Friday, May 27, 2011

An EXCLUSIVE interview with BATTLES

By Stephen SPAZ Schnee

     Formed in New York City nearly a decade ago, the quartet known as Battles immediately began making waves. While not the most prolific of bands, their initial EPs were embraced by the Experimental underground and word of mouth began to spread all over the world. By the time they released their debut album, Mirrored, in 2007, they band were respected and adored by fans and critics alike.
     Consisting of guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, drummer John Stanier, bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka and guitarist/keyboardist Tyondai Braxton, Battles’ unique approach to their music was more intuitive than mathematical. Each of the members brought years of experience to the table, having been members of a myriad of different bands, the most high profile being Stanier’s work with Helmet.
     After the success of Mirrored, the band took their time in putting together their sophomore effort. While preparing this long-awaited album, Braxton left the band in 2010 to pursue other projects. Instead of retreating and trying to figure out what to do next, the remaining trio soldiered on and continued recording what would become their 2011 album, Gloss Drop. With guest vocalists including Gary Numan, Matias Aguayo (Closer Musik) and Kazu Makino (Blonde Redhead), Gloss Drop is Mirrored’s younger, smarter yet equally rebellious brother: it may definitely have come from the same creators, but they are two distinctly different beasts.
     Stephen SPAZ Schnee was able to catch up with Battles members Ian Williams and John Stanier to discuss the new album and more…

SPAZ: Your second album, Gloss Drop, is just about to…er… drop. How are you feeling about the album and everything leading up to this point?
IAN WILLIAMS: We are very happy. We like it a lot.
JOHN STANIER: I am feeling relaxed, confident, and ready to take on any challenge that comes my way.

SPAZ: While the album is not dissimilar to Mirrored, it’s also a creative leap forward. Did you intend to go in and record with the intention of creating something different, or did it all come organically?
JOHN: We certainly didn't want to repeat ourselves…
IAN: I think the differences came about organically, not consciously. We are always curious with our sound making process, and tinkering with the ways we generate tones and rhythms. So a difference in the material was bound to be apparent because we had further developed our style of making riffs and textures. Dave and I were employing some new ways of playing with lines and recapturing them, and repeating the process again and again and taking it down the road.

SPAZ: Ty Braxton left the band last year. Did you have to start from scratch once he left or did you continue working on some of the songs that he was involved with?
JOHN: We turned the clock to "year zero".
IAN: The way we made this record was funny. Each of us made our own miniature songs in a sub-section of the recording studio. And then we started to marry each person's parts together in the main control of the studio. The master "song" was composed when we synthesized each person's material. So when Ty bailed, it was more of a matter of just focusing on the song material Dave and I had generated and John working beats out on top of it. Some of the stuff did date to before Ty left, but what we kept was just the material of the remaining three members.

SPAZ: When a band member leaves, the dynamics within the band change as each member assumes more (or sometimes different) responsibilities. Was this a problem within Battles?
JOHN: I would never call this situation a "problem". It's just a different way of looking at the song....where there's a will there's a way!
IAN: I've been in trios before. I forgot about some of the nice things about them. More clarity helps the band's musical dynamic. I think there's a reason why a power-trio is a classic term. It's economical and efficient and more to the point.

SPAZ: The album spins in so many different directions. What were your chief influences, musical or otherwise, when you started recording the album?
IAN: Repetition and variation. A lot of music uses those things. Dance music, Hip Hop, Rock song structure of A-B-A-B, Steve Reich's minimalism and also traditional African tribal musics. But I don't think we were consciously grabbing for any of those things. They're just the raw elements that so much other music already uses and that we also used.
JOHN: We were very isolated and pretty much cut off from the outside world when we made the record. I think the influences came from deep within.

SPAZ: The songs on Gloss Drop are unconventional yet perfectly structured. What is the band’s songwriting process?
IAN: Dave and I generated a lot of material and then we brought the stuff together and we arranged everything as a whole band and John worked out beats.
JOHN: It usually begins with one person's "seed" idea which could be a tiny loop, a drumbeat, or even a verbalized idea. Then everyone puts their own parts on top of that and then we take a look at it and decide how to proceed from there.

SPAZ: While the songs may not initially appeal to commercial radio, there are plenty of melodies/hooks floating throughout the album. As the creators of the album, do you view your music as Pop-oriented?
JOHN: I love pop music and I'm not afraid to admit that.....I just bought a Scritti Pollitti 12" last week!
IAN: I can get the same buzz off of a pop song that I can off of something considered to be serious or deep. And more and more, I care less and less about the difference between the two. I don't think I've ever considered the music I've made to be weird or not a pop song, but then I'm always surprised at how much focus others give to the fact that the music sounds unusual.

SPAZ: By the time you perform these songs live, do they take on new personalities in your live set?
JOHN: Sometimes we alter the songs slightly…
IAN: I think live and studio are different beasts. I prefer respecting the differences and utilizing what's special about each. So a live rendition of a song should always come across a little different.

SPAZ: You have some amazing guests on the album. How did you go about choosing who you wanted to collaborate with?
JOHN: Choosing which vocalists to use was actually incredibly easy. Everyone said yes and did an amazing job.
IAN: We had a different way of thinking about each song, and a different way of thinking about what we wanted for each singer. Matias Aguayo was a case of his presenting a really awesome idea in demo-form and we instantly like the tone he took with the song, and also that he sort of sings in Spanish, which was not the way we expected the song to end up, but the surprise of that to us was refreshing and we really got behind it.

SPAZ: Gary Numan hasn’t sounded this much like Gary Numan in 20 years. Even the title “My Machines” harkens back to his mid ‘80s releases. What made you pick him for this track?
IAN: Gary Numan was in the category of “Wouldn't it be crazy if we could get Gary Numan on this song?”, which we didn't actually know would work out until it did.
JOHN: I've been a huge Gary Numan fan my entire life and I suggested using him which was almost a surrealistic statement because I surely thought he was unreachable....the fantasy collaboration. But lo and behold, he delivered in ways I could never have imagined.

SPAZ: Kazu Makino from Blonde Redhead may not have seemed like a likely choice as guest vocalist, but her performance fits in perfectly. How did that collaboration happen?
JOHN: We picked her up in Manhattan and drove to Rhode Island to the studio. The next day she killed it and took MegaBus back to New York....a true professional in every sense of the word.

SPAZ: What’s next for Battles?
JOHN: Travel, play, drink, nauseam.

Thanks to John Stanier and Ian Williams

Special thanks to Kristin Attaway

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