“I feel like it’s my role as Rostam to make albums that challenge the status quo”, says Rostam Batmanglij as he delves into the creation of his latest record Changephobia. “When I work as a producer I don’t necessarily see that as my role. When I work as Rostam, I feel like what I need to do is upset the norm.”
Changephobia, the follow-up to the Vampire Weekend founding member’s debut solo album Half Light, sees the 37-year-old strip away the strings and classical influence of his first full length to embrace a more jazz-orientated, saxophone laden vibe, while detailing life experiences brought on by moving across the US – from his New York home to California.
Penned across three years while producing albums for HAIM – the Grammy-nominated Women in Music Pt III and Clairo’s Immunity – Changephobia tackles themes like global warming in These Kids We Knew, the great American road trip on 4Runner, and beauty in intimate spaces in From the Back of a Cab, as saxophone player Henry Solomon adds an alluring jazz dynamism to its sonically sprawling sound.
“I was more influenced by changes in my life, like leaving New York for California, leaving Vampire Weekend”, Rostam told Daily Star.
“Both of those changes afforded me the opportunity to reboot my life, in a way, and choose exactly what I wanted to do next. Some of this album is about those choices.”
Changephobia, which was given the deluxe edition treatment earlier this month to feature two new covers – the classic Train in Vain by The Clash and Lucinda Williams’ Fruits of My Labor – is an exciting new direction for Rostam. It’s the sublime representation of an artist continuing to push the boundaries of his output, one that’s unafraid to challenge the listener while retaining a pure pop ethos.
“As a songwriter, I needed my 20s to develop my songwriting skills”, Rostam adds. “There were songs in Vampire Weekend where I was responsible for the narrative, songs like Campus and Diplomat’s Son, but it really required me time to understand what I wanted to say as Rostam, as a songwriter and an artist releasing songs.
“It wasn’t easy for me to know at the beginning of my career what I wanted to say.”
Daily Star’s Rory McKeown caught up with Rostam from his LA home to talk about Changephobia’s creation, its influences and themes, his move from New York to LA, and a potential future dance record collaboration.
Hi Rostam. How can you sum up the past year or so as an artist? How have you navigated the pandemic and have you encountered any challenges?
“When the pandemic hit it was time for me to finish the album. I needed to be alone and have a lot of uninterrupted time on my own in order to finish the album.
"That’s a lot of what I spent the last year doing – taking the necessary solitude to do the work of finishing a record.”
Let’s talk about your new album Changephobia, the follow up to 2017’s Half Light. When did the writing and recording process start?
“It started in fall 2017. It was something I picked up and put down continuously. At the same time I was writing this record I was also producing albums for Clairo and HAIM. I was also producing this album, just sort of slowly.
"When the pandemic hit it was really time for me to finish this album and to commit myself to finishing this album. In order to do that I needed to spend a lot of time alone.
“The timing was beneficial for me.”
Lyrically you touch upon global warming in These Kids We Knew, the American road trip in 4Runner and sharing a ride out of town with a loved one in From the Back of a Cab for example,and interwoven with this we have this theme of how we wrestle with the idea of change in our lives. As a songwriter, how did you get into the mindset of writing this record?
“Most of the record I wrote before the pandemic. There were a couple of songs right when the pandemic hit, like These Kids We Knew. I wrote that when I had Covid. That was the first week of March, that was when Covid hit America.
“The rest of the album I was writing over the last three years. I was writing in the two years prior to Covid.
“I was more influenced by changes in my life, like leaving New York for California, leaving Vampire Weekend. Both of those changes afforded me the opportunity to reboot my life, in a way, and choose exactly what I wanted to do next. Some of this album is about those choices.”
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Moving from one side of the country to the other is a massive change. What’s the difference between the two places?
“In terms of the songwriting, a lot of the songs on the first album Half Light took place on the streets of New York. A lot of the songs on the newer record take place in cars.
“From The Back of a Cab is an interesting one because it takes place in a car but it takes place in New York.”
Would you say there are elements of both in the album?
“Of New York and LA? I would definitely say that. But I would also say I wrote this album no longer living in New York but still feeling connected to it. The last album I would say I wrote most of it in New York and some of it in LA.”
