Ezra Koenig has worked with artists as far-ranging as Beyoncé and Jaden Smith in the four years since Vampire Weekend’s last album, but it was seeing country singer Kacey Musgraves in concert in September 2016 that had the biggest impact on him. “She would start to sing and I realized, within the first 30 seconds, I knew what the song was about,” Koenig, 33, says. That “crystallizing moment” sent the frontman down a rabbit hole as he worked on the group’s upcoming fourth LP, analyzing the lyrics of songwriting greats like George Jones and Hank Williams. “There are very few Vampire Weekend songs that could be summed up in a sentence,” he says. “I used to be proud of that, and now I’m a little ashamed of it.”
The artistic shift comes at a time of transition for the band, who’ve spent nearly a decade at indie rock’s vanguard. Since 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, the group has branched out: Multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij left the band to focus on producing and other projects; bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson each put out solo releases; and Koenig created the Netflix anime series Neo Yokio, which premiered in September.
Koenig’s desire to create something new extended to the band’s process. Inspired by his time in a writing camp for Kanye West, he considered the modern-pop method, recruiting “anyone who might be interested” for sessions. “I’m not Rihanna, so I don’t have the same pull,” he jokes, so Koenig ended up working mostly with Haim producer Ariel Rechtshaid (who contributed to Modern Vampires) and pulled Batmanglij back in for a few tracks. (“We’re working on some songs in the exact same way we’ve always worked,” Koenig says. “We have some stuff that we started a pretty long time ago.”) Though no idea was too weird to try out in the studio, Koenig says his focus was on storytelling, not new sounds. “Songwriting as a concept is the single most important thing on this record,” he explains. “To me that’s the untapped frontier for Vampire Weekend; nobody wants to hear the Vampire Weekend trap album.”
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You took some time off after Modern Vampires. You worked on Neo Yokio, you wrote with other folks. How did you decide it was time to return to Vampire Weekend?
EZRA KOENIG: Time in between albums adds up in a really insane way. It suddenly becomes five years in the blink of an eye. Vampire Weekend was never far from my mind and I never went more than a month without actually going to the studio and doing some work. I’ve been working on [the album] full-time for just about two years — which feels crazy, but that’s how long it takes.
Vampire Weekend were so prolific at first that it just seems like a long time.
Coming off the back of the success of the first album, we made the second album in about nine months. It was really intense and stressful. I don’t think I’ll ever have the energy or the existential angst of being 25 and making your second album again — which is a good thing. That type of pressure-cooker situation — you got all this attention and suddenly some people love you, some people hate you, and you need to make an album quickly to capitalize on your success and show other sides of you — that’s a huge motivating factor. And it’s useful, but another part of me is like, “Thank God I’m not in that position.”
How did collaborating with Beyoncé and Kanye West influence your creative process for this album?
At this point in my life, I’ve started to have this admiration for songwriters. I’d never been interested in writing for other people, but when you hear somebody else sing a demo that you made, it’s surreal. It makes you think of yourself more as a songwriter, because you’re not the singer anymore. If you’re in a situation where Kanye hands you something and asks you to go come up with an idea and make a demo, suddenly you step out of yourself. You look at the craft of songwriting in a different way, without the narcissism of it being all about you and your presentation to the world.
When I first started thinking about this album, I had big ambitions. I was like, “I’m gonna do this Kanye stuff, and if that means I work with 200 people, I’m down.” Every once in a while I’ll sit down and write a song by myself, but I really love writing songs with other people. Increasingly that seems like that’s the way that people work. It’s not just pop; that pop way of working starts to encompass the whole music industry. I was always interested in that. I was like, ‘I want to try that. I’m cool with it.’
[I have] huge admiration for the modern collaborative pop album format and [had] high hopes that I could make an album that way, but when push came to shove I don’t really have the constitution. Maybe I’m an introvert. I can’t constantly meet new people and make small talk. It’s crazy! You gotta have sympathy for what these pop stars go through, having to meet three people every day who are so desperate to win you over. At the end of the day, the people I’ve ended up enjoying working with are the people I already knew.
I take it Ariel’s on the album?
