If ever the was a home team crowd for Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, far away from the slings and arrows of preppiness and the dark continent and the looming specter of book-learning, it was here, at the New York Public Library, where your bio can proudly boast that your second album, Contra, “includes no songs about commas.” Seating Koenig opposite a novelist, John Wray (as opposed to say, a bitter, failed writer turned music critic), was an obvious and overdue set-up waiting to happen. So leave it to the NYPL’s Young Lions–library supermembers in their 20s and 30s who, in exchange for a tax-deductable 350 bucks, get their own private events like this one–to finally make it happen, gathering the city’s youthful book nerds for an evening devoted to “Music & Words.”
But first, wine and cupcakes, by the plateful. When the outraged masses finally rise up and slaughter Vampire Weekend for the sins of their Ivy League educations and crisply pressed pants, this room might well be Exhibit A–chocolate salted caramel buttercream, Bordeaux, Perrier, pineapple, and blood. And on the soundsystem, as everyone mingles and grown men sidle up to Koenig for photographs? What else but the entirety of Contra, played front to back? No sooner did the record’s dazed final track conclude than Wray and Koenig–introduced as “the man who made us think twice about Oxford commas”–took the stage, white wine glasses in hand.
Now. We are not unfamiliar with the rituals of the interview, or the treadmill in-demand musicians like Koenig must constantly ride as far as answering similar questions, over and over again, but it takes an occasion like this one to truly reveal the horror of this dude’s existence. Even here, in the same room where Zadie Smith lectured and John Updike was memorialized, it is clear, early on, that we will be talking about Cape Cod. A lot. And even John Wray–who in addition to publishing an excellent novel last year, Lowboy–has done stints as both a musician and music critic, seemed powerless to stop it. Or maybe he was just rusty, or actually unaware the Koenig gets asked about this stuff so often he might as well be Ian MacKaye explaining for the ten-thousandth time the lyrics to “Guilty of Being White”?
Koenig, unfailingly polite, at least had jokes. “There were assumptions made about you guys,” said Wray at one point: “Mansions, houseboats, croquet on your Cape Cod estates…”
“Well,” said Koenig, “that is true about us.”
“Yes,” Wray parried: “I’ve been your compound.”
Koenig, for the TKO: “Yeah, I remember I kicked your ass in tennis.”
And on it went: Wray asked about the plight of the artist who has not come from struggle, whose lack of a hardscrabble background is paradoxically a strike against them in the artistic world. “The burden of pretending that your mom was a stripper,” Wray called it, before Koenig interrupted again.
“More power to Mrs. Koenig if she is,” said Wray.
Koenig: “Mrs. Bass, actually.”
He’s a likeable dude, Ezra. And in that room, without much fear of reprisal, he could show it. At one point, he saluted rap music, probably one of the biggest undiscussed influences on Vampire Weekend–for better or for worse–and said, about hip-hop’s advanced technique, “I would hope that’s something that shows up a little bit in our lyrics, too.” Take the Sugar Hill Gang’s “Rappers Delight”–“It’s about being a superman lover in one verse, and in the other, it’s about how [rapping] have you ever went over a friends house to eat, and the food just ain’t no good / I mean the macaroni’s soggy, the peas are mushed, and the chicken tastes like wood?” OK. Ezra Factory was his rap name in college, we would eventually learn, meaning: “a factory that produces Ezra, because I’m so hot, but also that I’m a factory of cool rhymes.” Ever the diplomat, he added: “I also liked the reference to Factory Records.”
Make of this what you will. For what it’s worth, he pointed out correctly, as he has so many other times before, that the only authentically white music out there would be something pretty close to “white supremacist Wagner techno.” Which is the one type of music, Koenig then clarified, he’s just not that into. Context is everything: even the central theme of the evening, and in some ways, of the band’s first record, was an accident, the result of a family trip to Cape Cod instead of the Jersey Shore, though he’d go there later, too. “Just as easily, the first album could’ve been all about the Jersey Shore,” he said, before adding, “maybe the next one will be.” Next year in Seaside Heights, then.