Rostam Batmanglij on Taking His Time To Live ‘Half-Life’
There’s a lot to be said about time and music: the articles trumpeting an artist’s “first album in five years,” the impatient handwringing as we wait for a buzzy artist’s second release — and the still more impatient handwringing when a prolific musician dares to take their, well, time.
Vampire Weekend’s Rostam Batmanglij has witnessed this battle between time and art firsthand over the course of his career — producing the likes of HAIM (a band that took four years to release their sophomore album) and Frank Ocean (whose blonde seemed as if it would never come). And, of course, he was a key member of New York band Vampire Weekend, the much-lauded indie band that he parted ways with in 2016 in order to go solo.
Rostam — his preferred solo moniker — is out with his first solo album, Half-Light, one year later. The turnaround seems quick, given that he also released the successful collaborative album with Hamilton Leithauser, but according to the musician/producer, the record has been percolating for years. The George Harrison-circa-Brainwashed-esque track “Wood,” for example, came out in 2011 — and bouncy single “Bike Dream” was born from a Word doc he started in 2008. As such, Rostam has had the time to tell his story right and well — all without the pressure and the handwringing.
And what a story it is. From the cozy New York scenes of “Bike Dream” to the gorgeous anachronism of “Sumer” to the simple mastery of storytelling woven into “Wood,” Half-Life is Rostam living fully.
TIDAL sat down with Rostam before the release of his debut to find out more about lyrics, expectation and time.
First of all, I was reading some older interviews and it seems like this time last year you didn’t know if you would be doing a solo record. Is that correct or was it something you just weren’t telling people?
I think it was something that I wasn’t telling people. In 2011, I sort of announced a record in an interview I did with NME and that record never came out. There were some people on the Internet that wondered what happened to that record. Well, this is that record. I’ve just been picking it up and putting it down, and it got to the point where I needed to push myself to finish it.
Why now, if you’ve been working on it for six years?
I don’t want to say exactly how long I’ve been working on it. I think it was a culmination of figuring out exactly what I wanted to say, what was important to me, in terms of storytelling as a songwriter. My entire career I’ve known what I’d want to accomplish as a producer, I knew what was important to me about making a recording that sounds exciting and new and checks certain boxes. But as a songwriter, I don’t think that I was ready to put together an entire record that told a complete story until now. And I feel like I just had to take the time.
Is that why a lot of the references to place in the record are New York locations? I know you live in California now.
It was written over a long period of time, and some of that was in New York and some of it was about New York after I left it. No matter where I live in the world, I will always write songs about New York, because I lived here for 12 years in between when I was 18 and 30. Those are probably going be important years of your life.
How did you decide which streets and locations to include? Was it about the way the addresses sounded, or were they places you visited frequently?
I feel like I would be the kind of songwriter that I hate if I was just like, ‘I just like the way the word sounds.’
I hate that, too.
[Lyrics] definitely mean a lot to me. I wish I were better about going with what sounds good. I have respect for people who can do that and sometimes I can do that but, ‘I just like the way that word sounded,’ eh, it’s hard for me to do that. If I could do that maybe this record would have come out in 2011 instead of 2017.
Tell me a bit about ‘Bike Dream.’
I wrote most of that song before I came out in the press. I wrote most of the lyrics and the melody in about 2008, 2009, 2007. I definitely had a Word doc that was percolating. I think what I liked about it was that I felt like if I had released that song before I had come out, I think you could interpret the song in a lot of different ways. And I still like that about it.
Could you elaborate on the meaning of the phrase ‘half life,’ which is also the title track? I’ve heard you say it kind of refers to people’s cultures — how sometimes you’ll call yourself ‘half’ one culture, when instead you could call yourself ‘double.’ Double the cultures.
The world ‘half life’ refers to sundown and sunrise. What I like about it was that it was one word that means two things. That in and of itself felt important to the record. I felt like someone like me, whose parents came from Iran, it was important to my parents that I maintain my identity both as Iranian and as American.
There was [also] a larger significance about what I’ve felt at those times of day in my life — or why those times of day are important to me. I think as the sun is rising and you’re up for it, you’re going to have the maximum amount of hours in the day to accomplish what you want to accomplish. To me, that seems like the most optimistic situation possible.
