Even before they have even played a note, Battles have a distinct and commanding presence. Ian Williams and Dave Konopka are surrounded by pedals, guitars, keyboards, sequencers and all kinds of gizmos and gadgets that would send a lesser musician into a tailspin; themselves dwarfed by big-business amps that take in all that lay in front of them. In the centre, a mess of sweat and perpetual motion, is John Stanier; lurching and heaving over his kit, occasionally swiping up in the air to reach his famously-high crash cymbal and generating perhaps the single most commanding presence behind the kit in the indie rock realm.
With the pedigree of bands like Don Caballero, Helmet and Tomahawk running through its veins, Battles have been embracing the weirder and wilder side of math-rock for over a decade. Their latest, La Di Da Di, sees the trio hone in on maze-running, dazzling instrumental compositions; further developing the intricate and acutely-detailed nature of the band’s music.
Ahead of a return to Australia for the first time in four years, we spoke with guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka about their at-times arduous process of making music and playing around with the human element in Battles.
Watch: Battles – Ice Cream
Music Feeds: So, here we are. Battles are finally releasing their first-ever completely instrumental album. Is that a weird thing to think about? Was that always your game plan when it came to creating La Di Da Di?
Dave Konopka: It wasn’t as direct as that. It’s actually really hard to get all three of us to commit to something so that we can move forward with it. I was the most adamant about it – I didn’t want to work with guest vocalists again, and I thought that we had it in us to make an instrumental album. That said, it was never laid out as explicitly as that – we didn’t really make this huge statement about it.
Since day one, we’ve been a music-first type of band. We never really had a vocal-led song that would determine what the song would be. It was really the most necessary, functional decision we could make as a trio to be self-efficient. It was about taking control of the music and being responsible for ourselves.
MF: The finished product of Battles songs are so vast and structured, it’s really strange to imagine them as simply ideas. How do the three of you develop the compositions initially? Does it come through jamming together; or do you each have individual bits and pieces that are brought to the table? Perhaps it’s more trial-and-error, based on demoing?
DK: It’s really a combination of all of those things that you mentioned. It’s all about trying out a new back of tricks if something isn’t working. It all begins with coming off tour from the previous album. You’re getting back to your normal life, enveloping yourself in writing new music. Ian and I compile a bunch of ideas, often in loop format. We never know if it will be the main part or one of many, but we throw it all at one another and see what we come up with.
After that, well… we tend to sit on ideas for a really long time. [laughs] That’s why it’s been four years! It takes awhile for things to settle in. John will come through with the beats once he hears our loops and our new ideas. He’s the one that will push me and Ian – he’ll need more to work with than just this sample or this loop or this part that we have going. That’s what gets us to the next stage. Let me know if this is too long an answer, because it’s a really detailed process…
MF: Not at all – this is fascinating. Where does it go from there?
DK: We have a computer in our rehearsal space, and I’ll sit in there and jam along to Ian’s parts for hours. He’ll take my ideas home and do the same. All the while, we’re compiling other melodic content and writing parts that make sense together… that’s the building process. At that point, I’m still dancing with some ideas. We need a further impetus to commit to what we’re doing.
In this case, it was doing something as stupid as accepting a show [laughs]. Warp [Records] were having a 25th anniversary celebration show, and they asked us to play this show in Poland. We put together an entirely-new set comprised of the ideas that we’d been working on. It was a very weird show for us, but at the end of it we kind of convened and went ‘…yeah, we’ve got songs! They kinda need a bit of work, but we’ve got songs!’
MF: One would assume that’s where recording comes into play – when things get “serious.”
DK: Really serious, man. [laughs] The glue of the process is going to our favourite studio in Providence, Rhode Island. It’s called Machines With Magnets. Those guys are real guiding lights to this band and its process. They’re probably the only people that can sit us down if we get too carried away with something and just flat-out tell us “That sucks.” [laughs]
When we’re trying to make things work, we hit the wall trying to make sense of it all. When we’re at a standstill, we’re go into the live room and jam for hours. We build out of that. There’s no one clear-cut way of creating for us. There’s all different kinds of origin stories on this record. Commitment is the hardest point for us – we’re always striving to get there. Once we’re committed to where a song is going, that’s what you end up hearing.
