Vampire Weekend was a near-instant hit in late 2007 thanks to internet buzz and music blogs. Their debut record came out the following year and mixed highly catchy indie-pop with African and Caribbean influences. It was lead singer/guitarist Ezra Koenig’s brainy but slyly emotive lyrics that got a lot of the attention.
In the background, multi-instrumentalist Rostam Batmanglij existed more in the shadows, but he did much to shape just what people loved about Vampire Weekend. He co-wrote much of the material with Koenig, and served as the producer of the first two records: "Vampire Weekend" (2008) and "Contra" (2010). It was a peculiarity of the band dynamic that being a member seemed to detract from his unique contribution to the record's aesthetic.
His production and collaboration skills have always been a major asset. That’s obvious now. Since "Contra," he’s stepped away to work with other artists, many of whom are in totally different genres, like Haim, Frank Ocean and Charli XCX. The results have been consistently top-notch. He was so involved with the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser’s "I Had a Dream That You Were Mine" album last year, that he got shared billing on the record.
Now the name Rostam can be added to a short list of producers that have gennuine star-power. It’s a strange turn of events f0r Batmanglij, but one that makes sense to him.
“Producers either get credited for everything, or they get credited for nothing. I’m OK with that,” Batmanglij says when I ask him about becoming well-known for producing. “When I work with artists, I want it to be about the artist. I love helping them realize their vision. I love us realizing a shared vision. I don’t really care about the perception.”
Early last year, Batmanglij announced he was leaving Vampire Weekend, saying in a Twitter post: “My identity as a songwriter and producer, I realized, needs to stand on its own.” He made it clear that he would still be working with Vampire Weekend in the future, but days after his announcement he released the solo track “Wood,” giving folks a sense of what his songwriting identity standing on its own might sound like.
It’s a tripped-out pop song that mixes sitars, orchestras and Indian percussion, one that expresses a gentle vulnerability about love. Surprisingly, the melodies so closely bring to mind Vampire Weekend, it really begs the question: Just how much did Batmanglij contribute to the band’s songwriting and overall sound?
Batmanglij's album gets released today, and it’s a phenomenal work of art. On his website there’s a link to a Spotify playlist that includes everything he’s ever worked on, including his solo material, Vampire Weekend and songs by other artists that he’s produced. There is a clear cohesion to all of it. (“I think of that as my body of work,” he explains.)
“I don’t like to think that suddenly this record changes my career and that I’ll never produce other artists, because I don’t see my career that way. I think what I do see going forward is being able to do a lot of things. And I think that’s a healthy way to live,” Batmanglij says. “I think what’s different about this record is that the lyrics were coming from me and I don’t think that any of these songs would make sense if anyone else was singing them.”
Folks got a glimpse of “Wood” back in 2011, when Batmanglij posted the song to his Tumblr page. (He also posted the song “Don’t Let It Get to You.”) That’s the last people heard of his solo work until 2016 when he remastered and re-released “Wood.” During that time, he maintained a busy schedule as an increasingly in-demand producer, plus Vampire Weekend’s third album "Modern Vampires of the City" in 2013, which he plays on and co-produced.
“This record was something that I would pick up and put down. There were times I had doubts that it would come out, but I never stopped working on it,” Batmanglij says. “I think what made me want to release it was feeling like probably having a little bit more self-esteem than I had had prior in some ways. I knew I wanted to talk about some things that were hard to talk about, lyrically. It took me time to figure out how to say those things.”
The impetus for the record goes all the way back to the early years of Vampire Weekend, between the first and second album. Vampire Weekend may have entered 2008 as the hot new guitar-based indie-rock band, but they — Batmanglij in particular — had always wanted to fuse electronic elements in the group. Batmanglij’s other project, Discovery, which predates Vampire Weekend, was electronic.
“I was trying to push that marriage of the electronic and the organic to the point where there really is no line between the two,” Batmanglij says. “I think it was an underlining ethos on this record. It’s something that, I’ll be honest, I haven’t thought about too much in the last nine years. I guess it’s been in my subconscious.”
There were certainly strides toward bringing in more electronic elements to "Contra." Even more so to "Modern Vampires," which Batmanglij considers to be an electronic album. "Half-Light" not only further blurs these lines, but he manages to mix a sound that’s simple and complex in a way that intuitive and surprising at once. Multiple layers of instrumentation exist in a way that isn’t overbearing. Pop melodies butt up against the experimental edge of music. His quiet, non-invasive voice, while it might not seem an obvious choice for a pop lead singer, blends beautifully with the music on "Half-Light," almost like another instrument in the orchestra of sounds.
For Batmanglij, it’s been a unique experience to be the center of focus and the primary creative drive, one he seems currently comfortable with, but it’s taken a lot of time to get there. Part of why he released a couple singles in 2011 was that he started working with producer Ariel Rechtshaid, who is known for his production and collaborations with Adele, Beyoncé, and Carly Rae Jepsen. The two would casually listen to songs Batmanglij recorded, Rechtshaid would give feedback, and if they had ideas, they’d head over to the studio and record them.
“He had a lot of material, and I just thought it was great. It’s a funny thing, the process of making music; so often you’re just working on music, and you’re not quite sure what it’s going to be for necessarily until it’s done,” Rechtshaid says. “I can’t remember the exact conversations we had about it, it was effectively me hearing stuff, lots of stuff that he was working on, and going, ‘this is fucking great.’ He was like, ‘really?’ Like yeah.”
In thinking about his time working with Rechtshaid, something that really sticks out for Batmanglij it is how he helped him become a lead singer. (“What Ariel gave me was a confidence in myself as a singer I would say, first and foremost.”)
They did work a lot, but the full-length album wouldn’t be ready to release for another six years — Batmanglij had extremely high standards for his solo work. The two had such a good dynamic, that they co-produced the next Vampire Weekend album together. And more recently, they worked as co-producers on Haim’s second record.
“He’s a very talented musician. He’s got a lot of ideas,” Rechtshaid says. “He’s got a really uplifting energy too. And on top of that has the knowledge to craft sounds in the computer and in the studio. As a producer, he’s powerful.”
"Half-Light" is meticulously crafted. The line that separates its pop elements and experimental ones are hard to define. Genre-wise, no label quite fits, which makes sense since he works with artists of all genres. Batmanglij attributes his desire to blur these lines to his age, as someone that was born in the ’80s and had immediate access to all music as a teenager.
He laughs at one point when he recalls the buzz around Vampire Weekend in 2008, and how interviewers would ask him about his favorite indie rock bands, the assumption being that he was obviously an indie rock guy.
“I could give a shit about indie rock. If there’s one genre that speaks less to me than any other, it’s indie rock. I never felt like, ‘oh this is my music.’ I didn’t know what the website Pitchfork was until I got to college when I was 18,” Batmanglij says. “I loved experimental music and electronic music, but I didn’t come at it from certain angles that you might expect.”
The fact is, his background in college was studying classical music. He describes to me a memory of one professor dissecting the sound of waves crashing and showed how an orchestra could replicate that sound. As a kid, he would gleefully read interviews with producer Nigel Godrich. But a key element to how his process developed as a child was observing his parents. His mom wrote cookbooks, and his dad was her publisher.
“I probably saw something in my parents that was akin to a producer/artist relationship,” Batmanglij says. “I think a lot of what being a producer is about is translation.”
In a way, what’s so special about this solo record is that it’s the least collaborative project that Batmanglij has ever been a part of. It took him nearly a decade to tweak every element, but it really gives you a window into who he is as an artist on his own merits.