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Battles drummer John Stanier talks collaboration, chaos and dissonance

Dan Webb
New York art-rock icons Battles have undergone two lineup changes since bursting onto the scene in 2007 with their stellar debut Mirrored. Now a duo comprised of guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams and former Helmet drummer John Stanier, Battles have teamed up with the likes of Tune-Yards and Shabazz Palaces to deliver a terrific fourth album in Juice B Crypts.

Review: Battles – Juice B Crypts

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Originally a four-piece, you were down to three band members for your last record. And a large part of the discussion following its release seemed to revolve around the process of making the album with reduced numbers. Now you’re now a two-piece, and I’ll ask about that in a minute. But surely this album represents more for you than just finding a way to cope with the circumstance?
Yeah, of course. I mean, absolutely. It happened quickly, I mean, we became a duo like totally out of nowhere. We weren’t expecting that at all. So it happened so fast, and we were already so late with our record in the first place, that Ian (Williams) and I didn’t really have like this sit-down meeting of like, can we pull this off, kind of thing. We just were like, “Alright. We’re doing it now. Let’s get this done.” And like, “Let’s start doing the record.” So it was just total like reactionary kind of instincts to writing… it didn’t really come into play, all of, you know, how are we going to pull this off?… It’s also, you know, it’s the first time we haven’t recorded in Rhode Island at the same studio. You know, we’ve always recorded at this one place in Rhode Island with the two same people… It’s the first time we’ve recorded in New York. Uh, you know, we’re a duo. All of these facts come into play… it’s a different record across the board. It’s not just, you know, how do we handle this, now that we’re now just two people? That’s like the easiest question, I think. That was easy.

In previous interviews you’ve bemoaned the cost of recording in New York. I’m just wondering, given that you chose to record this one in New York, if you spent less time on recording?
I mean, yeah. New York is, it’s just ridiculous how expensive it is. And especially to record a record. And the studios are just leaving town by like – they’ve all left, practically. So, um, you know, we recorded at Red Bull Studios, which was fantastic. That was in Manhattan, just like really state of the art. It’s underneath the Red Bull Academy. It’s a really amazing studio. So it was really good to have the opportunity to do that. Um, yeah, I mean, like comparing it to our other records, our other records were – we did them at this place in Rhode Island where there’s nothing to do… It’s like a converted bank or something. It’s like you live in the place. There’s nothing to do. You have to get provisions and stock up. And so you’re like sleeping next to your amp and people are tracking at 3:00 in the morning. And it’s like Andy Warhol’s Factory, and that’s great. But, you know, we didn’t want to repeat ourselves, and it was time for a change. And we probably had too much time. Way too much time, and there’s no one telling you like, “Okay. Like, maybe you should go on now.” It’s just like, well, taking a month to do one song. It was ridiculous. So this time around, we’re recording in Manhattan. We had a specific amount of time blocked off in there, which was not very long at all. So, yeah, of course, we had to do a tonne of pre-production. We had a producer who produced and mixed the record, Chris Tabron, who basically – in my opinion, the job of the producer is to tell you when to stop, basically. And is someone who like forced you to make decisions, which is something that Battles was absolutely not used to doing. Battles is so like insular and like doing everything their own way and it was such a weird thing to begin with that, you know, having an outsider in, within the recording process was always like a no-no, sort of. But not this time around.

In my opinion, the job of the producer is to tell you when to stop, basically.

With the departure of Dave Konopka, a graphic designer, from the band, how have you gone about art direction for this record?
Well, it was important to me to keep as much of the record within our little family as possible, so I wanted – you know, both promo photo shots are by really good friends of mine. And so a really good friend of ours is Andrew Kuo, who’s a pretty famous painter at this point. So it was amazing to be able to even use him in the first place. But he’s like such a really – he’s a bro, so it was kind of like, you know, it was kind of a no-brainer. We’re big fans of his artwork. And he was just like absolutely, like, you know, it was simple. Worked out beautifully. So much of this record is beautiful, simple accidents that fell on our lap and like completely worked out. So it’s a real lucky record in a weird way.

So much of this record is beautiful, simple accidents that fell on our lap and like completely worked out. So it’s a real lucky record in a weird way.

As a three and as a four-piece, you struck a balance between analogue and digital loops and effects. Is it all digital now? Especially in the live show?
No. No, no, no. Not at all. Um, live, I can’t really comment. In the record, absolutely not. I mean, we still are re-amping stuff and like there’s tonnes of analogue. Well, it’s a healthy balance between the two. I think Ian was always the person in the band where every record, he has a completely different setup. And he’s like Mr. Embracing Technology. And, you know, it’s like he’s always constantly changing for every record. Whereas, I am definitely the only acoustic instrument person and still so. And so it’s a healthy balance between the two, for sure.

