Exclusive: Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on the bushfires and what must happen next

Exclusive: Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig on the bushfires and what must happen next

Vampire Weekend
Words by Tom Parker

We caught up with the Vampire Weekend frontman while the band were recently in Melbourne.

Vampire Weekend’s recent Australian tour came at a time where the country was being ravaged by one of the worst bushfire events in its history.

While the 2009 Black Saturday fires were more destructive in a fatal sense, claiming the lives of 173 people, and an unnamed bushfire event of 1974 was more widespread, burning through 117 million hectares, the 2019/20 bushfires are significant due to the length of time with which they’ve been burning.

In the past, January and February have proven to be the most hazardous months when it comes to bushfire risk however, during the 2019/20 event, some fires have been burning since October.

By the time of writing, an estimated 1 billion animals had thought to be killed by the 2019/20 fires, while almost 2,000 homes had been destroyed.

So what does all this have to do with an indie rock band bred out of New York?

In August, Vampire Weekend announced they’d return to Australia as part of the Falls Festival circuit, playing shows in Lorne, Byron Bay, Marion Bay and Fremantle.

It would be there first Australian show since they headlined Splendour in the Grass in 2018 and their first venture Down Under since the release of their critically acclaimed 2019 album, Father of the Bride, their first record in six years.

On Sunday December 29, Falls Festival announced that its Lorne leg would be abandoned after one day due to the impending risk of the bushfires.

Tasked to bring in the New Year, suddenly Vampire Weekend’s first Victorian show in six years was cancelled.

Days following that announcement, Beat Magazine was presented with the unique opportunity to speak to the band’s frontman Ezra Koenig, face to face at Melbourne’s Langham Hotel. Their two headline dates and remaining festival slots would go ahead; on this day, the band readied themselves to play The Forum.

As a devastating phenomenon tore through the heart of Australia, would the progressive, intellectual and humanitarian Koenig choose to shed any light?

“I don’t know what to say, it’s terrible, it’s an absolute nightmare and you know, on a smaller level, we’ve dealt with similar things in California [in 2018] so I know how devastating it is for people who lose their homes,” Koenig says.

“The very first show we did with our new band, this still ended up being a year before the record [Father of the Bride] came out, was this weekend in Ojai, California, which was a community that was really ravaged by fires and we donated all the proceeds to help people who were affected specifically, undocumented people who really have a hard time when dealing with a natural disaster.”

That show in Ojai would be their first show in four years and took place in the town’s Libbey Bowl, an amphitheatre housing just under 1000 people.

On that occasion the band raised money by selling shirts for the cause, Upper Ojai Relief, while also matching donations up to $10,000 for the 805 UndocuFund, a disaster relief organisation for immigrant families in the region.

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The current Australian bushfires has inevitability brought into question the leadership of the country. How has the government coped in the wake of unmitigated disaster and how has the current rubric held up?

Prime Minister Scott Morrison is a conservative comfy with a climate policy that ranked last of 57 countries in the recently compiled 2020 Climate Change Performance Index. This report was prepared by a group of thinktanks comprising the Climate Action Network, Germanwatch and the NewClimate Institute.

The United States of America were ranked second-last of the 57 countries, yet, there’s a Senator out there attempting to steer the ship around.

“I guess the question is what happens next,” Koenig continues. “Being here, I’ve been emailing with our management about finalising some stuff that we’re going to do for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the next couple of months, which we did four years ago.

“To go support a politician who is truly outside the norm of the last few decades of American politics at least that is a small piece of hopefulness.

“I’m sure people here feel the same way. It’s frustrating to feel like, no matter how many people get in the streets and no matter how many people are upset and disturbed by what’s happening that none of us can have real impact on how business is conducted or how the environment is protected because that requires these big governmental bodies. Obviously voting is now more important than ever.”

So what does happen next? On Wednesday, Sanders’ economic advisor, Stephanie Kelton, told The Guardian that Australia could benefit from the Green New Deal that has been proposed by Sanders and others to help the US transition to a low carbon economy.

The ambitious spending program aims to help keep global heating below 1.5C while also transforming the US economy. It would see the US government spending US$16.3tn on decarbonising the economy, by upgrading public transport, moving to renewable energy and funding the transition for workers affected by potential job losses in the resources industry.

Kelton believes that this could “absolutely” benefit Australia. “This is definitely not conceptually a program that couldn’t work in any country,” she said.

Kelton went on to ridicule the suggestion that it was “too hard”.

Imagine if we all had the foresight and nous of Stephanie Kelton?

Throughout the conversation, Koenig was comfortable talking about the current state of the world’s climate but was also more than happy to talk about his band’s music – one that has been nominated for three Grammys at the 62nd Grammy Awards taking place later this month.

With Father of the Bride conquered, Koenig is more rejuvenated than ever – there certainly won’t be a six-year wait for album five.

“I think about ‘what’s next’ all the time and ‘what’s next’ is the next album,” Koenig says. “I don’t want it to take six years again, that is not appealing to me.

“In some ways I feel like with this album, we kind of had no idea. We knew we had fans, we knew that people listened to our music but, for instance, when you’re planning a tour, you don’t know what size venues to play.

“We played Madison Square Garden for the first time ever, that’s a big deal when you’re from New York. We did the full 360 thing, there was a lot of tickets and that’s nerve-racking. The only info you have to go on is five years old, that’s the last time we did this. Think about how much changes in five years – shit gets totally flipped upside down.

“You have to have some faith and guess and do your best and hope that people like the new album enough and all that shit. But now that we’ve done all that stuff, it just feels like something’s there.”

Vampire Weekend wrapped up their Australian tour at the Enmore Theatre in Sydney on Thursday January 9.

Following their Melbourne show on Tuesday January 7, the band revealed via Instagram that they would be donating $10,000 to Wildlife Victoria to support bushfire relief.