Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig sits down with Zane Lowe on Apple Music 1 ahead of the release of their new album ‘Only God Was Above Us.’

Koenig defines what it means to be a band, wanting to let go of the desire to control things and why they aren’t afraid to take their time between new albums, saying “once the record's out it's as if the time vanishes anyway, so you might as well make it good.” He also talks about their new album being inspired by an architectural photo series by Steven Siegel, why its important to balance confidence and awkwardness, the human tendency to be collaborative, and what he was like as an 8th grade teacher.

Ezra Koenig on the album title being inspired by an old Steve Siegel photograph…

Sometimes it's hard enough to find one image that feels appropriate, but then to find a whole batch of images and then footage all from this one guy, Steven Siegel. And my understanding is he didn't become a photographer or a filmmaker as his main profession, but even the stuff he was doing as a young guy, he clearly had an artist's eye. So he both captured a time and a place funky New York in the eighties, but also with this touch of surrealism. That's what made it really special.

On what it means to be a band...

It'd be reasonable to say what does it mean to be a band? And there are times where that question was easier to answer than others, but for me, I always knew there was something meaningful about it. I always appreciated the faith the other guys have had in me and the freedom they've given me over the years to pursue however I want to work in the studio, whoever I want to work with.

And yet I’ve also always known that Vampire Weekend would never quite be one of those bands that where it’s kind of like a solo project called a band, because there is something too meaningful about the way that we come together as an organization, as a live act. And yeah, there’s something nice about on this record, the fact that a song like Gen X Cops, it’s a demo. It means CT [Chris Thompson] started years and years ago. And it’s also a reminder, it’s like, you know what? This band can be anything. It’s held together by the three original members, but Ariel [Rechtshaid] is a huge part of it. Other musicians can be a huge part of it. We have these different modes and I think now that we’ve been doing it long enough, it all just feels kind of right.

On nerding out over artists’ discographies...

Look, my number one favorite thing, I love music like everybody but if I had to define my specific way in, some people, they get into music through live music. Some people, they get into it because they love singles. I’ve always been interested in discographies. I’m the person, like a lot of people, they go to a celebrity’s Wikipedia page, they’re bee-lining it for personal life because they want to find out if they have kids, if they get divorced, all that. Me, I’d be I’d bee-line it for discography before I even read about the history of the band, because that’s the story, that’s the form I’m interested in. I’m a pretty laid-back person but if somebody ever asks friends, “Which came out first? ‘Born in the USA’ or in ‘Nebraska?’”

What was it? ‘Yeezus’ or ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy?’ I’d be like, “Come on.” Yeah, I’ll do the bomb side effect. Anyway, these are the things that, and many music nerds can relate, I’m not unique in this but that’s our way in. So also, to be able to tell a story through albums, there needs to be tension and release.

On not bowing to the pressure to release an album every year…

I was classic overthinking, neurotic person, worried about like, "Oh God, what if this all goes away? Whatever." And especially when you're young, it really feels important, get that follow up going pretty soon. It felt like when I think about how much pressure we put on ourselves or certainly I put on myself for ‘Contra.’ I was obsessed with the idea that our first album was '08, ‘Contra’ has got to be '09. Looking back, who cares? But whatever. That was important. Then at the last minute, the label was like, "How about January, 2010?" I just remember being like, "Oh my God. All right, all right." They dropped a bomb on me. That felt like a big deal at the time because it also was all I thought about. And then I've also realized whether you take six, five years between records, whatever, once the record's out it's as if the time vanishes anyway, so you might as well make it good.

On teaching 8th grade in Brooklyn before his band took off...

Ezra Koenig: You can't really work, I guess, because there's times where you can't work and whatever. Also, to look at that as a gift because on the one hand, to do something like music, it's so amazing. It's like to me I get to do essentially a hobby as a job, and you have to remind yourself... I remember what it was like to have a real job. I taught eighth grade in Brooklyn for a year and I was like, how old was I, 22, 23. I was waking up at 7:15 every morning was insane.

Zane Lowe: Tough grade too. That's an identity-forming grade. I mean, that's a moment when kids are testing every boundary they can from inside their home to inside their classroom.

Ezra Koenig: Oh, yeah. I have a pretty good sense of humor, so they never hurt my feelings, but they tried to.

Zane Lowe: What were you like? Could you ever... I mean, I got it because we haven't... Were you a disciplinarian or were you pretty chill?

Ezra Koenig: You know, I know how to raise my voice and stuff.

Zane Lowe: Damn. I've never heard that before.

Ezra Koenig: Me raise my voice?

Zane Lowe: Well, I guess you've never had a reason to. I mean, I've never asked you any question... I'm trying to think what question I would ask Ezra now to make him raise his voice.

Ezra Koenig: But even then I wouldn't be yelling. I'd just be like, "Sit down", or whatever. You just got to be heard some time, but I'm just saying that was a real job and it's high stakes and it was stressful and I was tired all the time.

Zane Lowe: With respect to the teaching community, it is to me the great unsung occupation on this planet.

Ezra Koenig: Yeah, no, it's a hard job and it's hard for the kids. It really is difficult. I'm just saying that's a real job. So if I ever feel like I have a little too much free time now I have to remind myself-

Zane Lowe: Could have been teaching those eighth grade kids.

