So there’s this band. They’re called Battles, and they’re getting pretty damn big pretty damn fast. The reason for this burgeoning bigness is at least three-fold: their critically-adored debut album Mirrored, the YouTube sensation known as the “Atlas” video (watch it after the jump), and, not least of all, their ferociously energetic live show. While there’s no doubting that their music can be a bit challenging, and isn’t for the faint of heart, this is one of those bands you just know is going to get huge.
At Battles’ sonic center is John Stanier, a former member of Helmet who could be seen destroying the drums at Fun Fun Fun Fest with an impressive combination of machine-like precision and animalistic stamina. We got a chance to talk to John about the (undesirable) genre ascribed to Battles, the band’s investment that’s really starting to pay off, the future, and the most difficult question to answer during an interview.
So you just finished talking to some Australians?
I just did two really lame interviews, super horrible interviews, like “Are you happy that you’re being well-received?” Of course I’m fucking happy.
Like, do you know how to play the drums.
Yeah, you know.
I’d read around and I’ve heard some rumors that you’re getting kind of sick of this classification, so I just wanted to hear your—
Yeah, math rock.
The M-word. Yeah, we never liked that. That was lame since day one.
Who came up with that shit anyway?
To be honest, I think it was the fucking English. I think the fucking English press did it. It’s always their fault, one way or another, but I think they—because to me, it’s such a nineties word. Like that’s a really old word, isn’t it? Seems I’ve been hearing math rock in indie circles since the early to mid nineties.
If you had to describe your music, what term do you think you would use?
Big time party music. Anything but math rock.
What about chemistry rock, or physics rock?
Ha. Come on man, it’s not that brainiac. We kind of went out of our way to make it more fun sounding, more palatable. Not dork, not nerd…but then it’s just math rock. God.
When you think of math rock, you think of a bunch of people twisting knobs and messing around with a calculator.
It’s being complex for the sake of being complex. When you think of math rock it’s the same thing—it’s got unbelievably negative connotations. That’s the last fucking image we want to portray.
But there is a technical precision to your work, and people confuse that with not being loose.
I can see that, but it seems like a lazy category. Like, I don’t know what this is, but it sounds totally crazy, so I’m going to call it math rock. I can totally understand someone not understanding the music, and someone thinking it’s way over the top complex. And of course it is. But that is such a not fun word. Math is not fun.
But the complexity to your work, a lot of stuff that relies on timing—and there is a lot of fun to it, like it’s tailor-made for live performance. How much of your writing process happens on stage versus in the studio?
Well, it’s all in the studio. It’s all planned out for live, there’s no improv, maybe little tiny parts here and there, but ninety percent of it’s very, very scripted.
Obviously, a lot’s been said and written ad nauseum about what bands the members of Battles have played in previously, so I won’t burden you with that, but how does it feel going through this whole “band getting big” process for you again? As opposed to with Helmet or with Tomahawk. Is there a different kind of satisfaction that comes from starting from scratch and doing it all over again?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s a hugely different form of satisfaction, especially with something like Battles where it just took so long to get off the ground and there was no plan in the beginning. It was kind of this anything-goes project that took literally a year before it really started to form. I mean, we’ve worked so hard. We went bankrupt. We sacrificed everything for this thing to happen, put a lot on the line. We were in New York. It’s a hard place to live, a hard place to be in a band, everything’s super-expensive. It’s pretty fucking hard. So for it to be this well received, it’s, wow, awesome. It’s great. I mean, thank god.
What about you guys’ rapport, you seem to have a lot of fun on stage, playing together, giving each other shit. What’s it like working with those three guys?
I mean, each person is totally different all across the board. So yeah, it’s definitely an interesting thing, lots of pushing and pulling, lots of arguing, but actually everyone sees eye-to-eye for the most part. It’s extremely democratic. For me, I’ve never been in a band that worked like that. Definitely not. So that alone is really refreshing.
You were saying that it took awhile to get stuff off the ground, with it being three or four years before Mirrored came out. How do you think the LP process is going to happen this time?Well, it took Mirrored about a year to get off the ground, and I was doing a lot of touring with my other band. Then we did those EPs, and then we toured for at least two years off those EPs. We toured in the U.S., and then we signed with Warp, and then we toured all over again as a new release in Europe. We’ve been to Japan like five times now. Battles has been doing stuff every single day for the last three years. It’s been a lot of work. But it’s not like our next record is going to be out in 2012. We’re going to start in the beginning of the year, but we need to take a little time off because everybody’s starting to get burnt. Lots of work to do.
What groups have you seen lately that have opened your eyes or caught your attention in any way?
Um. I don’t know, man. That’s the question that always stumps the hell out of me. The really crazy complex questions I can talk about for three hours, but the “what bands do you like now…?”
Yeah, it’s an asshole question. Like whenever you want to rent a movie, and you always know of thirty movies that you want to watch, but as soon as the question comes up, of course you’re screwed.
Exactly. That’s why I started writing down movies I want to see when I’m on the road, and taping them to the door. But what new bands do I like? It’s really across the board. But the new Radiohead record—I’ve never been a big Radiohead fan, so it’s refreshing to hear that. And I like the whole pay whatever you want thing. That’s pretty groundbreaking.
You think you might try something like that in the future?
Oh, I have no idea. I think if you’re in the position for it, it’s kind of smart. Everyone’s just going to copy it anyway. Nobody’s selling records anyway. In the last two years, nobody is selling records.
Okay, so give me a sentence summarizing your thoughts on Austin.
I’ll give you one word: brown.
Brown. No matter what time of year it is, it’s always kind of brown here. You think so? It’s the University of Texas Longhorns, it’s kind of brown. It can be in the middle of the summer, it can be in the middle of winter, it always has kind of a dusty feel to it. Although it’s quite beautiful. I was walking around today, I like it. Went to the state capital.
Oh yeah, exciting place. That’s where the magic happens, right?
Yes. Definitely. Lots of magic.