Thornton violinists tour with Rostam

From left to right, Violinists and USC Thornton School of Music students Nick Kennerly, Julian McClanahan and Wynton Grant will tour Europe with pop producer Rostam for two weeks. Photo courtesy of Nick Kennerly

An unassuming pad on Portland Street has housed 10 musicians for the last few years. One afternoon, the only people in the house were three friends comfortably sprawled out on the living room couches by the window facing the front yard.

The trio comprises violinists and Thornton School of Music students Julian McClanahan, Nick Kennerly and Wynton Grant, three friends who are getting the chance to tour Europe with one of pop’s most talented producers, Rostam, for two weeks, with their first show on Wednesday.

Rostam Batmanglij, known mononymously as Rostam, left his position as one of Vampire Weekend’s frontmen in 2016 to focus on solo work, which culminated in the release of his debut album Half-Light earlier this year. Rostam’s influence on Vampire Weekend and contemporary pop music is evident throughout the album, which features intricately tasteful string arrangements, blistering synthesizers and charming vocals. It is no wonder that pop and R&B’s smartest voices like Solange and Frank Ocean enlisted the veteran producer for their most recent projects.

The journey started with McClanahan’s storybook encounter and job offer. His admiration for Rostam over the years initially led him to attend Half-Light’s album release party and concert at Amoeba Records in Hollywood, where fans who purchased the album could have Rostam sign it.

McClanahan, as he described it, decided to have a conversation with the producer when his copy was signed. In the heat of the moment, he asked Rostam to contact him if he ever needed strings players, a request that came in the form of a text the following week.

This interaction was completely unanticipated, according to McClanahan.

“I didn’t go in intending on saying that,” McClanahan said. “It felt right in the moment and I ended up, like, impulsively just writing my name down on the back of this receipt with my number with a Sharpie.”

The trio’s most visible feature is its  members’ impeccable chemistry, which seems odd considering how Wynton explained that the three had only been playing together for a few weeks when they decided to assemble the group. In fact, they were thrilled to mention that their only recorded collaboration up until that point was a three-violin cover of Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow” on YouTube.

The friends also compliment each other, often boasting of one another’s accomplishments if one of them thinks they have undersold themselves. Talking excitedly, Kennerly recounted Grant’s journey from obtaining his master’s degree at Yale University to beginning graduate work at USC to obtaining his first gig in Los Angeles on Shawn Mendes’ MTV Unplugged session. Over the last week, Kennerly said, the trio has opened for HAIM with Rostam at Los Angeles’ Greek Theatre, and Grant and McClanahan have played with Sabrina Claudio on The Late Late Show with James Corden.

“Let it be known for the record that for anyone that thinks you can just move to L.A. and just take off like that, it doesn’t really happen like that unless you’re Wynton,” Kennerly joked.

Grant had a more personal take on his most recent run of success, which he attributed to his hardened work ethic and opportunistic nature.

“You’ve got to put in the work and be ready […] when opportunity knocks, you open the door,” Grant said.

The opportunities, however, have not always presented themselves quite so plainly, Grant explained. He said that often finding opportunities requires immense self-motivation.

“You have to go and seek out opportunity and knock and introduce yourself, or in Julian’s case, put your phone number on a ticket and there you go,” Grant said.

Though the European leg is not the first the three have toured, they all believe it will provide an invaluable learning experience for them as musicians. For all three, observing Rostam’s detail-oriented approach to production and performances may be the most exciting prospect. Kennerly, in particular, admired both the breadth and depth of Rostam’s musicianship.

“[He knows] the technical side just as much as he knows his vocals and the guitar voicings. The rounded musician that he is is very inspiring and something we can all look up to,” Kennerly said.

McClanahan, Kennerly and Grant will inevitably miss class time while on tour, but they are determined to stay on track with their schoolwork. Last semester, McClanahan was able to negotiate with his instructors enough to go on tour with electronic duo Mako and still finish the semester. Though their presence in the classroom will be missed, their education on the road has only begun.