The American experimental rock band Battles are a group that refuse to be restricted to just one genre. Post-rock, math rock and art rock have been just a few labels used to describe their music, but however you label, they have found great success in the process with an impressive CV, even for a band that’s been around since 2002. I spoke to lead multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams, mid way through their world tour following the September release of their new album ‘La Di Da Di’:
Where has been your favourite place to perform so far as part of your tour?
“On the one hand, you have all the big international cities, and it’s like ‘big time!’ Places like Tokyo, Paris, Sydney; and that’s kind of cool. But then you get the flip side of it, like this year we’ve gone to India, Thailand, The Philippines, Mexico and China, and it’s sort of an emerging scene. This international underground music scene that’s kind of happening because of the internet now. So that’s exciting in a different kind of way.”
As you’ve released your new album this September, when writing a new track for your albums, do you have a standard procedure for writing or is it more unstructured?
“I guess everyone has their procedure, their own routine, but it’s about keeping it fresh. Which kind of means to me, it’s like trying to put yourself in a position where you aren’t sure of what’s going to happen. Because I think when you get so comfortable with the situation where you know it’s going to happen, like, “I know if I apply this with this, I will get that”. And then you’re kind of dull and formula-like. And it becomes the most predictable shit ever. So it’s always about pushing your own personal boundaries, so that you’re always still exploring.”
it’s about pushing your own personal boundaries, so that you’re always still exploring
Looping has become a part of your music – did you find it difficult to get used to at first?
“Yeah, well the radical thing about getting used to it is that your organic, real moment that you’re playing your notes, as soon as it gets repeated back to with digital precision, it’s all of a sudden transforming what you just did. Like you could play a heavy metal riff, or country music and all of a sudden you’ve got this digital replication, transforming the meaning of what you just did. Which is pretty neat, but it becomes bigger.”
Your sound is very unique, have you been influenced by any previous artists?
“Well, synthesizing different strands of music that we all like, growing up with rock and roll you get to a certain point when you’re into music where you start to explore other things. And then you start to hear things like world music, dance music, jazz, classical, and then everything becomes like fair gain. You can be really cheesy, that’s up to you as the artist to be cool or corny.”
Your style of guitar playing is very different. How did you begin to think that it could be your style?
“It’s the benefit and the curse of being an untrained musician. I’d learn these awkward ways of making music that sounded cool to me, that I knew I wasn’t going to be the kind of guy who couldn’t play in any band. So in my awkward way I figured out other ways of making stuff that sounded cool to me, so you’re a little freer to experiment and come up with your own language I guess. There’s still a bigger picture though, for some people the things that came before you, like all the music ever made, that’s a beautiful inspiration, and they will honour that music by duplicating it. But to me, I feel almost out of humbleness, who the hell am I to say, you know what, all of these legends have already done this, but boy you really want to hear what I just did. I almost feel too humble to waste anyone’s time doing all these greats have done before me. It’s more of a simple project to me to put forward my own language, not trying to say I’m competing with anyone else.”
As your last album was mostly instrumental, do you find you prefer writing/performing songs without vocals?
“It’s not necessarily easier, the human voice, as soon as it appears in music it’s very powerful and you immediately focus on it. And it instantly takes the focus of the music I think, so it’s an easy way to spice up a song. So if you have a piece of music that you don’t think is too exciting, throw a voice on it and it can very easily make the record. So sometimes, it’s like what the hell am I going to do when I take the voice away, like how am I going to make this music captivating? On the other hand, we’ve always just made music, and even the battles songs in the past which have had vocals, the singing has always come second. So we’ll make a body of music and then apply it to it. And I think a lot of people who make lyrics, think I’ve got a story I want to tell, and then build the song around it to support the singing, which is a totally backwards way from how we make music. So whether it ends up having singing or not, for us, is not too defining of a thing, however, sometimes maybe for listeners it can be.”
How do you come up with the titles for your most recent instrumental songs, as well as other songs you’ve written for that matter?
“A lot of times for us, each one of us has a collection of names that we would want to call a song. So for instance, ‘The Yabba’ was from John our drummer who was a big fan of the film ‘Wake in Fright’, which is an Australian classic, and we were talking about how we want to call one of these songs ‘The Yabba’. And then it was like, this song is ‘The Yabba’. Music kind of suggests something, music has a personality, so you listen to what the personality is. So it’s a case of ‘does that title match that personality?'”
It’s the benefit and the curse of being an untrained musician
On the subject of videos, for the song Ice Cream the video is very eclectic. What kind of thought goes into filming those sorts of videos?
“Yeah that’s a cool video. There’s this collective of filmmakers in Barcelona who proposed making that video, and we really liked their ideas, so we went with it and it turned out well. A load of the shots are really quite nice, they did a really great job.”
As you worked with Gary Numan previously for one of your songs, what was he like to work with and are there any artists you would be like to collaborate with in the future?
“Yeah of course there would be. But if you were to ask which ones, I don’t know, but we’re open to see what situations arise. And working with Gary Numan was great, he was really pro, and he kind of came up with a totally different version of the song first, of the melody and vocal structure. Then we talked about it, and he said lets push it in a different direction, and just readapting it; he was a pro. It’s like ‘this guy’s a veteran, he knows how to do this.'”
Who are your favourite artists to listen to at the moment?
“I’ve been like waking up in the morning, making coffee, and listening to Charles Ives records. It’s cool to listen to slightly kooky classical music on Low-Fi monophonic records. Especially when you’re drinking coffee in the morning, it makes it all okay. It’s really nice against the digital sea, of like Apple Music and Spotify, you can listen to everything all the time. There’s something really nice about the gated definiteness of a record, like “I’ve put on a record and I’ve got to listen to it”, not like, ‘oh this song’s boring, next.'”
What do you think the future holds for Battles?
“So we’re doing this European trip, some festivals in the United States and Europe come summer, and that’s the main thing. That’s all I know.”