Q&A With Battles Drummer John Stanier: "I Was Determined To Use The Last Drop Of My Blood To Make This Happen."
Jason Frank Rothenberg
The rock band Battles is often likened to a machine. It's not too much of a stretch: on their breakthrough debut Mirrored, they soldered together eerily controlled riffs, futuristic textures, and fiendishly powerful drumming; and on stage, the group's wrench-heavy, wrench-throwing music is more kinetic, yet still airtight.
But for the past year, the well-oiled quartet has been beset by very human problems. Tyondai Braxton, one of Battles' founding members, quit the band in the middle of recording sessions for their new record Gloss Drop. Suddenly, the remaining trio of Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, and John Stanier had just four months to come up with a record that capitalized on momentum they'd spent nearly seven years building.
The latest incarnation of Battles is still working out how to deal with Braxton's departure--Wednesday's sold out show at Le Poisson Rouge is likely to consist solely of new material. But it should also show that they've both endured and delivered, all thanks to a superhuman (maybe even machine-like) effort. I grabbed some time with Stanier, the band's incredible drummer, to discuss Braxton's departure, Gloss Drop's influences, and touring.
A few weeks ago you guys played some shows in Japan. Those were the first gigs you guys had done since finishing Gloss Drop, right?
Yeah. Japan was the first time we'd performed as a three-piece, and the first time we'd performed the new songs. We barely made the deadline for this record. We finished it, finally, mastered it, and then we were like, "Oh wow: now we have to figure out how to play this stuff live." Then we rehearsed for about two weeks, these 10, 12-hour rehearsals every day, and then we flew to Japan. I haven't had five minutes to myself in over a year. It's been super-super non-stop.
I think that it was very fitting that we played Japan. We kind of wanted to because of what had happened, and now we're really glad we did. I didn't know if it would have been disrespectful to go there, so we were kind of waiting to see what Japan said about whether we should play or not. But they were like, "Yeah, you've gotta come down and play here."
But I think that, on top of that, even without the catastrophe, Japan kind of is our home away from home. They were the first to really get us. Our first real show was in Tokyo. We played, like, two shows at Northsix and then we played Tokyo. That's definitely the first shows and tours we've done outside of New York, ever, eight years ago. We have this really cool connection with Japan, and so I thought it was kind of fitting to debut Battles 3.0 there.
Let's talk about Tyondai. His stated reason for leaving was that he couldn't commit to the rigors of touring. That struck me as odd, given that he's currently touring behind his solo album Central Market, but that must have been a slap in the face, given how central the live show is to Battles' identity. How do you feel about touring?
Obviously playing live is such a major element of what we do. It's at least 50% of what we do, [or] for any band. Playing live is fun. You should want to tour, and we've always done that. And out of nowhere, [to want to] turn the band that we'd taken seven years to get where we are, and then to turn around and want to turn it into this side project recording thing was just a little too much to take, I think. We definitely were not into that at all. And it was kind of a shock that he pretty much refused to tour, for the most part.
So, that was kind of a bummer.
I think it's crazy that a musician could decide that he refused to tour. Do you think you could get to that point?
I don't know. I know for a fact we're not going to tour as much as we did on the last record at all. Even on the Mirrored tour, I mean, we toured, but I think we toured as much as any other band. It wasn't some marathon, road dog kind of a band. We kind of played everywhere once. We'll probably do Europe twice and the US twice, if you count festivals and that kind of thing, but it's kind of standard touring, really. And it's spread out. Everybody has lives, and girlfriends, and wives and stuff, so yeah.
Yeah. You can't just sort of out of nowhere...
Turn it into Steely Dan.
Yeah. And so it was kinda like, "C'mon dude. Really?"
But whatever. He had to do what he had to do, and we had to do what we had to do.
Let's talk about Gloss Drop, then. It feels rougher, and more open than Mirrored. Was that part of some overarching plan? In previous interviews, you and Dave have described this record as summery.
I don't think we've ever done that. With this band, it's pretty much impossible to do that, simply because from [the moment] when a song begins to when it finally finishes, it could go all over the place. I mean, it could start out as something with a light-hearted little loop, and then it could turn into this dark, epic monstrosity two months later. You never, ever know. The vibe of one song will change drastically over the course of our writing and arranging it. So we can't really sit down and stick to some master plan about a record.
I mean, this was a really painful record to make. Obviously, there's a lineup change in the middle of it, but two really significant things happened in our personal lives--one at the beginning and one at the very end--and there were just non-stop obstacles.
And I really think that's kind of like a cliché, after a band's been gone for a while, where you read reviews and it's like, "Divorce! Drug addiction! Rehab! The record that should never have been made!" All that kind of hype that makes people go, "Ooh, I've gotta go listen to this." But I'd be lying if I didn't say that this is probably the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. So it was kind of the three of us having to reinvent ourselves and just kind of deliver the goods, really. You know, really focus, go back up there and write a record, which I feel like we did.
