Vampire Weekend Take Their Preppy, Indie Afropop To The Billboard Top 20, By John Norris

Young New York band crashes onto chart at #17 after splashy launch week.

Even in these anemic times for the music business, when formerly piddling weekly sales of 50-60,000 can earn an artist the #1 spot on the albums chart, there are weeks when something jumps out at you.

On next week’s chart, what catches your eye (what caught mine, at least) is #17: There, in between Sara Bareilles and Sugarland, racking up more than 27,000 sales in its opening week, is young New York quartet Vampire Weekend. Weak market or not, it’s hardly a normal showing for a debut record from an indie band.

You might want to put an asterisk next to “indie” in this case, though, because while it is the first release from the proudly preppy world-pop quartet, and while they are signed to the British independent powerhouse XL Recordings, everything else about the hoopla that last week surrounded VW’s self-titled arrival feels like that of a much larger act — like, for example, a little outfit called Radiohead, who are British labelmates of Vampire Weekend. But maybe in a music business with a more level playing field, we’ll be seeing things like this more often.

“Yeah, I think it’s a sign o’ the times”, concurs Vampire Weekend drummer Chris Tomson. “While a label like XL is considered a so-called ‘indie,’ they very much have their finger on the pulse. And they can do a lot more than they could five or 10 years ago. I think it’s just a much more level playing field. Someone told us it’s like the wild, wild West out there.”

I’ll say. XL lived up to its name for VW. How’s this for an “extra large” debut: featured spots on MTV, MTV2, MTVU and (not just this article) MTVNews.com; NPR’s new buzzed about “Bryant Park Project”; items in a myriad magazines, including a still-unconfirmed, upcoming cover of a major music publication; a midnight in-store performance on the eve of the record’s release at the Virgin Megastore in Union Square; and an appearance on David Letterman. Plus there are the videos: the frenetic new drum-pounding “A-Punk,” and a couple of new “Takeaway Show” clips shot in Paris for the home of handheld hipsterdom, French Web site La Blogotheque.

It’s not as though the boys are complete newcomers — at least not in the blog realm, where they have been a hot topic for the better part of a year, not long after they emerged from New York’s Columbia University.

But true to their self-effacing nature, VW play down all the current spate of high profile-ness. Persian producer and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij would only say, “I don’t know what to make of it all, really. We’ll just take it as it comes, I guess. What I am excited about is tonight.”

“Tonight” was last Tuesday night, the first of two hometown shows at the band’s favorite venue, New York’s Bowery Ballroom, to kick off their biggest tour to date. The trek includes shows at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts and the Andy Warhol Museum in Pittsburgh — shows they’re particularly looking forward to, because, according to Batamanglij, “We never really liked playing rock clubs that much. Or, speaking for myself, I prefer playing somewhere more unconventional, like our early shows at house parties. I think that just seemed to fit what we were trying to get across better.”

Now that the spotlight has at least momentarily translated to record sales, putting VW only a few chart spots behind Hannah Montana — seriously! — the days of house parties may be behind them. But with hype come haters especially for the prepster lightning rods that VW have become. Not just detractors, mind you — the band has fired-up, teeth-gnashing haters, who for some reason become perfectly apopletic over the sound of bright pop music or the sight of a pair of Topsiders.

Well, haters, just try to drive a stake through their hearts. “I kinda like the haters,” said VW bassist Chris Baio. “We were on the YouTube front page today so we got a lot of people seeing our video that never did before, and we got a lot of new hater comments on there. It’s sort of funny and entertaining to read people that say they want to punch us in the face, beat us up or something like that.”

“There’s always gonna be haters”, added frontman Ezra Koenig, who dryly noted that he looks to hip-hop for consolation. “There’s some Dizzee Rascal [British rapper] song that apparently has some quote about haters that someone said might be helpful. I’ve been meaning to look that up. Also there’s this other song by this guy Wes Fif from Decatur, Georgia, called ‘Haterz (Everywhere).’ It’s kind of appropriate that it’s out now.”

Here’s some more red meat for the haters. “At Letterman, we got to meet Paris Hilton,” Baio proclaimed. “My friend gave her our CD, so we’ll see if we get any feedback.”

“She’s a musician too!” Koenig added. “Her song ‘Stars Are Blind’ is actually really good, so … we didn’t really have much time to talk when she passed us in the hallway. But maybe we’ll collaborate in the future,” he said dryly.

Until that unlikely collabo comes to pass, the boys are gradually working on new material. After all, some of the Vampire Weekend tunes that a larger world is just now discovering have actually been around for almost two years. That was when four Columbia students with a taste for African-styled pop placed third in a campus battle-of-the-bands contest. Just look at ‘em now! It’s an auspicious launch for a fresh, peppy record the likes of which we haven’t heard on American pop radio in decades — and so far, it seems to be paying off.