Why Manchester is the new creative epicentre of neo-soul and hip-hop
Listening to album opener The Yabba for the first time was an anxious experience. I was excited and tentative at the same time. Excited because it’s been four years since Ian Williams, Dave Konopka and John Stanier adapted to a changed line-up and released the urgent and brilliant 'Gloss Drop'. Tentative because I had no idea where Battles would take things next and The Yabba really wasn’t giving anything away. At one moment you’re ambling past cacti in the desert, the next you’re in the middle of a fairground dazzled by the colours and lights.
Much of the record was put together at Machines with Magnets, a studio space in Pawtucket some way out of the trio’s New York home. Williams was armed with his guitars, keyboards and Ableton focusing on electronics. Konopka’s bass and guitar were complemented with various pedals whilst Stanier maintained drums. Together, their music marries digital and acoustic to form the colourful, intricate experimental rock they’re so well-known for. As 'La Di Da Di'’s release date approached. I called Ian Williams over Skype to find out what exactly went into the album.
Where have you been for since 2012?
Ian Williams: "Living, going for walks, eating meals with friends and lovers. We stopped touring the last record [at] the end of 2012 and 2013, we were just sort of generating raw material for inspiration. Riffs, loops and melodies, just basic things 'cause we work as a collective so everybody has to chime in and be into the impetus for a song. The raw powder, the gunpowder for the explosion. Not everything gets used, we try to see what vibe everybody's into. Then we agree on a certain body, maybe 15 to 20 things. We start getting together and we start thinking about extra melodies, drum beats, stuff that's gonna songify that shit. Take it to the point where it's a song and not just an idea. Then we finally get together and play as a real band at the practice space and try to see what stuff goes. But for us, that's always complicated. 50% of what Dave and I are focusing on are the textures of our sounds and things. Then we’re trying to tweak that but you're playing as a full band at full volume with a loud drummer at the same time. Then everybody has to turn up and it gets really loud, and you kind of wish you could be by yourself and focus on your own shit. We always have a dual thing, we try to play together as a band but we're by ourselves also."
So you don't really take too much time off then, as soon as you come off tour you're coming up with new ideas?
Ian Williams: "Well yeah, acquiring new instruments, new gizmos, new ways of making sounds. And then doing that stuff and not necessarily together, we need a break from each other after touring together. But knowing that eventually we shall face each other again. We will need to be supplied with riffs and things. It's like that, so that's what we've been doing."
The riffs are how you start writing the record? Where do you start?
Ian Williams: "Yeah, what we're doing, it becomes a pretty slippy, sloppy definition of, "Is it a riff? Is it a melody? Is it a line? Is it a loop?" A lot of those things start to become interchangeable with us and honestly we don't worry too much about what it is. It's one of those things. It contains a sound, a character, a tempo, either a neutrality or a very focused step in a certain direction. Then our imaginations can play with it. Things still take multiple turns after that because we have multiple interpretations, there's still a lot of room for debate as to how the songs end up."
When you guys get together is there a race for everyone to get their ideas out at once?
Ian Williams: "We try to incorporate a certain breadth of expression, which means not just once guy putting across all of his ideas. It doesn't really matter who's first."
In a short documentary you had out recently, Dave would sometimes just mouth the melody or there'd be these cards on the wall with all the loops' names and the structures of the songs. How do you communicate ideas to each other?
Ian Williams: "When we started out, it always started with easel paper taped on the wall. We would just give things nicknames. Silly internal codenames for things that would be our own personal language. So if you played a little chimey sprinkle at this section of the song, you'd call it ‘tinkerbell’ or something like that. Then the next section would be a big, beefy bassline and you'd call it ‘muscles’. Just silly little cutesy names, and we start to move the names around the piece of paper and draw different orders and things like that."
"Loops are a cool thing but they can become a prison, 'cause you fucking hear that thing coming back at you every two seconds." – Battles
How well-defined are the roles between members?
Ian Williams: "There's no real set boundary, it's a messy thing. I can suggest a drum beat to John, sometimes he'll try it. You can lead the horse to the water but the horse will only drink if it's thirsty. If someone's heart's not in it then it never really sounds good anyway, even if they're just trying to do it to be nice. It's like feeling things out, sometimes you think things are terrible, you don't wanna go down that path, but then you have to make a decision like, “Maybe it's real important to my bandmate that this happens, I can tell they're really attached to this thing so I'm gonna try my best to make the song good even if I don't understand how it sounds good.” Or you can say, “Actually this just sucks, I don't want us to do this.” You gotta make those calls, and it's never a simple clear-cut way of doing it.
When you make those calls, where do all the unused ideas go? Do they disappear forever?
Ian Williams: "It seems like they might. We do have some old songs and some unreleased things, and certainly we have a lot of those cute nickname sections that got chopped. I let those things go, so I wouldn't really be able to remember what they are.
So it's full steam ahead, you're not trying to work previous ideas into future songs?
Ian Williams: Yeah, it's interesting, there's an idea within music that you get into the studio and keep it fresh and don't try to rehash things because it won't sound spontaneous so the authenticity of the tape will fade the more you try to do it the right way. And that's one way of looking at it, but on the other hand, if you look at it like the task of writing words, which I presume you will be doing for this?
