Waging war on the charts

Once an underground cult, Battles are finding success in the mainstream. James McNair reports on a fine campaign

To meet Brooklyn’s Battles, is to meet four rather disparate individuals.

The guitarist/resident wit Dave Konopka describes himself as “Sporty Spice”, but the group’s frontman and Sideshow Bob lookalike Tyondai Braxton seems much more serious. Factor in the keyboardist/band diplomat Ian Williams and the drummer John Stanier (soulful eyes; general air of experience), and you have a group that is arguably more thinktank than band-as-gang.

Chatting with them in a North London pub, it emerges Stanier is “a fair bit” older than Braxton and Konopka, and this, together with his and his bandmates’ widely differing tastes in music, has ramifications. “One time, Q magazine had this picture of Johnny Rotten on the cover and Ty didn’t even know who it was,” says the one-time punk Stanier. “He was like, ‘Is that Billy Idol?’”

At this, the more classical and jazz music orientated Braxton leaps to defend himself, pointing out that his generation never really got into the Sex Pistols. “My ignorance might be unbelievable,” he deadpans, avoiding eye contact with Stanier, “but then not everyone would recognise Claude Debussy if I put a picture of him on the table.”

Mild spats notwithstanding, Battles are making some of the freshest, most invigorating music around. Having signed to Warp Records early in 2006, they released their dazzling debut album, Mirrored, in May of 2007 and promptly found themselves dubbed “a postrock supergroup”. Even at that stage Battles were still something of an underground act, but as 2008 gets under way they find themselves on the verge of mainstream success. Indeed, having charted highly in “album of the year” polls conducted by everyone from Timemagazine to XFM to the NME, the world appears to be their bivalve mollusc.

The aforementioned “postrock supergroup” tag is convenient but apt. Braxton is the son of the avant-garde jazz composer Anthony Braxton, Stanier made his name with the esteemed hardcore metal act Helmet, and Williams and Konopka, too, served wellnoted apprenticeships in their respective instrumental bands, Don Caballero and Lynx. As Battles, though, these four men trade in sonic alchemy that utilises electronic elements, cartoonish, sped-up vocals and some fiendishly intricate rhythms. Tunes such as “Atlas” and “Tonto” are wonderfully playful, too, so it seems unfair that they have sometimes attracted the somewhat derogatory descriptor “math rock”.

“Yes, that is a little annoying,” says Braxton between sips of mineral water.

“Truth is, show me music that doesn’t use math. When we experiment with rhythms I hear the soul and the feeling in our band very clearly, and I think our record has life and flamboyancy. Common [or 4/4] time might be easier to digest, but you’re still dividing sound into beats. You could be listening to Aretha Franklin, and if you put in a bar of 5/4 time people would go, ‘Oh, it’s totally soulless.’”

“We’re definitely not trying to be complicated or didactic,” adds Williams. “It’s just that this music is fun for us, and we hope that it will be fun for others as well. The thing is, people seem to connect to even units of time at some primal, subconscious level. Activities like walking or jumping up and down both go one-two, onetwo, so it’s hardly surprising that people are sometimes a little bit thrown by music that doesn’t follow those patterns.”

Behind the flashes of selfdeprecating humour and a keen awareness of how they are perceived, Battles are pushing the envelope in ways that deserve greater recognition. Their modus operandi is a fascinating one, Braxton’s treated, other-worldly vocals riding propulsive, sometimes outlandish sections of music that the band give characterful names, the better to remember and interpret them. The aforementioned “Tonto”, for example, includes sections entitled “Anjelica Huston” and “Brer Rabbit”.

Big on improvisation, and a much-lauded live act, Battles is also a democracy in which the four members split all writing royalties evenly. Musically speaking, their limbs tend to function like tentacles of the same omnivorous octopus, probing crevices to see what might lurk there, and feeding the titbits back to a hungry communal mouth.

Interestingly, the group came together circa 2002 while Braxton was working in the classified ads department of the US magazine The Onion, an organ that has brilliantly satirised the musical tastes of the kind of white, nerdish males that Konopka and Stanier sportingly agree is a significant part of the Battles fan base. One spoof news story in The Onion told of a fire at a Yo La Tengo gig in which eight record store clerks were killed; no-one present today objects when to the idea that substituting “Battles” for “Yo La Tengo” would have worked just as well.

One early Battles line-up was rather different to that of today, despite having the same four-man at its core. Utilising Braxton’s position at The Onion to place an ad, the group recruited a pool of around 12 feisty female singers, and even played a concept gig called Press Conference in which these women delivered their backing vocals while sitting at a long, low table.

Williams: “It was kind of interesting, but logistically speaking it was impossible. Imagine trying to get 16 people to a rehearsal room in New York on the same day… and then when we got there these tough ladies would be staring each other out.”

Stanier: “It was like West Side Story gone very wrong.”

“It was a nightmare,” Braxton confirms.

Battles soon trimmed back to a quartet and eventually released three acclaimed EPs, but it wasn’t until Mirrored that they incorporated vocals into their music again.

Apropos of this, Braxton talks about the “neutrality” of Battles’ music, something that is supported by his lyrics being difficult to hear properly, and thus somewhat “value-free”. But what is he actually singing about amid the crazed groove of “Ddiamondd”?

“Erm… it’s a haphazard story with information spewing out so fast you can barely process it,” he says cryptically. Like all good magicians, Braxton prefers to maintain his smoke and mirrors.

It’s no great surprise that pop and rock’s tendency to eat and/or reinvent itself is of great interest to Battles.

“Even back in the early Seventies people were saying that we’d exhausted the permutations,” says Williams, “but I don’t think that’s true. The tools that you use to make music help define the sound, and the conditions and the technology are always changing.”

But what of the rise of the mash-up phenomenon, in which two old records are fused to make a new one? Go Home Productions’ “Ray of Gob”, for example, marries Madonna's “Ray of Light” to the Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant”. Doesn’t that smack of endgame?

“Again, I don’t think so,” says Braxton. “Mash-up records can be incredibly creative too. It’s all about building a doorway to somewhere new, and that’s certainly what we are trying to do.”

You have to applaud the Battles’ blueprint, then, but notions of some fictional “ideas Armageddon” aside, the question remains of just how open most listeners are to truly innovative music. One also has to consider that the indie scene in New York City is rather different to that in Sticksville, Arizona, say.

So how are trailblazers such as Battles received when their tours take them out on the road less travelled?

“I’d rather get pleasantly surprised than totally ignore those places,” says Stanier. “I like the challenge, and those nights when you are in the middle of nowhere, staying in some potential serial killer’s loft, are the ones you’ll always remember.”

“Sometimes it backfires though,” chips in Konopka. “One time we played, like, this house show in South Bend, Indiana, and the kids were going ape-shit. I was kidding around with this one guy afterwards, and he punched me in the mouth.”

Hopefully, Battles will meet with less trouble in Australia, where they will play their first live shows of 2008 as part of the touring festival Big Day Out.

They say they’ll be back in the UK for summer festival appearances, but with a solo album due from Braxton, and Stanier moonlighting stint with Mike Patton’s acclaimed alternative metal band Tomahawk, Battles won’t begin working on the follow-up to Mirrored until the autumn.

‘Mirrored’ is out on Warp

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence