Ex-Vampire Weekend Rostam talks oppression, mushrooms, Bruce – Los Angeles Times

When Rostam Batmanglij was a kid growing up in Washington, D.C. must have been 13 or 14, he figures he used to ride around in his older brothers car listening to a collection of Bruce Springsteens greatest hits. So it was probably inevitable that the musician and producer (and former Vampire Weekend member) would end up decades later with a song like 4Runner from his mesmerizing new album.

A sexy-dreamy bop about two lovers road trip up the West Coast, 4Runner carries some big Boss energy the propulsive tempo, the images of stolen plates and a blanket on the backseat, the very Im on Fire falsetto at the end of the tune. Asked if he hears it too, Rostam smiles and reveals that it wasnt just that formative experience at play: Throughout the process of making his Changephobia LP, he was listening intermittently to the audiobook of Springsteens memoir, Born to Run.

Its a fun thing to pick up and put down because you can take the time to listen to the records hes talking about, says Rostam, whos 37 and works under his first name. He talks about his first record not sounding good, production-wise, and about how insecure he was about his voice. When I went back and listened to that record, I was like, Yeah, it doesnt sound good. He laughs. But his voice sounds fantastic. To him, it was his downfall; to me, it was the best thing about it.

Rostams craftiness and his analytical thinking not to mention his interest in music history are all over the meticulously rendered Changephobia, which mingles fuzzy rock, aquatic R&B and 1940s- and 50s-style jazz. The album, his second solo disc, arrives after a few years in which he primarily wrote and produced for other acts such as Clairo, Maggie Rogers and Haim, with whom he earned a Grammy nomination for album of the year with 2020s Women in Music Pt. III.

Says Danielle Haim of that Los Angeles sibling trio: My sisters and I, sometimes we get in our heads a little bit. But Rostam just knows how to pull you out: Yes, go with that! Its very freeing.

She recalls the session in which they came up with Gasoline a slinky psych-soul jam the band recently recut with Taylor Swift as an exercise in speed. He started playing this cool guitar line on his vintage Strat that I love, and suddenly we were going back and forth with lyrics, she says. Its crazy how fast were able to put ideas together.

For all the musicality it deploys, Changephobia feels like an emotional breakthrough for Rostam, who identifies as queer and whose parents fled from Iran during that countrys revolution. The intimately detailed songs ponder romance from a point of view not often heard in the largely straight white world of indie rock; Rostam, avoiding gendered pronouns in his lyrics, sings in a high, breathy voice that gently rejects old-fashioned binaries.

Hes never felt unwelcome in the indie world, he says, though the role he sees for himself makes clear the need for more representation: I want my project to speak to Iranians in America, to nonwhite people in America, to queer people in America.

Changephobias title hints at a kind of intellectual scaffolding what Rostam describes in an explanatory YouTube video as an examination of a fear of the unknown, of a future that is not yet familiar, one in which there is a change of traditions, definitions and distributions of power.

Of his time in Vampire Weekend, Rostam says, We were very entwined creatively for eight years. Im too close to it to have any perspective.

(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

Yet the albums effect is deeply personal, as in the wistful Next Thing, about his move his escape, as the lyric has it from New York to California in 2014, and in the title track, a woozy internal monologue set to a swinging drum-and-saxophone groove: Used to be afraid of what I felt / And what was coming up ahead / Then I learned I wasnt so strange / Nothing I should hide from myself.

I want the songs to come from the central nervous system, not the brain, he says at his studio in a hilly neighborhood on L.A.'s Eastside. More instinctual. The room is decorated with clean white furniture to match the clean white walls; there are keyboards, guitars and a set of weights that Rostam says he started lifting in the early days of the pandemic after he wondered what his life would be like if he were stronger. I started with 25 pounds, but I keep having to escalate, he says.

On a bookshelf near a window sits the Grammy he won for Vampire Weekends 2013 album Modern Vampires of the City, his last with the group before he announced on Twitter in 2016 that hed quit because his identity as a songwriter + producer needs to stand on its own.

Its easy to draw a distinction between Rostams approach on Changephobia and the chillier, more cerebral tone struck by Vampire Weekends mastermind, Ezra Koenig. (An important exception to Koenigs control of the bands storytelling, Rostam notes, was the 2010 song Diplomats Son, which Rostam explicitly fashioned as a queer narrative.)

