Music

Rostam’s Debut Album ‘Half-Light’ Is The American Dream

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Rostam Batmanglij is happy. It’s been three and a half years since the formerly New York-based songwriter and producer decided to leave the city he’d called home since college and move to LA, but according to Rostam, it’s been the happiest time of his life. “Maybe that’s just getting older,” he says with a chuckle, and sitting next to his publicist’s swimming pool in Beachwood Canyon on a mild July afternoon, it’s easy to see the advantages.

The migration of musicians to Los Angeles has become common enough that NY Mag recently went deep on the subject, with popular indie artists like Rostam, James Blake, Charli XCX, and Tobias Jesso Jr. leaving their homes around the world for the palm trees and traffic jams of Southern California. There’s a logic there, particularly now that Rostam has abandoned the security of one of the most successful indie rock bands of the last decade — the popped-collar pop savants Vampire Weekend — to strike out on his own with his solo debut, Half-Light.

Rostam’s story is one that’s definitively American; that a gay, first-generation American can find success on his own in 2017, regardless of what the current powers would have you believe. “What I’m trying to do with this album is to present an alternative to a fear of what you might not understand,” he says. In creating and not losing hope in uncertain times, Rostam’s American dream is not only intact, but tactile, and shareable among his fans and listeners.

As Nick Sylvester explains in NY Mag, Los Angeles is the residence of many of the major music labels and publishing houses, and a place where you can rub elbows with a music supervisor for Netflix rather than a hip Bushwick band. For a musician like Rostam, it may not have been certain what opportunities he could find by moving to LA, but it was enough to know that the opportunities are out there.

He’d previously been to LA for work to record with producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Haim, Sky Ferreira), plus his brother, The OA creator Zal Batmanglij, had already moved out there a few years before that. “I came home from a tour in 2013 and I had a feeling about New York that I never had before,” he said. “Which was basically ‘I don’t really want to live here anymore.’ So I left, and I left pretty quickly.”

His 2016 departure from Vampire Weekend was not nearly as swift, reflecting years of balancing his own solo endeavors with his work in the band. From the beginning, Rostam’s idea of being in a band, which was formed during senior year at the prestigious Columbia University in New York, was an experience that felt new for all parties involved, with no expectations of how long it could last. Each member had their own roles and Rostam quickly established his as that of producer.

“I’d done a lot of recording throughout college,” he explained. “I think I’d impressed Ezra [Koenig] in different ways with these different decades I was able to reference in the recordings I was making. He’d come to some of the classical concerts where pieces I’d composed were performed. He saw the sort of range of things I was into, and they intersected with the things that he was into. So the first Vampire Weekend album was the first record I produced.”

That first self-titled Vampire Weekend album from 2008 still reflects much of who Rostam is, both as a musician and producer. Certain moments — the whimsical, feathery harpsichord and string arrangement that open “M79,” the woozy, slow-motion verse that wades into “I Stand Corrected,” the prancing cello that parades through the middle of “Walcott” — are touchstones that draw a direct line to where his solo debut record, Half-Light, has found him as an artist.

But as colossal as that first album still sounds in terms of songwriting prowess and tasteful production, the perpetuated storyline of the period often paints a warped portrait of privileged Ivy league kids who were virtually famous as soon as they started. Rostam, though, recalls his band’s humble early days of buying a minivan to go on tour, and learning the ropes of what it meant to be a band by handling every aspect among themselves.

“It helped having a record done before we talked to label,” Rostam remembered of Vampire Weekend’s beginnings. “There was a news story that tried to present us as these people who climbed up faster than what was normal. We did a Spin magazine cover story and the headline was “The Speed Of Buzz.” People tried to connect us to blog culture and the internet allowing bands to grow faster than ever. And all of that was true, but I do think that something that was downplayed was that we knew what we wanted to accomplish musically, and even before we presented ourselves, we had an album done. It was floating around online for nine or ten months before it was officially released. I think it let people into our world. They could go online and find it and download it from whatever website, and it let people feel like they could be in on something that was new, but was kind of a fully-formed world.”

Rostam debates the idea of success when it comes to Vampire Weekend. On one hand, a contemporary like MGMT found radio success that was exponentially greater than VW. But by many metrics, including a pair of No. 1 albums — 2010’s Contra and 2013’s Modern Vampires Of The City — and a Grammy in 2014 for Best Alternative Music Album, it’s hard to deny that Vampire Weekend were a rare group who married commercial and critical heights.