I feel like, in a really strange way, it's kind of like taking an extremely negative situation and turning it into a positive one. And this was done subliminally. I don't think we ever got together and were like, "Man, we're really bummed and depressed, so let's make a happy record!" It's kind of how opposites come out of you. I can't really explain it exactly, it just sort of turned out that way. It wasn't our purpose, but I can hear it.
That's interesting, because when I listen to it my first thought was that you guys were thinking about changing, and that that was the result of some stuff you'd all listened to collectively. But it got me thinking about how nobody's ever asked you about your influences, which is strange because every band is asked about their influences. Other than the strain you guys were under, do you think there's anything that went into this album?
I definitely think the main theme of this record is time, and by that I mean there just wasn't enough time. I don't ever remember a moment of the three of us driving around or sitting down or like listening to a particular style of music and thinking, "Yeah, let's go in this direction." I mean, there wasn't time enough to do that.
I didn't listen to any music whatsoever when we were doing this record. I don't think anyone did. I think Dave, for some strange reason, was listening to Paul McCartney Wings records [laughs]. That's the only thing I can think of. I mean, we would go drive to get coffee, and Dave was the only one with a car, or we'd drive to Whole Foods, and Dave was always listening to Wings for some reason. So maybe there's some Wings influences in there. I have no idea.
Also, the place we did the record, which is the same place we did the last one, is really isolated. When you're there, you're totally cut off from the outside world, it's kind of in a compound in a really small town next to Providence, Rhode Island. So it's like, once you're inside, it's this creative oasis. It's like Andy Warhol's Factory, where there's all this stuff going on. And you sleep there, and you stay there, and when you walk out, there's just this parking lot, and there's nothing going on out there, so you have to drive to get groceries or to do anything. So it really forces you to get a lot of work done.
I don't think there was really any time. It's not like we were on the road, on tour in a van, listening to Boards of Canada records or something, so the next record's gonna sound like that. There was no unified band-listening session. I think that because there wasn't a lot of time, and because we were so isolated, and we were doing like 14-hour days and sleeping for 20 minutes at a time, I think it's probably influences from like 20 years ago. It forces you to kind of dig deep down into yourself, back to when I first started playing, and I think everyone was kind of like that. Which is kind of cool, in a way. Instead of being instantly influenced by something right now, like, "We were listening to a lot of afrobeat!" we were forced--the pressure's on--and so [it became] ideas you were thinking about like 15, 20 years ago.
This all sounds like it was a really harrowing experience. How much time are we talking about here, anyway? Four months?
We went in in May of 2010, and even that was totally dragging our feet, and people being super-uninspired. It was not a team effort at all. You could barely call us a band. It was like, people were locking themselves in their rooms for days on end. It was ridiculous. And that went on until late August, and we had some stuff, but it wasn't very good, and then around August we turned into a three-piece, and we kind of went home for a week, didn't talk to each other for a couple days, then got back together, got drunk a lot, and then just went back up there. And then we pretty much redid the entire record: wrote, recorded, mixed and mastered, in under four months.
The label was like, "If you don't make the deadline on this, it's not coming out until 2015." So it was just like, "It's now or never," and I was determined to use the last drop of my blood to make this happen. And if this hadn't happened, I would have regretted it for the rest of my life. It would have scarred me for a really long time. It was that heavy.
This kind of leads me to the issue of the guests. On first listen, I was thinking that, aside from Gary Numan, they all kind of sing in a way that's reminiscent of Tyondai's singing on Mirrored, more about an added texture than a direct human communication. Is that intentional? Or was it also an issue of time?
That was the only really simple and easy thing about making the record. Luckily. Again, we became a three-piece, we came home, and we just thought, we have three songs that need vocals, and one that could kind of go either way, which we decided to put vocals on, that it became four songs. And again, there wasn't any time to think about: Do we want to take the time to find a fourth member? Do we want guest vocalists on the entire record? Do we want to just make an instrumental record? There was no time to think about that. No time whatsoever. There wasn't even time to think about whether we wanted to continue being a band.
Kazu, Eye, and Matias were simple, because they were just a phone call away. Gary Numan was more in the fantasy kind of list for that one song. And then we had Warp contact him, and he was just like, "Yeah okay." [laughs] I think we're lucky that it's such a wide variety of people. We didn't look at it like, "Okay we have these four songs, let's get this super variety." We're really lucky. Everything fit perfectly into place.
So what are you doing with this free time you finally have? Just sleeping and trying to get ready?
Yeah, I mean, we have three days off. I'll probably go shopping, hang out with my girlfriend [laughs]. It's just a small US tour.
Battles play Le Poisson Rouge tonight at 8 p.m.
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