Rostam Batmanglij on Identity, Love, and Leaving the City That Made Him

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Rostam Batmanglij is dangling a mostly empty coffee mug from his index finger and thumb on a lightly crowded street in Brooklyn. New Yorkers do all kinds of indoor things outside that would seem weird in any other place with more private space, like sprint to their bodega in a bathrobe and dramatically break up with a boyfriend or girlfriend in front of complete strangers. The thing is, Batmanglij hasn’t been a New Yorker for about three years. He lives in Los Angeles now, but is in town to do a press tour for his new album, Half-Light. The mug came from a media company’s office where he was filming a video interview but, so comfortable a flaneur is he, he didn’t think it strange at all that he’d head right out into the sunny late afternoon, cup in hand. “When you live in New York long enough,” he says, walking without much direction but a general desire to find a place to eat, “it just gets under your skin.”

Indeed, though Batmanglij doesn’t have an apartment here anymore — he first moved to Manhattan in 2001 from his parent’s house in Washington, D.C., to go to Columbia — his new album is concerned with his time living here. It was at Columbia that he met Ezra Koenig, Chris Tomson, and Chris Baio, the three guys with whom he would eventually form a band called Vampire Weekend, in 2006. That group quickly found success with their brainy, jittery, neurotic music, which a writer for Vanity Fair once said evoked “a latter-day version of Holden Caulfield’s Manhattan” and, most people noticed, bore a resemblance to New York art-school legends Talking Heads. They became emblems of East Coast urban hipsterdom. Around the time the debut self-titled album was made, Batmanglij was living in Greenpoint, and, on our walk, he leads us toward Mikey’s Hook-Up, a computer gear shop in Williamsburg, to show how much the city is a part of his history. “At the beginning, the first Vampire Weekend album was called The Blue CD-R, because I bought blue blank CDs here to burn the album on,” he says.

Until he quit the band in 2016, Batmanglij’s primary artistic role had been in the background, as the producer and multi-instrumentalist — mostly guitar and keys — for the band, with Koenig providing the lyrics and voice. But he has been working on and fiddling with many of these solo songs for years, gearing up to be front and center. “I had some things that I wanted to say.” About what? “I don’t want to spell that out in an interview,” he says, before relenting — a little. “Yes, these songs are oftentimes about specific relationships. But that’s not all they are about. And I think there is a power in songs and that power is to be about more than one thing. I hope that’s not a cop-out.”

He is guarded in conversation, laughing nervously at questions that are probing and that I never intended to be funny, while defensively telling me that he’s not going to do my homework for me by revealing what all of his songs mean. Sometimes he talks and writes in wonky puzzles: The song title “Sumer,” he says, is Old English for summer, and then goes on to describe the 15th- and 16th-century “Great Vowel Shift” in which English spelling became formalized. Nonetheless, the album glows with romantic turmoil and raw nostalgia, like his own “Good-bye to All That”: Batmanglij calls out street names — 14th Street on “Bike Dream” as the location where he had his “head between his knees” during what sounds like a hangover; coming out of the subway on 13th and Houston in “Never Going to Catch Me”— in songs that detail adventures of love and self-reflection.

He sees Arthur Russell — an East Village musician who has come to epitomize the singular independence of New York artistry — as a major influence. “Whatever you are making, whether it’s a song, an album, a painting, a film, you’re connecting with a tradition, and I do feel connected to New York music. There are records by the Velvet Underground or the Strokes or Arthur Russell that I feel deeply connected to,” he says. “Arthur didn’t see lines between genre. Over the course of his career, he made all kinds of music — he was searching for something, and I relate to that.”

