ALL ABOARD THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM: THE BITTER DEPARTURE OF TYONDAI BRAXTON
Observing how bands part with errant members always makes for a good spectator sport. When Oasis dispensed with dim-witted “rhythm” guitarist Bonehead’s services in February 1999, the ever-reliable Noel Gallagher famously told the assembled press corps to “relax, it’s hardly Paul leaving the Beatles!” Equally revealing, the final words Bernard Butler reportedly uttered to Brett Anderson before the histrionic guitarist stormed out of even-more-histrionic Suede were simply, “you’re a fucking cunt”. With Oasis, it was classic northern self-deprecating humour. With Suede it was high-drama, pouting passion – both reactions apt for the band concerned.
With Battles, of course, it’s complicated. But forget all the muddled press statement diplomacy; what you need to know is that Tyondai Braxton, their helium-voiced robot singer who was also both visually and musically the band’s most distinctive member, is out. The official line is that he wanted to devote more time to his solo career, but the truth appears to lie closer to the fact that he’d grown apart from the rest of the band and, bluntly, didn’t want to play with them anymore.
“Look, he didn’t want to tour! And that was a major thing for us,” explains guitarist Dave Knopka, sitting with his bandmates on the roof garden of a tall, luxurious but soulless hotel in Barcelona overlooking the Mediterranean Sea, the afternoon before they’re due to perform at Primavera Sound. He’s trying to sound diplomatic, but managing more a combination of pissed off and saddened. “We were trying to make it happen with him and figure out how to deal with it, but what were we going to do? Cater to his exclusive needs when the three of us want to go fucking tour?”
“He wanted to turn it into a kind of weird tiny side project,” adds drummer John Stanier. “He wanted Battles to become this thing that only records and maybe will play some shows, possibly, once a year or whatever. And we were just like, ‘what the fuck?’ We’ve just spent eight years building up to the thing we’re at now, so it was a little hard to take.”
“He had no sense of what was really going on,” remembers Knopka apologetically. “We’d be recording separately and then meet up in the control room, and there were times when we’d all be really surprised to hear each other’s parts. It was just bizarre vibes with Ty. And when finally we felt like we were close to finishing the new album, he totally withdrew himself and was like, ‘I’m out’.”
And so out went Braxton, and in came, well, nothing. The remaining three members of Battles – Knopka, Stanier and guitarist/keyboard player Ian Williams – returned to the studio in August to re-record as a three-piece the album they neared finishing in quartet form, but instead of filling in the holes left by their ex-bandmate, they wallowed in them, and embraced and moulded them. “Creating space in our music was a thing we always wanted to do,” explains Williams. “But because there was four of us…” he tails off, as if wary of badmouthing an ex. “It’s just a case of simple mathematics – there’s one less person now, so we can achieve more space.”
The resulting record, ‘Gloss Drop’, is wonderfully spacious – a deep, undulating affair as expansive as it is intense. It begins with brooding swells and ripples and finishes with a booming piece of electronic dub, with cavernous echo all over. Where its predecessor, ‘Mirrored’, was one of the most distinctive debuts of the past ten years, pulverising you with its dense, deliciously deviant sound somewhere between madcap classic cartoon soundtracks and the blackened virtuosity of heavy metal, ‘Gloss Drop’ is full of crannies and codas that allow a breath and a thought. It still retains the touchstones of Hanna-Barbera zaniness and double-distorted guitars but, crucially, without Braxton, Battles have made a very different – but just as compelling – record.
And in that sense, the loss of Braxton was perhaps the best thing to happen to Battles. In short, it directly prevented them from recording more of the same, which is the natural recourse of so many bands trying to write album number two. It forced them, having lost their most immediately unique element, to change tack.
