Battles: Sleight of Hand
- Words: Andrew Parks
Okay, so maybe a choir of cheerleaders was a bad idea, although it seemed brilliant at the time. Revolutionary even. "That was one of Ian's stipulations when we started the band; I think the concept had something to do with that movie Bring It On," says multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton, as I sit down for a few frothy rounds of Guinness (creamy hot chocolate, in Braxton's case) with the four very different, yet very similar members of Battles.
"[That] was one of the main reasons why I joined this band," adds drummer John Stanier. "Not because Ian asked me, but because he said there would be a chorus line of 12 girls. Me being the red-blooded, hot male that I am, I couldn't turn that down."
The Ian guy everyone keeps referring to is Battles guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, a demigod to math rock devotees (i.e. the band geeks that actually got laid in high school) due to his defining years in the band Don Caballero.
And as for that whole backup-singers thing, it wasn't a bullshit diversion to avoid talking to this journalist about the perils of playing in a "supergroup." (More on that later.) The "Smells Like Teen Spirit"-esque squad was actually a high-concept starting point for a group that didn't know what the hell they wanted to write when they formed three years ago. And, well, they still don't–the reason being that, for Battles, nothing is off limits. Hell, if they had a mic and some loop pedals in front of them right now, I could probably tell the quartet to turn our pint glasses into a claustrophobic cocoon of noise, and that medium-rare cheeseburger over there into some sort of squishy synth line.
"I wanted them to be like pitbulls onstage–screaming and yelling," explains Williams of his cheerleader choir idea. "But that was hard to pull off."
"It was a good idea at the time until we started having rehearsals and there were six girls in this small practice space," adds Braxton. "The dynamics were..."
Guitarist David Konopka hisses, purrs, and flicks his wrist like a cat batting one of those feather-on-a-stick things. Our entire booth erupts into laughter. Only I can't help thinking that the joke's on me. Because they can't be serious, can they?
Of course they can.
John Stanier wasn't so sure of this whole Battles idea at first. And neither was the rest of the band. Mostly because it wasn't a band, per se; more like a splatter-paint art project that grew out of Braxton and Williams watching (and admiring) each other's solo shows around New York City.
"To be perfectly honest, I had no idea what to expect," says Stanier. "I didn't know all these guys were gonna be in the band or what the sound would be. It took me three or four times of playing with them to get it. It wasn't one of those stories where I walked into the room, we started playing, and this magic happened. I almost bailed actually."
"The truth is this," says Konopka of his first session with Stanier. "The door swung open and this guy's standing there with his metal stare–ice cold, barely saying a word. I was like, 'Hey, what's up?' And he was just like, 'Hey.' Later on I asked him what's with the tough persona and he said, 'What, do you want a hug?'"
"I knew it would be good, but I also knew we had to get through a lot of bullshit," adds Williams. "For one thing, we didn't know what it would be. All I knew was I didn't want it to sound like Don Caballero. This band isn't where it is simply because of our resume."
Battles' resume doesn't just include Don Caballero and Braxton's acclaimed solo work; try Stanier's stints in Tomahawk (also featuring Mike Patton and members of The Melvins and The Jesus Lizard) and modern metal pioneers Helmet, as well as Konopka's past in cult favorites Lynx, a group the All Music Guide ironically describes as "a hybrid of the creativity and style of Oxes intersecting with the melodic spirit and rhythmic mind of Don Caballero." In other words, Battles was either going to work beautifully because opposites attract... or end in Stanier stabbing someone with the sharp end of his drum stick.
"Honestly, I had sworn off playing in a band [in favor of] being self-reliant, for emulating the sound of a bunch of people playing [with loop pedals]," says Braxton, who's currently working on another solo record for Warp. "I want structure and Ian wants everything open-ended, which I wasn't used to when this started. I'm way more eager to solidify an idea so I can work with it and Ian's a little more..."
"He's a little more hippie," continues Konopka. "Ian's approach is more like Van Gogh and Tyondai's is more like [photorealist] Chuck Close."
Stanier's drumming style worked so well in Tomahawk because–as that band's primary songwriter, Duane Denison, will tell you–it's "all about stripped-down, streamlined power–very locomotive, but not in a dumb way." Again, something with the power to crush Battles' other elements, yet it doesn't. "Battles is a similar thing, but the music is way different," explains Denison. "They're almost like a futurist pop band."
