This month's issue of Magnet magazine has my first major piece for them, which attempts to deconstruct the prog crossover appeal of Battles and their 2007 album Mirrored. As I compile my year-end lists for various publications, I'm revisiting all sorts of fascinating albums, but few of them sound so distinctly 2007 as Mirrored does.
It's so nice, I've reviewed it twice: once here and once here.
I highly recommend you pick up the Magnet to read not only this piece, but many other excellent ones--including my Eye Weekly comrade Stuart Berman's piece on Animal Collective (a band I refuse to understand).
Battles play Lee's Palace in Toronto tomorrow (Saturday) night and Montreal on Sunday. I recommend you skip the opener, White Williams, whom I saw at CMJ last month. In this article he admits his songs are little more than software experiments; enduring his set is going to make Battles sound even better than they normally do.
This interview was conducted the morning after a Toronto show that was stalled for a good ten minutes in the middle due to technical issues; Battles were also cursed a couple of days before at the Pitchfork festival. I'm sure all the kinks are worked out by this point in the tour.
What's telling in this interview--and others I've seen--is that despite the reputation their music has for being intricate and complex, Battles are extremely down-to-earth, very funny, and willing to play along with the interviewer's various projections. I really had no idea what to ask them about directly that wouldn't be a question they'd heard a thousand times before, but this was a very productive conversation nonetheless--though you, obviously, can be the judge.
Supplementary interviews with Prefuse 73 and Beans will run tomorrow.
John Stanier, Ian Williams, Tyondai Braxton, Dave Konopka
July 17, 2007
Locale: Aunties and Uncles, Lippincott & Bathurst, Toronto
People really love this record. They don’t just like it. What kind of reactions do you get from people who don’t write about music? There seems to be something in the zeitgeist right now where people really want to think about a band like this.
J: I have no idea why, but it seems like people want us to succeed. People are getting fanatical about us, because it’s something new.
T: Taking myself out of the equation—I’m not saying we’re great or not great—but I feel like it’s giving people new hope that forward-thinking music doesn’t have to be off-putting or lame. It can be exciting and fun and for everybody. I think people are embracing the fact that it’s a universal kind of music that can be celebrated.
You formed in 03?
I: The end of 02 we started playing together, maybe 03 we started to become a band.
Not to read too much into it, but even the choice of name at that point in history is kind of loaded. What’s happening culturally in general since that time is a widening divide between people who want very clear, non-complex answers: this is what it is, this is what I believe, and this is what it’s going to be. And then people who feel torn by confusion, they want more complexity, to question themselves and things that are already established.
J: It’s like the late 60s all over again.
T: God no, I hope not.
I: I think the band name is really simple and stupid and basic. That’s one reason I like it. At the same time, I think it is connected to a point in history that this band exists, both outside of music and within music.
T: I think musically speaking, it’s defined in a similar way, where the music we’re playing is based on very simple ideas, but the way these simple ideas interact with each other are seemingly complex. At least it gives that illusion. So there’s a simplistic element that you can latch on to, and for the people that are interested in being overwhelmed, there’s that there as well.
Much ado is made about how difficult or complex this band, particularly rhythmically, and yet most of it is in four or six, and it’s just a matter of how that is subdivided and syncopated.
J: It’s a trick!
T: There’s a stigma to the layering of ideas because it sounds really intense. People aren’t thinking about time; they’re listening to the amount of sound going on and they associate that with complexity. The first go-to complexity label for music is ‘math rock,’ so they associate it with that.
Do you actually see people in the audience trying to find the beat?
D: Even more than that, I’ve noticed people on this tour clapping to the beat, and then this whole other people in the audience trying 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, where they try to make the band fuck-up!
I: A guy was trying to Bluetooth my computer once, from the audience with a cell phone. He was trying to connect to it, and I was like, ‘Uh, denied.’
Is that the 21st century version of someone staring at your pedals?
There are vocals on this record, which I don’t recall from the EPs. And from reactions I’ve been reading, a lot of people are trying to figure out exactly what the lyrics are. To me, it doesn’t matter because they’re textural and instrumental.
