Vampire Weekend: African Electric-Guitar Pop

April 1, 2009

WHEN EZRA KOENIG AND THREE CLASSMATES AT COLUMBIA UNIVERSITY got together to form a band in 2006, they were determined that it not sound like “a generic, alternative rock band.” Children of the ’90s, reared on grunge power chords and torn jeans, they were also curious about far-flung music genres. In fashioning their own sound, they turned to a variety of models, among them African electric-guitar pop. “The minute our band started,” said Koenig, “we looked to any kind of music that used rock instruments, but didn’t use them in the same old rock way. And I think African music is probably the best example of that.” The result was Vampire Weekend. The band’s self-titled debut CD came out on XL records in January 2008, and Vampire Weekend quickly became one of the most talked about bands in indie rock. They were soon touring North America and Europe, and earning such coveted gigs as spots on Saturday Night Live and The Late Show with David Letterman.

Vampire Weekend’s African connection was well concealed behind the band’s loafers-and-plaid style—both celebrated and derided as “preppy.” An African tinge was also not immediately obvious in the 11 songs on the CD, all of them tidy, hook-laden pop numbers with clear references to punk, ska, soul, Sting, the Beatles (especially in the Baroque-tinged string-section arrangements and keyboard passages by Rostam Batmanglij), and yes, Paul Simon. There was nothing loose or jammy about the sound, but reviewers did pick up on something African in the clean guitar tones and rhythmic playfulness in the songs. The first song the band rehearsed was “Oxford Comma,” a song Koenig wrote on piano, his first instrument. “That song has almost no guitar on it,” he said. “And then we decided to put in a guitar solo. I don’t know if it really sounds like King Sunny Ade, but I did try to make this kind of generalized version of what I thought sounded like these African guitarists that I liked. So from the very first song, that was an element.” That “Oxford Comma” guitar break is a strummed, double-stop melody straight echoing the vocal—simple, clean and tuneful. “From there,” said Koenig, “we had songs like ‘Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa’ where it became more explicit.”

King Sunny Ade is a champion of Nigerian juju music, which features densely layered guitar interplay. And “kwassa kwassa” is an early-’90s term for dance music from the Congo, which also showcases clean, cycling guitar lines. But it’s a mistake to over-think Vampire Weekend’s African connection. These young musicians are not Afropop aficionados, just curious fans. Koenig was a freshman in college when his search for an alternative to distortion and power chords led him to Pirate’s Choice, a reissue of classic tracks from Senegalese dance band Orchestra Baobab, whose eclectic blend of salsa, African traditions, and psychedelic rock made them the toast of West Africa in the 1970s. “It sounded like surf music,” recalled Koenig, “which I was kind of obsessed with when I was a kid. So just hearing those reverb-y guitar leads going all over the place, I really liked that.” From there, Koenig discovered a CD called Madagasikara 2, a compilation of electric guitar-driven ’80s bands from Madagascar. He has since turned on to guitar bands from Congo and Kenya, and also the Dominican Republic pop style, bachata, which features “the ultimate cleanest guitar tone.”

The common element was that clean tone, minimal use of chords, and prominent melodies played on the high strings. These were the ideas Koenig brought to Vampire Weekend. “If you listen to the album,” he says, “there is really not a lot of space taken up by the guitar. It’s a lot of just single strings. It leaves more room for the bass and keyboards to move.” Two of Vampire Weekend’s most popular songs—“Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” and “A Punk”—were built around repeating melodies played only on the top two strings. “I guess my tendency to only use the high strings kind of forced me to spend a lot of time noodling around and just making different shapes with the E and B strings,” says the guitarist.

Though a well-schooled musician, Koenig never took many guitar lessons, and was initially attracted to guitar because it would be “more fun” and “cooler” than piano. He got a Mexican Fender Stratocaster for his 12th birthday and immediately began imitating the tremolo-picked guitar parts from tunes by the Ventures and Dick Dale, which he had heard on the soundtrack for the film Pulp Fiction. (Ironically, surf music is itself an example of sub-rosa infiltration of world music into the American mainstream. The father of surf guitar, Dick Dale, created the sound by imitating the tremolo he heard in Arabic folk songs his parents adored.) Koenig then turned to surf revival bands such as Phantom Surfers, Man or Astro-man?, and the Bomboras. “They were just so dedicated to the sound of ’60s reverb, and that was the first guitar music I really liked.”

Fast-forward to the early days of Vampire Weekend, and Koenig did not even have a guitar with him at school. He borrowed drummer Chris Thompson’s Epiphone Sheraton and never looked back. Koenig is fussier about his amp. A devotee of Fender, he always plays through a Deluxe Reverb. “I don’t use any pedals,” he says. “I’ve always found that just the amp reverb is enough.” Koenig’s surf-inspired tremolo pops up on a number of songs, including his guitar solos on the thrashing “Walcott,” and also on “Mansard Roof,” a song whose pumping groove was created by speeding up the standard reggaeton beat.

Since the album came out, Vampire Weekend have been writing new songs, including one in which Batmanglij picks up a second guitar and joins Koenig in a double-stop riff that sounds close to ’70s, South African township music. On another new song, tentatively titled “White Sky,” the band unfurls a rolling 12/8 groove full of polyrhythmic possibilities. Describing the song as “Kraftwork meets Orchestra Baobab,” Koenig looks forward to developing it in the studio, where the band’s meticulous production style invariably transforms songs from their original, live versions. Koenig credits Dirty Projectors’ maestro Dave Longstreth with turning him onto the concept of “hocketing,” where multiple musicians play different parts of a single beat to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts. On the song “M79,” Koenig uses this idea playing a part that is rhythmically opposite to bassist Chris Baio’s line. “We’re kind of letting each other have our own space,” says Koenig, “but at the same time building a rhythm together that you couldn’t do by yourself.”

As with so many distinctive guitar styles, rhythm is the key. Maybe the lesson of Vampire Weekend is that as technical as African music can be, you don’t have to be technical to learn from it and apply its ideas in a new context. Vampire Weekend fans might not realize the band’s joyful, squeaky-clean pop songs have an African ancestor. But so what? The music speaks for itself.

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