Battles mega post!

Hey, Can Anyone Tell Me the Time Signature?: An Interview with Ian Williams of Battles

For most of the world, when you listen to a song you think, “well I like this, but I wonder how they do it…” But if it’s a song by the band Battles, who Wikipedia defines as a math-rock band, your thought would be more like, “how the hell does anyone do that?” Intricate keyboard and guitar parts merging with almost outrageously complex, syncopated rhythms (courtesy of the former drummer of Helmet) make it worth giving Battles a second, third, and, very probably, a twelfth listen. In spite of the loss of their former vocalist, this trio of musical savants manages to capture and balance each frenetic element of their unique sound into a group of captivatingly catchy songs that comprise their sophomore album, Gloss Drop. In advance of their show at Emo's tomorrow night, we managed to wrangle a few minutes out of guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams’ busy tour schedule, chatting about Gloss Drop, making noise and mystical triangles. Throw a Bushism in the mix and we’ve got an interview worth reading.

I know that you guys get a lot of questions about vocalist Tyondai Braxton leaving the band and I've heard you mention in other interviews that it actually made it easier for the remaining three of you to collaborate in the recording process, and how it was almost a good thing for the band that he left. I was just wondering, what other positive things came out of it just being the three of you instead of four?

I don't know, we've just sort of waited around for--it was four years since our last album to this album. In a lot of ways, I think we were ready to make another album and I kind of don't think he wanted to make another record. So finally he made that choice to leave and when he did, it was good. We had a clearer sense of what we had to work with, and say, "okay, it's three people, I'll make these sounds, you make those sounds and we'll call it a song." We're the kind of band--we are never really at a loss for making noise. We have loud, ample noise-making capabilities. Really, the art of putting together a Battles song is always been finding enough space and getting people to hold back actually and say, ‘okay you can't play here because I have to play something here’. It was always sort of a traffic jam really, and it was an art of balancing what are probably too many parts inside of the song and the extent to which our songs ever worked it was always maybe just charming that we would pack so much junk into one song. And sometimes that's cool and sometimes that's kind of obnoxious. I think, in some ways it was just, that challenge was a little easier to me being that simply there was less sound being made with like a little easier just to sculpt out a coherent picture with just the three of us.

Makes sense. Three is the best number.

Yeah, a mystical number. Like a triangle. A triangle is stronger than a square.

Definitely! Alright, I was watching a video of you guys performing live, and the layout is pretty unconventional. For instance, putting John, the drummer, in the center of the stage, it's really a powerful effect. How did you guys decide to arrange yourselves on stage?

Well, we're very much a backwards band in that sense, in that the drummer has always set up front-and-center. We've always really made an effort to not to be about a “front man”, but really just about all of the parts being equally shown in that this sort of...what the heck am I trying to say?!? The whole being greater than the sum of their parts. You know, the whole...(laughs) I'm doing a George Bushism!

(laughing) I don't think you'll ever be as bad as George Bush.

(laughs) So it's always been backwards, not really about a "front man." You don't really think about who's the lead guitar solo. We never really thought we had a lead singer. And, for example, now the new records both have vocals, but you can't point to who the lead singer is because it's nobody in the band. So it's always been this sort of instrumentally driven thing. That's why it's drums first!

About the vocals, how did you go about choosing the guest vocalists and how did they contribute? Did they write their lyrics? How did that work?

We'd kind of arrange the song. And then the Gary Numan one, he was the guy on the record who wasn't a personal friend or anything. He's an older guy from a different generation and a different sort of style of music, so I think the idea of picking him was really more of a fantasy. And we could see it! ‘Wouldn't it be crazy if we could somehow find Gary Numan’! And I don't think we really even thought it would be possible but somebody actually knew somebody who knew somebody and word got back that he might be willing to try it! And the funny thing is, when he actually finally gave the track back to us, we didn't like it. Even though we were really excited that he actually did it. We're like, ‘Holy shit, Gary Numan did it!’ But it wasn't right for the song. And I think technically it was good - it was artistically, finely combed and put in the right place, it was very well done. But it was just not the vibe for the song. So we sort of had to go back and ask him to redo it, and seeing as how he wasn't like a personal acquaintance it was a little intimidating. But he was actually a real gentleman, and he said he was actually happy about that because we cared enough about the song that we would try to redo it. So he was a real trooper and he came up with the lyrics. And I think the lyrics were pretty cool.

He was in the music video for ‘My machines’, right?

That’s correct.

Yeah, I was just watching that video. It must have been a little like painstaking of a process shooting that. What was it like watching this guy and endlessly fall down an escalator for how ever many hours it took to shoot the video, and then having Gary Numan sitting there randomly in a massage chair. How was that experience?

Yeah, it was amazing. Gary knew the place so well, so he was just like so dead-pan. He was, like, the singer. And the guy falling upstairs was awesome the way he did it. Yeah, we got lucky with that stunt guy. I think he was like a fancy Hollywood guy but he wanted to be in the video, so he like cut his price back or something to be in the video. He said that as a stunt person there is a proper way to fall off from a building and a proper way to be in a car crash, a proper way to do all these different things, being in the fight scene, but there is no like there is no proper way to fall down an escalator. There’s no training for how to do that, so he’s like, ‘I have just got to make it up as I go’.

Your new album, Gloss Drop, is definitely a transition from Mirrored and a lot of people describe it as more poppy, but I do notice that there is still that almost sinister undertone, like that Battles signature sound to it still. Did you aim to make that album less aggressive than Mirrored? Or did it just kind of come out that way when you all were collaborating, naturally?

