The exacting sonic taste of Vampire Weekend's D.C.-raised Rostam Batmanglij

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010

A gold record hangs in the Washington kitchen of Najmieh and Mohammad Batmanglij -- the sweet smell of success mingling with the sweet smell of baklava.

This rowhouse, just a few leafy blocks away from the spires of Georgetown University, is where their son, Rostam, guitarist and producer for the wildly popular indie rock band Vampire Weekend, spent countless hours in teenage solitude, strumming his Les Paul, whacking his drum kit and recording it all on the computer program Pro Tools.

But downstairs in the kitchen, where the gold record commemorates the success of Vampire Weekend's 2008 debut album, Rostam learned something else: the importance of focused, fastidious work. "The kitchen was big because my mom was always revising and testing her recipes," says the 26-year-old, sitting in his Brooklyn apartment, 265 miles away. "We spent a lot of time there. And my mom was always listening to music while she was cooking."

Najmieh Batmanglij is the author of numerous acclaimed cookbooks, including "New Food of Life: Ancient Persian and Modern Iranian Cooking and Ceremonies." Mohammad Batmanglij is the publisher who prints them. They fled their native Tehran during the 1979 Islamic revolution and settled in Georgetown shortly before Rostam was born. Both worked from home, where Rostam would watch his mother slice, dice and julienne while listening to the likes of Yo-Yo Ma, Bobby McFerrin and Paul Simon's "Rhythm of the Saints." Music and mastery felt intertwined.

"I do have this special ability to be able to pick out most ingredients in anything I eat just by tasting it," Rostam says. "It's not that different from music. They're kind of parallel art forms. If you can taste everything in a dish, it's the same as hearing all the elements that went into a recording. You have to be able to reverse-engineer."

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Vampire Weekend's jaunty pop songs wouldn't be nearly as enchanting were it not for Batmanglij's gifts as an engineer. The band's new album, "Contra," is crammed with chirpy electronic details, each bleep and bloop hyper-sculpted and carefully placed. "I'm very much a perfectionist," Batmanglij says in a spacey delivery that belies his obsessive touch.

The band formed on the campus of Columbia University after Batmanglij met frontman Ezra Koenig at a party and started chatting about music. The duo would become the band's prime songwriters and in 2007, with bassist Chris Baio and drummer Chris Tomson in tow, the quartet won the hearts and minds of the indie rock blogosphere with a handful of songs that cross-pollinated new wave pluck and Afro-pop ebullience.

They were photographed for the cover of Spin magazine before their debut album had even been released. ("FROM THE IVY LEAGUE TO THE BIG LEAGUES AT THE NEW SPEED OF BUZZ," declared the headline.) Months later, they were on "Saturday Night Live," bouncing through what still stands as their most satisfying tune, "A-Punk."

The hype surged to new heights this year when the group's sophomore album, "Contra," debuted at No. 1 on Billboard in January. Saturday, the foursome is scheduled to play their largest area show at Merriweather Post Pavilion, anticipating more than 100 times the crowd they drew in 2007 at Vampire Weekend's humble Washington debut at the Red and the Black on H Street NE.

But Vampire Weekend's greatest triumph may have less to do with success than survival. Initially swaddled in blankets of unprecedented buzz, the band managed to outrun the backlash that followed. As fast as the blogosphere championed them, it began to write them off as wealthy college bros carelessly appropriating African pop music and tastelessly flaunting their privilege.

In many ways, Batmanglij's life defies the narratives superimposed on Vampire Weekend, real or imagined. He's the son of Iranian refugees, he recently came out as gay in the pages of Rolling Stone and his prep school years at the Potomac School, a private preparatory K-12 in McLean, weren't always so Polo-bright.

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