Careful Planning and Prolonged Mutation: An Interview with Battles
Drummer John Stanier speaks out about the ins and outs of the band's raw (and entirely instrumental) new album La Di Da Di and why their live show is so important.
Battles are a band notorious for defying categorization, but on La Di Da Di, their third album (and second since the departure of vocalist Tyondai Braxton), the instrumental trio don't seem to sweat it too much.
Gone are the guest vocalists used to great effect on 2011's Gloss Drop, gone are the big metamorphic melodies of songs like "Atlas" and "Ice Cream", and gone are the accessible qualities that sometimes penetrated through their earlier efforts' densely elaborate compositions. What's left is the band's rawest, heaviest, and most potent record to date -- and the one hardest to classify.
Over the years, dozens of boilerplate tags have been thrown at Battles' singular sound in an attempt to more easily understand it. "Math rock," besides being an absurd phrase disowned by practically every artist it's applied to, doesn't quite fit Battles, who, despite writing and performing technically challenging and rhythmically intricate music, mostly stick to standard time signatures and follow fairly conventional structures. "Experimental rock" is both slightly too broad and far too generic considering the band's deep commitment to decidedly "not-rock" elements like electronic looping and digital sampling.
"Post-rock" and "art rock" have become increasingly vague descriptors, "electronic rock" might be technically true but fails to capture any nuance, and "indie" is a comically meaningless catch-all term these days. Battles are apparently capable of squirming out of basically every pigeonhole levied at them, but it also seems to suit them, and their music, just fine.
Speaking with drummer John Stanier about La Di Da Di, Battles' past, and evolving dynamics within the band, it's clear that he's self-assured in their musical identity, even if no one else can easily define it. "99% of what we do is very planned out," Stanier says. He's also exacting about the language used to describe Battles ("The Yabba" is not a single, they don't jam, etc.), but he allows some room for interpretation and transformation ("So much of our stuff just kind of mutates after long periods of time," he says).
What's made clear is that behind the inscrutable magic seeping out of every second of La Di Da Di is a methodical and deliberate set of musical processes meticulously organized by the fastidious minds of Stanier, keyboardist/guitarist Ian Williams and guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka. It's not alchemy, nor is it a perfect science; if you ask them, it's probably best to just drop the muddled, imprecise language and let the music and the band speak for itself.
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When did you start working on La Di Da Di?
I'd say realistically about two and a half years ago. We toured for a year and a half on the last record, took a little bit of time off, and then started working on this one little by little. And there were some things that happened here and there, some personal things. So realistically about two and a half years ago.
The recording process for Gloss Drop seemed like it was kind of plagued with a lot of problems. Did that experience alter how you wanted to approach recording the new album?
No, not really. That was kind of a unique thing. I mean, we were literally in the studio for almost nine months for that record, so of course we didn't want that to happen again. It was a way more relaxed way of writing this time around, and it was basically in spurts, in these periods where for a while we all wrote individually. I was in Berlin, I went on tour with another band I'm in, and like I said some personal stuff happened. We had a lot of time to ourselves, and then we would get together, and then sometimes two of us would get together, but it was much more relaxed. Then we recorded it and our label said we should wait a while until [we release it]. So there's various reasons why it took this long.
The record is very stark, almost elemental in comparison to Battles' first two albums in a lot of ways: it's very rhythmic, very loop-centric, no vocals, very few prominent melodic hooks. Were you actively trying to separate it from the tone of those first two records?
Not necessarily. I wouldn't say we were actively trying to do anything. I mean, we actively try not to repeat ourselves every record for sure. The way we would write, it's so up in the air and stuff changes so much that it wouldn't make any sense for us to sit down and say, "Okay, we're gonna write this kind of record." We didn't even sit down and say, you know, "Let's do an instrumental record." It was almost just like, "Let's not worry about vocals right now. Maybe there will be vocals, maybe there won't be vocals, we have no idea. Let's just wait." And at the end it was just like, "Well, I guess there's no vocals." So much of our stuff just kind of mutates into other things after long periods of time.
