Vampire Weekend's Ezra Koenig tells us about one of his rarest, vibiest tees

...+ the weird WASP magic of old L.L. Bean & trying to make albums that look as cool as they sound

Ezra Koenig founded Vampire Weekend with 3 friends in college. Since then he’s put out four albums, most recently Father of the Bride; he accepted a Grammy while wearing Chacos & socks like a leisurely king; he co-wrote “Hold Up” for Beyoncé; he created the Netflix cult-classic Neo Yokio, which we consider tied for 4th-greatest TV show of all time alongside 1986 BBC Michael Gambon heat-rock The Singing Detective; VW sold out Madison Square Garden; and he launched the excellent Beats 1 show Time Crisis.

Probably Ezra’s greatest achievement, though? He’s amassed a world-class variety of dope under-the-radar joints, ranging from a vintage Japan-made Sony rugby to some Papyrused-out “Advice from a BLUEBERRY” merch to a beautiful Mister Mort x Manastash Gorilla Fleece that we covet with the fury of 1,000 suns.

Since BLACKBIRD SPYPLANE is yr no. 1 source across all media for recon on dope under-the-radar joints, and since Ezra is the homey, we asked him to tell us about one particularly cherished item in his joint-arsenal. He chose an excellent 1995 Grateful Dead t-shirt he’s loved since he was a kid…

Spyplane: This shirt is fantastic. What’s the story?

Ezra: “Most official Dead stuff as I understand it was made by Liquid Blue — this one’s Fruit of the Loom so I don’t know if it’s bootleg or what. It’s from summer ‘95, right when Jerry died, and right in the midst of the ‘90s hippie-jammy revival. I would have been 11. My Dead fandom has come back so hard at this point in my life that I have to kind of moderate it, because I’m sure a lot of Vampire Weekend fans are sick of hearing about it. But I remember first seeing this shirt, maybe someone at camp was wearing it, and being like, ‘Whoa, that’s pretty funny.’ Especially in the ‘90s, when there was this big parody-t-shirt wave — like all this skateboarding stuff with this acidic touch to it, and then goofy frat-boy stuff like Big Johnson, even band shirts had a bit of it — a Dead shirt riffing on L.L. Bean really intrigued me, because my parents were super into it and we already got the catalog.”

“Apparently the Dead made a lot of these, but the long sleeve version in this color is rare: It’s this vibey, slightly brown tie-dye that doesn't even read as tie-dye, more like tea-stained. I like bright tie-dye, but it’s not for me — I’ve always liked crunchy shirts that aren't super bright.”

L.L. Bean slinging Patagonia Baggies all the way back in ‘84 — the same year baby Ez hit Earth

Spyplane: I’m not enough of a Dead dude to get the “L.L. Rain” thing…

Ezra: “There’s a Bob Weir song called ‘Looks Like Rain,’ from one of his solo albums. The Dead would play it here and there, but it’s a deep cut, it’s not ‘Trucking.’ It’s a tender Bob ballad. So I like how the shirt is referencing a deeper song, but also it just works as a parody where you see the classic characters getting into some outdoorsy shit.

Ezra: “In a weird way, the parody shirt was kind of the meme of its day: you’d see someone wearing one and, similar to a meme, you might need prior knowledge to understand it.”

Spyplane: Did you buy yrs from that kid at summer camp?

Ezra: “No, but a few years ago I started following @deadhead on IG, a true Dead Head who’s collected many great shirts. One day he posted that he was gonna put this in his store and it’s one of the only times in my life I actually set an alarm to make sure I wouldn’t miss something going up for sale. Most of the time I say, ‘That’s cool, but I don’t need to have it.’”

Young Ezra rocking a China Cat Sunflower lyric tee, left; Dead-merch plug @deadhead rocking Online Ceramics, Girbaud jeans and Cactus Plant Flea Market Nike Blazers, right

Ezra: “I like this shirt as much for the Dead part of it as the Bean part, because that’s a brand that legitimately shaped my interest in and relationship to clothes. The two catalogs I remember getting at home were that and Cabela’s. My dad, he’s a New Yorker and he’s not outdoorsy in the sense of going mountain biking and camping, but in his job as a set dresser for movies he’d have gigs where he was standing out in the cold all day, so he was interested in foul-weather gear.

“When I was like 17 I got really fascinated by preppy clothes, and L.L. Bean was the only brand I owned that remotely intersected with that world. But I associate it more with a kind of frugal East Coast middle-class vibe, as opposed to a true upper-class look.

“I think there’s been a new appreciation for it over the past five years — Mister Mort definitely helped spearhead that. But I’ve spent so much of my life familiar with this brand that, as someone who loves the Dead but isn’t just gonna be wearing any Dead shirt, this is the one I love wearing.”

Joints from Todd Snyder’s Bean-heavy FW2020 collection

Spyplane: Speaking of rare band-merch, tell me about that Vampire Weekend “Save the Humans” shirt you wore on Instagram last year.

Ezra:Father of the Bride took a lot time to finish, but in the years leading up to its release I was collecting imagery and building a visual world for it, along with Nick Harwood, who was our creative director, and Brendon Ratzlaff, who designed a lot of the icons we wound up using — I didn’t know if the fans were gonna like those, but just seeing the way that the snake icon has taken on a life on its own is so cool. Right now I’m wearing these Baggies with a snake icon that Petrified Good sent me. He does great handmade stuff we’d never be able to make officially.”

1-of-10 Vampire Weekend “Save the Humans” shirt, and the bumper sticker that inspired it

Ezra: “So yeah I was looking around for mood-board images and I found this crunchy ‘80s or ‘90s bumper sticker that says SAVE THE HUMANS, but it’s a whale. I was really taken with it, loving the vibe, loving the colors, and I wanted to use it in some capacity. I almost could have called the album Save the Humans.

“When we were experimenting with video ideas for ‘Harmony Hall,’ one of them involved people wearing these custom shirts, which we couldn't ever sell because we didn’t own all the images. We probably made 10 of these. Diplo hit me up for one of them and apparently he wore it during a New York Times interview he did over Zoom the other day, so even if the video never happened the shirt still made it into an iconic piece of content.”

Spyplane: Two of my favorite VW snake-icon tees are the Seinfeld-logo one, which was official but super limited, and the Sega Dreamcast-logo bootleg.

Ezra: “I have a Vampire Weekend shirt archive and it’s maybe 50-80 shirts right now, but I don’t have the Dreamcast one. But yeah when I think about how, a year later, I’ve seen fans do so many cool flips on the icons that Brendan designed, I’m like, ‘Damn, this really did turn into a world.’”

-Follow Ezra on Twitter here and Instagram here
-Listen to Time Crisis here
-There’s an “L.L. Rain” short-sleeve for $250 (!) here
-Deadhead’s Instagram is here and his store is here
-Petrified Good’s Instagram is here and his store is here

Koenig live photo by Elliott Marx. @deadhead photo by Liz Barclay

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