Back for a Second Bite
Photo: Peter Murphy
To the public at large, Vampire Weekend's ascent seemed like an overnight success story. They exploded on the national scene in 2008 with their album Vampire Weekend (XL Recordings), on which the four bandmembers — who started playing together in 2006 while they attended Columbia University — debuted their unique brand of pop and rock, featuring clever lyrics and a distinct Afro-pop influence.
But according to Vampire Weekend keyboardist and guitarist Rostam Batmanglij, who is also the band's producer and engineer, their story is less about overnight success than about a band that built its reputation through gigging. It was not until the band's live shows had created a great deal of buzz that the record labels came calling (see sidebar “Not-Quite-Overnight Sensation” on p. 37).
Vampire Weekend — which is fronted by lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig and includes bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson in addition to Batmanglij — have just released their second album, Contra (XL Recordings, 2010). It was originally slated for the fall of 2009, but it got pushed back to January so the guys could have more time to perfect the production.
Like the first album, Contra was tracked in a number of different studios. This time around, the recording venues ranged from an apartment-based home studio to Avatar Studios, one of New York's top commercial facilities. A lot of the production took place at a studio called Treefort (see Web Clip 1) in the indie rock-crazed borough of Brooklyn. That setup — a relatively small, two-room project space in a drab industrial building — was the band's de facto home base for this project and where I interviewed Batmanglij about the production process, the gear they used, his musical and production background, and his side project, Discovery.
Both the first album and
were recorded in a variety of studios. Any particular reason for that?
Having different kinds of rooms and a variety of sounds is what brings the different colors to a recording.
So you did it intentionally, as a way to inject various vibes or colors into the recording rather than it just being a logistical thing?
We went to Mexico for a little tour and a kind of little break from recording. There, we recorded in this studio in Mexico City, owned by this guy Tito from the band Molotov. We recorded drums and guitars and bass to one song, “Cousins,” in that studio in Mexico. It has kind of a different drum sound from anything else on the album. With the first album, that was the reason we recorded drums in that basement studio.
Tell me about that.
I don't know if you've ever seen the show Juan's Basement. It's our friend from college who had a basement with drums and mics set up and [Digidesign] Pro Tools, so it was real easy for us to bring the scratch tracks and start recording the drums there.
Because every studio you recorded at had Pro Tools systems, it was easy for you to go from one recording venue to the next, seamlessly.
Yes. But I actually bought [Apple] Logic and Ableton a few months ago, and I like those programs and I get why people use them. I think it's good to use all these different programs.
With a mobile laptop system, it's easier to use Logic or Live rather than carry around an interface for Pro Tools.
Yes, and I have the littlest one, the [Mbox 2] Micro, and I have the [Mbox 2] Mini, and the Digi 002. And I have an [original] Mbox that I got back in 2001. That was my first experience with recording.
Now that you've used some of the other programs, what in particular do you like about Pro Tools?
I like being able to have [the power of] Pro Tools HD. And I really like a couple of programs: [PSP] VintageWarmer [see image above] and [Audio Ease] Altiverb. And being able to use a lot of instances of those plug-ins is really crucial. That's why I like this room [Treefort] because it has this computer and the Pro Tools HD hardware.
You like VintageWarmer because it lends an analog sound?
Yes. You can use it as a brick wall limiter, but it doesn't limit in the same way like [the Waves] L2 would. It kind of makes things kind of edgy. It's hard to describe what these plug-ins do, but it can make things super-compressed or it can make them kind of furry.
Rostam Batmanglij in the control room at Treefort Studio in Brooklyn.
Photo: Peter Murphy
By furry you mean subtle distortion?
Did you produce any of Contra at your home studio?
There is one song that I kind of started making on my own. And I used my own piano and had that [Neumann] TLM 103 and a dynamic mic, and I tried miking it with both of those mics at the same time. So yeah, I did record that at my own house.
How did you first get into doing production? Did you study it or just learn it by doing?
At Columbia, they had a recording class that I took, but I can't say that I learned anything there I didn't know before. I picked up a lot just from reading and experimenting. Reading stuff in magazines and books about recording, and just the experience of doing it, I guess.
Were you working on projects all through your college years?
Definitely. I've been kind of obsessed with recording music since I was 18, or even before that.
Is your main instrument keyboards?
I don't know that I can say that. Really, the instrument that I studied when I was a kid was the guitar. The keyboard was always something that I taught myself. I was taking songs that I learned on guitar and transposing them for the keyboard. When I got to college, I started studying classical piano. When I got to college, I wanted to be a music major. I had always studied harmony in guitar lessons and in high school, but then in college I really focused on it.
Do you think your classical and music theory knowledge influenced your music in both Vampire Weekend and Discovery?
Yeah. Probably more with Vampire Weekend than with Discovery. Discovery doesn't have as much explicit allegiance to classical music. There's stuff there that I think is extremely classical, but I wonder if anyone will pick up on it. I think some people might.
