Rostam Talks 'Launching a Whole Universe' With New Solo LP

Former Vampire Weekend member opens up about the making of 'Half-Light,' embracing the frontman role and how it feels when fans cry at his shows

Ex–Vampire Weekend–er Rostam Batmanglij discusses the "complex" sound of his new LP 'Half-Light,' fans' emotional reactions at his shows and more. Credit: Andy Maher

Rostam Batmanglij has been performing for large crowds for the better part of a decade. But watching audience members cry to one of his songs? "At first I couldn't really believe it," the producer, songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and former Vampire Weekend member says of the intense fan reactions he encountered during his debut solo performances earlier this year. "But after witnessing it several times I just have to go with it. I guess something people do at a Rostam concert is cry." In early 2016, the 33-year-old left his popular band in order to focus on making his own music, producing for artists like Frank Ocean, Solange and Haim, and working on side projects like I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, last year's collaborative album with Walkmen singer Hamilton Leithauser.

But as Rostam tells Rolling Stone, his wild and eccentric debut, Half-Light, due September 15th, is as much about pushing himself out of his comfort zone as it is striking out on his own. "I always want to be somewhat uncomfortable," Batmanglij says. "But at the same time I want to make music that you react to viscerally."

As Vampire Weekend's principal sonic architect – he produced all three of the band's albums to date – Batmanglij pushed the limits of what constituted pop music, often turning to unorthodox instrumentation and complex rhythms. HIs new album is no exception: The musician says in the several years he spent constructing the LP he was "trying to write the most complex music that anyone could possibly sing on top of." From the throbbing "Bike Dream" to the staccato string-anchored "Gwan," the album rewards multiple listens.

In his first interview on the subject of Half-Light, Batmanglij is open and forthcoming about his creative process, why the idea of being a "solo" artist is unappealing, and how coming out as a gay man has affected his music in profound ways.

When did you first start considering a solo project?
Some of the songs on this record came out in 2011 and so that sort of reveals that I have been making music under my name for a while now. Even 18 months after the first Vampire Weekend record came out, the [2009] Discovery record [recorded with Ra Ra Riot vocalist Wes Miles] came out. So I've been making music in different ways for a long time. The first Vampire Weekend record was the first full-length album that I produced. It was the first record I made. But I've made a bunch of records since then. Whenever I work on a project I put all of myself into it. I think one thing that is new is putting all of myself into finishing this record and performing this record out in the world and that's something I'm really excited about.

But there's obviously something different – at least as far as outside perception – when releasing an album under your own name.
Yeah, and if I'm honest I'm not crazy about the word "solo." It has a lot of connotations that aren't great. People might have called Justin Timberlake's first album a solo album but in the context of his career, 15 years later it just feels like a great album. So that's what you strive for. This will not be the first and last Rostam album. So I'm excited to make more albums, and yes, there's probably a side of me that wants to skip a few steps because I've made so much music. But I also recognize in some ways I'm a not-as-known entity. In some circles I am and in other circles I'm not. So I'm OK with starting up and not taking anything for granted. I actually kind of love doing things like that.

You didn't tour with Hamilton Leithauser behind your joint album, but you are going out behind this project.
I didn't tour with him, but I did a bunch of shows with him. Last year we did one in New York, one in L.A., one in London, and this year we played shows together in New York and we filmed and recorded one of them and there's a live vinyl coming out. That was always the plan with that record: to launch it and do some special shows together. But with this record I do feel like this is the beginning of launching a whole universe and experience and it's a world I want people to be a part of and feel a part of. That's going to mean performing at festivals, performing in venues, making videos, making art. I'm really excited about doing all of that stuff and putting all of myself into that.

Given your penchant for being a bit of a studio rat, is that aspect of things exciting or daunting?
It is exciting. There's time to do both things. I don't have to just have one kind of life. I can have several different creative lives. It's exciting to have a vision of what I want the show to be like and feel like and share that with some people.

Did you have a sonic blueprint for how this album should sound?
I did have a big concept in terms of aesthetic. And I actually deviated from over the course of making the record. But the concept was to make a record where it was vocals and strings at the forefront and then these intricate drum patterns that were blocking in with the vocals and the strings. That was the original concept that dates back to 10 or 11 years ago [laughs]. But ultimately what made me chase down the songs was that I would get haunted by them; I would make little voice memos on my phone and every once in awhile I'd listen back to them and be like, "Fuck, you really have to finish this song. There's gonna be something sad if the world never hears a finished version of this."

So a lot of times there was a lot on this record that came out of traditional songwriting – like sitting at a piano or sitting at an instrument. And then there's another side of the record that came out of making tracks and building beats. I got in trouble a few times and I would scrap what I had and go back to the drawing board. But I found that if I really loved a piece of music and I wanted to sing on it, if I just kept trying I would find the right thing to say.