For Rostam, though, it was always about making music that he was proud of, art that he considered next level. While Vampire Weekend never kept him from creating his solo work — songs that appear Half-Light began to be released as early as 2011 — he still felt like he needed to formally leave the band in order to truly invest himself in his own music. It’s a move that has undoubtedly paid off, with Half-Light shedding any preconceptions of what a Rostam album needed to be. There are no plays for the radio or attempts to widen his appeal. Production aesthetic becomes a fluid concept that can change from song to song.

In fact, the best thing about Half-Light is how comfortable it sounds in its own space. Songs like opener “Sumer” are given time to reveal their magic tricks, the album’s moods are drawn out by his precise orchestral arrangements, and guests such as Angel Deradoorian and Wet’s Kelly Zutrau flutter in like butterflies with brief appearances. It’s a brave record that dares to be everything it wants to be at once; it’s not held back by any preconception, and ultimately, that’s why it feels so inspiring.

“On some level, I wanted to feel a freedom that was missing because I cared so much about making those albums as great as they could be,” he said about his eventual decision to separate from Vampire Weekend in 2016. “And I put so much of myself into them to make sure they could get there. I think it was important for me that after making three [albums], to find change. There’s an impulse to be turned off by change, but change can be positive. When the dust settles, people who have connected to the music that I’ve made — part of that being in Vampire Weekend — will feel the positive. I feel positive. I feel optimistic. I feel like that’s part of what I care about as an artist, as a producer, and as a songwriter. Presenting optimism.”

For Rostam, being optimistic in 2017 is a decidedly political act. As the openly gay child of Iranian immigrants, the 2016 election brought his family much uncertainty. Even in the time leading up to the election, Rostam and many like him faced an increasingly loud dialogue that argued his family didn’t belong in America. This din insisted that the chance of the American dream, that every citizen has ostensibly been promised, was not for them. So when Rostam talks about his music, he describes it as political, even if it is not always about political issues. For him, and many people like him, standing on his own two legs and daring to make hopeful music in the face of uncertainty is the statement in itself.

Half-Light is not Rostam’s first time working outside his band, though. He’s previously made playful synth-pop as Discovery with Ra Ra Riot’s Wes Miles, collaborated with The Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser on 2016’s decades surveying I Had a Dream That You Were Mine, and worked behind the scenes with artists as diverse as Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, Solange, and Haim. But Half-Light is his first time owning the spotlight, a move that he admits feels like creating a whole universe from scratch.

His live shows incorporate projections, a string quartet, and sometimes even dancers in an attempt to be immersive. And the album never hides from its atmospheric tendencies, allowing songs to spread out and exist in a space that feels transportive. “I enjoy creating that world, and I think people have been moved by entering that world,” he says, his big brown eyes opening wide as he adds, “I feel good about what we are creating.”

In a sense, it’s like Rostam is forming his own world to stand in contrast to reality we all currently share. In talking, Rostam speaks about finding hope in the youth of today, a group that has less skepticism about global warming and less traditional views on sexuality and gender. It’s this kind of world that’s easy to be immersed in in his new home in LA. Last year, Rostam took to Twitter to criticize the film La La Land for not only whitewashing its jazz music plot, but also for not featuring any queer characters. Rostam used the hashtag “#notmylosangeles” in his tweets, but he could have also easily been speaking to the world his music, and his life, subverts. While many have since echoed his critiques, in his initial dissent against a wildly popular film, it was a lonely space

“I have a complicated relationship with America,” he said, after one of his many long pauses he takes between sentences. Sometimes his silences stretch to the point that it’s hard to tell if he’ll finish the rest of his thought out loud. Or perhaps, when it comes to America, complication is the full thought.

Rostam may have been born in Washington DC, but the trajectory that brought him there began much earlier. His parents first visited the US as college students from Iran, and returned to their country after finishing school. It was in Iran that they met, fell in love, and were married. But when the revolution happened, Rostam’s pregnant mother and his dad left their home and moved to France, arriving separately as refugees. It was in France that Rostam’s brother was born and his parents began to build a new life for their family.

“They hit the reset button and had to figure out what they wanted to do and what was important to them,” Rostam said, explaining that in France the couple began working in book publishing. First up was a Persian cookbook, which the pair quickly realized they could self-publish to allow themselves more freedom. Their mission statement was bridging east and west, and a passion for the printed word became their lifelong venture. But when his mother became pregnant again, this time with Rostam, his parents had to make the decision about another big change.

“My parents chose to live in America instead of France because they felt like their children could feel American,” he said. “They had concern that their kids would never feel accepted in France. They wouldn’t feel French and they wouldn’t feel that they could preserve an identity outside of feeling French. They didn’t want to just buy wholesale into French nationalism. In talking to my parents, I think for them America was a place where they could find safety and they could survive.”

