When it came out in 2007, Battles’ debut album Mirrored sounded like it had been sent from the future, so it’s a little disconcerting to realize that it’s over eight years old. The band’s gone through plenty of changes since then, including the departure of frontman Tyondai Braxton and the subsequent guest vocalist-heavy diversion of 2011’s Gloss Drop. And now, for the first time in four years, they’ve returned with their most assured record yet.
La Di Da Di is entirely instrumental, but the band remains as sonically diverse as they’ve ever been. Although Battles’ sample- and loop-driven take on experimental rock hits the same inventive, constantly morphing highs as their prior work, the record is bound by a renewed focus and clarity. Almost every track, from intricate opener “The Yabba” to the spiraling “Summer Simmer,” features imaginative sound manipulation and virtuoso riffing, all underpinned by John Stanier’s astonishing machine-like drumwork. It might not be as consistently surprising as Mirrored, but it’s a lot more consistent. Completely untethered from the presence of a human voice, Battles now sound both more and less like a rock band than ever.
I caught up with guitarist and keyboardist Ian Williams to talk about how La Di Da Di was recorded, the ever-evolving process of their live performances, and the plusses and minuses of releasing a fully formed album in the Spotify age.
Sam Byford: I thought it was interesting that the first anyone heard of this new record was that live session you put out. Is this record more interesting for you to play live?
Ian Williams: There's a lot of different ways that we can tackle [performance], and it's kind of fun this time. I think that whenever there's something that's a bit of a hurdle, every technological bump in the road is an opportunity to creatively go around the bump, and that's sort of the fun part about it. You can remix vocals for the songs that had singing before, and so on. Is the new stuff more playable, easier to play? I think in some ways the new stuff's harder to play. We've probably played seven or eight shows containing the new songs and I'm pretty conscious of the fact that I'm actually having to play more intensely — I'm just playing music, I feel, instead of hanging out on stage.
Given that you use a lot of samples and loops, how do you balance actually playing things live with electronic manipulation? In electronic music there's a lot of controversy over what live music actually is, and what you're getting when you see a performance.
Yeah, I know, I know. So here's the thing. We set loops on stage, right. And even when you set a loop, that's like a miniature lie. Although people understand the lie — you see the person play a line and just hear the recording back, it's like a gesture that the audience usually understands and thinks "okay, that represents what you had played but you're not playing it any more" — and that's a thing that we've done all the time in this band. It brings us out of being this rock band and that mechanical repetition throws us into a spectrum that starts to feel like electronic music, even though we still have a lot of the soupy, dirty aspects of this rock band that I feel like we sort of are anyways. But how to make the loop evolve and not just be this static block throughout the whole song has been sort of a thing that I think we've always tried to wrestle with in the group, because it can just be this monolithic grey wall if it just sits there all the time. So on this record I've tried to gin up ways to make the loop shift and evolve sometimes, working on sequences that are sort of playing in real time and whether it's MIDI commanding samples to play, or soft synths to play. It's still the problem of "what the hell is live?" It's still like, "that dude just pressed a button." What does that really accomplish? The performance aspect of it is a murky world right now.
I just watched the documentary I Dream of Wires, if you've seen that. The whole moving away from laptops into modular synthesis — part of it was like when everything's neatly tied up in soft synths and laptops one of the problems is that the performance is dead. But I don't really think the performance is any better if a guy's turning a knob and replugging in a wire. The instrument's cooler and more interesting, that's true. But I think the fact that this is an issue shows that this is sort of [the big question] right now in 2015. If you're honestly surfing the wave of what an instrument is on a historic timeline, I think this is where it's at right now. If you were The Who in the mid-‘60s, you were working out issues of how to make your guitar loud enough when you play a large concert hall with PA systems that hadn't yet evolved to support a rock band in a room that big. And I think that this is the honest problem of 2015, of how to play music live. Because our ears are so much more used to electronic music now that it's something we almost require. Not specifically, but if you just play guitar-bass-drums from circa 1991 — I don't know, for the most part I'm pretty bored with those sounds.
And you have John's drumming as a baseline.
Yeah. John is the honest, acoustic aspect of the band. And you can watch it. He plays kick, he plays snare, he plays hi-hat and then you're like "oh, it's real, I understand what that is." And all the other shit going on is like — I play synthesizers with my guitar now. And I resample the guitar onto the keyboard so I can play guitar notes with a keyboard. Nothing probably visually make sense when you watch it — there's a lot of flipping of roles within the electronic spectrum. And I think if you're looking for that narrative, to understand what's going on, it's probably frustrating to watch it. I think it's good, I think the performance is good, but you're not going to necessarily know exactly what's going on.
