Indie-band expats Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam find a rich new sound

Indie-band expats Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam find a rich new sound
Indie-rock veterans Rostam Batmanglij, left, and Hamilton Leithauser teamed for a new album. (Barbara Davidson / Los Angeles Times)

Rostam Batmanglij takes issue with many of the terms that might be used to refer to him.

"'Person in a band,' 'composer' — even the word 'musician' I don't really identify with," he said the other day.


Each, however, captures something of a guy who A) used to be in the popular New York indie-rock group Vampire Weekend, B) recently created the score for a Broadway play starring Michael Cera, and C) runs a recording studio filled with vintage instruments. 

The way Batmanglij sees it, none of these phrases feels sufficiently flexible to describe the way he thinks about music — about how it can be made, and with whom, and in what setting.

"I think I see myself as a producer," he said. "That word feels more aligned with what I do."

It was in that role that Batmanglij created his latest project, a suitably hard-to-classify album called "I Had a Dream That You Were Mine" that pairs him with another veteran of New York indie rock, Hamilton Leithauser of the Walkmen.

Released last month by Glassnote Records (and officially credited to Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam), this beautiful and mysterious record sets Leithauser's ragged singing against crafty, shape-shifting arrangements full of tinkling piano, woozy organ and shuffling drums. You could call it roots music if it didn't bear the clear mark of computerized editing. Or you could say it was old-timey if it didn't also feel darkly futuristic.

Throughout the album, which the duo will perform in a sold-out show Tuesday night at the Masonic Lodge at Hollywood Forever Cemetery, precision battles dishevelment so that you're left unsure where the songs' loyalties lie. In "The Bride's Dad," for instance, Leithauser depicts a polite suburban wedding gone wrong when a ruddy-cheeked father takes the mike to give a speech.

His bleary vocal, frayed at the edges, tells you the guy's a real piece of work: "For years and years, I disappeared / Tonight I'm here and I'm giving my best," he sings. Yet Batmanglij's tender keyboard part puts you on his side, if only briefly.

Are we to supposed to sympathize with the uncomfortable wedding guests or with the deadbeat dad?

"Someone I respect a lot once told me that you should never want to be understood, and that once you're understood, then your life is over," Batmanglij said, curled on a sofa in the cozy Eastside studio he built when he moved to Los Angeles three years ago.

Seated beside him, Leithauser laughed. "God, that's depressing," he said.

So: "I Had a Dream That You Were Mine" is rich with a mordant ambiguity that might remind a listener of Bob Dylan or Paul Simon, both avowed influences for these two deeply attentive students of pop. But the record also reflects a larger uncertainty: their status as free agents following long stints in established bands.

In 2013, the Walkmen announced that, after nearly a decade and a half of recording and touring, the group had no plans to continue. Leithauser began work on a solo album and recruited Batmanglij (whom he'd known since Vampire Weekend opened a show for the Walkmen in 2008) to produce two songs.

Then, early this year, Batmanglij wrote on Twitter that he was "no longer a member" of Vampire Weekend but that he planned to continue collaborating with the band's frontman, Ezra Koenig, on "future projects + future VW songs."

At his studio, Batmanglij seemed wary of going into detail about why he quit. "I've gotta be careful what I say, but I just wanted to open up my life," he said.


Looking back at his time in Vampire Weekend, he said it wasn't playing in the group that he remembered most fondly but producing its three albums — "two of which went to No. 1," he added. ("Modern Vampires of the City," the band's most recent record, came out in 2013.)

Since relocating here, Batmanglij has become increasingly visible as a producer, working with indie acts such as Ra Ra Riot as well as pop singers like Carly Rae Jepsen and Charli XCX. He also scored an acclaimed revival of Kenneth Lonergan's play "This Is Our Youth" and released several singles as a solo artist.

"I Had a Dream That You Were Mine" was born when Leithauser, who lives in New York with his wife and two young children, finished a tour in L.A. and spent a few days making music with Batmanglij.

They developed a routine, with Leithauser flying out every every couple of months to write songs, which they'd record as quickly as possible to preserve what the singer called "a loose wildness." Then Batmanglij would hone the material using software that allows for the minute manipulation of sound.

Leithauser said the process was a liberation from his years making music in a room with four or five other players. "In that setting you have to compete with the loudest thing," which meant singing loudly, at the top of his range. In Batmanglij's studio, though, with just the two of them, "I could drop down a few octaves and sing really quietly too."

As an example, he pointed to “In a Black Out,” a folky ballad heard by many in a recent Apple commercial for the iPhone. “I’m practically whispering halfway through the song,” he said.

Yet leaving behind the Walkmen — and the band's devoted audience — imposed its own constraints.

"The name recognition for a live thing is a much bigger deal than I thought it'd be," Leithauser said, acknowledging that he took a step back in terms of the size of the venues he plays as a solo artist. "You're basically starting over."

It's probably too soon to tell how big a draw Leithauser and Batmanglij will be together; they've played only four or five shows as a duo (with two additional musicians backing them onstage).

But reviews of "I Had a Dream" have been nearly universally positive. And the high-visibility iPhone spot has opened doors among other tastemakers, according to Jason Bentley of Santa Monica's KCRW-FM (89.9), who regularly spins "In a Black Out" and will host a live performance by the twosome Wednesday on "Morning Becomes Eclectic."

Next year Leithauser is set to tour without Batmanglij, performing the songs they created together as well as his solo stuff and tunes by the Walkmen. The producer, meanwhile, has been collaborating lately with Solange and Francis and the Lights.

"I love the idea of kind of floating around," Leithauser said, as opposed to being tied to a specific band with its fixed repertoire. "I mean, this thing is called Hamilton Leithauser + Rostam because I do other things and he does other things.

"At the same time, I think there's something substantial here that has a big future."

Twitter: @mikaelwood