Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on why he never made it as a rapper

And I see some dismissive critic saying, “Well, Vampire Weekend is back on their bullshit.” (Laughs) It’s been six years since Vampire Weekend released their last album and heaps has changed for lead singer Ezra Koenig. He’s now a dad, he’s got a one-year-old with long term girlfriend Rashida Jones. Also, he’s moved here, sunny Los Angeles. – Thanks so much for doing this.
– My pleasure. Before we get into your music career I wanted to go right, right back. Cause I understand there was a period of time where you were an 8th grade english teacher? Oh yeah, that’s right. What kind of teacher were you? Were you a particularly strict teacher? Were you a particularly casual teacher? Evaluate yourself as if you were a student. Well, it was kind of bewildering. So I don’t even know what I was doing. I was 23, which is certainly a lot older than an 8th grader. But then in retrospect, sometimes the kids would just roast me. Just say wild shit about my girlfriend or something. I’d just have to turn my head. I’d just have to be like, and then come back. “Go to the principal.” I did try and like, reassert myself because it was just so beyond. My mum was a high school teacher, so I was raised in an environment where you could tell mum was employing her teacher training on me and my brother. Right, ’cause sometimes you have to broadcast authority. Even when you don’t feel it. This might be a dumb question and I’m sure it’s come up before but have you ever had a ‘Sliding Doors’ moment where you’ve been like “What if I had stayed doing that?” Yeah, ’cause music’s the type of job that you constantly want to quit. So that was probably one of the hardest years of my life just because of the sheer amount of work. As a teacher, Monday through Friday, waking up at 7am. Going to get my coffee at the bodega, walking to school. Teaching all day, it’s a very stressful environment. Fun but also stressful. Going home, feeling exhausted. I would take the bus to go record the Vampire Weekend album, I would play shows. Then a couple of Saturdays a month I had to go to graduate school for my teaching masters at Pace University. But the only way I could have done that stuff, you just have this kind of enthusiasm. It was hard but you were young and excited and the idea of expressing yourself with an album That propels you forward. Also, Vampire Weekend, I admittedly never quite articulated this. It’s so just fundamentally absurd. With songs with titles like ‘Oxford Comma’ or something. The way we dress, the fact that the first album had any success at all. You can imagine that it was like, “Wait, what? what?!” This is crazy. I think a lot of people heard the first Vampire Weekend album and thought “This is a novelty album.” Yeah, no, no, I think there was a little bit of that. It was like college, preppy dress up and we were like mmm ok. So anyway, those first two albums had so much youthful energy and ambition and excitement and surprise at the opportunity and fear of losing that opportunity. Then you get to the third album, it was very difficult to make. It was made in a very difficult period. Why was ‘Modern Vampires’ hard? Why was it stressful? Started reflecting a little bit, I think on a very basic level I was just depressed. Sometimes you just have years, I think we’ve all been there, years you don’t know exactly why you feel empty or chasing that feeling on like this will finally make me happy or something. Increasingly, the older you get, look at it like it’s an addiction or something. Where you’re just like, “Oh, no no no, dude that’s not going to make you happy.” “Please don’t put so many eggs in that basket.” It’s a weird transitional moment. One of the things you did in the interim was you campaigned with Bernie Sanders I guess I’m curious at why that mattered so much in that moment? The Democrats and the Republicans share a few too many things in common to make you feel comfortable. To see an independent run in the Democratic party that was really exciting. It was interesting to see how excited people got about Bernie, like young people. Especially because he’s not doing that whole press run where they’re like “What kinda hip hop you into, Bernie?” That’s just not him. To see the sheer number of people who came together for things that, in my lifetime, we were kinda told were niche ideas. My dad was in a union and we got a scholarship from his union that contributed to me being able to go to Columbia and stuff. Maybe the Twitter trauma from that election makes me a little less enthusiastic. This time, some of the way people talk to each other on Twitter, I just can’t watch it. It sort of enables a fast twitch muscle, whoever can respond angriest or meanest or snarkiest the first, it actually rewards those instincts. The funny thing is, I don’t think anyone disagrees with that. – Including people at Twitter, I think.
– Yeah, right. It was just kinda a bad vibe. Something about you that people might not necessarily know is that before Vampire Weekend you put a lot of effort into rap. You used to be in like rap battles? Yeah, a little bit, yeah. One of the things I’ve heard you say is that you struggled to find your voice in rap and I was wondering if you could explain to me what you mean by that? Well, it’s funny, I mean at the time. Whenever I said that I was probably thinking in some pretentious, artistic way That like, I didn’t the artistic vision I wanted to communicate through the medium of rap. The thing about it now as an older person is that it might be as simple as I couldn’t help but to change my accent Like, people talk about that a lot now, use the phrase “blaccent” And it is probably something everyone who is not black should think about. Borrowing words or ways of speaking that you don’t use. That’s fundamentally dishonest. You could go as far as calling it racist. These are hot button topics You can love hip hop without making that your identity. It might be as simple as being like, “Yeah, I shouldn’t rap.” That might be the first step. Most of this album has been obviously written over the last six years but one of the things that has happened in the interim is that you’ve become a dad. What’s the biggest thing that’s surprised you about that process? Something that you didn’t expect. It’s such an interesting mix of the absolutely exceptional and the most mundane. I truly feel like I’m the high school dad. It’s been like, we’re having a baby – that’s weird – but I’m still going to make sure I graduate. (Laughs) I will make that album release date. I just know so many older people that don’t have children. It’s why I like to work in homey, chill environments because I know the best ideas I’ve ever come up with in my life were on the bus, taking a walk, buying a cup of cheap coffee. Sitting around with an unplugged electric guitar, a shitty one. The best ideas I’ve ever come up with in my life happen in environments like that. So, in that sense it’s not surprising that I wanted to take a few of years off from even thinking about music. So I could at least, somehow, get back to feeling because that is truly the part of me I always liked. – Ezra, it was lovely to meet you.
– Yeah, likewise.

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