In the city of Neo Yokio, everything south of 14th Street is under water. A massive list of the most eligible bachelors keeps every fashionable man in constant competition. And private school graduate Kaz Kaan balances heartbreak, an affinity for preppy elegance, and his job as an exorcist who rids the city of demon possession.
Neo Yokio, the funny, absurd, and often pointed take on New York City, is a new animated Netflix series (available September 22) that creator and Vampire Weekend frontman Ezra Koenig calls “a loving satire.” An avid anime fan, Koenig wrote the series as an homage to some of his favorite ’80s and ’90s series but also as an appreciation of fashion and pop culture in all their serious and silly glory.
We get characters like Kaz (voiced by Jaden Smith), an often cynical young person who plays field hockey, goes on graveside rants about perfumes, and spouts off cavalier asides like, “She’s possessed. That sucks.” Susan Sarandon voices Kaz’s mentor Aunt Agatha, while Jude Law is Kaz’s lovable robot best friend Charles. The show manages to spoof New York culture while also lifting it up, playing with new and old money dynamics, performative social media, and the overwhelming exhaustion with capitalism that turns into its own kind of obsession.
Fast Company spoke to Koenig about Neo Yokio, the long-awaited fourth Vampire Weekend record, and more.
Fast Company: How did this project come about?
Ezra Koenig: In some ways, it started with the name. I thought in my own dumb way that it’d be funny to call New York “Neo Yokio.” I’ve always liked anime that took place in New York. And I liked the idea of doing an international project where I could collaborate with people and present some strange vision of New York through the eyes of not just New Yorkers.
FC: What were your first experiences with anime? What creators or shows influenced Neo Yokio?
EK: One of the first anime I ever saw—because they had it at my local video store—was this show called Ranma ½, which is a kind of gender-swapped martial arts comedy. It really made a big impression on me. I liked the tone, the mix of genres, and the animation was beautiful. There’s one called Marmalade Boy, which in its later seasons ends up in New York. There was another one called Maison Ikkoku. And what’s cool is some of the people who worked on Neo Yokio had even worked on some of those shows back in the day.
FC: How does the process of writing a TV show compare to writing an album?
EK: There are a lot of similarities. With the show, I knew it was going to be six episodes, so similar to an album where there’s certain notes you want to hit from song to song to create this whole thing. It’s a whole but it’s comprised of these little things so you have to think in terms of how they work together. But the hardest part of doing a TV show is that you can’t get away with quite as much of the vague nonsense that you can in songwriting. A song might be three minutes, and if there’s a line that doesn’t necessarily push the narrative of the song forward but it’s vibey and it’s memorable, it goes down pretty easy. If you took five minutes of a serialized narrative show to kind of just vibe out, you might lose people.
FC: How did you decide what the actual city of Neo Yokio was going to be like?
EK: It’d be very easy to make a show that’s like, “It’s Neo Yokio. It’s New York and Tokyo.” And you can already picture what that might look like. It would probably be the MetLife building but there’s Japanese characters on it. Cool. We’ve seen that before. And even as we were working on Neo Yokio in the beginning, that movie Big Hero 6 came out and I just remember reading that it took place in San Fransokyo and I was like, “Oh my god. This is terrible, we have to cancel it.”
The more we thought about it, we were like, we don’t need to go over the top and make it this crazy hybrid city. We’re already working with people who are bringing this Japanese style to the animation. I’m just very happy to see the Guggenheim animated by anime artists. I’m happy to just hear the main character Kaz Kaan talk about Ralph Lauren and going to Bergdorf’s. I like that when they go to the beach, they go to the Hamptons. They ask, “Should we take the Jitney or not?”
FC: How much pop culture satire are you trying to present here? How are you balancing Kaz’s self-seriousness and his mock-self seriousness?
EK: I was thinking about that the other day because I recently tweeted a very mild joke about this Dolce & Gabbana shirt I saw while browsing an online store. The idea of brutally mocking something that you at least half love is definitely not my style. So there are so many references in it, but at the end of the day, the obsession with fashion, we tried to have some nuance with that. We definitely didn’t want it to be some Zoolander shit—no disrespect to Zoolander. But to me, the tone of Zoolander is just, the fashion world is psychotic, what is this mess? With us, we’re dropping all these hyper-specific references partially because we love it. Any industry—music, TV, whatever—has a goofy side. I’d like to think that everything in this show is a loving satire.