His own search is for, as he describes it, “the intersection between the conventional and the unconventional” and the world between classical and pop, between the acoustic and electronic. The album is sumptuous and textured, filled with churchy synths and light piano and Batmanglij’s voice, which until now the world hadn’t heard so clearly. It has a striking amount of character and soul, what Batmanglij tells me his longtime collaborator Ariel Rechtshaid once described as “pain” in the vocal cords. “I think he meant it as a compliment,” he says. Rechtshaid has also worked on Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the City, and the two of them are close colleagues; they did much of the work on the intimate songs at Batmanglij’s home studio in Los Angeles. “Rostam’s voice has a depth to it that moves me. He’s able to channel something very emotional,” says Rechtshaid. He’s not wrong: There is certainly a bit of pain in Batmanglij’s remarkably compelling voice. But it’s also so airy and whispery in tone, so sincere in its slightly twee stylization, that it sounds like he’s feeling the entire spectrum of emotions, and feeling them hard. He sings like he perpetually has stars in his eyes, in love and sweetly observing everything around him, as if he’s taking in the city in his first month away from home.

He produces that way too: The jingles and jangles on tracks like “Sumer” sound like Salvation Army Santas on Fifth Avenue, and the strings on “Thatch Snow” evoke a fall evening at Carnegie Hall. In the video for “Gwan,” a single from the album, Batmanglij is wearing almost precisely the same outfit he is today — a T-shirt with a blue woolly button-down over top— and doing almost precisely the same thing, slowly ambling around a glittering New York with a smile on his face. “Leaves were falling on the pavement,” he sings sweetly, “I was happy in the city.” There are not leaves falling in the video, but so evocative is that classic city image for him, like something from a Nora Ephron movie, that he’s grinning hard while he sings it anyway. “When I moved to New York, I remember thinking, ‘I’m never going to live anywhere else,’” he says, recalling a prophecy that did not come true while loudly dragging the soles of his Yeezy boots along the cement.

Of course, New York is primarily a stage, and the real drama on Half-Light is Batmanglij’s own life. The album is largely told from the first-person perspective — the first word on the album is I, which begins the sentence, “I was dead and born again,” in “Sumer.” It often sounds like he is reflecting on a private pre-fame life, and indeed, many of these songs were written as far back as 2010, when Vampire Weekend was on the tipping point of becoming a major pop-culture force. His scenery is often of a bourgeois, cultured New York — on “Bike Dream” he sings “beside the bed I read this past week’s New Yorker, and I watch him paint Antarctica” — but still a gloriously young and unencumbered one, inhabited by a fresh artist trying to make his way. On “Gwan,” he sings sweetly about how he “took a friend’s car to the ocean,” an image not so far off from the Ramones on the footloose “Rockaway Beach.”

Some of the songs are quite visceral, focusing on what seem like boys he likes or boys he has already slept with or boys he is sharing apartments with. On the brisk “Bike Dream,” he sings with bravado about what sounds, excitingly, like sex with a pair of guys at the same time. “Two boys: one to kiss your neck and one to bring you breakfast, get you out of bed when you’re sore from the night before.” He says those words are more complicated than just being about a tryst, and that the ménage à trois in the song is actually something of a metaphor about the complicated nature of masculinity, but he knows the provocative effect lands nonetheless. “I just don’t want anyone to think that’s a song about a threesome,” he says at a barbecue restaurant in Williamsburg we’ve finally settled on for a late lunch, after finding a favorite nearby Chinese restaurant closed. “It’s hard to make music that’s sexy that’s not cheesy. I think there’s a lot of things in my music that are sexy, and some people will pick up on it and other people will not.”

The “some people” who might pick up on — and really enjoy — the more sensual aspects are, perhaps, gay people, who have for too long had to put up with the largely monolithic catalogue of songs about heterosexual affairs and very few that directly reflect their own lives, which makes Batmanglij’s candor on Half-Light all the more refreshing.

Lately there’s been something of a queer indie renaissance in music, and a number of gay and bi men are singing freely about same-sex relationships. Frank Ocean — whom Batmanglij collaborated with on the love song “Ivy” from last year’s Blonde — is probably the most notable example, but Troye Sivan, Perfume Genius, and Kevin Abstract are all helping to form a fresh canon of not-just-straight music. What is remarkable about this crop is just how casual they often are about it all, slipping “he”s where there used to be “she”s, as Batmanglij does, and not always feeling the need to define themselves or their music with any particular sexual labels. It is, to use an overused word, fluid. “I think that there’s something that’s happening now where even the word gay seems to apply less to our generation,” Batmanglij says over brisket and broccoli. “The word queer seems to apply more.”