So studying classical harmony got you into the whole classical mindset?
Also studying popular harmony. I treat the book The Beatles — Complete Scores [Hal Leonard, 1993] as a bible. Just to be able to see “Eleanor Rigby” written for vocals and string quartet, that's much more exciting than seeing like chords and tabs, or even a lot of classical music, which doesn't really work in the song world.
You studied that as part of your class or on your own?
At Columbia, I would study classical harmony in classes and I would study music on my own, and I would try to re-create songs that I love in recordings. If there was a band that I was really into, I'd try to make a song that sounded just like that band. And I went through so many different phases and so many different genres of music where I was trying to do that, that was really how I learned. I think if anybody wants to try to understand how recordings are made, they should just try to re-create them.
So you would listen to a song, and say, “It sounds like they had this kind of bass and this kind of drum sound.”
Yeah, exactly. And I took this class senior year at Columbia called Jazz Transcriptions, where we used a computer program that would let you see the spectrum and you could isolate like a single part. It's called Transcribe [from Seventh String Software]. I use it with pop songs, too, when I try to transcribe them.
Does it actually do the transcription?
No, it doesn't. You have to do the hard work yourself [Laughs]. But in that jazz transcription class, it was like Billie Holiday and Thelonious Monk songs. It's not easily apparent, even using that program, what the chord voicings are. Like in a Thelonious Monk chord, there are all these overtones happening. So the way I had to do it was to play the chord on the piano and then use the transcriber [to] try to match the voicings.
Back to Contra; you guys recorded a lot of drum parts at Avatar Studios.
Yeah, people said it was the best. So I said, “Let's do it.”
It has a really big live room. Did you record drums there to get a massive sound?
Yes, and we also used this gated reverb that they had, the [Lexicon] PCM 70, which is this classic '80s thing. I told the engineer, “Let's get that gated '80s thing,” and he actually set it up really quickly.
You put that on a separate track?
Yes, and I gated it again. So I gated the gated stuff.
Treefort''s live room served as both rehearsal and recording space for the band as they worked on Contra.
Photo: Peter Murphy
So what did that sound like?
It sounds like a flash of being in 1986.
Phil Collins, for a second.
Just for a second.
At what point in the process did you figure out the arrangements?
We started in January. We were at this rehearsal space in Greenpoint. We had five songs somewhat arranged, and we said, “Let's go for it.” So we started that way. And from there, there are really different [production scenarios for the] songs on this album. There are songs that we made essentially here at Treefort. We had the seeds for it, but we really made it and arranged it in the recording process. That was kind of different from the first album. The first album, we could play every song live before we recorded it.
Why did the release of this album get delayed? Did you decide you wanted more time in the production process?
I think a lot of it had to do that even if we'd turned in the album a week ago, we would have missed deadlines for press and for setting it up right. We wanted to take our time and be relaxed about it and do all the things that we wanted to do.
Do you mix everything yourselves?
On the first album, I mixed all the songs on my Pro Tools LE system except for three of them, which we did here.
You mixed them in your apartment?
Yeah. With this album, we went to Avatar for the mixing. I mixed it with an engineer named Justin Gerrish.
The mixes on the first album sound really good.
I wonder if this album is going to sound better. I hope it does.
What was the difference mixing this time at Avatar? Obviously, you had a treated room and everything sounds really flat.
I don't know. It's stressful to think about it because we haven't really finished mastering it, and things always change when you're mastering.
Was the whole band in there when you were mixing?
No, just me and Ezra. We send them [the other bandmembers] mixes and definitely take their input.
What's your basic approach to mixing?
My approach is: Drums and vocals should be up front. That's what makes a hit song.
How do you start your mixes?
I know people have said you can do it many different ways, but the way that it happens with me is that everything is slowly getting EQ'd here and there.
So you have all the tracks up to start with?
Yeah. On the first album, it would get really loud and it would start to go into the red on the master fader, and my response was to put a compressor or a limiter on the master fader to keep it from going to the red. And that was just me trying to do problem-solving. But later, I found that's actually how you're supposed to mix — with a compressor on the master fader.
But didn't you end up going over on the individual channels?
I used the VintageWarmer a lot [on the channels] because it's a brick wall limiter. It's really a great plug-in because it can keep you from going into the red but keeps things loud. It only colors them if you really want to.
Let's talk about the Discovery album LP (XL Recordings, 2009), which came out last summer. It's very synth-oriented, and it features lots of drum machine sounds as well as handclap samples instead of snare drums. It's a lot different musically from Vampire Weekend.
