Rostam: “In America, it feels like the end of the nightmare is coming”

The former Vampire Weekend man tells us about his new album, writing a song while battling COVID, working with Haim, and going viral with Clairo

It was March 12 when Rostam Batmanglij returned to Los Angeles from a trip to New York, where he’d been playing on the Jimmy Fallon show as part of HAIM‘s backing band. Before getting on the plane, he recalls to NME, he sent a tweet: “have a feeling tomorrow may be the last normal day of the year.”

Seven months later, the producer, songwriter, solo artist and former Vampire Weekend member’s tweet has proven more prophetic than he thought. Speaking to NME from his home studio in LA, Rostam talks us through the intervening months, which saw him finish up work on the new HAIM album, write a song while struck down with COVID-19, and edge towards the completion of his forthcoming second solo album – the follow-up to 2017’s ‘Half-Light‘.

With the album’s first single ‘Unfold You‘ out now, NME hopped on Zoom with Rostam to discuss the forthcoming US election, stepping out of his box on album two, and how TikTok is breathing a new life into one of his songs.

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Hello Rostam – what can you tell us a bit about your new single ‘Unfold You’?

“The song started when I was playing a show in Paris with Nick Hakim, part of the Pitchfork Paris festival in November 2017. I’d never heard Nick’s music before, and I really loved it. That night, I went back to my hotel room and listened to his records, and they were really good. There was one song that, as soon as I heard it, I started singing on top of it. It was an instrumental song called ‘Papas Fritas’, and I think I pretty much wrote most of the vocal melodies for ‘Unfold You’ that night in Paris.”

Have you finished your second solo album?

“It feels close! Right now I’m trying to decide the order. For a long time, I felt like one of the most interesting things I could do, as a person whose medium was the song, was to draw from classical music, because I felt like it was some secret language that you could speak with and it had this intense appeal to me. But I felt like I did that for a decade of my life, and what I really wanted to do now was make music that didn’t reference that. I became interested in making songs that were inspired by jazz as opposed to classical. As a producer, I really wanted to shift away from what I was known for.”

Are there any songs you’re particularly excited about?

“One of the last songs I wrote for the album, I wrote while I had a fever back in March. I didn’t know exactly what the fever was, but I found myself in this songwriting mode, where the song felt like it was writing itself. A few weeks later I went and got tested, and it turned out that I tested positive for the antibodies. There is a song on the record that I can fully say that I wrote all of the lyrics while I had COVID-19. It was March 12 when I was flying back, and I feel like that was the week, in America at least, where everything changed.”

And here we still are in October…

“It feels like the end is near. Especially in America, at least politically, it feels like the end of the nightmare is coming.”

So you’re hopeful about the imminent election?

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“I think that a lot of the things that were happening this spring were important and needed to happen in America, in order for the conversation to change. So much of the conversation about racism was predicated on a definition of racism that wasn’t really accurate. I think people didn’t know what racism is. In England as well, I don’t think people really understand what racism is. In the past year, that’s changing, and it’s amazing that it has been happening, and I think a show like Michaela Coel’s I May Destroy You starts to address that stuff in an amazing way. It’s cool that it’s intersecting with this year where the world seems truly ready to receive a change.”

Rostam
Rostam performing live. Credit: Yuliya Christensen/Redferns

When the pandemic hit in March, how did that impact on work in your home studio?

“There was a period where I was working on the HAIM record [‘Women In Music Pt. III’], the Clairo record, and this new Rostam record at the same time. It was about taking time to finish each record. The Clairo record got finished, and then I remember the day the Clairo record got finished, I was working with HAIM. Then, when the HAIM record was done, I knew the next thing I was going to finish was going to be my own record. That’s what I’ve been in the midst of since March, and since the quarantine. It was kind of good timing for me in that sense…

And have you been working on any other projects during lockdown?

“I started a song with Georgia. We have one song that we’re almost finished with. I feel like, in the span of four minutes, we were able to create something that starts in the disco era, then migrates to the house era, and then finally lands in the EDM era. Maybe in the most tasteful sense of EDM… It’s cool, because it just keeps getting bigger. We’re both pretty excited about that song.”

In the last month or so, the 2019 Clairo song ‘Sofia’ that you produced has gone viral on TikTok and is now all over American radio – how has it been watching that resurgence?

“I heard it on the radio in my car this morning! I think that, if the song becomes a hit – which it looks like it’s going to – I don’t think it will be the only hit from that album [2019’s ‘Immunity‘]. There are more hits coming from that album, and it’s just the beginning. I really did feel when I finished that record that it is one of my favourite records I’ve ever made. I think in some ways it was ahead of its time. So let’s see what happens…”

Rostam’s new single ‘Unfold You’ is out now.

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