Battles are America’s mediocrity-fighting electronic-rock duo
For a decade-and-a-half, Battles have been cartwheeling down the boundaries separating seemingly exclusive genres. Beginning with a lineup consisting of guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton, guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka, guitarist/synth op Ian Williams (ex-Don Caballero) and drummer John Stanier (ex-Helmet), the quartet went far to bridge elements of post-rock, electronic and modern classical compositions into something gloriously unique. There weren’t a whole lot of rock bands signed to pioneering electronic label Warp. But this one makes perfect sense.
There have been some changes, though: Braxton left the band in 2010 after their groundbreaking release Mirrored wormed their way into many listeners’ heart. Carrying on as a trio, the band issued two more albums, Gloss Drop and La Di Da Di, prior to Konopka peacing out, leaving Williams and Stanier to forage for all the weirdest, freshest grooves to make heads swivel.
Which is what they did: Battles’ new album, Juice B Crypts, is an engaging listen that’s a curious mix of exacting guitar and electronic tones that are laser-focused in their execution, as well as stuff that’s as arbitrary as hell: song fragments ending before they start, piano solos bookending the album and random collisions between men and machinery are positively glorious. Did we mention a wide scope of guest vocalists from prog-rock icons (Jon Anderson of Yes) to no-wave legends (Liquid Liquid’s Sal Principato) to hip-hop revolutionaries (Shabazz Palaces) and obscure Asian psychedelic bands (Prairie WWWW)? It might be the best Battles album yet.
Among the things Jason Pettigrew discussed with the duo include how fans grow with them, achieving luck with special guests, how determined they were to continue and who the next person to leave the band will be.
Do you think your fans—by nature of what Battles have done previously, regardless of member changes—are willingly evolving as listeners, as opposed to wondering, “What the hell are these guys doing?”
IAN WILLIAMS: I wonder. I wonder how many people from the EPs era are still paying attention. But I can't tell myself. I mean, of course, I would say we're great. But I have no idea. I know there's the old [situation of], “I used to go to shows, but then I got married, live in the suburbs and had kids, and I don't go to shows anymore.” I noticed that a long time ago: People age out, and they move on. I don't know. But damn, you know, we all have that cousin who likes to send you pictures via text message when they're out seeing the Who or something. Like, a band on their 60th reunion tour or something. But they're like old people in the suburbs sticking with them decades later. So I don't know.
JOHN STANIER: I don't really know, either. I mean, I'm amazed that we've been around for this long, but we still are. And here's another record, and we've survived another obstacle. I don't really think about it. I want to think about what, like, 19-year-old kids are listening to. I appreciate that, but that's just not going to concern the way we write music. I think we're just gonna do our thing. And apparently there's people who are still interested in it.
The last album you made with Dave, La Di Da Di, was polarizing, with a lot of people calling it “Gloss Copy.”
WILLIAMS: I think the band had some communication problems at that point, anyway. Basically, people were in their own orbit, and it didn't really matter. What you did musically, the other person was just going to do their own thing and ignore you.
I realized my mother died during that record, and I think John’s dad died during that record. Like, you know, at the same time [while] the record label’s like, “Tick, tock, tick, tock.”
STANIER: It was like, “Are there going to be vocals on this record? Oh OK, I guess not. But time's running out, and we're recording it at the same place and in the same way.” And a lot of stuff happened. I feel like what failed for us was we tried to sell Battles as we’re really an instrumental band, and the vocals are really just another instrument. That was great during the EPs, but that was like 15 fucking years ago—that formula doesn't really work now—especially aftercoming up with Gloss Drop. I'm happy that we overcame that and that we're where we are right now.
This album you have all kinds of genre heroes from prog-rock legends to no-wave characters. Do you keep a list of potential guest vocalists? How perverse is it? How do you get prog-legend Jon Anderson from Yes to appear on your album?
STANIER: 80% of our vocalists we have a direct connection to. The remaining 20% were like a phone call away.
About eight or nine years ago, his management contacted us or me: “Jon Anderson from Yes wants you to play drums on one of these songs on his solo record. He is really into Battles.” It didn't work out timing-wise or whatever. Then Jon Anderson emailed me back and was like, “Love Battles. By the way, anytime you guys want to do a collabo, let me know. I'll do vocals.”
Juice B Crypts feels like action painting. There’s stuff in there that shouldn’t be there, but it feels right. Arbitrary things that are too short to be a song but more like a segue. It’s written out, but it feels mechanically fresh.
WILLIAMS: “Mechanically fresh.” I like that.
STANIER: The obvious answer to that is that we recorded it in New York in a totally different place. Then we had a producer, Chris Tabron, who also mixed the record, telling us what to do and “hurry up” and “stop” and “make a decision and move on.” So he was absolutely super-duper involved in it. It was all of these things that don't exist in the world of Battles. Before it was like, “We can spend 15 months on one record.” Like, there's no limit. But there was a limit with him. And to me, it absolutely works exactly where we need it.
You hinted to the situation with Dave leaving. Did he say, “I’m good. Peace out”? Or was he shown the door and then the locks were changed?
STANIER: He made up his mind and told his wife a really long time ago that he was going to quit the band and just didn't tell us for like a year, basically. And then was like, “Oh, by the way, you know, I just basically waited until we were ready to make the record.” And he was like, “Oh, yeah. I don’t want to do this.” That was kind of a problem for me. There's no story. He just didn't want to do [it] anymore. I mean, unfortunately, he didn't tell us when he should've told us.
WILLIAMS: I saw the writing on the wall for a long, long time. His heart was not in it. Whatever, you know? It's not the mafia. You're allowed to leave.
STANIER: That second day where he literally walked away from me personally...He walked away when it was really obvious that he's just bailing. I was freaking out. There was no meeting. There wasn't a sit down. [It was] like, “How are we going to do this as a duo now?” We walked into this supermarket to buy water or something. [I said to Ian], “So I guess we're going to be a duo now.” Like, we just fucking went for it. So there was no master plan. There was no discussion. Two years later, here we are.
How has that creative process changed since it’s only two of you?
WILLIAMS: There was less fight for real estate. It was easier for me to put down the things I wanted to put down [to record]. Sometimes, too many cooks in the kitchen happen, and fewer cooks in the kitchen can be a little more focused, [provide] a little more clarity and focus.
I’m reminded of the time when the band Wire were continuing after Robert Gotobed left, and they were spelling the band as Wir. And then bassist Graham Lewis said if someone else left, they’ll call the band Wi and pronounce it “Wire.” I asked him who would leave next, and he said it would probably be guitarist Colin Newman, so he’d carry on as “Wire” and render it as the letter W.
STANIER: You can do a cover story on Ian when he’s the only one left in the band as Battles. [Laughs.]
WILLIAMS: [Laughs.] I’m looking forward to when there’s nobody in the band. It’ll just be an algorithm.
Juice B. Crypts is out Oct. 18, and you can check it out via Warp Records here.