"I Admit It, We Failed!": The First Battles Interview On The Story Of Gloss Drop
Simon Jay Catling
, April 21st, 2011 07:48
In the face of adversity, Battles have produced their most killer album yet. Simon Jay Catling meets the band to discuss Gloss Drop, discarded records and departed members
It's disarming when a group so bionic in its methodical slaloming and intricate, polyrhythmic percussion, capable of conjuring new sounds with the nerveless precision of a steady-handed alchemist, and of combining so many components into a tightly packed, impenetrable but buoyant unit, loses one of its key pistons.
When Tyondai Braxton announced his decision to leave Battles and concentrate on his solo endeavours last summer, it was a shock: here was a group who'd functioned as a seamless, complementary whole. Poignantly, the group — made up of some of the most robust characters to endure the various math-rock and metal scenes of the 90s — reacted to it with a muted but very real hurt. It was as though, just for an instant, the armour that so encased the rugged power of the band had fallen around them.
That pain clearly hadn't passed when I meet guitarist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier on a searing hot London lunchtime. And yet — while Battles won't thank me for saying so — Gloss Drop, the album that's remained permanently on my stereo since receiving it last week, couldn't have happened without Braxton's departure. Not only have the band reacted to the split with a newly found focus — one that permeates the album — but in its unexpectedly upbeat aura, its calypso tones, its welcome-without-being-overbearing guest spots, and its general grooviness there's a sense of freedom that wouldn't have come had things remained as they were.
Battles could easily have surrendered, but they haven't. In the wake of pushing themselves to the limit to pluck victory from the jaws of defeat they sound, if not jaded, certainly weary in person, John fixing me with a stare as stoic and resolute as his sticksmanship, while Ian watches his words loll out of the side of his mouth before pulling his sentences back to form a cohesive point. Yet underneath this lies a defiance, a pride; Gloss Drop isn't a tale about a band member leaving, it's about its remaining members drawing together to produce something that, against the odds, again comes across as a completely watertight unit that still oozes life and vigour, and contains some of their finest moments yet.
So it's not been easy but you've finally completed the album; with all the tribulations that have come with making it, is it an LP you feel you can love or is it a time and a product you'd rather forget about?
Ian Williams: I think a bit of both. I think it's a more listenable record than anything we've done, more direct y'know. I've done a lot of records in the past and I've written some of them thinking 'man, that was the shit' at the time I was doing them, but listening back to some of the stuff later I would never really want to play it again, say, ten years later. But I think there's stuff on this record that in fifteen years time I'd want to play.
Yeah, because you'll get some acts that'll finish an album and the process'll be such they'll never listen to it again and just move on.
IW: Well I never really listen to our stuff that much.
John Stanier: I don't on a regular basis, but I'm pretty proud of what I've done in the past, sure. I wouldn't want to be on a record that I'd be embarrassed to play fifteen to twenty years later.
Tell me about the time between [2007 LP] Mirrored and Gloss Drop. Obviously the departure of Tyondai is a major talking point that I'm sure you're sick of talking about, but in hindsight just how much of an impact did it have? As before [his departure] the process seemed similar to Mirrored: quite organic, you already had some songs ready live. I saw that John a couple of years ago said if you had your own time to write it then it'd take years to do, but then all of a sudden you had to change your strategy and get it out there.
JS: Two years ago when we originally really first started even thinking about doing this record, yeah, we were complacent. We did Mirrored and everybody liked and we had to do another record. I don't know if all of us felt this way but certain … people felt it and that had a huge impact on why it took so long. It took a really long time to start the engine and get the wheels rolling again.
With that album being such a success I'm sure it was hard to get yourself up for another when that record was still there being talked about.
JS: Yeah, the hunger had gone a little bit I think.
IW: I think what happened was that when we started we made this record as a four-piece. We didn't get to the ending, but it sort of felt like that was our sophomore record because it was really uninspired and I don't think anybody was really happy with it. When a member left the band we had to re-tool it, and make a record that would represent who we are at the moment. I felt like we skipped ourselves one record and it was only at that time that the comfort level was gone; our deadline for completion passed with Warp and the shit hit the fan. We had to try really hard to make the record again and because we had to try harder the record was better.
JS: It's a good point that there is this record that we've not put out. We managed to go through this process of the really lame band experience where you put out an uninspired record, and luckily for us that record never really existed and no one will ever hear it. But we went through that process of having to do it. Then we were completely under the gun to completely scrap that and begin again from ground zero in a couple of months.
So Gloss Drop's entirely new?
IW: There are some frameworks and stuff, a rhythm track or a melody line which we've taken and re-conceptualised; we took some very small parts from, like, eight minute pieces. But that was it.
I guess a positive you can take from that experience though is that, having been doing this and being in bands for so long, you could still find yourselves under pressure and still feel driven enough to rise to it.
JS: Yeah, there were so many moments when we could've completely cracked and broke down, because it was that difficult. But we pulled ourselves together, and that's one of the things that happen when you go from a confused four piece into a three piece team with everyone on the same page.
