Interview: Chris Baio of Vampire Weekend
Chris Baio is the one who doesn't look like Cha-Chi, also known as the one on the far left.
A debut album, well-received. Stellar reviews. A world tour. The cover of Spin and a night as musical guest on Saturday Night Live. Outside of a couple hundred comparisons to Paul Simon's Graceland, the four Columbia University grads who make up Vampire Weekend have lived through quite a year.
On the rare day off, just before their biggest New York date thus far at Central Park Summerstage and at a relatively ungodly hour for rock 'n' roll endeavors, bassist Chris Baio helps us with the Vampire Weekend year in review.
Is it possible to have fun during a 9:30 a.m. interview? I mean, I guess it's good that you didn't play last night. Yeah, I'm having a great time.
(much laughter) I got up, got some coffee, bought some grapes. I'm doing good right now.
I'm sure that you've got the greatest job in the world and every part is all kinds of wonderful and terrific, but you've given a lot of interviews over the past several months. Yeah. And, you know, I'm always more comfortable playing our music than talking about it or whatever.
So you took one for the team. I'm sure the rest of the band is very appreciative snuggled in their warm beds while you're up having coffee and giving an interview before ten o'clock. (laughs) Yeah.
It seems like you guys are constantly on the road. Where are you now? Right now I'm in my apartment in Greenpoint. We got home two days ago from like a five-week tour and we're going down to Florida in another two days for a short tour and Bonnaroo.
And then you're back here on the 14th. Yeah, for the Summerstage show.
Is that a big deal? Yeah, definitely. I mean, it's always fun to play New York and, you know, have all our family and friends come out. At this point there's a lot of places we've been where we played to bigger crowds than our hometown or whatever, so to play like our biggest show yet at home in the summer in a place where some of us have gone to see shows, it's definitely a big deal for us.
Speaking of big crowds, what's the last show the band's played that wasn't sold out? Italy. Last week.
Last week? Well, I'm glad I didn't give you much time to get all cocky. I know (laughs).
So what was the deal? How come the whole Vampire Weekend buzz didn't reach Italy? (laughs) I don't know. We played two shows: one in Rome, that was like 500 that didn't sell out, then one in Bologna where it was like 1800 and like 400 people came. But I think that's how it goes with that place. I don't know. In some ways it can be more fun to play a non-sold-out show because maybe people are just like deciding on a whim to go there while they're out having fun or whatever. So like the crowd was great at both of those shows.
But Italy is not the band's strongest market. No, I would say not.
You said you've been home for two days. Yeah, almost two days. We got home on Monday at around two.
And do you leave again today or tomorrow? Today we're practicing. We're practicing today and tomorrow for Summerstage and then I'm flying down to Florida tomorrow night and everyone else Saturday morning.
If you were on the road for five weeks before, is this the longest break you've had this year? We had about a week at the beginning of April.
And what did you do with your time besides laundry? Laundry's a big one. You know, I just rested and saw people that I hadn't seen for a long time, you know. I went to the dentist also.
And how did that go? I've got a cavity. I've got to get it filled the Monday after we play Central Park.
Well, oral hygiene is very important. I've always thought that questions like, 'What was your childhood like?' were fairly dumb, because even if your brother has three noses and your father's a serial killer, you only have one childhood so you don't have anything to compare it to. With that said, has anything about the last couple of years felt especially weird or surprised you in any way? Because this has been a pretty fast rise for your band. Yeah, I mean, I think that's a good point, because it does seem normal to us because it's what we've been living for the past two years. I mean, I just think about it like we're going to all these places that if I'd never been in a band it's entirely possible I never would've been in my life. You know, when we played Stockholm in November I was thinking, 'You know, I probably never would have made it to Stockholm in my life.' And I feel the same way about Australia and Japan where we're going. I mean, if anything's weird it's just that I'm very much aware of how lucky I am.
I saw some place that you got to ride horses in San Diego, but have you had enough time in any of these other cities to actually feel like you've been there? Or does it feel like just another club except everyone's speaking a different language? We had a day off in Rome. I got to walk around there for about eight hours and actually see some of the city. That was about a week and a half ago. That's one where, you know, I feel like I did get, even if it was just a day, a decent feel of what the city's like. But yeah, for the most part it is different accents.