The album also feels a lot more sprawling, improvisational and maybe even a little jam-focused at times. Clearly you've always been prone to experimentation in the studio, but is that something you specifically wanted to emphasize with this record?
I would say not at all. I mean, the improvisational element to us is thematic, almost. We're absolutely not a jam band. It's safe to say that 99% of what we do is very planned out. With some of the segue-ways in between songs live there's some improv going on, and very little here and there, but definitely not any jamming.
You've talked a lot about how the three of you in the band are attracted to different artistic sensibilities and bring different aesthetics to the writing. Was that dynamic as prominent before Gloss Drop or is that something you've gotten more comfortable with recently?
Yeah, I'd say we've definitely become more comfortable with it recently. Before, you were always fighting for musical real estate, you know? Everyone's trying to get their voice in, everyone's trying to get their little line in, and it was kind of a traffic jam half the time. Now there's just so much more space. I'd say we're absolutely much more comfortable this time around.
"Atlas" and "Ice Cream" were both pretty clear choices for singles, but La Di Da Di doesn't really have any obvious options. How did you decide that "The Yabba" would be the first single off this album?
Well, I don't think it's a single. I don't think we're marketing this record as something with a hit radio single. There aren't any singles. There's no vocals (not that a single has to have vocals) but it's more that we definitely wanted to put out a strong album.
I'm not on this crusade to save the art of the album versus a bunch of singles, because that's sort of the world we live in now. You can buy tracks three and seven off iTunes for a dollar each, and, you know, that's just the reality of it, and that's fine, but we just wanted to put together a really cohesive full length record where the songs kind of intertwined with each other. The sequence was really important, we kind of agonized over the sequence.
But yeah, "The Yabba", to me, is just the first bit of music from the record that people are hearing. I mean, it's seven minutes long, so that's obviously too long to be on the radio and it's definitely not a single. We're not looking at this record in that way, I think.
In interviews and in the Ableton documentary you seem to talk a lot about the importance of the live component of the band. How do you feel that your performances have evolved since the beginning of Battles?
I think it's evolved in the sense that now we're three people, and like I said earlier, because we've been a trio for these last two records, that opens up so much more space. You have to use the tools that you have in order to pull that off live, which is a completely different can of worms and a totally different challenge. I feel like [performing] every record live is a new obstacle -- well, not an obstacle, but a new situation that we have to kind of take by the horns and figure out.
You said you struggled with sequencing La Di Da Di. Talking about playing live, is it hard for you to come up with setlists when you have to combine the new songs with tracks from Mirrored and Gloss Drop? Is that as agonizing for you?
I wouldn't say it's agonizing. To be honest, we haven't even played enough shows yet. We have one setlist that we're doing right now. I think we have four shows and then after that we're gonna switch it up even more, but it's all been very fast. Like I said, I was in Berlin, so it's not like we're rehearsing every day -- it's in these spurts here and there. So we have a little bit of work to do but, you know, we'll see.
Alright, going down a different path: do you think the stigma against looping techniques and electronic components in live music, especially in rock, is something you're consciously trying to fight?
Well, I agree with you that some people have a stigma against electronic stuff, but I don't know about looping, necessarily. If you listen to music, the average person doesn't know how it's created and they don't really know how it's being pulled off live, or even if it's being pulled off live or if it's someone on stage who just presses a button on a laptop. The average person doesn't know that, especially if you just listen to music. If you listen to something that's a little bit electronic and there's loops in it, you can't just right off the bat say, "Oh yeah, I can tell they're playing these loops live on stage and they're actually creating these loops and they're using their electronic tools to really make this thing work." The average person doesn't know that.
I'm sure there is this huge stigma, because there's a lot of really lame shit out there where people just have everything sequenced and they're just dancing around in front of the laptop, and that's terrible. That sucks. But it is what it is, you know, it's fine. I'm not on some crusade to rid the world of that. I mean, it's not me. I wouldn't want to do that, so we don't. We absolutely pull all this stuff off live, and we practice for months and months and months and months to be able to do that. I wouldn't really be able to get off if we did it otherwise. I don't like cheating, I'm not into cheating at all.