Rostam Batmanglij of Vampire Weekend: The wisdom teeth are out
Rostam Batmanglij has lived under the Manhattan Bridge Overpass for three years. The noise of passing trains infrequently interrupts conversation while sitting in his kitchen, but his bedroom/makeshift recording studio in the next room is far enough away that those noises don’t make their way onto Vampire Weekend albums.
The multi-instrumentalist says the late-night recording and writing sessions he has spent here with songwriting cohort Ezra Koenig have been very productive, but for their third album, “Modern Vampires of the City,” the band did a few things they don’t usually do, namely bringing in an outside producer in Ariel Rechtshaid, and even getting out of New York City for a little while.
We spoke with Batmanglij on the eve of the band doing just that again, as they embark upon a tour that will take them through the end of November. (The tour kicks off at the Mann Center for Performing Arts in Philly on Sept. 19 and comes to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn on Sept. 20.)
Where do you see yourself in the band?
In terms of do I want to make music that makes other people happy?
Or not necessarily make other people happy, but how do you want to affect other people?
It’s hard for me to separate how I feel about music from how I imagine others do. But I definitely feel like there’s certain music that I’d listen to that I’ve tried to play for other people and they say, “what is this pop garbage?” But to me, there’s things about it that are fascinating from a level of songwriting and construction. I understand why people are turned off by certain elements. I guess I hear it a little bit differently. I can hear something in it maybe that appeals to me while recognizing that other people might find it uncool.
Give me an example of one of the songs on the new album; is there a keyboard part that you’re thinking of or anything in particular?
One example is the chord progression of the chorus of “Don’t Lie.” That’s something I actually wrote on guitar. In some ways, I feel if I just strummed it for you on the guitar right now, you’d say that sounds like a country song. But setting it in the context of the drums that we have on there and the harpsichord and the strings and the way things sound, I think it’s pretty far removed from a country song.
But I guess for me, flirting with some elements that are really mainstream has an appeal. If you can ride this line, you can make it as weird as you want it to be, but also, you can be inside of this world of a classic song that anyone can hear and anyone can be moved by. I think there is a line you can straddle where you can be complex and you can have interlocking parts and you can reference classical music that you love, but also you can just write a pop song. That’s something that me and Ezra have always seen eye to eye on. Whatever music we make, we want it to be able to connect with anybody.
You say that chord progression sounded country; how do you go about taking it away from that and making it sound the way it sounded?
One way is in the way that it’s mixed. Push the guitar back. The guitar doesn’t have to be loud and bright, it can sound a little bit f—ed up and have attitude, and it can be hanging out in the back of the mix. The way the drums sound, the way the vocals sound, all those things can start to put you in a different world. I think in some ways, that song was referencing A Tribe Called Quest. It started with me taking some drums and really chopping them up. … I’m interested in music that appeals to the pleasure centers of the brain.
That makes sense. What made you want to have a co-producer? I feel like people usually go the other way; they are hands-off then they get more hands-on. But for the third album for you to sit back and say that you want to collaborate more with somebody…
It wasn’t so much relinquishing; it was more sharing the role of producer. It made sense on this record, just kind of how the songs came about and how we went about writing them. There were a lot of things sketched in from the very start. The production began at the songwriting phase, and then it was nice to have someone else who could really focus on production and who had a fresh take on things. We spent about a year working on the songs for the record.
Independent of production? Just working on the songs?
That’s just the way that we work … things that we recorded here made it on the final record.
Really? Like what?
Like the piano of “Ya Hey” on my piano that’s here. Me and Ezra got together a few times a week for about a year and were working on songs, improving them, writing new ones, and forcing ourselves to come up with something. Sometimes we didn’t come up with anything and sometimes we came up with really amazing stuff. … To get out of New York was kind of important too. It was nice to get away.
That’s interesting, because one of the things Ezra and I were talking about was how New York this record is, but I guess maybe you needed to get out to look back at it?
