The process rostam batmanglij – believer magazine

I n the band Vampire Weekend, Rostam Batmanglij wore the hats of guitarist, keyboard player, singer, lyricist, composer, and producer. He had a natural inclination toward warm synth tones, crisp drums, and string-laden musical passages—a lush production style that has continued in his work with a variety of artists, including Carly Rae Jepsen, Frank Ocean, and Haim. In 2016, Batmanglij left Vampire Weekend, and eighteen months later he released a solo album, Half-Light .

I spoke with Rostam by phone to discuss the album’s single, “Gwan,” which has a similar aesthetic to that of his previous work but is somehow more romantic and ultimately transporting than anything else he’s recorded. Thoughtful and affable, Rostam illuminated the long, unexpected creation of the track, even when he didn’t directly address my questions.

ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ: I remember specifically pushing myself just to write some string music, or music for a string quartet. I wanted to write something that could stand up on its own, and something that would be intriguing to my ears, musically. I was interested in taking some of these kind of repeated patterns that you hear in minimalist music from downtown New York in the ’60s. I was trying to come at it from that angle of, like, Irish music.

RB: [ Laughs] Well, to be honest, I started writing that string music in, like, 2010. So for me, it’s hard to know exactly what was inspiring me. I guess I grew up going to school and learning a bunch of folk songs without knowing their origins. I started getting interested in what the origins of those folk songs that I learned by heart were. But yeah, I never studied Irish music formally. I guess to me there’s this divide between music I’ve studied academically and music I’ve studied independently. One of the things I’m trying to do as Rostam is bridge those two worlds.

The music I studied when I was in college has things like imitative counterpoint, whereas popular music and pop songs—and folk songs, even—rarely have imitative counterpoint. There are two folk melodies that appear in “Gwan.” One is from “Suo Gân,” which is a Welsh lullaby, and the other is from “Simple Gifts,” which is a Shaker hymn, and which was also adapted into a Christmas song called “Lord of the Dance.” One of the things I think about with regard to those folk melodies is where do they come from? Do they evolve over time? Is there something about those melodies that is especially sturdy as a result of being passed down through generations and surviving?

RB: You know, I can’t really agree with you, because I feel like when I produce a song, it’s not me realizing my creative potential. I do see being a producer as the zenith of creativity, so it’s hard for me to want to say that the music I make as Rostam is somehow more creative than when I’m working as a producer. I gotta say that I don’t feel there’s a divide there.

RB: I don’t think control is the defining difference. Every collaborative relationship is unique, and I think as soon as you’re starting to talk about control, you’re very far away from a successful collaboration. There have been times when I’ve contributed to a song—not the lyrics or the melody or the chords—mostly just the drums, but to me that is as meaningful and emotional as the lyrics and chords. I don’t feel like there’s such a huge difference. Ultimately, I have to say, I do care about all the elements that go into a song, but I feel like the hierarchy that’s created—which, you know, puts the lyrics at the forefront of meaning in a song—I think it’s a false hierarchy. Furthermore, I would say there’s a similar hierarchy that people use to put melody on a pedestal. I’ve actually gotten into arguments with other friends who write songs when I say I don’t think melody’s actually important. There are a lot of songs I love that don’t have any melody to them.

RB: Yes, not only with me writing the strings, but with me recording the strings. I had this recording, and it stayed in my hard drive for years, and I knew that I wanted to make it a song, but it wasn’t a song. So then I started to think about, you know, how do I make this a song? The first step toward getting there was to put chords underneath the strings, so that the chords would change under the repeated patterns in the strings. I did that by adding a bass line, basically. A bass line that would change the chords underneath what was going on.

RB: Yeah, for sure. My entire career as a producer, having produced almost a hundred songs—it’s very rare that the recording session that starts the song isn’t also the final Pro Tools session. It begins as a series of tracks that are recorded. From there you can add, you can take away, and you might not end up with any of the same tracks you started with, but there is some through-line through the process of recording.

The word arrangement is usually used to describe what someone does to bring an existing song to life, or to bring an added layer of dimension to an existing song. A string section, for example: that’s something I’ve been really obsessed with. Like the string arrangement for “Time of Your Life” by Green Day. I love string arrangements and I’ve studied them. I guess one of the things I wanted to do was deliberately go backward and start with something that sounded like a string arrangement and build a song on top of that.

So it [“Gwan”] started with a string arrangement. Then I had my friend Hamilton Berry, the cellist, come in and record all the string parts on the cello. So even though I wrote them for a string quartet, he was able to play them all on the cello. So pretty much all of the strings you hear on “Gwan” are cello. Then from there I had a handful of melodies for the verse of the song, and I had a couple of lyrics, and I brought in my friend Ramesh Srivastava, who’s in a band called Voxtrot. He’s someone I’ve known for years, and I told him that I had kind of gotten to this point where I was stuck on the song, and I wondered if he and I could work on this a little bit together. He helped me break out of my block, and he made me realize there were some lyrics I’d written that I loved, and helped me write some more lyrics. Together we wrote a chorus for the song. I think that was a breaking point.

RB: I guess I felt like I did want on this album, for better or worse, to kind of convey a mood of just waking up, or curling up in bed, and trying to convey that vocally. I had friends that told me they thought I should rethink some things, which I did. But other times I just kind of fell in love with a first take because it had a certain magic to it, and I felt like it was conveying this emotion that would be impossible to re-create.

RB: Well, I feel like I always have drums in my mind, whenever I’m listening to anything. If I’m listening to music with drums, I think about the drums in the song. If I’m listening to music without drums, I’m thinking about what the drums could be. It’s something that’s always on my mind. I think that’s something that unites a lot of producers: that we’re always considering what drums could do in a song. You have a physical response to drums. You feel the thump of a kick drum in your chest. You get excited by the sizzle of a high hat. You can feel a groove from the snare drum. And I think that you can translate emotion through the drum patterns you hear in your mind as a producer.

On the chorus of the song, I really tried to think about what someone like Tom Petty would do. I love that so many of his choruses are very simple sentiments, very simple words, drums, and melodies. That’s where I was coming at it from a songwriting perspective. I think Tom Petty wrote choruses that are confident enough to be simple. I think that’s something to strive for.

RB: I think it is something that I strive to do. I think there’s something very bold about music that’s minimal and songwriting that’s simple. There’s this line between simple and simplistic. I think you can say that the chorus “And I’m free, free-falling” is a simple idea, but I don’t think you can say it’s simplistic, because there’s an openness in how you can interpret that idea of free-falling.