Trading the laboratory for the festival circuit. Battles at ATP
It’s Saturday afternoon at All Tomorrow’s Parties, and Battles are sat in their chalet watching a documentary about Helvetica, the world’s most ubiquitous font, which turned 50 last year. Drummer John Stanier comes out of the bathroom and frowns at the television. “Seriously guys, this is a whole movie about a font?” he asks, eyebrows raised at the non-rock’n’roll behaviour of his bandmates. The others, guitarist Dave Konopka in particular, nod enthusiastically. Admittedly, there is a Battles link to the movie – they contributed a track from their first EP to its soundtrack – but, independently of that, the band appear genuinely keen to learn about the history of the classic typeface.
For a group that so vehemently reject the tag so often hung on them of “math-rock”, and its associated connotations of wilful obscurity and geeky, socially awkward behaviour, this scene – four musicians spending a festival afternoon indoors, indulging their interest in something as esoteric as typography – doesn’t do them many favours. If they could see themselves it would hurt – nobody actively seeks to be branded as math-rock, but few feel the pain more than Battles, a band who, despite a love of metronomic, scientific electronica that might appear cold and mathematical to the untrained ear, bring so much exuberance, chaos and humanity to their records and performances. What’s more, their irritation at the “mathy” pigeonholing is compounded by the irony that one of these men, guitarist and keyboard player Ian Williams, invented the term as an insult: “I used it as a derogatory term for my friend’s band,” he explains. “I’d watch them play and not react at all, and then take out a calculator to work out how good the set was. It was a total diss – as it should be.”
And as a term to describe Battles, “math-rock” is a diss, not simply for calling them geeks, but because it sells them short. Their debut LP, ‘Mirrored’, released 13 months ago on Warp, is far more than the carefully ordered series of bleeps and loops that many a casual listener suggested at the time. While its release was heralded by a flurry of five-star reviews, the write-ups praised its ingenuity, technical skill and crazy innovation, and revelled in its mathy, futuristic feel without much recourse to the human side of the LP. But there’s more to ‘Mirrored’, insists Konopka, than wilful complication. “We’re so much more than just some geeks sitting around trying to make crazy music,” he says. “I think, by default, people heard complicated textures or rhythms and just said ‘math-rock’, but it’s just the sign of a lazy listener.”
While it’s a dangerous game to call people who don’t get you “lazy”, Konopka has a point. Although Mirrored is an awkward cuss on first listen, the vast majority of the songs are in straight 4/4 time, using traditional song structures and consistent tempos. “Thank you!” says Konopka, animated as this is suggested. “This is what we keep saying. We’re just normal dudes – it’s less about trying to be obtuse, more about things that are interesting. We treat the practice space like a science lab, and we’re just using sounds like chemicals and having fun trying to come up with shit that interests us.”
However, while ‘Mirrored’ may be a traditional rock album at heart if not on the surface, a more concrete link to Williams’ math-rock diss is one of soullessness – even with multiple listens, his jibe that the standard of a math-rock tune could be measured by scientific instruments is something that ‘Mirrored’ can sometimes fall foul of. The songs may be exciting, engaging, pulse-quickening and captivating, but all human elements are so massively obfuscated as to make the record’s soul virtually undetectable. After every part has undergone the Battles processing, is there any emotion left among the robot voices and harshly cut-up loops? “Totally,” says Stanier defiantly. “We put tons of soul into what we play, otherwise we’d sound like Kraftwerk.”
But it’s not just about avoiding a lack of soul – it’s about actively injecting Battles’ specific idea of what soul should be, which, claims singer and guitarist Tyondai Braxton, is less focussed on just the high and low, and more on the range. “With traditional rock rules, when you hear a minor key outlined in a chord, all of a sudden it’s ‘oh, sad’,” says Braxton, wiping a mock tear away from his cheek. “Or you highlight one voice – the guitar solo or lead vocal – and start to read emotion into that, thinking, ‘is he sad today, is he happy?'” Again, Braxton pulls clownish expressions to pose his question. “Now, I’m not saying that they’re false emotions, but the parts of life that are most interesting to me are not just the positive or the negative, but the in between. I believe very much in polarity, the simultaneous presence of two contrasting feelings, and that’s what I like in music too, where you have dissonance and consonance at the same time, so that nothing is defined purely as positive or negative. My favourite kinds of art aren’t the ones that give you the cheap thrill straight off the bat. It’s the kinds that have that polarity, so you can’t really tell what it is that’s doing it, but you just know it’s beautiful.”
