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Rostam on sax solos, going with change, and his new summer album
In the latest episode of The FADER Interview podcast, Salvatore Maicki speaks with Rostam Batmanglij about his latest solo album, Changephobia.
Rostam on sax solos, going with change, and his new summer album

The FADER Interview is a brand new podcast series in which the world’s most exciting musicians talk with the staff of The FADER about their latest projects. We’ll hear from emerging pop artists on the verge of mainstream breakthroughs, underground rappers pushing boundaries, and icons from across the world who laid the foundations for today’s thriving scenes. Listen to this week’s episode of the podcast below, read a full transcript of this week’s episode after the jump, and follow The FADER Interview wherever you listen to podcasts.

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Change has done Rostam Batmanglij plenty of good. Five years ago, while Vampire Weekend were working on what would become their fourth album, Father of the Bride, he left the group to pursue his own career. He traded East Coast for West building a home studio in Los Angeles, accumulating production credits for all pop titans, like Haim, Clairo, Lykke Li, and releasing an album with his own, Half-Light, in 2017.

In the process, he gradually untethered his own sound from the Baroque rigidity of his classical training and drifted toward janglier pop. His second album, Changephobia isn't so much in a rival as it is in a session of perpetual motion, a collection of road bound vignettes that attest to the kind of world we can build, if we embrace what we often fear the most. Last month, Batmanglij sat down with The FADER's Salvatore Maicki to talk about the techniques and conversations that shape the album into his loosest and liveliest yet.

Rostam, thank you so much for being with me today. It's so nice to sit out in a park in California and just talk.

Rostam: Six feet away from each other.

Right. Much more hopeful circumstances than last March, Sarge's Deli, when the mood was a little different.

That's true. That may have been where I got COVID.

Can you explain a little bit more about like what that time was like?

So, Haim I'm asked me to perform "The Steps" with them on Jimmy Fallon. I said, "Yes," because it's fun when you help write a song, you help produce a song. And then occasionally, an artist will be like, "Hey, would you want to come do a special version of this live?" It's fun to be able to say yes. And so, we went to New York and the mood was really funny at Jimmy Fallon.

Like people were saying that like, "Whoever was the guest the following day had come down with some symptoms, so they were canceling." And at the time, it was completely unheard of that late night TV would just end tomorrow, which it did essentially, because this was March 10 of 2020.

Right.

It was that era where no one knew exactly what was going to happen next.

Yeah.

So, they actually asked us to do two songs, which was fun because they got to do "Summer Girl" in addition to "The Steps." And the reason they asked us to, is because they were like, "We're worried that we won't be able to get people back in here," and they were right. The next day we did this like deli performance, following that I went with Haim to D.C. and we also did a deli show there. And, it seemed like things are starting to get a little dark after the D.C. performance.

But flying back from D.C. to L.A., I came down with a fever and when I got to L.A., I subsequently quarantined myself and I didn't see anybody for 10 days and spent like four days sleeping all day and all night. And a few weeks after that, a friend of mine was like, "You can get tested for antibodies." And I was like, "What?" And, I went the next day after he told me, I went and I got tested and I tested positive for antibodies. And, I had about 10 friends who went to the exact same clinic that day, because they were like, "I know I had it." "I know I had it." And, all of them tested negative for antibodies.

So, I was the only one who thought they had COVID of my friends, and actually did have COVID.

Shit.

Yeah, it was an interesting time for me, because I was kind of alone and I was able to work on music. And, I did write one song from my record while I still had the fever from COVID.

Right. I was wondering about that. How did you manage to focus enough, like through a fever to...

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Well, I'd had no idea... It was like, I think it was like the third or fourth day of the fever, so it was... I had literally done nothing except sleep and Postmates, like ramen basically. And, I eventually got sort of stir crazy and I was like, "You can go up to the studio." You can like just kill some time, before you go back to sleeping all day and all night.

And so, I started working on something and I didn't think it would be for my record. Because, and I guess like lyrically, these kids we knew, which is the song that I wrote at that time, it's a little different. I was like, "This doesn't fit the record, this isn't for the record." And, maybe having that feeling actually helped me write the song. Because, I felt like the pressure was off. I was like, "You have a fever, you probably have COVID and whatever you're writing isn't going to be on your album." But then flash forward, it's the first song.

Do you remember like what triggered that song? Like, what was the image that kind of sparked it?

I think... Do you follow Greta Thurn, turn? I don't know how to say it right.

Thurnfunburg. Lets look this up.

