Maybe there’s not a lot of competition for the title of “World’s Most Accomplished Queer Iranian-American Indie Rock Star Turned A-List Producer,” but Rostam Batmanglij has it on lock. And as of next week, the onetime co-creative force behind Vampire Weekend who in recent years has written and produced for the likes of HAIM, Hamilton Leithauser, Frank Ocean, Santigold, Carly Rae Jepson, Charli XCX and Declan McKenna, can finally and definitively add “solo artist” to his burgeoning CV, with the release of Half-Light, a sublime collection of baroque pop nearly a decade in the making.
In the midtown Manhattan offices of Nonesuch Records, Rostam is beaming. He’s just gotten a first look at a CD pressing of the album—complete with his name, written in Persian. Although he still uses his surname for his songwriting and production work, as an artist he simply goes by his first. “It’s just easier,” he explains. “And it kind of relates to iconography. I like that I can write my name in Persian, and it’s a small unit, like a graphical unit. I feel the same way about my name in English, it’s a graphical unit.” The Persian rendering has become something of a logo for the musician, also appearing on the artwork of past single releases, and in the corner of the music video for “Gwan,” released in April. It also serves as a signifier of his roots.
Born in the U.S. to parents who left Iran at the time of the 1979 revolution, Rostam’s Iranian heritage is shot through the music he creates—Half-Light track “Wood” features Middle Eastern trills, finger cymbals and hand drums—and into his view of America and the world. Although it’s been five years since we last spoke, I’ve interviewed him several times dating back to late 2007, when I first met Rostam and the rest of Vampire Weekend only weeks before the release of their self-titled first album, front-to-back one of the great debut records of all time. Words matter to him. He’s a gifted, inventive lyricist; and in conversation he speaks judiciously, chooses his words carefully, and usually has something to say on the state of the world.
Even if politics isn’t explicitly addressed on most of Half-Light, which is largely a romantic record, a good portion of our 90-minute chat in an artist lounge at Nonesuch touches on topical matters.
“I think the music that speaks to me the most is music that is personal. And that’s the music that I’m trying to make,” he explains, “But as this conversation proves, I have a lot of political things on my mind. So my goal was to make the personal political on these songs.” The new album’s most overtly political track may be “When”—part of a more experimental mid-section of the record. It opens with an airy vocal asking a timely question in the age of “fake news”: “When you know something / How do you know that you know it?” Later, the song gets more Orwellian: an ominous robot-effect voice urges us “not to believe any of it” and references the “distribution of wealth” and the “weapons industrial complex”—Rostam’s very deliberate twist on a more commonly heard phrase.
“That’s actually a term of my own creation,” he says. “The phrase we hear in the media is ‘military industrial complex.’ But I think that’s problematic, and I want to figure out a way to talk about things in a way that cuts to the core. ‘Military industrial complex’ implicates people who don’t deserve to be implicated. But if we talk about a ‘weapons industrial complex,’ well now we’re starting to talk about the issue.” And what’s the issue? “Our defense budget is 680 billion dollars,” he says. (The budget struck $580 billion in the fiscal year 2017, and is proposed at $640 billion for 2018.) “Which is three times higher than the second-biggest defense budget, which is China.
“And if you look at a situation in which we build weapons, more than any other country, the one thing that we want in our system is growth,” he continues. “Because of capitalism, you’ve got to make more money every year. So that means you make more weapons every year. At some point you’re going to run out of reasons to use these weapons. And what I believe is that, whether consciously or unconsciously, there are ways that the quote-unquote ‘weapons industrial complex’ is finding reasons to use the weapons that they are making.”
Not wanting demonize the men and women of the military is also very Rostam, whose guiding principle is the notion of being “inclusive.” While he’s clearly a progressive, he’s not interested in vilifying others, and likens his point of view on political discourse to the one articulated this year by Miley Cyrus. He specifically points to an interview I did with Cyrus in April for Billboard, in which she presaged her 2017 pivot to the musical and cultural middle by saying she was “done with only preaching to the choir.”
“I feel a kinship with Miley in the idea of being inclusive,” Rostam says. “And that by being inclusive, we are able to effect far more social change than by acting in such a way as to cause entrenchment. To me, entrenchment is our enemy.”
As an illustration, Rostam points to France, the country to which his parents first immigrated when they left Iran, and where his older brother, filmmaker Zal Batmanglij, was born. “When my mom was pregnant with me, my parents moved from France to America,” he explains. “And they did it for a very specific reason. They did it because they didn’t want their kids to feel like they had to trade in their Iranian identity for a French identity. And they wanted their kids to feel they had a home. Because they left Iran because they no longer felt safe there, and when they got to America, I think what they felt that America would allow is for their kids to have an identity that was both Iranian and American. I think that’s something that was really important to my parents. But I think that one of the things that we specifically in America don’t talk about with regards to France, is the French have radically different views on nationalism and immigration than Americans.”
