jason gregory
21:08 15th April 2007

Battles

Ian Williams is at home in New York when Gigwise speaks to him. Sounding tired, between his monotone answers he can be heard shuffling around his apartment (he’s switched to hands free after we get disconnected), opening cupboard doors as if he’s searching for lost treasure and sniffling because he’s picked up a post-winter cold. Then again, he is on a comedown as well. His band Battles –an eye-opening four-piece concocted from seminal 90’s acts – have just returned from a brief run of dates in their native US and Canada where they showcased tracks from their long-awaited debut album, ‘Mirrored.’ There’s just reason, therefore, to be feeling drowsy at 2pm on a mid-April afternoon.

The mind, body and soul draining experience that is life on the road, however, is nothing new to the members of Battles - they’ve been there, done it, seen it…you name it, all before. It’s not surprising, therefore, that the band were almost instantly labelled as a ‘super-group’ when they played their first gig as Battles at the end of 2003 in New York. While 37-year old Williams played guitar and keyboard (at times simultaneously) for the genre defining math rock band, Don Caballero, the band's other members have all spawned from equally as impressive ‘family trees.’ Vocalist, Tyondai Braxton is the son of the jazz musician Anthony Braxton; bassist, Dave Konopka was the guitarist in Lynx, and; John Stanier was the drummer for the rock band, Helmet. Surely, it’s a contradicting musical recipe for disaster? Well, at least, you’d have thought so anyway.

In reality Battles work perfectly - with all four men proving that sometimes superpowers actually can work together. As Williams reveals however, initially finding a balance to their eclectic backgrounds was an issue, albeit a fun one to overcome. “The challenge was almost like we needed to find a definition of what we needed to do. If it’s a couple of house DJ’s making a record then you know what they’re gonna do but with us I think we enjoyed the fact that there was so many different things on the table and the fact that each one of us was capable of making our own solo record,” he continues. “It was almost like making room for other people and the challenge of, ‘this fits there and that fits there.’ I think it’s been about creating a balance of, ‘ok, we’ll go there and that guy can sow that up.’”

Before Battles, Williams spent eight years in Don Caballero creating sounds that hadn’t been heard before, set to mathematical patterns that hadn’t been dreamt of before. You could certainly call him avant-garde. Yet, that’s a label you should also bestow on the bands other members – all of whom challenged the genre that they were reluctantly confined to work within. Like all great forward thinkers however, there comes a time to move on in order to fulfil ones innate need to push the sound boundaries. “I think we all kind of had that feeling. I know that John did totally not want to be in another nu-metal band or something, and for me to, I was just so tired with making that kind of music (Don Cab) – we were just trying to find a conclusion to it all because I didn’t want to pick that axe up again,” he adds. “The way I play guitar I didn’t really see another step down that path so it became a back out for myself. I think that was the great thing about playing with all these new people because they brought all these new things to the table and new directions that I would never have been able to come up with on my own.”

Although now, in 2007, they’re finally on the verge of releasing their fabulous debut album, it was in 2000 when the then disillusioned musicians first began to congregate through their collective desire to evolve. “I was playing solo guitar shows around New York and it was Tyondai who came to a show and we talked because he was doing solo shows at the time as well. He thought I should make a solo guitar record and I kinda felt, ‘yeah that would be easy to do but that just kinda feels boring to me.’ So I kept on seeing him around town and eventually I said, ‘well if you think I should make a solo guitar record then why don’t you help me and we’ll do something a little wiser.’” Whilst the loosely planned solo-project never materialised, Williams did recruit Konopka whose previous band had toured with Don Cab. The final issue was finding a drummer. Luckily, the final recruit was also searching for a new direction. “I ran into John in the street so it was just one of those things really,” laughing as he recalls the story, Williams continues. “He claimed that it (the then three-piece Battles) wasn’t very good and so it took him five or six times before he realised that he actually wanted to do it.”