I think it's Thunberg. Greta Thunberg. If you follow Greta Thunberg on Instagram. There's like-

Thunberg.

She often posts like from like protests that are happening in different parts of the world. And I guess, in my mind, I started to see like, I started to have these visions of like what's the next stage of this, because it seems like there's a generation of people who really don't give a fuck about... Well, COVID is related in my opinion, but about climate change, there's this entire generation that doesn't care. And, part of the reason I think they don't care is because they know that they're going to die before the world collapses from climate change. And hopefully, the world doesn't collapse from climate change. And, that's kind of the message of the song. It's like, we can fix this, we will fix this. But I guess, the darkest shade of that is we may have to arrest some people for willfully being negligent about the effects of chemicals and pollution.

Yeah.

So I mean, that's the idea behind having the kids make the arrests.

Yeah. The kids will figure it out. Maybe.

I guess.

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How far along was the record at that point?

I would say it was almost all written except for "4Runner," and maybe like the back half of next thing. There's a couple songs that I hadn't figured out how they were to end. And, there was a bunch of songs where I hadn't figured out the production. But, I spent the last like two and a half, three years writing the record.

Do you remember like where it begins for you?

"From the Back of a Cab" and "Kinney" are two of the oldest beats. And so, one of the ways that I make Rostam records is that I'll make beats for myself, and then I'll just listen to them in headphones, in my bedroom, in my car, on walks, and I'll just kind of wait until it feels like I have something I want to say, or I have a melody that I want to sing over the beats that I make. And actually, I recently found out that was partly how Paul Simon wrote Graceland.

Interesting. I didn't know that.

Yes. It was fascinating to me to hear that, like that album was a lot of these tracks that were pretty much fully composed tracks and he would walk up and down, I think Central Park West. And, he'd listened to these tracks on headphones and he'd write to that. But yeah, that's kind of been a way that I've written for a long time, but then the song Unfold You, I can remember the night that that started to come together, because I played a show with Nick Hakim in Paris. And after that show I went, and I was like listening to his music on Spotify, and there was one instrumental song that I just started singing over and I recorded a voice memo of it and it became "Unfold You." And, I used that sample and he's credited, and it's not, I didn't steal anything. I always feel like I have to say that.

We love Nick Hakim.

Yes. We love Nick Hakim. And in the music industry, people are so... Or actually, it's the people outside of the music industry who are casual music fans. I feel like sometimes they're so eager to accuse you of stealing something.

Right.

And it's like, "No, Lou Reed is a songwriter on the song, or Nick Hakim is a songwriter, and he owns part of the master, like stand down, it's okay."

Stand down stans.

There's a way to do it properly, where people have approval and people are properly compensated. I feel like it's a sad world where you can't make songs out of other songs, because that's the history of music. In the 80s, they didn't clear samples. So, you could take the drums from a song, put it in your song and you'd be fine. And then, I think I was talking to someone who worked for the Beastie Boys management, and he was saying like, "They had to go back and clear all these samples, and now there's no uncleared samples anymore," but people would just put out music with uncleared samples.

That's wild. I didn't know that, the 80s. Another time. That's interesting that a lot of this record was made like in motion, be it on a walk or in a car, because that definitely comes through.

Nice.

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There's a lot of references to, like literal references to cars and cabs. And I'm curious, was that intentional?

Well, I think as someone who lived in New York for 12 years, the setting of a lot of my songs was New York City.

Right.

And then, coming to L.A. and leaving New York and living in Los Angeles, I feel in some ways the inside of the car is kind of like the narrative equivalent of the city street. It's like the... It can be where things take place. And, that's something I like about living in California is that you can get in a car and go. I feel like Northern California is its own culture. And going up to SF, it's like you're in another culture all of a sudden and I love that. Just being able to drive and go to Utah, or go to Las Vegas, just being able to go anywhere you want.

Right. It's interesting that you mentioned L.A. versus New York in like the context of this album, because it does sound like L.A. visually, like brings L.A, but then when the baritone sax comes in, there's something about it that like takes it right back to New York for me.

Cool. I like that idea.

I love the baritone sax. I was former baritone sax player. I just-

Oh wow.

I have like a special like-

Oh wow. This is my first interview with a baritone sax player who's heard my record.

Yeah.

So, you'll be interested in this dilemma that I had, which was when I made the vinyl, I put transcriptions of the sax solos in the booklet. And, the one thing that I couldn't decide was, if those should be like basically baritone sax music, or they should be concert pitch.

