The final track on the most recent Vampire Weekend album is an elegant, minute-and-a-half piano ditty called “Young Lion.” Lyrically, it’s simple and mysteriously reassuring: “You take your time, young lion,” repeated into oblivion. It’s like some faint childhood memory of some loved one’s offhand words of wisdom, enduring improbably into adulthood. Open-ended and cyclical, I always thought it could’ve made a fine opener, which is perhaps why it works so well in closing off Modern Vampires of the City.
After three albums with Vampire Weekend as a multi-instrumentalist, co-songwriter, and in-house producer, this was Rostam Batmanglij’s first song on lead vocals. After publicly departing in Jan. 2016, he’s now readying his debut solo album Half-Light, which features his own vocals across its entirety. It’s a dreamy, intricate listen, a collection of creative bursts, proclamations of identity, and lingering loose ends from the Vampire Weekend years. “Wood” is the oldest nugget, a twinkling, sitar-laced track he shared on SoundCloud six years ago. “I’ve always thought of the songs that I put out under my name — dating back to 2011 — as part of a record,” he says.
We’re chatting in his East Village hotel room, about eight floors up, the view of a foggy, dreary midday Manhattan outside. It’s not unlike the Modern Vampires cover, the smog levels hopefully a few shades lower. “It’s interesting,” he observes towards the end of our half-hour conversation: “Everyone in Vampire Weekend besides me was in a band in high school where they were the lead singer.” Indeed, he’s onto something here; Ezra Koenig is the lead singer, and since the band’s post-2014 sabbatical, both bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson have released solo albums. But the day in the sun for Frontman Rostam is finally here.
Half-Light arrives today (Sept. 15) on Nonesuch Records. It’s a 52-minute tapestry, songs intertwined through interludes and reprises, reflective of the six years and myriad environments of its creation; Rostam moved from Brooklyn to L.A. during that time, left Vampire Weekend, and spent more time producing pop and R&B artists like Solange, Carly Rae Jepsen and Frank Ocean. On Half-Light, Rostam looks inward. He builds little ecosystems for his voice to live within, moving in and out of clarity and distortion, swimming through keystrokes and stately strings. Hear and there you’ll catch a familiar whiff of an ornate old VW cut like “M79,” but much of it is unlike anything they ever did. After all, it’s a solo album, even beyond the customary use of the term.
“I had a vision of making a record that was blurring the line between string arrangement and song,” he says, referencing the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” and “Street Hassle” by Lou Reed — “these touchstones of songs that weren’t conforming to the normal instruments.” If you were describing his aesthetic to a new listener, you’d be liable to get caught up in the sheer multitude of sounds. They’re often presented unfamiliar ways, like his 12-string guitar, tuned to sound like a guitar-like instrument called a tar from his parents’ native Iran. You get the sense he’s really into those strings; he mentions a New York club show earlier this year where he had his percussionists play without cymbals to assure the cello and violin players could clearly hear their notes.
His skill to send musical norms through a chop shop is especially salient on “Rudy,” a late-album romp that sounds like its namesake Specials classic left out in the midday sun, its tempo slowed, drums programmed, guitars evaporated and replaced with a growth of free-form horns. It’s one of several Jamaican-influenced songs made with the album in mind, and the only one that made the cut. As an Iranian-American (he was born in Washington, D.C. several years after his parents left following the Iranian Revolution), it’s also a brilliant collage of much of what makes up his identity. “I was fascinated by the word ‘Rudy,’ which is connected to the Jamaican term “rude boy,” which migrated from Jamaica to London,” he explains. “I was also fascinated by that name, because it exists in Persian culture and Iranian culture. There is actually a place called Rudy in Iran, and there’s Iranians that I know with the name Rudy.”
Riffing on ska and shaking up guitar rock norms were founding principles of Rostam’s former band, with whom Rostam left open the idea of future collaborations with in his farewell letter. Vampire Weekend is in the thick of completing its fourth album, but he prefers to keep quiet on his involvement: “That’s a question I don’t want to answer quite yet.” He does, however, readily share snippets of what it’s like working with his many colleagues. Appearing in Charli XCX’s Internet-famous “Boys” video: “I shot my sections at Coachella… it was kind of a spur-of-the-moment thing, getting a haircut as my activity.” Recording with Frank Ocean: “As soon as he played me ‘Ivy’ in its original form, I had a vision for what it could sound like.” And, perhaps most importantly: “We both love cars, so we can connect on that level.”
Rostam has a calm, nurturing air to him, and it’s easy to picture him guiding along the artists he works with, while still pushing them outside their comfort zones. “When I work with other artists, I really want to bring out the most in their voices and I want to hold myself to the same standard.” he says. I think back a year ago to interviewing his old friend and Discovery bandmate Wes Miles, about making Ra Ra Riot‘s euphoric single “Water” with Rostam: “[I was] almost shredding my vocal cords just to reach these notes. When I got there, that’s what made the connection for us.” He might’ve turned that pep talk on himself to roar through some particularly grueling bars from the final minute of “Rudy.”
He’s noncommittal on preferring the producer-for-hire life or that of a solo artist, and in reality, he’s already blurred them in a uniquely sustainable way. He forged an identity as an independent songwriter and producer while in Vampire Weekend, and now outside of it, could very well reprise that role with his old friends. You can forgeo the memories of fronting an embarrassing high school band and throw your own talent show in the form of a solo debut at age 33.
“There’s a bunch of rules that I want to break,” he says, in a tone best described as politely mischievous. “I have a rule-breaking streak.”