This is certainly a different version of the traditional American dream that’s peddled. Often times these sorts of stories are centered around prosperity or the Horatio Alger myth of “rags to riches,” but Rostam’s experience in America as the child of immigrants was more about finding a place they could call their own. When he speaks about this, it’s hard not to think about the recent policies of President Trump that make living in America as an immigrant decidedly less safe, less inclusive.

For Rostam, he finds it hard to say whether things are worse now than were when his parents were first arriving, and he said he doesn’t know how it will affect him personally until he begins traveling outside the US in support of Half-Light. “My parents have survived a lot,” he said. “They have a lot of perspective that I don’t really have, but I think they are happy with their decision to come to America.”

The intersection of east and west that Rostam’s parents explored in their own work is continued on Half-Light. Rostam cites “Wood” as the best example of where his eastern and western influences form a harmony, where he unintentionally continues the mission his parents began in their cookbooks. And when the music doesn’t have its sights set on bridging cultures, it manages to be sonically diverse. “Sumer” flirts with Animal Collective psychedelia, “Bike Dream” experiments with mid-tempo expansiveness and traditional pop structures, and “Warning Intruders” leans on vocoded vocals while presenting some of his most seductive songwriting yet.

Elsewhere, on what might be Rostam’s most accomplished recording, “Gwan,” he wistfully sings over a carefully orchestrated string arrangement and tidal percussion that rushes in and recedes. At a point in the middle of the song, it’s almost as if Rostam himself gets distracted by the beauty of the production, allowing it to exist on its own before returning to complete it. It’s tempting to compare the song to a dream, but really, it feels more like waking up.

Half-Light’s fifteen songs, though they do feature occasional guest voices, also offer up the most singing that Rostam has ever done in his career. As a producer, Rostam takes pride in his ability to get the most out of his vocalists. Perhaps the best example of this is on the Vampire Weekend track “Hannah Hunt,” where a late-octave change by frontman Koenig fills the song with a burst of desperation and immediacy that comes from the tension of pushing his voice as far as it can go.

“I’m very attune to getting it just right,” Rostam said. “I’ll spend hours and hours comping a vocal to make it a superhuman performance. But it was really hard for me to point the spotlight on myself. It was like, ‘you like recordings with loud vocals and now you’re singing, you need to feel good enough about your vocal performances so they can be as loud as they have been on the records you produced.’”

The emphasis on vocal work shows throughout Half-Light. On “Sumer,” his voice cracks to a near scream when he tests his range, while on “I Will See You Again” his tender balladeering is presented with minimal backing to hide behind. There’s a sense throughout the album that Rostam is willfully working without a net, but it’s still a bit surprising that he doesn’t stumble. And when combined with his adventurous production and subtle tunefulness, there is a sense that the listener is getting to know Rostam through sound alone, meeting an artist who is caring, open-hearted, and inclusive.

But what ties together both the album and Rostam as a solo artist is the worldview he presents. Rostam attributes his upbringing in Washington DC to influencing his interest in politics, and though most of the lyrics were written before the 2016 presidential election, these interests still crop up.

It’s most apparent on “When,” where Rostam hides his words under heavy modulation, so lines about changing the distribution of wealth don’t hammer the listener over the head. The song was written as snapshots of things Rostam heard at a political rally, but also concepts that he felt deeply. “I feel like I wanted some distance since the things I was saying were so personal,” he said. It’s understandable, especially when something as simple as critiquing how race and sexuality are presented in La La Land resulted in a barrage of angry responses from internet trolls.

Backlashes of that nature are what makes the optimism that Rostam is dead-set on purveying so miraculous. It might seem crazy considering the world that Rostam is creating in, but even as a gay artist and a child of immigrants, he can look around and feel hopeful about his home in Los Angeles, and in the United States.

“I’m optimistic about getting to a place in the world where there’s more truth rather than less,” he explained. In an environment that desperately wants to steal the inclusiveness of feeling American from people like Rostam, he stands as an example of what we fight to maintain. From creating music with one of the most revered bands of the last decade to taking a less secure path as a solo artist in order maintain his own creative vision, Rostam is showing not what the American dream is traditionally, but what it can, and should, be. It’s not being satisfied with merely surviving in the face of adversity. It’s thriving in spite of it.

Half-Light is out this Friday, 9/15 via Nonesuch Records. Get it here.

Philip Cosores is the Executive Editor for Consequence of Sound, as well as a contributing writer and photographer for Pitchfork, The Orange County Register, The AV Club, Bandcamp, and more. He lives in Los Angeles.

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