And, I ultimately went with concert pitch, just because I feel like if you want to sit at a piano or have a violin, and you want to try playing along to the solo, you should be able to probably, as opposed to, it's such a niche audience that actually has a baritone sax.

It really is.

But I think those people, if you're a bari sax player, you're probably pretty skilled in transcribing stuff yourself. So, you could probably read concert pitch, but I don't know, maybe not. Yeah, because dissonance is something that I was also interested in on this record. I was like, "You don't do..." Like my criticism for myself is that I'm too consonant in the music that I make. I always want to try to push myself to be more dissonant.

Right.

So, every record I've made, I partly made in my home studio because I've always had a place to record, whether it was in an apartment in Greenpoint, in Brooklyn Heights, Dumbo, Echo Park, I've always had a spot that had a studio and that's where I made every record I've been part of. This album, I knew I would use my home studio and I wanted to add to that, so I started booking some time at the studio called Vox that I really loved. And in the past, I always used Vox with a very specific purpose, which was mostly to record drums. On this record I was like, "What if you try using Vox to start ideas and see what happens?" And, I should actually credit Emily Lazar, she's been my mastering engineer since I had a career making music. And, I've made nine albums with her. It's crazy to think about. And, she was someone who was like, "Yeah, have you ever tried getting people together in a studio and using that as a creative tool?" And, I didn't fully do that on this record, but I did sometimes.

You dabbled?

I dabbled in it. Like, there are songs where the piano and the drums are recorded at the same time live. And, there was a song that didn't make the record, that was just me and Henry, the sax player, just us sitting down and improvising at the same time. And, that was one of the first things I finished for the album. And, it was on an early version of the album, but it didn't make it. But, I guess I could release that anytime I want now.

I want to hear that.

I think it's pretty good, but-

Yeah.

... it didn't make the cut. It's okay if some things don't make the cut.

Yeah, totally. I guess, I just thought of home when I saw the imagery for the album, like the cover photo, something about watching the world change from your home, I guess, feels more, not to jump back into that, like COVID conversation, but-

I'm worried that people will see my album as a response to COVID, even though most of it was written before COVID. And, I don't think anything in the album is about COVID.

Right.

And, the concept of Changephobia was something that I had from years prior.

Where did that concept start?

It started in a couple of different places. It started when I met this guy on a park bench who I found myself opening up to him and he said, "Change is good, go with it." And I don't think I've ever said this before, but I'm pretty sure he worked as a doorman in a building in Manhattan somewhere.

So, which park was this at?

It wasn't at a park. It was in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

Oh okay.

It was at this park, if you know Commercial Street, there's like this kind of kink in the road and there's like a little bench that's right there by the kink.

Changephobia in P-town.

Well, Changephobia then, just to pick it up again, that was something that came a few years later. So, that was a word that I kind of invented, but I was reading a book that was about a certain personality types and how to deal with them in your life. And, one of the things that it said was, "When it's time to make a change, you need to prepare the person that you're making the change." And then, the way to prepare them is to let them know about something. Like, I feel like it's very specific, like five times in a two week period. And then, instead of giving them the opportunity to weigh in on the change, you need to just make the change and then let them know that you've made the change. And I was thinking about this, and I was feeling like this is such a strange way to have to deal with somebody in your life. And yet, I felt it was resonant.

Like, because I feel like we all struggle to deal with change no matter who you are. And, I think we are all guilty of sometimes being afraid of seeing the world from a different perspective.

Yeah.

But we need to, we need to be cool with it.

Right.

And just, or not cool with it. I just want to say, I think being aware, being aware that your fear may stem from a fear of change. I think that's important. So, that's why I called the album Changephobia, because I would want it to just have that reminder. (singing).

Talk to me about "4Runner," because I fucking love that song. I think that's my favorite song you've ever made.

Thank you so much. It's weird. It kind of stems from a trip I took to Japan. I heard this song in a shop and it had this very specific pallet that stuck in my mind. It had 12 string acoustic guitar and brush drums. And I was like, "What is the song?" And, I've never been able to find it. But, my response was to just make my own version of what I imagined the song sounded like. And, I have no idea what it actually sounded like anymore.

Where were you in Japan?

I want to say I was in Daikanyama, which is a neighborhood in Tokyo. But I'm pretty sure it [the song] was by a British rock band.

I would believe that.

