SPRING LAKE AND SEA GIRT, New Jersey — “Every time we talked about this video, it had something to do with the beach,” said Ezra Koenig , frontman for the year’s pre-eminent new pop-rock band. “We’re not fans of being too literal, but it is called ’Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,’ and so I think it makes sense that part of it takes place on the beach.”
So that’s where I found Vampire Weekend, the improbable breakthrough boys , sitting on the porch of a handsome home on the Jersey Shore, looking out at the Atlantic Ocean. On day two of the video shoot — “the longest shoot we’ve done” — they were decked out in standard-issue VW gear: Polo, Lacoste, Sperry. Even I rocked J.Crew threads. But not for long.
Mere hours later, performing on a secluded nearby beach after dark, it was Vampire Weekend like you have never seen them before — sporting a look more in keeping with their “Twilight”-ready name. With white faces, spiked hair and black outfits, suddenly our Columbia grads were a Misfits cover band, prepsters turned Goths: Chris Tomson at a black drum kit, bassist Chris Baio in black lips, Rostam Batmanglij at a black harpsichord surrounded by candles, and Koenig with a getup reminiscent of Robert Smith of the Cure. Or Siouxsie Sioux.
(Get a behind-the-scenes look at the set visit, in our Newsroom blog.)
How did they get that way? Well, there’s the story line — something VW have not done until now. “I think with this one we consciously decided … we’ve done fairly abstract videos in the past, in that there’s no narrative,” Koenig said. “We thought maybe it’d be fun if there were actual characters.” Koenig first came up with rough ideas for those characters and images for the video as far back as a year ago, but as with the band’s last clip, the farm-set “Oxford Comma,” it was director Richard Ayoade who helped, in Koenig’s words, “to take vague ideas and turn them into a story. We used to shy away from anything that even came close to ’acting’ in videos, but in this one there is interaction among people, so in that sense it is more of a story. There are preppy people in it and non-preppy people in it. So it was a chance to have some of our friends come be in the video.”
One of those friends is a red-haired goth girl who connects with the band and figures into their ghoulish transformation. She’s played by Batmanglij’s friend Jenny Murray and looks like she could’ve stepped right out of a John Hughes movie. “We should also mention that this video is set in the ’80s,” he told me. “It’s the first time we’ve done a video not set in the present. And we actually mentioned John Hughes in talking about this. I think there’s a Tim Burton element as well.”
None of which — apart from the beach setting — has anything to do with the song itself. “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” is one of VW’s earliest works — first appearing for download on the band’s Web site and on their MySpace in August 2006. With its easygoing, Congolese-influenced sound and lyrical mentions of linens and sweaters and Benetton, it’s the one Vampire Weekend song that more than any other led to that “Afropop” tag they have been unable to shake ever since. Still, for the video, there’s not a dashiki in sight.
“That might also be too literal. Just because it references Africa in title and musically, we didn’t want to be heavy-handed,” Koenig explained.
The song also references a certain English rock star, in the line “It feels so unnatural, Peter Gabriel too” (a line, by the way, which the guys say they will use again in a forthcoming VW song, oddly enough), and according to recent reports, not only is Mr. Gabriel himself a fan of the band, but it looks like he may actually cover “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa.” “We don’t want to confirm anything until it’s on iTunes Music Store,” Koenig said, “but that’s an idea that’s been floated around before ’cause it seems so perfect. But yeah, it looks like it’s happening.”
This marks the fourth single and video for the boys — rare even for established artists these days, and almost unheard of for a band on their first album. But far from being bored by it, Baio told me, “since we devote so much time to touring, when we do something different like this, it is an exciting thing.” Added Batmanglij, “That’s the kind of band we are. We’re interested in visuals, and it’s a treat for us to get to do this.” But he added that those rumors that there may be a video for every song on the album are just that. “There may be one more, or maybe two, but we do want to move on to working on new music.”
To that end, on a recent tour break the band recorded one new song, and they’ve been playing another one in their set in recent months, which they’re still calling “Untitled Song #2.” Plus, Koenig has a Word document full of bits and pieces of lyrical ideas. But there is time. The year is only seven months old and it’s been a remarkable ride already for Vampire Weekend: Spin, “Saturday Night Live,” the SXSW, Coachella and Bonnaroo festivals, a rain-soaked hometown show in Central Park, “FNMTV” and this weekend’s Pitchfork fest, followed by Japan, Australia, and Reading and Leeds.
But there is one obvious gig they have yet to play: Cape Cod. No band has celebrated the preppy peninsula more than VW, so how about playing there?
“It doesn’t look like it’s gonna be this summer, and in some ways that serves them right,” Koenig said. “Because we tried last summer for Cape Cod but, you know, nobody wanted us at the time. We hope to get there at some point.”
C’mon, P-town, Wellfleet, Hyannis — get it together!