Battles - The Yabba

Through Limbs
and Wires

© Tom Andrew

Words by:

“That was a joke. Seriously.”

John Stainer surveys the table. Opposite him sits Ian Williams and Dave Konopka. The afternoon sun braids around pockets of grey cloud. Stainer quickly rubbernecks his bandmates before returning his attention back to the question. It’s early June and practically no information on Battle’s third studio album La Di Da Di has been released. All that was made available was an unbroken private stream of music entitled I Remember When I Was 26; a playful prod at their manager’s age. “We had no idea what to call the stream so I suggested that name not knowing it would be sent out.” Ian and Dave, previously unaware of the gaffe, release barks of laughter. John, unmoving, sneers with an air of menace.

This is Battles. The power trio. They’re infinitely facetious, stop-starting sentences and allowing clumsy pauses between each other’s responses. Together, they find it almost impossible not to joke, most likely fatigued by the doldrums of music press monotony. It’s one week away from the fourth year anniversary of their breakthrough album Gloss Drop and the band are already having to field the same hackneyed question over and over: where have they been? Face scrunched, Dave starts, “We never left Battles. It’s just been a slow simmer…”

John interjects. “It took four years. Big deal. Our marketing aspect doesn’t have to rely on the ‘comeback record’ angle. We’re not back, we never left.” It’s true. In the interim of touring Gloss Drop, both Dave and Ian were tirelessly recording variation after variation of synth loops and guitar lines. “We’d work for a while and then take a break from it,” John continues, “and then we’d repeat the process over a block of time before the blocks got more intense. Personal things happened over the years but it’s not like we rely on that to make an album interesting. We don’t rely on tragedy to sell a record.”

Since their inception in 2002, Battles have been eulogised for marrying the physicality of live instrumentation with advanced production methods. Through the chaos of experimentalism, the group maintain a knack for finding offbeat harmony. Originally a four-piece, they released their debut album, Mirrored, on Warp Records in 2007. With the inclusion of their iconic, wild-haired band member Tyondai Braxton, the record fidgeted between malformed, machine pitched vocals, pedal plagued guitar lines and computer trickery. Yet it wasn’t until Braxton’s departure and the release of Gloss Drop in 2011 that Battles made their metamorphosis from estranged indie radicals to production pioneering multi-instrumentalists.

It was during this time of flux where John, Ian and Dave re-evaluated their roles. As individuals, they each had a clear-cut polemic function. Ian; the human computer, manipulating multiple synth patterns to the point of incomprehension. Dave counteracts Ian by wielding an expansive board of amplified pedals. And John; fully analogue with a ride cymbal perched above his head like a pendulum.

"A lot of music today has a very individualistic approach. We find strength in being a trio"

Dave eases forward. “Our most valuable asset is our ability to be a really good live rock band,” he argues. “As generations become more self-reliant on making music exactly how they want, collaborations will dwindle. We’ve gone in the other direction. Being a rock band is the bare essence of who we are. Individually, we have our own ideas of how we want to technically make the music, but when we come together it’s really just about being a unit. And I think that collaborating is valuable today. When you think about music today a lot of it has a very individualistic approach. For us, we find strength in being a trio.”

Over the four years of writing multiple versions of every fibre of La Di Da Di, which has emerged as a purely instrumental record, it wasn’t until the group’s time in Pawtucket studio Machines with Magnets that the album was fully formed. Dave ruminates on time spent lost in their haphazard construction process. “Sometimes, working the way we work and piecing each individual part together, it’s puzzle-like. For me, I’m asking “how do we pull this off live?” No one’s going to go apeshit bananas if we could never be able to play a certain part again, but I’m always thinking what we need to do to play it live.”

To translate the material to a live setting, the band must harness the privileges of advanced production software. “We’ve played four shows this week and included three or four new songs and I’m still learning how to play it live,” Ian explains. “It’s already stretched out so much for me, at least in the way I am able to make sounds with Ableton Live.”

Dave nods in agreement. “That’s always been the unspoken mission statement of Battles. It’s the dichotomy of man vs. machine and even within the machine category there is analogue vs. digital. I’m at the analogue pedal end of the spectrum – the guitar guy, trying to bring stuff out of simple guitar lines. Ian has more and more, throughout the development of the band, become entrenched in using Ableton, and he’s done some incredible things. It allows him to go in to a mad scientist’s lab and come out with some mutant form of what really is a simple, original line. Once you incorporate John, who is 100% analogue and hasn’t changed his drum setup since the early EPs, it becomes awesome alliance. John is the constant and we are the variables.