But do you find it funny that people need to find meaning in them?
T: First of all, on the EPs there are vocals, but they were more subdued or subliminal. On the last track on B EP a lot of people think it’s a computer but it’s all live beatboxing. To not show you’re using the voice you try to obscure it as much as you can so that it’s more of a texture, an instrument. On the new record, it’s fun to add new ways of using the voice, including more traditional voice. Dave now plays bass on the record, and sometimes he plays it like a bass and sometimes not. That’s what the voice is on this record as well: it can be a texture that is equal with the instruments, it can also be a lead vocal line. Just like a guitar can be a lead vocal line.
D: It takes us out of the element of being labeled as an instrumental band.
T: Which I never really thought of us as that anyway.
D: Between the melody lines, it always seems like little characters singing. You would read a review that says “four-piece instrumental band from New York,” which is a bummer, because we never were that.
J: Already something comes into your mind. I have nothing against instrumental bands, but at the end of the day, it’s limiting. You can only go so far. There’s a huge stamp on you.
T: As far as the lyrics, I do write with intention, but it’s not necessary to have the lyrics printed up. Having said that, maybe in the future we will print them up. It’s nice to have people stew with what they think it is and then reveal at the end what it is.
How important are those lyrics to you, if they are obscured?
T: In some ways, they are important to me. They mean something to me and they’re not jibberish. I don’t write the lyrics like I don’t give a shit. It’s all very predetermined.
J: Are you trying to tell me that your lyrics mean something? No, I’m just kidding.
T: Whether you can hear the lyrics or not, it’s about how they work in the band and how it would work to unneutralize the voice and turn it into a focal point. The way we have it in the music now it rests comfortably in the music and doesn’t pull itself out very much, by having an English voice.
How do people react differently in America as opposed to non-English speaking countries? Elsewhere, they’re used to not understanding the vocals.
I: There is an English-ization of international pop bands, though, where Swedish and German pop bands are singing in English.
J: There always has been.
I: Yeah, but there’s a new internationalization of it. For me, my favourite music tends to be African and Asian and Latin American music where I don’t know what the lyrics are, so that says something for my taste in lyrics. I actually like not knowing what they’re saying, just dealing with it as an instrument.
That also draws you further into the music. Especially for a band like this, if you were enunciating, people might expect some form of pop music, whereas this way there’s a natural disconnect with that form, and forces you to draw other connections.
T: Absolutely. It can swing both ways. People do know that there are lyrics, so it’s a puzzle that they try and figure it out. When I was younger, I was very obsessive about what people were saying in music I liked, and it drew me deeper into the music.
I’ve read you [Ty] talk about Nirvana being an entry point into many things, and it reminds me that when that song was so huge, most people really had no idea what he was saying at all, that for a song that was supposedly so important, it was really more of a visceral reaction to the riff than anything said in the lyrics.
J: You mean people didn’t know it was about deodorant?
T: The music was bigger than what the audience came to expect and was able to process. That was the appeal to a lot of people.
D: I’m not by any means comparing ourselves to Nirvana, but there is a certain lull in musical history when something happens that upsets things and people are ready to take it on. That happened with Nirvana, and I feel like now people are ready for something new.
I: Are you saying we’re the next Nirvana?
D: No, I’m saying that we’re doing something new. I think it’s impossible for anyone to be the next Nirvana. But in terms of the scope of people we can appeal to, people are ready for the next step. Post-rock 90s stuff ran its course, and Strokes-style punk revival has too. It’s another tangent that people can go down and find interest in. Nirvana were a great band, but they were also at the right place at the right time.
J: I was supposed to be in the next Nirvana, but it didn’t really work out.
And here you are again!
J: But we failed!
Is there a musical narrative to these songs?