I don't think we were trying to make a poppy record, but I think with a song like "Ice Cream”…that was the first song that we wrote, actually, of all the material. We had that for a while and I think we enjoyed it right off the bat simply because it was so flagrantly different than anything we have done. It was a liberating feeling because it was just so ridiculous compared to where we have been, so that helped out. And the record, Mirrored, it was an honest expression of what was going on between us as band members at that point. I just don't think it would have been honest to make another record like that. I think the new record's actually more experimental. We actually formed some things that are a little more coherent and a little more like a song, and I think that's sometimes why people talk about it as being more accessible. It's strange. I think it's a little more accessible, and yet on the other hand I think it's more experimental at the same time. And that's actually why I think it's a successful record. We were able to do both things at once.

How do you come up with the song titles for the instrumental ones?

I think our songs always were--again, this is also maybe connected to us being a backwards band--the songs aren't about the lead singer's feelings, like "I broke up with my girlfriend" and like that, it's like the titles usually come from a more abstract place. The title for "Ice Cream" was literally--we just had the instrumental version of the song at that point--and Dave said, "This sounds like ice cream." And what does ice cream really sound like? That's anybody's guess. But that was a quick guess; we thought, "Yeah, it does sound like ice cream."

Battles at Grand Central October 27

"I can't imagine making a more difficult album," Battles drummer John Stanier says when asked to describe the process behind Gloss Drop, the first full-length in four years from the recently downsized (once a quartet, now a trio) post-math-rock ensemble.

Though the band's 2007 record, Mirrored, catapulted the previously cult group into broader popular awareness, that crossover success didn't contribute to a smooth followup. Stanier describes the past four years as "incredibly difficult" and rife with "personal issues" and "a lot of heavy stuff." But he also admits that, when it came to the band, much of the stalling came from recently departed second guitarist, keyboardist, and vocalist Tyondai Braxton.

He cites Braxton's reluctance to tour as one crux of the band's tension: "He didn't want to tour. He didn't want to work, really." But the drummer also notes a shared displeasure among Battles' members with the direction of their music as shaped by Braxton's vocals.

Up to Mirrored, Battles had displayed a knack for the kind of intricately experimental compositions (not unlike Steve Reich rock epics) that would dominate the group's breakthrough album. But the record also debuted Braxton's heavily effected chipmunk vocals, slathered all over the group's signature pulsing, slowly morphing aural fractals.

"We are a group that doesn't have a lead singer," Stanier says, almost as though it were the moral of the story. That realization, and Braxton's parallel departure, forced Battles to "reinvent [themselves] in the middle of making the record."

Despite these tense and tedious circumstances, Gloss Drop not only marks a return to the complex, instrumental-driven experiments of Battles' early work, but also showcases the band at its most celebratory. "Inchworm" displays the groups signature mathy chops while bouncing along with playful steel drums and sleigh bells. The rock intensity and swelling digital flourishes of "White Electric" endow the song with the triumphant bravado of a grand symphony. And "Dominican Fade" wouldn't be out of place blasting at a Carnival street party.

But while Gloss Drop has refocused the band as a primarily instrumental affair, four of the album's 13 tracks feature deliberate, handpicked cameos by big indie-rock and experimental-music names such as Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, the Boredoms' Yamantaka Eye, and Chilean producer Matias Aguayo. Gary Numan, of all people, appears as well.

These four collaborations are best-case-scenario products from the band's trial-and-error dalliances with vocals. Where Braxton's presence on Mirrored might have been too pronounced and even goofy, the guest spots on Gloss Drop give the record an appropriately measured dose of pop.

Live: Battles Get In The Groove At Webster Hall

Battles w/Nisennenmondai
Webster Hall
Tuesday, November 1

Better than: Standing stock-still for 75 minutes.

The members of Battles took the time to remind the crowd at Webster Hall on Tuesday night that they were from New York, but one look at their live setup could have indicated that; while the stage at Webster Hall is pretty large, the band—multi-instrumentalists Dave Konopka and Ian Williams, and drummer John Stanier—operates on a compact, cramped-studio-apartment scale. The three men are all crowded at the front of the stage, only further underscoring that they're operating as a tightly coiled unit as they thrash about on their instruments, fiddle with electronics, and extend their compositions' lengthy grooves far into the night.

As the show progressed their fluidity only became more apparent. The vocalists who contribute to their second album Gloss Drop (Warp) weren't phsyically on hand Tuesday, but they were still present; Gloss Drop guests like Gary Numan and Matais Aguayo (not to mention departed vocalist Tyondai Braxton) were present via tape. Behind the band, projections of those people who were heard but not there mouthed along with the lyrics; that the kinetic energy on stage overtook these blown-up images is a testament to both Battles' utterly dense arrangements and ability to unwind songs as if they're endless balls of yarn. There was a decidedly improvisatory feel to Tuesday night's performance, even though the presence of the pretaped vocals belied any sense of veering too far from the script; even notation-level familiarity with the music's recorded versions wouldn't be foolproof protection from getting lost in the grooves, of being curious of just where the band was going next.

Afterward a fellow attendee who'd been up in the balcony complained to me that there wasn't enough moshing happening on the floor below; another audience member had earlier noted that there was quite a bit of making out going on in her immediate vicinity. Concert-going etiquette aside, these seemingly opposed reactions said a lot about just what makes Battles' music so invigorating; there aren't too many bands that can convincingly marry a thrashy aesthetic to feelings that inspire romantic rapture, but Battles, with their pummeling and pushing in service of finding just the right balance between headbanging and hip-swaying, pull it off with aplomb.

Critical bias: Gloss Drop is great. Also, 2011 has been a fantastic year for reminding me that I need to revisit those Don Caballero albums more.

Overheard: "What's your favorite kind of bagel?"

Random notebook dump: More about this tomorrow, but holy cow were Nisennenmondai mindblowing.

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I was at the Webster Hall show and it was amazing. Definitely check them out if you can
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