Rostam Basks in the “Half-Light”
After leaving Vampire Weekend, collaborating with Hamilton Leithauser, and producing just about all of your favorite pop stars, the LA-based musician is ready for his moment in the sun.
It’s a warm day in August when I meet Rostam Batmanglij at Local, a cafe in Los Angeles’s Silver Lake neighborhood. “The humidity this summer is insane!” I lament as I take my seat, iced tea in hand.
“This is nothing compared to Washington, DC,” he assures me, sipping iced coffee. Rostam (as he prefers to be called) is an East Coaster at heart. He grew up in the nation’s capitol and lived in New York City full-time after graduating from Columbia University, where fate would have him cross paths with Ezra Koenig, Chris Baio, and Chris Tomson. Together, the four musicians formed Vampire Weekend and would spend the greater part of a decade touring the world and releasing three critically acclaimed albums, including the Grammy Award–winning Modern Vampires of the City in 2013. Rostam was behind the boards on every record.
In 2009, the producer/multi-instrumentalist decided to explore making music outside of Vampire Weekend and teamed up with Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles to form Discovery. The synth-pop/electro-funk duo released one album, LP, that same year, but Rostam’s work with Miles extends past that. “We have more stuff in the pipeline,” he divulges. “Whether we call it Discovery, or we call it a Ra Ra Riot song that’s produced by me, we’re kind of open-ended about that. I think if we did make more music as Discovery, we’d want to make a whole album.”
His curiosity for production and love for collaboration led to an array of side projects, including production work for Cass McCombs, Hamilton Leithauser, Charli XCX, and Carly Rae Jepsen, all while continuing his role with Vampire Weekend. These projects also led to Rostam splitting time between New York and LA.
In the three and a half years that have passed since he moved to Los Angeles, Rostam’s focus has steered more toward his own production and songwriting, and in January of 2016 he announced his departure from Vampire Weekend (while insisting that he will continue to collaborate as a non–full time member). “It was hard, and it wasn’t something that I did lightly,” he says. “I felt like the positive would outweigh the negative, and I think a lot of the negative came from the unknown. For people who were fans of the work I’d done [both] within Vampire Weekend and outside Vampire Weekend, I think they had a clearer picture. But for people who only knew me in one context, I think it was a lot of the fear of the unknown.”
Most importantly, the decision didn’t tarnish his relationship with his former bandmates. “They’ve known me for a long time, so all of it was positive,” he says. “I think as time passes, people will have a clearer picture of why I decided to make that [decision], and that it can be a positive thing.”
Since making the split official, the producer’s been nothing but busy, putting out an album with Leithauser in 2016, adding his touch to songs by Santigold, Frank Ocean, Solange, and HAIM, and even scoring the hit Netflix series The OA (which was co-created by his brother Zal). But he and I weren’t meeting to discuss his portfolio with other artists; we were here to discuss his music.
“As time passes, people will have a clearer picture of why I decided to make that [decision], and that it can be a positive thing.”
In 2011, Rostam released his first solo single, “Wood,” with the intention of putting out an album. But with a schedule as crazy as his there was a lot of picking up and putting down. “It was about two and a half years ago that I kind of started putting the fire under me, for lack of a better word, and being like, ‘OK, I’m going to schedule weeks of my life where I’m just going to work on my own music,’” he says with a chuckle. “That was something that I had to be ready to do… Once I got there, I wanted to finish the record in a matter of months, but it took a little longer. And I also made a few other records in between. This is the sixth full-length album I’ve produced in my ten years of having a career in music.”
The process was an interesting one. “I’d say there’s probably three different ways that I came up with songs for this record,” he explains. “[A third came from] sitting at a piano and singing words that came out of my mouth and recording it on the iPhone and then listening back and being like, “Is that a song?” and choosing things from there. A third of the record came out of writing string parts and figuring out what to say on top of them. And then a third of the record came out of drums—starting with drums and building up tracks that started from drum patterns.” He pulled inspiration from The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby,” fascinated by the string parts and vocals. “In some ways, [that song] was the model, but with drums. I had this kind of vision about what the drums would sound like. It wouldn’t be like your standard-issue rock drums. So I had that vision, and then from there it was a very windy path to get to the record.”
