Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig is and isn't at home
On the TVs inside the restaurant, Notre Dame cathedral in Paris is burning. Steps away from the table, on Rodeo Drive, tourists wait their turn to pose next to a bright yellow Rolls-Royce parked at a meter. Koenig doesn’t live in this neighborhood; he simply likes this spot and some of the shops nearby.
The 35-year-old singer-songwriter has a hard time admitting he lives in Los Angeles at all. “Even as recently as a year ago I would still kind of say, ‘Well, I live in both places’” — the other place being New York, where Vampire Weekend earned their stripes 13 years ago playing their punkily staccato indie rock in and around Columbia University, Brooklyn firetraps, and garage shows along the East Coast. Koenig owns a place out there, and was born and bred in Manhattan and New Jersey; generations of his family staked out Brooklyn, the Bronx, and the suburb Scarsdale. He’s got stuff in storage. “There’s no part of the world that I understand better.” On the Golden State, however, “I didn’t exactly choose to live here,” Koenig says. The “base of operations” moved out of necessity, he says, to be physically closer to what became the nerve center of FOTB.
At first the relocation was for Koenig’s “brother-in-arms” Ariel Rechtshaid (Adele, U2), who co-produced the band’s last album, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City, and produced or co-produced almost all 18 songs on FOTB (former bandmate and producer Rostam Batmanglij also has two production credits on the record). “He’s the rare dude where we just take our time,” Koenig says of Rechtshaid. The producer says the album was “ultimately a product of proximity and friendship. [Koenig] was open to what happens musically, and there were lots of musical traditions we were trying to put together.”
Another major tentpole of the project: duets. Before, Vampire Weekend would occasionally employ backup vocalists on tracks, but never had anybody gone toe-to-toe with Koenig on the mic like Danielle Haim does, appearing on several songs in a co-lead or backup capacity. “Danielle, little by little, became one of the most important parts of the record,” says Koenig. “I always knew I wanted there to be these duets.” It all started when the lead singer of the harmony-dripping sister trio Haim (and, as it happens, Rechtshaid’s girlfriend) laid down temporary vocals on the folkie album opener “Hold You Now.” That first take is still what lives on the record in its final form. “He’s very precise,” Haim says of Koenig. “He means business in the studio. He’s serious in a good way, like, ‘Let’s get this down.’ But he gave me the freedom to put my own twist on things.”
An added goal was making a “true double album,” a vision for FOTB from its earliest days. Koenig was inspired by Bruce Springsteen’s 1980 20-track The River (“I am a Jersey boy,” he says, smiling) as a “broad snapshot of [Springsteen] being that age,” his early 30s. With 18 songs, Koenig needed someone at the ready with scissors and glue — “highly, highly, highly, highly regimented editing,” as Rechtshaid put it. When it came to quality assurance of lyrics, Koenig — who set out to write more directly about stories, characters, and interpersonal relationships — found his man in longtime friend Dave Macklovitch (a.k.a. Dave 1 of electronic duo Chromeo). “I’d play something for him — verse 1 would lay out a story and then verse 2 gets into some of that collage-y impressionistic nonsense,” says Koenig. “It was nice to have somebody really be like, ‘Hey that’s cool, you almost wrote a real song for a second!’”
Which gets back to the word of the day. Within the sprawl of those 18 songs, Koenig wanted space “not to get weirder but to get more real.” In retrospect, “pain and suffering and love” are the terms that often bubbled to the surface, he says. “My mom’s a therapist, and it’d be interesting to hear her use the word suffering to describe things that, by one way of thinking, would be mundane,” he explains, his boyish eyebrows calm but cross. “And then there’s this very straightforward way that Buddhist texts talk about suffering: Most people live their lives trying to escape suffering, and suffering is truly present in everybody’s life. It doesn’t mean…that middle-class American suffering is the same as Third World suffering, but there is actually something pleasingly straightforward about using that word to describe life in general. Rather than presenting suffering and love as these giant things that only happen here and there in life, [you] realize that they’re fully interwoven into the fabric of everyday life no matter who you are.”
