Rostam talks sequencing and saxophone, plays tracks from 'Changephobia'

Rostam plays tracks from his latest album 'Changephobia' (MPR)

From his studio in California, Rostam joins The Current to play songs from his sophomore record, Changephobia. We catch up with the prolific producer, songwriter, and composer about the sequencing decisions he made on the record, incorporating the saxophone as a central sound, and referencing grunge in his work for the first time.

Interview Transcription

Edited for clarity and length.

MADDIE: Hi, I'm Maddie sitting down with another of The Current virtual sessions. Today, I'm pleased to be joined by Rostam. You just heard his song "In A River," and "These Kids We Knew". Rostam, thank you so much for being here.

ROSTAM BATMANGLIJ: Oh, it's so nice to be here.

Where are you at right now?

I'm in my studio in California.

Sweet. Is that where you have spent the bulk of the past year?

Yes, it's a good question. Mostly I have been, I've been making a lot of music. When the pandemic hit I was almost coming to the end of writing this new album Changephobia, and I needed alone time in order to finish it--in order to go down every road that the sort of like, however many hours it takes to just feel like you really finished recording a song and it's as good as it could be. I needed that time, so I have spent a lot of time in the studio finishing songs.

As a career musician who has been busy for so many years, constantly on the road, do you feel like your perspective on making this record was influenced by this kind of opportunity to have that stillness and alone time?

There's, you know, it's interesting, the song "These Kids We Knew" was pretty much the only song that I wrote during the pandemic, and it came out and he very quickly, and it came out of me, while I had a fever, and later, I would discover discover that that fever was from COVID-19. But most of these songs I probably spent like two and a half or three years writing the lyrics over time, and really taking my time to write the lyrics.

Is that similar to the songwriting process that you had for Half-Light back in 2017? Or is that a different approach for you?

Well, for the for the record, Half-Light, I spent eight years kind of picking up and putting down those songs, and some of the songs evolved, others not much. So this album was much more condensed. My lyric writing process was was influenced by working with Hamilton Leithauser because the way that he writes lyrics is so much about revision over time, and he taught me how to use the Notes app that's in the iPhone and on the iPad, and in Mac OS and just lets you be able to revise lyrics, whether you're sitting at your computer or on your phone or in any place. I learned from him that there's something nice about taking small minutes like right before bed, or right when you wake up and and revising your lyrics.

Do your songs start with lyrics for you? Or is that something that kind of comes after you have the music already in your head?

Oftentimes, it is the music that starts. But once that happens, I'll start to create a notes file where I'll throw things at the wall and see what sticks. I'll throw a line down that doesn't have a melody written yet. But just a line that I feel is a lyric that belongs in a song. I'll sometimes try to figure out how to make that lyric work in the context of a song. Other times I'll write melodies, and the melodies will then need lyrics to become a song. But yes, it usually is the music that starts things, but I also do like being able to write lyrics, without them having to necessarily conform to a melody. So in that way, it's like lyric writing for the sake of lyric writing. Saying things because you want them to be said, in a song.

Yeah, it sounds like those elements can converge--morphing into their own things in different ways there. That's interesting. The sonic world that we have entered with these singles that have been released so far off of Changephobia, is different than what we heard on Half-Light. Half-Light had a lot of chambery strings and that was working within that sound base. Where did you think about coming from for this--the way that Changephobia sounds?

Well, I wanted to take a step away from harpsichords and cellos and violins and string arrangements. In some ways the album Half-Light was a project where I wanted to blur the line between what was a string arrangement and what was songwriting. Oftentimes the songs started with a string arrangement, and then became a song over time. On this record, I said "No strings." I wanted to use the saxophone as one of the central sounds of the record. I wanted the sax to fill the album with a mood and an atmosphere that was just so fresh to me. I felt like there wasn't enough sax that reference mid-century jazz in songs. I was trying to push myself to write songs that referenced a certain era of of saxophone music.

That's super interesting. Do you play saxophone? Or do you have anyone that you've been working with on the album who has been playing the bulk of it?

Yes. So there's one person we met in March of 2018. His name is Henry Solomon and he played on about half the songs on the record. The first day that I met him, I had all these parts written, and I had ideas and I also asked him to improvise. Then over the three years that I was finishing the record, he would come in at different times, and play things at different stages. Simultaneously, I brought him in to play on the Haim album, Women in Music Pt. III, so he played the saxophone on that album as well. He's definitely been an important part of the sound of a lot of the music that I've made in the last few years.

When you're working on a solo record, like Changephobia, do you have a lot of collaborators that you work with like Henry? Or is it something that you mostly kind of are doing on your own?

On this record it really was a lot about having Henry do the things that I could not do on my own. In some ways that was to play the sax, but also to reference areas of jazz that he's much more fluent in than I am, I could say, I love a certain era of jazz. But Henry understands that music differently, whereas with classical music, I can say I love a certain era of classical music. But I can also tell you that I know exactly what's going on mechanically. I know how to write music like that, and I don't really know how to write Bebop melodies, and I didn't really want to try because I think there's a component of them that's so tied to improvisation. So a lot of the sax parts that Henry played were improvised. Some of them were things that I wrote out but a lot of them just came off the top of his head and I would record like 30 or 40 takes, and then I would edit a performance out of his improvisations. But yeah, I didn't have very many collaborators on this album.