T: When we play we have charts on the wall. I was saying before that we have all these simple lines that bounce off each other. Every line we give a character name. We feed into the persona of what these lines will be, even though they’re very neutral. They play into this character you create for yourself. In the song “Tonto” there’s a descending vocal line that sounded really creepy to me, like the Addams Family, so we called that part ‘Anjelica Huston.’ Ian has this running cyclical line that sounds like something running, so we called it ‘Brer Rabbit.’ So the charts say ‘Anjelica Huston to Brer Rabbit.’
J: Then Dave comes up with a bass line and calls it ‘Joey Buttafuoco.’
D: In “The Race,” yeah. And the reverb backing bass line in ‘Atlas’ is called “Elephant Boy.” It helped feed into how we recorded it too, we wanted this huge, cumbersome sound.
I: I do think there is a narrative. Not too literal, but a lot of the music can feel like a story: this happens then this happens. There is a sequence, a set-up and a conclusion.
There are certainly verses and choruses on many of your songs, many others are very linear, moving from parts A through F.
T: The band prides itself on form. There’s nothing so abstract that it’s formless or pointless. There is a set form for each song, and a real purpose behind what we do.
Using rock instrumentation to make this kind of music might throw people off guard. Whereas, with some of your labelmates on Warp, because they’re using non-traditional instruments that sound otherworldly and alien, that stigma is removed and they can do whatever they want. Arguably that’s also true of symphonic instruments. But when you have three guitars, bass, drums and keyboards, then people think it’s going to be a certain thing.
T: I think when people see a symphony, you contain what you’re about to experience into a box and say it can only be what these instruments are about to present. But then if someone bows a violin and you hear a gorilla, you’ll be like, ‘Holy shit!’
J: The average person, when they see a symphony orchestra, thinks: [sings Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony opening riff.] You know?
T: You’ll always have that association with instruments. It’s cool when you can take that form—keyboards, guitar, drums—and say, ‘Ok, this is a rock band.’ But when you take it out of the box, it’s cool to play with people’s perceptions.
Culturally right now, the worst insult you can throw at a band is ‘pretentious.’ Any sign of ambition automatically becomes pretentious. It’s almost a Fox News approach to arts criticism.
T: I totally hear that. We’re all very excited about music, but let’s say for a moment that we were totally pretentious. So what? What does that have to do with anything?
I: I’ve never been able to figure out what that word means anyway. It’s arbitrary, the way it’s used.
I understand it to mean being something you’re not, putting on airs. It’s linked to the concept of relatability: Do you want to see yourself reflected in art and relate to it? Or do you want to see art as a standard to aspire to?
T: It depends on your exposure to art and music. If you listen to Led Zeppelin straight on from the time you were three, and then you hear Joni Mitchell, then it might sound pretentious because it’s outside of your understanding. That’s what I have a hard time dealing with. I think it’s fun to try all these things, and it’s a genuine love of being able to play with music. So how is that pretentious?
J: But we’ve somehow managed to pull it off in, for lack of a better word, in a non-pretentious way. It’s not like we’re taking ourselves so seriously, and you should all bow down before us and no one has ever heard anything like that before. We might think that in our own personal lives—but of course we’d never tell anyone that. (all laugh). But the image we’re getting across is that it’s fun. It doesn’t have to be so highbrow brainiac. That’s where the pretentious tag comes in.
T: People can certainly be pretentious. But how can you just listen to a CD without knowing anything about it and say it’s pretentious? Yet I see journalists do that all the time. I think it’s so presumptuous.
It’s very anti-art, to assume you know where the person is coming from.
T: That’s the most pretentious thing to say to someone, is to say that they’re pretentious.
I: It’s pretentious to even worry about that. Obviously we’re serious about what we do, because we put almost all of our time into this. But I don’t think we take it that seriously. We have fun with it. That’s the balance it strikes right now.
“Atlas” seems, compared to other things you do, to be much more direct, as a way to wrap around all these other things you do.
J: That was done on purpose.
Where do you see that song fitting into your set or on the album?
J: I don’t want to go into the whole story as to why we did that song, but it is almost one-dimensional. That is a pre-meditated song that we allowed to write itself: one very simple idea that ties in with the vocal line. It was like us saying, ‘Let’s do one of THOSE songs.’