Here's the story with Discovery: I was 19 or 20, and I wanted to make music that didn't follow the rules of what I was used to. I thought that handclaps were so cheesy. I thought if, what if you could make a record, or even an album, that was confined to synths and handclaps and low bass; [one] that is unlike anything else, that is thick and big and powerful? That's kind of what I was going for. I think pop music has a way of cannibalizing itself — you know, the trends in pop music. Like snare drums, big snare drums, I noticed were slowly [disappearing] in Top 40 and R&B and rap. What was taking over was handclaps, and I wanted to push myself to do music with handclaps, not snare drums.
The band is pictured here in the early days, before they were signed.
Photo: Esther White
Well you did a good job.
So that was the beginning of the project, so it took five years.
And you were working with Wes Miles from Ra Ra Riot [another Brooklyn indie band]. Who did most of the vocals?
We both sang. It kind of goes even odd, except for one song, like the eighth song, it's a Jackson 5 cover, “I Want You Back,” and it's sung by Wes. But I sing all the even-number songs and he sings the odd-number songs.
Do you do any of the singing in Vampire Weekend?
I do all the vocal harmonies, but Ezra sings all the lead vocals. There's one song on the new album where I sing the bridge.
There are a lot of neat synth sounds on the Discovery record. There was one in particular, “Osaka Loop Line,” there's this kind of arpeggiated cool sound going through it.
Every synth sound on there I made from scratch. In [Propellerhead Software] Reason, there's this synth called Malström, which is my favorite one to use. For instance, “Osaka Loop Line” is a pure sine wave. I didn't use an arpeggiator. I actually typed all the individual notes into the Reason sequencer. That's how almost all of that album was written.
With me typing in individual notes.
The first record was pretty organic, right? Did you use more synths on Contra?
On the first record, I used a lot of Chamberlin samples.
I know it was a vintage keyboard, but what kind of sound did a Chamberlin have?
It's not a synth. It's a keyboard that when you depress a key, it starts playing a piece of tape.
So it's like a Mellotron that way?
Yeah. Each strip of tape is a recording of a flute player or a cellist playing one note and holding it.
The string parts on Vampire Weekend were all real, right?
It was a mixture. A lot of people think that they were real strings, and there are tons of real strings, but there are also Chamberlin. What's also cool about the Chamberlin is that because it's old tape, and because those samples were made in 1950, they're going through these old compressors and they have this really great tapey, tubey sound.
Are there tuning troubles like with a Mellotron?
There is a little bit. On [Contra], we used the Chamberlin trumpet, too.
You said in some previous interviews that you were going to throw some new sounds into Contra that weren't in the previous ones. What were those?
They were all new sounds, it feels like. There's the Chamberlin trumpet, that's on one song. There's a lot of synths that I build myself in Reason. There's kalimba and there's marimba. We had Mauro Refrosco, who plays in David Byrne's band, come play some Brazilian drums to layer on the first track; it's called “Horchada.” So there's a lot of different sounds.
Mike Levine is EM's editor and senior media producer.
Although it only took a couple of years from Vampire Weekend's inception in 2006 to when they hit it big in 2008, theirs is not the sudden success story it appears. The reality is that the band put themselves in the position to be discovered through a lot of hard work doing live performances and building a following, and finally creating enough interest to get the record labels' attention. “People have said, ‘They came out of nowhere,''” says keyboardist and guitarist Rostam Batmanglij, “but we feel like we did things the old-fashioned way.”
As an unknown band, they began by playing wherever they could. “We played shows in Brooklyn with 10 people in the audience. We played in front of 30 people, and then 50 people, and then 80 people, 100 people, 200 people,” Batmanglij says. “We did everything, I think, the way that you have to do it. We didn't skip any steps. It was a slow climb.”
As their audiences grew, so did the buzz. They were helped by a good review on the online culture site Flavorpill. “Someone at Other Music, the music store, read something that someone at Flavorpill had written and checked out our music and liked it, and he talked to other people and word sort of spread slowly, organically,” Batmanglij says.
They did have most of what ended up being their first album recorded before they began negotiating with record labels. “I thought it was important that we have 10 songs before we did anything like trying to get a record deal,” Batmanglij says. “So we finished that album in February 2007, 10 songs. Then we added two after we signed the deal.”
As typically happens, the band got different responses to their demo from the different labels they met with. “One guy said, ‘I'd put this out tomorrow, the way it is. I think it's ready to go, it's perfect,''” Batmanglij says. Others told them they'd need to re-record the whole thing.
Eventually, they found a good fit with the label XL Recordings, whose roster includes such acts as the White Stripes, The Prodigy and M.I.A. “These are bands that control the vision of the sound of their own music,” Batmanglij says. “We just felt like that was right [for us], and at our first meeting with XL, they said that they were excited about not just our band and our songs, but our production.”
Another advantage to having done the production prior to signing the deal was that they kept ownership of the masters. “A label will be able to own the master if they paid for the recording,” Batmanglij says, “whereas we actually license our masters to XL. We get them back in 15 to 20 years.”
— Mike Levine