Do you think that writing in this sort of jazz Bebop world was a challenge for you? Or was it kind of refreshing to get away from like yo were saying, classical, that you have such a sort of deep, intense knowledge of?

I think the answer is both. It was challenging, and I wanted to challenge myself. And I kind of wanted to redefine myself a little bit. I wanted to change how people saw me as a producer and a composer. I think the way to do that was to do things that I hadn't done before.

I have been really intrigued by the sort of release format that you've been approaching Changephobia with because now at the time that we're having this conversation there's six of the eleven songs out--the first five on the album. What was your thought process behind releasing those songs in that manner?

I think for me, what it was sort of about was wanting every song to have a little bit of life in the universe. In this day and age when the album comes out there's this gravity that happens where everything seems to be in outer space all of a sudden and anything's possible. Then the album comes out and it's almost like, within a couple days it can feel like it didn't come out at all and it's gone. There is something nice about building up some anticipation, and traditionally people did release songs before, leading up to an album. Then they were able to focus on songs after the album came out. But nowadays it's pretty hard to get people to focus or be excited about songs after an album is out. So you do have to sort of change the order a little bit. But that said, I could also one day imagine putting out an album, every song on the same day. There's something cool about putting out an album and its entire release is an event. So you might see that for me, and I also like the idea of putting out some songs in a surprising way in the future. So I would expect that.

Expect to be surprised, okay, I'm making a mental note of it and looking forward to it. Yeah, I've been listening to you, as a listener--the songs that you released are sequential. I feel like I've almost kind of gotten to experience this first half of an album in the way it's meant to be heard. Is album sequencing something you think a lot about in your records?

I did on this album. It was important to me to try to play this album for friends in sequence. So I would make an mp3 of the entire album, you know, a single 38 minute mp3 and I would just sit down and press play with friends. I would say, "We can talk a little bit or we don't have to talk much, but it's just gonna play." And I think that was good for me and I think it was good for the process. But yes, sequencing was important.

What kinds of things were you like noticing and working on in revising in those like early listenings with sequencing?

That's a good question, I would say my original thought was to have "From The Back Of A Cab" be track 1, and that was true for years and years. And then my mastering engineer Emily Lazar, who I've made like nine albums with--this is the ninth album--she really pushed me to consider putting "These Kids" first and making "From The Back Of A Cab" second, and I tried it and I liked what it did. I liked how it sort of created almost like an introduction. I knew that "From The Back Of A Cab" was an emotional song, and some people have told some people told me that the song made them feel like they were about to cry, even on first listen. So I think there was something good about, about getting there by track 2 and not starting the album in such an extremely emotional place.

Yeah, kind of gives you a second to get into that world before you're kind of hit with that emotional track. Is there anything that we should be looking forward to on the second half of the album that hasn't been introduced yet as an idea or a sound the first half? Or is it kind of consistent with what we've heard so far?

Well, yeah, one of the songs that was one of the most controversial and in choosing to have it be on the album was "Kinney," which we performed live for this session. And that song, it has a drum and bass feel. I think the first half sort of sounds like Radiohead, and the second half kind of sounds like Nirvana or the Pixies. And I grew up with grunge music, but I have not really referenced grunge music in the music that I've made in my life and this was the first time where--it is my own kind of mathy Middle Eastern version of grunge, so it's it's its own flavor. I wouldn't say that it's strictly grunge. But I was worried that some people might hear something that's so heavy sounding and feel like it wasn't for them. I always joked I'm going to lose the grandparents with this one.

Yeah, what what helped in making your final decision to include that song on the album?

I think I sent it to a couple people I trusted and at least one person was like, "I think this might be my favorite on the album." I was like, okay, it's gonna be some people's favorite. It might be one that turns off some people, but it's going to be some people's favorite and I think it's okay to have songs that are controversial on an album. So I went ahead with it.

That's an exciting thing to look forward to for the album, which is coming out on June 4, I just wanted to ask quick about how does it feel to write an album for yourself? I know you talked about spending years with these lyrics in comparison to all the records that you've produced in the past few years? I know you mentioned the Haim album and worked with Clairo and Charlie XCX and lots of other favorites. How does the songwriting process feel different when you're working on your own?

People have asked me about characters, and I can't really do that for my own project. Maybe that would change in the future. But when I write songs for the Rostam album, I'm really writing from my own experiences. All the lyrics are inspired by things that did happen to me, or me remembering things that happened to me. So it is very personal. But when I write songs with other people, it's also personal and so much of that work is one on one. It doesn't feel totally removed, but I would just describe it as personal in a different way.

Do you think that getting to work with people and experiencing like their own version of their "personal" changes the way that you look at your own?

If it does, I won't know for five or ten years. I love working with other people and I'm always learning from everybody that I work with, so yes, I'm certainly constantly influenced by the amazing people that I get to work with and I feel lucky that I get to work with them. But can I know how? I don't think I can, not anytime soon.

Songs Played

00:00 In A River
04:15 These Kids We Knew
16:39 Kinney
20:15 4Runner
33:01 To Communicate
All songs appear on Rostam's 2021 release, Changephobia, out now on Matsor Projects.

External Link

Rostam - official site


Host - Maddie
Producer - Derrick Stevens
Digital Producer - Jesse Wiza
Technical Director - Peter Ecklund

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