Battles’ practice space is a beautiful disaster. Just two days after returning from a globe-trotting slate of one-off dates that saw them playing sets in Dublin, Sicily, and Raleigh, North Carolina, the Brooklyn-based experimental trio has a labyrinth of amps, guitars, drums, and effects rigs strewn around their space in Midtown Manhattan’s long-running Music Building.
Guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams decided to hang back in Raleigh for a bit. So it’s drummer John Stanier and bassist Dave Konopka who, on a warm September afternoon, are peeking through the rubble of their recent pseudo-tour, a Jenga-like assemblage of backpacks, duffle bags, and flight cases (some of which still, curiously, bear the name of Stanier’s pre-Battles metal act, Helmet). They’re struggling to clear enough floor space for our interview and for a practice session later that evening.
Controlled chaos suits the finger-painted take on pop music that the band has made since their inception over a decade ago. Back then, former guitarist/vocalist Tyondai Braxton lent an avant edge to their splattered instrumentals — themselves a whirl of asynchronous modes and genres — that drew from music-box psych rock, cartwheeling prog-rock, and the rhythmic hopscotch of post-punk’s woolier strains with equal aplomb.
They’d settled into a youthful rhythm by the time they released their chattery debut, Mirrored, in 2007, but during the making of their sophomore album, 2011’S Gloss Drop, Braxton left to tinker away on solo experiments, throwing the band into a sort of upheaval. “We were trying to make chicken salad out of chicken s–t,” Konopka says, obtusely. “We were ignoring the fact that it wasn’t working out.”
They emerged from that record’s eight-month recording process unscathed, with another well-received collection of genre-hopping art-rock and “Ice Cream,” a pointillist ballad featuring DJ/singer Mathias Aguayo that gave the band a hit that finally eclipsed the Animal Collective-indebted weirdness of “Atlas,” which they felt belied the biodiversity and floridness of their first LP.
Another four years later and they’re born again, again. La Di Da Di marks their first record made entirely as a three-piece and without any vocals, but it still maintains the careening hallmarks of Battles efforts past. Lead track “The Yabba” plays out like a physical manifestation of a poorly managed Tetris game, ill-shaped structures shifting and struggling to fit together before piling up and outward. It’s the first single that they released, but it’s not hooky in any traditional sense, a shunning of bustling album-release cycles in the Internet era, which Stanier repeatedly calls “exhausting.” Without the benefit of the guest vocalists that bolstered Gloss Drop, Battles decided to make their full-album statement, but they’re not too worried about the response anyway. “The spirit of this band,” Stanier assures me, “is that we just don’t give a s–t.”
Nevertheless, Konopka and Stanier took the time to explain the band’s merciless touring, messy work ethic, and buoyant sense of humor that birthed La Di Da Di, all while prepping for another country-spanning trek coming in just another couple of weeks. Read an edited and condensed version of that conversation below.
December marks 13 years of Battles’ existence, does it feel like it’s been that long?
John Stanier: Albums-wise, it doesn’t feel like [that long] because it takes us longer to write. Spoon would probably have like, 17 albums in that timespan… Well, I guess they do.
You seem to have developed your own rhythm though. There doesn’t seem to be a lot of downtime between touring and working on whatever’s next anyway.
Dave Konopka: Yeah, there wasn’t for La Di Da Di at least. We spent so much time on the road [for Gloss Drop] that there wasn’t time to be like, “I’m gonna take three months off and go to Thailand or something.”
Stanier: That’s what you want to do? You want to go to Thailand for three months and find yourself? [Laughs.]
Konopka: No, I was just saying that by the time we’re done touring, the last thing you want to do is go travel. By the time we get home, it’s just time to start writing new material.
Can you talk about the decision to make La Di Da Di without any vocals this time around? As a result there’s not really an identifiable single.
