A few months ago, on all those blogs that seem to break and burn so many fledgling bands, the image of a young woman started appearing in banner ads. She was blonde, with long, shiny hair and wearing a tasteful polo shirt. But it was unclear whether the photo was taken 20 years ago or two weeks ago; whether she was in high school or graduate school; and whether she was happy, confused or stoned. In some ways, she was the preppy Mona Lisa, although some Internet detectives later found out that her name was Kirsten.
Clicking on the picture directed users to the Web site of the band Vampire Weekend, and suddenly, everything made sense, especially when it was revealed that the picture was the front cover of the band's album, "Contra," released Jan. 12 by XL Recordings.
But it also made sense because, much like the picture, Vampire Weekend's image and sound were identified as preppy, but almost seemed ageless, too; fans said the band was creating something new and modern, while critics claim it was simply ripping off mid-'80s Peter Gabriel albums. When the band started to attract attention, first on blogs and then in the mainstream, with MTV News hosts showing up at its basement shows, plenty of people suggested it was just another flash in the pan, one more band that would be buzzed about and then forgotten.
But Vampire Weekend managed to beat the odds, partly with luck, partly with talent and partly with careful planning. The most critical aspect of the plan was to make sure music from its debut album was available almost immediately to capitalize on people's interest-those close to the group knew that silence equaled death. This time around, the band is still using the Web to promote its new album, but it has the name recognition and live chops to back up the hype.
We knew that we had a brilliant and exciting album," Vampire Weekend manager Ian Montone says. "A version of that LP had already leaked online, giving bloggers an opportunity to listen to the music rather than form baseless opinions on hype or buzz. In this instance, the leak ultimately set up the proper album release."
When that proper album release did happen, on Jan. 28, 2008, Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut entered the Billboard 200 at No. 17 and went on to sell 482,000 copies, according to Nielsen SoundScan. But keeping the growth consistent and exposing the band to a wider audience remained a top priority for everyone involved.
"The reason the first album was ultimately so successful was that we weren't terribly precious about who the audience was," says Kris Chen, who signed the band to XL. "When I first met them, I thought this was a band that could appeal to people that like Animal Collective and people that like John Mayer. My friends have nieces in their late teens that live on Cape Cod and love pop music and Vampire Weekend. And a lot of my very hip friends say Vampire Weekend is the most mainstream band they like."
Chen, XL's senior VP of A&R, says the band's sold-out 2008 show at New York's 5,000-capacity Central Park Summerstage drove home this point. "I was walking around in the pouring rain looking at this huge line of people, and I couldn't believe how diverse it was," he says. "There were teenagers, there were middle-aged people, and not only did they all know who Vampire Weekend was, they all had a story to tell about how they got into the band."
The teenagers in the crowd, much like their hormonal brethren all across the country and the world, have been a big part of Vampire Weekend's crossover success. "They can come in to the band context-free, which is nice," Chen says. "I spent a week on tour with the band at one point and I remember being surprised by how many teenagers were in the audience. Kids get a bad rap for having really pedestrian taste in music, but these kids have incredible bullshit detectors and can see how sincere this band is."
Lead singer Ezra Koenig agrees that the band's teenage audience is crucial. "I'm the most psyched when teenagers like the music," he says from his girlfriend's parents' house in Palo Alto, Calif. "It's the most honest time in someone's life, and they have the ability to see right through something that isn't real."
Koenig adds that he wants to recruit emo kids to the Vampire Weekend fan base, but might not be prepared to make the necessary wardrobe changes. "My hair does approach that emo look sometimes, if I go a while without cutting it," he says. "But beyond all the pretense, I think that kids do see how emotional our lyrics are, and they connect with that.
"We never make artistic decisions based on who we want our audience to be," Koenig says. "But my goal is not to limit who listens to us. If people describe us as indie, that means a specific type of person will listen, and I don't want that to be the case."
On "Contra," much like the last record, the lyrics remain not only emotional, but also playful and erudite. "Contra" also retains the same sound on a number of tracks, particularly toward the start of the album; "Horchata," the first "teaser" track to be released, has the same upbeat, African-influenced sound that ran throughout "Vampire Weekend." But the new album also sprawls toward the end, with some ballads and slower tracks that might throw listeners for a loop.
