Rostam Batmanglij has figured out the headline for this article. It doesn’t take long—just nine minutes and nine seconds into our interview—for the producer, musician and founding member of Vampire Weekend to suss out exactly what he wants the narrative surrounding him and his work to look like. He’s seated in his Los Angeles studio, which is entirely white: white walls, a white couch by the window, white ceiling beams that make it look more like a beach house than a work space. The 37-year-old’s face, beamed into my apartment in Brooklyn via Zoom, alternates between pensive reflection and good-natured, boyish laughter while he discusses his therapist (whom he likes very much—and who also takes insurance, he notes with pride).
“My own therapist once said that therapy is about combining the right amount of challenge and support,” Batmanglij says. “That’s exactly what a good producer should provide an artist: the balance between challenge and support.” He raises his eyebrows. “There’s your headline, right?”
During his 13 years as a musician in the public eye, Batmanglij has been well aware of what people think of him. As a guitarist, keyboardist, and one of the two main songwriters alongside frontman Ezra Koenig in Vampire Weekend, the Washington, D.C., native was regarded as a creative sine qua non—the mind that hitched classical music to the band's percussion-fueled “world music” sound. When he left Vampire Weekend in 2016 to pursue solo projects, though, he noted a shift in the way he was portrayed, especially in the sphere of music journalism.
“‘Rostam was in a band and now he has a career as a producer—he was the producer in the band, and now he’s a producer outside of the band,’” he says, relaying what music writers wrote about him during that period. “‘And that’s his linear trajectory.’ Another possible narrative is, ‘Rostam’s had these artist projects that he was part of, and now his art is his own project. That's all he’s gonna do.’ It’s very much about, ‘This was your old box. Here’s your new box. Have a happy life.’ And that’s not my life. It definitely hasn't been my life in the last six years, and it won’t be for the years to come.”
In reality, Batmanglij’s trajectory as a musician has been anything but linear. He released his first solo track “Wood” in 2011—technically while he was still a member of Vampire Weekend. (He was also one half of the duo Discovery with Ra Ra Riot’s vocalist Wes Miles around that time; they put out an album in 2009.) After his second solo single “Don’t Let It Get to You” came out later in 2011, another Rostam song wouldn’t drop again until 2016. In 2017, he released his first solo album, Half-Light, to much acclaim. Over the next four years, Rostam would go on to produce for Frank Ocean, Charli XCX, Maggie Rogers, and Vampire Weekend, to name just a handful.
His second solo album, Changephobia, which he's been working on between production projects over the past three years, will come out on June 4. Pre-pandemic, Batmanglij often wrote and rewrote songs while traveling the world; “Unfold You,” one of the singles from the record, Batmanglij says he wrote in Paris in November 2017, after playing a show with the musician Nick Hakim.
“I was listening to his music, which I had never heard before, outside of that concert,” he remembers. “I started singing a melody over one of his songs, which happened to be an instrumental.” The bit over which Batmanglij hummed a tune became a sample in “Unfold You,” a sprawling, pretty track with a breakbeat and jazzy horns. The song seems to tell the story of a budding romance between two people, winding the listener through their early infatuation in a series of vignettes (“Spent the day in bed, running through my head, coming up the stairs, I hear your footsteps,” Batmanglij sings softly in the first verse, then, “Staying at your place underneath the bridge, laying down to sleep, don’t know what time it is”). The refrain “Might be taking a risk, but I’m okay with it,” repeats, over and over again.
Batmanglij knew he wanted Changephobia to be the kind of album people could sit down and listen to fully, from beginning to end. “In the last five years, something that has been on my mind is the concept of less is more, in the unit of the song and the unit of an album,” he says. “We all know that feeling of a song that ends quickly and leaves you wanting more. ‘Oh, I just want to press play again.’ And I think similarly, an album where you can get to the end has a certain kind of journey.”
To test whether Changephobia elicits this kind of effect, Batmanglij employed a tactic he’s never used before. The musician compressed the album into a single-file MP3 and invited friends and colleagues over to his studio to sit with him and just listen to it. “If we talk, we talk,” he says. “If we don’t talk, we don’t talk.”
Like many artists, Batmanglij has a tendency to keep the real meanings of his songs under wraps. “Records can take years for people to understand them, their meaning, their impact,” he says. “There are times when you feel like, ‘I'm going to put this song out, but I don't think anyone’s going to get what it’s really about.’ And then it becomes clear that everybody really gets what it's about. There are other times where you're like, ‘It's so clear to me what this song is about,’ and I still feel like the world just misses that. It makes sense that it would take decades for people to understand, let alone be able to accept you.”
Batmanglij has always been intrigued by the way music relates to language, and has a tendency in conversation to break words down, tear them apart in efforts to examine their meaning. Often, he audibly scoffs or shows visible frustration if he can't think of a word that adequately captures the mood or true definition of what he’s communicating. He attributes his fascination with words to his parents, Mohammad and Najmieh, who met in Tehran, moved to the South of France in 1979 after the Iranian Revolution, then the United States in 1983. As a result of these moves, Batmanglij grew up “semi-trilingual,” as he describes it, speaking French, Farsi, and English. “Having three languages bouncing around my head as a kid made me interested in the way that words are linked together across languages and the meaning of words,” he adds.
“As a kid, people would say, ‘Of course you like music, you’re good at math,’” Batmanglij says. “I was always confused by that because I'd never thought of music and math as having anything to do with each other. It's taken me 20 years to understand how they might be connected, but I think music and words are much more related.”
That’s helpful when working as a producer, which Batmanglij did most recently with frequent collaborators Haim on their latest album, Women in Music Part III. The record has Rostam's touch all over it—not just sonically, but lyrically as well. The musician says that’s because a producer’s work is not unlike that of a translator’s—taking the contents of one language, so to speak, and morphing it into something other people can understand and digest.
“There were moments when I was working with an artist and I suggested that they change certain lyrics, not because I felt like the meaning of the song should change, but rather the opposite: the meaning of the song might be lost,” he adds. “By altering just a few words, or even phrasing, you might make the meaning even clearer.”
Batmanglij points to “Summer Girl,” a song about drumming up positivity during a time of strife, as an example. When Danielle Haim originally brought the track to him, the name of the track was “Sunny Girl.”
“As humans, certain words ricochet, they create sets of associations that can confuse us,” he explains. “I felt like the word ‘sunny’ was one of those words—whereas the word ‘summer’ is this word that everybody has different emotions, a broad range of feelings and memories attached to it. And that’s good.”
At one point in our conversation, I recall that Pharrell, another acclaimed producer-slash-solo-artist-slash-creative-slash-however-you’d-like-to-categorize-him, has equated production work to being a therapist. Sessions with artists, he contends, are often deeply soul-searching, heartfelt, steeped in tearful revelations. Batmanglij turns that nugget of information over in his head.
“One person whose career was always a model to me is Pharrell,” he responds. “As somebody who makes music on their own and also makes music with other people as a producer, I sometimes have felt this energy from people around me, or just out there in the world, that says, ‘Why? Why are you being a producer, when you've just come off doing stuff as an artist, or why are you being an artist when you've just had a lot of success in the last couple of years as a producer? What's cool about someone like Pharrell is nobody asks why, and that's where I'd like to land.
“Maybe I'm getting close to there,” he says, smiling.