People Won’t Be People: Battles Interviewed

Posted November 25, 2009 in Music Features


When it came to choosing the potential cover stars of our last issue of the decade we had a list as long as Lapland’s most bearded. With our Thierry Henry interview mysteriously cancelled, and Uffie’s cachet at an all time low, we plumped for the band that make our office tick-tock towards print each month. When our limbs sag and our eyes bulge with Mac-induced cataracts, when not even triple espressos delivered to our tired veins can perk us up, when resentment rides high but emotions won’t grow we invoke the bottomless energy source that is Battles.

Aside from that, there’s a good case for the post-math-rock-or-something quartet being one of the most important bands to release an album this decade. When it comes to End-Of-Noughties lists, their impeccably innovative debut album deserves at least top 5 status – it was a barrier-shattering release that managed to make the alienating accessible, and posit a new template for the much-maligned crossover territory between electronic and rock music (better than Fischerspooner did, anyway). Theirs was the most forward-thinking release to gain mass popularity in 2000s – a claim those other list-toppers cannot conceivably make. This was a decade where many facets of culture focussed on reduce-reuse-recycle retrofuturism, and tried to reinvigorate the old with a can of polish and a dustcloth – vintage chic permeated all spheres. Look at the more conservative choices for the defining album of the decade: Radiohead’s Kid A took 90’s electronica and made it rockist, The Strokes were Television with better haircuts, and Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot only makes sense to those over the age of 35. Mirrored, following on from the magnificent, though highly math-rock influenced EPs C and B, cannot be said to have defined the arbitrary category of time it was released in. One suspects though, that come December 2019 that the taking up the glove that this most multi-faceted of albums throws down will be one of the chief agendas of the Best of ‘10s.

Of course, that’s the very challenge the band themselves are preparing themselves to step to. With a far-reaching fanbase (and hyperbolic journoheads like myself) to sate, and their own ambitious project unravelling in front of them, Battles are brewing up album 2 in their laptop-strewn laboratory. We lucky ducks will get a taste of their newest songs in primitive forms this month at the U:Mack 15th Birthday party. I gave finger-tappin’-good guitarist Ian Williams a buzz in a far-off hotel room to find out what they’ve got up their wizard sleeves.

こんにちは。 これ東京、中央ホテルはいかに助けてもよい私あるか。

Oh, um… Could I connect to room 11709 please?
Hello! Who is the guest you would like to speak to?

Ian Williams?
Ivan Williams?

I have only Ivan Williams.

OK, he’ll do.
Please hold for a short while.

Hey man.

So you’re in Japan…
I love Japan. Battles are received so well over here. Besides that, it’s always fun to come for the weekend. We feel at home here, even though I don’t speak any Japanese.

And everybody thinks you’re called Ivan.
Yeah, exactly. I feel completely at peace with that.

So the main reason we’re doing a Battles interview in December 2009 is that I want to gush over how I think Mirrored is potentially the most important album of the decade. Am I completely deluded, or would you agree?
Well, I don’t want to stop a guy who thinks that. Keep going right on. I guess, in all humbleness, we’ve been writing this new record every day in our practise space beside this little cafe in New York. We got to know the barman and… it’s embarrassing… but every time we come into the bar now he plays Mirrored. I think he thinks we like that. I suppose it’s affirming.
I haven’t listened to that album in a long time, none of us have, but eating with it in the background, it still feels pretty good when I hear it now.

What’s the competition, do you think?
This decade? There’s been a lot of great records due to how feasible home-recording is now. I mean with the punk revolution in the 70s it became accessible to make an amateur record. A few guys get together a couple of hundred dollars and get it out there while Bruce Springsteen spends 6 months in the studio – but it would come out sound quite amateurish. Now though, you’ve got the same accessibility, but the quality of what dabblers in music make is much greater thanks to the changed economics of… making music.

I guess that affects Battles too – a lot of your stuff is produced by the band itself, right?
Sort of. The EPs were home recorded. Our friend Emery [Dobyns] did engineer and mix it, but we did a lot of overdubbing and so on at home. Mirrored was made completely in the studio. I think the new record is going to be a lot more rough – home-recording mixed in a real studio.

So the tour you’re on now is a testing ground for said new material?
Yeah, we have an applauseometer. If we don’t get enough claps we’ll go back to the drawing board. Tomorrow night we’re playing here in Tokyo… It’s a harrowing way to play new songs. It’d be nice if we were playing to like, 50 people, but these last shows have been huge.

There was a relatively big leap from the EPs to Mirrored – is the new material going to expand the template again?
Literally ten minutes ago I was listening to the practise recordings on headphones, and our Japanese friend, who was standing five feet beside me can hear the high-hats coming through the headphones and says ‘Oh! Sounds like Battles…’, so maybe it’ll be all the same again. I dunno. We’re getting much better at what we do, and used to the process but maybe that means it sucks? Sometimes people think they get better and better all the time, when they’re actually getting more and more boring, because it’s easier for them. You settle on a formula. But I think we’re conscious of the effect.

I suppose that was one of the biggest appeals about Battles though – it’s four quite musically-accomplished guys doing something quite different. You’re playing one of the last Warp anniversary shows of the year – have you felt part of that whole celebration, or because you’re newcomers to the label is it still not really home yet?
I feel lucky to be able to be in the context of the Warp thing, and we totally appreciate being part of it, but on the other hand we do sort of feel like Johnny-Come-Latelies to the whole thing, almost like we’re more fans of the Warp lineage. In some ways I feel like we don’t deserve the pat on the back, we all want to pat Warp’s back.

Tyondai’s newest solo album came out through Warp recently. With all of you guys having backgrounds in other projects, have you been working on anything else while Battles was in hibernation?
I’m always a little torn because I always want to focus on one thing and do it well. In the 90s I had two bands – Don Caballero, and Storm & Stress – and coming out of that I appreciate wanting to just do the one band right. That said, after we toured with Mirrored I came up with a lot of songs that I don’t think I could force Battles to play. So I have ideas, myself, but at this point we’re all in for Battles.

As a seasoned professional, I have to ask you – are all post-rock and instrumental bands’ song titles bullshit?
Yeah. Uh. We all have different rules. Don Cab’s were pretty silly, and in hindsight probably too silly, because it restricted it a little. At the beginning Battles was like a reaction to Don Caballero’s long song titles for me, being really abbreviated and coded letters [SZ2, Ipt2, Bttls]. Then, funnily, we ended up on Warp which shined another light on it – electronic obscurity and computer codes. So now I think we’re set on the legitimacy of the words.

Here are some cheesy sentences for our last ever issue. Finish them off for us… All I want for Christmas is…
My two front toes.

The best thing about 2009 was

The best thing 2010 will be
Winter. [Battles’ sophomore album has the tentative release of Winter 2010]

And the upcoming Battles gig in Dublin will be…
Totally fantastic.

Battles play some of their new material as part of U:Mack’s 15th Birthday Party in Tripod on the 10th December. Tickets are a wholesome €35.



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