Sept. 25 2013 08:08 AM

New York City indie-rock band graduates to stadium status

From left: Chris Thomson, Chris Baio, Rostam Batmanglij and Ezra Koenig
Photo by Alex John Beck

Every generation has its iconic arena-rock band. In the early ’80s, Van Halen brought spandex, guitar wizardry and the hammy theatrics of Diamond Dave to stadium stages. In the ’90s, Bono donned his Mr. MacPhisto costume and sang while surrounded by giant screens on U2’s massive ZOO TV tour.

Yet in 2013, when the biggest touring “rock” band of the moment is, perplexingly, Mumford and Sons, there’s another, more unconventional candidate for taking over coliseum stages: Vampire Weekend.

The sartorially gifted New York City indie rockers are unlikely to line their stage with pyrotechnics or offer a groupie finder’s fee to stage hands. And the band’s music— which ranges from African highlife-inspired indie rock to string-laden chamber pop—tends not to pair well with explosive guitar solos or elaborate cable suspension à la Bon Jovi. But after releasing their debut single, “Mansard Roof,” in 2007, the band’s made a gradual ascent toward mainstream success. Their new album, Modern Vampires of the City, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard album chart in May, having sold 134,000 copies in its first week. And this fall, Vampire Weekend—who’ll play the SDSU Open Air Theatre with Sky Ferreira on Monday, Sept. 30—will embark on their first headlining arena tour.

From the outside, this move upward might seem intimidating for a group that got its start in underground clubs, but bass player Chris Baio is eager to make the transition.

“I guess you could view that as a daunting thing,” Baio says. “I think it’s very exciting. I think we’re going to try to maybe do a song or two in a sort of bigger interpretation. We were talking in the U.K. of bringing out some kind of special musicians, not just a standard extra player, but maybe doing something different. I can’t say it’s something that affects the album-making process. Maybe once we start playing bigger venues, we’ll feel that, but I kind of doubt that.”

As Vampire Weekend’s audience has expanded, their music has grown more lush and sophisticated. In contrast to the spunky, youthful sounds of their debut, or the more prominent electronics of their second album, Contra, Modern Vampires of the City finds the band exploring deeper layers and a more nuanced approach. On “Obvious Bicycle,” singer Ezra Koenig gives a dynamic vocal performance against a spare backdrop of piano and Chris Thomson’s minimal drums, while “Step” has the band taking on a harpsichord-driven baroque-pop sound.

The album has its moments of high-energy mischief, such as brief, upbeat single “Diane Young,” but that track is less characteristic of the album’s sound than a track like “Hannah Hunt,” which builds slowly from a sparse arrangement into a dynamic burst of dreamy pop with an added dose of sonic Easter eggs.

“Every time we make a record, we don’t want to repeat ourselves too much,” Baio says. “We want to feel like each record is kind of its own fresh world that we’ve created. In terms of certain sounds that we wanted to explore more fully or differently than on Contra, we found piano to feel very fresh and exciting to us, and [we] definitely have a lot less guitar on this record. And when there was guitar, we wanted it to sound pretty differently than it did on our previous two records.”

In order to create a different-sounding album, Vampire Weekend changed their recording approach. Koenig and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij wrote and did some early tracking for the album in a guest house in Martha’s Vineyard, and when it came time to flesh out the songs, the band recorded to a vintage analog Ampex machine in a studio in Los Angeles.

The band also incorporated techniques like using a varispeed tape deck to record at slower speeds, so that playback would have a higher pitch.

Baio says that recording to tape “gave a definite warmth to the rhythm section.”

“Anything that we work on, I think we like the idea of there being an immediacy to it, but also that it rewards repeated listening and, I guess deeper listening,” he says. “We want it to sound good on tinny ear buds but also sound good on a good system. And with this record, I think it’s definitely our warmest-sounding.”

As far as Vampire Weekend has traveled, and as big as they’ve become in such a short time, it seemed only a remote possibility that they’d be where they are now. As Baio says, just headlining one of the bigger clubs in New York City was an aspirational goal.

“When we first started playing, we thought it would be cool to sell out Bowery Ballroom,” Baio says. “And I thought it would be really ambitious if we ever sold 100,000 copies of a record. That was the far limit of what I could imagine.

“The rest was just a cherry on top.”

Email or follow him at @1000TimesJeff