interview by Coleman Spencer and Marshall James McKinley
Crave: Could you tell us about your experience working with Patrick Carney of the Black Keys?
Chris: It was a simple process actually. I was playing some of the demos of our songs to Chris Baio, Vampire Weekend’s bassist, and he sort of said, “You know who would be good to produce this is Patrick Carney.” I hadn’t really thought about it I guess. I thought I was way farther away from having a record than I realized. I was watching the Netflix animated show Bojack Horseman, and I realized, “Carney did this song and I think it sounds really cool.” So having those two things, I got his email and essentially wrote him an overly-long email with a few demos saying, “Hey man you wanna make a record?” And he was like, “Yeah dude, let’s do it.” Having those two things happen in succession at the right time and everyone saying yes... it just worked out well.
You mentioned having played some of your new songs to your band mates in Vampire Weekend. How long had these new songs been in the works before you started this project, Dams of the West?
A couple years. For Vampire Weekend stuff, I generally would be writing specifically for a song that was already in the works or trying to fit a part in here and there, so it wasn’t really my job to start stuff. Some of this stuff is pretty old, and some of it is more recent but generally speaking, these songs have been in the works for a few years. A few ideas predate (Dams of the West) and are kind of old, but the songs as completed things are just for this album.
One thing you may have noticed is that we’re both wearing Grateful Dead shirts. I read somewhere that you were a fan of the Grateful Dead, Phish, and similar bands. At what age did you gain interest in those bands? Did they influence your music career?
Well I don’t wanna front, I would say historically speaking I’m more of a Phish fan. I like the Grateful Dead a lot, they have some great albums, but I think just because it (Phish’s music) was current, and like, real-time, I could see shows as opposed to just various permutations, and hear the tapes and stuff. Because my older sister was not into music that much, when I got to high school I sort of figured all this stuff out for myself, and high school was definitely when Phish came. I think probably for most people it was around that age, to have some of the cooler older kids be like, “Oh, what’s this?” Some people liked it, some people didn’t. I sort of liked it from the off – I was more of a guitar player at that point, so obviously a lot of tasty solos there. But yeah, I think more than any specific directive from Phish specifically, I think that they, to me, were very much like a gateway. Which I’m sure a lot of people think, because, you know, through them I learned to love a lot of other kinds of music. So I think that the way they widened my perspective as probably their biggest influence, more than trying to play the drum beat from Llama or something. And I mean the Grateful Dead, I love the Grateful Dead too. They definitely are not as much a part of my psyche as Phish was growing up, but I think that they’re probably always up there also.
I also read somewhere that with Ezra Koenig, prior to Vampire Weekend, you guys had a little rap ensemble called – I’m not sure if I’m gonna pronounce this right…
L’Homme Run, yeah. Could you talk a little bit about that, because that was kind of a surprise for me to read.
Well that was definitely college era, and I would say that I back doored my way into that group. I didn’t rap, personally. It was Ezra and our friend Andrew that were the two halves of that, and they had a few songs, like they sort of had them recorded, and then I came in by having access to a P.A., and then I pressed play for a show. Then the next thing was (Ezra and Andrew) like, “Could you play bass on some of this stuff?” So I pressed play and played bass on some of that stuff. Then I went up to guitar solos, and it sort of grew from there. I still think some of those songs are pretty good actually. Rostam, I remember working on a recording in his dorm room. There’s a lot of Vampire Weekend’s DNA in those songs, if not necessarily the concept. I think that’s sort of Ezra and Andrew’s call whether that will ever exist again, but I still think those songs are pretty cool.
Playing music for a long time in different bands and groups, what has this tour been like and how has your audience changed in this project from what you were working on previously?
Well, in this project the target audience is any audience! In Vampire Weekend, I think we’ve done a lot of growing and there’s a certain amount of people that want whatever the next thing is that you do, so automatically there’s that. Whether it’s good or bad will mean whether they continue to or not, whereas this thing (Dams of the West) is essentially starting from zero. So in terms of performing, the first ever Dams of the West show was last August. It was probably terrible, but only like five people came, so it’s okay, because that was just like friends, and I didn’t really invite anyone. My wife said after the show that I looked pissed off the entire time, which I certainly wasn’t meaning to. I wasn’t pissed off, but it was probably more that I was kind of freaking out or unsure of what to do with myself. I think at this point, I look slightly less pissed off, or rather, if I look pissed off it’s on purpose. But you know, it’s definitely a difference from playing drums to playing guitar and singing up front. I mean, I think this tour’s been great. I think that Black Joe Lewis’s crowds have generally been really welcoming, and they’re kind of ready to see what it is and not, like, arms crossed and like “Bluugh.” So yeah, you know this is still literally our first tour. A lot of these answers about Dams of the West are still to be determined. Counting tonight we only have three shows left. I think they’ve been going well, you’ll see it tonight and you’ll form your own opinions.