It also allowed the remaining bandmates to channel into one concentrated pot all the anxiety and problems surrounding their progress so far. The traditional and well-documented Second Album Syndrome – the oft-felt frustration of a band not quite clicking as once they did, the magnification of little niggles into massive problems, the sudden time pressures and label intervention – was already rife in Battles’ camp following the success of ‘Mirrored’: “It was a difficult working environment when Ty was on board, it was really weird for all of us,” explains Knopka. “We got to the stage where we were like, ‘we’re trying to get this shit together and I guess this is gonna be good enough’, but really, if we were honest, it just wasn’t happening. Then, when he left, we were like, ‘fuck’.” A sense of relief peppers Knopka’s voice as he swears. “It was the most definite setback we could have had, and that’s when we realised we have to keep moving on because he’s not the most…” he tails off again, like Williams did earlier. “Because this band is ours,” he corrects himself. “And we don’t want to lose it.”
There’s a moment’s silence while Knopka’s bandmates absorb his rousing analysis. Stanier concludes: “I think basically we became three people who wanted to be in a band without other people locking themselves in rooms.”And now, without Braxton, that’s exactly what they’ve got.
Twelve hours after the interview ends, Battles take the stage at Primavera Sound. “There’s an art to performing at four in the morning,” says Stanier, his brow furrowed with authority. “You don’t start drinking until 3am – any earlier and you’re toast”. Watching him perform, it’s clear why he needs to maintain his sharpness. Battles’ live show is less like three individual musicians and more like a one many-tentacled sea creature pushing a million squelching buttons at once. Loops pop in and out of time like hyper-extensive limbs and guest vocalists from the new album appear and disappear on two giant screens behind them. The three are constantly communicating, nodding, staring, raising eyebrows and bobbing their heads as one. It is bright and it is loud and within minutes of starting there are pints of sweat on each of them.
And it looks like hard work, too: behind the pounding and awesomely solid sound of Stanier’s drums there’s a patchwork of parts being bound together so frantically that it suggests Battles are only about four bars ahead of their audience in terms of knowing what’s about to happen. Williams agrees: “None of how this record turned out, or how we’re playing live now, none of it is planned. I think the circumstances of its creation led us here, and this is just the sound of our reflexes.”
Occasionally there is a gross screw-up: a loop goes in where it shouldn’t and makes everything crackle (in a bad way), and roadies frequently rush onto the stage to restart machinery which isn’t behaving itself. “We’re still totally in the learning process,” admits John. “But honestly, we were so late with this record, and it was such a difficult thing to do, and we were in such a negative place that we just had to react to stuff. It was like, ‘this is a horrible situation we’re in right now, the band and our personal lives blah blah blah,’ and we weren’t even considering how we were going to pull it off live. And then we had like two and half weeks to learn how to play all this stuff…”
“It’s pretty obvious that we’ve got a lot of stuff to do on stage this time around,” explains Williams, “But at the same time we’re flamboyantly flaunting that there are three of us now.”
But despite the slightly frenzied sense of flying by the seat of their pants, it’s undeniable that Battles look good as a trio, and play feverishly well. If anything, their togetherness has sharpened without Braxton, who maybe always had his mind elsewhere, and now that LCD Soundsystem are no more, Battles are possibly the tightest live act on the planet, in terms of blurring the boundary between the programmed and the performed.
“There’s a lot of freshness going on,” explains Knopka. “We’re constantly trying to keep up with the demands that our brains come out with, which is pretty difficult when not everyone is fully invested in the group. I’m enjoying being in this band more than ever before.”
It’s never easy to talk positively about a finished relationship when its dissolution is so obviously accompanied by such a newfound sense of freedom, relief and positivity. Throughout the interview all three of the band visibly clam up when the topic is raised about how they feel about Braxton now – hands are plunged into pockets to withdraw and check phones, eye contact is lost, thumbs are twiddled.
Would they have him back in the band, after all that’s happened? At first, Williams avoids the question, staring into the middle distance: “We’re having fun with what we’re doing right now,” he says, equivocally. But if Braxton admitted he’d made a terrible mistake? There’s a long pause.
“I don’t think we can incorporate him into the band anymore,” says Williams, finally and carefully. “We’ve already toured the world and played those songs a million times. It’s the end of that era.”
“You snooze you lose,” adds Stanier, with no little apologetic smile.
But Williams does his best to play down any idea that the trio might be angry with Braxton, or resentful of how he treated them: “Ah, y’know, it’s a new era, it is what it is. We don’t miss the past. We weren’t best friends with Ty before Battles, so y’know, there’s no hard feelings. He’s doing what he’s doing, it’s cool. We don’t see him much, but we’ve been kinda busy.”