The desire to inject just the right recipe of contrasting emotions complements the band’s precise, controlled and rigid sound. After all, if the emotional content of an album is on a leash, forbidden from reaching the pit of despair or peak of elation without an accompanying foil, then the music can be moderated in a similarly – whisper it – mathematical way. But is it really possible to write with such restraint?
“One hundred per cent”, assures Braxton, using his own rules of polarity as a guide: “At the beginning of ‘Race’ [‘Mirrored”s opening track], Ian came in with that guitar loop that we all felt had a Fela Kuti kinda vibe, which we could have very easily fed into, but as far as polarity was concerned, we asked how we could redefine the loop – what could we add that would give it strength and show it as a defining loop rather than just a cog in a wheel? Whenever we come up with an idea, we want to establish it and reinforce it by providing the opposite at the same time. So with the Fela loop, we added this contrasting Morricone-esque thing, so you end up with this Fela-Morricone passage smashed together, and it becomes more obvious what each riff’s role is as a result. Again, with polarity, one end gives strength to the other.”
Keeping up? Taking notes? Remember, Battles aren’t math-rock. But joking aside, as Braxton explains the theory, it makes sense. And, what’s more, it makes sense in the same traditional pop way that minor-key verses so often follow major-key choruses – the only difference here is that Battles are essentially advocating that the verse and chorus be played over the top of one another. Away from the musical repercussions of such a clash, there’s a refreshing honesty to this cloud/silver-lining approach – Braxton’s idea of deliberate polarity aims to appeal to listeners’ real, complicated lives. The only problem now is that this desire for accessibility also adds so many layers to each song that, initially at least, confusion reigns – and how’s that for polarity?
Of course, on record, in a studio, during the day and sober, carefully contrasting emotion is very achievable. But as Battles continue their year-long live tour later this evening on All Tomorrow’s Parties’ Centre Stage, things are rather different.
When they perform, Battles sweat, and sweat big. When they finish their headlining set on the Saturday night at ATP, Stanier’s hair, which had begun the set as a well-slicked quiff, flops over his forehead, and each of the four shirts on stage is translucent with perspiration, sticking to its owner’s torso. Single beads of sweat hang on the tips of every nose, and the band look exhausted. “I love it when it’s that hot,” says Stanier with the hardcore sincerity last seen on somebody like Henry Rollins. “It just makes the show more crazy, adds an intensity, makes us listen harder.”
“It’s definitely something we go for,” adds Williams. “We always like the lights to be as bright as possible to help us see, but even when it’s an intensely uncomfortable room, we still ask for the lights to be on up to ten because it gets the temperature up.”
Even with bodily fluids ignored, the Battles live experience is not your average rock show. If the practice room is their science lab, the stage is their playground, where they have licence to mess around outside of class. Konopka enters first, alone. He plays a riff, hits a button, and the riff begins to loop round and around. Playing but not playing, he turns to the crowd and gives the kind of “let’s ‘ave it” gesture that Liam or Noel made their own 15 years ago. One by one, the band arrive on stage, add to the loop, and over the course of a couple of minutes, the room has transformed from still to pulsating.