When you’re first writing a song or making a loop, are you actively trying to create a sound that’s difficult to parse or that no one’s heard before?
If you’ve played music for a while ... like, when I was 16 I picked up a bass guitar and was trying to learn to play Descendents and Black Flag songs, super simple punk stuff. And I was like "Oh, I can do this, great!" And from then on it’s just been another step, like "can I do this? Or this?" I at least wanted to keep myself entertained — like, I already know how to play the guitar like that so what happens if I try to play it like this? It’s just a continuing process of entertaining myself. For some reason to me it feels more honest if the process is searching, or trying to put yourself in situations where you’re not exactly sure if you’re going to be able to pull it off. And I’d say 10 percent of all Battles shows always have that element lurking above it, where there could be a lot of people staring at us going "What the fuck?"
Is that because you try different things in each show, or…
Well it’s just that the show still just has … it’s not fully like you’re wearing your seatbelt. It’s like you’re riding a roller coaster and you didn’t fully put the shoulder harness on. Hopefully you can hold on and you don’t die. But I sort of meant that in the larger sense, just when you’re composing and writing a song, and using a sound and [wondering] "can I faithfully reproduce this sound every time?" There’s shit I’m doing right now on the new record that I’m not totally comfortable playing on stage — I don’t think it sounds as good, I don’t think I’m 100 percent doing it right. And hopefully I can improve on those things, and I have some ideas about how I might fix it.
The obvious difference with this record is that it’s totally instrumental — your previous albums have had vocals to varying degrees. Was this something you decided on going in, or was it ever an option to have vocals somewhere in the mix?
We thought about certain guests on this record, but we just decided to keep it us and keep the focus simple. You know, I feel like we’ve always quite naturally made instrumental music, and I almost feel like that’s always what we’ve made. We started out making instrumental music on our EPs, and when there were vocals on Mirrored and Gloss Drop, I still actually feel like it was a minority of the songs that actually had singing. And we’re aware that you notice when someone sings on top of instruments, you go "oh that’s a human voice" and your mind reshuffles the deck and you picture the singer in front of the band or something like that. But for us, even when we have used the singing, it’s just been considered another instrument for the most part, and something just to blend in with everything.
I guess I ask because I think of tunes like "Atlas," or "Ice Cream," or "My Machines," as doing a lot to expand the profile of the band, and there’s maybe not anything as obvious like that on the new record.
There’s not like a catchy single, we knew that. I kind of think we didn’t really care about that this time. It’s the old "people making music that they wanted to hear," and that’s what we did. And you’re either going to like this or you're not.
It is weird, where do you classify this record? If you push it into the electronic field, then I don’t know. I think there’s a large popular music tradition now of this music that doesn’t really feature vocals very prominently. I kind of just think that people know how to listen to instrumental music nowadays more than they did before.
La Di Da Di is an album that particularly works as a whole. In this age of playlists and streaming music and so on, do you care about how that’s all going to get chopped up or rearranged in the experience of the listener?
Yeah. I would tell you — I mean it might be a fool’s mission or something, but it’s a nice record to listen to [from start to finish]. And do people do that any more? Maybe not, I don’t know. But I would say that if you… I think every song does sound good by itself, so yeah, I don’t know. I guess now I’m talking about where we sit on the map, I’m thinking about what people expect from us, and there is this constituency that wants the "internet hit" with the singing and the catchy music video. So if there really is the person who just wants the hit and otherwise doesn’t like us, then I guess that person will be disappointed with that record. But also, like, I guess we don’t really care about those people. But I think if you are a person who already likes the things that Battles is known for, I think you would like this record.
Do you think you’re always going to be interested in releasing your music in album form?
For me, that’s not necessary. I would say in my art it’s really just about making good music, and whether that needs to come in a bubblegum wrapper attached to a magazine at a supermarket or not, that doesn’t really concern me as much. Making an album is almost a traditional gesture at this point. But it’s kind of fun to hold onto those traditional things and plop them down into the contemporary world and see much it works in that setting. I don’t really care about albums, but I would actually bet my bandmates would disagree.
La Di Da Di is out 9/18 on Warp.