Battles' Ian Williams on Math Rock, Scottsdale, and Cowbells

Math rock, post rock, prog rock. Whatever you want to call it, it usually doesn't sound very fun.

Gloss Drop, the latest record from Battles, defies that notion. The album, featuring guest vocals from Gary Numan, Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead, and Yamantaka Eye of the Boredoms in the wake of singer Tyondai Braxton leaving to focus on his solo career, is funky, angular, and danceable.

Guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams isn't a big fan of "math rock" anyway, as a term or a genre. "I got that stuff out of my system at a younger part of my life," Williams says. "I'm a grown up now. And we don't think of ourselves as "math rock." Whenever we hear the music -- and who knows what the hell math rock is anyway -- but whenever we hear music that people say is math rock, I think we usually do not like it."

Williams took some time to discuss Gloss Drop, working with Gary Numan, and inquire about the Scottsdale scene.

Battles is scheduled to perform Tuesday, October 18, at the Venue Scottsdale.

Up on the Sun: I've been spending time with the new album, Gloss Drop. It's a really cool record, but very different than I expected it to be.

Ian Williams: Yeah? How did you expect it to be?

I was familiar with your work in Don Caballero, but I hadn't spent much time with Mirrored. What I heard I liked, but I feel like Gloss Drop is way more fun than I expected it to be.

It's a happy record. I think the idea of "math rock" conjures up ideas of something being not funky or more obtuse than it is soulful.

Definitely. I got that stuff out of my system at a younger part of my life. I'm a grown up now. And we don't think of ourselves as "math rock." Whenever we hear the music -- and who knows what the hell math rock is anyway -- but whenever we hear music that people say is math rock, I think we usually do not like it.

Tyondai Braxton left while you were making this record. It was an amicable split, right?


I assume that meant you guys needed to rework the record.

The way the record got made, we were having a hard time deciding what to do. Not deciding. We were having a hard time synthesizing everybody's parts, you know? The songs were getting written separately, like I would write in a studio, Dave [Konopka, mulch-instrumentalist] would write in a mini-studio, and Ty would, too.

We had such disparate views on how these things were going to come together to become a song. A lot of stuff - Ty was vocals, he was trying to set up to be a lead singer on this record. It was hard. We've always been a democracy, in terms of everybody [being] into an idea to make it go. Which is complicated, because everyone has a differing opinion. Somehow we get through hit, but this record would just not come together.

So when he left, it actually solved a lot problems. In that -- we were able to basically not use any of his parts. Dave and I - it became a lot simpler with three people, and Dave and I were able to synthesize our things, and John [Stanier, drums] worked out beats. It saved the record. We were able to focus on our own parts.

We had a couple songs that we were strongly thinking of as being vocal songs, we wanted to have a singer. Being that Ty was out of the picture, it was a matter of reaching out to other people.

I wondered if you guys might have had associations with a band like Blonde Redhead, but with someone like Gary Numan, did you think, 'This is just a shot in the dark?'

Definitely with Gary Numan, on the level of, would he even do it? We didn't know Gary Numan. He's from a different generation, a different type of music, a different continent. We were like, 'Wouldn't it be crazy if we could somehow track Gary Numan down and get him to sing?' And it actually worked.

There are a lot of jokes made about John's cymbal being way up in the air.

I've got a cowbell way up high [now]. To compete with John, I now have a cymbal stand and I stretch it as high as I can and put a cowbell on top. So I reach up to play a cowbell.

Maybe it's more of a question for John, but is there an element of forcing restraint in him placing it there?

Yeah, to put the cymbal out of the way, so he doesn't hit it as much. I like that, I like drumming that is less about the splash of the cymbal and more about the percussion. So when he does hit it, it's like, 'Whoa, he's hitting the cymbal.' It's more tasteful.

Do you do that? Come up with ways to force yourself into stranger situations?

I still think of myself as a guitar player [and now I'm playing two keyboards on stage]. People are like, 'Oh, you're the guy that plays keyboards.' So all the sudden I'm now a keyboard player, which to me is somehow dorkier, it's not cool...

Like the keyboardist in Spinal Tap.

Yeah, you just stand there. It's somehow not rock. But, yeah -- that has been a challenge to make it inspirational and I think I've found ways to keep myself feeling inspired. But you get over those hurdles. If you work with the things you don't like, it makes you have to come up with solutions that are more inspired than what you like to work. Making yourself work with things that wouldn't be your first choice is a way of doing that.

What's Scottsdale like? Is it part of Phoenix? I think the last time we played in some little blues bar.

Yeah, Rhythm Room. You guys are playing Scottsdale. It's center of the the club scene.

So it will be like, girls in short skirts and high heels?

Yeah, exclusively.


I think people who like Battles will end up making their way there, but maybe there will be some crossover as well. Which is cool, because you don't really make stuffy indie rock music.

In Europe, I think partly because we're on Warp Records, it's history as an electronic label, we're swimming in four on the floor, 120 BPM -- we're surrounded by that stuff all the time. I kind of like a balance. If I'm around that stuff too much I get a little bummed out, but a bit of everything is cool, you know?

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Jason P. Woodbury is a music and pop-culture writer based in Phoenix. He is a regular contributor to the music blog Aquarium Drunkard and co-host of the Transmissions podcast.