Rostam Batmanglij, keyboardist/ vocalist for Vampire Weekend, was trying to sum up the differences between the band’s new CD, Contra, and its 2008 self-titled debut disc when he hit upon something that seemed to fit.
“I remember someone told us that they thought our first record was perfect driving music,” Batmanglij says. “I think part of the reason for that was we were obsessed with keeping the momentum alive, and having just like a simple bass drum thumping, like four-on-the-floor or just like not having any kind of quiet moments or small moments.”
Driving to Contra would figure to be more of a bumpy ride, and not in a bad way. While the debut CD was famous for the way Vampire Weekend incorporated African, ska and other world beat rhythms into its pop music, Contra takes the emphasis on rhythm to a whole new and more varied level.
“On this record, we have a combination of some of our craziest moments and also some of our most subdued,” Batmanglij says.
Batmanglij can point to a host of ways Vampire Weekend pushed its sound to new extremes on Contra.
One of the oft-cited influences from the first album was ska — a sound Batmanglij said the band didn’t feel it truly used. But this amped-up Jamaican sound does figure into some of the new songs, most notably “Holiday.”
“I think if we flirted with Jamaican music on the first record, now we’ve sort of consummated that flirtation on this record,” Batmanglij says. “I don’t think anything on the first record could be called ska, even though some people did. I always felt like, ‘not quite.’ But on this record there are moments you can definitely call ska, and there are moments that are reggae. It’s our own kind of version of it, but I think it is pushing to the extreme.
“And also, just southern California punk music, we’re kissing that genre a little bit with some of these songs,” he says. “We’re using distortion on guitars in a way we didn’t on the first record.”
Another big ingredient of the first album was African-styled rhythms — so much so that critics often accused Vampire Weekend of imitating Paul Simon’s Graceland album. The band, though, doesn’t back off on that influence on Contra, in songs like “White Sky” and “Horchata.”
“I think it’s a huge part [of the CD],’ Batmanglij says. “It’s not just a part of like a groove or a guitar line. There are grooves and guitar lines on this record that are very African. But it’s also a part of just the way we think about arranging music, I think. There is a kind of African aesthetic in regards to how parts interact with one another. I think that comes through in a more abstract way than simply in terms of the more obvious things, like the guitar lines or the rhythms.”
The diversity of influences is something that Batmanglij says comes naturally to the members of Vampire Weekend.
Batmanglij and his bandmates, singer/ guitarist Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio and drummer Christopher Tomson, began sharing their musical influences after meeting at Columbia College in New York City.
The band played its first gig in early 2006, and it didn’t take long for a buzz to start building, much of it spawned over the Internet and the band’s own efforts to reach out to taste-making indie-rock sites like Stereogum.com.
By the time the self-titled album arrived in mid-February of 2008, the group was set to appear on the March 2008 cover of Spin magazine, which touted Vampire Weekend as early favorite for the year’s best new band, and the buzz had hit full volume. But while there was plenty of praise, a backlash also broke out, as questions were raised about the group’s lack of dues-paying struggles and use of African stylings. There was no shortage of complaints that the Vampire Weekend CD was little more than a Graceland rip-off.
Given the way some criticized the authenticity of Vampire Weekend’s multi-cultural pop sound, it might have been logical for the band to dial back the use of the African and Jamaican musical elements. But Batmanglij says he and his bandmates never paid much attention to the fuss in the press or, for that matter, the criticisms that surrounded the first CD.
“I do think there is a way in which we work in a vacuum,” he says. “So yeah, I guess it’s hard for me to think about that because really our heads are in music more.”
On the Bill
Weekend plays the Ogden Theatre on Friday, March 20. Show at 9 p.m. Must be 16 to enter.
The Blow opens. Tickets are $26.50 to $30. 935 E. Colfax Ave., Denver,