I too have spent a lot of time in France—it’s the country with which I am most familiar after the U.S. And Rostam’s point—that France’s historical tendency to subsume all immigrants into a greater identity of “being French” through forced assimilation laws like banning religious wear (including niqabs and burqas) has only deepened entrenchment, and arguably fueled extremism—is well taken. “They even have a government institution that protects the French language,” he adds, referring to the Académie française. “We don’t have that in America!”
But, I tell Rostam, I have to push back on the idea that France is a more chauvinistic a place than the U.S. of A.—the only democracy I know of where if you don’t remove your head covering and stand for your national anthem at every sporting event from grade school on up, there is hell to pay. Classrooms reciting a “pledge of allegiance” to a flag? You won’t see that in France. Surging nationalism in America is precisely what put Trump in the White House. Rostam doesn’t disagree, but he’s more interested in reaching across than in putting up walls or waging war on social media. “I think there is a way to be inclusive that acknowledges that we are different,” he says. “I want to live in a world that is less white supremacist, straight supremacist, male supremacist. I want to get there. And I think how we get there is by not letting people just feel more and more entrenched in their opinions.” So why, I ask, is it on us on the left to offer the olive branch when few on the right seem inclined to do so? “Maybe it’s that you catch more flies with honey,” he offers. “Maybe that’s all it is.” (Our conversation took place two days before the ugly events in Charlottesville, Virginia.)
Rostam likes the idea of speaking to people “about something that I don’t think they’re super aware of. And that is something that I am interested in because I have grown up with like a window into what it feels like to be the son of immigrants,” he explains. “I’m someone who doesn’t identify as straight, someone who doesn’t identify as white, though I acknowledge that I often pass as white. I have had the experience of benefiting from passing as white, and I would be lying if I told you that had never happened to me. But also—you know, I speak French and Persian and English, but I don’t speak Spanish. And when I go to a bodega, people will automatically speak Spanish with me. And when I explain that I don’t speak Spanish, they will give me a dirty look sometimes, like not really believing that I am not a Spanish-speaking person. They’ll look at me like I’m someone who’s ashamed of my ethnicity. Which makes me feel crazy, because so much of what I do is about presenting my identity, clearly! You know, that’s part of my politics. So I think that I want to write simple love songs sometimes, and let my identity fill the political space of the song.”
“You take your time, young lion,” Rostam sings on the wistful final track on Vampire Weekend’s last album, 2013’s Modern Vampires of the City. In hindsight, it reads as his swan song—in January of 2016 he announced his departure from the band that he helped make one of the most distinctive and essential names in indie rock. And the young lion did, in fact, take his time in finally compiling his “simple love songs” into an album of his own. Many of the tracks on Half-Light have existed in one form or another for years, and five have already been released as singles. “I had a version of the record in 2011, and maybe a handful of the songs have carried over,” he explains. “But the truth is there are songs that started way before 2011 that ended up on the final record that wouldn’t have been on the 2011 version. There were songs that were ideas, they were sketches, and I believed in them, and I just wanted to take the time to see them through.”
“Thatch Snow”—one of the record’s more string-soaked offerings—has music that dates back to 2006, the earliest days of Vampire Weekend, but Rostam didn’t complete the lyrics until last year. The gorgeous “Bike Dream,” released as a single in June, existed in 2009 in a very different form. “Wood” and the irresistible, driving pop of “Don’t Let It Get To You” came out as singles in 2011 and whetted public appetite for a full album. “I had a playlist called ‘Rostam Album,’” he recalls. “I had all these musical ideas—sometimes iPhone recordings of little demos that were just voice and piano. And I was reluctant to turn these ideas into finished songs. And I think it was in setting aside some of that time that I started to get in the routine of finishing.”
Between Vampire Weekend commitments and an ever-growing schedule of production work—Charli XCX, Jepsen, Ocean, and Santigold projects came in quick succession, as well as last year’s collaborative album with Leithauser, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine—Rostam had to keep back-burnering his own record. Finally, the impetus to get it done came in late 2014, at a Julian Casablancas + The Voidz concert. “I don’t really know Julian well,” Rostam says. “But I saw him backstage and he asked me what I was up to, and he said, ‘When are you gonna get behind the mic?’ And I think I said something like, ‘You know what, I’ve been enjoying producing.’ And he was like, ‘Well, I think you should.’ And actually the next day I was like, ‘You know what? I do need to set aside some time to work on this record.’” He hooked up with a longtime collaborator, engineer Shane Stonebeck, and through two years of off-and-on sessions, turned those sketches into songs.
