Catching up with Battles
Last year Battles released La Di Da Di, their third album of looping, buoyant electronic rock, and they’re currently touring it around the world. I arrive just as their soundcheck begins to go wrong, and sit and try not to make eye contact with anybody while they test and re-test everything on stage, trying to smoke out whatever’s choked up the works. Eventually they find the problem – they show me it as they carry it out, a small black box with some wires sticking out of it that doesn’t look anywhere near important enough to grind an entire show to a halt – and I sit down with Ian Williams, guitarist and keyboardist, to talk about their music:
So for any readers unfamiliar with Battles, how would you describe your music?
Let’s see… it depends, if I met my friend’s uncle at a random party I would probably give it the 37,000 feet in the air explanation, I’d be like, “Well it’s like… sort of rock and roll but weirder,” but if I was talking to somebody who knew about music then it would be harder to do that.
I was calling you electronic to a friend, but that was only because you were on Warp, it felt pretty arbitrary.
Yeah, I guess because we go through amps, and use [inaudible, possibly electro-acoustic preset]. To us it’s like… I still think of it as rock music, but these electronic tools allow you to sort of become a little more of a bionic man, so you can sort of do more things, you know, you can go further.
Like augment it?
Yeah. Although sometimes we get booked into, like, electronic music festivals and it goes over well in that context too. There’s a lot of [somebody drops something loud nearby, perhaps a toolbox or length of chain], so you can sort of dance to it.
Yeah, I always… I never liked that label, and I think that that label really came about because… I suppose the bands we were in before this band – this is going back to the nineties – was some kind of tag that some bands used to get, and it was something that was most like a joke, I thought. But I think that joke description has gelled into a real meaning for people now, and it gets used seriously. But at the same time, I’ve kind of given up. If people want to say that I’m like, “Whatever,” but it doesn’t make the most sense to me. I guess the sense that we make patterns, and if math is about the recognition of patterns then OK, maybe.
I was watching that documentary Ableton did about how you use looping, can I ask how you got into that technique?
I think I started studying loops onstage in my old band [Don Caballero]. We did the same thing we do in this band – we had a loop with the amp behind the drummer, and we sent a loop through it so the drummer heard the rhythm and played to the loop. That was right when digital pedals started to become an accessible thing to a low-budget group – for like a hundred bucks you could get an Akai Headrush, and it was pretty simple but it would do the trick. Then this band started and we had Echoplexes, Dave still uses them onstage, and you could sync those things up, but it was still pretty nineties-era technology. I sort of discovered Ableton as a thing that could do the same thing as a pedal, except you can keep going further because of digital reproduction, and all of a sudden you can have ten loops going.
Do you try and keep up with the technology as it develops?
To some extent. I mean, I don’t think you need new tools. I mean half of the coolest electronic music was made with really primitive stuff, like in the seventies and eighties. And… it doesn’t necessarily make you better because you have a device that can do so much more now, and I don’t necessarily think that music’s better now than it used to be. But on the other hand, it’s kind of fun to see what the new tools are, and experiment with them.
Do you mind if I ask why you play… [I mime a gnarled mockery of his playing style, twitching my hand inwards like a JCB’s bucket] why you play the keyboards at that… angle?
Just, umm… because I think it’s natural to sit at a piano, you know, like that, like [he mimes playing a piano] doododoododoo, like the keys are like that in your hands, at a twenty-degree angle off of it. So if you’re going to stand and play, then all of a sudden your angle’s off, and either you be very awkward and have to stick the keyboard, like, out like you’re Frankenstein, or you can slip it downwards, you know.
Did it take a lot of trial and error to get to that position?
Yeah, I started doing that I think in, like, 2011, to be honest. When this band started I had a straight keyboard, and I’m probably ten percent more in control of my keyboard now, but I’m still pretty mediocre. I still think of myself more as a guitarist, even though it’s kind of… disguised in all the electronics.
So how do you think La Di Da Di’s translated to live performance?
Err… I think it’s fun to play live. More than the last one was.
How long have you been touring it now?
Since September, I guess. I mean it hasn’t been like constant on the road, it’s been a few weeks on, a few weeks off. This is the first Europe trip. Actually, this is our first soundcheck with brand new gear for us, so that’s why we had a lot of technical issues. I’m hoping after a few shows it’ll go smoother, but yeah, right now we’re like, “Uueueegh what’s going on?” Like a pair of new shoes.
[Inaudible over drumming]
SO DO YOU SEE YOURSELF CONTINUING…
Why don’t we go outside?
That’s probably… yeah.
[The interview is concluded in the stairwell]
Sorry, so… do you see yourself continuing to make instrumental music now?
No… I mean there’s no formula to it, honestly. It felt right to make one this time, but we could do anything. When the band started actually, the original vocal idea was a gang of cheerleaders, briefly, like twelve women singing, but it was very hard logistically to make that work. Just like band practice, like how the fuck do you fit everyone into a room? So that was too ambitious. And then we made our original EPs after that, and they were mostly instrumental, then we made Mirrored, we had some singing, then we did Gloss Drop, different people singing, and then we made La Di Da Di, no singing, you know, we could always go back to it.
Out of those, where would you recommend somebody new to Battles started?
I don’t know… I think there’s a mix of who likes which record the most. Come to a show, I think we’re a good live band. I think sometimes that helps, if you see us live, you know. People claim the music, when it plays in the background, makes them more productive. So if you have a job to do like cleaning the dishes, it’ll help you get through the day.
I can see that, like the loops and stuff. Repetition.
Yeah, the driving rhythm. You get your work done faster. If you’re a boss of an office, you should just play it over the PA system.