Battles are on the brink of releasing their third studio album La Di Da Di – but it has such a strong sense of sonic identity that it could easily be their ninth or tenth.
The instrumental rock group from New York City are utterly confident in their approach to their music, whereas many others would still be refining at this point in their career.
Like their music itself, the trio rely upon repetition and structure (recording each album in the same studio) but there are still the odd moments of chaos to shake things up (arriving to their first UK gig with no power conductor, for example).
There’s contrast and conflict in their process, which makes for hugely interesting results.
We caught up with founder, guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams about time in the studio, rice cookers and artwork too risky for the London Underground.
Hi Ian – what can you tell us about the new album?
“I don’t know! I don’t have a set-piece to describe it. It’s just us making the music that we wanted to listen to, I guess. That’s one way of describing it.”
Were you in the studio for a while? Or was it more of an ‘in-out-done’ situation?
“Well the way we work is that we bounce ideas around before we go into the studio. We’ll record rhythmic loop information and pass that around. Then we’ll see who gets inspired by what. We work as a collective, so everyone has to be into a song enough to work on it as a full band.
“We agree on the ones we’re going to try and flesh out into songs. So a lot of that happens before we go into the studio, then when we’re in the studio we’re tracking and working on overdubs and the drums and things you can’t really record at home in your practice space.”
Are you a band that enjoys the studio time?
“It kind of gets back to the old question of ‘what’s the valuable element in a studio?’ I think that for us, it’s time. You can pay top dollar to go into a fancy studio, but then have to rush and get out of there pretty quickly.
“I’m much more into being in the position where you can relax in your practice space and record directly into your computer. Do the stuff that takes several weeks to get the nuance just right, and then port that stuff over to a professional studio and get a good recording of the drums, which you can’t do yourself.
“We’ve always worked at this place called The Machines with Magnets up in Providence, Rhode Island and every Battles album, we have melded all the disparate stuff we have going into a cohesive final song. So, we’ve always finalised it there. It makes us all sit in a room together and agree on things.
“We always have an argument about what’s going to happen – ‘should this turn into a trance-like repetitive droning section or should it a big violent thing drop on top of it?'”
That’s one of the things about ‘writing by committee’ anyway – there will be issues where someone wants to take things in a completely different direction. Is that a case of trusting the other person’s instincts?
“Yeah, it’s messy. Because there’s no rulebook about how that works with us in that situation. I think sometimes it’s ‘OK, I can tell my bandmate really cares about this’ so you try and go along with it. Even though I don’t really get it.
“And then there’s sometimes you’ve got to say ‘no, that sucks’. There’s a fine line.”
You’ve worked with a few guest vocalists in the past. Who has been your favourite to work with?
“Each relationship is very different, so the rules are different for each collaboration. Gary Numan was great – he completely came up with a different sort of song and then we had a talk about it and described what we wanted. So he came back and wrote a totally vocal section. The structure of the song was already set – we had the drum and bassline and he created a different reality on top of that. I was impressed with how good he was at dropping different realities on top of that.
“He could have just told us ‘fuck off’ right then – but he’s totally no ego.”
You’ve been going quite a few years now and you have a reputation and a very loyal fanbase. How do your live shows compare to when you first started out?
“In a way the beginning is easy because you don’t have any expectations. Unless you think you’re awesome and people need to understand that. But I didn’t know if people would be in to it or not. We were just playing music that we liked. To me, it was a happy surprise that a lot of people got behind the music over a couple of years.
“I think looking back at the earlier years, there was a lot of crazy low-budget scenarios. I remember the first time we ever played in the UK. We played in Brighton, we had some electronic gear and we didn’t have a power converter for US current. We shouted out to a room full of strangers ‘does anybody have one?’ and one guy was like ‘my girlfriend is Japanese and she’s got a rice cooker at home, she’s got this thing that converts the current’. He ran five blocks down the street to get it and we managed to pull the whole show off.
“We always had crazy scenarios which we thought ‘Oh God, this is going to be a disaster’ – but most of the time it actually worked.”
Do you sometimes miss meeting an audience that have no expectations of you?
“Well you always know that with the guys who love you so much, there’s a double-edged sword lurking there. You disappoint them, then they’re the guy on the internet the next day really pissed off, ranting about how much you sucked last night and how upset he is. There is that side.
“I’m just happy that people still like us at this point, we get to play music and people appreciate it.”
Your previous album artwork was a sculpture built by your guitarist Dave Konopka and this new album seems to be a line-up of breakfasts. Is that one of his too?
“Yep, that’s a Dave work too. In fact, if you look there’s a series of singles and each one of those have their own food artwork as well. So now they’re just floating out there.
“You can read into it how you want. It’s food porn – foodie culture has gone insane. The pornification of food. Dave has a certain sense of humour and it comes across in those photos.”
Does he work in isolation on these and approach the rest of the band saying ‘I’ve got the artwork covered’?
“He’s a graphic designer by training so any time there’s a question about a poster, he’d already have something on his laptop – a fully formed idea. He thinks that way.
“So…it’s a banana fucking a watermelon. It doesn’t get any sexier than that.
“I don’t know how this has been resolved but apparently Warp Records had put posters in the London Tube of that cover and it was deemed ‘inappropriate’ for the Subway walls. I think we were going to use a digital blur, but I don’t know where that story is.”
You recently released a 20-minute documentary ‘The Art of Repetition’ – how was it having cameras with you in the studio?
“It’s definitely different. You have to pretend the cameras are not there. I encouraged it, they kept asking for more access and I said ‘let them shoot more’ – because in the end I figured if they had good stuff, the documentary might be good.
“I’m glad we let them in there a lot of times. Ableton’s not in the business of being sensationalist – I didn’t think they were going to do a ‘gotcha’.
“I think we all had crazy personal years the year before – just a lot of personal reasons in our lives. At that point it was like ‘I don’t give a fuck. If you want to follow me around with a camera then go ahead’.”
You have some UK dates lined up for October. What are your fond memories of playing the UK?
“I feel like we’ve played the UK a fair amount. I love playing the UK, because the kids gets psyched!
“People in the UK always talk back to you and tell you ‘you suck’ if they’re not happy – which I kind of like.
“They love you when you’re good, but if you’re struggling they’re like ‘fucking c’mon!’ At least it’s not a just a polite ‘thank you’.”
If Battles got into an actual battle, what would be your weapon of choice?
La Di Da Di is set for release on September 18 via Warp Records
Battles play the following UK shows in October:
23: Manchester, Academy 2
24: Bristol, Simple Things
25 Glasgow, ABC 1
26 Cambridge, Junction
28 London, Electric Ballroom