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Rostam Is Finally on His Own

In 2006, during his senior year at Columbia University, Rostam Batmanglij decided he was going to make a solo album. He had studied classical music in college, and studied the methods of recording music on his own, and wanted to do something marrying the two areas of thought. Then, a funny thing happened: Rostam was sidetracked not by the typical pressures afflicting college creatives, like the need to find a salaried job or—perish the idea—applying to grad school, but by the immense and sudden popularity of his other musical project, a band called Vampire Weekend.

Fast forward eleven years, and Vampire Weekend have sold millions of records, toured around the world, and become one of their generation’s most popular and critically beloved bands. They’ve also lost Rostam, who stepped down from the band in 2016 to focus on his own solo music. In reality, he’d been thinking about leaving Vampire Weekend for close to two years, following the release of their last album, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. “The announcement was kind of shedding light on a decision that had been made prior,” he says from a couch in his room at Manhattan’s Standard East Village hotel, where we’ve met on a balmy August day. But the decision to leave hadn’t changed anything about his routine. “I work on music with different people, and I work on music on my own. That’s my life. It hasn’t been that different.”

Rostam has lived a very charmed musical life. Apart from his music with Vampire Weekend, he’s also produced beloved songs by artists like Charli XCX, Haim, Solange, Frank Ocean, and Carly Rae Jepsen. Last year, he made I Had A Dream That You Were Mine, an acclaimed record with former Walkmen singer Hamilton Leithauser, which popped up on year-end lists as an outlier from modern trend: a straight indie rock record with no narrative besides “good musicians making good music.” And on September 15, he’ll release Half-Light, his debut solo record, which functions like a B-side to all this excellent music he’s made in the last few years.

A typical Rostam production features dynamic percussion, delicately arranged strings, vocal melodies that would sound beautiful stripped of all instrumentation. Half-Light boasts these hallmarks, with one crucial distinction: the songwriting perspective of Rostam himself, who wrote these songs over the last eleven years. “There’s things that I wanted to say, lyrically, that wouldn’t make sense any other way,” he says. “That narrative is personal to me, and that’s unique, in terms of the music that I’ve made. There were Vampire Weekend songs that Ezra [Koenig] and I collaborated lyrically on, on the first and second album—not really on the third at all. But this album is the first time that I am telling stories that I don’t think anyone else could tell.”

Half-Light is an album of awakenings. Rostam falls in love, adventures through the city, revels in nature, and has his heart broken once or twice. Though you can hear a few moments where the instrumentation might have worked into a Vampire Weekend, the album has none of that band’s sense of irony and knowingness. On Half-Light, life unfolds at an unguarded pace. If Vampire Weekend’s music might have scored an energized intellectual conversation at a party, Half-Light is more suited for the solitary walk through the city. The mood is summed up on a song like “Gwan,” where Rostam sings “All of these dreams / Keep coming back to me slowly, slow” over a gorgeous, wobbling string arrangement.

During our conversation, Rostam takes long, thoughtful pauses between answers. A discussion of Half-Light‘s opening track, “Sumer,” reveals my total misreading of the title: Rather than a reference to the ancient country of Sumer, it instead refers to the Old English spelling of summer. “But it’s cool that you thought that!” he says. “I don’t wanna say, like, anything is wrong, in how a person hears a song.” Elsewhere, he’s mum on who he hopes to work with in the future. “I just generally don’t like to talk about things until they come out. Making the album with Hamilton was a dream collaboration, and that came true. I gotta be careful about what I say, because it might just come true.”

You’ve been around in the public eye for a decade, and now you’re stepping out with a solo album. 

Honestly, I never felt like I wasn’t an artist on my own. I always felt like the music I made was mine, whether it was part of a collaboration with people. I think the reason is because I care so much, when I work with other artists. It’s not like I treat it like something that I blow off or put less work into. I give all of myself to it. I don’t wanna say ownership, because I don’t think that’s right, but I feel really attached to the music that I make, both on my own and with other people,.

Half-Light strikes me as a very New York album. Was that on your mind as you were making it? 

Yes. One of the things that I learned in college—or not even learned, just something that struck me and has stuck with me—is that whatever you’re doing, whatever art you’re making, you’re connecting with a tradition. You can kind of choose to be naive about that or you can be aware of that, and maybe the best art is a little bit of both. But I think of this album as connecting with the tradition of New York albums, certainly.

You mentioned Lou Reed and Arthur Russell—who were some other New York artists you were connecting to? 

Probably Julian Casablancas. I’m a really big fan of his record Phrazes for the Young. Do you know the record?

I listened to it when it came out, but not since. 

I think you should listen to it again, especially the lyrics. They’re so good. I think there’s a little cult of us who love that record and hear it maybe differently than other people do. [laughs] It’s funny that I say that, because I think his label that put that out was called Cult Records.  But yeah, I really love that record.

It’s funny that when Vampire Weekend first emerged, you were criticized as a band of straight white boys, and a decade later you’re making a solo record as a gay person of color. 

[laughs] Well, I think specifically, this record is engaging with identity. There’s certain things that I feel like I’m able to say with the album, with the music and the lyric, that I couldn’t say in an interview, and I wouldn’t want to say in an interview. In that sense, I want the music to speak for itself.

Did it frustrate you when Vampire Weekend would be so casually pigeonholed as a white band, despite your being in the band? That would never pass the test today, but in 2008, the conversation was a little less intelligence. 

Well, I think that I have a complicated relationship with whiteness because oftentimes, I pass as white, and I recognize that. I would be disingenuous to pretend that I don’t pass as white. But I don’t identify as white, and I never have, as a kid. I remember filling out the ERBs and not circling the white bubble, because it didn’t seem right, and going home and asking my parents, like, “What are we?”

