Music News: An interview with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig

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Jade talks with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig
The Current's Jade talks with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig ahead of Vampire Weekend's June 9, 2019, concert at The Armory in Minneapolis. (David Safar | MPR)
An interview with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig
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  • Full audio: Ezra Koenig interview 15:36

Above, listen to an episode of The Current's Music News podcast. Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify, or wherever else you get your podcasts. You can also sign up for a daily Music News e-mail and join our Facebook group.

Last week, Jade sat down with Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig to talk about the band's first release in six years, Father of the Bride, touring, and staying fresh. "What does a Vampire Weekend album mean when I'm over the age of 30?" Koenig wondered.

After years of establishing a signature sound, Koenig grappled with how best to create music that built on that sound while remaining innovative. "I feel like after the third album, we were threatening to become a little too professional for my taste," Koenig admitted.

So what does the VW world consist of? Early on, the band were easily pigeonholed by their preppy aesthetic, but on this latest release, many of the songs don't fit the old formula. "The cheap answer is I know it when I see it; I've got a gut feeling about it," Koenig said.

Ultimately, Koenig's songs are most often explorations of things we tend to glaze over in day-to-day life — certain phrases we say without truly knowing the meaning, or investigations of what "cotton candy" love songs are actually saying. Koenig cites Leonard Cohen's "Everybody Knows" as a perfect encapsulation of what he strives for in his songs. "We have all these situations in our day-to-day life when we know deep down that we don't totally mean what we're saying," he explained.

Eventually, though, Koenig hopes that his songs take on lives of their own. For example, journalists have ascribed the inspiration behind one song in particular, "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin," to Koenig's Jewish heritage, but he explains that the song goes beyond his own experiences, and he fears ruining the album for listeners by over-contextualizing.

Father of the Bride is the first Vampire Weekend project to feature other artists, namely Danielle Haim and Steve Lacy. Throughout the album, Lacy and Koenig can be heard talking between takes, an element that gives the album a looser, more human atmosphere.

As for touring, Koenig is having fun rediscovering old hits and reexamining the lyrics of master songwriters. At one recent show, the band performed a cover of Bob Dylan's "Jokerman." "Sometimes the covers are the most interesting because I get to go deep," Koenig said.

The interview is excerpted in this week's podcast; the full interview audio is also available above. (Lydia)

Holy Ghost! criticize White Sox for "Disco Demolition Night" celebration

Synthpop duo Holy Ghost! are joining criticisms of the Chicago White Sox for plans to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the infamous "Disco Demolition Night." This Thursday, the White Sox are handing out t-shirts to remember the infamous 1979 incident, when the team invited fans to bring disco records to demolish and a melee ensued.

On Instagram, Holy Ghost! write, "It's widely understood that the original Disco Demolition felt, to many, like a direct attack on the Gay, Black, and Latino communities who pioneered Disco. [...] The White Sox want to celebrate that moment — and in doing so, trigger pain instead of healing it."

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Earlier this week, the brilliant Chicago based DJ/Producer Marea Stamper ( aka The Black Madonna) tweeted: "Having a commemoration of this shameful stain on Chicago during Pride month, only steps away from where Frankie Knuckles was mourned not so long ago, is a repulsively tone deaf move on the part off all involved." Marea , I quickly learned, was referring to the 40th anniversary celebration of The Disco Demolition planned for this Thursday when the New York Yankees take on the Chicago @whitesox at Guaranteed Rate Field in Chicago. Steve Dahl, the radio disc jockey who incited the burning of thousands of disco records in 1979, is scheduled to reprise his role and throw out the first pitch. A commemorative T Shirt that reads "Disco Sucks" will be handed out to 10.000 lucky fans. It’s widely understood that the original Disco Demolition felt, to many, like a direct attack on the Gay, Black, and Latino communities who pioneered Disco. Nile Rodgers, of Chic fame, has said: “It felt to us like Nazi book-burning." Some argue that it was a just a silly promotional event, aimed at the mainstream-disco-pop of Saturday Night Fever and not at any minority group. But no one can posit it as a safe event: The riot that ensued on the field caused the forfeit of the second of two games that day and police had to intervene. It was ugly. To me personally, the pictures from that day in 1979 don't lie: Thousands of white men, led by a white man, running illegally onto a field to burn the the music of largely marginalized gay and brown people. But that's almost besides the point here...The real issue is that it FELT that way to so many people and that in 2019 The White Sox want to celebrate that moment - and in doing so, trigger pain instead of healing it. Since Marea's tweets, the story has been covered by many, including DJ Magazine and Pitchfork. The White Sox even issued a statement: "..we are dedicated to advocating for a safe, welcoming ballpark experience for all people and communities.” Yet, despite the noise, the event is scheduled to go on as planned. Strangely enough, we will be in Chicago DJ'ing the very next day. I plan on playing all Disco. - alex