Watch: Battles – The Yabba
MF: A Battles show has always involved a lot of multi-tasking, but that was more apparent than ever after Tyondai departed the fold. Ian is always going between two different keyboards and his guitar, you’re switching between bass and guitar at any given point, you’re both setting up loops… even John will move over to sleigh bells or some other kind of percussion at the right point. Did the live side of things become more difficult when Battles converted into a trio? Or have you accepted it as being part of the challenge?
DK: It’s part of what we do. It comes down to the tools that we’re using – looping is a fundamental element of what we’re working with. It’s primal. The repetition is a big factor of our music. We like to see how far we can push things, how much we can build around it. We’re a self-sustainable three-piece, and that’s fun to us. It’s like a sport to us – the more technology that we incorporate, the more things that we’re allowed to do on-stage. We’re not doing anything that we can’t handle up there – it’s not like I’m pulling out a saxophone or anything like that.
MF: If there’s one thing Battles is missing, though…
DK: [laughs] Exactly, right? Maybe we should start focusing on just looping everything. Me and Ian will show up at the beginning, set everything up and then have John drum along to everything for 90 minutes.
MF: That’s a fantastic idea. No-one would have an issue with watching John play drums.
DK: We’ve got something to work with, then! I’ll run it by him at our next practice. I’ll let you know how it goes. [laughs]
MF: The announcement for La Di Da Di was shortly followed up with a video of you guys playing four new songs live; which went on a loop for 24 hours on YouTube. How did that idea come about for sharing new material and promoting the release of the record?
DK: We were thinking about the way people would initially hear our new music – especially since it had been so long since we had released any. I think it was more natural to represent the new music as a live performance. First and foremost, for us, we’re a live rock band. That was the best way to show new songs that we’ve been working on, rather than just a Soundcloud link. It was just more interesting for us to convey our new ideas in that way.
Watch: Battles – Atlas
MF: We also recently got a look at the video for The Yabba, which was directed by Robert Guárdia. Battles have quite the reputation for really interesting videos – it was the clip for Atlas in which many were introduced to the band initially back in 2007. What’s your take on the visual side of things? Do you see it as an important factor of what the band is?
DK: We are just privileged enough to be working with great directors. For us, it’s about finding the right synthesis of music and visual. Canada, as a production company, do awesome work. They have beautiful aesthetics and are really insightful when it comes to creating music videos. We worked with them previously on our video for Ice Cream, and worked with them again here but with a different director – Robert, as you mentioned.
I really like the idea of toying with music videos as a form. Performance-wise, it’s great to see a band, sure – but I like the idea of narrative. I think that adds an extra layer – it almost makes it feel like a mini-movie. The fundamentals of our band – looping, cyclical things – are what play into the aesthetics. I think Canada really get that.
We played a show in Cicily and then headed up to Barcelona for a few days to shoot this video. Primarily, it was Robert and his crew working their arses off. We’d just be sitting there, pretending to play… we felt like we weren’t holding up our end of the deal or something [laughs]. I honestly can’t thank those guys enough for the work they put in. They really made something quite masterful.
MF: By the time this is published, you guys will have been announced as a part of the Laneway Festival for 2016. It’s a typically huge lineup, and it will be the first time we’ve seen you guys in four years.
DK: Yeah, it’s our first time playing the festival! We’ve done Big Day Out twice and the Vivid festival at the Opera House, as well. Laneway seems like it’s a great festival, and we’ve only heard good things about it. I think we’re going to try to do some sideshows on the days off, too. It’s in the middle of our winter, so we’re there at a perfect time with all this perfect food and perfect beer. What could go wrong?
Watch: Battles – Tonto