Have you had any 'pinch yourself' moments? Whether it's seeing yourself on the cover of Spin inside your neighborhood bodega or something else, has there been a time where you felt like, 'This is really strange?' I mean, I feel really lucky that we got to play SNL as a young band. Because so few bands get to play on that show and it's a show that I had watched a lot growing up and there's a lot of history there. So if there was like one thing looking back on this year that I know I'm going to be thinking of as like really, really special, it would be that. At the same time, the way that it was run, it wasn't like a surreal thing. It was very meticulous. You know, we played the same songs like eight times on that stage before it broadcast out.
In order to let the crew get the sound levels and all the camera movements planned out. Yeah. And they do like a full dress rehearsal for two hours that night, like from eight to ten with an audience and stuff. So it didn't feel surreal at the time, but I feel like looking back it's definitely something special.
I'm sure you didn't go straight home, but does it feel strange at all to walk back into your apartment knowing that you've just played "Saturday Night Live?" Yeah.
I don't know. Maybe you've got a nicer apartment than I do. My apartment's pretty small, and then like we had to catch a plane in the morning and it was like Daylight Savings and we all slept through our alarms. We were all very tired, but I really didn't think about it in those terms. It was like another night at home.
Good enough. Tell me the name of a book you've read at least twice. Brothers Karamazov.
A movie that you've seen at least three times. Let me think about that. Oh, Princess Bride when I was a kid.
And do you own a rake? No, I do not.
If Ezra (Koenig) doesn't own the compilation of Madagascar guitar pop music and Rostam (Batmanglij) doesn't own the Brenda Fassie album, does Vampire Weekend sound different? I would say, 'No.' Even if those are the albums they bring up most in interviews, there have been other Afro-pop records that we've been listening to. You know, the way that we use that as an influence is so vague that if you take away one specific album I don't think it would like drastically change our sound.
I guess part of what I'm thinking is that when something happens over such a short period of time - and you've only been playing together for something like 26 months - it seems to inflate the importance of everything around it. Does that make sense? Yeah, I would agree with that.
And if I'm reading the story right, Vampire booked a show before you even started practicing. And at the time you're still playing in a country band called Midnight Hours. Yeah.
What kind of country? Are you playing originals or are you doing like Patsy Cline covers? No, we're doing originals. I mean, I think we had all been in different types of bands. Those two bands are happening at the same time for me, but you know there were a couple of songs that Ezra had written a couple summers before that he had. Two of them we kind of phased out eventually and then two we sort of like reinterpreted. "Bryn" and "I Stand Corrected" were from something Ezra had done earlier, so we had those songs at the beginning. There had been parts of "Oxford Comma" written, so we like came together and fleshed it out. The same thing with "Walcott." So you know we played like five or six songs and a cover at the first show.
The band's been playing nearly non-stop since the beginning of the year. And the usual setlist is about 90% of the album plus two new songs. Is there anything you're getting sick of playing and it would be a long and happy and fruitful life if you never had to play them again? I don't think there's anything that extreme. I think there's some songs maybe where like I'll get bored while we're doing it. Like there was this time in Phoenix where we were playing "Oxford Comma." I just totally zoned out and fucked up the chords. It's never like,' Oh my God, I really don't want to play this song tonight,' you know.
But with all of the touring, have you had any songwriting time? Yeah, I mean, there are like little sketches and grooves or whatever for the next album that we like work on in soundcheck whenever we get the chance. I'd say we have sketches for like seven or eight or nine songs that go beyond the two that we've been playing live. And those songs will probably be pretty different when we actually record them. I mean, I feel like when we finish touring on the this album, which should be around November, we'll probably need like a month off and then we'll just get down to it and really work on it. I know that there's going to be more pressure when we make this next album, but I'm really looking forward to it.
