My Pop Life #143 : Step – Vampire Weekend

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)

2013

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.

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My Pop Life #137 : The Word/Sardines – Junkyard Band

The Word/Sardines   –   Junkyard Band

My mother went down to the foodstamp line…

1988 Washington D.C.    I was undecided.  Thinking about work-shopping my play Sanctuary for a new city, a new country, new circumstances.  Sanctuary had been produced the previous year by Joint Stock Theatre Group and toured the UK from Salisbury to Newcastle.  I wrote about it in My Pop Life #86.   Sanctuary was a rap musical about homeless teenagers and based around London’s Centrepoint Shelter and the cardboard city at Waterloo, as well as the bed-and-breakfast policies of most of the London boroughs in the mid-80s.  An American Theatre Company called The No-Neck Monsters had seen the show at The Drill Hall and asked me if I’d like to re-stage it in Washington D.C.  I said “No” of course, but later wondered whether I should investigate when they said they would fly me to D.C. to meet them and look around the city.    I arrived in Washington in late June ’88 and was met at the airport by Gwendoline Wynne and Helen Patton who ran the theatre company.  We drank, chatted, ate and I crashed.  Later I met D.C. actor Eric Dellums who was in Spike Lee’s School Daze and bought a $40 selection of go-go records, the local funk music.  I should note in passing that there was also a thriving punk scene in Washington D.C. in the 1980s, producing local groups like Fugazi and their predecessors Minor Threat, Bad Brains and Embrace.  Henry Rollins  is from D.C. (years before Black Flag and LA).  But I didn’t know about that then.  Shame – it would have been an interesting element for the play.

Chapter III nightclub, 1988

Next we spent night after night trying to get into go-go clubs to check the pulse of the scene.  Washington D.C. is called Chocolate City because the population is 80% black and often we are the only white people in evidence when we do get allowed in – I keep failing the no-sneakers rule.  Chapter III in SW Washington let us in eventually and the manager Adolphe took a shine to us and showed me the DJ booth where we watched some scratching and I was taught “The Butt“, a local dance, by a fat boy – the current hit single by E.U. or Experience Unlimited, also featured in the School Daze film.

Junkyard Band 1986

We carried on walking around the streets talking to homeless kids about their experiences.  Often they would be busking, we met one group on Capitol Hill on July 4th who ranged from 10-13 years old playing upside down buckets and jam-jars with a go-go beat.  They called themselves ‘High Profit’ and their heroes were The Junkyard Band.  The following day another young group at Dupont Circle were playing the buckets and cans, watched over by their mum.  They were called Backyard and clearly hoping for a hit record like their heroes Junkyard who’d been signed to Def Jam.  The fact that E.U. had a track in a Spike Lee joint had the go-go scene buzzing, and a few days later we went to an outside event at Brandywine, Maryland for a go-go spectacular to see local heroes JunkyardLittle Benny & The Masters, Hot Cold Sweat, Rare Essence and Chuck Brown & The Soul Searchers.   This was a roll-call of the top go-go scene bands.  Temperatures were mid-80s and upwards.  Once again, Helen and I were pretty much the only white people there.

Bowie T-shirt !

Cycle shorts, hi-top sneakers and gold chains were the order of the day.  People posed for photographs in front of painted backdrops of Cadillacs, thrones and jewellry for $5 a picture.  The best one was Fred Flintstone with gold chains, diamond rings and Adidas sneakers with a speech bubble : “How Ya Like Me Now?”   Two dimensional images of wealth and status for the black American dreamers.  Another guy was selling T-shirts with crack slang:  ‘Beam Me Up Scotty‘ and on the back ‘Don’t Let Scotty Get Your Body‘.   I bought one, and for the rest of the summer people in D.C. asked me where I’d got it from.  The huge difference between Sanctuary UK and Sanctuary DC was crack cocaine.  We were surrounded by it here.  Teenagers openly flashing rolls of $100 bills.  Crack is the short cut to status and money and is inextricably linked to the murder rate.  Adolphe told me he wouldn’t allow go-go nights in Chapter III anymore after shooting incidents.  Ironically the go-go scene itself is anti-crack – a new supergroup had just released a 12″ single called D.C. Don’t Stand For Dodge City.  But it was entirely clear to me that if I decided to come back here and re-write my play,  crack would have to be part of the storyline.