Most of the record was written by the time we left. It got to the point where it was time to finish these recordings and it was “let’s go to L.A. and we can record real drums at an old studio there. We can just focus on recordings and we can have Ariel listen to stuff and he’ll say, ‘OK, this song is almost totally done, but how about changing this one thing?” Or saying, “What do you guys think? Do you like how it is?” And sometimes we’d be like, “Yeah, but do you have any ideas?” Other times we just wanted to try some things we hadn’t done. Like “Obvious Bicycle,” that was one of the first songs we put together. It started with a piece of piano and drum music that I sent to Ezra, and he started writing on top of it. That one, kind of everything but the piano chords, changed.
Describe the recording process here. Are you working all hours of the night, or are you waiting for the train to not go by to do it? Actually, it looks like you’ve got some pretty good isolation over there. What train is that by the way that keeps passing?
I actually don’t know what train that is. I like not taking the train as much as possible, and doing transportation other ways in New York, like riding a bike or walking.
Describe the writing and recording process before Ariel entered the picture.
We started getting together here in May of 2011. We worked pretty steadily and decided to try to shake things up and go to Martha’s Vineyard to do a writing session in April of 2012. Actually, that was kind of the end. The three songs we started in Martha’s Vineyard were the last three.
Where did you guys stay?
We stayed with a friend who was living out there in the off-season.… An old friend was basically staying at this house that was in his family for a while. He’s sort of the only one there. It’s in Chilmark.
They invented sign language there!
Yeah, it was because of inbreeding. There were so few people there that there was inbreeding and people were born with birth defects. They had to make up a way of communicating because so many were born deaf. They called these people the Chillmark Deaf, and it was a thing. Anyway, please continue…
There were two kind of small cottages that were next to each other. One of them was converted into a writing studio. I had a bunch of instruments out, I had a microphone out. There was one song that Ezra had the chords for that was called “Hudson.” He was like, “It only sounds good when I sing in French!” I was like, “just pretend you’re singing it French but sing it in English!” Then we recorded some scratch vocals which were sort of gibberish, but that became the start of the song. “Everlasting Arms” and “Don’t Lie” were the other two, and those started with music that I made. The way we did those is Ezra went walking around, writing some thoughts in the wooded areas of Martha’s Vineyard. I was in the studio trying to build up the instrumental music of a song as fast as I could and not think twice and trust my gut. I’d hit “record” and be like, “Is this a chorus? Is this a verse? Let’s see what happens.” And then Ezra got in front of the microphone and it was amazing how quickly melodies, and in some cases lyrics, were written.
And you did some lyrics on that one too, right?
On “Don’t Lie”? Just the word “don’t”. I get additional lyrics credit. On this record, Ezra wrote pretty much all of the lyrics, except for “Young Lion.” … and the “don’t” in “Don’t Lie.” On the last record there were songs that we collaborated more extensively.
How does the interplay between you two work? I spoke with Ezra about how there are themes on this record and how they’re more — and I hesitate to use this word, just as I hesitated to use it with him — mature. But they are more mature. There’s no songs about walking across campus on this album, there’s no songs about an Oxford comma on this album. Did he come to you with lyrics and say, “Hey, this is what I’m working on,” and did that inform the music at all? Or was it mostly just lyrics at the end?
We wrote songs in so many different ways on this album. The song “Step,” Ezra wrote that in his head. When we were working on it, I was like, “what chords were you listening to, did you make any kind of track, were you playing the piano or anything?” He was like, “No, I heard it in my head.” He had kind of envisioned the lyrics and melodies independent of any music. We sat down in front of a computer and started putting stuff in. “What about this melody on the piano?”; “What about this melody on the harpsichord?”; “What about this kind of drumbeat?” We both had ideas.
In the liner notes, you mention that song borrows from a song by YZ. Where in that song’s evolution did you realize it sounded like another song?
