When I was just starting middle school, I thought Garrett Conners was the coolest person I had ever met in my entire life. Even though he was three years older than me, my friend Jared and I wanted to be just like him. There was something about his nonchalance that just oozed cool, and made us want to be him. Maybe it was because he was in a band, or because he wore Ray Ban Wayfarers (which were really cool at the time, I swear), but he just seemed so casual. He was basically Kyle from “Lady Bird,” but with fewer cigarettes.
At the beginning of summer break, we finally got our chance to hang out with Garrett when his family invited all of the neighbors over for a beginning of summer barbecue.
All of the kids were hanging out in Garrett’s room, so Jared and I thought we would join them. I didn’t know anyone in that room besides Jared and Garrett, but I tried my best to seem as cool as I possibly could. I remember walking over to Garrett, who was playing music off of his desktop speakers and asking him of the name of the band he was playing.
“Oh, yeah they’re pretty sweet, they’re called Vampire Weekend.”
At that point in my life, the only three CDs I owned were Elton John’s Greatest Hits, Radio Disney Radio Jams Volume 3, and Move Along by the All American Rejects (in my defense, all three of these albums were masterpieces). My parents’ taste in music was very limited, and I had very few resources to explore more on my own at this point. Vampire Weekend was my gateway drug into indie music, and there’s no better band to get you hooked.
Vampire Weekend turned on a generation of kids to music that went against the standard formula that compromised the norm. With influences from baroque harpsichord music to African polyrhythms and everything in between, the band has a knack for combining things that you wouldn’t think would work together. Subjects of songs vary from the irrelevance of the Oxford comma to the trustworthiness of rapper Lil Jon (who later starred in one of their music videos). They litter songs with religious allegories to create an album whose central image is a little hard to wrap your head around.
The four-piece met at Columbia University in New York City, and started out as almost a joke. Named after a short film frontman Ezra Koenig was working on while on vacation, the four musicians started playing together, taking influences from each member’s unique background, with no serious intentions of doing anything with the project. However, once singles like “A-Punk,” “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “Walcott” started to gain traction, the group’s domination seemed inevitable.
Along with blending musical styles, the group’s overall visual style was sort of a unique blend as well. Coming from an Ivy League school, there was an assumed preppiness that would come from the group. And while member Ezra Koenig is famous for his unique blend of pastels and polo shirts in a musical community that turns its back on such symbols of wealth and class, the band embeds a feeling of irony in these symbols of capitalism.
Even Koenig’s divisive anime-parody, Neo Yokio oozes with this sense of preppy DIY nihilism, littered with references to fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld, the dangers of capitalism and the consequences of wearing a midnight-blue tuxedo to a black tie event. References to Chanel and the upper class lifestyle, despite his frequent critiques of late-stage capitalism, are all things that seem to be very characteristic of Koenig. But why? Where did this ironic impersonation of an upper class lifestyle come from?
The four members embraced the Ivy League stereotypes that they knew would be placed upon them. Koenig, coming from a middle class, public school background was really into the concept of boarding school, despite never going to one. However, once he made his way to Columbia and saw the lifestyle and behaviors of this wealth and class, he started to have second thoughts. The concept and style of this wealth was something inherently appealing, but Koenig had no interest in anything below the surface of these Polo shirts and Gucci loafers.
While each member has their own individual style, they all feel very similar. Pastel colors and designer brands seem to be a prevalent theme, but not necessarily a requirement. Drummer Chris Tomson (a.k.a. C.T.) frequents basketball jerseys, bringing a bit of athleticism to the group, even though his latest release from his solo project, Dams of the West, seems to stray away from this sense of style and returns to familiarity of his well-dressed counterparts. Bassist Chris Baio’s style seems to be the most formal of the group, frequenting blazers and ties along with cardigans and loafers. Guitarist / keyboardist / songwriter Rostam Batmanglij’s style, like C.T.’s, brings a different element to the group. He is known for wearing slightly darker colors and articles of clothing that seem to be more like city clothes, as opposed to country club clothes.