So right now you’re living in Brooklyn. I was curious as to how that changes your life both personally and artistically? Having grown up in Imlaystown New Jersey, which is a small town.
I think the Brooklyn part is less a thing than the New York City part. I went to New York for college and sort of ended up staying there. I don’t think I’ll be there my whole life. Again, Vampire Weekend was such a weird thing in many ways, but we were never part of a scene. We had friends that played in bands, but since we formed in college and then already had our shows down and had stuff recorded by the time we graduated, we were more public so I never necessarily felt part of a scene. Obviously being part of any big city there's more around you to influence you. There’s more people you can ask about things, there's more shows you can see, there’s just more. I think it would be different now, because there's so much more going on. When I was growing up the internet was just coming up, and now anyone can hear anything in an instant. When I was 18 I still had to search out Fela Kuti CDs. I didn’t know what it sounded like, but what I read, I really loved. I had to go and search it out. I couldn’t just consume it immediately, so it's a little different now. It was probably like moving from a small town two hours from here to Boulder. There's just more cultural content to consume. If you want to try to work with that and make art, then you do. If you don’t, and just want to do another job and just have that there, then that's cool too.
How’d you form this touring band? Your drummer Gabriela has a project Ela Minus that is very different from Dams of the West, so how did you pick and choose who you wanted to play with you for this tour?
It was all friends of friends really. I sort of lucked out that they’re musicians and nice people. Like, you’re in a minivan. If there are any assholes, it’ll be pretty apparent. Really, I just emailed a few friends. I knew I wanted to play with women, and so I emailed and said, “Hey do you guys know anyone?” I went through a few options on a few things, but these were first or second choices. I didn’t know about their projects beforehand, but I like them all, and this is not precluding that for any of them. They liked the album when I sent it out, they wanted to play, so yeah. I feel quite lucky that it worked out so smoothly.
Tailing off that, what are your future plans for Dams of the West? Do you hope to continue writing your own music and if so for how long? How do those plans coincide your plans with Vampire Weekend for the future?
I plan to make two more albums over the next 13 years and then retire. It's a world exclusive. No, I have no idea. You know, I think with Vampire Weekend, when that's on and moving it's hard. There really isn’t time for much else. So that schedule I’m a part of, but it happens when it happens. With Dams of the West, I don’t think this one album is it. I didn’t think about this when I was making this album as much as it was just sort of, “I’m just bored. I’m gonna put out something.” It’s not really worth it if that's the itch I was scratching. Over the course of this album... this is my opinion, you can feel free to disagree. I found a way of approaching the lyrics that felt like it wasn’t a lot of stuff I was hearing. It felt like I was communicating things and I feel like there was more there. I don’t think that these ten songs were the only ones I’m capable of. When that’ll happen, I don’t know. I also think that this one came up pretty organically. I was joking about the two albums in 13 years, but that probably is not too far off if I’m being super logistic.
If it happens we have it on record. So wrapping up, would you rather be able to master every instrument or master every language?
Am I starting from zero or am I starting from where I am now?
Where you are now.
I’d chose the language. There’s certain parts of musicality and instrumentation that is somewhat universal, that I feel like I’ve communicated with people. I can’t speak their language with some of the instrumental stuff, but I’ve less communicated with people in their different languages. They’re not dissimilar things. You’re trying to communicate something, whether that’s in a vocabulary sense or trying to make something come out of an emotional sense. I think I’d take the language option. Plus, that opens up a lot more employment opportunities.
One more, how do you hope to be remembered in the world of music? Not when you’re dead necessarily, but what legacy do you hope to leave with your music?
It feels a little early to think about that. I’ve noticed that the last ten years Bob Dylan has done a lot with his legacy through the autobiography, the No Direction Home thing. Bob Dylan is more conscious of wanting to control his own narrative of his past. He gave a fuck about his current narrative, but I think there was a certain amount of creative years where you hope that you have a legacy and it's generally a positive one, but if you’re thinking about that, you’re not thinking about making a good record. So when I’m headlining the Fox Theatre on the second album, 15 years from now, maybe you can ask me that same question, and I’ll probably have a much better answer for you.
We look forward to it.