Whatever you do, don’t call Battles math-rock
“I hate math.”
John Stanier, Battles’ drummer, really hates his music being called math-rock. “It’s a losing battle, we cannot shake that. I hate math.”
“Puzzle-pop” band Battles have been around for over a decade now, merging thumping drum beats, catchy melodies and eye-popping artwork into unique audiovisual experiences. Their newest album and touring focus, La Di Da Di, was their first in recent years to be purely instrumental.
I asked John how it differs from writing an album with vocals. “I think we’ve always been an instrumental group… we’ve always used vocals as an instrument; we’ve never had a lead singer.” He says there was no conscious decision to make La Di Da Di purely instrumental. “We didn’t set forth with any agenda early on.”
In 2010, the group’s then singer, Tyondai Braxton, left the band. In spite of this, they pressed ahead with their 2011 release Gloss Drop. It featured vocals, but from guest vocalists such as Gary Numan and Kazu Makino. “There were parts of songs where vocals were needed for sure.” He says it was a “reactionary” move, and something that was only done due to the situation they were left in. “It was really easy, it worked out fine. It was great.”
Battles’ songs have been used in TV, films and computer games—from Skins to FIFA. “The age that we live in now, it’s all about media exposure, and social media.” He sees it as an almost necessary move: “Nobody buys records anymore. What do you want us to do? We have to make a living somehow… Artists are constantly being forced to find new avenues to make a living.”
He notes that bands seeking exposure through media is so common that it’s not even worth thinking about. They do have standards though: “We’d never do a Pampers commercial… it has to be the right fit.” Puns aside, I kept on with the media theme and asked him about the videos. Battles’ videos, he says, are short films. “I enjoy having other peoples’ visions [for Battles’ songs].”
He sees them now as less of a promotional tool for songs than they were in the past, and more of an advert for the whole band. “A long time ago, you made a video for the single that you took to radio. It was exclusively selling the record. Now it’s way more across the board.”
“The names of our songs are usually the last thing we come up with”, says John. “They are inside jokes. A song will start with one very small idea… they are usually working titles we’re too lazy to think of a proper name for.” I asked him about ‘Dot Com’ and ‘Dot Net’, from their newest album. “They have very specific meanings, but that’s our little surprise.”
When I moved onto the topic of Tyne and Wear, he explained to me that he’s a Newcastle United fan. Hearing him say “Toon ‘til I Die” in a New England accent was certainly confusing. He told me about a time when he played a gig in Newcastle. “I was changing shirts between every song, eventually into my United goalie shirt… then I realised half of them were from Sunderland.” I asked him what his favourite piece to perform was. “That’s like asking which of your children your favourite is.”
Battles are well-known for the sheer amount of electronics used at their shows—later problematic when someone threw beer at them at the gig. Commenting on the structure of the shows, “there’s definitely a structure. There’s so much going on, and there’s so much room for error, that I feel the audience is very forgiving.” He notes “there’ll be minor ‘accidents’ that we gently work ourselves through. I don’t think we’ve ever had to stop… sometimes the machines take over.”
I don’t think anyone would contest the uniqueness of Battles’ sound. I asked about the inspirations that define their sound. “I don’t think that there are any artists [who have defined our sound]… we’ve being doing this for a super long time, and we’re three people whose identities have already been formed.” Ideas, he says, come from everywhere. “I feel like I’m influenced by stuff that happened to me thirty years ago… we’re definitely not the kind of band that sits around and listens to Reggae.”
Finally, I asked them if they feel like they have to tour for longer now that people are buying fewer records. “I feel like we toured less… and in some ways we toured more. Festivals are everywhere now, they rule everything in the US now.”
Battles will surely blaze a trail of thought-provoking and catchy music for years to come; but for the love of god, please don’t call them math-rock.