He pauses again, and looks up. “You can make a positive out of it or a negative out of it, and we’re trying to utilise all of the differences to make the best of the situation.”
Maybe it’s working, too – after all, ‘Gloss Drop’ doesn’t immediately sound like the work of a band who’ve had a horribly stressful year. Indeed, with its gleeful keyboard squelches and samba grooves, it’s definitely a record with a smile on its sleeve. Stanier agrees: “Some people have been saying it sounds like it was recorded in Jamaica and we were jet skiing everyday and it was this awesome situation.’” (It does, too – there’s a speedy, thrilling major key boggle-eyed enthusiasm to the whole thing.) “But that’s totally by accident,” he continues. “I mean, we took a negative situation and subconsciously turned it into a positive situation. We had to instantly reinvent ourselves and, working on instinct that’s just what came out.”
Konopka elaborates: “I think we were very consciously trying not to air our dirty laundry on this album. I mean, we didn’t want to be in Barcelona in May playing some bummed out song about how it sucked to be in the studio last year. It was less about lulling in the negative, more about rising above this shit, and making it ours, the way we want to be.”
“And if there’s a worse kind of song than ‘my girlfriend made me sad’,” adds Williams, “it’s ‘my bandmate made me sad’.” Everyone laughs.
There then follows a long anecdote about Williams getting a black eye playing Frisbee and being dressed up in drag for an after show party. At another point, Knopka jokes that the best thing about becoming a three-piece is that he’s got a “promotion to the front of the stage” when they play live. “These guys have given me a company car, too”, he adds, as his bandmates smile. Indeed, for all the serious discussion about music and their obvious reluctance to talk about losing Braxton, it’s also very clear that as a group, Battles are very much enjoying life – they crack in-jokes among themselves, give comedy responses to questions, and feel as relaxed as three old friends.
There’s a sense of satisfaction between them about coming through this past year stronger and, perversely for a band that’s been around for eight years, Battles could well stake a claim to be one the best new bands of 2011, so refreshed is their sound and their outlook. Unwittingly, ironically, and actually pretty fortunately, Braxton’s desire to do his own thing has renewed and regenerated his old band more than any of his crazy vocals might ever have done. And who really needs a singer anyway?
By Sam Walton
MAN DOWN: Bands who’ve famously lost key members
Band: The Beatles
Man down: Paul McCartney, April 1970
Reason: hatred of his bandmate
What happened next: Paul puts out his debut solo album a week after publicly quitting, and the week before The Beatles release their final and worst record, ‘Let It Be’. The band have long since quit playing live and Macca eventually begins legal proceedings against the rest of the Beatles on New Year’s Eve 1970.
Man down: Graham Coxon, June 2002
Reason: kicked out for boozing and not turning up to recording sessions
What happened next: A year later Blur release an average record, ‘Think Tank’, with virtually no Graham on it, and then go on hiatus. Coxon gets dry and learns to play folk guitar.
Man down: Bill Berry, March 1997
Reason: the desire to become a farmer
What happened next: Michael Stipe declares that “a three-legged dog is still a dog – it just has to learn to walk differently.” Accordingly, REM plod on, making increasingly lifeless records (six since Berry left). Meanwhile, the man who wrote ‘Everybody Hurts’ and ‘Man on the Moon’ continues to tend his farm.
Band: The Velvet Underground
Man down: John Cale, February 1968
Reason: musical differences
What happened next: With Cale out, and taking his viola-driven drone nonsense with him, Lou Reed pisses all over the Velvets’ legacy as irksome avant-garde noiseniks by writing two melodic pop albums, including the classic rock-infused ‘Loaded’.
Man down: Tyondai Braxton, August 2010
Reason: desire not to tour, to pursue solo career
What happened next: Battles extract Braxton’s parts from their nearly-finished album, toss them in the bin and start “flamboyantly flaunting” the fact that they’re a three-piece. The metamorphosis is a triumph.
Originally published in issue 29 (vol 3) of Loud And Quiet. June 2011