The common reaction to Battles’ music can be distilled to three letters: W, t and F. With a sound between prog rock and another dimension, the NYC trio—down one after founding member Tyondai Braxton left last year—manipulates time and space from the stage. Ian Williams and Dave Konopka tweak their guitars with samplers and sequencers while John Stanier, formerly of alt-metal heroes helmet, demolishes his drum kit. We spoke to Stanier by phone during the band’s recent tour stop in London.
You guys are about to play Seattle for the third time this year. You must like it here.
Of course. Seattle forever. As long as I can remember, it’s a spot you look forward to and when you do a US tour. Seattle, in the upper left corner. It takes a while to get there so it’s a city you really look forward to, coming from either direction. It’s always nice to get there.
At the Crocodile you played new stuff only, and, aside from “Atlas,” Block Party was all new stuff too.
It wasn’t a conscious decision. Honestly it was a more the fact that by time we finished the record we had like two and half weeks before we played our first show. Like, “Oh my god, we have to learn to play this stuff.” We crammed rehearsing the new songs and immediately went to Japan to play. It wasn’t on purpose. It was that we didn’t have enough time to work in the older stuff. We’re doing that though. It’s hard for us to write on the road and even harder to rehearse on the road. That involves us staying in New York and trying to learn the older songs as a three piece. It’s difficult but we're getting around to it.
What’s the biggest difference playing as a trio?
For one thing, I can hear better. There’s more space. It’s more focused live, I think. I feel like we’re playing more together than all over the place. In the past we were constantly fighting for musical real estate and that probably doesn’t exist anymore.
It’s a little bit easier on one hand. On the other it’s more difficult for the other two guys than me. Dave now will have to play twice as much stuff. Not much has changed for me.
I like the trio dynamic. It’s like there’s never a balance like there is in a quartet, two-on-two. I’m thinking of Primus, Nirvana…
Or Rush or the Police. Yeah. Maybe the next record we’ll discover that a tiny bit more. This record, we went through a lot of stuff, a lot of stuff happened to us. We had to reinvent ourselves overnight. A lot of what we did for the record was reacting on instinct. We didn’t have enough time to sit down and talk about, “How are the three of us going to do this, and what’s everyone’s roles?” We didn’t have time for that conversation. It just sort of happened. Maybe with the next record we’ll perhaps explore that more. For now it’s like we gotta do this song, and we gotta do that song. It’s very kinda manic.
The other trio that comes to mind is Medeski, Martin & Wood—a NYC instrumental three-piece with a badass drummer. Dynamically, too, it seems there’s a similarity there. Do you guys improvise on-stage?
There’s a tiny bit of improvisation going on but it’s never within the actual song. It’s more of the transitions in between songs. Those are ever so slightly different every night. That’s generally where the improv stuff comes in. The songs are pretty well thought-out beforehand. Which is why it takes us so long to make record.
Did collaborating with vocalists provide any extra improvisation, or were the singers kinda signed on to play a role?
Not really. It’s not like they were singed on for anything. Each song has its own story behind it, but those songs were written as-is and we knew there needed to be vocals. Three that could’ve been vocals and a third that could’ve gone either way. But it wasn’t a cut-and-paste thing either. It was more that the vocalists were the icing on the cake at the end.
You guys are serious, technical musicians making difficult, experimental music, but kinda hilarious, too.
I totally agree with you. I don’t think it’s on purpose, like we’re saying, “This song is too serious, let’s throw in some humor.” We do realize this is crazy music, but at the same time we want it to be accessible to everybody, but without changing the parameters of the music. We want everyone to enjoy it but we don’t wanna write in a way that’s obvious. I don’t think serious, forward-thinking music always has to be so boring and sterile. I don’t see why you can’t do something new and push things in weird, opposite directions and do you own thing and still have fun. If we’re not having fun, it’s not gonna work.