Rostam Batmanglij is a man of his word: The Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist who first came to fame as a member of Vampire Weekend recently teased the impending release of the first single from his forthcoming second solo album, and said single has indeed arrived. “In A River” is Rostam’s first new music since the September 2017 release of his acclaimed solo debut Half-Light, though the details of his follow-up album remain mostly under wraps.
“In A River” opens only with bright mandolin chords and the idyllic intimacy evoked by Rostam’s vocals (“Slide into the cool mud / Underneath the pines / Somewhere to your right or left / Is my body you can find”), which are soon joined in the chorus by a thumping 808 beat. Like its eponymous body of water, the song slows and speeds at intervals, contracting and expanding its instrumental palette in a way that feels as unknowable as nature. The song’s core sentiment is as simple as its instrumentation is complex: “We are swimming / with no clothes on / in a river in the dark,” Rostam sings. “And I am holding / onto you, boy / in the faint light of the stars.”
“In A River” comes accompanied by a Jon Race-animated, Batmanglij-directed lyric visualizer, in which Rostam’s camera tracks over a river and through the wilderness as lights pulse in the distance, the terrain periodically changes and a glowing orb floats through the air. It’s a hypnotic accompaniment that mimics the song’s singular flow.
“‘In a River’ is the first song I wrote on the mandolin,” says Rostam in an extensive statement recounting the making of the song. He also pulls back the curtain on the unusual way in which he came to record the single, first adding an early version to his Half-Light tour set and inviting audiences to clap along, then playing back a live recording in the studio to use as “a road map for how the song should move.”
“I often want the songs I produce to be meeting places for organic and electronic sounds—old traditions and new ones,” Rostam says. ”’In a River’ is new territory for me because although it’s a studio recording, it’s pulling from one of the oldest traditions in music, a live performance in front of an audience.”
And speaking of live performances, Rostam is set to headline Hollywood’s Fonda Theatre this Friday, Sept. 14, where he will officially perform “In A River” for the first time.
Listen to the new single and revisit Vampire Weekend’s 2007 Daytrotter Session below, and keep scrolling to see Rostam’s full statement on the making of “In A River.”
“In a River” is the first song I wrote on the mandolin. In January we started rehearsing the song for the Half-Light North American Tour and it became a staple of every show. When we came back from that month-long tour I booked time at Vox Studios in Hollywood and jumped into recording the song. At that point we had played it some twenty times in front of twenty different audiences across the country. About halfway through the tour I started bringing the audience into the song and asking them to clap along after that second chorus. I have memories of how those claps sounded, I can still remember how hard they hit in Grand Rapids, Michigan, in a packed theatre with a foot of snow on the ground outside.
When we got in the studio, I knew I wanted to capture the feeling we got when we played it live, so I pulled the audio off a YouTube clip from a few nights prior—in San Francisco—and dropped it in the Pro Tools session. That audio became a road map for how the song should move. The tempo fluctuates widely—kicking up as the drums enter and the violins solo, then settling into a slower groove when we get back to the chorus, finally slowing down even more as the song ends with the 808 bass and vocals. It’s so rare that modern music gets “off the grid” but “In a River” is a hybrid. It’s steady for the first half but then free in tempo from the moment the drums come in.
I often want the songs I produce to be meeting places for organic and electronic sounds—old traditions and new ones. “In a River” is new territory for me because although it’s a studio recording, it’s pulling from one of the oldest traditions in music, a live performance in front of an audience.