Have you noticed a big change in you personally with the move?
“I don’t think so. It’s not like I was unhappy while I was living in New York, it was more that at some point I realised I no longer wanted to stay. I realised that I would be unhappy if I stayed.
"I never felt trapped in New York. I started to feel like I was going to get trapped by New York if I stayed. That’s why I left. I refer to that on the record in the song Next Thing. I say I’ve been planning my escape from this cult. I don’t want to say exactly what that’s about but I do think living in New York has a culty quality to it.”
Have you noticed a change in the influences in Los Angeles? Has it sparked a change in songwriting perhaps?
“I have a pretty consistent way of writing songs, which is to use every method of songwriting – from traditional sitting down at a piano, which is how I wrote a lot of the song Next Thing, and I wrote the song to communicate to singing over beats, which is how I wrote Kinney and From the Back of a Cab.
"Singing over beats that I make and balancing the beats down, and have it taking them around on my phone and listening to them in different environments. That’s how I wrote a lot of my first record.
“My songwriting process has always been multi-tiered and multi-pronged.”
Jazz sounds form a big part of the album through the use of saxophone, which evident on tracks like Unfold You, Kinney, the closer Starlight and Changephobia. Can you remember the moment jazz started to seep through in your creative process?
“With the undertaking of Half Light, I wanted to make an album that explicitly used strings and classical music as a source of inspiration and I wanted to blur the lines between string arrangements and songwriting.
“Finishing that album left me with this sense of accomplishment but this desire to push in the opposite direction. As soon as I finished the album, I wanted to do the exact opposite of it and I wanted to say no to classical music, no to strings, and I wanted to really let jazz guide me and be my source of inspiration.
"Meeting Henry Solomon, who played the sax on my record, it was a combination of me having written sax music and needing to find a sax player to play it, and then him coming in and playing it and realising there was a lot more that he and I could do together. I started asking him to improvise, I started singing him to play in the studio, it wasn’t just about the sheet music that I had written out for him.
"It was this journey of I finished Half Light, I knew I wanted to do something completely different. I started writing music that was more inspired by jazz. I started to pile a little collection of sax pieces that they eventually turned into songs. Henry was a big part of taking me from my idea stage to the album being a complete statement.”
It really adds another dimension to the record, and is something different to anything you hear in contemporary pop or indie records, isn’t it?
“For sure! I feel like it’s my role as Rostam to make albums that challenge the status quo. When I work as a producer I don’t necessarily see that as my role. When I work as Rostam, I feel like what I need to do is upset the norm.
“Oftentimes I’m capable of doing both. I don’t want to say when I work as a producer that I never push boundaries, I like to think that I always do, but I did have a realisation that people want something from a Rostam album and I think what they want is a little bit of a challenge. I really want to give people something they can’t anywhere else.”
What would you say is the main difference between being a solo artist and a producer?
“One of the biggest differences is that as a producer you get to prepare this beautiful meal and set it down on a table but you don’t get to choose what gets eaten. As an artist, you really get to course out the meal. If I’m working as a producer with somebody and I really love the song, it doesn’t matter how much I love the song, if they don’t love it, it won’t come out. That’s OK. In fact that’s good. As Rostam, if I love the song, there’s no one else there that says they don’t like it and therefore it shouldn’t come out.
“In some ways it’s very similar work but one of the most important components of putting together an album is choosing what songs go on it. As a producer you can help with that but it’s not your responsibility. It’s really the artist’s responsibility of realising their vision.
"It’s my belief as a producer it’s my job to help the artist realise their vision, or in some cases it’s a vision you share together. It does sometimes come down to picking the songs, and when you’re the artist you get to choose the songs that form the narrative of the album, and when you’re producer that’s not your job.”
As a producer, do you learn off other artists? Is that a side that you enjoy?
“Constantly. I enjoy both of them. I think I wouldn’t be happy if I had to trade one for another. I want to continue doing both.”
What were you influenced by musically with Changephobia? I read an article recently that you were influenced by the likes of The Waterboys, Jimi Hendrix, Q-Tip, among other things.
“I was influenced by Hendrix and The Waterboys, but I also was influenced by a desire to pursue the unknown in terms of inspiration. To divorce myself from the sound that I had traditionally been associated with.
