Only In 2021: A Conversation Between Goose And Ezra Koenig

Jake May on June 1, 2021
Only In 2021: A Conversation Between Goose And Ezra Koenig

This piece ran alongside our recent Goose feature in the April_May issue of Relix.


After capping off 2020 with their celebratory Goosemas livestream, Goose’s 2021 started with a bang. Vampire Weekend enlisted them— along with saxophonist Sam Gendel— to create a new version of “2021,” the shortest song on Vampire Weekend’s 2019 record, Father of the Bride, which clocks in at a tight 1:38. The catch? Their creation had to run for 20 minutes and 21 seconds. The two tracks were released as the 40:42 EP earlier this year.

The last time Vampire Weekend was featured in the pages of Relix, Ezra Koenig discussed the then-new FotB and how it was partially inspired by his roots in the “jam-adjacent” world. Koenig attended shows at New York’s Wetlands and covered Greyboy Allstars tunes in a high-school band, and, by virtue of growing up in the East Coast town of Glen Ridge, N.J., the music of the Grateful Dead, Phish and other improvisational bands percolated into his head.

Since then, Koenig has doubled down on his renewed interest in the jam scene. Along with his band, he attended Phish’s December 2019 gig at Philadelphia’s The Met, and Vampire Weekend even began to stretch out some of their own songs in concert.

Through his Time Crisis show, Koenig has also continued to explore his renewed fascination with the contemporary jamband scene, at one point noting his fondness for Goose. The two artists ultimately connected at a Goose/Pigeons Playing Ping Pong show at the Troubadour in West Hollywood, and they immediately hit it off.

“Sometimes you meet artists, and you really like what they do,” Koenig recalls. “We had a lot to talk about when we first met.”

When the idea for 40:42 came about, Koenig jumped at the chance to work with Goose because, as he notes, “It’s not always obvious what two bands can do together.” Rather, it took something out-of-the-box to create the opportunity for Goose and Vampire Weekend to collaborate.

“In other genres of music, it’s very obvious how people can remix each other, or do something together,” he explained. “Literally, it’s numerology— a number created an idea and that led to like, ‘Oh, that’s the perfect thing we could do together.’”

Below, Koenig and Goose’s Rick Mitarotonda and Peter Anspach discuss the creation of 40:42, their relationship to the East Coast jam scene and the future of Vampire Weekend’s live show.

How did the idea for 40:42 first develop?

EZRA KOENIG: It was a somewhat last-minute idea. In the last weeks of 2020, I had people asking me: “Are you guys gonna do some kind of ‘2021’ thing?” Some people thought we could do remixes or something, but we hadn’t done remixes in, like, a decade. I was like, “Is there something else that’s not a remix that’s still cool?” And then the idea of doing 20 minute, 21 second versions of that song came up, and it just really appealed to me conceptually. So I started to think about who could do something interesting in that timeframe, and the first artists that came to mind were Goose and Sam [Gendel].

I got really excited about the idea because it wasn’t a remix. It was asking somebody to do their thing. And, of course, Goose is great at creating expansive, improvisational versions of these different songs. I was very lucky that when I asked them, they were prepared. Because not only is it a creatively difficult task to create 20 minutes of music. But, practically speaking, there aren’t that many artists on earth who—after you hit them with than idea like that—will hit you right back and say, “Alright, yeah, we’ll do it.”

PETER ANSPACH: I got the text at Christmas Eve dinner. It was totally awesome. I texted the rest of the guys: “This is a crazy idea. What do you guys think?” Rick was all about it.

RICK MITAROTONDA: Yeah, it was a no-brainer. We’re big fans, and it was a really fun idea. When he threw out the idea, I was kind of racking my brain for different ways to approach it. Ultimately, it seemed like the move to not overthink it and to just put our own arrangement on the song. So we just did a few takes and picked the one we liked the most.

EK: I went into it with very low expectations. But, in both cases, what we got handed back just totally exceeded our expectations because we would have been happy with probably anything. It’s a conceptual idea, just for fun. Worst-case scenario, it’s just a curiosity. But I really feel like it turned out to be the best-case scenario. And it’s not just me who feels that way; other people in our circle, and even people I vaguely know, have connected with it.

RM: It’s definitely musical. It seemed like a very left-field move for you guys at this point, but super cool.

Ezra, I’m curious about the evolution of your relationship with the improvisational music world. Did something in the past few years, specifically, lead to your renewed interest in the jam scene?

EK: It has always been there, I’m just catching onto it more lately. For me, if anything, I feel like has to do with the town I grew up in New Jersey. In East Coast towns, historically, there’s a type of person who’s a little bit crunchy, a little bit sporty and who listens to a lot of classic music, some of which is Phish and the Grateful Dead. That stuff is just kind of around, and that’s true in a lot of parts of the country, but especially on the East Coast. I always liked the Dead, and I’ve definitely gotten more into Phish as I’ve gotten older. But, I also gotta shout out our drummer C.T. [Chris Tomson]. We both grew up in New Jersey, but we came at it from different directions. He’s like a jam dude—he’s seen Phish all these times. My curiosity was always piqued by it. He has this Phillies parody Phish shirt and he wore it on TV once; he was always trying to subtly fly the flag.

So it’s always been kind of looming, but I would say it’s partially about getting older, getting deeper into other types of music, seeing what’s inspiring and, in our case, realizing that we wanted to find inspiration for the live show.

For us, the live things would always just be an afterthought. So it felt very natural to start to look around at people who are doing very interesting things with the live show. If you go back through history, you can see all the innovations that the Dead did and all the innovations that Phish did in the ‘90s. Even in the past year, look at what you guys did and the way that you innovated—you guys are playing on the top of Rockefeller Center. I feel like there’s always a type of person who is more focused on the live show—creating these innovate and inspiring experiences—and I think that’s true across the generations. There’s always a page to take from that world to get excited about.

