The Very Deep Merch Galaxy Of Vampire Weekend

10 October 2019
Style, Music, T-Shirts, Vampire Weekend
Image: Photo Illustration/Getty Images/Vampire Weekend

How a jam-heavy new album, an online radio show, and a legion of inside-joking fans put Vampire Weekend squarely into the Grateful Dead merch tradition

Towards the end of Vampire Weekend’s show at Madison Square Garden in September, frontman Ezra Koenig pried open his jacket to reveal a surprise for the hometown crowd: a pristine late-’90s Latrell Sprewell jersey. Fresh off the release of Father of the Bride, his New York band’s most expansive and global album yet, the jersey was Koenig’s small tribute to one of the most eccentric and loveable characters to ever call the Garden home.

About a week later, the Instagram account @fromthefreezer posted an image of one fan’s commemoration of the night, and of Koenig’s outfit: a sticker of a jolly bear, customized specially for the occasion. The bear wore Koenig’s jacket and jersey, with a twist—the uniform’s font was now rendered in the cactused Jokerman font—along with a pair of shorts with the spiraling snake logo the band has used for this album cycle.

To the untrained eye, the sticker was cute, the work of an eager fan. Closer inspection, though, reveals it to be loaded with references and inside jokes—and merely the tip of a highly referential merchandise iceberg that’s accumulated around the band and Time Crisis, the Beats 1 Radio show Koenig cohosts. Take the bear’s shorts: they’re modeled on the VW-customized Patagonia Baggies made and sold by the Instagram user @petrifiedgood. That kooky, echt-’90s font? A reference to VW’s habit of covering the Bob Dylan song “Jokerman”—itself a decision borne of Koenig’s fascination with the typeface, which, according to the user-managed Time Crisis wiki, has been discussed on the show no fewer than six times.

And then there’s the dancing bear itself, a longtime Grateful Dead mascot—and a not-so-subtle nod to the Vampire Weekend’s increasingly apparent affinities with the jam legends. Koenig has complicated feelings about his band’s relationship with the Dead—more on that in a bit—so the bear is perhaps more representative of a broader turn the band has taken.

While plenty of acts have followed in the Dead’s bootleg- and tie-dye-heavy wake, Vampire Weekend has become perhaps the standard bearer of a certain strain of post-Dead, merch-driven fandom. The band now boasts a fan-run Instagram account devoted to cataloguing both official and fan-made merch, as well as another Instagram account that produces and highlights fan art based on the band’s music, and on the radio show’s deepest, weirdest riffs. Nobody ever thought that Vampire Weekend—a group of eggheaded Ivy League kids with a taste for Nigerian highlife—would become anything approaching heirs, in merch, music, or anything in between, to the Dead. This sticker of a very sweet bear (and a few thousand T-shirts) argues otherwise.

Vampire Weekend was always keenly attuned to image—think of the band’s Wes Anderson-adjacent love of Futura font, or its vintage-photo album art. But even though Koenig went through a sustained period of T-shirt obsession in his teens, he explained during a recent phone call, he never expended too much energy on his band’s gear. “Even when Vampire Weekend started, T-shirts would be this kind of necessary evil,” Koenig said. “Like, OK, now we gotta put something together for the tour—you need something to sell.”

With the release of Father of the Bride, something shifted. “I think now, with this album in particular, we've hit some kind of revised golden age,” he said. “There's definitely something more fun about it, probably because of the bootleg stuff, where it actually feels like a dialogue with the fans. Versus this kind of—I don't know how to put it—this corporate mandate of, like, Get some shirts off the shelf.”

To be clear, Vampire Weekend still makes and sells officially-licensed merch; choice cuts on the band’s site include a tie-dyed tee and a preppy crewneck sweatshirt. But roughly coincident with the release of FOTB was a wave of audience-designed gear, heavy on the tie-dye, and puff-paint, and even a little embroidery. Notably, a large number of pieces bore graphics with seemingly nothing to do with the band—but plenty to do with something else in the VW galaxy.

Koening has hosted the Apple Music-streamed Time Crisis since 2015, accompanied on all but a handful of the show’s 100 episodes by Jake Longstreth, a painter and the guitarist for Richard Pictures, the self-described “best southern california based grateful dead cover band [sic].” If Vampire Weekend is a repository for all of Koenig’s most cinematic thoughts, Time Crisis is the place for his funniest ones: one recurring segment is a deep dive into corporate fast-food arcana. But Time Crisis is most notable for its tone. It’s a genial, internet-addled riffstorm, a never-ending bit between friends—provided those friends are, like, Rashida Jones and Jonah Hill. As a result, the show has acquired an audience of fans who love being in on the joke. “It's kind of a modern-day, post-hipster Beavis and Butthead, with all the references,” explained Markus Price, who runs @timecrisisuniverse, a fan-art account devoted to the show.

