Vampire Weekend's Afro-Pop Influences Rankle World-Music Purists
Does It Offend You, Yeah?
Vampire Weekend’s Afro-pop influences rankle purists
Appropriation is some tough shit. For a generation that has cycled through and hastily reworked any number of 20th-century music traditions in the name of indie rock, borrowing the distinctive sounds of other people and places is practically guaranteed to happen. But we want it to be inventive, enlightening our self-conscious, post-ironic afternoons (or endarkening, if you let in the creeping suspicion that your tattoos and travels are the same as everyone else’s tattoos and travels). We seek out newness—but what’s turned to for newness can often be controversial.
New York-based indie-pop band Vampire Weekend are feeling this kind of heat. Maligned for their sweeping use of African music and pithy classical sounds as much as they’re adored for their talents with them, the band have become an exemplar of hype, with all kinds of cultural theory notions, blog-driven buzz and the endurance of a solid Pitchfork review, much of which happened before their self-titled album even came out in January.
In a phone interview, bassist Chris Baio describes his band’s rare trajectory: “In December 2006, we got written up on [website and newsletter] Flavorpill when they were doing one of our shows. We got contacted by a bunch of different people. That was the very first time it seemed like people outside of our friends had heard of our band. We were in Pontiac, Michigan, in December of last year, and we got a call from our manager that Spin wanted to put us on the cover. To give you some context, we played for 120 people in a bar, and afterward, we tried to cross the border into Canada, and we got rejected. It was just the four of us in a minivan. So having Spin wanting to put us on the cover seemed kind of crazy.
“Then when the issue came out in March, at that time, I was still in school. I was finishing up my last year, and the other three guys had jobs. We recorded more and played bigger and bigger shows. Then we sold out [New York’s] Bowery Ballroom with a couple of other bands.”
As for why he thinks the heat enveloped his band so completely, Baio says, “There’s a strong pop element to what we do, but at the same time, there are a lot of different influences that come into that, which maybe, when you take a deeper listen to the album, only become apparent then.”
Vampire Weekend’s music is familiar and comfortably indie rock—great-sounding, culturally compelling—with a touch of the unfamiliar. It’s an easy, able blending of so-called world music with an East Coast prep/yuppie vibe. For any Ivy League band (these humble, laid-back dudes went to Columbia) to hand down really good songs in a MySpace kind of way has its own appeal.
Of course, alongside the bloggers’ steamy panting has been some serious criticism, particularly regarding their Wikipedian use of Afro-pop, inviting powerful, not necessarily positive echoes of what Paul Simon did with African music on Graceland—basically, “white guy(s) exploit black music to make mega moolah.” Of the backbiting, Baio says, “I’m not offended. We use Afro-pop as one of many, many influences, and there have been things in the history of Western pop music that have been fucked-up, like when people used samples from field recordings and the [musicians didn’t receive any credit]. [Our music] is not anything that’s specifically lifted from someone else’s work.”
Baio says that he’s not sure what influences will emerge on the next record, and he seems generally apathetic about the band’s unusual positioning. Which is cool for him, as it’s unlikely that a sophomore record coming from a nascent love-monster like Vampire Weekend will elicit the same cultural response as the first offering. Anyway, just below the chatter is a solid, complex band who don’t really need the hype at all.
Vampire Weekend perform with White Williams and Abe Vigoda at the Glass House, 200 W. Second St., Pomona, (909) 865-3802; www.theglasshouse.us. Tues., 7 p.m. $22.50. All ages.
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