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Interview: Battles

10th September 2008

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Battles off-kilter aural algorithms have been the surprise hit of 2007. Tom Cassidy caught up with drummer John Stanier for a chat.....

BattlesBattles are an aural enigma, beating sound into unrecognisable shapes - swirling masses of conflicting yet harmonious reverberation. These sounds should not sit comfortably with mere mortals, but they have become the surprise hit of 2007, winning over critics and fans alike. Leading debut album Mirrored in February came single ‘Atlas’ a tune as colossal as its Greek god namesake - it sounded like it could also lift the weight of the world on its shoulders.

Battles have travelled the world wowing crowds with their neuron-destroying live shows. Speaking from a sea-front hotel room in Brighton with the sound of seagulls in the background, drummer John Stanier took time out to chat to TNS.

It is obvious that Battles popularity was built in the live arena, and Stanier puts this down to the ‘organic’ creation of their live sound.

“We’re definitely fun to watch and if you just listen to our record it’s one thing, but when you see us it’s the fact that we create everything that’s on the record live - there’s no pre-programmed samples or loops so you’re witnessing this cacophonous workshop going on onstage and we’re all close together and it’s all energetic and fun.”

Mirrored, is a definitive document of the described ‘cacophonous workshop’, the digital distillation of the band’s live dynamic, but which do the band value the most?

“That’s an impossible question to answer, they’re just polar opposites.”

“In the short term playing live is fun because it’s instant gratification and when you play a great show there’s nothing like it in the world. You’re full of adrenalin and go nuts and it’s really satisfying every single night but on the other hand it quickly goes away and you can never go back and re-live that initial feeling.”

“In the studio it’s a lot more boring and tedious but in the long term your record’s something that will be around forever and in 50 years someone can check out this thing you created so that’s just as cool.”

“Also, in a live situation you’re playing to x amount of people there and then, but with a record you send it out and you’ve no idea who or how many people are listening to your music and what it’s doing to them and how it’s reaching out to other people.”

The band already has a fine legacy of recorded work, not only with their album and the hugely popular EPs that preceded it, but also through their past musical endeavours.

Stanier alone has a fine CV, having drummed for metal behemoths Helmet and being a member of Tomahawk with Mike Patton (ex Faith No More) to name but two.

It’s abundantly clear that the band love doing what they’re doing and relish where it takes them. It’s been a summer of festivals for the group, many in the UK, including new kid on the festival block, ‘psychedelic village fete’ Field Day - was the reality as good as the concept?

“Well, I’m trying to be as polite as possible but not really. I definitely had fun though and I got to hang out with some old friends but I missed the tug of war and the welly-toss and the barn dancing.”

Asked if there are any bands who they have become friends with or any they have enjoyed seeing Stanier is stumped muttering inanely down the phone before guitarist Dave Konopka offers prog-metal mentalists Mastadon, jogging his memory, “Oh yeah, we majorly partied with them, and…Snow Patrol, Spoon, [German DJ] Ellen Alien and loads more.”

Expecting that the quality of their music has earned them respect from other bands, is that how they’ve come to hang with all these different groups?

“Honestly it’s more to do with the positioning of your trailer at festivals. I mean, I played a festival where to the immediate left was De La Soul and to the right was Immortal, the Norwegian black metal band in white corpse paint, so bands just hang out at these picnic tables.”

“A very long time ago, I’m not going to tell you how long ago, I met the Prodigy when my old band played Roskilde in Denmark when their second record came out and I started talking to them. The next thing I know I’m hanging out with them for hours then I go to watch them from the side of the stage and Keith hands me a microphone and gets me to introduce them to 100,000 fans - it was awesome.”

Following the critical acclaim and popularity that greeted Mirrored did they find crowds were aware of their songs or were they preaching to the unconverted?

“I think it depends on the show - we played Fuji-Rock in Japan where we’re selling a lot of records and there were definitely a lot of people who know a lot about us and had our record, whereas we just played the Green Man festival in Wales which is predominantly folk so that was a completely different experience. I presume about 90% of those people had never heard of us and we just won over a whole other group of music listeners and those are always key, critical performances - it was great.”

It seems the quirks of the festivals and venues are far more noticable than the people they attract, with John shedding some interesting light on how things are done on the other side of the world when asked how crowds are different from the UK and their home country America.

“I gotta be honest and say that they’re just not. The only place it’s ever really different is Japan where they don’t clap in between songs because they don’t want to disturb you. It’s pretty weird.”

As John mentioned, Battles are making a big smash among the non-clapping Japanese record-buyers but they are enjoying huge success on these shores also. The commercial success that Battles’ music has enjoyed has come as a surprise to many (including Stanier himself), due to its manic experimental nature, Battles tunes definitely aren’t radio-friendly-unit-shifters.

“I’m still really surprised. We knew when we were writing it a certain amount of people would like it just from the fact of who we are and the bands we used to be in but none of us had any idea it would be this well received so I’m so flattered and really happy. Whether or not it has anything to do with ‘Atlas’ with people buying it because of that and then discovering all these other really weird songs on the record.”

With so much talent and an obvious abundance of ideas how do Battles control their musical chaos? Stanier explains it is a very much all-in, democratic experience.

“They’re [the songs] absolutely formed by all of us and usually start with one tiny, tiny, tiny idea like a little seed that’s planted and we all throw our 2 cents in, take it home and sleep on it and come back to rehearsals the next day and keep writing, keep writing, keep writing until it forms this massive out of control tree then we have to prune it, Edward Scissorhands-style, into a perfect geometrical animal.”

“It’s four different people from four different parts of the country of different age groups and completely different musical backgrounds, As clichéd as that sounds, it’s definitely why we sound the way that we do. It’s a pot-pourri of different musical ideas thrown into a big pot. Ian [Williams, guitar/keyboard and ex-Don Caballero with John], for one example, grew up in Africa so there’s even a tiny afro element in there.”

So there’s so much going on, it’s surely music that’s not easy to genrify or pigeon-hole. That is unless you’re John of course, who has a short and sweet answer that’s accompanied by a huge belly laugh.

“Erm…hmmm. As far as we’re concerned, it’s good time party music!”

That said, it’s unlikely you’ll find one of their singles on any TV-advertised party anthems compilation, but it does sum up the key element of a band who are far from heavy-going political activists and more about enjoying life through music, with the band’s main message being ‘have fun, all the time’. When suggested they share this ethos with Andrew WK, Stanier laughs but is apprehensive to agree, plumping finally to settle that they do share this, but with a ‘slightly more high-brow credo’.

It’s a great testament to these times which sometimes seem achingly middle of the road that a band like Battles can enjoy such success with a record that’s so left-field. They must feel like they achieved everything they set out to with their album.

“And then some. Definitely. We recorded it in this giant building in Pawtucket, Rhode Island that belonged to our friend who let us stay there while we were recording, we really lucked out on it and the surroundings. We also signed to Warp [Records] so the stars were in our favour.”

Even on tour luck seems to be on their side with little calamity or hitch. In fact, the strangest event on this tour John can muster from memory is that once he was in a hurry and put on two different shoes, before admitting that’s not the best rock and roll anecdote in the world. Much hilarity ensues when guitarist Dave once again interjects suggesting to John ‘there was that time when your biological father turned up!’

With that there’s only time left to pick up some useful hints and tips from the world-wise drummer, beginning with the best advice he’s ever received...

“Let the money come to you, don’t go after the money.”

And the best advice he’s never received?

“Are you sure you need that last shot or Jagermeister at six in the morning?”

The band are on tour until November, after which they begin work on their second, and no doubt sonically awesome, album.

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