock instruments but wouldn't sound like a Rock band," VW bassist Chris Baio says. "Our first show, we played 'Walcott,' I Stand Corrected' and 'Oxford Comma,' and 'Oxford Comma' is pretty identical on the record to how we played it on the first show. We definitely came with ideas that we still use."
Vampire Weekend's debut album coalesced slowly over the course of 18 months, begun mere weeks after the band assembled and completed last fall. With school, jobs and occasional gigs crowding the calendar, VW (Baio, Koenig, keyboardist/vocalist Rostam Batmanglij and drummer Christopher Tomson) recorded in piecemeal fashion, jamming in sessions as schedules permitted.
"We were doing it wherever we could," Baio says. "If we had time, we'd go down to Rostam's Greenpoint apartment, we went to Tomson's parents' barn in New Jersey, we did a day at my mom's house doing piano. It was this varied process, where we were recording in 10 or 12 different rooms, but I think we still came out with a cohesive album."
As Baio completed his Russian studies degree last spring, the rest of the band had graduated and found work — Koenig as an eighth grade English teacher, Batmanglij as a film scorer and Tomson as a major label archivist — and these activities limited their playing time to weekly sessions. The quartet finally wrapped up school and work duties, bought a Honda Odyssey and self-booked a nationwide tour, after which VW secured a deal with XL Recordings, created a healthy buzz with their unique combination of sounds and came together as an actual band.
"When you're playing with people every night, you get to know them better as musicians and even notice more subtle things," Baio says. "It was definitely a growing experience and I think we're a much better live band for it."
One of the unintended byproducts of the tour was an opportunity for VW to compare their live interpretations with their recorded counterparts and dissect their sessions to that point.
"We played our last show in a pizzeria in Rock Island, Ill., and we had a 12- to 15-hour drive home, and the first thing we did when we got in the car was listen to our recordings and pick them apart piece by piece," Baio says. "We talked about what could be a better performance and what could be tighter."
Graceland, Paul Simon's Pop take on African rhythms, is often cited in VW reviews, but the band's sonic foundation also incorporates the Pop/Punk verve of Elvis Costello, Talking Heads and Squeeze. In the end, it's not Vampire Weekend's influences that define them, but the manner in which they absorb and reinterpret them.
"There were some broader abstracts that we'd talked about at the beginning," Baio says. "We wanted Elvis Costello, Squeeze and New Wave stuff and also certain guitar work on African Pop records was talked about early on. But a lot of times when we put songs together, it's more instinctive and we just feed off each other. So if there's a sound, it comes to us by whatever means."
After wrapping up the album last fall, Vampire Weekend headed to Europe for their first overseas tour, headlining an extensive club jaunt (save for a four-night opening stand for The Shins). The band found more similarities than differences between their domestic and import audiences.
"When you go into a new city, you have no idea what you're going to get as far as people knowing the songs or being enthusiastic," Baio says. "We played Atlanta, which seems to have a good music scene, and 15 people came. Then we got to L.A. and there'd be 300 people. Similarly, we played Stockholm and there were 350 very enthusiastic people, we played two great shows in Germany, and then we got to Brussels and 30 people who were somewhat disinterested were there. But I think we learned from those shows."
Because of their Ivy League roots and Benetton-and-boat-shoes fashion sense, Vampire Weekend has been saddled with the genre descriptor "Prep Rock." For a band that formed in college and is still relatively close to their educational experiences, "collegiate" might be the most appropriate way to define Vampire Weekend. Baio understands the tendency to describe them within those parameters but notes that time and experience will ultimately erase the references.
"A lot of these songs came together while we were still in college. We have a song called 'Campus,' so it would be silly to expect otherwise," Baio says, laughing. "The next set of songs will reflect where we are when we're making them and we're not in college anymore, so we'll get away from it somehow."
VAMPIRE WEEKEND performs at the Gypsy Hut Feb. 13. Advanced tickets ($10) are available at Shake It Records Check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.