So, yes, it upset me when people—not that many people, but there were some people with agendas—wanted to write something about Vampire Weekend, and wanted to term it a “white” band. There was one article that referred to us as a “white band,” and I reached out to the editor of that article and I said, “I don’t think that’s exactly right!” They changed it to “a mostly white band.” They made no editor’s note—they just changed it, and I thought that was really fucked up. It made me upset. Like I mentioned, I have a complex relationship with whiteness, so in that sense, I think it was hard to hear that.

You’re responsible for much of the album, from the instrumentation to the mixing. Was there a moment you considered not handling everything so personally? 

I hired Dave Friedman to mix “Bike Dream”—there’s only two songs on the record that I didn’t mix myself, and that’s one of them. He was someone I reached out to, like, six and a half years ago? A mutual friend put us in touch, and I was like, “Dave, I have been responsible for producing and mixing every song I’ve been a part of, and now I’m starting to make music on my own, and I feel like I might need someone else. You’re someone I really believe in.” He got back to me, and we had a back and forth, and we were trying to find some time to get together. And then… I dropped the ball. I emailed him like six years later, and I was like, “Hey, remember me? I have a song I want you to mix.”

 Maybe it’d be nice in the future to be more open, because maybe it would go by faster. To go back to Dave Friedman, I really love his drum sounds. I’m obsessed with drums! I think if you’ve ever listened to a record I’ve produced then you’ve probably could start to realize how obsessed with drums I am. [laughs] Maybe you can’t just listen to one, but you gotta kinda listen to all of them. The version of “Bike Dream” that he received, I’d already put a lot of time into the drum sound, and he took it to a whole other level. So that was something that was on my mind.

I think to be totally candid, some of my reluctance to include other people on this record might have come out of self esteem. And having low self esteem.

In the sense of a creative embarrassment, and not wanting to let people in on the process? 

Yeah, I think so. I think so. I think it’s something, over the course of making this record, I became more and more comfortable with.

I really do love “Bike Dream”—there’s a quality to it like the words are just spilling forth, like you’re reciting a poem. It reminded me of someone like Frank O’Hara.

I’ll confess that I wrote a lot of those lyrics in 2009 or 2008. But then I worked on them more, so it’s hard to say. I do like Frank O’Hara’s poetry; I don’t know enough about poetry. When Hamilton and I were working on I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, he would bring poetry books to the studio and just kind of have them around, and just crack them open and look at words and then get inspiration from that. I think there’s definitely places that I wanna go lyrically in the future, and I think that poetry is a good way to get there.

I didn’t do that on this record; maybe it would have been better if I did. What I did do, is that I did revise a lot of lyrics on my phone. There’s a quote from Zadie Smith where she talks about how there’s two different kinds of writers. There’s the kind that only want to read their own writing as they’re writing a book, and there’s the kind that want to read other writing as they’re writing. She says that she’ll have three different books cracked open at any time while she’s writing.

Are you working on the new Vampire Weekend album at all?

I guess I just wanna have some surprises, some secrets. So I don’t want to answer that question yet.

Fair enough. Do you have a personal favorite song on the record?

Maybe the title track. When I was recording it, it reminded me of when I was a teenager, and I would make these multitrack experiments where I’d just move from one instrument to the next, to the next and build up a really sloppy song that way. On that song, I recorded the piano first, and then I added drums, bass, the guitar solo. I kinda just did them back, to back, to back. I had an engineer in the room helping me, hitting record for me, but I in terms of process, I felt like I was a kid again. 

There’s also a collaboration with Angel Deradoorian that to me sounded a little unconsciously like a Dirty Projectors song. 

Dave Longstreth and I have a lot in common in the sense that we both went to college and studied music at these East Coast institutions. I think both of us kind of realized we wanted to take what we learned and put it in a place where it might seem like it doesn’t belong. I was certainly inspired by Dave’s music back in 2003, ‘04, ‘05, ‘06. [laughs] I don’t know if people are aware of those records, but to me, they were seminal—especially the record that he made just as Dave Longstreth, before he started using the name Dirty Projectors. It’s called The Graceful Fallen Mango; I’d say it’s crazy in the right way. You’re lucky if you get into that.

When I interviewed him this year, I talked about how Dirty Projectors were perceived as an “intellectual” band, given that in the typical indie rock world you’re weird if you do anything a little unconventional.

It’s all relative, because if you study music in college, and you’re considering going to grad school for composition—which I don’t know if Dave was, but I was considering it—the idea that any kind of album of songs could be considered intellectual is novel, I think, in that world. That world is somewhat receptive to it, but the kinds of things people in that world are interested in are very specific. Things like extended techniques, like playing the violin with the bow upside down. [laughs] I don’t wanna knock that, ‘cause I might do that one day, but I don’t wake up in the morning thinking about that stuff. I do wake up in the morning thinking about songwriting and production.

At the same time, I think there’s things on this record that maybe only those types of people would pick up on. But I’m okay, I don’t need everyone to pick up on everything that’s going on in the record. I think that some of those people might hear this record and they might be like “oh shit! That’s imitative counterpoint, you don’t hear that that often!” You know?

In that sense, it’s nice to be playing for an audience who might just wordlessly appreciate it, rather than gravitate immediately to the more technical perspective.

Yeah, and I think that’s something that I really believe in. I don’t believe in expertise. I don’t believe that a film critic feels a film more deeply than any person who walks into a theater. I don’t believe that.