When I connect with Bobbie, manager for rock juggernaut Battles, it’s midday on a Sunday. He and the band are recovering from a late night in rural Tennessee, where the trio has just played a hot and sweaty afternoon set at Bonnaroo. (Fortunately for them, said performance took place under a tent.) The fine folks at Warp Records didn’t tell me which of the three gentlemen I would be speaking with, and Bobbie doesn’t seem much more inclined to give me a heads up. Is now still a good time to talk, Bobbie? ”Yeah, totally, man. I’ll just hand you to one of them.”
There’s a lengthy pause and some background chatter. Someone says “phoner.” And then I’m greeted by one of the band members, and even he neglects to identify himself. Who am I speaking with? ”This is John.”
Background: John Stanier is the closest thing indie rock has to the Most Interesting Man in the World. Hair slicked back, business casual threads, steely gaze – he’s perpetually looking like he might have to step on a private jet to Vegas at a moment’s notice. He’s also one of the best drummers in the world right now. Battles’ intricate blend of experimental rock draws on a number of immediately recognizable elements, but Stanier’s pummeling may be key amongst them. No one hits his or her kit harder.
His snares cry themselves to sleep at night. His tenacity makes Questlove want to become a drummer when he grows up. He can sweat through a shirt before he puts it on.
“This is John”? This is… the Most Interesting Man in Indie Rock.
Battles is midway through a brief string of US dates – its second (and significantly more modest) tour in support of last year’s groove-heavy Gloss Drop. That LP’s playfulness stands in contrast to the pained process behind its creation. As was widely reported, it was during the recording of the album that one of Battles’ founding members, Tyondai Braxton, walked out on the band and sent its remaining three members – Stanier, guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, and guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka – back to the drawing board. When the subject comes up with Stanier, it still strikes a nerve.
Stanier is more excited to talk about Dross Glop, the recently released remix companion to Gloss Drop. Dross Glop is a document of impeccable taste, collecting reworkings of all twelve Gloss Drop tracks from a wildly varied roster that includes The Field, Gui Borrato, Shabazz Palaces, LCD Soundsystem’s Patrick Mahoney, Gang Gang Dance, and Kode9. Stanier talks about his putting the record together below, and how he hoped to avoid the pitfalls of a certain “big band that will remain nameless” (cough, cough?).
See Stanier and company at the Black Cat tonight.
BYT: How was Bonnaroo?
John Stanier: Amazing. The show was really good. The people were really nice. The crowd was big and lovely and cheerful. Everything was just good vibrations everywhere.
BYT: You have a handful of festivals lined up this summer. When you play these kind of big events, in front of perhaps an unfamiliar audience, do you approach your set differently?
JS: No, not really. Just because of our production and all of that, we can’t really change the set around too much. And I don’t treat a tiny club any different than I would Bonnaroo or anything like that. Obviously it’s different, but I don’t exactly treat it that differently, on purpose at least.
BYT: Do you get a chance to enjoy yourself and catch some other bands during the festival season?
JS: Sometimes. We saw our buddies Das Racist yesterday. They played right before us. We love those guys – that was cool. But, sometimes yes, sometimes no. We were there until 3:00 in the morning last night. Unfortunately we missed a lot of the people I wanted to see, but I think Ian saw Alice Cooper and I got to see Danzig, so that was good.
BYT: Battles has been on the road for a good part of the last year. What have been some of the highlights for you?
JS: That’s a tough question. It’s like every other day is something awesome. I mean, our huge US tour was really good. Europe was good. We went to Japan three times. Nothing has been bad.
BYT: Battles makes very physical music, and it looks like every member throws himself into the band’s performances. I feel exhausted just watching your sets. Do you all ever find yourselves hitting a wall during the course of a tour?
JS: Yeah, sure. Of course. We’re only humans, and as a band we do, and I’m sure individually we do as well. Luckily for me, it only happens to me maybe once a tour.
BYT: Remix albums have a pretty spotty history, but Dross Glop is an engrossing – and varied – listen. When you set about assembling it, did you have an idea of what you hoped to accomplish? Was there anything you were seeking to avoid?
JS: Warp mentioned it to us a long time ago, like, “And then when you’re done touring on the record, you can do a remix record.” And it was kind of like, “Ok, well we’ve never done that before. That would be kind of cool.”
It was on purpose that we made not, like, everything techno – those [kinds of remix] records are kind of boring – or everything the latest flavor of the month. It’s pretty well-rounded remix record. And I do like the fact that’s it totally different [than Gloss Drop]. I think we were just lucky, to be honest. Like, there’s no way of knowing what Qluster is going to give you when they remix something, or Shabazz Palaces for that matter. Everyone really came through and totally did their own thing to it – that’s why it turned out to be a well-rounded record.
I agree that I don’t like… There’s a certain big band that will remain nameless who just put out too much. Like, every week there’s some “Blah-Blah-Blah Remix/Reedit” by Da-Duh-Da-Duh-Da, kind of thing. It’s too much. It’s tottaly overwhelming and it just misses the point.
BYT: How did you settle on this group of artists?
JS: I’d say 80% of the people on the record we were already really good friends with. That was the other cool thing – it was within our reach, more than anything. It didn’t take that long, so it was cool.
BYT: Did you give them any sort of instruction or guidance?
JS: No, not all. We just gave them the tracks. I would not want to give any instruction.
BYT: Were there any remixes that surprised you? A few chose such minute elements of the original versions to blow up.
JS: The Silent Servant I like. The Shabazz Palaces I love. I don’t know – like I said, I like all of them. It’s hard to name one in particular.
BYT: You drum with a distinct forcefulness. I expected more of the remixers to sample that, but they almost all gutted the percussion.
JS: I think it’s cool they didn’t, to be honest. That’s too obvious. That’s too easy, in a weird way. That’s just me.
BYT: Battles music displays a strong sense of humor and playfulness, even mischievousness. When the band is making music, does it ever feel compelled to reel something in?
JS: Shit yeah. I can’t think of a song where we haven’t done that. This stuff takes a long time to do. Well, I guess that’s not true – there are some that kind of come out of nowhere perfectly. But there’s a lot of: “Is this too weird? Is it too boring? Is it too kooky?”
BYT: Does the difficult process behind Gloss Drop make the prospect of a third LP feel especially daunting?
JS: No, not necessarily. In fact… well, no. I’ll leave it at that. No. At the end of the day, the record was incredibly easy – not easy, but it was quick and fast once we sorted through all the bullshit that went down that was causing the delay in writing and all of that. To be honest, once we turned into a three-piece, it took us fucking three months to write the entire record, instead of a year of that not happening – which I do not care to elaborate on. So, yeah, I’m definitely excited about it.
BYT: Battles turns 10 this year. The band has attained a high degree of success with some uncompromising music – instrumental music, at that. Has that surprised you?
JS: Of course. None of thought any of this would turn out the way it did. Nine and half years ago, when we started, I don’t think any of us thought we’d be where we are right now. As clichéd as that sounds, it’s pretty true.
BYT: You and Ian each bring over a decade of experience with previous bands, labels, and the industry at large. How do you think that collective wisdom has informed Battles’ decisions? Has it made you more patient or cautious?
JS: In some ways yes, in some ways no. It depends what you’re talking about. Obviously things change – 2012 is not 1992. It’s a totally different industry. It’s a totally different audience. The way people buy music is totally different. I could just go on and on and on. In some ways it’s similar, and you can use your experiences to your advantage. I know little things here or there. But I don’t think I’d still be in to this if everything was obvious. It does change a lot, which keeps things kind of fresh.