Words by Jim Ottewill
Rostam Batmanglij, producer, artist, and former member of eclectic US indie rockers Vampire Weekend, is talking from his beautiful LA home, reflecting on what powers his musical ambitions. From ambient experiments to chart-scaling hits, Rostam’s musical motivations have seen him stretch his talents to almost every corner of pop’s sonic tapestry.
As the production backbone to Vampire Weekend’s first three hugely successful albums, Rostam helped the band take their melody-filled workouts to arena crowds and Grammy Awards but he’s gone on to surpass these achievements. He’s since worked as a much-in-demand producer, sprinkling his magic over killer releases from the likes of Frank Ocean, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Haim. Alongside these projects, Rostam’s CV includes film scores, theatre pieces and he’s now preparing to unveil a second solo record, Changephobia. Its mix of pop hooks, soundscapes and rhythm is a deft progression from the mainstream success he’s tasted while still retaining his leftfield creative sensibilities.
It’s always been my mission to make music that flips the script, that plants a flag where it hasn’t been planted before.
Vampire Weekend may be what Rostam is best known for but he’s been embracing new dimensions as a musician and creative for many years, often in parallel to his work with the band.
‘Wood’, his first solo release, was released to glowing reviews in 2011 and earned him comparisons to a ‘drowsy David Byrne’. He worked as one-half of indie rockers Discovery before releasing his debut solo LP, ‘Half-Light’ in 2017. Since then he’s flitted between projects, moonlighting with Charli XCX, Frank Ocean, and many more.
Rostam’s musical roots are in music and composition, two areas he pursued at Columbia University. It was here where he first met Ezra Koenig and the musical shape-shifting of Vampire Weekend first began. Alongside his education, Rostam initially looked to production giants such as Timbaland, Pharrell Williams, and Nigel Godrich for inspiration and influence.
“I did study composition and majored in music as an undergrad,” he explains from his LA balcony. “And I thought about going to grad school for composition. But what I came to understand was that a composer has a kind of limited control on how the music that they wrote sounded and who got to hear it.”
“For me, I love the idea that as a producer you control the physical response of how people listen to your music. Your job is literally to know how hard the drums hit and how best to achieve this.”
Rostam has quiet confidence, offering a mixture of thoughtfulness and laughs in his answers. When thrown a question, he pauses and sucks up a measured response from deep within himself - and it’s a considered, deliberate approach he adopts with his music. Rostam is yet to be wrong-footed and this new album, made between projects over the last three years, certainly sees his own solo songwriting really falling into place. Hazy in places, yet beautifully structured, tracks such as ‘4Runner’, ‘These Kids We Knew’ and ‘Kinney’ represent another step in his upwards trajectory.
“I wanted to make a record that had a different palette of sounds from almost anything I had done before,” he says of his ambitions for the project. “I also wanted to avoid certain sounds I had maybe become known for, so things like the harpsichord or strings. That was a rule going into this album as well as making it a very drum-forward record.”
As a release, Changephobia is concise and as shimmering as an LA sunset. Deliberately short (“I wanted it to be 30 minutes, it ended up being 38”), it’s awash with different sounds and instrumentation.
“I wanted to use chords you don’t often hear in guitar music, so these chords connected with jazz. I started writing these sax parts to connect to a specific era of bebop which I felt hadn’t been in enough songs.” Kinney is one of his favourite tracks on the record, an initially mellow song with a sting of heavy feedback in its tail and nods to his love for the grunge bands of the nineties.
“As someone born in 1983, I was 11 in the middle of the grunge explosion. This is some of the music that I love but, if you look at my career, there are not many songs I’ve produced that sound particularly grunge,” he laughs. “The back half of ‘Kinney’ does actually touch on this genre and I was terrified when I did it. Am I going to lose people? Ultimately I’m proud of how it worked out even if it divides opinion.”
Every record I’ve made has involved working out of my home studio.
Rostam’s musical creativity flows through a domestic studio setup, something he’s always had since in his twenties. As his homes have grown in size, so have his aspirations.
“My home was often an apartment and my studio was either the living room or the bedroom,” he says. “But, every record I’ve made has involved working out of my home studio. People would be surprised at some of the records that were recorded in this setting.”He has various ways of breaking into the creative process, from creating drum patterns to sketching out ideas using Ableton or DAWs such as ProTools or Reason.
