The Center Is the Loop: An Interview with John Stanier of Battles

[11 September 2011]

By Jason Adams

Despite its many innovations, Battles’ recent album Gloss Drop (2011) did not attract quite the same hype from critics as did Mirrored a few years back. And yet the group avers that it is this newest work rather than the more famous introductory album that is their “grand statement”.

While Mirrored showcased a new, original sound that instantly won over critics and listeners alike, Gloss Drop reinvents what had been originally stated, creating new sonic territories that not only challenges listeners to attend to its intricate interiors, but also seduces them to become active participants in its development.

And yet, its reliance on digital production technologies results also in a decentering: not only of the group’s internal musical roles in relation to its technological context, but also of the listener’s role as a “passive consumer.” So much so in fact, that the potentially undemocratic notion of an art for artists alone would itself seem to be challenged. As a result, Gloss Drop, even moreso than Mirrored, upends the conventional relation of rhythm and melody, pop and rock.

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PopMatters talks with Battles drummer John Stanier about the band’s unique take on lyrical expression, the zone of indistinction between rhythm and melody, and the recontextualization of the pop-rock formula.

I’m curious about the name Battles.  On the surface, it suggests some of the energy and intensity of old hardcore, punk, or metal, maybe something like was already the case with Helmet, but recontextualized in a new situation. The fact that it’s a plural rather than singular term also brings to mind the nature of battle or of conflict today: no longer the battle or the struggle, but battles in the plural. In what sense is Battles engaged not in all-out revolutionary war, but, as your promotional material suggests, a perpetual series of sonic skirmishes? Does music need to adopt a more complex aesthetic in the early 21st century, in the wake of the Internet and the digital revolution as a whole?

Well, I look at it like, who am I to tell anyone what music should be in the 21st century? I wouldn’t want everyone to share that school of thought, because that would be kind of boring. When it comes down to the song titles and the band name, it was almost always a complete afterthought. Battles is kind of a generic word, but not necessarily in a bad way. I think it is kind of cool that we didn’t use a pretentious four-word name. I enjoyed the early days where you know, kids thought we were like a metal band, we were playing these small clubs. I don’t think we were too analytical with it: if I remember correctly, it was either going to be “Battles” or “Deep Cuts,” so we went with Battles. It’s just one word, it’s a strong word. It was always amazing to us that people would look way too hard into why we’re called Battles. It’s amusing in a weird way. But I think it’s good that we didn’t go with a super pretentious four-word band name.

Right, many post-rock and math rock bands have very long names and song titles and it seems that a more clear, punchy name like “Battles” already tells the listener that this might be a little more accessible, even though really, below the surface, it just as complex or maybe even much more complex than many of the bands in those genres.

Well yeah, I don’t want someone instantly thinking that they know what we’re all about simply by reading our band name, or reading the song titles, or simply by reading the name of our album. It’s way too much information to be giving to someone before they’ve even encountered our music. I could never really understand why bands do that. I mean there are definitely band names where you read them and you instantly know what kind of music it is. It’s like, that’s enough. I already know exactly what they sound like, because they gave way too much away. If you have a lot more to say and a lot more to offer, why give it all away like that?

What does your drumming bring to the Battles project that it didn’t bring to say, Tomahawk or Helmet? It seems that in the resistance to conventions that is seemingly at the core of the group’s aesthetic, one of the battles being undertaken is a battle with genre itself. I know you’re also a big lover of hip-hop, so I’m wondering if that resistance allows you to maybe bring some of that into the mix, in some way. I was also curious if for you as a drummer, given that the way that the guitar as well as the other instruments are utilized, whether it becomes difficult to make a distinction between what specifically is rhythm and what is melody. Listening to Gloss Drop, it’s as though the whole ensemble is both rhythmic and melodic at once: so I’m curious how you as drummer interact with the other musicians, insofar as they seem to form a rhythm section as well.