A gateway drug.
I: It’s fun to put on the Battles glasses and say, ‘Let’s write a dance song.’ It’s still going to be filtered through the four of us. That’s another reason why we added bass and voice and other things to flesh out what we had, because we were very comfortable with our own language. We thought, ‘What if Battles tried this? What if Battles did a version of this?’ That’s what made the writing process fun. You can hear on the record that there was a vibrance there because we were all really excited to try all this stuff out.
More so than the EPs, this sounds bigger. There are more big rock moves, guitar sweeps and dance rhythms. Is this much more danceable than anything you’ve done before?
All: I wouldn’t say that.
J: Now because there’s bass and vocals, and because when we did those EPs we did them at five in the morning for free in a bunch of different studios in New York when we still weren’t that comfortable playing with each other. Mirrored is a result of us touring and playing together for two years non-stop, basically. Obviously something will come out of that.
D: It’s not necessarily intentional, but it’s part of constructing Battles 2.0 and making it interesting for us. It coincides with being pigeonholed as an instrumental band. You can really fall into this chin-stroking groove. It comes down to having fun and writing playful music. All of us have been involved in projects before where not too many people moved in the audience—well, maybe at Helmet shows, but that was a different kind of moving. It’s more rewarding as a band to see audiences move in a danceable way, seeing guys and girls dance…
D: Yeah, seeing girls, period!
I: God forbid some math rocker actually meets a girl at one of our shows and gets married.
I was watching the merch table last night, though, and aren’t you out of men’s shirts?
J: Yes, but in our own defense, that’s because the merchandise company messed up five orders and sent us 200 times more girls’ shirts.
If Mirrored is the result of the live show, I’d also say that there are tracks on the EPs that I could imagine you not ever playing live, being tailored specifically for the recorded medium.
J: I’d say that’s true.
Is that because of the 5AM nature of the EPs recording?
J: We wrote so much for Mirrored and got to record everything at exactly the same time.
I: The EPs, we were still finding our roles in the band and what we were as a band. They’re more of a sketch of things we can do and what’s possible. We were still learning from each other. Some of those songs were written in the post-production.
T: We did that with this record as well. We wrote songs before we went in to record them, and we wrote songs in the studio. I like doing that, because it keeps you fresh and keeps your perspective alive. You might find ways of doing things that you might not have been able to do live, and then re-learn it live. It’s good to work both ways.
Were there songs that were hard to learn live?
All: Oh yeah.
I: When we tour again in the fall, we’re going to do a new set, and there are still a few songs we have to figure out.
Is “Race:In” always the set ender? Because that seems to be the most physically demanding.
J: Yeah, because that’s hard. But fun.
I found an old quote of Ian’s talking about Don Caballero, saying that band’s approach to composition was akin to aerial photography of urban landscapes or topography, zooming in on one structure that’s part of a larger grid, focusing on a single object from different vantage points. And “Race:In” seems to be a great example of that.
T: I think the songs are microcosms, or mini-cities in a way. There is no shortage of ideas with this band. If anything, that’s kind of the problem. The real thing is scaling things down. Everyone tries to sneak into a nook and cranny. Behind every corner there’s a lot of detail, for better or worse.
Are you able to do that among yourselves, or is that the role of a producer or engineer?
J: We definitely do that.
I: The busy-ness confuses people, because they mistake it for improvisation. It’s all these miniature figures that get repeated in a mechanized pattern, in a metronomic landscape. Each little part is anonymous, though. There is no lead solo. The patterns create the language.
I know you [Ian] spent part of your childhood in Malawi, and I hear a lot of Afrobeat in the way things interlock here. Not that it sounds like that music at all—in the same way, I’ll hear a country lick in the middle of a Battles song, when it’s quite obviously not a country song. Does that kind of music enter into Battles at all?
