Rostam Might Be a Pop Genius
The former Vampire Weekend member steps out on his own to make 'Half-Light,' an album of infectious pop hooks and effortlessly sincere ideas.
Illustratie door Tara Jacoby
This article originally appeared on Noisey US
Rostam Batmanglij is just trying to make a great album—one that's truly his. Until now he's spent his career collaborating, doing a stint with the Dirty Projectors a decade and a half before bandleader David Longstreth turned the project into a personal journal entry. From there he co-founded Vampire Weekend, played on the band's seminal Contra and helped produce Modern Vampires in the City, released some stellar solo tracks, and helmed songs for Charli XCX, Carly Rae Jepsen, Haim, and Frank fucking Ocean. With the release of his solo debut, Half-Light, he's trying to show the world what these collaborators already know: that Rostam might be a pop genius.
"My identity as a songwriter + producer, I realized, needs to stand on its own," he wrote on Twitter in January 2016, announcing he'd be leaving Vampire Weekend. Rostam and bandleader Ezra Koenig decided that Rostam needn't be in the band to continue their musical relationship. "With Vampire Weekend, on the first two albums, there were a handful of songs that Ezra and I collaborated on for the lyrics," Rostam tells me at his living room table in East Los Angeles. Over the course of our conversation, we don't move from this sparsely decorated room. There's a stand-up bass in the corner and an air conditioner he occasionally tinkers with. "On the third record, the lyrics were written by Ezra—pretty much every single one of them. He was really responsible for the narrative on that record."
Half-Light, in this sense, is Rostam's attempt at introducing his version of New York—his experiences and perspective—to an audience that's grown accustom to Koenig's interpretations and lyrical ideas. "On this record [Half-Light], having the responsibility of the narrative and the storytelling aspect, that was really important to me," he continues. "I kept thinking to myself as I was working, 'Am I telling the full story of the record, am I telling the full story of every song?'" Batmanglij's split from Vampire Weekend wasn't a drama-filled breakup or a breakdown of vision. Batmanglij simply wanted to take a crack at the record he's spent much of his adult life contemplating. "I had a picture in my mind of certain records by the Velvet Underground or Lou Reed or Arthur Russell or The Strokes," he explains. "Across different eras there have been these albums that are time capsules of New York and I wanted to make a record like that."
Vampire Weekend certainly addresses the same thematic ideas, but whereas the group projected their world onto the backdrop of New York, Half-Light turns inwards, examining deeply intimate and personal experiences within the context of Rostam's time in New York. It's at once a kaleidoscopic look at the blissful experiences that can only happen in the five boroughs, and the alienation of being a person that doesn't fit in, stuck in the most suffocating city in the world. "I hope it's an album that anyone can come to no matter what their life experience has been," he reflects. "That said, I definitely made it with people who've had experiences like mine in mind. I hope I can reach those people and they can feel less alone in the world."
Those experiences, that alienation, is only amplified in 2017. Batmanglij is the gay son of two Iranian immigrants, and on Half-Light he attempts to reach people who have been similarly marginalized with the rise of America's fascist state. "I think everybody has an obligation to be honest, musically, lyrically, and in terms of the art they make; whatever that art is, however they choose to express themselves," he tells me. Rostam begins this exploration almost immediately on Half-Light. After the carnival-ride psychedelic sweetness of opener "Sumer," Batmanglij presents "Bike Dream," a tale of having two boys, "one to kiss your neck and one to make you breakfast." Rostam has this endearing habit of singing his words as if he's almost laughing, giddy that he gets to present this music for an audience—it's charming and infectious, joyous without ever becoming saccharine.
