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Interview: Vampire Weekend's Chris Tomson On the Contra/Operation Ivy Connection, Eating Raisins with M.I.A., and the Regrettable Term "Upper West Side Soweto"

Vampire Weekend. Photo by Soren Solkaer Starbird.
Vampire Weekend. Photo by Soren Solkaer Starbird.

There's no feeling indifferent about this band. For fans, Vampire Weekend's sophomore album, Contra (out Tuesday, and reviewed by our own estimable Rob Harvilla here), is enough to make January feel like July--a sugary refinement of the band's Ali Farka Toure-goes-to-prep school aesthetic. If you're one of the group's detractors--well, you should probably just stay away from your computer, television, radio, or whatever for the next couple of weeks. Last week, we caught up with the group's drummer, Chris Tomson, on the phone. Perhaps not surprisingly, he turns out to be a humble, enthusiastic dude who likes Phish and trail mix.

What was it like recording the follow up to such a hugely successful debut? Was there a lot of pressure?

In some ways yes. In most ways no. Because the first album we recorded on our own in our apartments or in friends' basements, we felt we made this thing that we felt confident in. Eventually when it came time for people to react to it, they liked it. We felt we could we do it again and we had enough faith in ourselves.

I'm sure you had some more encouragement. The first album kind of made you superstars.

[laughs] I would sorely disagree. I would not say superstars. I would say "slight notoriety." How's that sound?

Okay, sure. You spent some time recently in California doing "research." Had you ever spent time as a band away from the city like that?

The time we spent in California was during the tour we did. I think the term "research" is probably misleading. I would say it was more putting in a certain kind of respect. When you're a New York band, there's the always-recurrent New York-LA dichotomy. When you're on tour, you're either heading to California or heading back to New York. California loomed large for us mentally and otherwise. I think everyone likes bands that are closely associated with California. California had thematically and conceptually influenced us in writing Contra and recording it. Now that it was finished we wanted to go there and play some of these songs, to pay homage to something we found very inspirational.

The New Yorker piece discussed a "California theme" on Contra. I think that was lost on me. I guess the record sounds sunny, but what did you intend with the California theme? Or did you intend it all?

The most explicit thing to say is a lot of bands from there inspired us. Like Operation Ivy or Sublime. Or even No Doubt. There are just so many bands that identify themselves geographically with California.

Also at an incredibly basic level, we were recording this last January through June, July. Last Spring was shitty. It was pretty rainy and cold and kind of gray. Even if in some general way it didn't translate, for us the idea of California was inspiring, recording in a shitty rainy gray March. [laughs] Anyone who was here last spring might also get it.

Your sound, which is so distinct, and also so polarizing for a lot of people--is it more natural than all the critics make it seem? When you guys are just jamming together, is Contra what comes out of that or is there something more deliberate at work?

First I should say, we're a band that so rarely just jams [laughs]. And I'm a fairly big Phish fan. We're a band that is very deliberate. We put a lot of thought into everything, from the album cover to the way we dress on stage to the way our recordings sound. I've been in plenty of bands before this that jam a lot. Not that we don't mess around every once in a while, but jamming is not our strong suit.

It is kind of funny when I read these fairly impassioned critiques or supposed take-downs that say how it's wrong if we're influenced by certain things. When we're doing it, it really does feel incredibly natural. We're just big music fans. We grew up in the age of the internet where we didn't just listen to Led Zeppelin and Queen. Fela Kuti was available. Bollywood sounds were available to us. From early on we said we wanted to have an indie rock band, but we wanted to open our ears.

That's certainly reflected in Contra. There are some surprising elements thrown in the mix. The Auto-Tune, the MIA sample, the Kalimba thumb piano. What is a Kalimba thumb piano by the way?

A thumb piano is--I think we all had one in our houses. A tchotchke that you can get at a flea market or wherever. You just kind of pluck it with your thumb and there's five or six notes on it. It just kind of sounds cool.

[The Auto-Tune and MIA sample] are two of the most poignant examples, but there was a very conscious decision on our part to not limit ourselves. If Auto-Tune sounds cool--and I think it really sounds cool on "California English"--why not use it if it helps the song? And the MIA sample. Why not? That's one of the underlying things of our band: "Why not?"

I would like to say that I got to meet MIA at Coachella '08 when we played it. She came to say hello and she was in our backstage trailer. We bonded about raisins. She ate a lot of raisins. I personally enjoy raisins and trail mix a lot. I was eating some and she asked if she could have some. She said she was eating them all the time when she recorded her first album.

 

The look of the band is something that's divided a lot of people. So let's just get this out of the way: what are you wearing right now?

Uh, well, to be honest with you, I woke up about ten minutes before this call so I'm in a t-shirt and shorts in my Greenpoint bedroom. Certainly not stage attire.

Vampire Weekend made a music video where all of you were wearing pastel sweaters on a yacht. Quite a few people freaked out about that.

At some level it's kind of obvious that people should have a sense of humor about it. We're having fun with it. If we were actually just four little rich kids, I don't think we'd be capable of making this kind of music [laughs]. Early on we talked about how we wanted to look. Being a band is not just a musical medium. When you play shows, people are looking at you. Any time you present yourselves not on the radio, music is a visual medium. There are a lot of great bands that just go on stage in t-shirts, and that's fine. But we wanted to be a little more unified, to have a personality in a visual way. It's kind of the way we dress anyway, but we made it a little more poignant.

I find it hilarious that the fact that we wear sweaters--like, everyone wears fucking sweaters. It's not that unique. A lot of bands dress up, but it seems to be an issue with us specifically.

Maybe it's branding yourself as "Upper West Side Soweto" that makes people uncomfortable--a contradiction between the look and the sound.

That's something that was a nonsense thing. A lot of what we do is finding connections as opposed to pointing out differences. That term specifically we regret putting out there. Two things that seem so disparate, that seem to have no connection, we thought it was interesting. It was slightly naive of us to put it out there.

Alright, so you've been propelled in a very short time from young college graduates with a few self-released songs to one of the biggest--

Superstars, right?

[laughs] Right. There's this media blitzkrieg surrounding Contra. Is that overwhelming for you guys?

As odd as it is, it still feels fairly natural to us. Since so many people got excited about our first album, it's understandable that a lot of people want to weigh in on Contra. It was exciting to us that we knew that people were excited to hear new songs from us. I feel like all the interviews and the TV and whatever stuff that we've done is hopefully just getting people excited and letting people know that we have a new album coming out and that if they enjoyed the first one, they'll enjoy the second one. Sitting in my underwear in my bedroom in Greenpoint, it doesn't feel particularly overwhelming to me.


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