I: When I was a kid, I didn’t understand it. I was still a western kid from America, and I had KISS records. I would understand tribal drumming, because I’d hear it in a village down the valley at night when they’d play drums. But when I’d hear a modern rock band over there, I wouldn’t get it at all. I didn’t understand what was going on with the guitars. But when I got older, I did, and I started getting into it about ten years ago.
What were you doing over there?
I: My family lived there. My dad worked with UNICEF.
I’m curious not so much about influences, but about teachers. Not people you knew necessarily, but records or performers that opened doors for you. When you realized that much more was possible.
D (without hesitation): For me, it was Helmet and Don Caballero.
D: It’s true. I’d definitely attribute that.
D: I was like, ‘God, this shit sucks.’
I: ‘No matter what I do in my life, I never want it to be like this.’ (all laugh)
D: No, I mean, Helmet to me was more of a breakthrough band for me than Nirvana, because I got to them first. With Don Caballero, it was the 90s… we were all a little… you know, whatever. When I experienced Don Caballero, I thought it was some on-some-other-level shit.
Anyone else? What role did Lynx play in your musical development?
J: Probably one of the biggest musical influences I had was marching in drum corps. Which probably only other people who marched in drum corps would know what I’m talking about. Seriously, that’s a whole other world. That set me up for life, as far as playing. Just chops wise, and the way you hear and look at things, much more so than anything else. In college I was an orchestral percussion major, but drum corps rubbed off on me so much more.
T: I grew up in a household where a lot of experimental weird modern music was being played a lot. I rejected it as soon as I realized I wanted to be a musician. I don’t want to say I was bred to be a musician, but I was definitely encouraged. I always put it away because it wasn’t mine yet. When I started listening to Nirvana through the channels that were available to me, 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. For Mirrored, I was really obsessed with large-scale orchestral pieces, because I love the way tiny parts move very fluidly. I got back into that mode again. I legitimized my music pathway through rock’n’roll because it was mine, but now I go back and realize that a lot of my interest and my heart lies in the more modern composition philosophy.
What clicked you back?
T: I think when I get too loaded in one area, I need that opposition. I’m not the kind of person who says, ‘I like rock music,’ and then just surrounds myself with one thing. I feel like Battles is more of a rock band than an orchestra, so now that I have that element, I instantly go back and need a counterbalance so it’s not one thing that’s so easily summed up. That’s more interesting to me.
D: You’re like Al Pacino in Godfather III: ‘Just when I think I’m out, they pull me back in!’
T: It’s true. If Battles was an orchestra, I’d think it was too one-dimensional.
I: I don’t think I had a single musical epiphany where I can say that’s when I changed…
D: [mishearing the word ‘epiphany’] Musical Tiffany?
I: Musical Tiffanies are girls who like music a lot and turn you on. No, musical epiphany. From my mom listening to Barry Manilow records when I was two or three, and I really liked those, to me discovering KISS when I was six or seven. That became my music. I think growing up in Johnstown, PA, which was working class, kids there were metalheads and hashers. A lot of that rubbed off on me and so I embraced hard rock like Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin. Smoking doobage at the abandoned steel mills. At the end of high school I discovered punk rock, and in a lot of ways that liberates you and separates you from other people and you think you’re special. Then you go to college and discover art music. Every year, the epiphanies kept coming, but they were less earth-shattering.
J: I can actually remember the day that I heard “Fly By Night” by Rush, which was one of the very first rock records I ever heard. It was an incredible day. At that moment, I said, ‘This is what I want to do with the rest of my life.’
D: The first concert I ever went to was Kenny Rogers and Neil Diamond. Together. It was sick! My mom took me there. I didn’t start my musical voyage at Helmet and Don Caballero, obviously. In first grade, J. Geils Band was the shit. I had older brothers, and I listened to a lot of crap throughout my life. When you’re ready, you move on to the next crap—like Don Caballero and Helmet! I went to high school in Woucester, Massachussetts, and I was into New Order and Depeche Mode and shit.
How would this band sound different if you didn’t all live in New York?
D: Well, we do [live in New York].