We recognized from the get-go that there’s this whole genre of songs that are connected. There’s a lot of them in the world. Basically they’re connecting with a tradition. We were very aware of the fact that we were connecting with that tradition from the get-go. And we were OK with that. We wanted to make something that was distinct, and that flirted with “Pachelbel’s Canon,” or flirted with “Our House,” but never crossed the line.
There’s a little bit of flirting with, or even hitting on (to extend your analogy a little further) “All the Young Dudes.”
That’s part of that family of songs, with descending motion, that’s connected and harmonized in different ways. We knew that, and it was kind of a matter of trying different things. At one point, I was like, “What if all of the organ chords were minor chords, but they fit into this descending scheme?” What you hear in some ways sounds happy and familiar, but on another level it’s sad and brooding. I remember at one point in that song getting a very distinct feeling of a place in Manhattan called Riverside Park. … In the middle of working on the song, it was like I was standing there. I felt like we were onto something good because I had such a distinct feeling.
As a career as a musician, you get to rebuild and revisit those things. Does that carry over to when you’re playing that song live?
(laughs) I don’t know. I try to think about nothing when I’m performing live. I feel like that’s the state you most want to be in.
Why? Tell me more.
That’s when you’re in the moment, and you’re free. You don’t want to be thinking about what you’re going to be doing after the show, or what you’re worried about in your life. You want to let go of those things.
With playing bigger venues now, is that harder? … Are you looking at people at all, or thinking that? The Lollapalooza gig in particular, was that the biggest crowd you’ve ever played to?
Might have been.
Does that awareness creep in? And does that awareness creep in when you’re making the music also, of the fact that more people are going to buy this than bought the last one, because the people who bought the last one told their friends that you were a band that was worth buying the albums of. It’s interesting, I forget who said it, but you can’t control who likes your music, and as you get more popular, people are going to misinterpret your songs and that sort of thing.
I’ve read that’s what Kurt Cobain said.
Right, and I think Roger Waters said something about how you can’t control what the person way way in back is thinking while watching you, or if they’re even hearing the music, or if they’re there for the music. Could you speak to the expanding audience and that awareness?
I wonder if our audience has expanded, I guess it kind of has. I don’t know though.
I guess it’s tough because even though you guys have had two No. 1 albums, in this day and age a No. 1 album doesn’t mean what it meant 10 years ago.
I think we have carved out a little space that’s our own. I think we’re pretty happy about that. I think it’s a pretty good place to be. Who knows what will happen in the future, but I like that we’ve never felt like we weren’t being ourselves.
If we could backtrack a little bit, you were talking about feeling present in a park while coming up with that part of the song “Step.” Geography has always seemed very important to Vampire Weekend songs, whether it be lyrical references or musical homages. I remember we spoke for the first album when you guys were on the second leg of the tour. We talked about Cape Cod and you had never even been there at that point. But now for this album you went to an island off the coast of the Cape. How important is geography to you with music?
I think it’s definitely something that’s connected. When I hear music, I am sort of always connecting it with a place. When I hear a song, if the song’s any good, it takes you somewhere.
Are you happy with people saying, “That’s their New York album” about this album? Do you think that’s true?
I think they’re all New York albums in a way.
Where’d the title come from?
The title came from Ezra. It’s from the song “One Blood” by Junior Reid. It’s a reggae song.
There’s lots of little reggae homages going on in this record. You guys sample a Ras Michaels song too.
He’s not entirely reggae, he’s nyabinghi, but yeah.
Then there’s all the Zion and Babylon lyrical references going on.
The most reggae thing is when you have the chords on the off beat. And we actually have that on every album but not on this one. It was kind of this goal, “How can we make this music feel like reggae and how can we reference Jamaican history and culture without entering the world of the most obvious reggae group?”
But then there’s that organ on “Unbelievers.” You can picture that on “The Harder They Come” soundtrack.