Konopka: I think we played that game of the single [in the past]. Like, with “Atlas,” when we were writing that song, it was just like, “We can structure this song in a way to play into that a little bit. This one has hooks.” And “Ice Cream” was the same way. This time around, there’re still a lot of hooks on the album, but it’s not vocal hooks. When we were making this album it was just more about the integrity of the interaction between the three of us. And even from, like, when we first wrote our EPs, all of the melodies and the interactions between what we were doing musically sufficed as vocal hooks.
Throughout the course of the album, each song is something that we were trying to get out of our system. There’s like, somewhat of an afrobeat song in “FF Bada.” We toyed with writing some whack version of a reggae song. The great thing about the album is just that there’s, like, tons of different opinions on what the song is. It’s not like, “Oh that song — I listened to Mirrored and that song ‘Atlas’ is great!” Yeah, there’s also, like, ten other songs on that album.
Stanier: It’s a pleasant reminder to people to that we really are, at the end of the day, an indie-rock band. we’re not a futuristic pop-funk band. But we’re not hearkening back to the EPs either.
Konopka: I don’t think we’re capable of doing that. It makes sense for Green Day, as their marketing campaign, to be like, “We’re going back to the Dookie years on this one,” 20 years later.
Stanier: Yeah. like, “I appreciate how you’re really trying to push the envelope and everything but, you know, can we just go back to what we all are comfortable with?”
It has to be freeing to not have that burden.
Stanier: We’re lucky as s–t to be in that position. In a weird way, that’s almost like how the really trippy, weird-as-s–t, prog-rock bands have the last laugh; like Led Zeppelin or Rush, they can basically do whatever the hell they want.
They can afford to make a reggae song.
Stanier: And they did, towards the end, on In Through the Out Door. I actually listened to that record not that long ago and I was like, “This record sucks. It’s so bad.” You can just tell that, like, John Bonham doesn’t give a s–t anymore. He’s probably just like — this is right before he died — he’s probably just all bloated and just like, blegh. You don’t have to print that. [Laughs.]
Konopka: I’m fully aware of the fact that reggae coming from three dudes like us could sound really weird, but that’s the interesting part of it too. I know it’s disgusting but let’s get it out of our systems and see what happens. This is not directly purposeful on our part, but [Battles are] indicative of how bizarre music-listening is. Postmodern culture has created this mindset of “I’m really into hip-hop but I also like hardcore too. All kinds of music are great, as long as it’s good.” We’re almost like this bizarre mixtape band. We can’t commit to anything, but that allows us to try out a little bit of everything.
Stanier: It’s like three dudes standing around a giant pot making what they envision as the perfect vegetable soup.
And because of that meld, no one really knows how to categorize you. Even art-rock and prog don’t really mean anything.
Konopka: None of us have ever uttered the phrase math rock in the history of this band. Because it’s undefinable, “It must be math rock!” But to me that’s super flattering. When you can’t put your finger on something, but you know you like it — or that you hate it — that’s a great thing. There’s some genuine form of art going on there.
Stanier: I wouldn’t want to be in a band that was just goth. No more, no less. Just middle-of-the-road goth. It’s way too easy.
And too serious also. You guys have always made it a point to stay away from the brows-furrowed, arms-crossed strands of instrumental music.
Konopka: I really appreciate that it’s not always about looking or sounding cool. We don’t have that built in because we’re all kinda quirky dudes. I’d love to be able to write a really cool song. There’s an amount of stuff that we do that would be off-putting to other bands, but it’s genuine to our nature.
Stanier: For the most part, instrumental music that’s weird and uses new tools somehow equals super serious. I hate that. That’s so f–king boring. That’s like jazz. I don’t want to be in a jazz band. That’s like Lincoln Center. I’m punk. I would rather embrace our inner dorkiness. We invented our own language. We have these huge charts where we name parts. It’s this weird Battles laboratory that only we understand. It’s supposed to be fun and it’s supposed to be funny. If Dave laughs at something I’m playing, that’s good.
I would rather have people smile or giggle than be the most up-to-date, really cool, super 2015 band. There’s more life in that.