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Spice Girls animated movie planned

Only four of the five Spice Girls are on tour this year, but all five have agreed to participate in an upcoming animated movie that will combine the girl group's classic hits with new songs, based on a story idea from the singers themselves. According to the head of Paramount Animation, the Spice Girls "are very involved" with the project, which could hit theaters as soon as next year. (Billboard) (Jay)

Geto Boys rapper Bushwick Bill dies at 52

Rapper Bushwick Bill of the Houston hip-hop trio Geto Boys has died of pancreatic cancer at age 52. Geto Boys were among a host of popular, acclaimed, and controversial rap groups to emerge in the late '80s and early '90s as the genre matured and tackled tougher subject matter, and their explicit storytelling was a significant influence on southern rap. Bushwick Bill's stark, violent, sometimes hallucinatory verses were an unmistakable part of Geto Boys' sound, and the fact that he was born with dwarfism and stood 3'8" helped to make him instantly recognizable in the hip-hop world. In addition to his work with Geto Boys, Bushwick Bill released solo albums and appeared on Dr. Dre's classic LP The Chronic. (New York Times) (Jay)

Here's Geto Boys' biggest hit, "Mind Playing Tricks On Me."

Radiohead frustrate blackmailers by releasing stolen audio

Jonny Greenwood, lead guitarist and keyboardist for Radiohead, took to the band's Facebook page yesterday to share some news.

Thom Yorke shared the audio on Radiohead's Bandcamp and wrote, "it's not v interesting. there's a lot of it."

He's not wrong: this is for diehard Radiohead fans. You can hear Yorke testing out some alternate versions of lyrics and jam out on a 12-minute version of "Paranoid Android." At various points Yorke yodels and, yes, beatboxes. One of the highlights is an alternate version of "Lift" that has been a fan favorite from the OK Computer era. (Jade)

Loss of priceless master recordings in 2008 fire revealed

"It was the biggest disaster in the history of the music business — and almost nobody knew." That's how the New York Times begins a shocking report revealing that the irreplaceable master recordings of half a million songs were lost in a 2008 fire that consumed a vault of recordings at Universal Studios Hollywood.

The blaze itself was widely reported, but Universal successfully suppressed the fact that a casualty of the fire was a vault of music masters that included a vast swath of popular music history. Among the likely casualties were classic singles like Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Goode," Bill Haley's "Rock Around the Clock," and Jackie Brenston's "Rocket 88" — all three leading contenders for the song that began the rock and roll era. While the complete losses still aren't officially confirmed, it's clear that the scope of the damage is hard to fathom. Almost all of Buddy Holly's masters. Some of Aretha Franklin's earliest recordings. Master recordings by Tupac Shakur, Nirvana, Ray Charles, Janet Jackson, the Police, Joni Mitchell, Aerosmith...the list goes on and on.

In a statement, Universal Music says there are "numerous inaccuracies, misleading statements, contradictions and fundamental misunderstandings of the scope of the incident and affected assets." The Times, however, has internal documents confirming the archive's destruction, and an extended interview with the archivist who maintained the tapes prior to their destruction.

Artists are just coming to terms with the news. Krist Novoselic of Nirvana says the Nevermind masters are "gone forever." Questlove says fans now know why some of the Roots' albums haven't been reissued. R.E.M. say they're still trying to assess the damage. Bassist John Munson of Semisonic says the band's prior requests for their masters have been "rebuffed," and now they know why. (Billboard)

Here's one of the recordings that was almost certainly lost, along with the rest of the Chess Records catalog: Muddy Waters singing "Sad Sad Day." (Jay)

This week in music history

This week in 1996, the Avalon Ballroom in San Francisco welcomed Big Brother and the Holding Company to the stage. The gig was the first time the band performed with their new singer, a folksinger named Janis Joplin. Sam Andrew (founding member, guitarist, and main songwriter for the band) had convinced the young singer to join their band instead of her fellow Texas friends in 13th Floor Elevators. Joplin would put out two albums with the band, including the semi-live album Cheap Thrills (the album that gave us Joplin's iconic version of "Summertime" and "Piece of My Heart"), before she and Andrew left the band to pursue a solo career for Joplin. (Jade)

This week in 1982, Neil Diamond went to the movies as the third wheel on a date with then-married couple Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager. They must have all cried their eyes out, because they went home and wrote a song about the movie they saw together: E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. The song, called "Heartlight," became the title track for an album Diamond released that fall. It pretty much tells the story of the movie, and it became the last Top 5 hit of Diamond's career. To use the terms and ideas from the movie, the songwriters had to pay Universal Studios $25,000. (Jay)

