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Ezra Koenig explains how Neo Yokio inspired the next Vampire Weekend album

The Netflix cartoon starring Jaden Smith is a wonderful surprise.

September 26, 2017

Neo Yokio, the anime-inspired cartoon created by Vampire Weekend’s Ezra Koenig, stars Jaden Smith, Desus and Mero, Susan Sarandon, and Jude Law fumbling through a bizarro version of New York City. It sounds like the weirdest ever Twitter fever dream but all of its eight episodes on Netflix are really a delight. The dialogue is snappy and the world Koenig has created is really engrossing, too. The show also manages to pay tribute to the historically important anime series that inspired it while offering a fresh take on a TV show about young people pursuing their kooky lives in New York City. The crew worked with Japanese anime powerhouses Production IG and Studio Deen and legendary director Kazuhiro Furuhashi (Rurouni Kenshin, Zipang), who storyboarded the project.

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In a call with The FADER, Koenig took a break from finishing up his band’s new album to talk about creating the ambitious show. “To have Jaden, Desus, Mero, and Jude's voices sitting together at a table in this alternate universe New York, it actually makes perfect sense to me,” he said. “There's no, "Whoa! This is so crazy!" I'm like, "It all works." They belong together.”

He also discussed what it was like to put on for some of his vocal talent before they were famous, and how working on the new Vampire Weekend record is going.

I saw that you had tweeted about not calling Neo Yokio an anime, and I was wondering if you could explain more about the distinction between the two.

Yeah, on the most basic level, I just want to be accurate about it, and I know that for a certain type of anime fan, what's interesting about anime is that it's a fully Japanese production. It might take place wherever, the characters might not be Japanese, but it's in the Japanese language. It's created in Japan. More often than not these days, it might be animated in Korea, but it's still Japanese language [and] written by a Japanese person. There's a lot of anime fans who would never watch dubbed anime; they want to watch something in its original language with subtitles.

So on a very basic level, I don't want to pretend that what we made is [anime]. I just want it to be clear, because when you're talking about any sort of universe that has really passionate fans, you have to be respectful of their own definition. So it's funny. I tweeted about that and immediately one of the comments I got was the opposite, with somebody being like, "Doesn't this moron realize anime just means animation in Japanese?" I was like, "Okay, yes, I know that anime just means animation in Japanese and yes, as often happens, when a word re-enters English from a foreign language, it has certain connotations to people."

I just want people to know what it is: it's a collaboration. Half the people who worked on it would probably consider themselves anime artists, but this is something different. I just want to be accurate about it and not presume that something in English deserves to be called anime.

You also tweeted some screenshots of people being outraged by aspects of the show, like its interracial couples. Was that something you expected?

That part specifically blindsided me. I was familiar with the phrase “anime Nazis” [a term referencing a segment of online white supremacists with anime avatars]. It's even partially why I like the idea of making a show that involves a lot of people from different backgrounds: Japanese people, black people, Jewish people. That's something that I liked about it.

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Was there a particular anime that was the most influential on the show? Or if not an anime, something else?

Yeah, there's a bunch. Anyone who's familiar with ‘80s and ‘90s anime will catch so many references and parodies and homages. The single most important, which is probably better known as a manga, is called Tokyo Babylon, and it's by this all-female manga collective called Clamp. At least with the first episode, we were like, "The first episode should be Tokyo Babylon meets Jeeves and Wooster." And we have pretty explicit references to both.

Actually, the haunted Chanel suit in the first episode is an homage to Tokyo Babylon. I even reached out to Clamp about it, because I wanted to make sure that they were cool with it and knew that it was an homage. Tonally, it's different and a lot of the plots [are] different, but it's about early ‘90s Tokyo and demons and stuff. I love the idea of doing something about an exorcist but kind of doing a weirder, New York-y, fashion-y version of it. And then Jeeves and Wooster is about a rich guy constantly getting dragged into bizarre situations [with] the butler. Those two obviously really formed the basis of it.

