Ezra Koenig: Soundtrack of My Life

The Vampire Weekend frontman on fake rap posse the Lonely Island and the Kinks' exotic Englishness

This year began extremely well for Vampire Weekend: their second album, Contra, entered the US charts at No 1, a first for both the New York quartet and their British record label, XL Recordings. One of the year's best releases, it took their thoughtful, Afrobeat-inspired pop into the mainstream. This is partly down to singer Ezra Koenig's idiosyncratic songwriting, which sketches a world bordered by the suburban New Jersey of his youth, the Manhattan that was his home while studying at the Ivy League Columbia University and the band's tour itinerary, which this week takes in the UK. It's also the product of old-fashioned, get-in-the-van hard work. "What I've realised since starting the band is that a truly great idea will just come to you and that requires the muse finding you," says Koenig. "But beyond that, starting a band, recording an album, making it as good as it can be - that's a mixture of inspiration and an incredible amount of elbow grease."

THE ALBUM THAT REMINDS ME OF MY FIRST VISIT TO LONDON

Something Else, the Kinks (1967)

"When I was 14 my family took a trip to London, which was the first and only trip we took together outside of the US. For some reason, we had to go to Waterloo station and my dad told me there was a song by the Kinks about people who meet there, then he played it for me when we got home. I associate it with this exotic feeling I had when I was there. At the time London seemed like a totally mystical place and lived up to my expectations of Englishness. I grew up in New Jersey, so mid-60s Kinks albums seemed like a pure fantasy world. The themes of this one are quite grown-up – it's wistful and sentimental. I also like 'Two Sisters', which is about a woman who is jealous of her carefree, single sister but realises that the stability she has in her family life is more valuable. That's such a different kind of song to listen to when you're 14, as opposed to the stuff on pop radio about love and sex."

MY AWKWARD TEENAGE YEARS

Original Soundtrack, Rushmore (1999)

"I know it's not cool to go with a soundtrack album but, if I'm honest, this is hugely influential. The film is so wrapped up with my teenage years; when I first saw it I was the same age as the main character and I was somewhat terrified of being somebody like that. To see someone who's so nerdy and yet full of himself is frightening at that age. You wonder, 'Do I do things like this?' You become so self-conscious at high school, you worry about what your peers think, you're terrified of looking weird, or being weird. Somehow the soundtrack represents those feelings. There's lots of British music on there, like the Faces' "Ooh La La" and "Making Time" by the Creation. I grew up in a very small town, so a lot of kids I went to school with mostly listened to rap and rock from the radio. But I did have a group of friends who appreciated films like Rushmore and music like this."

GOING TO UNIVERSITY

Endtroducing, DJ Shadow (1996)

"This was such a good introduction to sampling, and the idea that modern music could be made from the past. It inspired me in a big way. I applied to Harvard, and I wrote an essay about Endtroducing. It was based around the idea that bringing things together in this way could be applied to all art forms. I went to Columbia University because I knew I wanted to go to a school that was academically rigorous. I prided myself on getting good grades but I also hated it. I used to wonder why I was busting my ass at calculus when I was interested in the arts, but I felt that there was a relationship between working hard at school and taking your dreams seriously. I still think that if you're excited about something, you have to work at it."

THE BEGINNINGS OF VAMPIRE WEEKEND

Liege & Lief, Fairport Convention (1969)

"I played British and Irish folk in an early band I had. We only performed one show and Rostam [Batmanglij, Vampire Weekend multi-instrumentalist] was also in the group, so this was the roots of Vampire Weekend. We covered 'Matty Groves' from this album. It's a traditional song about adultery, anger and sex, and I thought it was cool that they could take ancient-sounding stories and make them relevant. It's an important lesson – if you want to reinvent the wheel, maybe pop music isn't for you. As much as it's about being progressive, it's also rooted in a certain respect for the form. Which might seem paradoxical, but that's what pop music is – it combines very old ideas with very new sounds. Fairport are an example of that, taking very old songs in the English language and reinventing them."

MAKING OUR CURRENT ALBUM

Incredibad, the Lonely Island (2009)

"They're a fake rap posse from Saturday Night Live. When we were working on Contra we enjoyed this, because it's so funny. We often use humour to deal with the difficulties of our lifestyle and listening to this was a better way to get in a good mood than listening to any other kind of music. I was struck by the way their love of music came through. Being a music fan is goofy. It's about amassing all this useless knowledge, but you do it because there's something about it you love. Some people take that and turn it into something more serious. The Lonely Island turn it into something funny."


Listen to this playlist on Spotify

Contributor

Gareth Grundy

The GuardianTramp

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