“It’s hard for me at this stage as a 37-year-old who’s made nine albums, it’s very hard to tell you what influences me because so much of the music I make is instinctual and so many of my influences I’ve probably had kicking around in my mind for a decade.”
Will you take anything from this record to your next project?
“That’s a good question. I’m trying to figure it out. There is a part of me that’s excited about a third Rostam album, and there’s a part of me that wants to nail down a sound before I jump into it.”
Are you thinking of that yet? Have you got avenues you want to go down an pursue?
“Absolutely. Yeah, I do feel excited about what that is. I don’t know exactly what it is. That’s always what’s fun about making an album. You start out with a concept and then you start making this album and when you’re in the middle of it, the concept can change.”
Did you have a vision of what you wanted this record to be a the beginning?
“I did. I wanted it to be very drum forward. I did want every song to have drums. I forgot that I had wanted that until I heard the album as a whole, and I realised that every song had drums. I had achieved my goal. I wanted to have a handful of sax solos. I think there ended up being seven sax solos on this album.
“I think I did achieve some of the goals I had. I wanted my vocals to be clearer on this album than they were on the first Rostam album. I think I did achieve that goal. Yeah, I had things I was looking for from the process of album making.
“I think the next time I will have another set of goals and I’ll probably stick to it a little bit and I’ll also betray my own desire a little bit.”
What was it like seeing Changephobia blossoming from the beginning? How can you compare the process with Half Light?
“With Half Light I would say I picked it up and put it down for about eight or nine years. Changephobia, again there was a picking up and putting down component. It was much more condensed over two and a half years. I know I will never be able to make an album in two weeks, that will just never happen. But maybe I can get a little faster.”
Would you say it’s a goal you want to achieve with your output?
“Not really. I don’t want to put something out for the sake of putting it out. I think my goal is to make a piece of art that I believe in. That’s always my goal.
"If I’m working on my own project or I’m working as a producer on someone else’s project, I just always want to believe in the work we’re doing and what we’re making. I’m not doing this for money.”
I love the video for From the From the Back of a Cab as you bring in a host of guests including HAIM, Charli XCX, Seth Bogart and Samantha Urbani. Did you always have that vision for the video when writing the song?
“I will say something funny – the kids in the video who were actors had no idea what a cab was! They knew about Uber. It is interesting that between the time I wrote the song and the time came out, it became antiquated in some ways.
“I think in the back of my mind, I did see the song visually. It was working with my co-director Jason Lester that allowed us to nail down the concept for what the video would be exactly.
"Of course, I envisaged shots of different people in the back of a cab. I think one of the things that Jason brought to the table that was brilliant was to not have any other shots, and to make it stick to just the single shot with different people inside of that chair, of that seat.
“There was definitely a vision in my mind of a music video that involved a yellow cab.”
How do you think you’ve evolved as an artist – from the days with Vampire Weekend to your solo output and producing?
“As a producer a the beginning of my career, at aged 22, I was fully formed. I knew exactly what I wanted to say in terms of production. Certainly that’s evolved but I think I had the ability to say it.
"As a songwriter, I needed my 20s to develop my songwriting skills. There were songs in Vampire Weekend where I was responsible for the narrative, songs like Campus and Diplomat’s Son, but it really required me time to understand what I wanted to say as Rostam, as a songwriter and an artist releasing songs. It wasn’t easy for me to know at the beginning of my career what I wanted to say. I would say I’ve evolved in that way.”
What is next for you? What’s your vision for the next few years?
“There’s an artist that I started collaborating with that looks like we’re going to do a whole record together, and it’s going to be a dance record. I’ve never made a dance record front to back, so I’m very excited about that.”
Can you reveal who that is?
“I don’t want to reveal it yet! But I’m excited to make an album that people can put on and dance to.
“Outside of that I would like to play a lot of shows as Rostam. I’m very excited about that future. I think that I have something to offer musically that is my own and is a little bit different than anything else. Not just on record but also live.
"I’m excited to tell a story of what I see musically being something that hasn’t been told before.”
Rostam’s Changephobia is out now via Matsor Projects/Secretly Distribution
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