The experimental rock group Battles talk about their latest album Gloss Drop
Battles lose lead singer - but put a positive twist on the situation
Battles' debut full-length album, Mirrored, was a musical highlight of 2007, but one of the real reasons it stood out from the pack was that it didn't resemble any one thing exactly. The tools it was pieced together with were familiar enough - those stock rock implements of guitar, keyboard, bass and drums - but the music itself was rather more difficult to categorise: an intricate, organic dance music that hinted at the influence of everything from African pop to techno and classical minimalism, but did so with an ineffable sense of play. Take its breakout single, Atlas. A glam-tinged disco number with a pitched-up, alien-sounding vocal and a compelling, puppyish gait that led the UK music magazine NME to claim it "frolicks along like a Dulux dog the size of a prehistoric mastodon", its effect on any given dancefloor - turning even the most stubbornly static crowd into a sea of twitching limbs - suggested if this was experimental rock, the experiment should be considered an unqualified success.
At the core of Battles' formula, says the guitarist Ian Williams, is a firm commitment to the principle of repetition. "The basic use of repetition connects to so many different musical traditions," he explains. "It's such a building block - it's used in everything from techno to African traditional music, and even in more formal classical music - the rolling cycle of a minimal line repeating, like Steve Reich or Terry Riley employed. Or even, like, speed metal, those fast, rolling riffs." Not that he'd necessarily confess to such straightforward influences. "I don't think we're necessarily trying to quote any of those things," he qualifies. "But I think we definitely share that quality."
Certainly, Battles come at music from a somewhat scholarly angle. Formed in 2002 in New York, the band brought together, as their gentle giant of a drummer John Stanier puts it, "two old guys and two young guys" - the old guys being Stanier himself, a veteran of the cerebral 1990s metal group Helmet, and Williams, formerly a guitarist for the influential Pittsburgh group Don Caballero, dubbed "math-rock" for their employment of intricate guitar and complex time-signatures. The young guys were the guitarist-bassist Dave Konopka, formerly of the Boston band Lynx, and on vocals and guitar Tyondai Braxton, the son of the avant-garde composer and bandleader Anthony Braxton.
Few modern rock bands can boast such a technically skilful, generally learned line-up - but, argues Stanier, their method of songwriting is seldom preconceived, instead being driven largely by instinct and experimentation. "We're certainly not a band like New Order, where they go out to New York in the early 1980s, hear electro for the first time, bring it back to England and out comes Blue Monday," he laughs. "We don't have these big band discussions. If we were to go into the studio like, 'let's write a dance song', it never turns out that way. We tried it, and it just doesn't work."
For the making of their new album Gloss Drop, Battles convened in Machines With Magnets, a warehouse space in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. Their working methods were typically unconventional, with each player sequestered in a separate room and making some basic recordings. "Dave was a lot of the more lo-frequency, bassy sounds, I was looking after melody, and Ty's inspiration on this record was singing, which was kind of a new thing for him," says Williams. The idea was to reconvene in a main room and work the ideas together - but actually synthesising the material proved unusually difficult, which itself exacerbated an internal tension. In 2009, in the interim between Mirrored and Gloss Drop, Braxton released a solo album, Central Market, that echoed some of his work in Battles. Increasingly, says Williams, it began to feel like his attention was elsewhere. "It was hard to get commitment to practise, it took a while to get together and finally play, and when we did there was lot of noise coming from him about not doing too many shows. That was difficult, because I think we think of ourselves as a live band. We didn't quite know how to reconcile those differences of opinions." He laughs. "I guess we swept the differences under the rug and tried to make a record. Then, say, four months into the recording studio, we were sort of getting some kind of composite of the record together, he came back and said I don't want to do this."
Braxton's departure last August was clearly a blow, and one feels the wounds are still raw - but a happy by-product was that everything suddenly started to fit. "It was like Ty's music was so self-contained in his own world, it was something we were really having trouble synthesising. When there were three, it was something that became a lot clearer, and that made the departure a little easier."
As well as playing guitar and bass, Konopka is the group's visual director, designing all the band's sleeves and artwork and plotting their video concepts. He thinks of the album's genesis in more visual terms. "Gloss drop is this sticky, super-pressurised foam that changes its state, and for me it was kind of synonymous with the way this was coming together as an album - we were sort of waiting for the moment where these disparate parts suddenly changed into something that worked. It took a while, but eventually, it felt like everything suddenly fell into place."
Such an aesthetic extends beyond the music, though. It's there on the record sleeve, a mountain of candyfloss-coloured foam, and in the video to the tropical-tinged lead-off single Ice Cream, a visually indulgent montage of candy colours, oozing textures and a scene where a room full of girls are sprayed with paint and hundreds and thousands. So much for 'scholarly'.
The departure of Braxton did leave an absence at the heart of the record. Battles might be very much the sum of its parts, but a band with a vocalist can often go places a band without cannot.
"There were a few songs we held back on to leave space for vocals," says Konopka, and as the tracks took shape, they started making enquiries. "We had a list of people we wanted to reach out to, and it was all fairly organic. It wasn't like, hey Gary Numan, can you sing on this song? We'll need it in two weeks."
The electro-pop icon's turn on the stern, rocket-propelled My Machines is an album highlight. But Sweetie & Shag, sung by Kazu Makino of the New York art-rock band Blonde Redhead, and Ice Cream, featuring the Chilean vocalist-producer Matias Aguayo, go further than anything on Mirrored in turning Battles' intricate instrumental music into verse-and-chorus pop. "It was about figuring out who would be suitable for each song, to get that variety of pop and abstract sound," adds Konopka. "Matias was perfect - he brought this great sense of vocal interplay, mimicking the sound of the drums and the bass. It gave Ice Cream this tropicalia feel, and really amplified the sexiness of what the song could be."
It remains unmistakably Battles' music, though. Not, as Stanier has it, that they could ever do anything different. "I always think we'd be horrible chameleons," he laughs. "I was watching some documentary the other night, on the history of rock'n'roll. It starts with the whole British invasion stuff, the Yardbirds and the Rolling Stones, and the Stones are playing blues. Then it's up to the late 1960s and early 1970s, bands like Cream are in - but now the Stones are on again and they don't have skinny ties, they're playing sitar! And the Stones keep cropping up, like, always the last to latch on to any trend. Look, disco comes round, and there's the Stones again - they've been hanging out in Studio 54! I remember thinking, we could never be a band like that."
He laughs. "Don't get me wrong, it's actually kind of cool… but we could never be a band like that."