If you haven’t left the house, turned on a computer, or opened a major music publication in the last few months, you might not be aware of the extent to which Vampire Weekend fever is sweeping the nation. Or maybe you just confused the vampire reference with that whole Twilight-saga insanity, and promptly ran for the hills. But remember way back to 2008, long before tween girls and their moms gave vampires a bad name, VW’s self-titled debut, with its insanely addictive gumbo of world music and heady, highbrow indie pop, caused similar hysteria, with an influence that extended well beyond the band’s Ivy League origins (VW formed while its members were attending Columbia).
And now, with Contra, their much-anticipated follow-up, VW madness is once again in full swing. And judging by the quality of their sophomore effort, the band seems to be taking their stardom in stride. Take Chris Tomson, who originally assumed his drummer role by default, but whose beats have since taken center stage in the band’s peppy, globe-trotting arrangements. Speaking from his home in New York just a couple of hours before Vampire Weekend is set to appear on Letterman for the second time, Tomson recalls how he got to this point.
“At the first couple of practices I played guitar,” he remembers. “I’d reached a point where I was technically pretty strong and I could play things really fast, but I felt that I also wasn’t playing anything that was really interesting.” With that sober self-assessment, and with the band in serious need of a stickman, Tomson rallied, falling back on some limited percussion experience he’d had in high school.
“I think that in some ways the fact that I was kind of thrown in, or threw myself into the drums, with only the most basic of rhythms that I was capable of, I was able to — I hope anyway — play things that were slightly unorthodox, but kind of fit.”
Who could claim otherwise? For a perfect example of Tomson’s quirkily apt contribution, look no further than “Cousins,” the lead single off Contra and the song the band has chosen to showcase tonight on Letterman. “Cousins” has as much a punk sensibility as anything else in that it manages to cram the greatest impact and energy possible into its lean 2:25 timeframe. But its most identifiable element is Tomson’s frantic pseudopolka beat punctuated by rim-clicks and hyper-aggressive staccato snare fills that sound like a string of firecrackers set off in a metal trash can.
It’s probably the toughest song for him to play, he says, but that fact doesn’t worry him in the slightest going into tonight’s performance. That’s because as sonically enhanced, technically convoluted, and elaborately produced as much of Vampire Weekend’s short repertoire might seem, each song is crafted with an ear toward performance, and represents a natural synthesis of each member’s unique talents. “I think that for our first album, definitely most of those songs were written to serve a live show,” Tomson says. “You know, that was the point where every band is where you play in your home town every couple weeks and your same 20 friends come out to see you so you kind of feel an obligation to play them a different song. And we’ve tried to have that same mentality for this record.”
Their penchant for blending studio savvy with raw emotional energy of the type captured in their quirky, low-budget performance-art videos (YouTube “Cousins” or “A-Punk,” for example) is a big part of their appeal. It’s a tricky balance, but their natural talent for seeing both the forest and the trees at once has allowed them to create intricate, genre-defying sonic experiments that are also solid, stand-alone pop tunes.
“Pretty much we record parts separately,” Tomson says. “And that happened on the first album just kind of by necessity where we didn’t have the space. And Rostam [Batmanglij, guitars/keyboards], who had produced both records, I think that kind of provided him with a lot more flexibility as far as just having a huge thing in his own environment that he could then craft sonically. So we pretty much did this album that way again, starting with the drums and building up from there.”
The exception to that piecemeal rule is “Cousins,” which he says “is very much a song that we wrote at our instruments, kind of reacting to each other. Ezra [Koenig, guitars/vocals] started with that little guitar part, and [bassist Chris] Baio and I kind of came in with our groove, and Ross came on top of that.”
But whether recording live or separate, Tomson has to play along with actual music. “Even if it’s just like guitar and vocals or bass and vocals or whatever, just a couple things. I can’t really just play to like a click or something. That’s impossible for me.”
Maybe that’s lack of experience talking. But talking is about the only giveaway of just how new to drumming Tomson is. At one point he stops to ask if he’s pronouncing “Zildjian” correctly. He didn’t even own his own drum set until a year and a half ago, when he finally splurged on a Pearl Master’s kit. “I know the sizes of my drums, but I mean, I’m still not really sure how to tune some of them.” That’s why he recorded most of this album on the house kit at Manhattan’s Avatar Studios, letting the pros dial in the sounds for him.
But any trace of amateur insecurity evaporates once the band takes the stage on Letterman later that night and Tomson opens with that blistering rudimental roll at the intro to “Cousins.” He pounds through the single flawlessly, actually playing with slightly more precision than the album version. With only one take to nail a song this short and tricky, under the pressure of a few million sets of eyes watching your every move, that’s no small feat.
“If we’re playing a concert, you have a little mess-up on one song it’s not a big deal because over the ultimate course of the show, no one’s going to remember one thing. But here, that’s kind of all people would see,” Tomson says, acknowledging the pressure. “But, you know, you kind of get used to whatever’s in front of the stage is not of consequence, and you’re kind of just trying to perform and do the best you can every time.” And with this second successful album proving VW is no fly-by-night phenomenon, keeping a cool head under the building pressure of stardom will become even more important. That, and making sure the creative flow remains strong enough to satisfy an audience whose hunger grows more insatiable by the day.
BAND Vampire Weekend
CURRENT RELEASE Contra
BIRTHPLACE Princeton, New Jersey
INFLUENCES Tony Williams, Elvin Jones, Joe Chambers, Paul Thompson, Sam Fogarino, Stephen Morris
WEB SITE vampireweekend.com
STICKS Vic Firth 5A