And there was a sense of having to re-define your own roles within the band too I suppose.
JS: Yeah, a little bit.
IW: There was a certain sound density there before with four people, and an intensity. The way we created had to change a little bit – and it was easier actually because we could do it with more focus. It wasn't such a traffic jam, like 'there's this lane of traffic and this lane of traffic' and arguing about which way what goes. There was a more carefully planned … subterfuge I guess? Or an undermining; like, if there was a vibe to a song someone would always throw in an opposite force to pull it back the other way. It becomes a balancing act to do that right because it can just destroy the original intention, or it can challenge it and make it stronger. It was a little easier to find that correct balance when there were just three of us.
In a previous interview David [Konopka] described the period as 'dark,' but for me Gloss Drop itself comes out, on the whole, quite bright sounding, almost, dare I say it, fun. Mirrored seemed to explore a lot and reach out whereas, bizarrely given what you've been saying, this album feels like it's found its place a little more.
JS: That was completely unintentional. It's not like we sat down and thought like “now we're a three-piece, let's lighten up the mood and write a happy sounding record” - it just subliminally came out that way. But I do think it's the result of us trying to take a seriously negative situation and turning it into a positive one, not really on purpose, but luckily for us it sort of came out that way.
IW: The thing is though that a lot of people have said that it seems like a happy record, but it was a hard time for us. Tough times bring out the best in people though, humour comes out of comedians … I dunno … It's not like we were saying to ourselves “we needed a happy song to make ourselves feel better.”
JS: I'm starting to realise too that it's a cliché to dwell on how difficult making the record is. There'll be a band that are really successful and it took them three or four years to finally come out with their new record which everyone's waiting for; and all you ever read about while waiting for it is, like, 'divorce! Drug addiction! We put our blood and tears into this record blah blah.' It's such a cliché, because it overemphasises how amazing this record is … but I still at the same point can't help but be honest when I talk about how fucking difficult it was to make this stupid record. What's done is done.
Let's change the emphasis then; what are you proud of about the album? Is there anything you've taken from it that you think can go on with in the future?
IW: Yeah, it still felt like the next step for us. We couldn't have made this record if we hadn't made Mirrored first, we used the process of how we made the songs from that, but stepped beyond and weaved in behind some of the limitations of that one. I know that the next thing we do - the language, in effect - that we developed for ourselves to make this record will factor in the next one, though it'll have evolved again. It takes a good deal of work to make this kind of music; it's like climbing a mountain that you do for the thrill of it. If you climb a mountain, that's interesting. But you wouldn't want to climb it next year; you'd want to climb a different one.
JS: It's like going from K2 to Everest.
The collaborators on the record … how did that work with them coming into the band, were there issues with them 'getting' you and how you worked, and likewise how far did you go to meet them on their ideas?
IW: We wanted everyone to be themselves, contribute who they are to the record and not conform to what they think Battles is. The point of collaborating with another artist is that you ask them what they'd do. There was maybe a little back and forth with them but it was sort of a fantasy; we got to step outside of ourselves and work with talented people who you'd never normally be lucky enough to get them all to be in your band.
I think certainly taking the Gary Numan track, 'My Machines', for example; it sounds like a Numan track, it's industrial, quite 80s…
JS: Yeah, he was perfect for it. There were three tracks that obviously needed vocals and one that could've gone either way and we decided to use some for it. I don't think any of the vocalists are interchangeable, not to say they wouldn't have done a good job on the other tracks, but it was really specific that it was on a song by song basis.
Yeah I get that, aside from Gary's, Matias Aguayo fits the more accessibly groove-laden vibe of ‘Ice Cream', while Eye's appearance on ‘Sundome' is quite droney and psychedelic. Was that at the back of your mind - you had these guys with these talents and you could make them fit?
JS: I don't think it was that thought out to be honest, it was quite easy. With Eye you sort of know what you're going to get.
IW: Well I think you only know that it's going to be unpredictable.
JS: You know with Gary Numan the sort of ballpark he's going to be in, which he does very well. Kazu [Makino, Blonde Redhead's vocalist] was never going to do some weird avant-garde Yoko Ono thing …
IW: Matias was the most eye-opening for me; he added this layer that reminded me of a tropicalia thing for that song. It was hard to capture the spirit of that song in the vocals, it's delicately placed because it's kind of corny, but if you do it in the right way it's kind of fun.
Well it almost verges on pop by your standards.
IW: Yeah, yeah. It reminded me, before Matias came along, of a Bollywood sort of song. There was an innocence to the thing that came across the right way. If we'd pushed it too far it would've become corny and I think Matias' spirit on it was just right and made it … cool, but not too serious.
And apparently you've just shot the video for ‘Ice Cream' as well.
JS: Yeah we did it in Barcelona with this collective. The core is four directors, but there's so many more involved. It's very communal, the film's very Spanish.
IW: We haven't seen it yet, but it might possibly be the best music video ever!
