An Interview with Battles

Chris Woolfrey

 
On June 6th 2011 experimental US band Battles released Gloss Drop, the highly anticipated follow up to their critically acclaimed 2007 debut Mirrored. Don’t Panic sat down with Ian Williams to find out if the departure of Tyondai Braxton affected the band’s sound, what it was like working with guest vocalists (including music industry legend Gary Numan) and how Battles are enjoying touring the globe. Williams also discussed dealing with the pressures of following up a hit album after such a large hiatus.
You made Mirrored as a quartet, now you’re a trio. Has that changed the way you make music?

I don’t know that it has, but it’s made things easier. Only because three is easier than four: it’s just math, you know… Making music with a hundred people is really, really complicated. Four is less complicated than that. And three is easier than four. You’ve got one less person saying how they want things. Three works well because if two people like something the other one kind of has to go with it.
I guess either as a quartet or as a trio, there’s always been a bit of a tug-of-war because we’ve never really had a leader. The way we do things hasn’t really changed: we work with sounds and how we can do things with them…The intellectual bit of it comes later. Like with [new single] ‘Ice Cream’: I had the main guitar bit, which is kind of funky and is basically just me moving between two chords, but it sounds a bit like an organ – I muted the strings to get that sound. And then one day somebody said “Hey! That sounds like ice cream”.
But we don’t really have a leader. I guess we’re a little happier now.
How did the process work with guest vocalists?

With vocals the music has to take a bit of a backseat. I wouldn’t want to be pigeon-holed as an instrumental band. With a vocalist you have the chance to do certain things you wouldn’t do as an instrumental band, like with instrumental [puts on a funny voice] you do a seven minute song, you do a twelve minute song, you do a three minute song… But having vocals as a consideration makes things very different. And the new album gave us that chance to try things. Our relationship with vocals has always been a complicated one: even on Mirrored, when there were vocals, they were run through effects or whatever, and now for this tour we’ve got videos of the guys singing and we’re playing in front of them. So we’re a band playing backup for a vocalist who isn’t even there on stage.
What was it like working with Gary Numan?

It was great! He was sort of a fantasy pick for us. We never thought it’d happen. But we were ballsy enough to ask.
You’ve already mentioned that you’re trying new things. Do you listen to old work to compare and contrast?

You mean listen back to specific parts to see what I could do better? No. Sometimes I’m in a store or whatever and [puts on funny voice again] one of our songs comes on and I think “Did I think that sounded good when I wrote that!?”
I don’t really like listening back to things. I’m very critical. Maybe I should do. There’s definitely a merit in working that way.
It’s taken four years to follow up Mirrored. Is that the way things are going to work for Battles?

The thing is, it’s hard to work everybody’s schedules. The main problem has been schedules. We pretty much went on tour for two years, and it gets hard to find the time to schedule studio time, to spend time thinking about an album. But then since we became a trio last year, we got this album done by the end of January and since then we’ve been, really, a full-time band. But it shouldn’t have taken four years. And we’re sorry.
Before Battles each of you were in other bands; you were in Don Caballero and Storm & Stress, Dave Konopka was in Lynx and John Stanier was in Helmet. Has the recording industry changed much? Do you feel less pressure to put out music now?

The thing is, as you get bigger there’s a pressure to put out records because if you don’t, people go and listen to the other new thing they like. You’ll always have the hardcore fans who will wait, you know, eight years, and then still say “Wow! A new Battles album!” But the casual listener, somebody who goes, “I saw that video for your song on YouTube, with the spinning cube. That was great!” For them, you’re under pressure to produce. And the thing is, you want to try new things and draw in those casual listeners. So I don’t know.
Gloss Drop is out now on Warp Records. For more info visit http://bttls.com