(NOT) OUT OF AFRICA
December 4, 2008
By ROBERT BIESELIN
WHO: Vampire Weekend with Ra Ra Riot.
WHAT: Indie rock.
WHEN: 8 p.m. Monday.
WHERE: Wellmont Theatre, 5 Seymour St., Montclair; 877-935-5668 or wellmonttheatre.com.
HOW MUCH: $25.
LISTEN: myspace.com/vampire weekend.
The bassy thump and tinny pit-a-pat of African drums rise out of a riverside clearing bounded by a jungle. At the center of the sound, four young men smile, eager to use the beats and melodies to relay the stories of their lives. Inhabitants of the village clearing embrace the music, and the young men, smart and charming, soon become popular outside of the tightknit village. They tour the world.
It sounds like the bio of some Malian musician, perhaps Ali "Farka" Tourborn in a village on the banks of the Niger River and once called "the DNA of the blues" by Martin Scorsese. Not even close.
The river is the Hudson. The clearing is the campus of Columbia University on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. And the band is Vampire Weekend, a preppy group of white fellows with a penchant for Afrobeat-tinged pop-rock, once called the "whitest band" of the moment by Christian Lander, founder of stuffwhitepeoplelike.com.
"It is what it is," said drummer Chris Tomson, defending the band's background and influences during a recent phone interview. "That is where we came from and that is where we formed. It's not like something we want to hide. There are thousands of bands that formed in college."
Unlike thousands of college-born bands, however, Vampire Weekend grabbed the indie world by the ear, building a huge blog buzz even before its infectious self-titled debut was released in January. In no time the foursome went from "sleeping on the balcony after class" to filling midlevel venues like New York's Terminal 5 and the Wellmont Theatre in Montclair, where they'll be playing Monday.
But with this seemingly overnight success came the inevitable criticism that you'd expect to greet attractive young Ivy League up-and-comers singing about Upper West Side affairs over sub-Saharan drums. To understand, you have to hear the tunes that have gotten the group named "the year's best new band" (Spin) and been simultaneously panned as trust-fund frat anthems: Imagine what Paul Simon's "Graceland" would sound like if you dressed it up in a $200 Ralph Lauren cardigan and made it funnel a $5 latte in a Cape Cod Starbucks.
According to Tomson, a New Jersey native, the contrast wasn't intentional. They weren't supposed to be polarizing.
"There were no real specific things that we were looking for when making the record. The general idea was to not sound like a rock band," he said. "There are many influences in there. We love African music, but there are many other things that we love that are present in the music as well."
Nevertheless, Tomson and his band mates Ezra Koenig, Rostam Batmanglij and Chris Baio know how the buzz machine works. With a first post-collegiate album soon to be in the works, they hope to cast it all aside and not let a critique of their influences become an influence in its own right.
"When the album first came out it was interesting and exciting to see what Rolling Stone or [PitchforkMedia.com] had to say about it," Tomson said. "But after that, after a lot of people started weighing in, we realized that wouldn't be the healthiest thing to digest the critiques all the time."
For the new album, they plan to go back to the basics, hoping to replicate what won their initial success: a simple life in a quaint and cloistered village on the Upper West Side.
"All that stuff is out of our control," said Tomson. "All we can do is just focus on playing the shows and coming up with music and stick to the things we can control."
Copyright 2008 Bergen Record Corp. All rights reserved.