Battles Approaches Prog Music With a Playful Eye
Judging from the band's album cover art alone — blobbish landscapes, overgrown hedges, phallic mounds of food — if nothing else, Battles understands texture. The New York threesome snubs genre with its mix of instrumental post-rock, intricate math rock, and complex, creamy rhythms. There is the raw propulsion of Holy Fuck-like prog with the absurd, cheerful elements of The Octopus Project. Like synesthesia, Battles is music that simultaneously activates multiple hemispheres of the brain. Even Gary Numan once called Battles weird — then he ended up guest-starring on the single "My Machines."
With patience dominating in its releases, Battles' discography is sparse. The band's third and most recent effort, La Di Da Di (Warp Records), evokes feng shui, a tightly structuralized minimalism finished with aggressive cadence.
We phoned guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams at his home in Brooklyn to discuss new directions the band is taking, including the decision to not include vocals this time around.
"We are primarily instrumentalists. When we think of the human voice, we think of it as an instrument as well," Williams says. "We just kind of unconsciously made music in the last few years and it turned out to be instrumental because that's almost like the most natural thing that we do. Sometimes we might also add a voice like we might add a trumpet overdub or something."
When Battles does harness the human voice, it does so unconventionally. On "Ice Cream," guest vocalist Matias Aguayo does more huffing and puffing than lyricizing, bouncing between Spanish and nonsensical English, while Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead is almost unrecognizable on her contribution to "Sweetie & Shag." The demented bobbing of Tyondai Braxton's vocals on "Atlas," Battles' most noted single, can make you feel as though you've overdosed on helium while rolling down the up escalator.
Sick of touring, Braxton left the band in late 2010 to pursue a solo career as an experimental composer, which made it possible for Battles to finish its sophomore record, Gloss Drop, Williams says.
"It just wasn't working. We had to get the lead singing done on that record, and that's sort of why we came away with songs that were written for a singer," he says. "So when [Braxton] left, it was like why don't we just delete the vocals and get somebody else to do the singing? Rather than just like toss the whole project, we decided to bring guests in."
Gloss Drop somehow was completely inverted into Dross Glop, a series of four 0x000A12-inch vinyl EPs eventually compiled into one impressive remix album. Reinterpretations were performed by various artists, including producer Hudson Mohawke, microhouse sampler The Field, and experimental hip-hop outfit Shabazz Palaces. But Williams is hesitant to say La Di Da Di will see the same treatment, hinting that it will "ruin the surprise" that Battles has planned.
"We haven't really decided what we're going to do . . . There were actually a lot of different versions of how these songs could have come out," Williams says. "The best people to do the remix would be ourselves. We kind of know a lot of the material better than anyone else . . . [Or] maybe the better remix will be somebody else, because they'll be a little more removed, so it's like if you're a doctor that has to save somebody's life, it shouldn't be your own family member. You should get a different doctor. Maybe it's the same sort of, like, if you're a remixer, it shouldn't be your own material. But that's a risk we may take. We may just go with it and see what we can do."
Not to say that La Di Da Di cannot stand on its own. On the contrary, the album is precisely woven with an architectural language that expands upon multiple listens. On "Dot Com," there is that distinct mid-'90s bubble — think "synergy" or "boom and bust cycle" — but the antithetical "Dot Net" evokes more of an abstract matrix rendered in Blender, less of the Web 1.0 rhetoric. Williams says this textural imagery is entirely intentional, even if they can't rely on it all the time.
"We put a lot of effort into that, just the pure aspect of the sounds," Williams says. "As opposed to 'this is a bass guitar,' we think about the actual sound. 'Is it squishy? Is it hard? Does it sound like a piece of wood?'"
Such physical translations draw influence from all over the globe in a very David Byrne way. "FF Bada" is somewhat Afrobeat, while "Luu Le" borrows elements of Cantonese opera, and "The Yabba" has elements of Arapaho music mixed with The Shadows' version of "Apache."
"There's never intentional cultural quoting going on. We're sort of into almost nursery rhyme, simple melodies in repeated pattern form," Williams continues, explaining his aim is to create a "very playful basicness as opposed to a specific coded genre."
That playfulness is translated into everything from the band's tilted sense of humor to its irregular setup. You might also notice, from Battles' videos and live shows, that the band doesn't play its instruments entirely conventionally. For example, Williams tilts his keyboard at a 45-degree angle and drummer John Stanier (formerly of alt-metal band Helmet) roosts his Zildjian K ride cymbal as high as possible. Williams swears there are practical reasons for the odd setup.
"The keyboard is naturally ergonomically designed for your hand to sort of approach it at a 40-degree angle, just like when you're sitting at a piano," Williams says. "So when you're standing in a rock band concert at a keyboard, to have that angle again, you have to put the keyboard really high. The thing I was thinking of more is that I am a cowboy and my keyboards are guns in my holster."
He adds, "By putting [the cymbal] a little further away from himself, [Stanier] plays it less. It's easy to fill the drumming up with the splash of the cymbal — it kinda eats up all the negative space — whereas if you make it a little more of an effort to get to the crash, you're not going to hit it as much. It makes your drumming a little more naked, like Phil Collins, [because] sometimes he doesn't use cymbals."
Battles, which is rounded out by former Lynx guitarist Dave Konopka, formed in 2002, around the time Williams left his role as a guitarist in Don Caballero. The band has always taken their time with releases, putting out three EPs in 2004 on three different labels before its debut, Mirrored, came out on Warp in 2007.
"I was really in no rush to make our initial statement. I wanted to have time to brew and go slow. So we sort of hovered for a couple years," Williams recalls. "It was a weird strategy but I think it actually worked cuz . . . Everybody had figured out a role and we had a good sound and that's the way we emerged."
Get the ICYMI: Today's Top Stories Newsletter Our daily newsletter delivers quick clicks to keep you in the know
Catch up on the day's news and stay informed with our daily digest of the most popular news, music, food and arts stories in Phoenix, delivered to your inbox Monday through Friday.