BATTLES – Eye Weekly (7.12.07)

Battles go AWOL from their musical histories, earning them a chest full of medals

“Holy shit, what are we going to do now?” thought Ian Williams when he finally got the four members of Battles in a room together after their slow, loosely organized assemblage. Like the danger of stacking a bad script with good actors, he was well aware that the fact that his own past in math-rock heroes Don Caballero – along with ex-Helmet/Tomahawk drummer John Stanier, ex-Lynx guitarist Dave Konopka and wunderkind solo multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton’s respective notoriety – was no means to an end. “Everybody was plenty talented,” he says between cellphone drop-outs en route to Portland, “but it didn’t mean that it was going to be a good band.”

After three years of measured exposure and limited releases, their much-anticipated full-length debut Mirrored is enjoying rave reviews and even something of a hit single in the eye- and ear-catching simplicity of “Atlas” (with its shiny video and thump-de-thump groove). Needless to say, Williams’ caution has been assuaged. Far more than the sum of its parts, Battles is a distinctive musical force less interested in who they are than what they are doing.

The short version of Battles’ formation goes like this: upon meeting at one of Williams’ solo shows in New York, Braxton’s insistence that he start recording the new material resulted in Williams suggesting the two make music together. With initial sketches and bassist/guitarist Konopka in tow, the trio played a couple of shows before deciding to add a drummer, recruiting the mighty Stanier.

“That’s when it sort of started to become like, ‘oh, this is a band,’” says Williams. “We had a band name, because you have to get one of those things. And we had to start thinking about releasing music and doing band things.”

Fortunately, after only a few shows around New York, they had the chance to go to Japan for a two-week tour. Although Williams says that this is when the band finally started to get tight and gather momentum, they weren’t about to storm the scene just yet. “We didn’t want an album or a record label spending a lot of money for you to find out about the band,” he says. “[So] we deliberately did these low-profile EP releases and asked these various small independent labels in America to release them separately [to] almost diffuse the effect, so you would only find out about it through word of mouth from your friends, just to sort of give us time to get there by ourselves.”

That process helped the band find its own metaphorical voice as well as find a literal voice with the addition of Braxton’s heavily treated vocal. “I think on the EPs we were at such a rudimentary sketch level of what we were as a band,” says Williams, “whereas now everyone is comfortable with what they’re doing in the band and bringing more fully their own stuff.” In particular, he adds, “I think Mirrored is sort of like Ty figuring out how he can bring what he does into the band.”

About expanding the instrumental sound, Williams says, “When I was in Don Cab it was a liberating thing to get away from vocals. In the early ’90s, at least, it was a twist. I don’t know if people remember that time, but if you didn’t have vocals it was like, ‘What the fuck are you doing?’ To me it was liberating to get vocals back.”

The visual equivalent of this development comes as the enigmatic, tape-strewn foliage adorning the first batch of Battles releases has been replaced by the hard and crisp technological bent of Mirrored’s album art. Though the shift from organic to synthetic still makes the band seem self-effacing, there’s an underlying attempt to connect to the audience without revealing their personalities in public.

“The idea was just that we put our equipment in [the artwork]. That’s the stuff we use to make the music so it’s sort of like an honest ‘this is it,’” says Williams. “I think there’s a lot of obscurity in electronic music because I guess it’s kind of hard to imagine how it’s made. [By revealing the gear] it’s the source of sounds instead of a black box that you never know or the mysterious man behind a laptop computer. So we’re just trying to be open and say what made the records. In a way, this is us.”

Focusing intensely on the music has helped distance Battles from their respective pasts. And although anything written about them ultimately includes their credentials, for Williams there’s no question about what has motivated the attention. “I really think putting ‘ex-members of…’ does not get people to come to a show. The only thing that’s going to get people to come is if they want to see the band,” he says. “I think it’s all about Battles, really. It’s not some sort of talent show.”

Originally published in EYE WEEKLY (7.12.07)


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