Then just in terms of the type of anime that really made an impact on me when I first saw it as a kid, there's stuff like Ranma 1/2, which is probably the first anime I really saw. The fourth episode [of Neo Yokio] is a total parody of Ranma with the gender swap stuff. There's one called Maison Ikkoku that I love. What's cool is that a bunch of the people who worked Neo Yokio actually worked on those shows, because our storyboard artists have really been in the game for a long time.

I was wondering if you could talk about getting Jaden involved in the project and what that process was like.

To me, that was the single most important casting decision that we made, and Jaden was one of the people that I went the most to the mat for, because initially the people I was working with on the show wanted me to be the voice of Kaz, and I I don't think it's because they thought I was a great actor, necessarily. I think when they read the initial idea, they kind of pictured it more as, Oh, this is a Vampire Weekend cartoon, and it's about Ezra, or something. That was almost the opposite of why I wanted to do this. I loved the idea of doing something where I didn't have to, on a very basic level, use my literal voice. In singing and touring, all that stuff, it really can almost create some psychological issues about one's relationship to one's vocal cords and voice. I was like, "Please, I don't want to." Also, more importantly, I'm not being modest: I really don't think I'm a good actor.

They were like, "Okay, well, if you really don't think you can do it and you don't want to do it, can you think of a young actor that you like?" We're naming people, and at a certain point I was thinking about it. I was like, "The only person, the only young actor that I can think of, who I legitimately respect and am excited about and admire is Jaden." They just weren't that familiar with him as an actor, because the truth is when we cast him, it was before The Get Down came out and some of the stuff he's been doing recently. At that point, the acting he was most known for was great stuff, but from when he was a kid. Everybody agreed that Jaden was fucking cool, but they were just like, "Oh. Right. I guess he is an actor." I was like, "Hell yeah, he's an actor! Let's get him in."

He immediately had such an intuitive grasp about what it was about that he even inspired it further. To me, that's when the show really started — when Jaden signed on. Then we could suddenly think about it differently. His take on it was so smart.

Deep down if we hadn't been able to cast Jaden, I feel like I might have not really wanted to do it. We're just lucky that at the moment we were looking for the right actor, that idea came and he was down and it just fit. It's very hard for me to even picture it with me doing the voice or really with anybody else.

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Is there any moment in particular that stands out about working with Desus and Mero on this, because I thought they were just so hilarious throughout the entire show.

I mean, Desus and Mero fully steal the show for me. I'm so glad that we were able to get them cast. I've known those guys for a while, and working on Neo Yokio is partially how they got to meet Nick [Weidenfeld, executive producer], who ended up helping them make the show on Vice, so it's kind of cool. It's amazing how much time has passed. It's so bizarre to sit on a project this long.

Again, when I was trying to cast Desus and Mero, they literally weren't even on TV yet, so that definitely took some convincing. I always thought they were so funny. I might have met Mero four or five years ago. We just kind of met on Twitter. I remember we were just talking about life, and he was like, "Oh, I'm a teacher." I was like, "Oh, I used to be a teacher!" We were both New York City public school teachers. Then I was like, "What are you trying to do?" He was like, "I'm trying to do some TV stuff." I was like, "I'm trying to do some TV stuff!" So literally the first time we ever got a drink together in New York, we had some vague plan: "One day we'll do some kind of TV stuff together."

The fact that their show's come out and been such a success is so amazing. The fact that we got to make this weird-ass cartoon together and we're working on some other stuff together... Yeah, to me, they're such a huge, huge part of the show.

Again, I love the fact that in this bizarre cartoon, we have these amazing actors like Jude Law and Susan Sarandon, two legends, and then we have people who have never professional acted before who truly hold their own. Obviously, when you record animation you almost never have everybody in the room together, but very quickly after we made the first episode I realized we needed more of that, these scenes where the squad is together. The squad of the show is Jaden, Jude, Desus, and Mero. Literally, if you told me and Mero, when we first met, that one day we'd be working on a project together that would be him, Desus, Jude Law, and Jaden virtually hanging out in this cartoon universe, we'd have been like, "That's insane." But those are my favorite moments.