That’s interesting. I think probably the root of all that is that from day one, Battles’ center has been the loop. Typically, in a band, the drums are serving as the meter, so everything is organized around the drums and the tempo. But when you’re playing with loops, the loop is really the drummer. In a strange way, there’s always, in pretty much every Battles song, the “mother loop” and it’s generally the very first thing that is written. And that really, indirectly, is kind of running the show. People are playing off of me, I’m playing off of other people, but indirectly through this weird chain of events, the mother loop is controlling what’s going on. So as a result of that, the traditional role of rhythm and melody become kind of blurred, where it doesn’t really have to be necessarily, “Oh, the guitarist and vocalist obviously does the melody and the bass player and the drummer do the rhythm.” It’s not like that in Battles: it’s kind of all over the place, so I think some people might think that, on the one hand, it sounds kind of limiting: but on the other hand, it’s the opposite of that, because it really opens up endless possibilities for the merging of those two worlds.

Do you bring hip-hop influences into your drumming as a result of that openness?

No, I love hip-hop. But I don’t listen to hip-hop for rhythmic inspiration. It’s kind of boring when you think about it. I mean, I like to sink my teeth into it, but I certainly don’t listen to hip-hop for any kind of new, weird beat I’ve never heard before.

One thing I noticed about the drums is that they sound really full, really big. And when I think about a band like Godspeed You Black Emperor, there’s a similar kind of intensity and experimentation. But aesthetically, it’s generally very dark and melancholic. Battles seems much more joyous in a certain way. I’m not sure what production methods you use to produce that sound, but the drums seem to maintain the virility and intensity of the music despite this playfulness, whatever other aesthetic qualities might be introduced.

Well, the way we did this record [Gloss Drop] is kind of the opposite of how we did the last one [Mirrored]. On this one, we recorded the drums in two different ways, one was the typical live room acoustic drums, but then we also recorded some songs in a room the size of a closet, with dry drums: you know, Rick Rubin hip-hop style. We would really isolate the drums, then bring them up in the mix, whereas in Mirrored, it was pretty much the same drum sound throughout the entire record. Which is great, that’s fine - but I think this time we wanted a little more. So we had those two options, which was radically different between the two sounds.

Is that what would you say is especially different in the overall rhythmic sound of Gloss Drop compared to Mirrored?

Well yeah, mostly that about half the record uses dry drums, which really allows us to control the sound so much more, so we can distort it rather than being like, “there’s the drum sound and that’s that.” And I think also on this record too, there are some songs where the drums were brought in last, which is almost unheard of. I mean, I’ve never done that before. So that was pretty interesting, I thought, to have all this information, all these other parts. There’s all this stuff going on and it’s like “Okay, now you have to come up with the drums, with all this information already handed to you.”  So it was very challenging.

That actually brings me to my next question, which is about the vocals: I wanted to ask what the role of vocals and lyrics is in Battles’ music, because generally speaking, the listener can’t really make out the lyrics without looking them up and even after attempting to, they’re usually not available in the album notes or online. So I’m wondering, is Battles using vocals and lyrics more as a musical instrument, as opposed to making that the center for understanding what the song might or might not mean? Is this forcing the listener to become more active in the process? I’m especially interested because there was a line, one of the few I was able to find, which reads, “The kitchen is the cook / the singer is a crook.” So, the fact that you’re putting in drums last, the fact that lyrics and the vocals are not necessarily the center of meaning in Battles’ aesthetic, all of that kind of suggests that this a very different type of musical project than much of what is already out there, under the auspices of rock or pop.

Well yeah, definitely the vocals have always been something we wanted to use as just another instrument. We never wanted that to be the main thing that you’re hearing. On the new record you know, there’s four different, distinctive vocalists. Generally, you can’t understand what they’re saying in the first place - which I really, really like. On the song “Ice Cream,” Matias’s singing in this kind of Spanglish. It’s not really Spanish. Part of it is and part of it isn’t. And then Kazu pretty much invented her own language. That’s not Japanese that she’s singing in there. So yeah, I like using vocals more as an instrument, but if the song calls for actual lyrics and melody in the vocal line, then of course, you should do that, I think. It’s just a question of which one does and which one doesn’t.

