Nine Songs: Rostam Batmanglij
There’s a particular theme of expansion that continues to stretch outwards when talking to Rostam Batmanglij about the music that he loves.
Known mononymously as Rostam, the era-defining artist first emerged as a co-founder of Vampire Weekend, their global success thanks to an off-kilter sound, or angularity, that chimed perfectly with the anxious internet age.
Since leaving the band amicably in 2016, Rostam has worked with a host of artists, including Frank Ocean, Carly Rae Jepsen, Charlie XCX and Solange, and has most recently co-produced Immunity by millennial breakthrough-artist Clairo and HAIM’s Grammy-nominated Women In Music Pt III. In the process, he’s been compared to David Byrne and it’s true that both are fascinated with challenging the preconceptions of what a song should be, crafting measured subversions of conventional sounds or ideas.
Like Byrne, there is also a fascination with the components of language - Rostam once interned at the Oxford English Dictionary - and how music relates to language. Calling from his studio in LA, he often searches for the perfect word in our conversation like you would the perfect note, coughing up jewels from somewhere sacral, and he displays a post-modern, anti-establishment sensibility, breaking open pop music and adding in arcane or disparate elements that, once sewn together, become stratospheric.
Rostam released his first solo album Half-Light to critical acclaim in 2017 and is about to release its follow up Changephobia. Composed after becoming “obsessed with the Baritone sax,’ it sees the songwriter inspired by jazz on a deeper level than ever before, incorporating its components into his musical world, equally comfortable among its esoteric sounds as he is with rap and pop.
No Rostam track is ever going to be a straightforward pop song, and this is of course reflected in his Nine Songs selections. “If you make one song - or one album even - be the only thing that ever expresses your love for a certain style or era or person in music then you inevitably you put too much pressure on yourself.” When I ask if there’s a theme behind his choices, intriguingly he leaves it to the reader to pick out potential connections between them. “It’s hard to say if these songs are inspiring to me, as some of this stuff doesn’t inspire me directly”, before adding that each are simply pieces of music that have hit him on a subconscious or multi-dimensional level.
Perhaps there’s a clue to be found in the artists Rostam has chosen, whereby each of them are also innovators of the possibilites of music. But regardless of what connects them, these Nine Songs offer a fascinating insight into an artist who values freedom in artistic expression above all else.
“I sampled this song on my last album for the song “Don’t Let It Get to You”, it’s awesome. He owns a piece of "Don’t Let It Get to You" because I sampled the drums on it. I grew up listening to this album (The Rhythm of the Saints.) It came out in 1990, I would have been eight years old and I remember hearing it all the time in the kitchen, in the living room, and my parents loved it.
“It was something that has stayed with me musically for a really long time. It sounds like a pretty big group of people in a room together, but actually they recorded the drums for this song outside, so it sounds like a bunch of people playing music in a way that feels celebratory and I really love that about it."
“What I like about ‘Tell Him’ is that nothing in the track really changes very much. And it doesn’t need to. It seems to find this middle ground between reality and non-reality in that the drums sound live, but they also sound like they could be sampled.
“I like that over the course of the song its really all about Hill’s vocals – “I know I'm imperfect / And not without sin / But now that I'm older all childish things end and tell him…” - and yet the track has this real rock-solid foundation underneath it that I love.”
“I don’t know where I was when I first heard this song. I must have heard it when I was in college at some point, but I’ve gotten really into it in the last five years. Probably one of the reasons that I got into this song was because I’d listened to the Van Morrison version so many times that I stopped feeling anything! (laughs). I’ll never be sick of it, but I need to take breaks from it because I listen to it too much. Astral Weeks is one of my favourite albums.
“What I like about this song is that it’s a cover, but then about halfway through it evolves into a cover of another song by The Beatles called “Blackbird.” It’s cool. To me it’s this expansive concept of a song, you know? It’s so inspiring to have a song that starts as a cover of one song and then becomes a cover of another song. It just sounds like freedom. It sounds like musical freedom and that’s what I love about it.”
“When I was working with Henry Solomon who played all the sax on my album, I kept asking him ‘Can you play something like Charlie Parker would play?’ And the reason that I wanted to integrate that into my musical world is because I feel like there aren’t any songs that have bebop saxophone.
“I want to see more songs in the world that are referencing bebop because in some ways I think it’s the pinnacle of melody. It’s the most intricate melody that you can find, and it is exactly like classical music in some ways, because it’s this constant motion in the melody. It reminds me of these really intricate passages in classical music but at the same time it has absolutely nothing to do with classical music. It has its own rules and its own style. I find that very interesting.
“I had a writing teacher once and they told me about how people are always trying to write the one story that encapsulates their relationship to their mother or their sister or their brother, but we’re always writing about those people in our lives, and I think that the same is true with music. I may really love Charlie Parker, but there’ll never be one song where I’m able to adequately profess my love of Charlie Parker.”
“I must have heard this song many times as a teenager, but I got back into it in the last five years. I think there’s something important about revisiting songs and things that you heard and loved as a kid and coming back to them and having a deeper relationship with them later in life. I feel like that’s something that’s kind of nice and kind of fun.”
“I love this song because it was recorded in a day, not meant for an album, but then thrown on at the last minute, and yet it is probably one of the Clash’s best songs.
“It was recorded for a 7” that came with the NME, but then when it was done it was too good to be just a throwaway single. So it was added to the album London Calling at the last minute and didn’t appear in the artwork. I think it’s a reminder that not everything has to take a long time to record, not everything has to be belaboured.”
“I loved this song since the first time I heard it, but the more that I learned about it - I didn’t realise it sampled “Giant Steps”, which was written by John Coltrane - the more important it became to me, because it feels like this unique confluence of pop music, rap music and bebop. And at the same time, it’s a song that you could play for your little cousin and they could love it.
“That was really inspiring to me, this idea that you could make something that captures the soul of a lot of different music and eras of music but is also fundamentally a pop song. I think that’s what I’m into as a producer and as an artist. I don’t want to use the word ‘weird’ in the wrong way, but maybe 'weird' is the only word that works! (laughs). What are the most disparate elements that you can put together in one place and still at the same time make something that anybody, no matter how old they are, can be into? To me that’s the ultimate challenge.
“I studied classical music in college, and I considered writing - for lack of a better word - contemporary classical music for the rest of my life. I considered that being the community in which my music went out into, but I decided I really didn’t want that. I wanted to make music that anybody could love. But at the same time I feel I owe it to myself to use what I’ve learned and to be constantly learning about music that I don’t know as much as I’d like to know about, and to redefine myself from doing that.”
“In the late ‘90s a mode called the Phrygian mode had a moment in pop music. I think it was part of this groundswell in the late 90s, early 2000s of the Phrygian mode becoming part of the harmonic vocabulary. The Neptunes made a lot of songs that were in the Phrygian mode. They did songs with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake where they were using this pretty rare mode and it was a classic Neptunes thing. “Got Your Money”, that Ol' Dirty Bastard song which was one of The Neptunes first hits uses it and “Pyramid Song” also uses this mode.
“In some ways this song will just haunt me from time to time. I find myself sitting down at a piano and playing it because its very fun to play and at the same time it has its own mood that is unique.”
“There’s many ways that this song inspires me, but the scope of it is what really makes me feel like there’ll always be more to do in music. Because it starts one place and then by the end it feels like you’ve travelled you know? You’ve travelled many, many thousands of miles perhaps, you’ve travelled through the sky.
“It effectively creates this feeling that a song can start in one place and end in a completely different place. I don’t think any other song does this, not in the way “Cloudbusting” does."