We talked before about all the interviews you've done. How many times have you been asked if you're related to Scott Baio? Less than 50? 50 to 100 times? Or more than 100 times? Less than 50, but there was a real bump in getting asked this when it was on our Wikipedia page. It's not on there right now so people haven't been asking it. Radio guys like to ask it a lot.
I think Wikipedia said that you're a nephew. That's wrong, yeah. He's my dad's cousin, so he's like second cousin once removed or something like that.
The band hasn't played Russia yet, right? No, we haven't. I'm actually going to spend a couple days there after we play Japan, but we haven't played there yet.
You've got an English major in the band and a music major in the band, so we can kind of stretch and say that their higher education has somehow been put to use. But you majored in Russian regional studies and that really hasn't helped with band work yet, right? I agree (laughs).
But you were college rock director at WBAR. Yeah. You're digging deep.
Yeah, I'm a research guy. Cool.
So maybe we'll use your time there. Did you learn anything from your working at the radio station that's helped with the band? Well, I think that being able to send e-mails. Which is a skill.
Sure. Like, you know, talking to people through e-mail was something I had to do a lot when I was doing that, and, like you mentioned, when I booked the tour it's the exact same skill.
Does that help you book the tour? Because nobody had really heard of Vampire Weekend back then. I feel like when I was doing it there were some people that I had talked to that I would ask for advice and for help and things like that.
Like, 'I'm going to be in Lawrence, Kansas, where do I want to play?' Yeah, stuff like that. Actually there was one dude at a booking agency, now that I think about it, because we had put on shows as well, and I would sort of like show him what our hypothetical routing was and, you know, he would give advice back. So that's like another personal thing that I guess helped.
How many people in the band own a copy of Graceland? I think we all do.
And how many own a copy of the Smiths' first album? I would say three-quarters of us.
Who's missing? Our drummer [Chris Tomson].
It's pretty much writers and reviewers and interviewers who bring up Graceland and The Smiths, but it seems the band, particularly Ezra and Rostam, often summon Elvis Costello and Squeeze. That's definitely true. I think that stuff's coming way more from us than anywhere else.
So what's your favorite Costello album? Which is the one with "Watching the Detectives" at the end? My Aim is True? Is that what it is? My Aim is True is the first one, right?
Yeah, My Aim is True is the first one. Is there anything that we as listeners can pick up from the Costello connection? Is there anything about Elvis Costello that directly informs the Vampire Weekend sound? We've talked about it before. We feel like "Oxford Comma" definitely has an Elvis Costello feel. I think there are some ways that you can see an influence in like Ezra's vocal delivery. I think that he's sort of like internalized a little bit of Costello in there.
Columbia's expensive. And everything that could work out for the band so far is working out for the band. But are any of the parents thinking, 'You know, I really didn't have to pay for four years of an Ivy League education if this is what he was going to end up doing?' No, I think all the parents are pretty excited about it.
Okay. So if you had to take one set of parents on tour with you, whose parents would you take? Ooh, I don't know. I mean, I love all the parents, but I'll go with Rostam's parents. Rostam's mother a cookbook author. And they're the ones that came to the "SNL" after-party and they were loving it, so I guess I'd have to go with Rostam's parents.
Let's talk about real estate. Everybody's in Brooklyn now? Ezra's still up by Morningside Heights. Actually no, I think he might have moved. I'm not sure. His girlfriend just graduated Columbia. He lives with her, so I think they moved somewhere. They've lived there for two days. I don't know where it is, but it's in Manhattan.
You're a smart man if you've got a degree from Columbia. Is now a good time to buy property in New York? (laughs) I don't know. I'm hearing all this stuff about sub-prime. I think that, you know, it's probably not the best time for any real estate stuff. Not that I really know anything about it or am in any way entitled to have an opinion on it.
So the million plus that each of you have made over the past six months, you have not chosen to invest yours in real estate just yet. (laughs) No.
But everybody's happy in Brooklyn. Yeah.
But not happy enough to be buying property. No, no. Don't have enough money to do that either.
This Saturday, Vampire Weekend plays a free show at Central Park Summerstage on June 14th with Kid Sister and Born Ruffians.
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