That’s awesome that you say that. That wasn’t the idea behind it. The idea was Bob Dylan, like the Hammond organs you hear on “Like a Rolling Stone,” but I’m glad that you hear that.
So were you guys listening to a lot of reggae when you were doing this album?
I think we’re always listening to a fair amount of reggae. We grew up listening to it.
There’s less of the references to the initial albums. I think they were characterized by some Afrobeat influences, and I don’t hear much of that on this one. Or is it just that it’s such a part of your signature that I’m not hearing it anymore?
I think that there’s certain songs that sound more African than anything we’ve ever done, like the song “Everlasting Arms.” … And then when I was coming up with the drumbeat for “Finger Back” I was thinking about wanting a moment to sound African, and a moment to sound like a punk drumbeat, and to kind of be switching between those things. I think when we think about African music, it’s kind of connected. We’ve always thought about how it’s been connected to all kinds of music, like Western classical music, or pop music. We never thought of it as some kind of island. I think it informs a lot of decisions that we make at the root level. So even if you don’t hear it, we feel like it’s there.
It’s part of your identity, and it’s part of what the world first heard when they heard you.
This is a weird example, but it’s kind of like how No Doubt started as a ska band, and they’ll always be thought of as coming from that in anything they do.
Who is YZ? I don’t know about that reference, but I saw it in the liner notes. I know I should have probably just looked at that online and pretended I knew that, but I didn’t think of it until now.
He had a song where he said, “Every time I see you in the world you always step to my girl.” That song was sampled by Souls of Mischief. When I said that Ezra wrote the vocal melody and lyrics for “Step” in his head, maybe Ezra was kind of inspired by some things, one of them being this song “Step to My Girl” by Souls of Mischief, which you should check out. … They were a West Coast rap group. I think they made that song when they were 15. It’s kind of like a lost song. So that song samples YZ.
With the collaborative process of producing, do you think that’s how you envision the future of Vampire Weekend?
Yeah, I can imagine that going any number of different ways. Ariel’s one of my closest friends, so I think we will work together on more things in the future for sure.
One thing I did read on the Internet is that you’ve been working with Hamilton Leithauser from The Walkmen! I didn’t even know he was doing a solo album!
It’s been awesome. I’ve got to say, I’m really excited about the two songs that we did together. I think they’re amazing.
I’m a huge Walkmen fan.
Me too. … I heard that he was working on stuff on his own, and also with Paul from The Walkmen. I was on a train down to D.C. and I ran into a friend. He mentioned he was working on stuff, and I just reached out to him. I was like, “We should hang out.” We got together here and just started working on stuff. We wrote these two songs pretty quickly, they came out real fast. … Working on songwriting so much with Ezra in this apartment got me to able to do things really fast. like sketch in the chords, sketch in the drums, set up the vocal mic. I try and do things so quickly that there’s never any time to look back. Look back when you have a finished song; when you have a verse and chorus, that’s the time you should look back.
That was how we did “Unbelievers” here; working on building up the track, laying down the piano parts and the guitar parts and the organ parts. At the same time, Ezra’s sitting with a laptop in front of him and he was just writing lyrics and melodies. And it was just coming out so quickly, I was really amazed when he just threw down the vocal and it was so catchy and the lyrics were so good. I’m so happy that we could write a song in five hours. It was a similar thing with Hamilton, writing songs really quickly, and throwing in ideas really quickly and not really looking back. He’s taught me a lot about singing, because his voice is so crazy.
They are just one of those bands that I scratch my head and say, “Why aren’t they huge?” I guess what they do is so unique that it’s hard for the mainstream to totally embrace them.
The Walkmen should be bigger; they are a great band. But I think there’s a lot of people that feel the way we do.
I spoke to Ezra a bit about style. I don’t know if you have any strong opinions on style and how important that is to the band. It almost feels like now, at this stage, it’s not necessary to pay attention to it. With the first album, when you come out of obscurity, and you’re wearing preppy clothes that’s a talking point, but two albums later, it’s not necessarily a talking point. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t get your take on it.
