An Open Letter to Vampire Weekend

You were my first. My first favorite band. I grew up in a town accented by confederate flags with large pickup trucks shouting into the sky for someone, anyone to praise their monument. My incredibly religious parents held strong convictions when I was very young. Being the oldest child, I had to pave the way when it came to movies, music or other culturally dominated forms of art. I remember in middle school taking my iPod to a friend’s house. This particular friend had an older brother with hours of illegally downloaded music my parents would have found explicit and immediately banned me from. (I listened to a lot of TobyMac as a middle schooler if that means anything to anyone.)   

I didn’t instantly grow up with a love for music. I mean, I liked listening to it while I was in the car or mowing the grass, but there was no real relationship. It was just noise — there if I wanted it or absent if not. My small rural high school was not a very culturally literate place to say the least, so my peers’ options of music were limited to Lil Wayne types or pop-country types. Neither of which I liked. I just thought I didn’t like music that much. I remember reading a tweet that lamented something along the lines, “If I had to live in a world without music I would literally die.” This tweet made me laugh.  I couldn’t comprehend someone loving sound that much. You would be just fine, I thought to myself dismissing it as an overly dramatic hyperbole. I started getting into some classic rock, particularly Boston (lol). My dad had one of their CDs and I would sneak it into my room and listen to it on my Walkman under the covers. My friends around me, however, didn’t really understand why I liked “that old shit.” I got made fun of for liking classic rock, so I kept it to myself. I kept a lot of my music to myself. Most of my early high school experience was me feeling like a loner, not understanding my peers around me and anxiously wishing for the day when I could leave for college.

During the spring of my freshman year of high school, in 2010, I went to my friend Jackson’s house. Jackson was older. He was a JMU student and someone I looked up to very much. Jackson would take me skating, buy me fast food and we would play guitar together. He was my best friend and a window into a whole other world that I didn’t know I liked. We were sitting on his porch on this beautiful Harrisonburg, Virginia spring day with trees in bloom and he showed me Spotify for the first time. “It’s like Pandora but way better. You get to pick any song you want to hear!” My jaw dropped. No more sneaking illegal downloads at my friends’ houses or hiding CDs in my room. This was my salvation. He started playing a new album that had just come out by a band called Vampire Weekend. I exhaled a laugh out of my nose when I heard the name thinking that — like this letter — it was extremely pretentious. The first song on that record was a song that referenced horchata and balaclavas, and it was ornamented with smart percussion and an infectious melody.

I was hooked instantly. It might have been the euphoric combination of a cool spring day on a dirty college porch framed by blooming trees and the music blasting through the windows from the inside of the house. But I think it was more than that. I had never heard any music like this before. It resonated with me in that moment in a way that I still don’t think I can describe. I soaked it up like a sponge. I started listening to everything they had released, watched interviews and live performances on YouTube and tried to learn the songs on my guitar. There was something about the songs that made me feel smart, like I was in on something. I felt joy listening to a song about the intricacies of the use of a comma and understanding the Peter Gabriel reference and many others like it.

I bought my first real vinyl record that summer. It was “Contra.” Inside the record was a large poster of the album cover. The iconic photo of a young model at a house party in a yellow Ralph Lauren polo shirt framed by the white, bold Futura font the band has made a signature. The beautiful young girl looks slightly behind the camera as if she is taken by surprise. Harsh light from a flash bounces around her face and casts a shadow on the wall behind her. The photo is extremely intimate. It feels like it could exist on a roll of film from photos I took at a house show down the street. She looks very California ‘80s to me in an oddly specific way. It might be a stretch, but I feel like I could build a backstory of her being a tragic product of privilege that spent her youth in Santa Monica on drugs and booze chasing life (all speculation).

That poster hung in my room until I went to college, and eight years later she still watches over me. I was obsessed with the summerey guitars, the smart synth-pop, the tight bass and Ezra Keonig’s voice above it all. I would obsess over riffs and bass lines trying to figure out exactly what gave it such a grove. This band led me into loving music — I listened to it before school, during school and when I got home. My parents even fell in love with it. My mom and I would sing “Holiday” on the way to the grocery store in our blue Chrysler minivan. I started to understand how people could love music, how someone could have a relationship with it. As time went on I found new bands and started my music maturity, but I never forgot about Vampire Weekend. I quickly morphed into the indie-rock-kid type and there were about five others at my high school to share that prestige with. I started playing more music, taking guitar semi-seriously and becoming thankful for the piano lessons I suffered through as a young boy. I joined my school’s spring musical “Hello Dolly” and started singing in the choir, still trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to be.