When the hosts started riffing on a 2017 episode about which song in the VW catalog could best accommodate a Dead-style extended jam, a joke was born: “Cape Cod Kwassa Kwassa” would become “8 Minute Cape Cod.” The idea would pop up on further episodes of the show, and eventually on a shirt—in Futura, naturally—that Koenig wore to this magazine’s GQ Live event in December 2018. And then it was...everywhere. Zazzle sells three versions. Redbubble sells five, along with stickers. And dozens more homemade and Insta-sold versions have popped up during the FOTB tour.

It’s not just Cape Cod. “There were these guys who made this long-sleeve that said, like, ‘Ezra and Jake's’ in the Ben and Jerry's font,” Koenig said of a tee spotted during an early show on the tour. “It's, like, a very deep shirt. It references [the Grateful Dead live album] Europe ‘72, Ben and Jerry's, all this Time Crisis minutiae. And we were like, Oh, this is funny, wow, they really made this incredibly detailed shirt. So they sent us some, and that was that.”

That, of course, was not that. “As we've gone on tour, I feel like I've seen that shirt—at least one of those shirts—at literally every single crowd we played, including in Europe,” he continued. “It was one thing to see they'd made the shirt. It was another to see, like, OK! It's out there! People are wearing it to the show.”

In August, Dillon Krieger, a VW and Time Crisis fan in Stockton, CA, created a new Instagram account to showcase merch like the Ezra and Jake’s shirt. He put out a cattle call on Reddit—"Just saying, Hey, anybody have some Vampire Weekend slash TC slash Richard Pictures merch?"—and started posting it to @fromthefreezer. Koenig had begun to take song requests from fans in bucket hats, so fans started customizing bucket hats—and Krieger began posting photos of them. On Time Crisis, Koenig described his ideal baseball walk-up music; Krieger eventually posted an image of a fittingly customized VW/TC baseball jersey.

Fans have wandered far beyond T-shirts, too: “There's this kid who gave me a Toblerone,” Koenig said—a beloved MacGuffin from Neo Yokio, Koenig’s Netflix anime series. “He painstakingly made his own Toblerone wrapper, so on one side it said Time Crisis, one side said Vampire Weekend. He was tying in Vampire Weekend, Time Crisis, and Neo Yokio into one thing.”

As the Toblerone suggests, the merch on @fromthefreezer is a potent cocktail poured straight out of the extended Koenig galaxy, where Issey Miyake rubs up against Pure Moods, and the Eagles duet softly with Haruomi Hasono in the background. One shirt makes use of the Zabars font—and the Dunkin’ Donuts font. There is no shortage of tie-dye. Krieger, who maintains the account, is quick to draw the Dead comparison. “Time Crisis, they encourage bootlegging,” he explained. “I think Ezra mentioned on the show, he doesn't care, he encourages it. Just the fact that there's a Grateful Dead layer on time crisis, and the Grateful Dead is known for their bootleg merch, and not wanting to be the cops about it, it's like, OK, I can do this without feeling bad, or like I'm taking money from the band. That little freedom is there.”

Koenig is quick to defuse comparisons between his band and, uh, that one. To start, he said, “Obviously, the Grateful Dead is this American institution, one of the most interesting music stories of all time, so I don't want to compare myself in any way to it. And when people would say, like, The music sounds like… I would say, No! It sounds more like Allman Brothers!” Koenig clearly reveres the Dead too much to force his band into their lineage, despite the connections critics have drawn to the group’s newest, funkiest, long-show-spawningest album.

And then, Koenig continued, there’s a whole fashion industry—one that didn’t exist in the ‘60s—that complicates the relationship between bands and their gear. “Why do you think Grateful Dead shirts have come so much back into vogue? Is it because, like, people are really embracing the spirit and the music of the Dead?” Instead, he suspects, it’s “more just because tie dye came back into fashion. Let's keep it real: it's a fashion thing first and foremost. So when people are, like,Yeah, what is it about the spirit of these times that makes people want to pay $200 for a vintage Dead shirt? I'm kind of, like, Tyler the Creator or whoever brought back tie-dye six years ago, and now it's reached the collector's phase! Because the truth is, I saw Migos wearing Grateful Dead shirts before I saw, like, indie rock nerds wearing Grateful Dead shirts.”

Despite Koenig’s protestations, his band has managed to foster a small, open space for its fans to kibbitz together over T-shirts, memes, and—in one case—novelty condoms. “It is nice when, even in a small way, you see something that even remotely has a kind vibe spirit,” Koenig said. “And people making their own merch—even just to crack up other people within a small cultish community—to me, forget about tie-dye, forget about jam bands, indie rock, any of that stuff, I like that because it gestures to the promise of any sort of music community. Which is that you, as a fan, have some degree of control, and are part of it.”


Via GQ