Ex-Vampire Weekender Rostam Batmanglij Finds Fresh Ways to Subvert Pop
"Most car designs have a six-year lifespan," says Rostam Batmanglij, as Civics, Volts and Priuses in black, white and blue, plus the occasional wailing fire truck, whoosh past his café table on this stretch of Sunset Boulevard in Silver Lake.
"A lot of car designers make something that's uncomfortable to look at initially," he adds. "Then, over the course of six years, you grow to love the design choices that were once uncomfortable."
Batmanglij is fascinated by car design, he explains on a recent weekday morning. But he's really talking about music, and of the myriad decisions that went into the making of his first solo album, Half-Light — an album that, while accessible in its prettiness, is also a collage of unlikely elements, both musical and thematic. About six years in the making, the record — released under his first name, Rostam — brims with the baroque songcraft and hyper-sensory sonics that have characterized his work since the early days of his former band, Vampire Weekend.
Half-Light follows Batmanglij's 2015 duo record with Walkmen vocalist Hamilton Leithauser, I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, and comes four years after his last album with Vampire Weekend, their 2013 masterpiece Modern Vampires of the City.
Batmanglij produced all three of that band's records, and was responsible in large part for their melodic sophistication and unfettered adoption of off-grid sounds. Vampire Weekend's music, like Half-Light, toed the line between commercial and experimental.
"I'm interested in making art that is available to everybody," Batmanglij says. "The thing I love about car design is that it's sculpture everybody appreciates, everybody has access to."
In the same vein, take Frank Ocean's "Ivy," which Batmanglij produced, off Ocean's critically hailed Blonde. Or "Kept Me Crying," which Batmanglij co-wrote, off Haim's new record Something to Tell You. In both instances, the song's backbone is bent in some small way — Ocean's tenderness paired with thrumming, palm-muted guitar; Haim's harmonies, like a warm bath, over a stadium-sized drum beat. Both songs have a kind of alien element; they're also both manifestly radio friendly.
On Half-Light, which Batmanglij recorded largely at his home studio in Echo Park, he goes on subverting pop structures, but with even more abandon. "My vision was to try to make a record that blurred the lines between what people think of as a string arrangement and a song. That's where I started," he recalls. "I had a vision of having a certain kind of drums — drums that didn't conform to the way rock beats are [typically] constructed."
It was a long path from that point. Batmanglij started releasing songs from this record as early as 2011, and some of the ideas date back to 2006. In the end, the album makes unorthodox use of strings and drums, both staples of Batmanglij's production style, as well as all kinds of other sounds, from tabla to Auto-Tune to a church choir. But the songs themselves dictate the thrust of the record.
Take the title track. "I could have conformed 'Half-Light' to the idea of a string arrangement, and I kind of chose not to," Batmanglij says. "I chose to let it be what it was supposed to be, and not really overthink it. I'm glad I didn't hold myself to this really rigid concept that I had in mind."
The idea of half-light — the rich, dim light that permeates the air at dawn and dusk — was a subconscious theme that ran though the record, and one that only became obvious to Batmanglij after listening to the finished product. It's a term that expresses the album's dual nature: full of both personal detail and political nuance; deeply intimate, but also a bit evasive; by turns richly detailed and staggeringly spare.
"Don't Let It Get to You" is a case in point, an anthem constructed over a sample from the drum ensemble breakdown in Paul Simon's "The Obvious Child." ("I wanted to treat it the way that people treat 'Funky Drummer,'" Batmanglij explains.) Like Vampire Weekend's "Diane Young" or "Oxford Comma," it's pure euphoria, all highs, some of them unexpected. Lyrically, it's uplifting, at least on its face ("Please, don't let it get to you/Even if you don't realize it/It's still all up to you," he sings) but later, the track goes into seemingly unrelated territory: "I don't know why/It's no fun/And how come/I still think of you now."
Batmanglij laughs hard at this observation. "I think that it could be a song about a couple things at the same time. It's not only a love song, I guess you could say. I wanted to say a couple things, and let it be woven together."
Batmanglij has spoken before about identifying as queer, and growing up with immigrant parents (both of whom were Iranian refugees), and all the middle grounds and multiple identities those two experiences can entail. Half-Light, in its tendency to explore opposites, opens up this kind of overlapping of personal and political.
"You might say, 'I thought this song was about something that frustrates you in life,' and then there's that lyric at the end of the bridge, and you're like, 'Wait, is this a love song? Is it a song about heartbreak?'" Batmanglij says. "And I think there's something powerful about how that maybe applies to the record as a whole. Something that connects the personal and the political ... that's the ground I'm interested in pursuing."
At the other end of the Half-Light spectrum, there's "Wood," an auditory delicacy packed with carefully arranged strings and forwards-then-backwards tabla. Batmanglij sings, delicately, about listening to the grass; sleeping beside a tower of burning tires; watching the sunlight on someone's back. It's a "Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds"–like series of visual tableau to suit the track's Sgt. Pepper–sized ambitions.
"I definitely love the idea that when you listen to this album you're stepping into a world that I created," Batmanglij says. "I'm very conscious of the fact that I devoted my life to recording music, recordings and writing songs ... so I did want to make a record that's trying to push recording, the art of recording, forward, because it's something I care so much about."
Part of that process, Batmanglij knows as well as anyone, is matching expansiveness with restraint. "Hold You," perhaps the heart of Half-Light, is barely longer than two-and-a-half minutes. It has no drums; it's an R&B tune, really, perhaps influenced by Batmanglij's time with Ocean. It's carefully sculpted, and pretty — a car straight off the production line, maybe, but a gorgeous one. Angel Deradoorian, formerly of Dirty Projectors, offers a breathtaking vocal solo.
"You were with me all along/And I could feel it with the dawn," she sings.
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