How much singing were you in fact doing with Vampire Weekend?
I sang pretty much all of the vocal harmonies on the Vampire Weekend records. In the song "Young Lion," for example, that's a song in three-part harmony and I sang all the vocals on that song. So that's been part of what I do. It's part of what I do as a producer. When I produce other artists I sometimes add a vocal element. I think previously people didn't really know exactly what my voice sounded like and now they have a better idea. So now people might hear "Walking Away" by Haim, for example, and they'll hear a small little vocal riff and say, "Oh, is that you in the background?" It takes times for people to get to know your voice if you haven't put out a record.

Were there any reservations about being a lead vocalist?
What I find difficult is to play instruments and sing at the same time. But what I love to do is to just do one of them. When I perform these songs I like to hold a mic stand and not have to be tied down to instruments and just focus on singing. Because I do enjoy singing when it's the only task in front of me.

And you've been playing with a live band for your Rostam shows.
Yeah, I've played about five shows on the East Coast in May. And I played in San Francisco and L.A. this past June. The way I perform is with a percussionist and a string quartet. And on a few songs I have a couple of dancers that join us onstage; I think they take things to another level. And I also have projections – that's what I meant by building the world of the performance. I think they let you have a window aesthetically into some of the things I'm thinking about in connection with the songs.

How has the experience been to perform these songs?
I'm definitely surprised that my music puts people in tears.

How does it affect you as a performer when your music is so powerful to listeners?
It feels like I'm doing my job [laughs]. It feels like they're getting their money's worth, right? Any kind of physical reaction is a good thing in music. Whether it's dancing or crying.

On a sonic level you've continued to push the boundaries of what constitutes pop music.
I feel like I do always want to push myself. It's hard to articulate. I think there's a side of me that inherently wants to make music that's joyful and that hits certain pleasure receptors in the brain. At the same time, I want to make music that pushes the envelope and is complex. I'm always trying to find that middle ground.

And you've also produced for risk-taking artists. Do you have a sense whether they're looking to you to help push them in new directions?
There is a set of choices that I would make, I'm starting to realize, and there's things I would want to hear in a song, whether it's harmonically or melodically or lyrically. There's a place I want to get to whether I'm working on my own music or working with other artists. When I'm working as a producer it's about helping an artist realize their vision or us realizing a shared vision. My goal is for us to get somewhere that we didn't know we could get to.

It must be a delicate process.
Ultimately it's about trust. That's when you reach new heights.

You've said the album and its title, Half-Light, is a thematic one: It touches on your feelings of living a double life in terms of being a well-known performer as well as an out gay man and the son of two Iranian immigrants.
Some of these songs and ideas for these songs started before I was out. It's interesting I'm doing this interview with Rolling Stone because I came out in a [2010] profile of Vampire Weekend that was in Rolling Stone. And it was the first time that someone wanted to know about our lives. Me and Ezra had written a song called "Diplomat's Son" on the album Contra that was about to come out at the time. We had talked about it in the studio that once this song came out it meant that I would come out. Even before I came out I felt something ingrained in my values that is connected to the transparency of being who you are publicly. It's just part of my identity and I do feel like it's sort of my mission in terms of the art that I make. Now does that inform every single artistic decisions that I make? No. I think my music would suck if I was always trying to lead back to some kind of theme or some kind of goal. But I do think it's in the back of my mind. I do think it does govern what I want to say. I do feel like I have something to say and if I didn't I don't think I would make very good music.

To relate it to something that has nothing to do with immigration or the LGBT community, if you ever saw that [2007] Tom Petty documentary [Runnin' Down a Dream], they talk about how much Tom Petty hated his dad and there was some kind of rage that his music was always engaging with and that anger towards his dad and that injustice. There was something that made Tom Petty write the songs that he wrote and there was some fire underneath him. I think we all have that. I'm trying to put that to some good use with the songs that I write. I believe that all music is inherently political. So it would be disingenuous to not make music that was honest to that belief. But at the same time I think that music that is political with a capital P kinda sucks.

Do you generally feel that despite the toxic political climate people have grown more accepting of those who are different than them?
I have complex feelings about it because I do think there's a tendency to say, "Let's throw out labels. Let's not use labels. Why do we need labels?" I do see why people might feel that way or believe in that as a way to live. And I've certainly struggled with it at different times. I do think there are aspects of our identity that our lives might be easier if we downplayed them. But I think there's something dangerous in pretending like there's no pressure to downplay those aspects of ourselves. I think those pressures do still exist. Being someone who came out in the press at the age of 26 I feel grateful for the people who'd come before me. I think there's a danger that if nobody comes out then we start to erase the aspect of community from who we are. I hope that this album sort of engages with those aspects of identity in ways that are ultimately more honest than I could possibly say in an interview.