"This album reflects a different side of us, for sure," Koenig says. "In some ways it's similar-Rostam [Batmanglij, who plays multiple instruments in the band] produced it, like the first one, and it's still the four of us. But we did want to do something different, and I think 'Contra' is more diverse in terms of tempo and the sounds we use."
Chen points to the fact that the band members had two years on the road to make them better musicians. "They had more time with this album, and they were really able to stretch out and go slow and focus," he says. "Too many bands make albums that are indistinguishable from one another, and I think Vampire Weekend wanted to make sure that didn't happen."
The time on the road was important in terms of building the band's talent and career. "Vampire Weekend works very hard-they tour consistently in the U.S. and overseas," Montone says. "We've tried not to skip steps, playing the right rooms, even if the short-term demand could have made larger plays possible at the time. Regarding festivals, we've always been somewhat picky and not overplayed. With any artist that is in demand, you have to know when to open and close the tap, so to speak."
The marketing rollout for the album was fairly different from the first one, too; expected, given that Vampire Weekend now has an impressive track record. "We didn't want to do things in a conventional, dry way," Chen says. "We wanted to find out what 'Contra' meant to people and use that question as a way to let them in."
The launch of the campaign was the Kirsten image, and Chen says the sites it ran on reported a much higher than average click-through rate. "We put the image out, and then we announced the album," he says. "We posted the MP3 of 'Horchata' to the band's Web site and MySpace, and then we started slowly releasing more content."
The release included the first official single from "Contra," "Cousins," which is No. 39 on Billboard's Alternative chart. "We also posted a video for the song on the Web site, and we posted some other clips of the band, for people to see and hear them again," Chen says. "And we just posted a track called 'White Sky,' which the band had been playing live for some time, but no one had heard the album version."
Even though nearly one-third of the album has now been made available to a mass audience, in a turnaround of opinion from the last record, Chen says he hopes the album won't leak for as long as possible. "If it does leak, it makes it less fun for the band to share it," he says. "Albums don't always get a chance to be presented the right way, and we are hoping that this doesn't leak and allows the band to roll it out on their own."
Koenig says promoting the new album has been much easier than it was the first time around. "I'm well past worrying about it flopping," he says. "Once we started releasing songs and doing small shows, the response was really good, and I feel confident. I don't think people are burned out on this band."
But, Koenig adds, that doesn't mean he's resting on his laurels and waiting for the accolades to roll in and the album to fly off the shelves. "We still need to prove ourselves with the second record," he says. "People give you no credit until you have at least two successful albums."
But even as they work the new album, there's still strong interest in "Vampire Weekend." A recent ad for HP used "A Punk," a song from the first record, despite the fact that the track is almost 2 years old.
"In terms of licensing, it's always up to the band," Chen says. "We hadn't done ads before this one, but we felt comfortable with it. 'A Punk' was the biggest single from the first album, and HP wanted to use something recognizable, which makes sense. We also know it could spur attention to the band again, and in a way, it was almost better to use an older track. 'A Punk' has been around for a while, and it won't be defined as the song in the ad. It already has a life far beyond that."
Montone points out that even though the band has had success at radio, licensing is still key to getting the music heard. "If the spot is classy and works well with the music, I think it can be a smart and significant impression," he says. In addition to the HP ad, Vampire Weekend's music has appeared in the films "Step Brothers" and "Nick & Norah's Infinite Playlist" and the British TV show "The Inbetweeners."
Koenig says that the band's exposure at radio was initially surprising, but ultimately positive. "It was pretty cool to hear my songs on the radio, especially when they were sandwiched between stuff that sounded totally different," he says. "And of course, once we got there, some people would try to call us out. The positive reviews we were getting are totally one of the reasons we are where we are today, but while respect is important, it doesn't break you through.
"Look at 'Twilight,' " he continues. "It's the biggest movie in the world and all the critics hated it. My goal has always been to make some type of pop music, to always have my songs be catchy and immediate on some level. I want to make something that people will walk away humming, and all the bands I love were able to split the difference between being loved by the critics and by fans. I hope we can do the same."