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

By Chris Richards
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 11, 2010; C01

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."

* * *

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.

"It was a tough time for me, I guess, growing up," he says. "I never really felt like I fit in."

* * *

Sunlight pours in through the kitchen window of Batmanglij's Brooklyn apartment, which boasts copious square footage and a breathtaking view of the Gotham skyline. Having just moved in, he barely has enough furniture to fill the place. The thunder of subway cars crossing the Manhattan Bridge rumbles through the walls and Batmanglij's Georgetown childhood feels worlds away.

Pressed for memories, he squints and smiles and starts dredging: Afternoons as a youngster playing near the Georgetown Reservoir, tweenage Sundays watching "Meet the Press" with his family, adolescent weekends "hanging out at Tysons Corner, which is like the ninth circle of hell."

There are musical memories, too (none so hellish). He remembers being 6 and begging his parents for a flute. He remembers loving U2, the Beatles and "The Bodyguard" soundtrack. He remembers first smelling the waft of pot at the 2000 HFStival with Rage Against the Machine and Third Eye Blind bellowing in the background.

And while he was a good student, Batmanglij's high school years spur bittersweet memories that clash with others' preconceived notions of Vampire Weekend members' charmed youths. In a predominantly white student body -- one that he found more and more conservative as graduation day approached -- Batmanglij felt out of step. "I've always had a very complex relationship with whiteness," he says. "People call me white and then mispronounce my first and last name. I don't think I've always been afforded the privilege of whiteness. And that's made me who I am."

So he threw himself into music, studying music theory at the Potomac School and practicing endlessly at home. He never had a band in high school and preferred playing on his own -- something that's carried over to his approach today. "The idea of being in a band, I just saw it as a window to recording," he says, reflecting on the formation of Vampire Weekend.

Lately, Batmanglij has been spending 12-hour days sitting behind a guitar, a piano or a computer, composing and recording music. And he loves a good postmortem, too. "I feel like one of my obligations is to compare," he says. "I want to put on the [new] Drake record and be like, 'Is the bass bigger on this album than it is on "Contra"? And if so, why?' "

* * *

At the Batmanglijs' kitchen table in Georgetown, there are delectable smells: fresh-cut jasmine in a vase, cups of black tea steeped in orange blossom water and a tray of baklava cut into exquisite parallelograms. Ask the proud parents about Rostam's success and Najmieh's brown eyes glimmer. Mohammad's smile curls beneath a formidable white tuft of mustache.

Having both come from large families that put a premium on discipline, the couple wanted to raise Rostam and his older brother, Zal, a filmmaker living in Los Angeles, with a sense that anything was possible. That meant fleeing Ayatollah Khomeini's fundamentalist Iran. "They asked me to cover my head," says Najmieh. "And I refused to do that."

They relocated in France, where Zal was born, and where Najmieh's first cookbook, "Ma Cuisine d'Iran," was published in 1983.

But when Najmieh became pregnant with Rostam, the family decided to join Mohammad's brother in Washington and launch a publishing house of their own. "My brother-in-law sent a letter to us and said, 'Why don't you come to America?' " Najmieh says. "In case Rostam becomes president."

But their younger son would find a different kind of fame -- and one that, Mohammad says, despite the gold records and magazine covers, hasn't fully registered. "I'm not sure we're conscious of it," he says. "We hear sometimes 'the hottest band in town.' I don't know that that's come home to us, yet."

The Batmanglijs' concerns for their son range from regular parent stuff (Is he eating well on tour? Is he getting enough sleep?) to bigger issues about his privacy. Much of the latter has to do with Rostam's decision to come out to the media earlier this year.

"I felt like I was going to enter a new phase in my life, and it felt like something I needed to say," Rostam says of his decision to come out to his parents before embarking on Vampire Weekend's first tour in the summer of 2007. "I think they didn't get it at first. . . . But then they were totally supportive."

"I was surprised," says Najmieh. "Why hadn't I thought about it myself before, to make it easier as a parent? And then I decided to celebrate Rostam's life and his differences." When he came out to the media, she says, "we were proud of him that he was brave."

The Batmanglijs will be two of thousands in the audience at Vampire Weekend's show Saturday -- a big date on the biggest tour of its bourgeoning career. But when the tour winds down in December, Rostam has no plans to do anything but work.

Maybe on a film score. Maybe on a solo project. Maybe on something else.

"This is what I'm excited about," he says. "Making stuff has always been what I'm excited about."

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