By Joel Francis
The Kansas City Star
Success has come easily to Vampire Weekend. After starting in 2006, the indie-rock band generated major buzz the next year with its single “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa,” which appeared on Rolling Stone’s 100 Best Songs of the Year list.
With a mix of preppy ’80s rock and heavy debt to the African sounds of Paul Simon’s “Graceland” album, Vampire Weekend’s self-titled debut was seemingly everywhere. Songs popped up in movies, TV shows and video games, and the band performed to a capacity crowd at the high-profile Central Park SummerStage in New York.
“When we signed with (record label) XL, if someone would have told me we would have sold 100,000 copies of our first record, I would have been elated,” said Chris Baio, the group’s bass player. “The fact that we sold 400,000 copies beyond that is just an extra bonus.”
Hot starts have derailed more than one promising band, but Baio said the group was talking about its follow-up effort just months after the first one dropped.
“We definitely felt some pressure as we started getting more and more success with the first record,” Baio said. “Very early on we were talking about the second album. I think we came up with the title ‘Contra’ within two months of the (first) album’s release.”
When it came time to record the follow-up, the band was able to push aside all the external pressure and make the album it wanted.
“If we were going for the easy commercial release it would have been five “A-Punks” and five “Oxford Commas,” Baio said, referring to two of Vampire Weekend’s biggest singles. “We didn’t think at all about the amount of records we had sold when we went in the studio to make ‘Contra.’ ”
Instead, they toyed with the formula, stretching some numbers beyond the four-minute limit imposed on “Vampire Weekend” and playing with arrangements.
“Some of the instrumentation on ‘Contra’ is a little bit weirder,” Baio said.
“There’s one song called ‘Diplomat’s Son’ that has abrupt changes that make it almost proggy in structure.”
When Vampire Weekend played Liberty Hall in Lawrence in September 2008, it emptied its repertoire in a 50-minute set. Standing in front of a static image of its only album’s cover, the band performed all of its songs, in addition to a couple of B-sides and new numbers.
“When we started, there was no light show, and we were using the house mixer,” Baio said. “Now we have our own sound and lighting guy. We have a background we’re proud of that changes at different points during the show and a good, new light show.”
Baio said both the production and set list will be improved when Vampire Weekend plays Starlight Theatre on Saturday with Beach House and the Very Best.
“I feel like we’re now putting on a full show at 85 minutes,” Baio said. “We may make some changes to the set, like if someone tweets a request, but for the most part we try not to change it. It has a nice ebb and flow we like, or rather just flow, no ebb.”
That makes the set similar to Vampire Weekend’s three-year history — one steady rush with few breaks, something the band isn’t interested in pushing any further.
“With the exception of when we went in and recorded ‘Contra,’ the past three years have been a steady grind,” Baio said. “We’re going to take some time between the second and third albums, and for now that’s still a ways off. We’re not going to be playing any songs off the third record this year.”
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