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Rostam and the Art of Evolution

The producer and multi-instrumentalist drops by ‘The Ringer Music Show’ to discuss his new album, ‘Changephobia,’ and why the upcoming generation holds so much power

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Rostam Batmanglij has never been one for inertia. The 37-year-old musician first rose to fame as a multi-instrumentalist and producer for indie darlings Vampire Weekend. But in the past half-decade, Rostam’s branched out: He left Vampire Weekend in 2016 on amicable terms—he contributed to the band’s most recent album in 2019—and he’s worked as a producer on acclaimed albums from Haim and Clairo. He’s also pursued a solo career. On Friday, he released his second album under the name Rostam, Changephobia, a strikingly beautiful LP headlined by tracks like “4Runner” and “From the Back of a Cab.”

Rostam dropped by The Ringer Music Show this week to discuss the new album, what change represents to him at this stage of his career, and why the upcoming generation holds so much power. Below is an excerpt from the conversation. To listen to the full episode, click here.

When you are a producer, the goal is to bring the best performance out of the song. When crafting this album, how did you bring the best out of yourself?

I think the defining component is when I write lyrics for my own projects, the narratives come from my experiences. I can’t write characters. I haven’t done that yet. Maybe I will on the next record, I don’t know. But for me, it is my personal experiences that I write about when I’m writing songs for the Rostam project.

Changephobia feels so timely given the circumstances of the world and of the culture. Do you feel like your identity has changed through the pandemic and in making this?

The concept of change and the fear of change and wanting to make an album that met that head-on was something that was two and a half years in the making, before the pandemic hit. So I feel like throughout the pandemic, I have experienced changes, but I also feel like my album was sort of already about change. There’s a danger in calling this a quarantine album because I wrote 80 or 90 percent of it before the quarantine. The quarantine did help me finish it. But there is something very limiting about it being a “quarantine album.” And I do think that sacrifices the longevity of the work. It would have been cool to make a quarantine album, but I was too deep in this one at the time.

I think we’re constantly changing and going to be adapting. If you’re comfortable, could you discuss the gender aspect of this, because I think that plays such a big part of this album. And I noticed that there was a deliberate choice to not use pronouns, which is super powerful.

Certain experiences that I had led me to change my personal view toward gender, whereas I’d felt throughout growing up that I was sort of asked to have a standard feeling about gender that conformed. I had a realization that actually, deep in my heart, I don’t believe in that binary. And I didn’t want to enforce that binary on the lyrics in this album. There may be times when I do in the future, but on this album, I didn’t feel like it was honest to myself and to my experiences.

As a musician, I’ve been told by my labels to not talk about this stuff. Don’t share it. “Let’s keep you as clean and polished as possible.” And I know you try to stay positive. It seems younger artists are able to express their feelings on gender and sexuality more than the artists who came before them. How do you feel about that shift?

I think it’s a product of the generation before sort of having to overcome a certain level of homophobia. That was somewhat our generation, where we were fighting for gay rights. And as we were doing that, we were probably alienating people simultaneously. And maybe that’s more the generation above me than my own generation, but I definitely had a moment of awareness where I kind of felt like even the word gay seemed sort of limiting in a way. And it seemed exclusive as opposed to inclusive. And I do prefer the word queer. I will sometimes identify as gay and I will use the word gay at times, but I do prefer the word queer. I don’t feel jealousy at all. I just feel happy that there’s a generation of kids who have a completely different experience towards gender and sexuality. And honestly, I think HIV is a huge reason why those of us that grew up in the ’90s were not afforded that freedom.

And if you look at where culture was in the late ’70s, people talk about Elton John and David Bowie queering the mainstream, and then when the ’80s hit and HIV hit, there was no longer any space for that. All of a sudden, you were punched 20 years into the past. So I think what we’re seeing now is just a really beautiful and positive thing. And I’m excited to see more artists keep making music that is an expression of what they feel. And I think younger artists are doing that in a really cool way.

I think there’s so much power in the younger generation. Gen-Z is so self-assured. And I think that they are undervalued in terms of how much they shift the culture and shape the culture. You tend to work with a lot of younger artists, artists who don’t identify as being straight, artists that don’t subject themselves to a certain gender or binary. What’s your relationship with this new generation and what draws you into working with somebody like a Remi Wolf or a Clairo?

I find that I usually have organic meetings, whether they’re online or in real life, with people, and those tend to lead to working together. It’s not through management, it’s not through labels or A&R people, it’s really just personal connections. I don’t have an agenda other than I feel like my agenda is somewhat to amplify voices that I identify with and amplify the voices that I personally connect with. That’s one of my roles as a producer, and that’s where I want to give my creative manner.

To hear more of The Ringer Music Show’s interview with Rostam, click here, and be sure to check back every Tuesday for new episodes, available exclusively on Spotify.