The summer before my senior year of high school “Modern Vampires of the City” was supposed to come out and it was the most anticipation I had felt to date for a music release. (The previous winner was “The Carter IV”  by Lil Wayne. I was still clearly finding myself.) The biggest difference from “Contra” and “MVOTC” in my life was that I could drive. I had my own car and everyday that summer I listened to “MVOTC” every time I was in my car and the windows were always down. It was the first time my youth had a soundtrack that I felt like was exclusively mine. Sure, other friends liked the band, but I was known for liking Vampire Weekend as being a part of my identity. I pre-ordered “MVOTC” on CD and also bought a light blue shirt with the Futura bold font and all the band members dressed from the music video “Holiday.” My teachers would often ask what Vampire Weekend was and I would meekly say, “It’s my favorite band.” They would usually respond, “Oh, OK, well that sounds scary.”  The floral pattern from "MVOTC" was my iPhone 4 background and I even had a bow tie (cringe) sporting the same flowers. I even skipped my senior prom to go see the band’s concert in Charlottesville, Virginia. I don’t regret that in the slightest.

Fast forward to 2019 and my life in many ways is centered around music. I am a music director at WXJM-FM 88.7 FM, a member of the MACROCK (Harrisonburg DIY music festival) committee, play in various bands around town, interned at The Bowery Ballroom and am currently studying music more seriously in an academic setting — specifically jazz.  

I haven’t listened to Vampire Weekend much since high school. My music intake has changed a lot since then and I kind of left them behind after a while, so-to-say. I still have the “Contra” record but now it doesn’t live on its own. It shares a shelf with the past eight years of my music-collecting history. Over the past five or so years we haven’t heard much from Vampire Weekend except for a few hints about recording and writing new songs. They drifted from my radar only to reappear on my throwback playlists or my occasional drive back home from school when feeling sentimental. However, news about Vampire Weekend is now seemingly inescapable. For a band that went pretty much dark for so long, they have surged back into the forefront of our collective music consciousness. They released the two hour long YouTube video with the single “Harmony Hall” guitar riff to hype the drop of the first two singles on the new album. I began writing this article the moment after I listened to “Harmony Hall” and “2021,” and since then the name of the album has been officially announced: “Father of The Bride.” Vampire Weekend plans to release two songs per month until the end of March when the entire album is tentatively scheduled to be officially released.

When I heard they were releasing a new album, I was apprehensive. Part of me wished it would just be left alone and I could pack away that part of my life nice and tidy, like Ezra’s posts on Instagram, and reduce it to just being my favorite band in high school. However, that is not the case. In anticipation for the release of the two singles, I listened to the older tracks and instantly went through my whole coming-of-age journey, like I was watching a movie that I had starred in about my own life. I realized that this band shaped me in a lot of obvious ways and in some less explicit. It gave me validation for who I was. That I could be proud of being smart and odd, and that music could be so different and so good. I love the mystery surrounding the band and Ezra, the way everything is cryptic and like a puzzle. It was challenging to figure out the message. It wasn’t in your face, it assumed I had intelligence. It challenged me and I chased that. I asked my friend Jackson, that spring day in 2010, “Do you know any other bands with smart lyrics like Vampire Weekend?” My journey began.

There is no way I can objectively assess the new album because there is too much warm nostalgia tied up in it. Even with just the first two singles, it feels like I’m returning home after a long journey. In a lot of ways it feels like my drive home to my parents’ house where everything looks different but feels so familiar, like home.

Thank you,

Ian Buchanan

(Ps. My parents are liberal af now but that’s a whole other part of the story. Love ya mom and pops.)

(Pps.  Ezra Koenig used to have a hip hop project during the peak of myspace.  Here is the link: enjoy!)

xX Long live college radio Xx