JS: Super, super over the top. The only thing I'll say about it is that they shot us playing on a stage – about a crew of thirty – and that same amount of people were then crowded around together. We couldn't see what they were doing, but they were filming a tiny matchbox car, the lighting guy was measuring it, it was that elaborate. It was like there was a make-up person for the car.
IW: We were simply subjects in this film.
Again, that sounds quite light and positive though, despite it apparently not being the intention…
JS: I realise that's a bit of a wishy washy answer, but it's true in a way. It's more focused in I guess.
IW: I don't feel that we needed to hide behind the obscurity of complication this time. Y'know, it's sometimes quite a safe thing because people can't come and crack your code and say 'ah, you're this thing.' We were comfortable enough to sometimes just let a song be a song this time around. But, y'know, the thing that I was happy about was the balance, and that was because we exposed ourselves to letting these songs remain just songs, yet at the same time the process and the techniques with which we created the sounds and songs went a little further and experimental. So within the inside of those songs is something more experimental but at the same time it almost went round in a full circle so it came off a little more accessible.
JS: I feel like the last thing I'm ever worried about with this band is pop; I'm not afraid of the word ‘pop' or doing a pop song because I know it would be impossible to write a song that could be played on mainstream radio. Totally impossible. So there's that weird safety net when we're writing songs, I'm never afraid that I'm going to have to ask 'is it getting too commercial?' 'Cos it's not, it's always going to be weird; someone's always going to throw a wrench in at the last minute to make it slightly askew.
And what drives that for you, to always be expanding and tinkering?
IW: It keeps your process honest when you don't exactly know what it's going to be like in the end, it's like an honest walk through the woods because if you really know where you're going then it's like taking a walk in your back yard. If it's a more honest exploration then it's more like walking in the woods and you're not exactly sure where the path leads, but if you have the confidence to get to it then you'll get your bearings and keep moving and not get lost. So because of that you push out to the dark, the unknown territory - which is stimulating.
With 'Atlas' and to a certain extent 'Tonto' these were songs that really crossed over – certainly over here. You've both been in bands previously who've been well-received and critically lauded, but never to the level of Battles. Do you feel that you've come back as a band who are being watched widely for their next move rather than one who used to be left to their own devices a little more?
JS: Well, with every successful record you put out, the microscope is of course going to be on you. For some people and bands I suppose that would equate pressure; the whole ‘second record, the sophomore slump, it has to be better than your first.' But I feel like we were so isolated and cut off from the outside world for at least the last two years that it never really crossed our minds. The way we worked the record and the stuff that happened to us with making it was totally on a different plain.
IW: Yeah, like I said, I feel that we got our sophomore record out of the way and when we were doing that one in some ways it was uninspiring to us. It's, like, expectation, and 'you have to do this,' and you're no longer free – it's a requirement. And, I admit it, we failed! We made this big crappy glob. We got that out of your system though, so when we got to making Gloss Drop we felt that things were already so fucked up that the failure had freed us in a way.
JS: I can think of two bands right now, I'll not mention any names, they're on their third record I believe. They had a really successful first record, their second record was just completely ignored and made way too fast on the coat tails of their debut, they sort of broke up and now they're back. All the press for them are like 'yeah… we made a second record. BUT anyway…' and they're trying to re-claim the glory of the first one and so they're creating all these smoke screens that the second didn't exist, when it did. We managed to go through all that but luckily no one ever heard it and it wasn't even a physical concrete thing that you could hear anyway.
What came across during last summer during Tyondai's parting as well was how much importance you placed on Battles as a live band; with that in mind, how excited are you about proving that again and going out with this album live?
JS: Super excited, we've only played eight shows or something like that, two in Japan six in Europe. We had about two to three weeks to literally learn how to play the new record, that's how much pressure we were under.
IW: It was a studio album, it wasn't like we'd worked out how to generate it standing there as live human beings, so it's felt like covering your own material almost. We're learning how to play on stage still I think, we've got some shows coming that are all pretty good.
You've got a really full schedule.
JS: Oh yeah it's untrue, the album's not even out yet and it's like ‘cool! We've two days off in three months.'
So, finally, it strikes me that there are bands like yourselves, like PVT and acts like Caribou who, amidst a lot of talk about guitars starting to take a backseat in music, about younger musicians moving away into more electronic genres, are still finding a place for it at the forefront and keeping it sounding fresh. Why is it that you guys can do it and those fifteen, twenty years younger seem to be struggling to? Do you think that is the case?
IW: I dunno, it's like is every twenty-something just in duos now playing computer pads? Well to some degree we still do too, but I still have this romantic notion of a) having a guitar, of b) there being at least three people, this classic look.
JS: We're old school man! We're into guitars, bands with more than two people, and albums.
IW: And it's fun to play around with those ingredients, but I think you still need those ingredients. That's the game I guess, keeping it fun and new for yourself. It's honest, if you already know you can do the simple thing then you've got to find a new one to do.
Gloss Drop is released via Warp on June 6th. We thought we'd also tell you that independent shop, Bristol's Rise, has a bonus 7" featuring instrumentals of 'Ice Cream' and 'Sundome' going for members of their record club. More info go here