East Meets West On Rostam Batmanglij’s Half Light

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Rostam Batmanglij could be a pretty confused guy: He’s a former member of one of the quintessential New York bands, Vampire Weekend, but he lives in Los Angeles. He’s a classically trained musician making music in a rock idiom (more or less). He’s a dude of Persian descent living in a Western nation increasingly intolerant of newcomers. And he’s a gay man in a culture that can be blatantly homophobic. But Batmanglij is about to release a solo album—as Rostam, his solo moniker—that weaves through some of these tensions and tries to make art out of the pressure.

“I don’t identify myself as a rock or electronica musician,” he says. “The song is the temple I worship at.” Over the years, he’s worked with a variety of artists, including the Walkmen’s Hamilton Leithauser, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Santigold. His new LP, Half-Light, ranges almost as widely.

Batmanglij’s original concept was to “make songs surrounded by strings,” he says, but that didn’t happen. “I’ll always start with a bigger concept, musically and lyrically, and then find myself going somewhere else.”

One of the things he’s trying to do is make popular music “without ignoring everything I learned in school.” (He studied composition at Columbia.) He admits he likes learning rules so he can break them.

The resulting album has the kind of samples and references you don’t often hear on indie-rock records: an eighteenth-century Welsh lullaby, a Shaker hymn, and the thirteenth-century English round that drives the album’s opener, “Sumer.” He’s fascinated by the way some scholars place the ancient Celts in Persia, and he loves exploring the East-West connection. “I don’t just feel it,” he says, “I’m trying to find it.”

Rostam, 33, calls his solo debut a complex take on identity. One of the songs is about being in bed with a guy, while other songs have no gay references at all. “And yet as someone who’s out, there is a context to everything I do as an artist. And that context fills the space of the record.”

Vampire Weekend’s Afro-pop fusion was hardly predictable or one-dimensional, but solo Rostam is all over the place: the high-energy chamber music that leads off “Wood,” the percussion the opens “When,” the dreamlike bedroom R&B of “Hold You,” the pleading ballad of the title track, which features Kelly Zutrau of the band Wet. Part of what unites it all is Rostam’s production style: Radiohead meeting Frank Ocean under a sea of vinyl static.

When he thinks of the vocalists he wants to emulate, though, he realizes some opposites may be irreconcilable. “There isn’t that much middle ground between Lou Reed and Chris Martin,” he says. “If those are two of your favorite singers, you’re kind of fucked.”

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