An intervfiew with the proggy math-rock band Battles for the Playlouder.com website.
The Wrath Of The Math
(Battles defy you at every turn)
The name itself implies a sense of the unsettled, not a single conflict but an ongoing war. Although they claim they chose the moniker simply because “it just looked good on paper” Battles is a wonderfully fitting description of a band that constantly challenges, re-invents and re-interprets itself. Flashing bolts of mercurial sculpted sound vie with syncopated bursts of staccato repetition all of which hurtles along atop a propulsive beat that no digital source could replicate.
The early part of this interview took place almost two months ago when Battles were a band with two interesting EP’s and a single to their name and the thunder of an already fearsome live show building behind them. Although these early recorded excursions were generally well received a sense of expectancy hung around the bands debut long player that was only fitting considering the calibre of the involved artist’s previous work.
John Stanier had played drums in the hardcore band Jehovah’s Sickness before making his name with early 90’s riff-metallers Helmet, and went on to work with Mike Patton in Tomahawk. Ian Williams practically invented the term that continues to hang, albatross-like, around Battles neck with proto-mathrockers Don Caballero and later with Storm Stress, a similar path that David Kanopka had trodden with Lynx. Tyondai Braxton’s experiments with free noise were no doubt influenced by his father Anthony Braxton’s legendry improv work and he had collaborated with Prefuse 73 and Jon Zorn prior to the call of Battles.
An impressive roster of course means little if the music that it produces fails to match the weight of its Wikipedia entries. 8 weeks down the line, some glowing record reviews and triumphant live performances on the South Bank, ATP and across the country however have seen the weight of expectation cast aside as if it such a thing had never existed. In the minds of this band it almost certainly never did for the sense that the greatest expectation comes from within these four artists themselves was apparent both in March and when I caught up with Ian again this week.
You’ve all played in pretty influential bands prior to playing in Battles, has that affected your approach to Battles or have you come to it with a completely fresh approach?
John: With me, the only way that it has come to play in Battles is that I played for a really long time in Helmet, for ten years. But that’s it, playing in that band for ten years obviously caused me to develop a style but from day one of Battles the whole purpose was to do something that none of us had done before. I’d say for the most part our previous bands have little effect apart from maybe a technique.
Ian: Totally. Also, different ideas turn you on 10 years ago. Don Cab and Storm & Stress were fun at those points in time but it’s good to set yourself up in new situations musically. It keeps it fresh and it keeps it honest.
Tyondai: For me there was a real desire to get beyond my past, to create a new sound with new ideas. In a way reacting against what I’ve done before. In Battles, I’m way more interested with ideas of solidified, cohesive song structures. You can never escape yourself completely but you always want to evolve and all of us have come into it with that exploratory philosophy both as individuals and as a collective. My Dad obviously had an influence on me but mainly in terms of inspiring me just to be fearless in my approach and work like hell.
How did you guys all meet up?
Tyondai: I’m originally from Connecticut but I met Ian when we were both living in New York and we played around loosely at first for about a year getting used to each other then we met Dave and the idea of it formally becoming a band appeared on the horizon but it was really when John came along that it became clear that we really had something and that was at the end of 2003.
Was there any reason why your initial releases were singles and EP’s only?
John: The honest answer is that the band was beginning to gel and sound like a band so we wanted to tour but we had to have something to tour with so we did Tras the single and two EP’s but they were all actually recorded at the same session. They were released really early on and we had a period of two years of touring and playing together working stuff out as we went along.
Tyondai: All those early releases though were really documents of us struggling to find our sound. There has never been an end goal as in: at the end of the road we want to sound like this or that. The question mark has always been the journey and the EP’s kinda charted that, the new record is us playing around with the sounds established on the EP’s; a more refined version of that early sound.
Is there any reason why you went for Warp Records over here in the UK, which is more commonly associated with dance music?
John: Weirdly I think they parallel our growth, that attempt to diversify their sound is sort of the same path we’re on, it just made sense from the get go.
Dave: It was cool, they were looking not to be pigeonholed and that was exactly the same thing we were looking for, we’re both evolving in tandem.
How did you hook up with DJ Koze for the remix on the Atlas single?
John: My girlfriend lives in Cologne so I just bumped into him over there, we were mixing the album and it was actually all just done over the phone but it worked out really well I think.
Why the choice to incorporate far heavier use of vocals on the new record?
Tyondai: I know from the outset that this band has been viewed as an ‘instrumental’ outfit but internally we never saw it that way, it made sense on the EP’s to be more reserved in a way as we were still trying to sculpt our sound, there are vocals on there but on the new record I thought it would be cool to introduce that element more heavily and play with the stereotypical vocal structure. Take it on in a Battles mode.
The general consensus on the record has been very positive. Had it not been would that have had any effect?
Ian: Obviously we are very happy that people dig the record but we started out making the music independent of any kind of outside perception. The whole concept of breaking up the early material into EP’s was partly so that there wasn’t a chance for that stuff to be judged as a body of work. We are happy to be working below the radar, whatever radar that there is! There are two sides to it I guess, you are always gonna hurt a little if someone criticises your work but what makes this band fun is that the challenge comes as much from ourselves you know? I don’t think any of us would really care as long as we were pleased with the record.
How do you feel about the fact that the positive press you have been receiving will no doubt bring you very much onto the radar that you once successfully operated below?
Ian: We have a pretty strong sense of a system whereby we are just making music for ourselves, which I think that we will always maintain. It is a love of what we do that drives the ship as opposed to the crazy winds of the press or whatever. The audience reactions have been great though, you can see that people have listened to the new record and to see people reacting to the new material is great. As you tour those songs the reactions help the songs grow, as the crowd respond more the dynamic of the energy of a live show dictates that you play more so it gives a feeling that it is helping the songs grow.
How was the show at ATP?
Ian: It was really awesome. We played the Saturday night and the room was packed, I think there might have even been people queuing out the door! Seeing so many people at a Battles show was pretty insane but you know ATP is always awesome so that was good.
Are you looking forward to touring the record in the US?
Ian: Sure, it’s coming out on Warp over there too, they have an office in New York. It’s funny you know, in the ‘olden days’ like, in the 90’s (laughs quite a lot) you could get kind of well known on the East coast or the West coast or wherever but with the way things have gone with the internet and the whole spread of media it’s all just one big place to tour ha-ha!