Pretension, prog and the politics of dancing. Forward-thinking New York quartet Battles overcomes all obstacles to deliver 21st-century fight songs. By Michael Barclay
“Make me believe!”
The plea comes from the back of the audience at the sweltering-hot Lee’s Palace, the Toronto venue where Battles are midway through a set during their summer tour. The band is awkwardly attempting to fix a blown speaker cabinet that’s derailed the show, ending a weekend of Friday the 13th curses that also plagued Battles’ set at the Pitchfork Music Festival two nights ago, in front of 17,000 people. But since the May release of debut full-length Mirrored (Warp), very little else has slowed down the New York quartet. And the legions of believers are growing.
“I have no idea why, but it seems like people want us to succeed,” says drummer John Stanier the morning after the Canadian audience was heard testifying.
Some arrive with certain preconceptions about Battles based on the band members’ résumés. But most fans don’t care about guitarist Ian Williams’ past career in beloved math-rock pioneers Don Caballero. They forget that Stanier was in Helmet and is also in Mike Patton’s Tomahawk. They couldn’t care less that vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton is the son of avant-garde jazz master Anthony Braxton. And they don’t remember bassist Dave Konopka’s prog band, Lynx, at all.
What unites these believers isn’t necessarily what Battles are, but what they are not: neither electronic nor rock, neither avant-garde nor pop. There are vocals but no discernible lyrics. There are prog-rock complexities handled playfully and wound tightly around rhythms that groove much more than math rock ever did. On a larger scale, however, Battles feel downright necessary in a cultural landscape where the only answers to complex issues involve knee-jerk simplicity. Battles don’t surrender to easy solutions, choosing instead to craft coherence from chaos.
“Battles is ill, man!” enthuses hip-hop MC Beans, a friend, tourmate and Brooklyn neighbor. “The music is refreshing. Part of the reason why people like it is the climate of what is considered rock right now. You need a band to fulfill the function that they do, a band that will shake the shit up every once in a while. And they definitely shake it up.”
When Battles formed in the fall of 2002, a pit of rubble remained in the group’s hometown of New York City. One war was already raging, while questionable evidence was being assembled for the next. In the gaping media vacuum that opened up at the time, it became the role of art to reflect the complexity of the world outside, to present possibilities. This is why, five years after their formation, Battles are the band du jour. They’re not a political group, but they don’t have to be.
“The band name is really simple and stupid and basic,” says Williams. “That’s one reason I like it.” Over breakfast, he’s a bit groggy from the gig the night before, squinting over a picnic table on an outdoor patio at a Toronto restaurant and not quite ready for grand sociological projections onto his music. “At the same time, I think the name is connected to a point in history that this band exists in, both outside of music and within music.”
You can read into Battles’ largely instrumental music whatever you want, but one thing is certain when listening to Mirrored: It’s the sound of the moral chaos of American life in 2007—and it’s not a sound that any garage band can replicate. Seemingly incongruous musical patterns interlock in perfect harmony and rhythm. Flurries of triplets sit atop four-on-the-floor Bonham beats. Guitars are plucked like they’re Japanese kotos. Keyboard samples are detuned until they sound like Indonesian metallophones. Melodies ping-pong off each other like Carl Stalling’s cartoon compositions. Slippery synths slither out of time in the middle of an industrial onslaught. Country guitar licks appear fleetingly amid tumbling tom drums, aboriginal vocals and a spy-movie soundtrack.
Vocals are electronically processed and primarily textural. For all we know, Braxton isn’t even singing in English. More often than not, he pitches up his voice until it sounds like an army of angry animated insects.
“The music we’re playing is based on simple ideas,” says Braxton, the least caffeinated and yet chattiest of the four band members. “But the way these simple ideas interact with each other is complex. Or, at least, it gives that illusion.”
Battles’ first big break was a world tour with Beans and Prefuse 73 in 2005, in front of an audience that arrived expecting hip-hop and electronic music. Despite their oddball status, Battles fit right in.
“A lot of people were being introduced to them and going, ‘Whoa, this is really heavy music and complex rock shit,’” says Prefuse 73’s Guillermo Scott Herren. “But everyone was head-nodding and getting into it because it had this hip-hop execution.”
Due to the success of that tour and the promise of three earlier Battles EPs, Mirrored arrived with considerable expectations and surpassed them all. It struck a chord with all types of listeners, especially those who would normally run screaming from a descriptor like “four-piece instrumental math-rock band from New York City.” Battles don’t deny the role of King Crimson, Steely Dan or Rush in their musical development, but this is a prog band that avoids that other much-abused p-word: pretentious.
“Let’s say that we were totally pretentious,” says Braxton. “So what? It’s fun to try all these things, and it’s a genuine love of being able to play with music.”
“We’ve somehow managed to pull it off in—for lack of a better word—a non-pretentious way,” says Stanier. “It’s not like we’re taking ourselves so seriously, that you should all bow down before us, that no one has ever heard anything like this before. Of course, we might think that in our own personal lives, but we’d never tell anyone that.”
The bullet fighting Battles’ no-fun tag is Mirrored track “Atlas,” which boasts an undeniable groove and a vocal chorus that may or may not be saying simply, “Sing this hook/Whoa-ay-oh.” “Atlas” delivers stadium-sized thrills, and it’s easy to envision thousands clapping along to the chugging rhythm that owes as much to Gary Glitter as it does to the techno roster of Kompakt Records.
“On this tour, I’ve noticed people clapping to the beat,” says Konopka. “Then this whole other group of people try to clap on off-beats. Then other people do this off-beat to the off-beat, and it’s almost like they’re trying to fuck you up when you’re setting up a loop. It’s a new level of audience interaction.”
