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4 June 2021

Rostam Batmanglij: “There’s no such thing as art that isn’t political”

As a producer, the former Vampire Weekend instrumentalist helps artists “realise their vision”. What does that mean for his solo work?

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

Producing records, for Rostam Batmanglij, “is just about caring”. To him, the often ambiguous role, which can refer to studio management as much as musical direction, involves two main things: starting songs and finishing them. Most often, his help is needed in a track’s final stages. “No matter how a song starts, it’s how it’s finished that becomes important. And if you care about making something as good as it can be, you stick with it. That’s what it really means to be a producer: to stick with something.” 

Raised by Iranian parents in Washington DC, before moving to New York City for university, Batmanglij was until 2016 best known as one quarter of the playful indie band Vampire Weekend, who formed at Columbia University in 2006. He played keyboards and guitar, and co-wrote and produced the band’s first three records. It was this latter role that he always saw as his true calling. “I’ve always been a producer really,” he said. Since leaving the band, he’s become one of indie pop’s most sought-after producers, working on tracks on Frank Ocean’s Blonde and Solange’s A Seat at the Table. Alongside Danielle Haim and Ariel Rechtshaid, he produced Haim’s acclaimed third record Women in Music Pt III, which won a Brit Award for best album in May. 

When speaking about his work – particularly his role as a producer to acclaimed musicians – Batmanglij tends to lean into cliché. “I love helping people realise their vision,” he said, twice, during the course of our short conversation over Zoom in late May. Though he has lived in Los Angeles since 2013, he was speaking from San Francisco, where he was taking a break from “pounding the pavement” in service of the new record. Whenever he is producing, he said, “I wanna bring out the best that I can”.

[see also: How Metronomy’s The English Riviera captured the British seaside through eccentric electronica]

He also releases music mononymously as Rostam: he put out Half-Light, a tender and often mysterious album of love songs, in 2017; the wistful, jazz-inspired Changephobia will be released this Friday (4 June). If producing is about working alongside an artist to bring out the best in them, how do you produce your own work? How does he help himself to “realise his vision”? “When I’m writing for my own album, I definitely feel like the goals are unclear, and I like that,” he said. “I like that I can get lost in it, and I can pick it up and put it down.” 

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He wrote the album opener “These Kids We Knew”, a soft, guitar-fuelled ode to the determination of today’s youth, while feverish with Covid-19 in March 2020. The previous week he had been in New York with Haim, playing their new tracks on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. On his way back to LA, he noticed “a mood in the air” that urged him to consider “how we have to make an effort to change the world, because the world is changing no matter what”.

“You say we can’t afford the slow down/But the skies won’t take it no more/So we’re gonna slowly pull the Earth back together,” he sings on the track. It ends – as many Rostam songs do – on a note of hope, though it’s one that’s slightly hazy, as though drenched in sun, rather than a wholly affirmative rallying cry. Such a mood – delicate, inquisitive – is typical of his songwriting, which tends towards suggestion rather than declaration. 

Thoughtfulness is the trait I most associate with Rostam songs, though the writing process is for him far more intuitive. “I’m always disengaging my brain in order to write music,” he said. “There is a component of collecting ideas in my mind, but once I enter the music-making process, I’m disengaged from making any calculations or being thoughtful. I’m not thoughtful; I’m working off instinct. That’s what I’m interested in capturing, and that’s what I want my songs to do: to reach people’s hearts. I can’t figure out how to touch people’s minds. But I can reach their hearts, I think.”

“Metathesiophobia” is the proper term for the fear of change, but it’s a word, Rostam said, that would be “unpleasant” to sing. His creation – “changephobia” – sums up the album’s core message: that “if we’re aware of ourselves and aware of our fears, we have power over them”. Being governed by fear is what allows injustices such as racism, homophobia and transphobia to exist, he said; these prejudices are “about holding on to a system of oppression and not wanting to change it”. Humans’ inability to counteract the climate crisis is, too, about our reluctance to change. “Why can’t we change more quickly?” Batmanglij asked. “What is stopping us?”

These themes aren’t explicit on Changephobia. Listening to the record, you’re more likely to be carried away by the luminous saxophone of “Next Thing” or by Batmanglij’s gorgeous, breathless vocals on “Unfold You”. That his politicism is subtle is part of the point. “I absolutely see all art as political,” he clarified. “There’s no such thing as art that isn’t political. But I personally prefer to make art where the politics are somewhat locked inside of the art and they’re not immediately available. I think that when the politics of your art are immediately available, the art is often ineffective and not very good. I think the best songwriting does not immediately reveal its politics.”

[see also: Liz Phair: “I’m practising not being cool”]

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