Peerless Vampire killers

Dec 12, 2007 at 12:00 am

The Internet, it seems, giveth and giveth and giveth ... without ever really (it seems) taking away. When it comes to buzz-chugging "Bands of the Moment," you end up with a metric crap-ton of middle of the road — especially when it comes to thin 'n' handsome foursomes playing rock-based music springing from Brooklyn and Manhattan, often to diminishing (or worse, non-starting) returns.

So it is that a little band from Gotham City called Vampire Weekend found its way into the inboxes, search results and social network bulletins of thousands of music enthusiasts over the past year or so. Difference is, however, Vampire Weekend — a quartet of dudes who recently matriculated from Columbia University with a yen for African soukous music, Orange Juice (the Edwyn Collins-led band, not the Vitamin C drink), ska, the Kinks, wit, autumn sunshine moods and defying expectations — seems poised to throw a monkey wrench in the "heard-that, bookmarked-it, forgot-about-it" flow.

In fact, it'd be pretty easy to write off a band like Vampire Weekend as a pile of clips that will someday make for a nice scrapbook for the band members' mums. But Ezra Koenig (vocals, guitar), Rostam Batmanglij (keyboards, vocals), Chris Baio (bass) and Christopher Tomson (drums) have done their level best to keep the buzz in perspective during their thus-far-brief 18-month existence.

"A lot of people when they write about us, they're writing about what other people have written rather than engaging in the music," laments bassist Baio over the line from the band's latest tour stop in San Francisco.

But beyond the hype and despite the thin résumé (one EP, one single), this band has been touring its ass off, building an enviable kind of real-world goodwill domestically and abroad. When they haven't been in the studio recording and tweaking their debut album (due next month from XL Records), they've been veritable road hogs. (Their current logs have had them on the road for six of the last seven weeks.)

This kind of DIY evangelizing — married as it is to their fresh and witty approach to classic pop, ancient rhythms and modern themes — pays mixed dividends. But for his part, Baio's pragmatic.

"The response and turnout varies from city to city," he says. "In San Francisco, 500 people came out. A week ago we were in Denton, Texas, and 25 people came out. But that was awesome too!" he enthuses.

Part of that's certainly due to simple beginnings. Their story starts like many bands of the last 45 years: Pals from college with a shared love of jams, they decided to start playing together. One member books a show on campus... and they're off and running!

In Vampire Weekend's case, the little bang was in February 2006.

"Our drummer booked a show for a Friday, and we started practicing Monday," chuckles the bassist. "We just had to have something to play."

Their name sprung from an unfinished film Koenig started during college, and it just stuck. From the outset, they agreed to muster a different kind of noise, even if it sprung from the same rock kitchen that spawned the disco-beat rawk of NYC peers like Clap Your Hands Say Yeah et al.

"We started not by saying so much what we wanted to do, but what we weren't going to do," he explains. "We didn't want to have a really heavy guitar sound. We didn't want any distortion on the guitar, in fact. We figured it'd be more interesting to play with rock instruments but use the instruments differently. There were certain kinds of dance-y beats that NYC bands were using that we wanted to avoid. But we still wanted it to be dance-y."

What resulted is a lean, diverse set of jams that hints as much to Brooklyn loft parties as literary soirees; as much to the Zombies as it does the African Diaspora. And the music is narrated by Koenig's unpretentious man-boy musings on the Oxford comma, imaginary flings on the Cape, and tributes to public transit in their hometown.

"Mansard Roof" rocks out like a soundtrack for a mid-'60s reggae beach party movie on too much espresso, with Ezra's guitar lines following his vocals, cheeseball Casiotone interjections and hi-hat driven raveups. Hell, their calling card song is titled "Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa" — an ode about clandestine beachside teenage flings set to the titular soukous rhythm and verily crackling with the angst, sunshine and joy.

Although the name that's been dropped most often in association with the band to shorthand their sound is Paul Simon's landmark Graceland album, Baio bristles at the reference.

"We definitely feel like the Graceland thing is overplayed," he complains. "For us we've listened to a lot of stuff. It's weird how Africa's this whole continent, and it can be reduced to Paul Simon's Graceland when talking about us."

Still, any deference to scenes and stylistic lumpings doesn't get at the quiet groundswell of enthusiasm that's built up around the band's ability to warm up a room with off-hand charm and loose live (even basement-jam) performances, not to mention their way with a mighty powerful hook.

As with many bands that have a strong presence on the search engine scene, hearing is believing. And Vampire Weekend may just find some ears open to more than a background buzz, as they keep tinkering with the power of rhythm, rhyme and conspicuous musical consumptions, all the while putting even more miles under their unique pop machine.

Vampire Weekend plays at 8 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 12, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333.

Chris Handyside writes about music for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]