Though Batmanglij's album feels prescient in the midst of turbulent political and social times, most of these songs were written over the past ten years. While they may resonate, the lyrics and themes don't necessarily touch on America today. When I attempt to bring up the modern day context related to this album, Batmanglij notes that his experiences aren't different from when he began writing, per se. They're only amplified. "I've always had a complicated relationship with America, feeling American. I was born in America, but just barely. I think that's something I talk about on the record in different ways. Sometimes more abstractly, and sometimes more concretely," he explains. "It feels like there were some things I wanted to say politically that were important to say and it didn't really matter who was the president." Rostam can tether his music to a world outside of this moment in time because each song on Half-Light attempts to invoke a singular emotion. "As long as I've been a songwriter I've been interested in some specific feelings that I wanted to convey. A sense of companionship within the world of a song," he tells me, before adding, "We're interested in the things we're interested in for a reason."
Still, there are undeniable political edges to this record—"I consider all music political, if you were to choose to make an album that you wanted to be apolitical, that in and of itself would be a political statement," he says. But the feelings Rostam ultimately conveys on Half-Light are ones of joys and love, which is accomplished by pushing pop music to its outermost boundaries. "Half-Light" is a gorgeous piano ballad featuring the slightest hint of reverb on Rostam's vocals and the slow rise of a shrieking guitar line that recalls Eno's rock records. The drums kick in all dusty and metallic as the bassline carries the melody. Before the song ends, Rostam's moved from a gut wrenching meditation to a Bowie-in-Berlin middle section before eventually landing on a Beatles homage. The pop influences are clear, but Rostam's outstanding ability lies in the way he co-opts these movements into something untouched and pure.
On "Hold You," featuring Angel Deradoorian (who also gives a show-stopping performance on Batmanglij's 2009 collaboration with Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot), Rostam dips his voice in a molasses thick vocoder before backing Deradoorian's hauntingly beautiful vocals with a choir and a beat that wouldn't sound out of place on a James Blake record. Outside of these flickers of electronica, Half-Light reaches its highest moments when Rostam blends the baroque chamber music he discovered while studying classical music at Columbia, with the pop music he's encountered working with acts like Haim, Carly Rae Jepsen, Solange, and Santogold—in addition to the tricks he picked up co-producing Modern Vampires with Ariel Rechtshaid.
"There's this feeling in French pop music and Brazilian tropicalia and the Beatles' music and the Kinks' music, this marriage of classical music and songs," he says. "I feel like that's something that's always been important to me. That's governed a lot of my thinking as I've made music throughout my career, but most especially on this album." This idea reverberates on album highlight "Gwan," which begins with a dizzying string arrangement before Rostam sings, "Don't listen to me, I only believe myself/ So I'm going somewhere to do that alone." He adds, almost as an afterthought, "And then I see you/ The light falls through the room/ And all of it doesn't seem so hard." It's hard to catch this beautiful refrain the first time around, the swell of the strings too powerful, Rostam's bashful delivery too charming. But the line eventually hits, and that idea, that companionship within a song that Rostam mentions to me earlier, begins to make sense. "Sometimes I laugh thinking about how you know me," he later sings. It's a feeling we all strive for, but hearing it sung so innocently is a reminder that everyone yearns for this.
Sometimes the ideas aren't delivered quite as eloquently, but the effect is all the same. On "Don't Let It Get To You," Rostam takes the drums from Paul Simon's "Obvious Child" and turns them into a bombastic military exercise, metallic and grating yet propulsive in the song's expanse. He sings, "You're not gonna get it exactly how you want it/ But that doesn't mean you shouldn't try/ It's not gonna feel the way you expected/ And it's gonna hurt to figure it out." Even when the words read like aphorisms, there's an overwhelming hopefulness and positivity that occurs when he combines them with his delivery and the overwhelming sensory surge of his musical ideas.
At one point I ask Rostam to describe how he feels now that the album is finally coming out, now that he has a work all his own to share with the world. For an artist who's produced for the biggest pop stars in the world, and helped create one of the biggest bands in rock music, his aspirations are surprisingly humble. "Everyone who makes an album has this feeling that as soon as the album's out, something in the air will change. There will be some kind of shift in the atmosphere," he says, speaking slowly as if he's discovering this thought for the first time, feeling the air around him to see if there's that shift. "You hope for that," he adds. "I guess you just hope that people will hear it."
Will Schube is a writer based in Texas. Follow him on Twitter.