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

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