J: I don’t understand the question. Whenever I get asked that, I say it’s a two-sided answer. On the one hand, it would be easy to say, ‘We’re so focused on what we’re doing that we could have made Mirrored if we were from the woods of Arkansas. We have this vision, and wrote everything on a completely blank page. This band started with no ideas and came out of nowhere.’ On the other hand, there’s no song on Mirrored called “14th Street.” There’s no direct reference to New York—maybe there is in [Ty's] cryptic lyrics, I’m not sure. But I think there is something pretty damn New York about this band, but it’s so subliminal that you can’t pinpoint exactly what it is. I suppose if you hear the Eagles’ Hotel California or Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors, you can tell it was recorded in the 70s with tons of cocaine. There’s just that vibe.
D: Steely Dan.
J: With this band, there’s something in the record that’s very subliminal, but it’s definitely there. It might just be the fact that it’s almost impossible to exist in New York. It’s really expensive, really stressful, you take the subway everywhere with way too many people, you live in a tiny apartment, I have to go to Brooklyn all the time—all these things come up in an indirect way, which I think is kind of cool.
I: I wrestle with that question. The Cro-Mags, a hardcore band from the 80s, had this song that said something like, “New York City, the pressure of it cooks you.”
J: Yeah, you can hear New York City in the Cro-Mags’ “Age of Quarrel.”
I: At the same time, that sentiment has been so overblown with self-importance by people from New York. But I think it does influence us.
J: Maybe because it’s 2007, it’s very different from the New York bands that you grew up with. In the early 80s, on Sonic Youth records and stuff like that, that’s when New York was a really dangerous place to live, especially downtown where all that stuff was going on. There were way more clubs to play. The art and music world merged in more ways than they do now, I think. Now I think it’s a completely different city, which is why it’s not as easy to pinpoint.
D: You can also hear New York in the Strokes’ Is This It and Interpol’s Turn on the Bright Lights. It’s not one way or the other. In Battles music, we do encompass a certain energy of New York.
T: The bottom line is that you are a product of your environment. You’re not an un-product of your environment. There’s something you’re reacting to based on where you live and where you exist. I don’t think we’re as literal with it. It’s seeped into us.
D: On another level, how do you define your environment? A kid in Omaha, Nebraska can write songs like Battles, too.
J: It’s going to be different no matter how hard they try, though, because I’m
saying that you don’t know what it is.
T: I’m not talking about a type of music. Speaking personally, there’s something subliminal in what I project based on what I’m sucking in.
J: I lived in New York longer than any of these guys. Who’s lived here the least? You have, right? (indicates Ty)
T: Yeah, seven years.
J: Even that doesn’t matter.
How long have you been there?
J: (stops to think) Nineteen years now. Even a band who records in New York, let’s say there’s a band from Jackson, Mississippi, and they travel to New York and hang out there and write their record and live in a shitty one bedroom apartment. They technically live there; it’s their “New York record.” It’s like Bowie and Iggy going to Berlin, and they figure they have to hang out there for a couple of months before they write the record, just to be in a totally different environment.
D: So what you’re saying is that Mirrored is a true Pawtucket, Long Island record.
J: No, because to me, it’s about where you write it, not where you record it.
The Band’s self-titled album was recorded in L.A., but it definitely sounds like it was written, not where it was recorded.
I: One way New York influenced us in recent years is that it’s become such a hyped music city. New York’s favourite kind of music is "successful music." When I moved to New York, people said, ‘Why did you move there? It’s so awful for music.’ Six months later, people like the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Interpol, that whole scene blew up, and it was the coolest city in the world. At that moment, there was all this energy for hot things. That was just as we started to get our momentum. We weren’t on that radar yet. We had to bypass New York to grow up and become a band. Because we had been in bands before, we had the opportunity to start touring, and we started touring outside of New York and got labels from outside of New York to put out our records. In a certain way, I feel like we had to leave New York to grow up, and we’ve come back now.
Very early on, you did a tour of Japan opening for somebody. Who was that?
T: Mars Volta. They were our initial show in Japan, and that set off a chain reaction.
