Rostam Batmanglij: Interview with a Vampire
By Elizabeth Goodman
In the spring of 2006, Columbia University senior Rostam Batmanglij was entertaining literary society parties with his fledgling postmodern Afro-pop band, Vampire Weekend, and wondering if he could pull off life as a professional musician. By the spring of 2008, he was playing the band's runaway hit single, 'A-Punk,' on Saturday Night Live. Vampire Weekend's self-titled debut had been out only a few months, but fans and critics had been clamoring over it for most of the year. After months of feverish blog hype and the release of an EP that only stoked the fires, the band landed on the March 2008 cover of Spin, which annointed them the year 's Best New Band before their album had even come out -- a first in the magazine's history. Looking back, it still seems insane that a bunch of cerebral schoolboys in pastel cardigans could go from cramming at the library to performing on SNL in the span of a couple of semesters. But according to Batmanglij -- the band's producer, co-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist, and sole gay member -- Vampire Weekend was meant to be huge. 'We all had a strong feeling about the band from the early days,' he says. 'We had this opportunity to be really out there and avant-garde, but also commercially successful.'
Born in Washington, D.C. in 1983, Batmanglij is the youngest son of Iranian immigrants. His mother is the noted Persian cookbook author Najmieh Batmanglij, his father is a publisher, and his older brother works in film. Art was a big part of life in the Batmanglij household. 'We used to have a family portrait contest,' the singer recalls. 'We would each draw all four members and then we all had to judge.' As a kid, Batmanglij nurtured twin creative passions, sketching and dreaming up paintings, but also dissecting and reassembling pieces of music. He mastered recorder, flute, then guitar, and by the time he was a teenager he was arranging intricate compositions with Pro Tools.
Once at Columbia, it seemed obvious that he should major in music, so Batmanglij did. But something about the whole young-composer-with-quill-in-hand vibe didn't suit him. 'I don't associate the term composer with exciting music today,' he says dryly. 'As a songwriter and producer in our band, I get to be the composer I always envisaged for myself. I get to sample M.I.A. There probably are a bunch of contemporary composers who wish they could do that but don't have the balls.'
Most people would say four dudes who write songs about grammatical rules and imperialism couldn't revolutionize rock 'n' roll, but that's where balls come in handy. The members of Vampire Weekend -- Batmanglij, lead singer and guitarist Ezra Koenig, drummer Chris Tomson, and bass guitarist Chris Baio -- approached their songcraft like a research paper, diligently compiling the necessary elements piece by piece. They recorded wherever they could (a friend's dorm room, some Columbia kids' basement studio, Tomson's family barn), and when they had a few tracks completed, Batmanglij burned them onto CDs, which the band put directly into the hands of influential bloggers. They didn't bother mailing them to record labels -- the online buzz just grew loud enough that the labels came to them.
Their debut is a maddeningly listenable collection of tribal beats, smarty-pants wordplay, and lyrics obsessed with Cape Cod summers and unrequited crushes on blue-blooded girls. To those who love it, the record merges playful pop intellectualism with a deep knowledge of multiple musical genres. To those who hate it, it comes off like lower-budget Paul Simon, the work of smug dilettante brats co-opting musical references they can't possibly understand.
Given the vicious backlash they've endured, it'd be understandable if on their sophomore LP, Contra, Vampire Weekend toned down the privileged preppy shtick a little and aimed for the sonic equivalent of khakis instead of hot pink Bermuda shorts. Instead, its opener, 'Horchata,' is as cheeky and whimsical as anything on the band's debut, and 'White Sky' and 'Taxi Cab' reinforce the Holden Caulfield'like view of New York City that listeners already associate with the band. Due in large part to Batmanglij's genre-bending production, Contra displays marvelous diversity. 'We wanted something very different from the first record,' Batmanglij explains. 'You hear '80s harmonies on Contra, and for me that was the challenge: to make it not just sound like the '80s but feel like the '80s too. Because of the way it's presented, with the sampler and choir, the song 'I Think Ur a Contra' sounds new but also nostalgic.'
That balance between novelty and emotion is Batmanglij's sweet spot. It's what has inspired him since he was a kid, and it's what has motivated him to start introducing a specifically homosexual perspective into some of his songs. The producer describes the new track 'Diplomat's Son' as 'a six-minute dancehall song about a gay relationship' and says that he likes the idea of just sitting back and seeing how listeners interpret it.
Batmanglij will have plenty of chances to write gay love songs. With Contra, Vampire Weekend have confirmed their staying power, and Batmanglij also plans to release another album for Discovery, his electro-soul side project with Ra Ra Riot singer Wes Miles. In fact, he's already written what he considers a gay pop song. 'I Wanna Be Your Boyfriend,' from their 2009 debut album, LP, is a jittery should be'hit featuring Dirty Projectors' Angel Deradoorian on vocals. For Batmanglij, though, it's just the beginning. 'With that song I was having fun, but at the same time it was honest -- those lyrics are meaningful to me, they come from my heart,' he says. 'I was disappointed when it didn't become a gay anthem, but, you know, it's not too late.'