Battles Fights for Originality
Sometimes on Sunday night, I just want to lay on the couch and watch TV, but I can't because I have to go entertain the people."
Ian Williams laughs as he makes this remark, but the fact is, he can barely find time for himself these days. Speaking via phone from a Wal-Mart parking lot somewhere in Dallas, the Battles guitarist can be heard shuffling in and out of the group's rental van, yelling at his bandmates and trying to find a spot with good reception.
"It's a little frustrating," he says of being a full-time musician, "I mean, yeah, there are trade-offs. But at the same time, the older I get, I kind of realize that this is better than most other options. It's pretty good, you know?"
Indeed. At the moment, Battles, his New York-based outfit, which boasts an impressive lineup comprising ex-members of Don Caballero, Lynx and Helmet, has garnered a substantial amount of acclaim thanks to a debut album that has left most critics awestruck. Mirrored, released this past May on Warp, is the kind of record careers are built on. Made up of equal parts modern rock and avant-garde electronica, Mirrored is a near-perfect meld of indulgent hi-fidelity worship and electric guitar abuse. The disc, nearly four years in the making, has instilled Williams and his mates — multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton, drummer John Stanier and guitarist Dave Konopka — with a notable air of confidence.
"I don't want to be a boaster; that would be blasphemous," Williams says with a laugh. "I'm too bashful to say those things. But I think we all are proud of the record, so in a way it's like, 'Yeah, of course people like it. It's a good record.'"
Even so, Williams knows that great records don't sell themselves.
"We've dedicated ourselves to making this record, so we've kind of taken the press route more seriously," he points out. "There's the U.K. stuff, and then there's the rest of the Europe stuff. And those are two different groups of people who set up interviews. And there's the North American stuff, and then there's the Japanese stuff. So they're all coming at you with interviews, and it's pretty bizarre juggling the whole thing."
This isn't exactly Williams's first rodeo. Prior to being a member of Battles, he played with vaunted Touch and Go acts Don Caballero and Storm & Stress. But there's something markedly different about Battles, which is less apparent in outside appearances and one-sheets than in its musical ingenuity.
Like its predecessors, Battles has been praised as a demigod ruler of math rock. But even that term, ironically, seems much too simple an explanation. Battles takes the output of Fantômas and Come to Daddy-era Aphex Twin and breaks it down into binary code, adding Black Dice and TV on the Radio that have been processed into infinity. And then the whole thing is digitally obliterated until it's barely recognizable as anything but pure originality.
Battles is a fucking supercomputer.
But it's not weird science. The act, Williams insists, isn't on some pretentious ego trip.
"We're not trying to be abstract," he declares. "We're not trying to be inaccessible. We're not trying to be hard to decipher. We put these little songs together because we think that they sound really good. We're trying to make the kind of music that we want to hear, treating ourselves as the audience and being our own barometer. That's the only thing you can be in touch with, not wondering what other people will think about it. That will drive you crazy, I think."
To that end, Williams and company have tweaked the notoriously tech-heavy tuneage of Don Cab and created an entirely new portal.
"I would do this kind of tapping on the fret board with both hands," Williams explains, "and basically, in this band, I kind of took that and moved my ideas from the fretboard over to the keyboard. So it became this thing of playing the guitar with one hand and playing the keyboard with the other, and making the notes at the same time."
"In some ways," he continues, "it's a little more daunting. It's a little more production and everything like that. But I think it's the same thing with each band I've been in. It's challenging in its own way."
With a stage setup that looks like a Guitar Center holiday blowout sale, Battles is knee-deep in electronics, with pedal boards and keyboards snaked into effects processors and amplifiers. It all makes for an eerie forecast of a Metropolis-like dependence on technology. But is it too much?
"Every time your cell phone doesn't work the way you want it to, you have the same feeling," he notes. "Sometimes my something-or-another pedal doesn't work in front of a lot of people on stage, and I'm like, 'Shit, this is no good.' And I kind of wish that I just had a guitar and an amp again. But it's a little part of the thrill of trying to pull it off, like there's always random crap that is going to freak out and not do what you want it to do. You have to adapt, and that actually affects the live element of what we do. It goes back to the balance of the organic spontaneousness of human beings and the more robotic nature of things."
Acts that rely heavily on timed beats and continuous loops tend to have predictable live shows. Battles, however, has subverted this by focusing specifically on being a rock band that sweats human grease and emotion.
"It's more like these songs have this process that they have to go through to be built up," Williams offers. "Somebody has to set the loop, and then there are the layers of the loop, and then different people give each other cues to go into different sections. So it's sort of like those are all the variables. And so each one, each time, could be different in the way those things transpire.
"The thing is, we actually play the loops live," he adds. "We have a big rock drum set, and we all have guitars and bass guitars and keyboards. We run everything through big amplifiers on stage, whereas electronic bands will just run everything directly through the P.A. system so that it has a much more dry, clinical sound. We are the halfway point between those realities. I see our stuff really as a sort of garage band of 2007. We are technologically where things are right now, mixed with our own rock histories."
To that end, if Battles is an outfit that's almost too modern for its own good, then what does the future look like for the four-piece?
"My parents always said, 'You've got to go to college, you've got to get a real job,'" Williams recounts. "So I always thought that that kind of thing would happen to me. Although at this point, I've kind of put that off for so long that I don't think I'll ever have a real job."
"I'd rather do this than anything else," he concludes. "But I did go to college, so I can do anything."
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