Neo Yokio

Ezra Koenig’s Fabulous Adventure into Anime

Interview by Evan Pricco // Portrait but David Broach 

You probably know by now that Ezra Koenig is the hyper-literate lead singer of Vampire Weekend, one of the most critically-acclaimed American bands of the 21st century. On the band’s last tour, Ezra came up with the idea for a Japanese anime-style vision of New York City, cast with A-list actors and designed by a team of Japanese production artists and Korean animators. The end result, Neo Yokio, was released as a series on Netflix this fall, co-written with Adult Swim alum Nick Weidenfeld, featuring the creative narrative touches that Ezra is known for with his band. We chatted with Ezra about the making of Neo Yokio, his love of anime and the joy of making a little blast from the past. 

Evan Pricco: First thing’s first, did you, like us, spend many a late night watching Adult Swim cartoons and thinking to yourself that these were some of the most creative writers and producers in TV? I remember specifically that era where Nick Weidenfeld had all those shows, actually right around the time Juxtapoz did a whole issue dedicated to Adult Swim, and just being really into it. 
Ezra Koenig: Of course. Xavier: Renegade Angel is one of my favorite shows of all time, so I was pretty psyched when I first met Nick. All that Adult Swim shit is incredible. Tim and Eric, Eric Andre, Jonathan Krisel—all geniuses. I was in college for a lot of that stuff, so it was the perfect time to download some shit off Soulseek at 3 a.m. and expand my consciousness.

Let me apply that same question to Japanese anime. Obviously, Japanese animators have a style, and that style is quite iconic. So much so that artists like our friends Takashi Murakami and Mr. have translated the style into fine art. How did you get into that style and when did you know you wanted Neo Yokio to have that authentic Japanese anime look? 
I’ve always been a fan of anime. I’m far from an expert, but a lot of key shows and movies were important to me throughout my life. I probably saw Mad Bull 34, this insane violent vision of NYC from Japan, before I saw Mean Streets or Annie Hall. Like, anime presented to me the city where I was born before Scorsese or Woody Allen. Neo Yokio always had to be a collaboration with Japanese anime artists. I don’t think we could have called it Neo Yokio otherwise. Also, on a basic level, 1980’s and ’90’s anime is just my favorite type of animation.

Neo Yokio: Ezra Koenig's Fabulous Adventure Into Anime

How hard was it to find the right animators to make the show work and feel the way you wanted it to?  
This was my first experience in animation, so I had to go with the flow to a large extent. Luckily, I really liked everyone we worked with. Maki from Production IG and Toshiyuki Hiruma (our liaison to MOI in Korea) were both incredible. Also, we were lucky to work with the storyboard artists Kazuhiro Furuhashi and Junji Nishimura, who both had experience going back to the very 1980’s anime we were referencing. 

Neo Yokio: Ezra Koenig's Fabulous Adventure Into Anime

Now that we got these hard-hitting journalistic development questions out of the way, what is the show about? Why anime? Why not live action actors? 
Ha! I don’t like to say what things are about because my own feelings change so often. The initial idea was to do a loving parody of old anime, and I think elements of that made it into the final product, but that’s not really how I’d describe it anymore. There was actually a time when I considered trying to do some weird live-action thing, but that seemed too crazy. 

One reason I wanted the show to be anime was because I loved the idea of making it a cross-cultural collaboration. It really helps the idea of creating an alternate-universe vision of reality because you have collaborators free from the biases and neuroses of the New Yorkers on the team. Also, in the era of alt-right anime fans and stuff like Hetalia being weirdly popular in the U.S., I just liked like the idea of a project bringing together Japanese people, Jewish people, Black people, etc. 

Can you walk through the making of an episode and how much you got to be involved in all the art that was created? I never quite know how it works between writer and animator.
We’d write a rough script and then send it to Japan for Furuhashi or Nishimura to storyboard. Then we’d get their boards back and throw together a rough animatic, which is kind of like a video storybook, just still images set to the voices and a soundtrack. We’d go back and forth with Studio Deen on character design and prop design. The sheer amount of decisions that have to get made in animation is insane, like, “Ok, there’s an espresso cup in this scene. What shape? What color? With a saucer?” With so much to decide, I couldn’t be involved in every decision. Sometimes a character would just end up having the wrong look and it would be too late to change it. 