At the start of the call, you said you were deep into the Vampire Weekend album. Could you tell us anything about how that's going and what it'll be like?

Yeah, I don't know if I can say what it's gonna be like. “It's funny. A typical day, I might see some comment on Instagram or something being like, "Wow, Vampire Weekend is really done. You're really not making music anymore." Literally I'm in the studio tearing my hair out because I'm so anxious about getting the lyrics right or something. So whatever. That's the funny duality of being in this period before anybody's heard anything.

What can I actually say about [the new album]? Maybe because it's the morning and I just drank a cup of coffee, I feel great about it. Usually around 4 p.m. is the time that I start getting really stressed out.

When I started working on the cartoon, part of the impulse of doing something outside of music was just to take a break, try to do something else, do something narrative, not have to make music, work with a different set of people, kind of learn something new. Whenever we wrapped up touring Modern Vampires Of The City, [in] 2014, I legitimately looked around. I felt like an era had ended. Obviously an era had ended for Vampire Weekend, but in another sense, I was like, "Wow. I've been a professional musician for seven years now." It's like a seven-year cycle. You look around and you're like, "The world has changed. The scene has changed." That's just what happened when you go [from] 23 to 30. That's a big seven years for anybody.

That’s a big age gap.

I looked around and for the first time in seven years, I didn't immediately have this strong sense inside of myself of what to do next musically. One thing I can say is that after working on the cartoon, I immediately had it back.

When I'd see some older musician I admired start to put out work that was redundant, pointless, mediocre, there's always some part of me that's like, Man, why don't they just quit? I'm never gonna do that. I've always had this little thing about, I'm only gonna make an album when I have that feeling this is the right album for us to make now. It's new, but it's continuing to tell the same story. I can say that I do feel very confident in that aspect of it.

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But yeah, the next few months are gonna be just classically brutal. Finishing these songs, putting the finishing touches on a demo that you've listened to for two years straight. Any musician, or really any artist, knows the feeling. I have a feeling the next few months are just gonna breeze by. I truly can't wait to start sharing it with people, because I want to prove to people that I have been working. I don't know what you thought I was doing, but I've been working.

And now that you’ve gotten that spark back, do you hope that there's a season two of this show?

Well, yes, I do hope there's a season two. I specifically wrote this kind of circular ending where he ends up back on the bench at the tennis club. There was definitely a feeling like, Okay. Yes. I feel like we're just getting started.

We've barely scratched the surface of Neo Yokio's mythology and secrets and all that stuff, but if this six-episode series just ends up with this dude back on the bench, that at least is a fitting ending. But yes, I do hope that there's more. I have no idea. I think Netflix makes decisions like that, generally speaking, after a few months to see if people watch the show or not.

The reason that I'd love to do more is also because I feel like we put all this energy into creating a whole universe for Neo Yokio, and I would just love to get more people involved. The first season, when we were making it at Fox, we put all the budget to hiring Furuhashi to do the boards and stuff. We couldn't really afford to have a writers' room, and I would just to do a Neo Yokio season where we just bring in even more people to be a part of it. I'd love for Desus and Mero to write an episode. I also want to point out, even just as voice actors, they wrote a lot. I still definitely want to be a part of it, but I’d love to bring in people and be like, "What's your take on a story in Neo Yokio?" Or bring in new characters and stuff. So yeah, I'm hopeful that we'll get that.

It'd just be cool to have that opportunity, because even as I've been working on the show and starting to show it to people, I just have all these ideas. I'm like, Oh, fuck, I wish I could have put that person in it, or, Damn, that person probably would have been able to write a crazy episode, or something. Now I have two years worth of those ideas and regrets. I just hope there's another season where we can actually do some of that stuff.