It’s always been really important to me that our music connects with a visual aesthetic that’s our own. Even from the early days when I used to make a sort of makeshift poster for every show we did, I started to kind of discover what I wanted to see, which was a white border.
How pissed were you when Instagram came along and that white border was accessible to the masses?
Not pissed at all! I loved Instagram! I remember the first time I ever used it, I was going crazy, like five posts in an hour. I’m a fan of it. There used to be a link on vampireweekend.com/pastshows.html, where you can see these old show posters. [Ed. note: the link is no longer there] And it’s not every show we ever did, but just forming an aesthetic that is our own and has a few rules. That’s always been really important to me. And I think it’s been really important that when you see us on stage as a band, that we be somewhat unified. That was important since the very first show.
Another thing I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about, although it’s sort of old news, but it happened since the last time you and I spoke: Talk about publicly coming out, if you could…
I came out in January of 2010. … It was right when “Contra” was coming out. The first piece that I came out in was a Rolling Stone profile, and it was actually the first time that anyone had really wanted to write an article about our lives in depth. But also when we were working on the song “Diplomat’s Son” from “Contra,” that was a song where Ezra and I really collaborated pretty extensively on the lyrics. It had started from this short story that was about a paragraph long that he sent me, and I kind of started to imagine it as a love story between two guys. When we were working on that song and writing lyrics together, at some point I realized that I was definitely going to come out. It was important to me that coming out be connected to something real, like a song that has a gay story in it. In that way, it felt very natural and organic.
It’s interesting how far society has come in the past decade or so. Like think about when George Michael came out and it was a huge scandal almost. But now it just causes a very minor media ripple.
I think that if you’re going to go out of your way to dislike Vampire Weekend, then one of the members being gay is probably at the bottom of the list — if you’re going to make a list. I feel like there’s so many other things you would try to find to hate us for. Society has come far. I definitely felt like reading an interview with Ed from Grizzly Bear before I came out made me feel very comfortable.
Here’s my ignorance: I didn’t know he was gay. People make such a little deal out of it.
Ed subsequently became a close friend. He knew I was gay before I came out, and he was someone I could sort of text and be like, “I’m coming out!” On a bunch of levels, it felt good to not be alone in it, even though I’m the only gay member of the band.
I would like to touch briefly on the other members of the band. When you and Ezra are writing and recording, do you two ever think of yourselves as the Jagger/Richards type of thing? I only reference the Glimmer Twins because you have that copy of “Sticky Fingers” on the mantle.
We always share things, and our ears are always open to suggestion. On this album, we worked on a bunch of songs as a band. There’s a lot of things that are weird about this record, or unique, or that surprise me. When I took a step back from the final product, I think it’s because we said, “We gotta trust our feelings. What are the best songs that we have?” We’ve never written this many songs on an album.
How many are there?
Depending on how you count, maybe about 50 ideas. Maybe 60.
So 20 years from now there will be the boxed set?
Well the songs, they’re not bad, they just don’t have that spark or that magic that the others do. On this album, we don’t have any Ezra guitar riff songs. Every album prior to this has had those Ezra guitar riffs. It surprised me when I realized I played all the guitar on the album. Basically, it was just about following our gut instincts. “Is this a great song? Or is this a great song?” Should we put a song on an album just because it has a guitar riff? And the answer was absolutely not. We couldn’t not trust those instincts.
We had to trust the instinct of being really hard on ourselves and a little bit brutal. We don’t rule anything out. The way this album came together really surprised me, but I think the next one will probably surprise me too. I can imagine us working as four in a room again and having amazing results.
Ezra and I spoke a little bit about this album being the last in a trilogy. Do you feel like after this one you’re going anywhere?
Yeah, I do feel that. It feels pretty exciting.