Like from the late 80s, early 90s, that's the wheelhouse I would put it in. But, I've spent hours on Spotify trying to find what the song was, but I've not been able to. And so, I made this track with brush drums and 12 string acoustic guitar in about a day. And then like I said, I like to make these beats or... I feel weird saying the word beat, because I think that could mean it's just drums, but it's usually more built out than that. And, I just drove around listening to it. And I was like, "Yeah, this is going to be good, if I can finish this, if I can write a song around it, it's going to be good." But sometimes, I think with songwriting, it's just kind of like, you have to place your mind in the space, and then usually the lyrics write themselves.

Right.

If you can get into the right zone, like the right alpha waves or whatever it is.

How do you get into a zone when it's hard to get into a zone?

Well, because there's this one school of songwriting, which is just like, you get in front of a mic and you just start singing gibberish. And from that gibberish, you cull together the melody and you might... When I say a nugget, it's like you might just sing one random word and that word in your gibberish, vocal performance, that word kind of makes the whole song come together. And it's interesting, in "4Runner," I think that word is actually, it was something that Brad Oberhofer came up with who I co-wrote the song with. Because I was playing it for him in my car, and I had this melody idea and he thought the word should be "take" for the beginning of the chorus, or for that part of the chorus where it's like take off.

I think I ended up saying, "take off a shift for me," but I definitely had a version of the song where I sing, "take off your shirt for me." But then, I guess, I thought that was too sexy.

I always thought it was... What is it?

Take off a shift for me.

I thought it was take off that shit for me.

Ooh.

And I was like, "Okay."

Wow. I like that way more than my shitty lyrics.

Wow. Okay.

It's funny, because I have my phone right here, I could pop in and look if I have the unused lyrics for "4Runner" still. I'm just going to share it, since you loved "4Runner."

Please.

I want to share it. These are some lyrics, but didn't make it. "We got this 4Runner across I-80," that would be hard to rhyme, "Packed up fully, out of gas, tires slashed."

Ooh.

"Steamed up the front window hot, 4Runner out of state, long, long gone." I think I ended up saying, "4Runner stolen plates," but that was another... And then, here's just a random one that's jotted down, which is, "Pull over if you need to." I don't know how I would have put that in the song.

The song "To Communicate" fascinates me. What do you think was holding you back from communication?

I guess, that's one of my therapy songs, which is like a genre of songs that I've written that are somewhat kind of about therapy, and how it's been enlightening to me. I mean, that song is not like to a therapist, or it's not specifically about therapy. I think it's just more about the insight that the therapy can give you. So on a basic level, it's just about being honest with yourself about your emotions. And, I think it's really about communicating with yourself as much as another person. I don't want to say exactly what was on my mind when I was writing a song, because that can evolve and I like there to be a little bit of mystery. But, it's kind of, what's at the heart of it is this idea that if we're honest with ourselves about our emotions, we become better people.

Do you feel like this record has kind of brought you to that place or...

I think so. I think that kind of a big theme on the record is awareness, and being aware of yourself and being aware of what you feel. And so, that's like part one. And then, part two is then communicating that to people in your life and maybe to the outside world, I haven't even thought of it on those terms. But, I did like the idea that it felt good to me that the chorus of the song was I was not able to communicate before and that had multiple layers to it. It's directed at a specific person, it's directed at myself, it's directed at the world at large.

Yeah.

And, there was a part of me that thought of it like, " Is this like another installment to David Bowie's "Major Tom" ["Space Oddity"]?" Like when he's in space, and he's very literally saying, "I was not able to communicate before," and that's not what I think the song is about, but I love that idea.

Ground control to Silver Lake. I'm obsessed. Going into this record, is there anything else that... Aside from the COVID thing, is there anything that you feel like you have to clear up about the record?

I think part of the reason that I wanted the record to come out at the beginning of the summer was I never had a record that came out at the beginning of the summer, or a record that I was part of that was the top of June. And, there was something appealing about that release timetable. It made me feel like the world might be opening up more. And, I love the idea of people being able to hear my music in a broader context, like with friends in public spaces. And hopefully by the top of June, that's going to happen.

Let the record breathe.

Yeah. It's one thing not to be able to play live, but then the idea that people couldn't even gather to hear the music, that kind of made me sad. So that was part of why I was like... I was happy with the June release date.

Yeah. The Gemini.

Yeah.

Wow.

You're going to die twice. You're going to be released twice.

The FADER Interview would like to thank Lauten Audio for providing our microphones and James Ivy, who wrote and performed our intro music. Our engineer is Tony Giambrone and our Associate Producer is Salvatore Maicki.

Rostam on sax solos, going with change, and his new summer album