By Philip Runco
No one knows quite how to describe Battles but that doesn’t stop them from trying.
When bassist Dave Kanopka, keyboardist/guitarist Ian Williams, and drummer John Stanier enter a studio, the results can sound to some ears like “broken-robot rock.” Aided by a MIDI controller and a “loop amp” and too many pedals to count, they’re said to conjure a “living car chase scene from an updated ‘Streets of San Francisco’ sequel.” Others simply call it “math rock” on account of Battles’ precision in the face of dizzying complexity – even if such a term gives short shrift to the music’s irresistible swing.
To follow a less succinct train of thought, one review of Battles 2007 full-length debut Mirrored described them as “a mix of over-the-top whimsy, extreme analogue rhythms that are often as much jazz-fusion as IDM as tech-metal, vocals that would do Roger Troutman proud, and vise-tight, ‘live or laptop?’ musicianship connected as much by USB ports and Firewire cables as the improvisatory interplay of four dudes just jamming.”
Of course, fans of the band know that a few of those aforementioned characteristics would change in the wake of Mirrored: Four dudes jamming became three dudes jamming, and since the dude responsible for those Zappy vocals (Tyondai Braxton) was the one to leave, thus stripped away one definable – however elastically – quality. Four years later, Battles would partially fill that void by inviting vocalists to guest on a quarter of Gloss Drop‘s twelve tracks, pulling the trio in those moments closer than ever before to something approximating a traditional rock band.
On the recently released La Di Da Di, though, the band has balked at such a transformation. Instead, Battles has jettisoned vocals altogether. It’s a move that has been the focus of many reviews, but it’s also one that’s not particularly shocking. After all, Braxton’s pitched and distorted vocals were arguably mostly textural, and Gloss Drop‘s real estate was hardly overpopulated by outside voices. In other words, Battles has never been a band defined by vocals. It just so happened that its biggest singles – most notably “Atlas” and “Ice Cream” – had hooks infectious enough to grease their crossover.
With La Di Da Di, Battles has made a record that most captures the energy of these three musicians – and only these three musicians – playing together in one room. Each song sprints viscerally towards a finish line that only they can see, unencumbered by Gloss Drop‘s swirls of space dust. But even with the streamlining of Battles’ sound, La Di Da Di is no easier to describe. As Kanopka told NME earlier this summer: “Dude, we’ve gone beyond being classifiable to even ourselves on this album.”
On Friday night, I connected with Ian Williams, who was loitering outside Atlanta’s Masquerade following Battles’ soundcheck. Since late September, the band has been refamiliarizing itself with La Di Da Di’s songs over a year after finishing their recording.
“We’ve been playing every day for two-and-a-half weeks,” Williams shares with his usual seasoning of self-awareness. “At this point, supposedly, we’re better.”
In concert, there’s a certain thrill that comes from watching Battles create its songs in real time. What’s the mix of stress and enjoyment for you on stage? How do you compartmentalize everything?
I have to balance a lot of technical issues with just playing music and being in the zone. Part of me just wants to feel it and play it. I’m always torn between those zones.
When something’s not coming out of the right amp or something’s not loud enough, then people stare at you like, “What the hell is the matter?” It’s really two sides of the brain for me. The past few nights, I’ve been trying kind of a new thing, which is to say, “Fuck it. I’m just going to play. I don’t care if things go wrong.” [Laughs] I’m trying to make that transfer right now.
Are those mistakes only you can hear?
Yeah, but it’s tough – if your drummer is playing at 150 beats per minute and something is one second off, then all of sudden his beat is completely flipped, and then I get a lot of dirty looks. [Laughs]
It’s a lot to juggle. I don’t know how I got myself in this position. I’m trying to do three or four tasks at once. All of a sudden, I’ve found myself romanticizing when I used to just plug a guitar into an amplifier with no effects at all.
You did this to yourself.
I know! That’s the thing. I only have myself to blame.
Does performing less material with vocals make your life easier? Or is triggering vocals something you’re well used to?
We had done vocal triggering on the touring for the last record. We have experience. We had video sync up as well, but we decided to drop that effect for this tour. It’s a weird thing to do.
We have a London school choir of kids singing “Atlas”. Somehow it feels like there’s rock and roll precedence of having English school children singing a song. It’s like Pink Floyd. You recognize it. You can instantly recognize it as a recording. It usually goes over pretty well live.