Batmanglij himself had a more conventional — if that exists —pop-culture coming out in 2010, when he told a journalist from Rolling Stone that he was gay. The subject of “identity” had plagued Vampire Weekend pretty much since the band’s first album. The Catcher in the Rye–like themes, compounded by the band’s choice to liberally explore African rhythms in their music, made certain critics bemoan what they described as the “WASPiness” and “whiteness” of the band, a particularly strange experience for Batmanglij considering he is not white, but in fact, Iranian, the son of two immigrants who fled the revolution in the 1980s (Koenig is Jewish). “The one thing that really upset me is that a writer wrote a piece in which she presumed without a shadow of a doubt that I was white. I reached out and said, ‘I’m Iranian.’ They changed the article and there was no editor’s note,” he says. “I don’t identify as white. I have a complex relationship with whiteness. I totally understand that in this world it’s easier to write about things with soundbites. It’s harder to talk about someone’s identity when that identity isn’t clearly white and black, especially in America.”

Instead of shying away from these complicated themes, Batmanglij says Half-Light is his attempt to face them head on, and perhaps relate with other children of immigrants. “I think I’m pretty openly engaging with the identity of being the son of immigrants in America. I definitely made this album with the intention of connecting with other people of a similar experience,” he says. Among the genres he explores in the production for the album, which also include everything from Appalachian folk songs to traditional Indian music, is a smattering of ancient Persian sounds. “In the song ‘Wood,’ there is an extended passage where I tune the 12-string guitar like this Persian instrument called a tar. I played some melodies in that section that are a couple thousand years old,” he says. Still, against a tense backdrop in which immigrants have been told, basically, that they are not welcome in America by no less than the president, he’s not quick to spell out everything he’s trying to say about his heritage, preferring to let the words speak for themselves. “And we just wanna keep living in America but come on” he sings on “When.” “It’s wild to me that my parents, who came in 1983, came to a more accepting America than we have now,” he says. “I do feel welcome in America [but] I do feel like I have a window into understanding citizenship as not something to take for granted.”

After lunch, we decide to walk over to a nearby gay bar, Metropolitan, and Batmanglij tells me that one of the perks of living in L.A. is that it allows him to explore his enthusiasm for automobiles — he declines to tell me what kinds he owns, but says that he has more than one. It’s a fascination he shares with collaborator Frank Ocean, who titled a song on Blonde “White Ferrari.” “I am moved by car design, and it’s something we talk about,” he says, before telling me the story of how “Ivy” was made. “He played me songs in different stages and one of them was ‘Ivy.’ As soon as I heard it I had a vision of what it should be. I plugged in my guitar and muted everything that wasn’t vocals, and put down entirely new chords. He didn’t really change anything after that — the first chords that I played are the chords that ended up on the album.”

He orders a tequila soda and admits to some major (and, for all his experience, surprising) prerelease nerves about the album and the beginning of a career all on his own. “I’ve been a part of so many different things over the years; nonetheless, this album is a first album,” he says, before mentioning why he loves the poetry of the album’s title, Half-Light. “It means sunrise and sunset,” he says. And he tells me that he’s already thinking of his next record, which will also have a hyphen in the title: “I like double meanings.” It’s true. Ambiguity seems to suit this L.A.-via-New York former-bandmate-solo-star, who has one foot in the nostalgic past, one in the anxious all-by-himself future. In that moment, I glance at the table between us and notice that his coffee mug is now nowhere to be found, a casualty of our meandering walk around Brooklyn. When I look up, Batmanglij is already on to the next thing — he is gazing at his phone and realizes he’s late to a movie premiere in Chelsea. He jumps up from his seat to sprint to the subway, vanishing before I can ask him what happened to his coffee cup.

Rostam Batmanglij on Identity, Love, and His New Solo Album