Ezra Koenig: Teaching was harder than this. My parents' and grandparents' jobs were a lot harder than what I'm doing. So anyway, I try to embrace that and be grateful for the free time.

On balancing confidence and awkwardness…

Zane Lowe: You were one cigarette shy from rockstar behavior when you were doing A-Punk on stage back then it was like, "All right, we're going to do it, 1, 2, 3."

Ezra Koenig: A little bit.

Zane Lowe: There was a posturing going on back then.

Ezra Koenig: But also the truth is there's never been a version of Vampire Weekend that really hit the middle of the cool place.

Zane Lowe: I fundamentally disagree.

Ezra Koenig: No. But I'm not being, I don't have imposter syndrome, I don't think.

Zane Lowe: I know you're not quoting for sympathy, but I just disagree with that statement.

Ezra Koenig: All I'm saying is part of Vampire Weekend was always looking at what was supposed to be cool and doing something slightly different. On the most basic level, when we came out, those early songs, they weren't, the guitar tone was pretty clean. Referencing Paul Simon or something was not exactly rock and roll, even though he's amazing. Even the clothes were not rock and roll, they were kind of clean cut. I understood that even with these earliest ideas of Vampire Weekend, some people would find it fresh and some people would find it dorky. That's a place I like to go to sometimes because also what somebody finds dorky one year, they might find cool the next year, but again, like the... Vampire Weekend, yeah, I don't know. Sometimes I talk about with the guys, we always need to have an amateur quality to really be us. There needs to be a slight awkward quality. I don't know. It's a duality. There needs to be confidence and awkwardness at the same time.

On humans being naturally collaborative and whether producer Ariel Rechsthiad is officially in the band...

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PW: AppleMusic

Ezra Koenig: So you look at these crews of people who worked together and I don't know, maybe it wasn't always easy, obviously in the solo artist case, one person is the boss and one person is the face. But you look behind the scenes and you're like, that was a group of people, just like the Oscars or something, people up there thanking their team, or the actor or something are thanking all the cast and the crew. And you're like, right, because as much as you are the person with Louis Vuitton campaign and the perfume deal and stuff, probably every day the person is talking to somebody who they're bouncing ideas off of or something. And anyway, I guess if you try to turn it into some kind of life thing, it's like, yeah, human beings are naturally collaborative.

Zane Lowe: Yeah, we're inclined to work together even though we make it very hard for ourselves to do that. Sometimes we create all kinds of barriers between that experience. I don't know why. I don't know what's flawed in our system that makes us get in our own way.

Ezra Koenig: Yeah, everybody's got some inner conflict. But when I think about somebody like Ariel, it's like whether he's in the band, not in the band, whether-

Zane Lowe: I thought we just established he's in the band because everything's a band.

Ezra Koenig: Until he gets the chain. Yeah, no, no. Right. Exactly. Whether we call him a member of Vampire Weekend, just like we don't call our managers members of Vampire Weekend, we don't call the people at the label members of Vampire Weekend. But is it a huge group effort that involves relationships now in this phase going back well over a decade sometimes, yeah. And so it's almost like bigger than a band.

On the meaning behind their new song, “Hope”…

I think it's where ultimately everybody is heading, which is some sort of acceptance, surrender, letting go. That's what the song says, "I hope you let it go." And there's times in the song where it's talking about your enemy, our enemy, my enemy. But I think with every song, you're ultimately kind of speaking to yourself in some sense. And especially now, you look at all the pain and agitation in the world, which is basically a constant and the kind of seemingly endless disappointment. And you talk to so many people who feel like, "Well, when's it going to let up?" They feel like, "Well, that year was..." Remember everybody said 2016 was the worst year ever? There's always something like that where people are like, "Well, 2020 is the worst year ever." But again, if you have that worst year ever mentality, you're going to find a lot of worst years ever, and you're going to be let down over and over again. And so this feeling of when's it going to let up and sometimes it never lets up.

On letting go of the desire to control things...

Zane Lowe: What are you excited about letting go of and freeing up space to focus on for the rest of your life?

Ezra Koenig: The most basic answer would be letting go of the desire to control things, which is a bit what anxiety is, which obviously one of the number one thing you and me and everyone we know suffers from, some form of anxiety and some people depression as well. But what is anxiety other than your brain trying to control, trying to do you a favor, control things. But then you kind of realize that that can sometimes be more trouble than it's worth. So I think that's the number one thing. And I also think too, these things are a facet of life. Like I talked about, "Why was I so anxious to get a record out in 2009?" Looking back, that would've been a bad idea. There were all these other big indie albums in '09, I don't want to be a part of that, it would've been terrible. ‘Contra’ was made to come out in 2010 and yet this anxiety, because it was probably some sense of, "What will happen to me? What will happen to the band if we don't do things correctly?" And so I think leaving behind that anxiety and increasingly having some form of faith, which is a belief that things will be okay. And also I think to some extent, having kids is helpful too, because you realize, people ask you all the time, "Well, what would you hope for your kids? What would you hope for them?" And you can't say, "Well, I really hope they get a PhD in neuroscience." You can't be specific, because people are their own people.