Monday, June 15, 2009

BATTLES - March 2007

Originally published in: Chord Magazine
Random thoughts: Talking to John Stanier from Battles was awesome. Mostly because he used to drum in Helmet, but also because he was a smart, funny guy. Love his quote about the hard times in his previous band.

By Jason Schreurs

Describing New York quartet Battles to an unsuspecting fan of “average” music is almost impossible. Between the blips and bleeps, syncopated poly-rhythms, and high crescendo vocal emissions, this sentence might as well be written in Swahili. Listening to Battles’ latest, Mirrored, it’s hard not to wonder what the hell is going on. One thing’s for certain, they aren’t an “average” band.
“In a nutshell, we’re trying to have fun and do something new,” explains drummer John Stanier. “The cool thing about Battles is it literally was started with a 100 percent genuine blank slate. There were no preconceptions on what was going to happen or what we wanted to do. It was truly something from the absolute bottom up.”
Battles were formed by guitarist Ian Williams (ex-Don Caballero) and Tyondai Braxton (an avant-jazz solo musician who has worked with Prefuse 73), and were joined by bassist Dave Konopka (ex-Lynx), and Stanier (ex-Helmet, currently in Tomahawk).
Within a few years, Battles have astounded with heralded EPs and an undisputed live show. When Prefuse took them on tour recently they had already turned enough heads to get signed to the same record label—Warp Records—and it’s been a great pairing.
“Warp is the absolute perfect match for us,” says Stanier. “I could not be happier; it just makes so much sense. As a label they totally stick to their guns, even if it’s obviously, blatantly non-commercial stuff.”
As for the band’s evolution, it’s from a noteworthy recipe. “It was four different people from different backgrounds and age groups, and from different parts of the country, getting together and throwing all their ideas into this big pot,” says Stanier. “I use the words ‘musical economy’ a lot. It’s almost as hard to arrange the songs as it is to write them. We exercise control very well and we all realized it early on.”
Musical economy? The next stage of math rock? Like, taking mathematical musical ideas and instead of trying to punch them into constricted formulas, looking at the production, distribution, and consumption of those musical ideas? Or perhaps Stanier has a more straightforward explanation.
“Economy is just knowing what to play, when, and when not to play something,” he obliges. “Like when to stop painting, you know? That whole theory. Think about all the bands with four really good players, but it just sounds like a total wank-fest jam band. We all respect each other so much, so we’re all more interested in the end result, and every song has a life of its own. We all understood those credos from day one.”
Mirrored is their first full-length and they sound in perfect synch on its 11 tracks. But they weren’t always a well-honed machine. According to Stanier, when Williams and Braxton approached him, Battles were “very loose and unfocused.”
“It took weeks to even start tossing ideas back and forth, and then slowly and surely it started to gel. At first it didn’t seem like a real band, then the next thing you know we’re touring and releasing records,” recalls Stanier.
Hard to believe such a self-indulgent band could garner such adoration. Wait, back up… self-indulgent? “You seriously think it’s self-indulgent?” asks Stanier, leaving an awkward silence to hang in the balance. Well, these guys are out to please themselves first, and that’s what they set out to do. Just saying…
“Yeah, no, I know. You’re kind of right,” says Stanier. “I don’t know if it’s self-indulgence, but you can’t be concerned with who’s going to like your stuff. Luckily, we have elements of so many different kinds of music that we’ve been able to reach out to a wide array of people, and you can’t ask for anything better than that. That’s the ultimate goal, right there.”
A desire to create something interesting, new, and, let’s say, self-rewarding was the impetus for Battles, and Mirrored marks the apex of their work to date. After Stanier’s time in Helmet and Williams’ in Don Caballero, a collaborative and rewarding band was a necessity.
“To be honest, both Ian and I had pretty bad experiences in our past bands and I certainly don’t want to dwell on that, but everyone really wanted to do something totally new,” says Stanier.
For now Battles are stepping back to really look at the album they’ve created, and how they’ve progressed into something Stanier says “constantly amazes him every day.”
“And it’s not in a pretentious way, at all,” he’s quick to point out. “We’re not trying to do this new kind of music, or make it ‘progressive rock.’ We’re just doing what we do, we’re having fun doing it, and we hope people like it… And I know that’s a vague, stupid comment to make, but it’s true.”
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