Sunday, March 22, 2009

Chris Tomson of Vampire Weekend Interview

Vampire Weekend: Chris Tomson transposedJuly 3rd 2008 8:20am EST via phone from Belgium
interview by Myles LaCavera
Caution: We will not discuss Afro-pop, Columbia University, or deck shoes in this interview for our own amusement and betterment (partly ‘cause I’m not that smart). I will not write flowery, New York scene-conjuring words. We will ask questions. Chris Tomson, exquisite drummer of Vampire Weekend, will answer them. Perception, music, and getting hit by cars are what you may expect. We will not tell you what Vampire Weekend is. We will try to let Vampire Weekend tell you who they are…
Originally, I had imagined an interview to accompany a swelling article about a band that I have thoroughly enjoyed since the release of their debut album early this year. I was excited at the prospect of an interview and researched the band with much enthusiasm. The more research I did the more it appeared to me that the writing was not always necessarily about Vampire Weekend, so much as doctored snap shots of the band. I’m not so high and mighty as to assume that I could never be accused of this vein of writing (see everything I’ve ever written to foil me). The instinct of a writer is often and simply to say something worth saying and sometimes in this pursuit our subject is unintentionally perverted. Swallowing my own ego, I decided to let Chris Tomson respond to some conclusions press have made about Vampire Weekend. It was one of the toughest decisions to date for me as a writer. Ohh, look at me, I’m growing!
Myles – So, you guys just played Glastonbury. How was that? You had a couple of gigs there, I guess?
Chris – Yeah, we played twice on the weekend. The first gig was really incredible. We played at like 2:00 in the afternoon or something, so we weren’t really expecting much but when we walked out there was an insane amount of people, which I think isn’t so much a symptom of us so much as Glastonbury. Every show there is really, really packed. There’s just so many people. And it was just really, really exciting and it definitely felt just like an experience… kind of like Braveheart. I’m quoting Rostam, Rostam described it as Braveheart. There were a lot of flags and it was overcast. That was really fun and then we played a tent the next day, which was really, really fun.
Myles – Has the European festival circuit been that big as a whole for you guys or was Glastonbury the exception?
Chris – I think Glastonbury was the biggest. The whole thing that we’re doing right now is mostly festivals and most have been on the smaller side, like not 40,000 people. But I think this has kind of been a nice change from all the club shows that we’ve done so far in the year. And being able to hang out with other bands that we see at these things that are doing the same thing as us… yeah, I don’t know, it’s definitely been a nice change of pace. I’m enjoying it; right now we just pulled up to a Belgian festival.
Myles – Anyone in particular that you guys have enjoyed meeting up with or playing with on the circuit?
Chris – Umm, we’ve seen Yeasayer at a bunch of these festivals, which has been fun. We’ve met the MGMT dudes – they’re good dudes. We’re excited today we’re going to play with The National, which is a band that we’ve met a couple of times at these things and they’re really good.
Myles – I was kind of hoping to talk a bit about the perception of Vampire Weekend at this point because I’m almost getting tired of people continually asking you guys about and writing about Afro-pop influences. Do you guys feel that’s ever overstated?
Chris – Well, you know, I think that the reason that it’s the most written about thing is because it’s the easiest thing, or possibly the most exciting thing to write about, you know, it just makes an easy story. I don’t think any of us would ever deny that we were inspired by African music. At the same time, I think it’s kind of a narrow vision to keep putting that forward as the only thing where we’ve been inspired by a lot of music. Indian music, like Bollywood stuff… pop music from all over the world, I think, interests us and African pop is one example of that but I can think of any number of other examples that could just as easily be written about.
Myles – Does that kind of presentation by the media to people limit what Vampire Weekend can do on your next album? Do you feel that there are expectations?
Chris – I think that there’s certain expectations because there are a certain amount of people that have heard of us, and heard and enjoyed the first album. And I think… we made the first album in our bedrooms, which I think is something that is kind of forgotten a little bit. We kind of made it for ourselves and our friends and I have faith enough to do a similar thing again. I’m not entirely sure what it’s going to sound like; I don’t think none of us are but I think if we sit down in a room and really start working it will be alright.
