Vampire Weekend keyboardist/vocalist Rostam Batmanglij has news for people who have dismissed his band's self-titled debut album as little more than a ripoff of Paul Simon's Graceland album.
"We actually met Paul Simon and I asked him if he thought our record sounded like Graceland," says Batmanglij. "He said no. He said there was like a West African feeling to a lot of the guitars. But he said there was a punk element that he had never chosen to pursue. It was very cool that he could have that perspective to describe things so objectively."
As a group of musicians who met while attending Columbia College in New York City, the authenticity of the group's multi-cultural musical influences was often called into question, even as Vampire Weekend became the biggest buzz band of 2008.
But Batmanglij says the group — which also includes singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig, bassist Chris Baio and drummer Christopher Tomson — didn't dial back on the world beat influences for its new album, Contra. If anything, he figures the record offers up a wider range of musical arrangements and tempos, and that they feel more natural than on the first album.
When asked to compare the group's freshman and sophomore efforts, Batmanglij characterizes the band's development in terms of bringing together a blend of musical extremes.
"I remember someone told us that they thought our first record was perfect driving music," he explains. "I think part of the reason for that was we were obsessed with keeping the momentum alive, and having just like a simple bass drum thumping, like four on the floor or just like not having any kind of quiet moments or small moments."
Contra is, on the whole, a bumpier ride. While the first Vampire Weekend album incorporated a fairly steady stream of African, ska and other world beat rhythms into its pop formula, this new one brings the emphasis on rhythm to a whole new level of prominence.
"On this record," notes Batmanglij, "we have a combination of some of our craziest moments and also some of our most subdued."
Ironically, this album also ventures into the realm of Jamaican ska on a number of tracks, which is another of the oft-cited influences on the first album that Batmanglij believes was hugely exaggerated. But amped-up ska rhythms definitely figure into the arrangements of new songs like "Holiday."
"I think if we flirted with Jamaican music on the first record, now we've sort of consummated that flirtation on this record," says Batmanglij. "On this record there are moments you can definitely call ska, and there are moments that are reggae. It's our own kind of version of it, but I think it is pushing to the extreme. And also, just southern California punk music, we're kissing that genre a little bit with some of these songs."
And yes, there are more African-styled rhythms, especially on songs like "White Sky" and "Horchata," that will surely extend the shelf life of those Paul Simon comparisons.
"I think it's a huge part [of the album]," admits Batmanglij. "There are grooves and guitar lines on this record that are very African. But that's just part of the way we think about arranging music."