Voice Memos, Authentic Emotions, Jimi Hendrix and More: How Rostam Makes a Record

Sometimes, it’s hard for singer, songwriter, producer, and former member of Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij, to think about the magnitude of the reach his music has had. “I find it overwhelming at times, and other times, very gratifying,” he notes.

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When Batmanglij speaks, it’s slow and calculated, almost as if he’s imagining his words printed on a page as he’s saying them, contemplating how they might appear or be interpreted. And first stepping into the spotlight when Vampire Weekend became indie-rock icons in the late ‘00s, he’s had a lot of experience with that exact phenomenon. From blogs to music journals to Twitter threads to the millions of fans whose lives have been touched by his work, there’s been a lot of interpretation of Batmanglij’s output.

But in a lot of ways, his most exciting and innovative work to date started to happen after he departed Vampire Weekend following Modern Vampires of the City (2013). Leaving the band amicably in order to focus more on his production work, he did just that—in addition to putting out his first solo album in 2017, he produced for everyone from Clairo to Charli XCX to Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, Haim, and more (his songwriting and production work on Haim’s Women in Music Pt. III even got him a few Grammy nods). Through all these projects, Batmanglij has always been ever-evolving, never settling on one sound or style for too long… but he’s always been like that. “If I’m not making myself uncomfortable, I don’t know how good the music is,” he says.

And recently, Batmanglij has been making himself uncomfortable again—on June 4, he put out his second full-length record as Rostam. Titled Changephobia, the album explores a whole new side of the 37-year-old’s eclectic tastes and talents, featuring jazzy saxophones, clever melodies, new production takes, and more.

“I would say that I did have a record in mind,” he says, referring to when he first started working on the tracks for Changephobia in 2018. “I think the process of finishing Half-Light—which was eight or nine years in the making—left me with a hunger to do it again. And to do it much more quickly. Some would say two-and-a-half or three years of writing is a long time, but for me, I can’t imagine doing it that much more quickly.”

While some artists have been blessed with the aptitude for making records left and right (King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard comes to mind), Batmanglij takes a more methodical and intentional approach.

“For me, there’s always a process of collecting ideas,” he explains. “The ideas for this record were beats that I made. To avoid vagueness, they were fully developed instrumental tracks, something that sounds close to a song but doesn’t have any vocals. I put those on my phone and I would listen to them in different environments, walking in different cities, on airplanes, driving.”

From there, Batmanglij began to find melodies and lyrics for his musical musings by humming over them, inspired by the environments and the different moods his beats were able to evoke. At the same time, he explained, he was also sitting down at the piano, searching for more traditional inspiration. “If I ever felt some chords coming together—or even chords with a melody and lyrics—I’d record those on my iPhone too,” he says.

Perhaps this is why Batmanglij joins the ranks of artists whose best work comes with a long gestation period—for as methodical as his creative process can be, it’s explorative, fundamentally relying on something that can’t easily be conjured cognitively: emotional response.

“I’m only concerned with how it feels—I’m only concerned with conveying the emotion,” he says. “Even with the music writing process, I’m somebody who studied classical music, theory, and harmony to a pretty detailed degree. But when I write music, I completely turn off that part of my brain and I allow my instincts to take over.”

But not everything that comes out when your brain is turned off is always good or emotionally potent—rather, that headspace acts as the first step for eventually capturing a magical moment of inspiration. “There’d be a process of trying vocal ideas over the beats that I made for myself, and I would record those on my iPhone,” Batmanglij explains. “Once I got to a certain stage, I would start to create these Notes app files with the lyrics for a song. I would keep coming back to those Notes sketches and I would add things, add lyrics and take away lyrics. That’s the process that really took the longest.”

It’s true—Batmanglij is a complex artist who makes complex, but wildly entertaining and resonant music. To achieve that delicate balance took a lot of meditation and contemplation, especially in terms of lyrics. “In some cases, lyrics would come really fast,” he says. “In other cases, I would spend a really long time on, like, a second verse. I think so much of my process is about letting my subconscious take the steering wheel. I write lyrics from a place that is like ‘remembering,’ for lack of a better way to put it. It is remembering feelings and experiences and putting those memories in a song.”

In a way, memories from Batmanglij’s past influenced this record musically, too. Taking a step away from the baroque pop that made Vampire Weekend’s sound so unique, he found himself exploring jazz and rock music that he enjoyed in his younger days, meriting some surprisingly innovative results.

“I was digging back into things that I had listened to as a teenager, revisiting stuff like Chet Baker, old standards, Jimi Hendrix, Thelonious Monk—those are all in the mix,” he says. “I think I wanted to go back and go a little deeper. I had a guitar teacher who forced me to learn ‘Little Wing,’ and I think I got a lot out of it. I think I may have learned ‘Bold As Love’ too, but then I re-learned it in the last few years and I think my guitar playing was certainly affected by that. Whether it’s Beethoven, or Jimi Hendrix or Radiohead, I think that going back to things I loved and going deeper with them might be something that I continuously do throughout my life.”

And thus, the process of reinvention continues for Batmanglij, as it always will. “I think I have to challenge myself in order to be excited about music-making,” he says. “So, I always want to plant a flagpole somewhere that I haven’t planted one before.”

Yet, through all of that reinvention and continuous growth, Batmanglij’s process of compiling beats and voice memos and letting his subconscious ideas rise to the surface continues. Thinking about the several-year-long journey to Changephobia, he concluded on a forward-looking note: “Who knows what’ll happen on the next album? I do already feel a little bit excited about making another one. I have no idea what that will be about, musically or lyrically. I’m still in the ‘idea collection’ process. So, we’ll see where it lands.”

Rostam Batmanglij’s new album Changephobia is out now and available everywhere. Watch the music video for “From The Back Of A Cab” below:

Rostam by Olivia Bee

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