Finally, the animatic would go to MOI in Korea and we’d get animation from them. If there were problems, we’d try to get creative in L.A. and re-edit the animation or move things around. It’s a truly insane process and we made the show with intense budget and time restrictions, which is ironic because it ended up getting stuck in limbo for two years as we sold it to Netflix. 

Neo Yokio: Ezra Koenig's Fabulous Adventure Into Anime

Was it around two years ago that you started to write the show? Given the storytelling quality in your lyrics, what sparked the idea to go from songwriter to show creator? 
I wrote the bulk of it in 2014 and 2015. I remember writing the first episode at a Starbucks in Tampa when Vampire Weekend was still touring for our last album. We were about to play the Big Guava festival. On one level, I just wanted a break from music. I was burned out after three albums. Also, our last album was the big, serious, more mature one and I wanted to do something fun, dumb and less “tasteful.” I also wanted to do something where I wasn’t front and center. That’s why I refused to do a voice on the show despite some pressure from the studio. (Plus, I am a terrible actor.) 

Also, I just like to write. I wanted to try something narrative, but I knew I wasn’t going to write The Sopranos my first time out, so I focused on what I love: weird little phrases and moments. Nick and I wanted the show, above all, to be quotable.

Did you ever get to a point in creating the show that led to anything with Vampire Weekend? 
It was a really nice break from Vampire Weekend. Occasionally, I’d pocket a phrase or two that didn’t make it into a script, but mostly I was using a different part of my brain. Now I’m imagining an alternate universe where I made a Vampire Weekend album called Neo Yokio and everything I’m putting into this next album became a cartoon. That works too, actually! 

Neo Yokio: Ezra Koenig's Fabulous Adventure Into Anime

The line-up of voices on this show is incredible: Jaden Smith, Jude Law, Susan Sarandon, Tavi Gevinson, Alexa Chung, Jason Schwartzman, it goes on. Did anyone on this list come to mind when you guys were writing the show? Did anyone need extra convincing to be part of a Japanese-anime style show that is based in NYC? 
People were mostly just down to try it. Animation is low-stakes for the actors. They don’t have to move to Budapest for three months. Just swing by a studio for a couple hours at a time. 

We initially wrote the pilot with no specific actor in mind (which might be why it’s the worst episode, in my opinion). After casting, it became impossible to imagine any other voices, and we tried to highlight everyone’s vibe and personality. Also, we let the actors take the lead at times. Desus Nice and The Kid Mero improvised many of the show’s best lines.

Working with Netflix is awesome because you can post an entire season in one big push, and I got to binge it last night. Are there plans for season two, or are you back deep into VW land?
Releasing Neo Yokio has been super weird because we finished it so long ago. It’s very strange to sit on a project for that long. Also, when we first made it, I thought it was going to be coming out one episode at a time in the middle of the night on cable. I never imagined it would be coming out all at once for an audience as broad as Netflix’s. 

Neo Yokio: Ezra Koenig's Fabulous Adventure Into Anime

So, anyway, I’ve been in the studio for almost two years now, and for me, Neo Yokio is a blast from the past. I’m really glad it’s on Netflix but it’s so surreal to see it just out there immediately in front of the whole world. I’ve seen people saying, “I can’t believe this show is real,” and I’m like, “I worked on it and I can’t believe it’s real.” Seeing the fan art, the cosplay, the reactions—it really feels like a weird dream. If I woke up tomorrow and the show had mysteriously vanished from the world, I wouldn’t bat an eye. I’d just make a coffee and go to the studio and think, “I guess that didn’t actually happen after all.” I have some ideas for a second season that I think could be amazing, but for now, I just gotta finish this damn album!

Neo Yokio is available to stream on Netflix. All at once. Stay tuned for the new Vampire Weekend album.