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

Arts and Entertainment
Ellie Levenson’s The Election book demystifies politics for children
bookNew children's book primes the next generation for politics
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams' “Happy” was the most searched-for song lyric of 2014
musicThe power of song never greater, according to our internet searches
Arts and Entertainment
Roffey says: 'All of us carry shame and taboo around about our sexuality. But I was determined not to let shame stop me writing my memoir.'
books
Arts and Entertainment
Call The Midwife: Miranda Hart as Chummy

tv Review: Miranda Hart and co deliver the festive goods

Arts and Entertainment
The cast of Downton Abbey in the 2014 Christmas special

tvReview: Older generation get hot under the collar this Christmas

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Transformers: Age of Extinction was the most searched for movie in the UK in 2014

film
Arts and Entertainment
Mark Ronson has had two UK number two singles but never a number one...yet

music
Arts and Entertainment
Clara Amfo will take over from Jameela Jamil on 25 January

radio
Arts and Entertainment
This is New England: Ken Cheeseman, Ann Dowd, Frances McDormand and Richard Jenkins in Olive Kitteridge

The most magnificently miserable show on television in a long timeTV
Arts and Entertainment
Andrea Faustini looks triumphant after hearing he has not made it through to Sunday's live final

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
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.

    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?
    Finally, a diet that works: Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced

    Finally, a diet that works

    Californian pastor's wildly popular Daniel Plan has seen his congregation greatly reduced
    Say it with... lyrics: The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches

    Say it with... lyrics

    The power of song was never greater, according to our internet searches
    Professor Danielle George: On a mission to bring back the art of 'thinkering'

    The joys of 'thinkering'

    Professor Danielle George on why we have to nurture tomorrow's scientists today
    Monique Roffey: The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections

    Monique Roffey interview

    The author on father figures, the nation's narcissism and New Year reflections
    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Introducing my anti-heroes of 2014

    Their outrageousness and originality makes the world a bit more interesting, says Ellen E Jones
    DJ Taylor: Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    Good taste? It's all a matter of timing...

    It has been hard to form generally accepted cultural standards since the middle of the 19th century – and the disintegration is only going to accelerate, says DJ Taylor
    Olivia Jacobs & Ben Caplan: 'Ben thought the play was called 'Christian Love'. It was 'Christie in Love' - about a necrophiliac serial killer'

    How we met

    Olivia Jacobs and Ben Caplan
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's breakfasts will revitalise you in time for the New Year

    Bill Granger's healthy breakfasts

    Our chef's healthy recipes are perfect if you've overindulged during the festive season
    Transfer guide: From Arsenal to West Ham - what does your club need in the January transfer window?

    Who does your club need in the transfer window?

    Most Premier League sides are after a striker, but here's a full run down of the ins and outs that could happen over the next month
    The Last Word: From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    From aliens at FA to yak’s milk in the Tour, here’s to 2015