FC: Did you have input on who was going to voice these characters? It seems so appropriate that Jaden Smith really does care about fashion, or Tavi Gevinson being the critical fashion blogger, it’s so perfect.
EK: The one I really went to the mat for was Jaden. Some of the people involved thought I should do the voice at first, maybe just because when they first heard the idea, they pictured me since I was the one telling them about it. I was just like, a) I’m truly a terrible actor, and b) I’m too old. They were like, “Who’s a cool young actor?” I was like, “The only cool young actor I can think of is Jaden Smith.” When I was first describing the character, I think I said something about Kaz being a Hamlet type, depressed, rich guy. And [Jaden] said something like, “Yeah. I just read Hamlet. It really resonated with me.”
FC: One of my favorite characters is Sailor Pellegrino, so I’m curious how you came up with her. I love her allusions to a very, uh, specific pop star.
EK: Yeah, I’ve been nervous about that one—I hope this doesn’t come across as a takedown. The truth is, we loved the idea of doing something about a pop star. And of course, there was the thing that Taylor Swift had moved to New York. So what if we had a pop star move to Neo Yokio? But then at the same time, we didn’t want it to just be about her. The point of that episode is that all these people have all these expectations about what she’s trying to do and what’s behind the motives of this pop star. And I love the idea that at the end of the day, they’re literally all wrong. She wants to destroy the bourgeoisie.
Everyday I get comments from people being like, “When is the album? I’m sick of waiting for the album. I don’t like you anymore because you took too long.”
We actually think Sailor Pellegrino is cool. We went out of our way to make sure she seemed like a pastiche of the hot pop stars of when we were writing it. So we gave her blue hair like Katy Perry. We gave her this super southern accent, like a little Miley. Because it’s not about anybody in particular. If I find out that any of these [real-life] pop stars, their long-term motive was to destroy the bourgeoisie, I’d be very impressed. I’d admire that.
FC: Did working on Neo Yokio allow you to think about the next Vampire Weekend record in a new way?
EK: Oh, definitely. And that’s a big part of why I wanted to do it. I literally just needed a break after three albums. I just generally had a feeling of exhaustion, of feeling a little bit bored with music. By the time we wrapped Neo Yokio up and I could start working on music full-time again, I did feel refreshed. I loved the fact that [during Neo Yokio] I didn’t have to write music.
FC: Do you think we’ll have another Vampire Weekend record this year, or will it be 2018?
EK: At this point, 2018 is more likely. Every day I get comments from people being like, “When is the album? I’m sick of waiting for the album. I don’t like you anymore because you took too long.” There’s a part of me that feels like, Yo, if you could come with me to the studio every day, you’d see how hard we’re working and how much we’ve already accomplished. And then there’s the part of me that’s like, I could start doing Instagram Stories where I just play demos all day. But I kinda don’t want to do that. We’re really entering the final phase of the record.
I’ve been getting a lot of comments from people who say, “I hate anime. I don’t fuck with anime at all. But I’ll give this show a chance.”
FC: Would you want to do a season two of Neo Yokio?
EK: I’d love to. We purposely made this show so that it kind of wraps up in a way. If this is it, that’s cool. But there’s certainly a lot more to explore. There’s a part of me that feels like we put in all this work creating the Neo Yokio universe, that we’re kind of just getting started. I’d like to see other people’s vision of that they could do. I’d love to have Desus and Mero [who voice the characters Gottlieb and Lexy] write an episode and get more involved with the plotting. That’s what excites me the most—now that we’ve set all this stuff up, we can invite more people to take a crack at it.
FC: Is there anything else about the show you want people to know?
EK: I’ve been getting a lot of comments from people who say, “I hate anime. I don’t fuck with anime at all. But I’ll give this show a chance.” It’s funny that anime as a concept is so deeply polarizing. You have people who live and die by it and are huge fans and then you have people who just write off the entire medium. Obviously, if hardcore anime fans find this isn’t for them, I get it. But I also hope that for people who are uninterested in anime, who might check out the show and then want to watch more Japanese animation, that would be a great thing.