How long was your tour with Prefuse 73 and Beans?
J: That was our longest tour. We did a world tour with them in Europe and the U.S. We went everywhere with that guy.
You were the live rock band on the bill?
J: Prefuse had a whole band, and Beans had a CD player.
D: For a couple of shows, Beans had Holy Fuck backing him up, though.
J: That’s right, who are from here [Toronto].
Have any of you had musical straight jobs? Gigs that pay the bills that you aren’t as invested in?
J: You mean have any of us been session players? [all shake their heads] I’ve played on a couple of records. I mean, when I buy a house and I have a shelf of all the CDs I’ve played on, I’ll still put them up there, but I’ve certainly played on some records because I needed the money. But nothing too embarrassing.
D: You mean that Roger Whittaker album?
J: Burl Ives.
D: I do some graphic design, that’s it.
T: I’ve always done temp jobs.
I know that Ty and Ian met at one of Ian’s solo shows. What kind of material were you doing?
I: That was post-Don Cab. I’d moved from Chicago to New York in 2000. I was supporting myself playing in Storm and Stress and Don Cab, and both those bands stopped so I had to get a real job. I knew a number of people who did film production work in New York, so I started doing video editing. I’m still kind of in that, but I haven’t done that in a year and a half. This band has been busy enough and I make enough money that I don’t need to work outside of this.
You’re still in Tomahawk, John?
How does that fit into Battles’ schedule?
J: I have no idea. The other two things I’m involved with can happen whenever I want them to. There’s something else in Australia, but those guys can wait. Battles takes up 100% of my time. When it started, all three things were overlapping, but since Battles became the monster that it is, it takes precedence over everything else.
And you, Ty?
T: My solo stuff is my only other project. I play with Prefuse sometimes, and I like playing with other people. People say that I have all these projects, but I don’t. It’s Battles and my solo stuff.
What is the N.E.A.R. project?
T: I did that in college. I’ve never recorded it. It was my senior thesis for a ten-piece band, two choirs and a string ensemble with projectors—me and a friend made a movie. It was my end-of-the-year mission statement, and I wanted to write a big piece. I wanted to know how to assemble something of that size and make sure I knew how to do a score. That probably won’t ever see the light of day again. Pieces of it might trickle into some part somewhere.
J: What about that history of Frank Zappa interpretation piece you’ve been working on?
T: John, I don’t know what you’re talking about.
Ty, I saw you play in New York with the loop pedals, seated on the stage. When you started composing with loops, not many people did it. Now it seems ubiquitous in several different contexts and genres. Does that process still provide challenges for you?
T: It’s true, it’s kind of been co-opted into a larger arena.
J: Remember where we ate in Orlando? We pulled into Orlando and there was nothing open, so we went to this Taco Cabana sports bar or something across the street, and there was this guy loading his djembe and acoustic guitar. No one was paying attention to him, and there were only six people there.
D: He was pretentious. He’d be like, ‘What I’m doing here is, I’m going to lay down this guitar track, then add a little shaker, and I’m recording that right now [winks].’
T: I forget his name—maybe it was Ron, and he’d be like, ‘Yeah, I just did that [winks] “Ron style.”’
D: I think it was his last name, actually, like Kelehurst, or something. ‘That was a Janis Joplin song—done Kelehurst style.’
T: The cool thing with that is, in a way it’s good. With a rock band, they get up on stage with keyboards, guitar, drums, and it’s the same shit every time. It doesn’t matter what tools you use. You’re either going somewhere with it or you’re existing on the surface. I see a lot of these pedal guys, and in the same way a lot of indie rock bands are just indie rock bands, a lot of those guys are just so fascinated with the sounds that it’s not necessarily a higher musical experience. It’s weird sonic terrain, but there is no real depth of music. Whether it’s acoustic guitar or a 40-piece orchestra, either you have a sense of direction or you don’t. I’m glad people are going that route, because it’s fun.
J: ‘They’ll never be able to do what I’m doing, but good luck!’