This week in 2002, American Idol debuted on Fox. Simon Fuller's U.S. version of the British show Pop Idol, the singing competition immediately became a sensation, with a big winner right out of the gate: Kelly Clarkson won the first season, and later seasons launched stars including Carrie Underwood, Taylor Hicks, and Jordin Sparks. After Fox dropped the show in 2016, ABC grabbed it for a successful revival that launched last year. Here's Clarkson singing one of the songs that helped clinch it for her, "A Moment Like This." (Jay)

This week's new releases

Iron & Wine + Calexico, Years to Burn

Iron & Wine's Sam Beam always likes to stretch outside of his comfort zone, whether it's turning his songs into jazzy jams on tour or working with others on a variety of projects. His first venture with Calexico came back in 2005, with Beam bringing his lyrics and songs and Calexico building out the compositions to a shiny luster. It seemed like it would just be another one-off in the long list of joint Iron & Wine projects. Now, 14 years later, the gang are back together. And this time, it's a full collaboration between the old friends: it's a soothing and golden album, even in the pun-titled "Bitter Suite." (Jade)

Bruce Springsteen, Western Stars

For years, Bruce Springsteen has talked about an album of sweeping orchestral pop he's been sitting on, an LP with the flavor of classic California country. Now that he's off Broadway and his memoir's on the shelf, he's finally ready to turn his attention to new music and so we're getting Western Stars, the Boss's 19th studio album and his first since 2014's High Hopes. The premise sounds pretty safe, but early listeners have been divided. Uproxx says it may be his best album of the 21st century, but hometown news site calls it the biggest disappointment of the Boss's career, with lyrics that sound like Bruce Springsteen Mad Libs gone wrong. We'll all have a chance to decide for ourselves on Friday, but when you've had the kind of historic career Bruce has, it's got to be nice to get to age 69 and still be able to spark a deluge of opinions with every new record. Here's my favorite of the album's initial singles, "There Goes My Miracle." (Jay)

Mattiel, Satis Factory

Mattiel Brown grew up in rural Georgia on a working farm with her mother. She was raised on a steady dose of '60s folk, but once she moved to Atlanta she broadened her musical base to include the White Stripes, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, and OutKast. For her own music, she sounds like a DIY garage-rock version of Camera Obscura in songs like "Keep the Change." (Jade)

Madonna, Madame X

Okay, I looked this up: Madonna and Bruce Springsteen have been running the game together since the '80s, but they've never actually released new albums on the same date before. That all changes when Western Stars goes head-to-head with Madge's mysterious new project Madame X. Madonna's gone into full character for this one, wearing an eyepatch to become the title character, whose bio makes her sound kind of like Carmen Sandiego...but Madonna says the name was actually bestowed on her in 1981, by none other than Martha Graham. I have the feeling this is going to be a wild one. Check out the crazy "Dark Ballet," which Madonna says was inspired by A Clockwork Orange. There's an orchestra, a vocoder break, a spoken-word interlude over a Nutcracker excerpt, and a video starring Mykki Blanco as a martyr in a cone bra. Basically, iconic. (Jay)

Viral clip: Adele raps

Adele's newly single, between album cycles, hitting the town and dropping some verses. Specifically, Nicki Minaj's verse from Kanye West's song "Monster," which a lot of people will tell you is the best thing either Nicki or Kanye have ever done. Adele already rapped the verse on Carpool Karaoke, earning approval from Minaj herself, who wrote on Instagram, "Pull thru, QUEEN!"

So when Adele had the opportunity to take the mic at a party in L.A. recently, she showed the crowd that she still knows the whole rap. Was it caught on video? Of course it was, and it's today's viral clip. Pull thru, queen. (BuzzFeed) (Jay)

Audio sampled in podcast
Jahzzar: "Comedie" (CC BY 4.0)
James Scott: "Frog Legs Rag"
Neil Diamond: "Heartlight"
Janis Joplin: "Piece of My Heart"
Kelly Clarkson: "A Moment Like This"
BoxCat Games: "Against the Wall" (CC BY 3.0)
Geto Boys: "My Mind Playing Tricks On Me"
Radiohead: "Lift"
Muddy Waters: "Sad Sad Day"
Calexico and Iron & Wine: "Bitter Suite (Pájaro/Evil Eye/Tennessee Train)"
Bruce Springsteen: "There Goes My Miracle"
Mattiel: "Keep the Change"
Madonna: "Dark Ballet"
Vampire Weekend: "Jerusalem, New York, Berlin"
Adele rapping

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