And then we’re doing “Ice Cream”, which is the other single-y song we’ve ever had. I do a little remixing of [ Matias Aguayo’s] vocal. It’s sort of a bizarre, reverse karaoke. We’re playing the music and the vocals are the dressing on top of it.
“The Yabba” was the first song that people heard from La Di Da Di, and it was easy to imagine a scenario where without vocals, you might return to more drawn-out songs. That wasn’t the case. Why keep a song within a more narrow structure?
We’re not afraid of stretching a song out, and I think that’s especially the case live. But we’re still originally educated in the punk rock school and not the hippie school. The stretch-out is sometimes a dirty word. We want to keep it short. I don’t know why that’s important.
When we go on tour and we’re playing every night, what happens is that the transitions between songs end up becoming my favorite parts of our songs. If you know our records, you’ll say, “OK, there’s that song, and OK, there’s that song. “ But it’s the way we weave on song into the next that actually becomes some of the most playful, interactive stuff we do on stage.
On the last tour, we kind of developed cool transitions. It’s a shame that we never record those things. The development of our transitions is still coming along for this tour.
John [Stanier] has emphasized how important the sequencing was for this record. He said it was something you all agonized over. What were your considerations as you figured out that puzzle?
The sequence could have gone different ways. There are a lot of possible ways it could have worked. We always agreed together that we liked the way that it sounded going from one song into the next in terms of the tempo change.
We put some of the bigger, longer, solid rock songs at the front, and then some smaller bits at the end. In some ways, the smaller things are some of my favorite parts, and maybe if they had been up front, they could have been supported by the longer songs.
Whatever, that’s just internal thinking about the sequence that I can still do. It is what it is. It flows well. It’s a listenable record. [Whispers] Listenable. [Laughs]
There seems to be a complete lack hierarchy within the band. Is arriving at decisions a pained process?
Yeah, it can be. It can be. A record is usually sort of a compromise. It’s not fully the way that it would be if it was up to me. It’s not fully the way anyone in the band thinks that it actually should be.
We always kind of go, “OK, I don’t think that song is very good, but I’ll try my best to sort add something to it!” Sometimes, you really put your foot down, like, “I hate that so much. There’s no way that can be on this record.” You have to feel out what’s really important to your bandmates and figure out a way to arrive at a peaceful resolution.
It is sort of a pain in the ass making decisions, but somehow it makes it richer. It’s bizarre. Everyone is like, “If I went solo, I’d do it my way!” But I think that it somehow weakens a lot of people’s voices when they do that, because they’re not being challenged from within. Battles’ collaboration is more challenging than anything else.
Does an idea or a seed of a song change pretty drastically after you bring it in to the other guys?
With music that’s a little more abstract and doesn’t have singing, your mind is freer to interpret in different directions. Something that you might think is epic or driving might be mellow to another person. The songs will always take strange directions that you don’t expect.
John and I always have this classic disagreement where I’ll make a riff or a line or a loop and he’ll hear the one [beat] on a different beat than I do. We get into these arguments, like, “No, I need you to go ba-da-ba ba-da-ba.” And he’ll start on “ba-da-ba.” [Laughs] We always go back and forth on those. It completely changes the meaning of the line when that kind of thing happens. It’s the nature of the collab.
Not to dwell on the instrumental nature of the record since much of the last record was instrumental as well, but when you’re not consciously leaving space for a vocal, how do you not chase the million different directions a song can go at any one moment?
You have to have some confidence in your ability to set limits for yourself and say, “This is going to be voice that this song has.”
We tried this time to not build up so many layers. We tried to strip things down. It might sound busy to some people, but we tried to actually create a little more minimal space on some songs rather the sound of constant competition. We didn’t one thing covering up the next thing. We tried to use that situation of us as a trio to our advantage and sort of limit the amount of voices – not actual human voices, but the sounds that end up in each song.
A lot of thought goes into texture and the character of the sound. There will be times when I have a guitar line, but it will also be triggering a MIDI, which will also trigger a synth, and I’ll take those two signals and blend them together to the point where it doesn’t sound like a guitar or a synth – it’s something in between. A lot of thought gets put into the je ne sai quoi of the sounds. That ties back into the arrangement and when you cut yourself off.
Battles has never been a band to repeat itself, but has there been any thought to doing something like the Dross Glop remix record with La Di Da Di? Or do these songs lend themselves less to that treatment?
I’m not sure what’s going to happen. We’re going to see. Yeah. I will have to reserve any comments based on the tenuous nature of what exactly we might do.