T: Unless you have an angle and you’re good at it, it is what it is.
Just after Don Cab wrapped up, Ian said, “Don Cab could have had more success, but only a matter of degree and nothing could be substantially different.” Do you think there was a glass ceiling for a band like Don Cab? What do you think is substantially different about the appeal of Battles?
I: I don’t really remember saying that, but I probably did.
Do you find yourself retreading some of the same territory—venues, business models—that Don Cab did, and if so, what’s changed?
I: On a certain level, we’re still on an independent label and we’re mistaken for an instrumental band. I definitely wanted to create a new thing and not be in the same place, otherwise I would have kept touring with Don Cab. It was about challenging ourselves and seeing what we can make with new ingredients. You can draw the line in the sand between those who say you should figure out what you can do and then just learn to do it really well, and then those who say you should try new things and experiment and move on. I’m more of the latter.
Finally, and only because Dave brought it up: Steely Dan, yay or nay?
D: Yay, definitely yay.
J: Oh totally, yeah.
D: What about you?
I’m completely nay.
J: I have the box set!
You frighten me! Anything else I should know for the record?
D: Ty’s vocals in “Atlas?” They sound so goofy because he wrote them out with a crayon. [all laugh] I saw a “TIJ” question in there, what’s that about?
Oh, thanks for looking at my notes. I was wondering if it stood for Ty, Ian and John, and if you were even on that track.
D: Oh yeah, I never thought of that.
I: Oh, that’s a good one.
J: I never thought of that.
D: “TIJ” is a loop that I wrote.
So you’re really hurt by the fact that I didn’t think you were on it.
D: Yeah, but I’m used to standing back. I made a CD of some loops I made and gave them names. That one was short for Tijuana, because it sounded like a Mexican game show party. The names of our songs don’t really have any significance. But “B&T” from one of the EPs stands for Beth and Ty, because there was this girl Beth who was originally in the Battles. Beth and Ty were working on that song at Ian’s house. We had a couple of girl singers at one point.
Really? You had female back-up singers?
I: Yeah, not back-up singers. When Ty and I started talking about playing—this was post-Don Cab for me, and I was kind of burnt out and not sure I wanted to do a band. 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 five dudes. I don’t know how it all went so wrong.
That would have surely tipped the gender balance in the crowd as well.
D: Yeah, but we’re girly dudes.
T: I’m pretty femme.
So at the Pitchfork show you broke a string on the first song?
T: I didn’t just break a string, my friend. I broke a string, my guitar strap came undone when it was slung over my back and my guitar fell twice, I couldn’t see the LED read-out on my line selector, so I was sending my signal to a dead end, so I couldn’t start one of the songs, so there was a lull.
You had a whole Friday the 13th weekend.
T: I was cursed.
D: Last night wasn’t too much better either.
What’s the worst technical thing that’s happened to you onstage?
T: Pitchfork, for me.
I: I’d say last night.
D: I shit my pants. Technically.
D: Yesterday was crappy, but it happened at the right time if it was going to happen. It sucks when something weird happens with a loop, and then you try and compensate for it, then you have to stop and troubleshoot in front of 650 people.
T: And our audience isn’t stupid. They’re very analytical.
What always amazes me is that people don’t necessarily just start talking and socializing.
I: It was like that at Pitchfork, too, in front of 17,000 people. If a band I was watching had a technical problem, I’d go get a beer or take a walk or call my friend on the phone.
D: Or, ‘Kiss me!’ Can you imagine? First date at Pitchfork, the band stops: “Kiss me!”
What slot did you have?
T: 4PM on Saturday.
D: It was good. Right after Grizzly Bear, right before Mastadon. Good transition, well thought out. The festival ruled.
Who did you like there?
I: I liked Mastadon a lot. They were one of the few bands I paid a lot of attention to, mainly because they played right after us.
T: I liked Deerhunter. I’ve known that guy for a while, Bradford, the singer, and I didn’t really know what to expect. I’d heard a lot of the hype, but I thought they were really good. Clipse killed it as well, they just brought it.