Myles – Lyrically, Vampire Weekend is pretty referential and the band as a whole has a very educated appearance, which is highly publicized. Do you guys ever get accused of being too pretentious… I don’t necessarily see the band in that light. You seem like a bunch of intelligent guys having a good time.
Chris – I think that any band that reaches a certain amount of popularity will have people that find reasons to dislike them, and if that’s one of them then that’s fine. I think we’re just being who we are. We’re not trying to falsify something or… I don’t know, we definitely talked about the visual aspect of it, certain clothes you would wear, and that part of presenting yourself, your band, your art there’s always a visual aspect and that’s something we’ve talked about. But at the same time I hope that the music is enough to keep people satisfied, and even if people weren’t going to like you for the visual aspect they probably weren’t going to like your music anyway.
Myles – Getting back to your statement about recording in your bedrooms, I’m always impressed by bands that can do that and to do it in such odd places the album really sounds amazing.
Chris – Yeah, Rostam, I think did a really, really great job… Rostam, our keyboardist, who also produced it. I think in the credits there’s the list of places that we recorded which includes my family’s barn in New Jersey, Baio’s mother’s house, apartments, our friend’s basement, and even the Columbia student centre for one drum thing. I think that’s just the way things are going. You don’t really need a studio necessarily, and you can build songs and build tracks and have it sound just as good as if you recorded in Electric Ladyland or something. Yeah, I definitely think that’s forgotten – for better or worse, we really did record this in basements and bedrooms. But that’s fine.
Myles – A lot of times when talking about recordings people have a tendency to overlook the drummer. I just wanted to say great job on the album and “Mansard Roof” especially. That opening track has some cool drum work. You have a real cool minimalism to your play; any specific reason? Is that just how you picked up the sticks or what’s the story?
Chris – So, this is just about the drumming, yeah?
Myles – Yeah.
Chris – I think the minimalism is because of the skill limitations. The first practice or two, I was supposed to be the guitarist, actually and I’m probably a much better guitarist. Although, maybe not at this point – at least when we started I was. But we couldn’t find a drummer and I could kind of do some beats, so I just said, “whatever, I’ll try to do this.” It ended up sounding kind of good with me not knowing that much and playing minimal stuff seemed to work. We all kind of worked together to put together the drum parts. I think as we worked together with a lot of the instruments and talking about it; figuring out what groove would work, what wouldn’t and different things like that. But I think the surface answer to your question is yes, there is a minimalism for a reason.
Myles – I had a whole bunch of research to read through and I’ve had the album since it came out, and some people seem to avoid writing about “A Punk”. I could be wrong but I think it was released as a single.
Chris – Yeah, that was the first single.
Vampire Weekend - L-R: Ezra Koenig, Christopher Thomson, Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio. Photo by Steven Brahms
Myles – Would there be any reason why people would avoid that? Is it a song that maybe doesn’t fit into their theory of what Vampire Weekend is?
Chris – I don’t know, I mean that is a little true. I guess I stopped reading the press a while ago, so I couldn’t tell you whether that’s true. I think it’s a pretty Vampire Weekend-y song and it’s the one that certainly made the biggest initial impression. That’s what radio was playing, and the video for that really helped to set up the album for people. That song was probably written the quickest. We had 15 minutes left in this practice room we rented by the hour, a pretty shitty one, and we wanted to play a new song for whatever song we were coming up with and it really came together in about 10 minutes. We started with a groove and I think Baio yelled out, “go to D” and we went to D and I changed the drum thing. Yeah, I think that’s a very Vampire Weekend-y song.
Myles – That’s awesome. So, the title, “A Punk”: there’s no reference through the song other than the chorus-y shout and I’m wondering if it’s an intentional play on maybe the key that the song is in or something?
Chris – I think that was mainly a shorthand thing. I think it was more the drum beat, like “oh, that’s that punk thing”. Which, it’s not really that punk but… I think it was just a short hand that we would write on the set list that ended up sticking, essentially.
Myles – That band has stated that you were out to try and make something different with your music, which I think is pretty noble and something that not a lot of people are willing to admit. I’m assuming you guys feel that you’ve accomplished that to some degree.