“But technology does fail on us … like all the time,” Dave continues. “I think the worst situation was when we played at Wireless Festival one year and we had a power surge after we plugged in all of our amplifiers. I blew up a couple of pedals and our amps just turned into alarms. It was like electricity amplified.”

It’s the benefits of production software and the increasing potential of machine power that has aided in Battles’ capacity to prosper, or even exist. “We’re a band that physically couldn’t have success in the 90s,” Ian concedes. “This is mainly due to the maturation of the internet. So when we came out in 2006 we were able to find a small sect of respect in every country. But at the same time, we don’t care about the fast cycle of the internet. We take our time. In a way it’s a counterpoint to the internet but another example of analogue vs. digital.”

© Tom Andrew

John’s ears prick up. “We’re the three man answer to the bedroom producer. Don’t get me wrong, I’m totally into that, but there’s so much more. I’m not even that sure that it’s statistically accurate to say there’s more music in 2015 than there was in 1995 but it certainly seems like there is.”

“Does it? I’m not sure. It seems like there are less bands…” Ian retorts.

“I don’t think bands in general have slowed down. Maybe just quality bands,” John says, laughing.

“There’s the argument that kids would rather buy an MPC today than a guitar but rightfully so,” Dave goes on. “There’s more options at your fingertips now so it’s probably more interesting to work with than to sit and figure out chords. But then the live setting is sacrificed.

“If you can recognise a weakness in the market then run with it. I’m not saying that as a businessman. Technology is something that has existed with us naturally over time. And we’re almost displaced in time. We have the luxury to be able to use new technologies as tools – it just works for us very well. But sometimes I think that there’s a long dark empty wormhole of technology that you can get caught up in that makes for something not that interesting. I think that there’s a lot of options and a lot of options create a lot of misdirection.”

Our interview is cut short as the trio are running an hour behind schedule. At such an early stage of La Di Da Di’s promotion, it felt as though Battles had more they wanted to say but were embargoed by time. All they could say was the then undisclosed album title was “controversial to say the least” and “most likely censored in some countries”. Cut to two months later and Dave answers the phone.

“It’s a different beast,” Dave is now talking freely about La Di Da Di and the contrasting processes the band went through. “La Di Da Di is about making music. The medium is the message. It sounds a little bit corny but our ideas are spawned from the experimental process. Sometimes you write a part that inspires a visual or mood or some sort of time period or some part of the world and you play into that theme.”

But it’s out of this creative diversity that Battles achieve innovation. Within their singular ideas comes a dissonant synergy between the three of them. “Sometimes we‘re not on the same page,” Dave accepts with pride. “It’s like a Venn diagram with three overlapping circles and the songs are somewhere in the centre. Sometimes a song can be redirected but that’s naturally part of the weird process we’ve developed.

Gloss Drop was heavy handed so we wanted to give La Di Da Di more space to breathe. But even having that general concept in mind we realised my approach to minimalism is completely different to Ian’s approach to minimalism. Ian’s was to go crazy for a few seconds then ease up then go crazy again. My version of minimal from a techno perspective, building around layers with a lot of space to play off of. So we realised we have a totally different approach to minimalism, but were still able to find the overlap of what interests us.”

Somewhere in the calamity of miscommunication, mistakes and miscues, Battles function. Through the practice of process, they have this unyielding ability to evolve; something Dave seems eternally thankful for. “When we started, John and Ian had a lot of experience. John lived entrenched in the rock world since he was 20, touring, playing MTV, really big stuff. Ian was successful with his old band Storm & Stress. And then there was me who had only played in Lynx. So I think we thought we’d just see how it goes. Of course, the first couple of times we ate shit live. “And even to this day when we step out on the stage there’s always this risk it could all go wrong,” he admits. “It’s such a visceral process for us that any given show may not be as great as we hoped for. And other times we unexpectedly have an incredible show. It’s all based on how we’re communicating together. There’s a lot of tangibles, and intangibles, that play into us actually being a great band.”

La Di Da Di is released 18 September via Warp

Battles headline Simple Things, Bristol, 24 October

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