But he endured, and the result is Half-Light—a dreamy fifteen-song collection that mirrors the haziness associated with both the dawn and the dusk. When I ask if he was conscious of that sentiment while making the album, he contemplates the question for a minute before answering. “Yes, I think there was something that I wanted to capture,” he says, and takes another pause. “It was a couple of different feelings that I think were interrelated. The feeling of being in bed with somebody; the feeling of starting your day and feeling like you were starting the day with the sunrise, and kind of feeling like you could do anything. That felt important—that kind of optimism is something that’s important to me. And then also this kind of sad—I don’t know if sadness is the right word—but the wistfulness of feeling like the day is ending. Or just that we’re going from day into night, and maybe there were some things that you wanted to get done that you couldn’t get done. Night has its own kind of excitement to it.”
Songs like the bright, hopeful “Sumer” and undeniable single “Bike Dream” embody the feeling of cautious optimism Rostam describes, while the title track expresses the magic associated with these special hours through the lens of a toxic relationship. Dusk and night may be short breaks from reality, but at some point the day will break; as he and Wet’s Kelly Zutrau sing, “Baby all the lights came up, what are you gonna do?”
“I like the idea that the word ‘half-light’ has a lot of meanings, and you can kind of come to it with a sense of what it means without necessarily knowing exactly, because that’s how I came to the word,” he says. “I used it in a song; I named the song after that word, but I didn’t know exactly what it meant. Then I looked it up and was like, Oh this is great. The whole album is kind of about this.”
Using narratives of romance and heartbreak, hope and despair, Rostam’s songs are both relatable and give more insight into his psyche and views on the world. “I’m just trying to write songs that come from a place of honesty, and I think my identity is gonna reveal itself through that, and the things that I care about are going to reveal themselves through the songs that I write,” he explains. “I think some of the themes were things I didn’t have in the front of my mind but I must have had in the back of my mind, because as I was finishing the record I realized that they tied together… I was trying to hit some bigger things. Some political things that I wanted to say, but I didn’t want to say them in obvious ways, and I wanted to kind of use the personal as a platform.”
Though he’s immersed in his own music right now, preparing for Half-Light’s release doesn’t mean Rostam has sworn off production duties with other artists. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. “There’s some much younger artists that I’ve been working with, and I really enjoy their perspective,” he divulges. “I think it’s important for me to work with younger artists. I feel like even outside of the music that we make—that I’m really proud of—it’s just important to have real friendships, real collaborations with people who are of a somewhat different generation than I am. If you look at science, so many of the most important breakthroughs came from young scientists. They had some expertise, but they didn’t have years of expertise. They brought something fresh. I had this chemistry teacher in high school who was previously working in research who said, ‘When I entered my thirties, I hadn’t discovered anything, and I realized I wasn’t going to.’ She was probably my favorite teacher that I had, even though I wasn’t super deep into chemistry.”
For a man who has made quite the name for himself as well, Rostam’s outlook on the future is humble. “I went to college and majored in music, so I have a really deep knowledge of classical music, and I’ve applied it to pop music,” he says, sipping his last drops of coffee. “But do I think that makes me better at making music? No, not at all. Do I think that knowledge or expertise is important in creativity? No, I don’t. [On Half-Light] I’m proud of not giving a fuck and really chasing down ideas that I had—making the exact music that I wanted to make, and just trusting my gut. That’s not to say I haven’t been able to do that in the other music I’ve made, but I think on this record I was really trying to push myself, and I feel like I got somewhere. I don’t want to say I got ‘there,’ because I don’t think you can know. But I think I got somewhere special.” FL