The New York genre-busters
are back as a trio, and in full attack mode.
BY KENNY HERZOG
There are plenty of rock bands out there following the beaten path,
but not too many still breaking the mold. Or at least without deviating wildly
from the genre’s native instrumental triad of guitar, bass and drums. Which is
precisely why music fans justifiably lost their minds when New York supergroup Battles unearthed 2007’s
monster debut LP, Mirrored. Without
pre-meditating the results, foursome John Stanier (drums), Ian Williams
(guitar), Tyondai Braxton (guitar/vocals) and Dave Konopka (bassist) maxed out
their palate of sounds and arrangements available, creating an album that was
singular and comprehensive, eclectic and astute. Basically, it was the past
half-decade’s great American rock ‘n’ roll freakout record.
Fast forward to 2009, and as the group is wrapping up their sophomore
bow, Braxton departs to pursue his own ventures, leaving the remaining members
embattled to say the least, and potentially screwed at worst. But Stanier,
Williams and Konopka stayed the course and relied on what brought them such
acclaim to begin with, gathering and re-configuring the bits and pieces that
remained in Braxton’s wake and assembling a bigger, better machine. And on the
resulting Gloss Drop (Warp Records), the
sum of their parts has emerged triumphantly like Voltron or Robocop, but with artillery
of algorithmic guitars, jazz-fluent percussion that’s mean like a gorilla and
flourishes of steel drum and other ebullience that makes the album a study in
both contrast and chaos.
They’ve also got the significant contributions of friends such as
Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye and Gary Numan fleshing out nearly half of Gloss Drop with Battles’ most lucid
vocals yet. And just before they hit the world’s roads for their standard
massive tour, Stanier took a few minutes to give some insight into life after a
key bandmate leaves, and being just about anything but a jam band.
BLURT: With Tyondai
no longer in the band, does that make you the de facto frontman?
JOHN STANIER: I think we’ve always been kind of anti-frontman. So
that’s just a big, flat no.
Well, there has
been a fine tradition of drumming band leaders.
The Romantics, the
The Romantics, yeah, of course. But couldn’t you say that Joe Walsh
was the frontman for the Eagles as well? I think the Eagles only because [Don
Henley] sang “Hotel California.”
Whatever the new
division of labor, it is a very different band in some ways, but seems intact
in many other areas. Was it just a matter of adjusting and responding to the
I wish that it was that simple. It kind of sucked. I feel like we were
so late already, and we kind of instantly turned into a three-piece, came back
to New York
for a week and didn’t talk to each other for a couple days. And then we got
together, drank a lot of beer and just turned around and went back up there and
continued on. The thing about this whole record and making this record was
time. There was no time whatsoever. There wasn’t any time to even sit down and
have this important meeting with the three of us. There wasn’t any time to
think about, “Well, do we want to make an instrumental record, do we want to
find a fourth person now, do we want one person to sing the whole record?” We
were like, “Well, there were these four songs that need vocals, so let’s call
some people and worry about how we’re gonna do all this live and all that
later.” We were forced to totally act on instinct and totally reinvent
ourselves overnight, and there was no time to sit around and dwell and things
or wonder if we’re gonna be able to pull this off or if people are gonna like
this…. The last drop of my blood [went] into finishing this record.
And as it turns
out, the addition of more realized vocals helps give Gloss Drop more of a loose, playful feel than Mirrored.
The playful, lightheartedness of the record is definitely by accident.
It’s not like we sat down and [said], “Wow, everyone’s bummed out and depressed
so let’s make this really fun-sounding record.” It sort of just came out that
way subliminally. I think if anything we took an extremely negative situation
and turned it into a positive one, and maybe that came out of the music. But
there’s a lot of anguish in some of those songs too.
So would you say
that, all told, it’s an especially moody record?
Definitely. We were in an extremely moody, dark place making it. And
there was no time for us to sit around and listen to records together and get
new influences and stuff like that. You’re forced to dig really deep down inside
and use influences from maybe 20 years ago that you never used. Being in that
position reminds you of why you’re doing this in the first place. I wish that
it wouldn’t be in these particular circumstances, but it definitely was like,
“OK, yeah, this is why I’m doing this.” Having it happen naturally without
overthinking stuff is a really interesting, cool thing.
It also feels
like a much looser album structurally, whereas Mirrored was a very precise, carefully sequenced and bookended
I know it’s a horrible, vague, lazy answer, but a lot of it just came
out the way it did, and I feel like we were lucky with that. But I will say
that it was a total unified creation. We were all definitely on the same page.