Returning to your interest in hip-hop, one thing I was intrigued by is that in Gloss Drop, there are all of these guest vocalists, which kind of reminds me actually of how a lot of hip-hop artists will bring on a parade of guest rappers and it will say on the album cover, you know, “featuring Notorious B.I.G.” or whatever. It seems that there is no real center per se, to the group.

Right, that’s kind of what we wanted to achieve, because there were four songs that obviously needed vocals, so why not just ask a different person for each song? It just makes perfect sense to me. It contributes to the variety aspect of the record.  And I think it worked.

So what do you think of the relationship between pop and rock in relation to Battles? That choice of not really having a center, of resisting typical genre conventions reminds me of the British music theorist Simon Frith’s argument that rock is all about authenticity and originality, whereas pop is more commercial and therefore draws on all kinds of different genres, trying to appeal to the lowest common denominator. But with this idea in the Battles aesthetic that “the kitchen is the cook”, that rather than the cook being “in” the kitchen, the kitchen itself is the cook, I kind of get the sense that what’s happening here could be described as taking the methodology of pop, drawing on all of these different conventions and making something new out of it that could have broad appeal, and yet also trying to maintain the rock sense of uniqueness and authenticity at the same time.

Yeah. I think that what you just said is kind of awesome. I mean, it’s like, I love pop music and I think that, in a weird way, in this world I would like to be able to achieve two things. For the pop aspect, there’s nothing quite like hearing an amazing pop song that you listen to and it becomes the soundtrack to your every waking moment. But it’s like candy, in the sense that it’s like, the greatest thing you’ve ever heard in your entire life - for about one week. So you’re listening to it all the time, in your car, you can’t get it off your iPod, it’s just crazy and you love it to death. You listen to it too much and after a week, you put it on the shelf and you probably don’t listen to it again for another decade, because you just exhausted the shit out of that song. But you had such an amazing time doing it and you got so much out of that, that it’s kind of worth it. And in comparison to that, there’s some rock records that, if you have it on vinyl or something and you have to turn your record player on and it’s not something you can just throw on passively. You’re forced to really listen to it. It’s kind of a slow-building enjoyment, where it might take a tiny bit of effort to listen to it at first. It’s not music that you can listen to while you’re driving your car, you listen to it home. It takes on different meanings. It takes a little bit more effort to absorb what’s going on. And it takes just the amount of time in which you’ve burned out on this pop song - that same amount of time - it takes you that long to just start to get into this record you had to listen to ten times, before you really start to understand what’s going on and then you find yourself. It becomes this record that you listen to, not every single day and not all the time walking around. But it becomes this record that lasts for years, a record that never really goes away and stands the test of time. So being able to combine both of those two reactions I think is like, the ultimate goal, in a really weird way, if that makes any sense.

Absolutely. I was just having a discussion with a musician friend of mine and we were talking about how in classical music, Schoenberg is sort of music for other musicians, whereas you know, something like Michael Jackson is music for the masses. Battles feels to me like it’s both music for musicians and music for the masses, at once.

Right, yeah. And I think that that’s awesome. I think it just so happens it turned out that way, that was definitely not a premeditated move on our part. The one sort of manifesto that we’ve had is basically that, I don’t understand why we can’t be forward thinking and also have it be fun. Like, I don’t understand why music that is pushing the envelope and making people think and really trying to do new stuff, nine times out of ten, it’s like really boring, analytical and elitist and just kind of like chin-stroking and super-super serious - because you know, “Oh we’re creating art and we’re pushing the envelope.” That’s super-boring. It’s boring to think that way and it might be awesome, but it’s not fun. Schoenberg is great and I love that, but I’m not going to put that on at a party. That’s not fun, you know? It’s interesting and I totally appreciate it on one level, but it’s not fun. But, that said, you know, you get sick of playing Van Halen after a while, so it’s kind of like, what’s the balance there? Why can’t you achieve both things? Why can’t you push the envelope and do something new and also have fun with it at the same time, so that more people will get on board and have fun with you?

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