And that’s where a fan might go hunting. “The lyrics that I’m most proud of on this album are not necessarily the most show-off, fun, whimsical ones,” says Koenig. Father of the Bride still has its bookish bursts and catchy turns of phrase, though the happy claps twirl around some truly dark notes. The deliciously perfect guitar-pop of “This Life” borrows the choral lyrics from ILoveMakonnen’s “Tonight” — not just admitting “I been cheatin’ on you” but to have also “been cheatin’ on this life/And all its sufferin’.” Back to back is “Married in a Gold Rush” (Koenig and Haim’s rollicking June and Johnny play) and the intoxicating lullaby “Rich Man,” both songs that seem to warn of the corrosive power of money on relationships. On the intimate “My Mistake,” he sings, “Oh, I was young then…you were cruel, you were fake/Hoping for kindness was my greatest mistake.”
Relatedly: If suffering and love are the recurring motifs of the album, aging and maturity are top of mind for Koenig in conversation, with the singer frequently utilizing the phrases “as I get older,” “in my 20s,” “when I was younger.” “If anything, [the album] is marked by the most painful nostalgia I ever had in my life, which I think also just happens as you get older…. Personal history and the way the light hits and smells, all that stuff,” he says. His personal life now is mostly in L.A. “I came over for some work stuff, and then the next thing I know I have a family. Which is cool. I like the weirdness of that, but…” He noticeably trails off.
Which brings us to yet another important member of Koenig’s creative cohort: Rashida Jones, his partner and the mother of their 9-month-old son. “Our family’s the most important thing in my life. I’ll say that on a more practical level she’s also a cool addition to that inner circle of people I play music to. Rashida is so checked-out from indie music, there’ll be times she’ll hear me listen to something that’s considered classic, and she’ll be like, ‘What is this? This sucks,’” Koenig says. The actress and film director is the daughter of legendary producer Quincy Jones (about whom she made the 2018 documentary Quincy). “She’s cool, too, because obviously she’s grown up surrounded by music,” says Koenig. “It’s a huge part of her life — like, for her, ’90s R&B is the peak of music she cares about the most…. Of that [group], she’s a very important part of it. They’re all gonna hear the music through different lenses.”
That collaborative outlook was nurtured often, from different angles, during the six years that passed since Vampire Weekend’s last album. Like his bandmates Chris Baio and Chris Tomson, Koenig worked on a lot of outside projects. They included his ongoing Apple Beats 1 show Time Crisis with pal Jake Longstreth — “It’s more of a social club.… Just very kind of fun and relaxing” — and creating a season of the Netflix anime series Neo Yokio. “That was just, like, perfect timing to do something fun and weird that had nothing to do with music.” In addition, he randomly snagged a co-writing credit on “Hold Up,” off Beyoncé’s Lemonade, when his hook was “picked off a pile” by the superstar; is still fine-tuning a TV concept with pal the Kid Mero (of Desus & Mero) about New York City public schools; and sat in on songwriting sessions with Kanye West. “With somebody like Kanye, what was amazing is that even with these individual iconic genius-type people, there’s almost always an inner circle of people,” says Koenig, whose voice starts picking up tempo with a singsongy cadence whenever he talks about his collaborations. “It’s interesting to remember that very, very few people are truly solo artists, so it reinforced my belief: that I do like the collaborative nature of bands and in fact, I wanted to be in a band.”
For the FOTB tour, which runs through Thanksgiving, the band has grown into a crowd, with Koenig, Tomson, and Baio joined by four additional touring members and even Haim dropping in for select dates. The next six months “are going to be pretty wild,” especially for this first-time father. “I’m going to be experiencing all sorts of emotions for the first time,” Koenig says. “It’ll take some figuring out. But the good thing about music is that when you’re gone, it’s intense, and when you’re home, you’re really, really home.”
Between ages, between destinations, between homes, Koenig, like everybody, will be suffering, but never alone.