Step – Vampire Weekend
The gloves are off, the wisdom teeth are out, what you on about?
I feel it in my bones, I feel it in my bones
Change. Everything is moving. Movement. Gravity holds us down but we’re spinning on our axis once every 24 hours and circling the sun once a year, and we’re growing older every week.
We give birth astride a grave, the light gleams for an instant, then it’s night once more
Samuel Beckett : Waiting For Godot
Not that I want to worry you or anything, but it flashes by doesn’t it? Kids shoot up and start breeding, the World Cup in Germany was 10 years ago, I was 23 a few hours ago.
I always used to say “I’m in the middle of my life – c’mon!”to justify a holiday after a gig, to spend the money immediately by jetting off to the Caribbean – again. But looking back – I was – we were – in the middle of our lives. So this blog is partly an awareness of that, of time and people slipping away, of wanting to say the things I want to say to the people I want to hear it. Not waiting until somebody passes for a ‘tribute’ – to Terry Wogan, David Bowie, Lemmy Kilmister, Glen Frey, Paul Kantner, Frank Finlay et al. Let’s do a little tribute while we’re still alive, so we can hear it. My tributes are to friends and family, and my musical turning points. And here’s another.
Jenny Jules as Cassius in Julius Caesar, 2013
October 2013 Jenny my wife had been given an apartment in Brooklyn Heights for the duration of a Donmar all-female production of Julius Caesar which had transferred to St Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO on the waterfront. Down Under Manhattan Brooklyn Overpass. An industrial area of warehouses and cobbled streets which has been gentrified up the wazoo and is now an expensive part of New York to live i.e. like everywhere else. Brooklyn Heights is a fifteen minute walk south and up the slope, or you can connect via the waterfront of the East River.
Brookyn Heights promenade looking West at Manhattan
The views of downtown Manhattan from the elevated railings of Columbia Heights is second-to-none, and better than anything on Manhattan itself. We were on Willow Street, one block east, opposite Truman Capote‘s old place. Leafy, quiet, easy-going and maybe 200 years old or so, we fell in love. We swooned. We could live here, we said excitedly to each other, collecting garments from the Chinese dry cleaners on Henry Street, sitting in Montague Street Bagels, lunching in Dumbo Kitchen before a matinee.
Willow Street, Brooklyn
Living on one floor of a classic New York brownstone townhouse with wood floors, tiled deco bathroom and giant fridge. We recalled the early ’90s in King’s Road, West Hollywood. America America ! the skies all seemed to say. Once again. (see My Pop Life #130)
Modern Vampires of the City – Vampire Weekend 2013
I was doing self-tapes and meetings when I visited Jenny, and now New York suddenly seemed easy and attainable and exciting for both of us. Lots of blue sky and Vampire Weekend on the stereo. Their new LP was a masterpiece in my ears, taking all the lovely work from the first two albums and shaping something really outward-looking, really confident and solid, really rather brilliant.
2013 was a great year for music. Kanye West came out with Yeezus which was the record of the year because parts of it sounded so unlike anything else, ever. His raps were patchy though. Yasmine Hamdan had a solo record which was terrific. Sky Ferreira. Savages. Disclosure. John Grant. Chance The Rapper. Rudimental. Sigur Ros. Queens Of The Stone Age. Electric Soft Parade. Run The Jewels. Beyonce. Drake. Justin Timberlake. J.Cole. Haim. Janelle Monae. Take your pick. Pretty astoundingly good amount of greatness, unusual. I picked Vampire Weekend which still is my favourite record of 2013.
Vampire Weekend – 2008
Vampire Weekend were formed by Ezra Koenig and drummer Chris Tomson over a shared love of punk and hip hop while at ivy league Colombia University on New York’s Upper West Side, one of the very first educational establishments in America. Later joined by bassist Chris Baio and keyboardist Rostam Batmanglij. They started out as a college-rock art-school boys doing guitar-based African pop inspired rock – Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa, A-Punk, Oxford Comma are all bouncy upbeat unpretentious treats. The 2nd album Contra (2010) was more of the same but the palette was broader and tinged with some melancholy – Cousins, Horchata. By now the backlash had started – they were rich white kids appropriating African music. This is so dull I won’t refute it in detail except to say that a) they’re not white – they’re Persian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, Italian; b) on scholarships and bank loans; And that, c) furthermore, anyone can play whatever they like. They are the freshest buds on a family tree that stretches back through New York time to Dirty Projectors, and before them to the mighty Talking Heads (see My Pop Life #92)
The third LP – Modern Vampires of The City – was a major development of their palette while staying recognisably a Vampire Weekend LP : world-music rhythms played as 21st century pop music from a city which is the crossroads of the world. It sounds fresh, playful, clever, funny, melodic, rhythmically interesting and new. Hybrid music. The band have grown up lyrically. There is some darkness creeping in. Ariel Rechtsaid was brought in to co-produce with Rostam Batmanglij and sonically there are many innovations, pitch-shifting and other unusual ways of recording vocals and drums. It rewards repeated plays. It gets deeper and more interesting.
Step appears to be about girlfriend trouble and opens with the coda
“Everytime I see you in the world you always step to my girl”
which is a quote from a single by Souls Of Mischief called Step To My Girl (1992) which also opens with the line
“Back, back way back…”
and which is about girl trouble by a rap group from Oakland in California.
Actually Oakland and not Alameda
Vampire Weekend’s re-think of the song is a little trickier though, and many commentators have suggested that the girl in the song is actually their music, that people are possessive about their music, the music of their era, or that they write in the same way that people are possessive over lovers. Ezra Koenig the lead vocalist and key songwriter and lyricist in the band has suggested that the song itself has a family tree, layers of versions of samples of references.
I won’t dissect the whole thing here, because I am unreasonably obsessed with this song, and there’s no need to inflict it on you, but there are some fun links : Souls Of Mischief sampled YZ’s Who’s That Girl and Grover Washington Jr‘s cover of Aubrey by Bread. If we’re slicing songs from David Gates (who is credited as a co-writer) and this song is about music, then….
Ancestors told me that their girl was better
She’s richer than Croesus, she’s tougher than leather
I just ignore all the tales of her past life
Stale conversation deserves but a bread knife
Tougher Than Leather is an LP by Run DMC (1988). And so on. There are quotes from Talking Heads in there, references to growing old, to dying, to buying a house, wisdom teeth, truth, Anchorage, Mechanicsburg and Dar Es Salaam. Oh and Angkor Watt.
It’s beautifully mysterious all the way through and I’ve had a lot of fun trying to unpick it, but perhaps it’s best left as a mystery anyway. The video is a homage to New York City in black and white, reminiscent of Woody Allen’s Manhattan. In 2013 it was like the pied piper calling me across the Atlantic, a beckoning finger, here, this is the place, right here.
Keyboard player and producer on all three of their LPs Rostam Batmanglij has just last week announced that he is leaving the band but would continue to work with them on forthcoming projects. He also works with Carly Rae Jepsen, Kid Cudi and Charlie XCX among others. It’s the end of an era.
Tonight marks exactly two years since Jenny and I moved to New York in February 2014, the day after Philip Seymour Hoffman died of a heroin overdose in his apartment in the West Village. I worked with Phil in 2008 on a film called The Boat That Rocks. Jenny and I flew over to New York with 2 suitcases and a cat each and after two nights in Harlem, moved down to Fort Greene in Brooklyn, the area where we still live today.
It was almost exactly three months after having a conversation together in Brooklyn Heights about starting over.
A new chapter, a fresh start. We really didn’t take much convincing.