But the other huge issue was race.  Fear.  Oppression.  Hate.  Only 20 years previously there had been Jim Crow laws in Washington : whites-only drinking fountains, rest-rooms, cinemas and lunch bars.  You could still feel it around the city.  I was cycling around like a naive white liberal poking my nose into communities who were selling drugs to survive, and it was killing them, literally.

One day I cycled down to a homeless shelter south of the Capitol building, and went in to meet the people who ran it.  On my way out I was surrounded by a group of angry and curious black men who wanted to know what I was doing there.  I explained that I was researching for a play about homelessness.  “You is European” one of them said, as an accusation.  Yes, I replied, I am English.  He didn’t mean that.  He meant I was white.  One scary-looking dude prowled around the edge of the circle of men like a caged tiger, a challenging look in his eye, flashing his coat open now and again to show me a 12-inch blade.  I tried to explain that I wasn’t racist – that I saw a colour-blind future.  Why the hell did I say that ?  I probably did feel that way in 1988.  I don’t anymore.  At all.  That will never happen.  I’m currently reading Ta-Nehisi Coates book Between The World & Me and here my current racial politics lies.  Resistance.  By all means necessary.  Non-violence ?  The establishment doesn’t respect it.  So why keep showing these 1960s civil rights scenes of black people being beaten?  No.  We’re entering a new paradigm I believe.  Or going back to an old one. Malcolm X.  The Panthers.  Enough is enough.

For some reason in downtown D.C. in 1988 this group of angry homeless black men heard some degree of non-hate in my voice and parted to allow me to cycle away.   Perhaps I had acknowledged their pain and circumstance, and they’d recognised that.  Or perhaps they’d meant no harm in the first place.

1988 was the final year of Reaganomics – the famous trickle-down bullshit – referenced by the Valentine Brothers on their seminal single Money’s Too Tight To Mention.  The Junkyard Band reference Reagan on The Word

Reagan gave The Pentagon the foodstamp money

and waiting in the wings was George Bush Sr, about to defeat Dukakis in the presidential election by calling him a liberal, as if it was a curse word.

Go-Go was born in Washington D.C. and can be traced right back to the 1960s – the word was originally a name for a club, as in Smokey Robinson’s Going To A Go-Go (1965) – and it developed as a live call-and-response form of funk music, hugely influenced by James Brown, George Clinton, Sly Stone, Jimi Hendrix and Grover Washington, among others, and using cowbell, congas and other percussion instruments to create a more latin or african groove.  The music has brass and the word “boogie” seemingly permanently in evidence, other dance tunes are often quoted, and it is best experienced live, since there was rarely a break between songs, any talking was done while the band played.

Chuck Brown has been credited with being the Godfather of Go-Go – perhaps he made the nation aware of it with his huge hit Bustin’ Loose in 1978, but he’d been around since the mid-60s.   Other exponents Trouble Funk and Rare Essence built the go-go house on solid ground alongside E.U. and others during the golden years of the 1980s.   Come to think of it the previous piece of music I’ve written about from Washington D.C. has some of this feel – Julia & Company’s Breaking Down (Sugar Samba) (see My Pop Life #50) has a great deal of cowbell !

Junkyard Band

Junkyard Band started out in 1980 with members as young as nine playing on buckets and cans and bottles and traffic cones and they would add an instrument when they could afford it. By 1985 they were honed into a funky percussion ensemble that rapped more than the other acts, had less horns and had a defining street-edge.  Def Jam Records signed them and in 1986 Rick Rubin produced the double A-side  The Word, flipside Sardines, now their signature tune.

They are still playing together in Washington and elsewhere.