They were very much a DIY band in the beginning, recording their first album entirely on their own for little payment and only playing local campus venues. The cover of their first album was actually a polaroid taken by Rostam at a house show. But even being in this DIY world didn’t mean they necessarily looked the part. Their look continued to set them apart from other groups as they dressed for the role of four Ivy League college students. On the podcast Yeah But Still, Koenig mentions, “When we first came out, because we dressed preppy and everyone knew we went to college, a lot of the reaction was like, ‘Oh you think you’re smarter than me, college boy?’ and we’d be like, ‘No, we think this is kind of funny…’ I’d rather have people think they’re smarter than me than them think that I think that I’m smarter than them.”
And that’s where some of the irony comes in.
Unlike most of their Ivy League counterparts, the band doesn’t take themselves too seriously. On the same podcast, Koenig talked about their choice of wardrobe, saying, “On some basic level, there was something funny about Vampire Weekend, so in terms of the clothes we chose… there was a sense of humor … I think everything should have a sense of humor.”
Koenig especially showcases this irony on his Twitter account. Not only has he inspired a generation of millennials to turn off their auto-capitalization on their iPhones, but his unique sense of humor helped him accumulate over 5,000 followers on the site. Quite a drastic change from his early days of rapping about pizza parties on Myspace with his project L’Homme Run.
In an interview with Rolling Stone, Koenig talks about the misunderstood nature of this preppy style and although it has an inherent whiteness associated with it, actually stems from a variety of cultures and lower class backgrounds.
“But around the time the band started, I became very interested in the connection between preppy American fashion and Victorian imperialism. For instance: Where does the word ‘khaki’ come from? It’s Urdu. Where does ‘seersucker’ come from? Hindi-slash-Persian. Madras prints? They’re from India. Blazers? They were a British naval uniform.”
To me, everything they do is very surface level yet simultaneously very thought out. This cultural inspiration appears both in their wardrobe choices and their music. While most prevalent in their self-titled first release, their music blends typical indie rock with various styles from around the world. Often compared to Paul Simon’s Graceland, the album references afrobeat a fair amount, and came together with other influences to makes songs that feel familiar, yet fresh, seeming very at home within their indie rock genre, but also very foreign.
Their sophomore effort, Contra, continued to borrow from various styles, but also felt much more pastel, in a sense. The cover features a girl in a polo shirt (who later went on to take up legal charges with the band after using her image without permission) which I can’t tell is a sign of the band becoming self-aware and embracing their aesthetic, or poking fun at it. The lyrics continue to tell varying stories of a variety of characters, and introduce new Vampire Weekend-isms (like what a contra is, for example).
Modern Vampires of the City takes a turn from this sort of lighthearted, pastel-covered aesthetic they formed in their previous efforts and takes a different direction. The black and white album art featuring New York City, the home of the group, is accompanied by a cast of macabre songs featuring religious allegories that take a slightly more serious approach than in past efforts. Songs like “Hannah Hunt” and “Hudson” feel much more mature than other songs from the group, and show a departure from the lighthearted songwriting of their past albums.
The band has made a lot of changes over the course of their three albums, and although they may have shrunk from a quartet to a trio after founding member Rostam Batmanglij departed from the group, their aesthetic has remained generally the same. Despite their success, their egos have remained small and their goofiness has failed to subside, Koenig being himself as, “a mildly humorous person with a lighthearted take on the world.”
I may not have exactly copied Ezra and the rest of the group’s fashion sense, but to say that I haven’t by influenced by them would by a boldfaced lie. To this day, I still stalk Garrett on Facebook (I haven’t worked up the courage to send him a friend request yet), and his profile still has a screenshot from their music video for “Giving Up the Gun.”
With an aesthetic that seems anything but indie, Vampire Weekend’s influence on the genre is strong, inspiring countless teens to dive into indie culture, and will continue to do so for years to come.