Does he like Koenigs lyrical style, which for all the bands acclaim has long been criticized for valorizing a certain WASP-ish ideology? Rostam, who speaks like someone picturing his words in print, pauses as he considers the question. I cant really answer that because I feel like we were very entwined creatively for eight years, he says. Im too close to it to have any perspective.

The son of Najmieh Batmanglij, a well-known Persian chef and cookbook author, Rostam cofounded Vampire Weekend while he was still studying music at Columbia University. Hed already begun working outside the band by the time he officially left, but following his departure he collaborated widely with Frank Ocean, Solange and the frontman of another New York indie band, the Walkmens Hamilton Leithauser, with whom he made a handsome duo album in 2016.

He also wrote music for a Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergans play This Is Our Youth and for the Netflix sci-fi series The OA, which was created by Rostams brother, filmmaker Zal Batmanglij. Rostams solo debut, the intricately orchestrated Half-Light, came out in 2017.

For Changephobia he knew he wanted to take more care with his vocal performances than he had in the past one result, perhaps, of having coached all those other singers in the studio and to skip the string arrangements that defined Half-Light; in their place, he recruited saxophonist Henry Solomon (who also appeared on Haims album) to contribute ornate solos to seven of the LPs 11 tracks.

A lot of the time when I play with people, they say, Thats too busy dont play all that stuff, Solomon says. Rostam was like, Actually, can you play more notes?

The sax player adds that Rostam talked excitedly about his love of bebop and invoked Charlie Parker as a touchstone, which says something about his eagerness to find a place at the center of mass culture in 2021. (Rostam himself admits he was trying to sing a little like Chet Baker in the albums swooning closer, Starlight.)

Though some of his work has taken him to the margins of mainstream pop last year Clairos Sofia hit No. 98 on Billboards Hot 100 after it went viral on TikTok Rostam insists hes not particularly attracted to the Top 40 factory that he likens to a tantalizing cliffside for people who write songs and produce records and move to L.A.

Which is somewhat difficult to understand at a moment when Jack Antonoff, who also used to play in a hip rock band and now counts Swift and Lorde among his clients, is making some of the biggest records in music.

I feel like you revealed a lot with the word biggest, Rostam replies. Thats not what Im interested in at all. What Im interested in is something completely opposite to that, which is meaningful.

Cant a big pop album be meaningful too?

But how do you know that your experience of the meaningfulness isnt tainted by the bigness? In a capitalist society, were constantly tricked into thinking theyre the same thing. And theyre so far from it.

Rostam gets the appeal of having the largest possible platform for his ideas; he took meetings with major labels about releasing Changephobia before deciding to put it out himself. But the bigger the platform, in his view, the more intense the pressure to compromise which may also explain why he quit Vampire Weekend just as the band seemed to be approaching its commercial peak.

Rostam Batmanglij as a member of Vampire Weekend, performing in 2014.

(Chiaki Nozu / WireImage)

Asked if he thinks hes ever really explained why he split more clearly, that is, than in that gnomic tweet Rostam laughs and says, Why does anybody do anything? Then he pauses for even longer than he did last time. Id rather just let my choices the music that Ive made and been a part of speak for itself. (Of his participation in Vampire Weekends 2019 Father of the Bride album, he says, The extent to which I worked on it mightve been overstated.)

Maybe my real answer, he adds, is that I like that you havent gotten a good answer. As open as he is on Changephobia, Rostam closely guards the details of his private life; he doesnt talk about a boyfriend or partner, for instance, and he asks that this story not reveal too much about where he lives.

People have told me Im paranoid, he says. But my parents survived a revolution that was so chaotic that their lives were at risk. And the truth is that you have to be paranoid in America to survive. The word woke has come to mean so many things now white people decided it was available to them, which I dont necessarily agree with but woke is specifically about staying aware of the ways in which there is a system that is designed to oppress people of color.

I come by my paranoia honestly.

He knows some might read that and scoff, even without having seen the shiny Tesla parked outside his place. The thought brings a smile to his face.

I was in Palm Springs on mushrooms with my friend Jeremy, he says, referring to the writer Jeremy O. Harris, whose Tony-nominated Slave Play about the intersection of race and sex in America was the sensation of Broadway in 2019. As a joke he thought itd be funny to look up my net worth. The first one I saw made me laugh it was so far off.

Too high or too low?

I dont want to say.

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Ex-Vampire Weekend Rostam talks oppression, mushrooms, Bruce - Los Angeles Times

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