PA: We feel the opposite, in a sense. [Laughs.] We feel the same, but in the studio. There’s so many records that we’ve come to love over the last couple years; the sounds that people are finding in the studio are just so cool and interesting to us. We really want to explore that. That’s something that we’re sinking our teeth into right now.

Rick and Peter, how did the Connecticut jamband scene inform Goose’s development?

RM: When I was in high school, all the kids were going to Umphrey’s [McGee] at the Nokia Theatre [in New York City]. Phish wasn’t playing at that time and, if they were, then that would be the place that all of the clowns would have gone. That incubated a lot for us, obviously, on a personal level, and it was the world that I knew at that time. In more recent years, we’ve been listening to a lot more “indie” music or whatever you want to call it. But, in terms of tapping into and developing in that world, I would not know the first place to begin. Whereas with even the low-level jamband venues, the path was sort of apparent.

PA: Yeah, there’s a good amount of local venues in the Bridgeport, New Haven and Hartford areas that were super supportive of that kind of music early on, which helped lay the groundwork.

EK: My [Time Crisis] cohost Jake Longstreth grew up in Connecticut; we always had this discussion about the Tri-state area. Obviously, New York dominates—we don’t need to list the influential musicians from New York. But even in New Jersey, which is a state that people make fun of, you’ve got Bruce Springsteen—that right there makes it a legendry place. So Jake would always say, ‘CT is not pulling its weight, man.’ So the idea of hearing about a new band from Connecticut just got everybody excited. And I really liked their name.

Reflecting on each of your roots in the improvisational music scene, how do you think things have changed since you were first exposed to that world?

RM: I feel like the amount of dogma in the jamband scene has increased because there is now some distance from the last time it was truly innovated, mainly in the ‘90s and early 2000s. We’re interested in not boxing ourselves into any of the formations that have come about from the years of people subscribing to certain things that have been cool in the jamband world. Something cool will happen, years will go by and it will become this dogmatic thing. At this point, we’re trying to push ourselves and trying to open our minds. We are trying to avoid those beaten paths as much as possible and stay true to what we value in music.

EK: That’s a really interesting take. I think, partially, that’s why it can be really exciting to get into bands who don’t exactly live in the same world as you. When you feel boxed into a scene or something, there are times where the dogma of the genre can feel overwhelming. It’s a bit of a “grass is always greener” thing. Part of my point of view, when I think of you guys or someone like Trey, is that I associate it so much with freedom. And freedom is so much about not being boxed in by dogmatic principles. So, it’s almost like a mental exercise—to engage with other ways of thinking about music.

To me, it’s almost like getting back to the first time you picked up a guitar or the first time that you really got excited about a record. When you are in your late 20s, 30s or 40s, you already know the history, you know the commentary, you know the debate. Sometimes all you can do as an adult—to get back to that vibey taking-it-all-in feeling—is just check out other universes. But that’s what artists have to do. You have to challenge yourself to not be overwhelmed by the dogma of the world that you’re working in because nobody starts that way.

RM: It’s a time-tested maneuver if you really think about it. You wind up in a box, and the way out of your box is to really put yourself in another box and, in doing so, you break the rules of your box and create a new box.

EK: I love the box metaphor. The funny thing about your world is that it’s so dominated by the history of it. There’s nothing but freedom in the approach, because improvisation is a form of freedom in performing music, but also, there’s such giant, heavyweight examples of how things are done. Sometimes I’ll see comments on some old Dead show on and think, “Wow, the way people talk about this shit is actually way more hardcore than anything you might find in the indie world.”

PA: There’s so much to tap into. There’s so much content with all the live show recordings—other bands maybe just have their studio albums and that’s it. And you listen to those, but the evolution of continuous live recordings that are always different just keeps people sucked in—in a hardcore way.

RM: The intensity to which people are invested into this type of music is definitely a lot. There’s certain moments like, “Whoa, how did we get here? This is nuts.”

Looking ahead, what goals do you have for your respective bands once traditional concerts can return?

EK: Over the past year, Vampire Weekend has definitely reverted more back to our full studio vibe, which, unfortunately, still feels like a bit of a binary. I would say my goal is to increasingly blur that boundary and shake up that binary because it’s too easy for us to pack up the whole circus, go into the studio for a couple years, and then be like, “OK, let’s start thinking about the live show.” That’s just how it’s always been. I want to make sure that the boundary—between the studio and the stage—doesn’t feel quite as intense. That could mean playing smaller shows more regularly, keeping those muscles working, trying to do fun, live stuff— even when we’re not doing an official album campaign.

That intense on/off studio, big tour, back to the studio vibe—it’s not a pleasant schedule. Suddenly, everything just feels intense and scary when you’re not out there performing too much, and then you become uptight and it’s just a bad feeling. It’s not appealing to me as a way to do this for the rest of my life.

PA: Finding the balance is so key, and that’s something that we definitely have to work to accomplish. With how often bands like us tour, and with how much is expected of you, it’s hard to find the balance to work on songs, get in the studio and just generally do life stuff. We’re always trying to find a balance between all of that. Plus, right now, we kind of need to go see most of the country because that’s where we’re at.

EK: My partner [Rashida Jones] is friends with Chris Martin from Coldplay, and they were chatting on FaceTime and he said, “Oh, I wanna say hi to Ezra.” He said, “I was very confused because I got a message that you guys had released some new music. But, when I looked into what they had put out, it wasn’t actually new Vampire Weekend music; you had other people cover your song.” And I swear to god, he said, “I really like that band Goose; I checked out their Bingo Tour.” So you got a new fan in Chris Martin.