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Ezra Koenig on the new Vampire Weekend album 'Only God Was Above Us'


The music of Vampire Weekend mixes hip-hop drums with Afro fusion melodies and a hint of ska.


SIMON: And there are those often cryptic lyrics.


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) The memories don't fade, surprise and fade for days. You're elegantly wasted.

SIMON: Might take nine or 10 listenings to be able to crack those lines, most of them written by lead singer Ezra Koenig. Vampire Weekend's new album is "Only God Was Above Us". Mr. Koenig joins us now from Nashville. Thanks so much for being with us.

EZRA KOENIG: Oh, my pleasure. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: We have looked forward to putting Vampire Weekend on WEEKEND EDITION. Kind of fits, don't you think?

KOENIG: Absolutely.

SIMON: Tell us about the song "Connect".


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) The things we used to see, the sandhogs in the street, the chickens in her bedroom.

SIMON: A lot of references I kind of picked up on to New York City, Amsterdam Avenue and sandhogs, as a lot of construction workers are called, but what are we hearing?

KOENIG: This is a song - as we were working on it, I described it as psychedelic Gershwin. It opens with this slightly insane piano riff.


KOENIG: Yeah. It had kind of, like, this old-school New York flavor, but there's a bunch of twists and turns within it, a lot of things that have always loomed large in my mind, such as the sandhogs. My dad briefly was a tunnel inspector for the city, and he would tell me these stories about being down a mile underneath Manhattan, working with sandhogs, and that's a phrase, especially when you're a kid, you're not going to forget.

SIMON: (Laughter).

KOENIG: So that's always been something I've thought about, the tunnels of New York and the underground and these amazing construction projects.


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) I know once it's lost, it's never found.

SIMON: And that line, I know once it's lost, it's never found. I need you now.

KOENIG: Well, I think everybody feels that way sometimes. This song is track four on the album. And I was happy to notice that some of these songs that have a little more riddled with anxiety and gloom are towards the beginning. It doesn't stay there. But, you know, this song is an important part of the journey.


SIMON: Let me ask you about the song "Gen-X Cops".


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) It wasn't built for me. It's your academy. But in my time, you taught me how to see each generation makes its own apology.

SIMON: That piercing line, each generation makes its own apology, where does that come from?

KOENIG: At first, I just wanted to have a song called "Gen-X Cops". That's a late-90s Hong Kong action movie that I remember being very interested in growing up, and then I think I thought more about Gen-X cops. Why was I actually attracted to that phrase? At least in my lifetime, I can't think of a time where I've heard more talk about generations, decisions the boomers made. I'm a millennial.

SIMON: Turning 40 on Monday, I'm told.

KOENIG: Yeah, I'm about to turn 40.

SIMON: Happy birthday.

KOENIG: Thank you very much. And millennial culture and then the Zoomers, and even my son is Generation Alpha. I've even heard - you know, you go on the internet. You have people already making sweeping predictions about Generation Alpha's behavior. And there's a lot of talk about generations and how they're different. And I think there's a part of me where I kind of feel like, aren't these generations so similar? They have more in common with each other maybe than any set of generations in history, whereas the post-boomer world - there's something in common. Everybody's using the internet, everybody has grew up with certain cultural norms and cultural archetypes. So yeah, each generation makes its own apology. I think that song is talking about the different generations but also coming to this conclusion that everybody's on the same trip, so to speak. Certain things are repeated eternally.


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) Oh, my love, was it all in vain? We always wanted money. Now the money's not the same.

SIMON: I want to hear a little of the song "Mary Boone".


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) In a quiet moment at the theater, I could feel your pain. Deep inside the city, your memory remains, Mary Boone, Mary Boone.

SIMON: An actual person - right? - convicted of tax fraud.

KOENIG: Yeah, a famous, iconic, downtown New York gallerist. I was mostly interested in her as this kind of famous figure of the downtown New York art scene. The character in the song is not her. It's somebody addressing her. I kind of pictured the person who wants to make it, the person who comes to the city, literally or metaphorically, looking for a way in. And this idea of the person looming on the dark side of a room - it felt kind of rich to me. And also, you know, she's got a great name, Mary Boone. Gagosian would not be as easy to rhyme.

SIMON: Like Eric Bogosian, you mean?

KOENIG: Oh, Larry Gagosian. I don't even know how to pronounce it.


SIMON: "Only God Was Above Us." The title and the cover comes from a photograph?

KOENIG: Yes, there's a photo I came across that really stayed with me. It's this kind of, like, gritty '80s New York picture with a messed up subway car, but there's this surreal quality because there's a guy sitting normally on the seat, and then there's a guy who's sideways. It's not edited, no Photoshop. It was because this photographer, Steven Siegel, took a bunch of photos of his friends posed in a subway graveyard in New Jersey in 1988. So they could play with the gravity a bit because the subway car was overturned, kind of like an old-school, like, Fred Astaire dancing on the ceiling trick.

As I learned more about Steven Siegel, I realized that this guy has hundreds of amazing pictures from that era and even had video footage, so his work has become a huge part of this album and its visual identity. And I love this picture so much that I ultimately decided I didn't want to throw our logo on it or a title. And the only text on the cover is the newspaper that this guy's reading, which was a real Daily News cover from 1988. And the headline was "Only God Was Above Us," and it was a story about a Hawaiian Airlines flight where the roof came off mid-flight. But this was a direct quote from a survivor of that flight. "I looked up. Only God was above us."


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) The world looked different when God was on your side. Who builds the future?

SIMON: May I ask how you're going to ring in your birthday on Monday?

KOENIG: We're playing a concert. So 7 years ago, there was a big eclipse that went through the U.S. Maybe you remember. I said, I wonder when the next total eclipse is. And I looked it up, and of course, I wouldn't forget the date because I said, that's my 40th birthday. So, you know, in the back of my head for years, I said, all right, my 40th birthday, there's going to be a big eclipse. Turned out this was going to be right around the time the album was coming out. I could talk to the rest of the guys and our team and say, wouldn't it be cool to do a daytime concert during the eclipse? so it kind of came together in Austin, Texas. We're playing at a this place called the Moody Amphitheater, so we'll be outdoors. We'll play on either side of the eclipse, we've made the decision we're going to pause to throw on our glasses and do that. So that'll be the main event on my 40th birthday.


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) On someone's dime.

SIMON: Now that's a birthday.

KOENIG: Absolutely, and it's a 3 in 1, you know?

SIMON: Ezra Koenig of Vampire Weekend. Their new album, "Only God Was Above Us," available now. Happy birthday to you, and thanks for joining us.

KOENIG: Thank you. Great talking to you.


VAMPIRE WEEKEND: (Singing) Listen, baby, you don't have to try. Capricorn, the year that you were born. Finished fast, and the next one wasn't yours. Too old for dyin' young, too young to live alone... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.
Eleana Tworek