Sometimes it takes on an entirely 21st-century quality; gone are the simple days of fans rubbernecking to glance at guitar pedals. Says Williams, “A guy once tried to Bluetooth my computer from the audience with a cell phone. He was trying to connect to it, and I was like, ‘Uh, denied.’”
For the members of Battles, the sight of chin-strokers in the audience is nothing new. “All of us have been involved in projects where not too many people moved in the audience,” says Konopka. “It comes down to writing playful music. It’s more rewarding as a band to see audiences move in a danceable way, seeing guys and girls dance.“
Um, hold up a second there. Did Konopka say “girls”? Isn’t this supposed to be a math-rock band?
“Yeah, seeing girls, period!” he laughs, well aware of the gender gap that opens up as soon as someone drops the word “prog.”
Battles are not Don Cab for cuties, however. Truth be told, any girls at a Battles show are still in the extreme minority. In Toronto, many an excited dude was disappointed to discover that the merch table had sold out of men’s T-shirts. The handful of women, of course, had a surplus of options, the result of the merchandise company mistakenly sending the band 200 times more ladies’ shirts than ordered. Early on, Battles employed female back-up singers, one of them found through a classified ad in The Onion, where Braxton worked at the time. In fact, estrogen is one of the only reasons Williams wanted to play music again after the demise of both Don Caballero and his other band, Storm And Stress.
“When Ty and I started talking about playing, I was burned out and not sure I wanted to do a band,” says Williams, who performed with Braxton in several different incarnations before Stanier and Konopka got on board. “But I did want to do this thing with screaming girls, like 12 [female] Iggy Pops all in one band, just vicious bulldogs. That was the only inspiration I had to strap on a guitar and play music again. Bizarrely, now I’m in a band with four dudes. I don’t know how it all went so wrong.”
“Yeah,” says Konopka, “but we’re girly dudes.”
Braxton smiles. “And I’m pretty femme.”
Stanier says nothing.
The four members of Battles range greatly in age, background and experience. Yet there’s no one star, and there’s certainly no dead weight.
“Battles is very collaborative,” says Beans. “Each one adds and accentuates the others’ performances. They bring out the best in each other. Even when they’re alone and chillin’, no one person is more dominant than the other.”
As one of the two younger members of Battles, Konopka earnestly admits that both Helmet and Don Caballero were formative musical influences for him. This makes Stanier and Williams—both in their late 30s—cringe audibly. Helmet and Don Caballero have reformed in recent years, each with only one original member. But this topic isn’t up for discussion.
Braxton comes with his own baggage, which is being the son of an acknowledged genius; father Anthony won a MacArthur Foundation “genius” grant in 1994 and is a professor of music history, composition and improvisation at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn., where Braxton was raised.
“I grew up in a household where a lot of experimental, weird modern music was being played,” says Braxton. “I rejected it as soon as I realized I wanted to be a musician. I always put it away because it wasn’t mine yet. When I started listening to Nirvana, I rejected the underground first and embraced the mainstream, because I was in opposition to what my family was. Now that I’m older and looking back, of course it was my resource and I love that music.”
Kurt Cobain and Co. come up again in our conversation, when I suggest Battles seems to be the right band for the musical and cultural zeitgeist.
“There is a certain lull in musical history when something happens that upsets things and people are ready to take it on,” says Konopka. “That happened with Nirvana, and I feel like now people are ready for something new.”
Williams jumps in immediately. “Are you saying we’re the next Nirvana?”
“I was supposed to be in the next Nirvana,” says Stanier, “but it didn’t really work out.”
He’s not kidding. Fifteen years ago, Helmet was a major-label band with Nirvana-sized expectations. The alt-metal group did land on MTV, but internal discord meant consistent lineup changes. Stanier’s departure from the band in 1998 was so acrimonious that he didn’t play drums for a year afterward.
“I got mad respect for John, because I know how big Helmet was,” says Prefuse 73’s Herren. “That dude is pretty hardcore. This cat went back to sleeping on people’s floors just to make this band work. That says a lot for his character.”
Herren and Braxton bonded in 2004 when the latter was performing solo material consisting of intricately layered loops of vocals and guitars. Not the type of loops that everyone from Andrew Bird to Feist does onstage, but ones more in tune with the microsampled hip-hop snippets that Herren works with in Prefuse 73.
Herren became Battles’ biggest champion and was determined to get them signed to Warp, the U.K. electronic label that’s home to Prefuse 73 and Beans, as well as Aphex Twin, Squarepusher and Autechre. Battles are one of the few rock acts on Warp, but to reduce them to merely “rock” doesn’t quite cut it. Their compositional process has much more in common with electronic musicians who aren’t intimidated by experimental structures. Yet Battles use live guitars, keyboards and drums; computers are utilized only for sound modulation and looping live parts.
“When I first saw Battles as a band, I thought it was a lot like Prefuse,” says Herren. “They had these sharp, individual melodies coming from odd places. You don’t know what sound is coming from which player when they’re playing live, other than the drums. It’s all broken up and so tight around the rhythm.”
Battles songs are written like jigsaw puzzles. “It’s all these miniature figures that get repeated in a mechanized pattern, in a metronomic landscape,” says Williams. “Each part is anonymous. There’s no lead solo; the patterns create the language.”
That language applies to other musical ecosystems, especially the interdependence between head, heart and groin that’s still best epitomized by George Clinton’s motto: “Free your mind and your ass will follow.” Those words are still sound advice, whether it’s for the boys in Battles, their new legion of believers or anyone else refusing to adhere to the lines being drawn in the sand.
“I feel like it’s giving people new hope,” says Braxton. “Forward-thinking music doesn’t have to be off-putting or lame. It can be exciting, fun and for everybody.”