"I dug Battles from day one," says Scott Herren (also known as Prefuse 73), who has a side project with Braxton and ex-Black Dice drummer/current Soft Circle sound sculptor Hisham Bharoocha. (Braxton also appeared on Prefuse 73's Surrounded by Silence LP.) "The off-kilter, yet tight-as-fuck sounds appealed to me, and then the drums dropped and Tyondai was beat-boxing on that shit. I was sold, so I worked quite hard to get them on Warp and for my fans to see what they could do. Now I'm opening for those superstars!"
Battles describes their 2005 tour with Prefuse 73 and an early leg with Mars Volta as breakthrough moments, especially compared to their first show, a Christmas bill in Brooklyn with Les Savy Fav that Stanier describes as a "nightmare." And then there was their third gig, a coveted supporting slot for The Melvins, Tomahawk, and the Fantômas/Melvins Big Band.
I ask how that one went and Stanier lets out a hearty laugh. "I remember The Melvins simply saying they thought our show was... 'interesting,'" he says.
Curious concertgoers that show up to Battles gigs simply because of its family tree might concur.
"We'll play Milwaukee or whatever and there will be some kids there early on that you can totally tell are Helmet fans–slamming beers and everything," says Konopka. "We'll start playing, and they're all just kinda like, 'What the fuck?'"
"And by the end of the show they'll like it," adds Stanier, "But they won't know why. I think it scares them."
Battles will release their first-full length on Warp in May, after letting loose a trilogy of cryptic EPs on Cold Sweat, Monitor, and Dim Mak. The record finds the quartet finally bringing together a batch of songs that matches the manic intensity of their live shows–an album that commands you to 'Move your feet, motherfucker!' like 50 layers of locked grooves. Of course, Mirrored also sounds like a mental patient that ran out of his meds. Look, there's a reason why the group's first three EPs carried such scrambled song titles as "B + T," "TRAS3," and "UW." And it isn't because Ian Williams wanted to fuck with us or was too lazy to think of something more lyrical. It's because Battles writes music too bizarre and otherworldly to be boiled down to blatant song titles, or masturbatory signifiers like "math rock" or "post-rock."
"The thing about Battles is that it can be math-y or whatever," explains Stanier, "but we're also blazing our own trail that's interesting to us and accessible to other people, where you don't have to be a Don Caballero or Tomahawk fan to get into it."
Seriously. Take the LP's lead single, "Atlas." While I still can't wrap my head around why it makes me want to sprint up my bedroom walls like Spiderman or bang my head (like Black Dice's recent rhythmic-as-hell records), I do know it's the best song the band has written.
The rest of Mirrored's puzzle pieces are also much less obvious than putting a guitar-hero part here, or metronomic drum lead there. For the first time, the group dabbles in vocals, if you can call them that. "I don't mind doing instrumental music, but there are some unnecessary constraints along with that," says Braxton, when I ask him about that decision.
"I wasn't opposed to being in an instrumental band either, but once I heard Ty's solo records and saw him live I thought we were wasting an amazing talent," explains Stanier.
"It's like having a goose that can lay a golden egg and never making an omelette from it," adds Konopka. "The vocals are extremely tasteful, too. He didn't come out of the gate sounding like Lisa Loeb or Conor Oberst." Or, as Braxton explains it, "There isn't too much Rahzel-type beat-boxing. Thank God."
It remains to be seen how people will react to Battles' most refined, self-assured release. Frankly, I've been listening to Mirrored for two weeks straight now and still don't get it. Not in a frustrating, Berklee College of Music way, where a band's too busy showing off their knowledge of time signatures to write satisfying songs; it's just hard to grasp why this galloping guitar, that nail-gun drum, and completely nonsensical singing create such order in chaos.
It seems it is why the most apt metaphor for Mirrored might be a chart Battles kept in their recording studio while making the record. It listed abstract sound ideas only they could understand, with parts named "layer one in," "skipper," and "Christmas mountain." "It'd be like, 'Let's double the 'Angelica Houston' part and go right into the 'funky coyote' two bars later,'" explains Stanier of their system.
I say "system," but that's assuming there is a method to the madness. The truth is, Battles is a puzzle not even its members know how to put together.
They can try, though. "The goal is to find a pure form of whatever this is," says Braxton, "and not align ourselves with anything."
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