“Rostam-ness” is the term that longtime friend and collaborator Wes Miles of Ra Ra Riot gives to the distinctive sonic palette that Rostam works from when he produces, and which is all over Half-Light: strings, booming percussion, sixth chords, exotic accents and a general enveloping warmth. Some tracks are marked by shimmering atmosphere (“EOS,” “Hold You”) and others exhibit more pop structure (“Don’t Let It Get To You”) but none are conventional. They’re not timid but also not abrasive, and the same can be said of his voice. Rostam’s grown into his role as a singer. He’s pretty much “done” with playing keyboards, his traditional onstage role with Vampire Weekend, and in the future wants to focus as much as possible on only singing in live shows. His default voice might best be described as woozy—there’s a resistance to over-enunciation on winding verses (“Never Gonna Catch Me”), sweetly sung, unfailingly romantic hooks (“Gwan”), and a strong mid-range that with the right reverb recalls Person Pitch-era Panda Bear (“Sumer”).
“Two boys/ One to kiss your neck / And one to bring you breakfast/ Get you out of bed” opens the chorus of the propulsive, sparkling “Bike Dream,” my hand-down Song Of the Summer 2017 and just one example of how Rostam writes about gay love, real or imagined, in a most natural way. Interestingly, it was mostly written before he came out publicly in a 2010 article for Rolling Stone. “Yeah, some of the lyrics are that old,” he recalls. “And I think I liked the idea that the song had an openness that you wouldn’t hear it just in one way. That like, anybody could hear the song and identify with it, whether they identified as queer or straight—so I liked that openness. I remember feeling like I had done something clever. Ultimately it didn’t matter because it wasn’t like I had anything to be coy about.”
Just one measure of the way in which the national LGBTQIA conversation has lunged forward in the seven years since Rostam came out is the number of young queer musicians today who don’t think twice about being out—in their lyrics, in the press or on social media. Troye Sivan, Years & Years’ Olly Alexander, Le1f, Young M.A, PWR BTTM, Mykki Blanco, Brockhampton’s Kevin Abstract and many more—it’s a queer music landscape unlike one we’ve ever seen, and it’s a beautiful thing. While Rostam says he respects anyone’s timeline, he does believe there is value in coming out, and stating your truth. “I remember reading BUTT magazine before I was out—maybe even before I was out to all my friends and family,” he recalls. “Before I felt comfortable with identifying as something that wasn’t straight. And I felt a kinship to the people who refused to not be transparent about who they were. And I felt certain that if I did have a career in music that was successful to any degree, to the point where people were interested in who I was, that I would be out. And I think there is a little bit of a danger in saying, ‘Why do we need labels?’ I have a problem with musicians who never want to come out, but I don’t have a problem with a musician being like, ‘I’m gonna come out at the right time. And I will know when that is.’ I support that, because that was me.”
I can’t let a conversation with Rostam go by without asking the million dollar question: whether and when there will be a fourth Vampire Weekend album, and what, if any his role in it will be. Millions of fans, it’s fair to say, were gutted by last year’s announcement that he was leaving the VW fold—myself included. Imagining many of those songs—“M79,” “Step,” “Walcott”—being performed with anyone other than Rostam on the keys was, is, next to impossible. But those close to the band, including Wes Miles and VW bassist Chris Baio, have told me the departure was a long time coming. However, they—and Rostam himself, in recent interviews over the past year—have suggested that the split might only pertain to Vampire Weekend as a live band, holding out the possibility that Rostam will be back on board as producer and co-writer on the long-overdue next album. So what’s the deal? A firm “no comment.”
“I think at this point, right now, I want to stay coy about answering those questions,” he replies. “I want there to be some unknowns in the world. I think it’s important at this moment that there be some unknowns in the world.” What is known is that Rostam’s immediate future will be occupied by Half-Light, one of the more extraordinary records of the year, and live shows to support it this month and next.
Finally, how does this son of immigrants who came to America from a country that falls under Donald Trump’s pending travel ban feel about the dark new reality of the U.S. in 2017? What’s his take on a nation in which the president pardons racists and defends monuments to their Confederate heroes, still insists a border wall with Mexico will be built, and as of this writing is considering rescinding DACA, and deporting hundreds of thousands of young people who’ve never known anything but the U.S. as their home?
Rostam is sanguine about the country’s long-term future, putting faith in the generation coming up behind his own. “I think we’re seeing scary stuff, but I think we’ve been seeing scary stuff for a long, long time,” he explains. “And now we’re finally seeing raised awareness about the fact that white supremacy isn’t just the things that I feel like we’ve always known were white supremacist—the things that self-identify as white supremacist. White supremacy is a part of every single aspect of America, and you can’t ignore it. And I think that there is a desire to not see how it is baked in to so much of our lives. But I think that we’re starting to. I notice that there is a younger generation that doesn’t see gender the way that I probably saw it as I entered adolescence. There’s a generation that doesn’t see it that way, and there’s something really cool about that, and that is progress. There is a generation of kids who put #BlackLivesMatter on their Twitter profile, who are not black. This feels like progress. The Democratic party is, after a loss that, depending on who you talk to, was either not deserved or well deserved, they are absorbing progressive ideas. I believe there is a younger generation of people who as they grow up and as they take charge of this country, things will change, finally.”
Rostam’s Half-Light is out September 15th on Nonesuch Records