The sound barely stops for the next hour, during the course of which Battles are a hive of activity: Williams plays his two instruments simultaneously, his right hand tinkling a keyboard, his left tapping the frets of his guitar, all the while carrying the facial expression of a man delighting in a very expensive glass of wine. Opposite him, Braxton sees Williams’ guitar/keyboard party trick and raises him a looped, harmonised and distorted vocal line, his afro bobbing along at half speed. Konopka, behind them both, spends a great deal of the gig on his knees, picking out guitar lines and slapping pedals like he’s trying to swat a fly. But the hero of the show is Stanier, whose drums sit front of centre stage. Surrounded by his bandmates, his expression is one of relentless concentration, eyes clenched closed, wincing as if sucking on a lemon. He hunches over his kit, sweat flying off the top of his head as he wallops each skin. The band move together, stop and start together, speed up and slow down together. At its best, the impression is one of a perfectly drilled army brigade, a sense accentuated by the band’s decision to play virtually on top of each other, despite the generous width of the stage. “Part of the reason for that is we started off playing really small clubs,” explains Stanier. “The other reason is that playing so close was the only way we could all fit in our rehearsal room, but the proximity adds to the monstrosity of it all, so we’ve just kept it like that.”
Through his stage positioning, his stature – he’s physically taller and broader than the rest of the group – and live role as Battles’ bedrock, Stanier appears to be the band’s leader. But while the rest of the band play to his beat, he thinks differently. “The band leader on stage is actually the loop,” he says. “I’m always sat right in front of the big mother loop amp, and so if the loop tempo changes, so do I”.
“It kinda makes sense that there isn’t a leader,” adds Konopka. “There’s nobody conducting or staring the shit out of you or anything, so we become like a single organism.”
Furthermore, unlike many more conventional bands, the one person who definitely isn’t in charge is the singer. Braxton’s vocal lines are so distorted that they become just another instrument and, while undeniably handsome and charismatic, he is certainly no frontman. But, he explains, his lack of presence is a deliberate measure to preserve the group’s single-organism identity: “The four of us fuel this music as one, so I don’t think it would be right for the vocals to hijack that and become a vehicle for my problems, which was why we had to obscure them in some way.”
“It’s the same reason that we don’t use visuals either,” adds Williams. “It takes the emphasis off the musicians. Visuals just make you want to watch TV – and the last thing I want to do is go to a show and see some dumb video behind a band. We’re trying to showcase the fact that we can play this music live and have fun with it. The moment you put visuals up it changes the experience.”
For all the intellectual rhetoric, however, it should also be noted that Battles rock – hard. With the thumping bass and relentless loop, you’re not a million miles from an Underworld or Leftfield gig, and when ‘Atlas’s’ trademark shuffle kicks in, there’s a mosh to rival a metal band – not bad for a bunch of intellectual musos in their thirties from New York, eh? “Not bad at all” agrees Williams. “The thing is, the live act’s not as convoluted as some people think it’s going to be. The kids in the heartland [of the US] still dig us because there’s some silly primal element that’s very rock’n’roll.”
“Helvetica is stil going,” sighs Stanier, as another iconic logo in the font flashes up on screen. The movie isn’t the only thing that seems to be hanging around – with over a year of solid touring already behind them following the release of their debut LP, Battles will continue pulverising crowds on a regular basis over the summer, including over 20 festival dates and a string of sold-out headline shows. By the time they finish, they’ll have been on the road with the same album for 18 months – hardly standard behaviour for a new band. Even a band as big as the Arctic Monkeys, whose sophomore effort came out the week before Mirrored, have played to everyone who wants to hear them for the time being and are back in the studio. But Battles, it would seem, have staying power.
“We came from such an odd angle that it just takes longer for people to work out the music,” suggests Braxton by way of explanation. “When you’re making straight-up pop, you get it straight off the bat, but then quickly there’s a feeling of eating too much cake, whereas maybe we’re a bit more difficult to digest.” “Yeah,” adds Williams. “We’re like wholegrain. Vegetables. Battles are roughage.”
But to cast Battles as a necessary but dull part of a balanced musical diet is to do them a disservice: for every accusation of over-analysis, wanton obscurity and robotic obsession, there’s warmth, humour, intelligence and the kind of musical invention that only a handful of bands around at the moment can aspire to. Whatever they do next, it is sure to be done with care, little left to chance and every likelihood that it’ll drop jaws just like ‘Atlas’, and ‘Mirrored’, did a year ago. “I think the success that we’ve had reminds you that Battles is something special,” agrees Braxton. “We’ve only scratched the surface of what we can be.”
Originally published in issue 2 (vol. 2) of Loud And Quiet. August 2008