Ian Williams: "You know there's the idea that you write, and then you re-write, and then you hone, and then you edit, and you whittle it down to a slab of perfection. I wonder [if] those are opposite sides of the equation."
I guess with interviews if you went the spontaneous route you get all the umming and ahhing and that's not really gonna feel fresh on paper. So if there's a musical equivalent?
Ian Williams: "Yes, right."
How do you feel the new album is different, clearly and most distinctly from previous records?
Ian Williams: I think it is different. The sounds and the textures are a new stage for us. We've always had loops. Loops are a cool thing but they can become a prison, 'cause you fucking hear that thing coming back at you every two seconds. Trying to find ways of making loops shift organically is something I was working on, so that they evolve throughout the song. Embedding more melodic information in the loops so that sometimes really all I'd be doing is the loop but I'd be playing it live and you wouldn't need to overdub a melody on top. You'd just be experiencing the texture – it has rhythmic and melodic information at the same time. When we dissect things to that level, we're really discussing things in too detailed of a way. It's like describing a dish, a fine French meal as simply being its constituent parts as opposed to the alchemy that makes it all come together and that's what makes it a real meal. Breaking it down like that is probably a bad way of talking about it, I should think of a new way to talk about all of this stuff.
When you hear the record back, do you hear it broken down or do you hear it as a holistic vision?
Ian Williams: "Luckily I hear it as a holistic thing because I forget. It was a two-year path from when we started off with the raw materials to when we actually said "Hey, it's in multitrack format in the studio and we have a song!" I forget, and then I only hear it as a stranger."
I believe this is the first full-length without any vocals. Was that even on your mind when you came to putting the album together this time?
Ian Williams: "The idea of a vocalist in pop is such a heavy concept. We treat [vocals] more lightly, like it's just another instrument. As opposed to, "The instruments are the bread and the vocals are the piece of meat on the bread." To us, it was never that ratio. It's maybe a salad, and it's just another chopped bit. It's just another instrument, just another part of the texture. Always, the vocals came after the music. It's natural for us to make instrumental music. If you look at our records in the past, our first three EPs were all instrumental and then Mirrored had a couple of songs with vocals and then the rest of it was instrumental with some beatbox-y sounds mixed in. Even the last album had four songs with vocals but [eight] songs without. It's riffs and beats and melodies, textures and tones and whether there's singing or not, that's just like whether or not you're gonna play your Fender Stratocaster on this song."
How important do you think change is with the music that you create?
Ian Williams: "Personally, I need to always find a new way to [create]. Almost the most honest thing I could do is place myself afresh or anew in a situation by re-approaching the instruments or the relationship with the band. "Can we make this music?" as opposed to the other end of the example [which] would be that you figure out a formula or something that works and you just keep doing it. For some reason more exploratory in an honest sort of revelation of who you really are if you're putting yourself in a new situation by discovering if you can even pull the thing off."
Is that how you felt going into the record, did you know that there was going to be a new album?
Ian Williams: "We never fully know. We knew we were gonna try to make one. But I guess it wasn't a complete, "Yeah we're gonna come out with music we like at the end of the road." I don't think this is the kind of band that would release a record if we didn't think it was good music. It's not like "Oh we have to satisfy the record contract!" or something. We're not interested in doing that."
I saw you play in London a few months ago, I really enjoyed it but it very much felt like you were figuring out some of the new songs and how to translate them to the live shows. What do you learn from the road tests? Do they affect what ends up going out on the record?
Ian Williams: "The more you play on stage, the better you get at it, I think a live show is worth ten rehearsals in a practice room. By the time we played that London show our record's already gone, already in the can. It's kinda interesting learning how to play these songs on stage, it's been an interesting development and it's still going on. I think we're on the verge of being able to explore this material a lot deeper on stage. I know that sounds dangerously psychedelic and prog-ish to say. [Ian breaks into what I can only describe as a ‘prog voice’] "We're on the verge of being able to take these songs deeper!" [chuckles] But it's kinda cool, I think that it'll be able to grow on stage as we start playing a lot. We're still just at the beginning, we're on a little three-show trip but the real thing starts late September, we start playing every day. I think the show will grow pretty fast."
Have you found out more about how you want to play previous songs and have they changed over time?
Ian Williams: "I think we're getting better at playing some of our old songs. Maybe there's a classic rock band that'll swear that they play some song from the '60s better than they did back then. But you might be like, "Well, is it really better?" But I feel like it's growing a little bit."
"If you have to sound like a banana fucking a watermelon, I guess that's alright." – Battles
I wanted to ask about Dave's art direction. Is that on the same wavelength of what you and John perceive the record to feel like?
Ian Williams: "At first he told me he was going to do something with food. It wasn't til I saw the pictures that I was like, "Oh no not food, I don't want food." For a second I was like, "Aah," but then I was like, “I have to admit these pictures are good. Let's do food.”
For ages I thought the second album cover was food, but apparently it's just goo.
Ian Williams: "I think there's probably some deep Freudian thing going for Dave in his images. There's a thread through all these things that connect in somehow."
I feel like it's very fair to describe some of your music as fruity.
Ian Williams: "Yeah, well that's good. If you have to sound like a banana fucking a watermelon, I guess that's alright."