As we enter the nighttime, sometimes it’s sad or depressing, because you feel like, ‘What did I get done today?’ Maybe nothing. But there’s also something exciting because night is beginning.
Are you more of a morning or night creator?
I’m a 24/7 creator. I definitely have gotten good things out of staying up all night; it’s not my normal way of doing things, but I have gotten good results of doing it. Its been a while, though; I don’t really do it as much in L.A. L.A. is not really conducive to all-nighters.
I was really struck by ‘Sumer.’ You used a sample from The Revels. Is that the same thing as the Christmas Revels? My family listens to them every Christmas.
It is! So Revels is a group that exists all over America and their mission is just to keep ancient music alive. ‘Sumer’ is part of the May Day festivities. Christmas music is a huge part of Revels, but the other big holiday is May Day.
It was important to me growing up. I went to a school that had a folk song tradition that was ingrained into the school. That song was always around and always one that I loved. I knew that that song should be track one on the album before I wrote any of the lyrics or the melodies. So I chased it down.
Starting with such a old song, it seems like the record progresses from there when it comes to production techniques. Was that intentional?
Yeah, ‘Sumer,’ I wanted to sound like an artifact from a lost era, but I also wanted it to sound futuristic. So I gave myself some hard-to-reach goals. I guess one of the reasons I felt it was important to put it on the record was that it connects to this idea that I have about all creative work – that all creative work is connecting with traditions. Whether you’re writing, making a film, making a TV show, making a painting, you’re connecting with tradition. So in some way I feel like sampling ‘Sumer’ was saying, ‘Here we go, we’re getting it started.’
I’m not going to ignore the history of music, because I studied a lot of it. One of the starting points of making this album was trying to blur the lines between what was classical music and what was a song. What was a string arrangement and what was a backing track. I wanted to erase those lines.
Well you succeeded. One of my favorite tracks was ‘Wood.’ To me, it sounds like George Harrison doing a raga or something. Can you tell me about the instrumentation and song structure for that one? Because it seems like such a traditional story. You know, a simple story of the horses and the grass.
I used a regular old 12-string acoustic guitar for a lot of the second half of the song, but I tuned it in the way that you would tune this Persian instrument called the Tar. The most ancient music that I’m referencing on the whole record is this Persian form called the Rast Panjgah. It’s a collection of melodies and you’re touching on those melodies over the course of the performance. I think it’s a few thousand years old.
I guess I was trying to make connections between Indian music, Bollywood music, Iranian music, American folk music. I guess I wanted to present my vision of how those things should live together.
I like how it all sounded like it came from a different time but the fire was made up of burning tires.
You’re the second interviewer to mention the burning tires lyric.
I wonder why.
Well, I think it kind of breaks the spell. It takes you out of the dream a bit.
Was that the goal?
I think so. I mean, I wrote those lyrics a really long time ago. I think I am interested in the ability for a song to be connected to dreams.
So was this song about a dream, or…?
I wanted it to feel like you were entering the world of a dream. Like entering and exiting the dream. But also I wanted it to feel like you were in bed with somebody. So I wanted to do a couple of different things at once lyrically.
Recently you shared a review of the new HAIM record that criticized how long it took to come out. What do you think of the way the press reacts to artists taking their time? It seems like there’s different levels of patience for different artists.
I think artists know when it’s time to for their albums to come out. I’ve felt support from people online that said, ‘Take your time; we want you to put out an album that you’re happy with.’ I don’t understand why anyone would push somebody to put out something that they weren’t happy with.
You must be privy to so many different kinds of reviews with all the artists you work with. So many different viewpoints; it’s pretty diverse. Have you learned a lot about the public’s reaction or the press’ reaction to music through working with all these artists?
A friend of mine once told me a story about another person in a band who would vacillate between reading every review and not reading any. He’d go for years without reading anything and then other times he would dip back in and need to read everything when a record came out.
I think we’re all trying to find that healthy place. I think I would like myself the most if I never read any reviews of anything that I worked on.
(Photo credit: Alex John Beck)
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