“Songs like ‘From the Back of a Cab’ to ‘Kinney’, they started in Ableton, then migrated to ProTools for the second stage of the production,” Rostam explains. The drums have often been his sonic calling card but it’s a particular characteristic of his music that he's very aware of even if he’s reluctant to move away from it just yet. “I think the way I record drums is fairly unique, people have often asked me about it. I’ve become conscious of things my ear was drawn to and I wasn’t necessarily aware of exactly how I was achieving certain sounds on my early records. Now I’m super aware and I’m getting nervous that I’m almost too good at making the drums bang.”
Rostam’s career is unsurprisingly closely linked to the success of Vampire Weekend. He was a fully fledged member of the band for their self titled debut, then subsequent Contra and Modern Vampires of the City albums. The group’s process and oeuvre developed considerably over those releases, with each successive album gaining them greater plaudits and a broader following. “With the first album, we could play all those songs live,” he says. “The second album, it was 50/50 - half we could play live, then Ezra and I, it was our foray into electronic music and using ProTools as a compositional tool.”
“The third Vampire Weekend album is fully electronic music,” he continues. “Even though I am well aware that it sounds extremely organic, it was a product of the production process. I hope I don’t ruin the listening experience for people when they hear that it was constructed in the way that electronic music is constructed.”
While this was his final work with the band across a whole album, it paved the way for him to take the next steps in his recording career, connecting him with some of pop music’s more elusive and idiosyncratic characters. From Frank Ocean’s Blonde to Haim and their Women in Music Pt. III record, these collaborators have managed to scale great commercial heights while resolutely sticking to their aesthetic, an attitude he shares and admires. What did he learn from working with them?
“With Frank Ocean, the take away was very much about his work ethic,” states Rostam. “He will never settle for anything he doesn’t think is perfect. It’ll take as many years, hours, late nights as he needs to. Getting to know him taught me that I could push myself a lot further.”
With Frank Ocean, the take away was very much about his work ethic. Getting to know him taught me that I could push myself a lot further.
With Haim, he says it was a unified passion for playing music itself that helped him forge a bond with the band.
“I love them for their unending musicality. It’s something I share with them and as a producer, I felt like my role was to show more of Danielle’s specific personality as a guitar player and a drummer.”
“One of my favourite moments on the record is the guitar solo in ‘Leaning On You’ - it’s about a minute long and about 90% of that was just one take. I feel so lucky and proud that I could help bring that out of someone I was working with.” While he’s known as an artist, other projects have included soundtracks for TV (‘The OA’) film (‘Sound of my Voice’) and even theatre (‘This is Our Youth’ with Michael Cera and Tavi Gevinson). Rostam believes they’ve all fed into how he now writes his own music.
“Doing film work made me become really interested in super high quality audio samples. I was sourcing strings and drum samples, then this led me to choir patches which you play with a keyboard, as if the choir is performing via your fingers. These sounds have become part of my identity as a producer but I arrived at them through soundtracks.” As far as he’s concerned, it’s exciting to work in these different worlds but ultimately the song is what preoccupies him most. “If the right project comes along, I will jump at it. But creating songs gives me the most pleasure,” he explains. “I love the song. It’s like a canvas on which to paint, some are large, some are small but the song is always in the middle. I love that - and it can touch anybody.”
With so many experiences, it’s unsurprising that Rostam has some advice for aspiring music makers. For him, full immersion in the world of music is the best route to finding your own identity as an artist and creator, whatever role that might be.
In terms of gear, he points to his upright piano as having helped him pursue his love for music and sound. Rostam feels this can be a real benefit for any producer, regardless of whether they can play proficiently or not. “I know they are expensive but you can rent them and that’s how I started out. It’s the tactile thing - but also there’s a universality to the sound of the piano. There are so many musical genres it exists in - American music and this huge classical tradition - but music from every part of the world features this instrument too.”
“I remember reading this interview with Pharrell when I was 19, he said that the more you learn about music, the better that is for the music you make. It’s really stuck with me. Learning more about music will never impede your creativity. When I write a chord progression, I trust my fingers and my heart. I’m not psychologically breaking down the mathematics of the progression. I can do it but I don’t engage that side of my brain unless I need to.”
I remember reading this interview with Pharrell [Williams] when I was 19. He said that the more you learn about music, the better that is for the music you make. It’s really stuck with me.
With Covid-19 restrictions easing and vaccination programmes rolling out, Rostam is looking forward to eventually taking the record out on the road. But for now, as gigs are still some way down the line, he’s focused on rehearsals and in the studio. With so much experience in this environment, what does he think it’s the producer’s role?
“It’s about helping an artist realise their vision. You have a lot of power as a producer. What I find beautiful about being one is how you can help an artist realise a vision they might never have previously imagined. That doesn’t always happen but it’s something I find really fun trying to achieve.”