Ariel is a huge part of this album. The first year I worked on the album I was writing so many songs, making so many demos, and it was exciting. I gathered this huge collection of ideas. But that first part of the process, which was when Ariel was finishing the Haim record, now I look back at it as me being out in the wilderness. Once he finished the Haim record, he and I started working more consistently. I was like, “Oh yeah, at the end of the day, there needs to be some consistency.” That’s when the record really started to develop a sound and a vibe.
You campaigned with Bernie Sanders, and Neo Yokio had some themes about economic inequality. Does the new album grapple with current events at all?
In a weird way, everything I’ve ever done, whether it’s albums or even Neo Yokio, I try to have it be some sort of state of the union — really just meaning that it’s a snapshot of my view of what’s happening. That may take the form of critique or analysis. Sometimes it may take the form of just vibe. I don’t think art always needs to critique what’s happening, because sometimes you can just show what’s happening through a certain lens and then other people can have their own critique or analysis. I think every album I make has to speak to its times. Every work of art you make is a reflection of these historical moments, whether you’re doing it on purpose or not. It’s a reflection of what’s happening and what your relationship to it is.
Every Vampire Weekend album has some kind of political awareness, some kind of examination of identity and what it means to have an identity. Our first album, to some people, was seen as goofy and slight, and then our third album was seen as serious and more powerful. I totally understand why people might feel that way, but the truth, is when I think [about] writing those songs and writing those lyrics, my depth of feeling was no deeper on the third album than on the first album. For some of our fans, on the last album, “Hannah Hunt” was the song that really stood out. It’s a song I worked on for years. I was proud that people came to that song and found it to be deep. But the artist’s voice in my head says, “You could write ten more ‘Hannah Hunts’ before you write another ‘Oxford Comma.'” You get this funny thing where people tell you, “Finally, you got serious. Finally, you wrote something with meaning.” Then in the back of your head it’s like, “I don’t know about all that.” It’s way harder to write those seemingly simple songs. Those songs just come less often.
As I’ve gotten older, that’s something I’ve wrestled with: How do you create work that feels mature without being uptight and overly serious? That’s something I’ve thought about a lot on this record. Because the truth is, a lot of days I don’t want to get out of bed. A lot of days I feel overwhelmed and disheartened by what’s going on in the world. Of course that’s going to be all over the album. But at the same time, as an artist, I feel like a lot of my greatest achievements have been forcing myself to find optimism and fun even when it didn’t come easy.
I’m really proud of “Hannah Hunt.” It feels like an important Vampire Weekend song. But then, I’m equally proud of “Oxford Comma.” That’s the song that probably is a huge part of even having a career, because it was this fun, lightweight song. And then you realize, all of these things are part of who you are as an artist. I’m just trying to figure out how to maintain those things. You want your music to grow up with you. You want to age gracefully and not boringly.
Was there a musical direction you wanted to go with this album?
I’ve always really had a thing for really simple forms of folk music, whether it’s like Irish ballads or old-school country. I just like simple songs. I went with Ariel to see Kacey Musgraves at the Greek Theater in L.A. [in September 2016]. The thing I loved about it was it wasn’t too loud — I’m definitely becoming a cranky old man — so I could really hear every word. The music was really clear and her voice was really clear. I’m the type of person who has spent hours poring over the avant-garde poetic lyrics of certain songwriters, and there was something that felt so good [about how] from the first verse, you knew who was singing, who they were singing to, what kind of situation they were in. After the show I realized there’s not a ton of Vampire Weekend songs where you could listen to the first verse and immediately answer the question of who’s singing and who are they singing to.
I’m proud of the surrealist moments in the Vampire Weekend catalog. I think they have meaning, even if it’s not a very direct type of meaning. A song like “Step” [is] a very wordy song, there’s a million references. But the thing that got me excited about this album was zooming in on simpler, but arguably more complex ideas: What are these songs about? Who are they for? What are they doing? I realized, on a really simple level, I haven’t written a lot of songs that have that type of elegance. There’s a lot of Vampire Weekend songs that have elegance in terms of baroque chords, arrangement, and interesting turns of phrase — but we’ve never had a song as elegant as some of that good country-folk songwriting. One of the things that I’ve always been hard on myself about is not having enough songs that you could play for somebody and they’d immediately know what the song is about. It’s like the elevator-pitch version of the song. I felt like that was an interesting challenge. I cannot say every song rose to that challenge.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.