Chris – Yeah, I don’t think that we were out to change the face of music or anything like that but I think a lot of the songs and what we talked about when arranging them with different instrumental parts was that we didn’t want to sound like a modern rock band. I think for the most part, on most of the songs we’ve succeeded, or at least we tried to have, you know, the drum beats be different or no distortion on the guitar, and stuff like that. I don’t know, I guess that’s kind of in the ears of the listener to really distinguish that but we definitely tried.
Myles – Going back to bands that you were meeting up with at different festivals, I was wondering if you find it problematic that some media have been trying to manufacture the idea of a New York scene with Vampire Weekend as a spearhead, or MGMT as a spearhead? Does that scene even exist?
Chris – We’ve actually been talking about this recently, and probably more now than six months ago when everyone was writing about it. Because I think we’ve all met each other through… we played one show with Yeasayer and I saw them a couple times last year but I think we’ve actually become a bit of friends with playing together and meeting at festivals in different cities or whatever. I think that’s definitely true that no one in New York that we have ever been interviewed about has asked about a New York scene. It just doesn’t really exist. We get asked about that most in Europe because I think New York is a destination, you know people that bring something to mind talk about New York and New York music. I definitely think it exists more now then when it was a thing.
Myles – I also found it interesting that at the same time that people are writing things that kind of make it appear that sounds like that just shouldn’t come from New York. Almost like that wasn’t possible and that every one was supposed to sound like The Ramones, or The Yeah Yeah Yeahs, or The Velvet Underground, or some kind of punk type band. It astounded me because New York is such a historical multicultural mecca. Can you comment on that?
Chris – Yeah, I definitely think that all those bands that you mentioned are awesome, and we’re all personally fans of those bands. But that was kind of part of the thing if what we were talking about when we were coming up with stuff. Columbia, where we went to school, is not a cool part of New York, necessarily. It’s not downtown at all, it’s like 25 minutes to get downtown on the subway, if not longer. And I think part of what I was saying about the drum beats, no distortion on the guitars, or whatever was something that we tried to do because we didn’t want to sound like The Velvet Underground; they’re a band that we all love but a certain times I think we wanted to see if we could make it different, or something like that. That said, I still think that there are parts that sound like that.Lyrically, I think a lot of the songs are about New York because that’s where we were. I agree that New York is, very much, a multicultural place. Ezra lived in Bedside for a while, which is a neighborhood that has a lot of different Caribbean cultures there. I think New York has so many things there for you to experience that you might want to take in, or not take in.
Myles – OK, I have one last question for you and it’s probably an odd ball in the bunch and if you don’t want to answer it I completely understand. Describe, if you can, the experience of being hit by a car.
Chris – Ohh, ha ha. You know what, I’d love to be able to but I got a concussion, so I don’t remember it, which I think is a blessing in disguise. I don’t know. I remember being on a side walk and I remember being in an ambulance, essentially is how my story line goes. Uhh, it kind of sucked. That’s a general impression that I have of it but I definitely feel very, very lucky that nothing serious did happen. You know, I got a sore knee and a stiff neck, which is, at the end of the day, not bad. Apparently, people have told me it was a bit of a hard knock there. You know, can’t worry about it too much, we’ve got shows to play.
Myles – Thanks very much Chris and we look forward to seeing you here in Toronto at the Rogers Picnic.
Chris – Yeah, definitely, that should be fun. That’s a really awesome line up that day. We’re really psyched to play there.
Myles – If you guys are there early and you’re looking for something different check out The Carps.
Chris – Yeah if we’re there we’ll definitely check them out. And as always, love those Born Ruffians.
Myles – Awesome.
That’s it kids. I will not tell you they are one the most exciting bands in the world right now (even if I think they might be). Form your own opinion. Find your own reasons to love this band… you will.
You can find Vampire Weekend’s extraordinary self-titled debut on XL Recordings, and available almost everywhere including Amazon and iTunes. You can also check the band lyrics and merch at Vampire Weekend is currently on tour and will be playing Toronto’s Rogers Picnic July 20th/08.
I just loved this too much to not post it

1 comment:

Your Friend Jiffy said...

sigh. best ever. thanks for posting it! vampy/born ruffs at the rogers picnic .. this is something i can relate to haha. met one of the guys from the carps there as well