The two guys from [recording studio] Machines with Magnets, Keith Souza and
Seth Manchester, played a super big role, much more than with Mirrored. [On] Mirrored, we were
really well rehearsed, we had the majority of the record written before, we
rehearsed it in the rehearsal room and we road-tested it. We went up there and
everything was kind of analog, we set up in the big live room, they kind of
just pressed record, the typical way of making a record, whereas this was the
total opposite of that. There were no songs for us to rehearse beforehand, and
we had to scrap everything and start from scratch, that’s when they really came
into play. There was a lot of playing stuff in different rooms and recording
the drums a different way. The mission was on. We were doing 14-hour days, we
were sleeping in there. We slipped into this trance-like state. And that’s what
I mean-it was reminding me this is definitely why I do this.
So by necessity,
was the recording of Gloss Drop informed
in equal parts by the throw-it-against-the-wall attitude of the first EPs and
the professionalism of Mirrored?
I don’t know if it goes back to the EPs. I definitely think that the
evolution of this band is pretty apparent. If I listen to the EPs, I think
they’re great, but wow, we were such a totally different band back then. We
didn’t know each other, we didn’t know what we were doing. The whole history of
this band is this very slow-moving, organic entity. We didn’t start the way
most typical bands start. It wasn’t necessarily an art project, but it was kind
of simmering for years and the EPs came out of that. And then there was Mirrored, and [Gloss Drop] is taking it up a notch from there.
One way that fans
have described your sound as it’s evolved is that you’re essentially rock’s
greatest jam band for people who don’t like jam bands.
I don’t know. That’s fine, but I thought jam bands kind of jam. We
definitely do not jam.
I think it’s more
a reference to the dense experimentalism of the band, and how it might be
easier to latch onto than your usual exploratory artist.
That’s cool. A lot of my friends, they’re totally honest, they’re
like, “I like elements of Battles does, but I like those elements so much that
I get something out of it seeing it live or listening to the records.” I’d
almost rather have the ear of a total wide variety of people that are like,” I
like this. I don’t know why I like this, but I do like it a lot. I like some
songs better than others” than people who are just gonna buy every single note
you put out blindly. I literally have had people say to me, “It’s weird. I
never listen to this kind of music, ever, but you’re the only band.” That’s
amazing, that somehow, something that we’re doing is reaching this person that
obviously, looking through their iPods, normally would not be into the music. I
don’t see why you can’t push some boundaries and make something
forward-thinking and not have total fun with it. Nine times out of 10, it seems
over-analytical and considered really serious music. I think that’s why I’m
glad we’re not an instrumental band. I think it’s fine, but after a while, you
sort of get stuck in this instrumental band world. And sometimes, instrumental
band equals serious, instrumental band equals jazz. I would never want to be in
that position. I’m a rock guy at the end of the day. I want to have fun.
So as an example,
you wouldn’t want to be classified in the vein of a band like Tortoise.
Well, you said that, I didn’t.
And with Gloss Drop, at the end of the day, you
probably came out with a record similar in tone and attitude to what you’d have
Yeah, I totally agree. Again, we did not do this on purpose. It all
just came out that way. I think a lot of it is because of the situation we were
in, and it certainly wasn’t just the lineup change. There were other, really
significant factors that came into play in the last year and a half. It was a
very difficult time, but I do think that it somehow came out in that manner.
It also doesn’t
sound as if Tyondai’s departure was super acrimonious, even if it did create a
sense of urgency with the record itself.
Of course not. I can’t candy-coat the situation. It sucked, it was
horrible, but once again, there just wasn’t any time to even dwell on that. We
played in Japan
first, and that was the first time we played as a three-piece, and we only
rehearsed for two weeks. We haven’t been able to relax for two seconds. There were a couple of times on this tour
where I was like, “Man, I can’t believe we’re even doing this.” In retrospect,
I guess I’m glad there wasn’t any time. We’d probably have abandoned the
recording, we’d still be sitting here, we’d be totally broke, and the record
wouldn’t come out until 2015 or something. So we had to do this, and we did.
worried about an emotional or physical crash in a few months?
No, because we got that out of our system already. I think it’s fine
now. We’re pushing it with the stuff that we’re doing, but I feel like I’m so
happy with the record, I’m really happy with the video that we did, Japan was awesome, all the shows in Europe were sold out. So that sort of buffers any
emotional crash. We already experienced that upon completion of the record.
currently on a UK
tour and will be on the road into the fall. Check tour dates here.