Battles

With Stanier on board, Battles suddenly had a purpose and things started to move a lot faster. Rather than retreat into a studio to record a debut album however, the bands initial focus was to get out on the road and support a trilogy of EP’s (two of which – ep C and B Ep - were later grouped onto one record)  which were designed to inform, rather than impact the audience. Stanier in particular has commented in the past that originally there wasn’t any desire to record a full album.

I ask Williams therefore, whether he ever saw the band as anything other than a touring concept. He gives his usual, technically minded response. “You know, they’re both just as real. They’re both very different versions of reality. When you’re doing an album you have as much time as you need to do yourself up and present yourself in the way you’d like to present yourself, whereas in your live show your at your most raw, in a way there’s no lying, it’s sort of this is what it is,” pausing for thought, he adds. “I think we knew that we were going to make records but it took this band a long time to get around to making a proper album because we made the three EP’s. Then there was an extra year of touring because Warp (Records) picked them up and made the whole package which sort of gave it new wings. You know Europe hadn’t really seen us so it felt like a new chance to tour over there and so that in a way maybe delayed the album. Although it also gave us more time to gel as a band.”

Battles - MirroredIt’s undoubtedly this augmented unity which has inspired their debut long-player, ‘Mirrored.’ Recorded at Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket, Rhode Island – the birthplace of the American Industrial Revolution – ‘Mirrored’ provides us with our first real insight into Battles minds because as Williams himself admits, it “was always hard putting your finger on what Battles was.” Whilst the tracks ‘Tonto’ and ‘Snare Hangar’ unveil a new melodic approach to their warped methods of experimentation, first single ‘Atlas’ is perhaps the most obvious sign of a new maturity as Braxton provides magically mysterious vocals over a distorted, driving funk pattern. It’s already a certified Battles anthem which the band have enjoyed adding to the live show. “In the middle of all our craziness on stage to have this one kind of focussed pop song in a way is the craziest surprise that we can come up with because I think we’re always looking for transitions in energy levels in our music and to have this song in the mix is suddenly the funniest, most liberating thing.”

Most poignantly however, ‘Mirrored’ sounds like an album made by a band that finally trust themselves. While their audience, which ranges from “hip-hop kids” to “technical beat fans,” may never pin them down – and let’s face it with such a captivating live show who would want to - for the first time this band know exactly what’s going to happen – particularly Williams. “You know gone were any issues for me of ‘God I don’t want to be in another math rock band or whatever this is gonna be.’ It was like the simple ability just to make music existed finally, instead of the boring questions like, ‘What are we?’ it was just, ‘lets make music.’”

Now feels like a good time to ask Williams about Math Rock. After all, it’s a mostly instrumental genre that he pioneered with Don Caballero in the early 90’s, and a tag which has been somewhat hastily attached to Battles’ sound. So, are Battles a math rock band? “No. I don’t think that should be what it’s called. To me, math rock in the early 90’s meant any kind of music that you’re obviously counting. Like that’s a fifteen and that’s a nine and that’s a seven and that’s a 4/4 - it was obvious that the numbers were at the forefront of the numerology of the music,” he adds. “It was almost a silly game, almost like a one line joke, and that’s the punch line. The way people use it (now) has changed. Now its math rock just because it is complicated and now anything could be math rock which is just so weird because it’s de-routed from what I ever understood it to be.” According to Williams, Battles instead, are just trying to make “pure music” and it’s up to the journalists to say what it sounds like. Although, with his Pennsylvanian tone accentuated, he stresses, “If math rock ever meant anything in the first place, then this certainly wouldn’t be it.” Let that be a warning to us all then.

As Williams heads off to catch up on some lost sleep and dream of the prospect of bringing his ‘unit’ over to Europe in May, it’s startlingly clear what’s so unique about this band. It’s that – superpower status aside – after almost four years in the public domain, as much as you’d like to think you know them, in reality you’re not even close. But, with ‘Mirrored’ about to hit shelves, you’re certainly about to get your best chance yet.