You previously described the process of recording as individually creating “seed ideas” for songs before you come together into the studio to flesh them out. Given the reduced time in the studio, I’m just wondering how the process changed, if at all, for this new record?
Um, I think, um-

Would you say it’s more collaborative as a two-piece?
Yeah, for sure. I mean, it was way was more collaborative, uh, at the same time, it was more time alone in the beginning. I mean, I was living in Berlin and New York at the same time. So I was constantly traveling, as well as doing other musical stuff… whereas Ian was just going to the studio every day, all day, for like a really long time just generating like thousands and thousands of versions of the same little tiny riff. He just plays and then just like puts them through a loop and there’s like 800 versions of it… and we’d go through all those 800 versions and be like, this one’s really good inverted like this. And then make it – maybe goes faster. Completely different. A different thing. And then we still did the try and piece pieces of paper on the wall with, you know, naming little things and writing them down. And each, you know, combining weird little universes and stuff like that. So yeah, we still have our weird little way of writing, for sure.

In previous interviews you’ve described a feeling of relief of not having to deal with “terrible vocals” after the initial shock of Tyondai Braxton’s departure. Was there any animosity between band members in the lead up to his departure? Or in the aftermath?
No, I mean, there was still a lot of – at this point I don’t remember that. It’s like, uh, I mean, you know, that happened out of the blue, too. So it was like, “I’m shocked”. And it was very early days of writing our second record. So that just happened at a really bad time. So I don’t want to say there’s animosity. That was a really long time ago. Um, you know, uh, I don’t know. I wish him well. I don’t see him or anything. We don’t run into each other or anything. We’re living totally different lives, musical lives, I think. So yeah, there was no animosity. It’s all good. That was a long time ago.

Did you at any stage ever consider replacing him with another lead singer?
Um, no. Definitely, not. No. That thought never really came up at all. But, again, that was, what, 10 years ago? That was a super long time ago.

I wish (Tyondai) well. I don’t see him or anything. We don’t run into each other or anything. We’re living totally different lives, musical lives, I think.

Is lyric writing a collaborative process, or do you entirely outsource to the guest vocalists? If so, do you provide any directional pointers?
Yeah, the lyrics are all from the guest vocalists, for sure. I mean, the way we do it is we, at least with this record, we recorded every song, we wrote and recorded every song. Some songs we definitely thought, “Okay, this’ll be an instrumental.” Some other songs we’ll be like, “Vocals will sound really good on this.” But, then, you know, you just get to keep writing and writing and writing. And, then, the opposite happens. So you never really know until the song is completed and finished. And yeah, there’s some, we write the songs first. And make decisions of what was going to have vocals on it, or what wasn’t. But all the guest vocalists contributed their own lyrics, for sure.

How do you view the role of chaos and dissonance in your songwriting?
How I view the role of chaos and dissonance? Um, I mean, on a scale of one to ten, a ten. Like that’s always, absolutely. I mean, you know, I’m really open to that, of course. I’m not into going by any specific rules. Or, the band’s never been into doing that, and why would we start now? So, I mean, yeah, it’s good, dissonance is really good. And I mean, vague of an answer, is the sound, just like if it works, it works. That’s kind of… I don’t know. If you like it and it works, then just roll with it. And don’t worry about the dissonance (laughs).

You once described Gloss Drop (2011) as a “reactionary” album, whereas you were “truer” to yourself on La Di Da Di (2015). Where on the spectrum does this new one sit?
Um, I don’t know who said that, but, uh-

Pretty sure that was you (laughs).
I said that Gloss Drop was a reactionary record?

I’m pretty sure, yeah. Just given the circumstance of Tyondai leaving.
(Juice B Crypts) is not a reactionary record. It’s really… like I originally said, it’s like an instinctive New York record. I think it’s like, it’s distinctive in the sense that, you know, it happened out of the blue. We were like, “Oh, shit.” Uh, like, you know, there was no like, “What are we going to do?” conversation. There wasn’t any, um … We didn’t have time for that. It was just, like we just instantly, I mean, I’m talking like the next day. We’re just like, “Alright.” But like as soon as Dave kind of walked away, we were just like, “Alright. I guess we’re a duo now.” And it literally started the next day. I’m not exaggerating. So um, you know, it’s not a reactionary record. It’s just – it’s just going by your own instinct. It’s like an autopilot record, to be honest. It’s an automatic pilot record that was recorded with different people in a different studio in New York. And, like I said, like all these completely different factors come into play. And, you know, it’s a different record on so many different levels, for many different reasons. Not just that we’re a two-piece.

Cool. Now I noticed in listening to the record that there’s a loop which features at both the start and the end of the album. I’m just wondering if that’s the loop which is so nice that you have to play it twice?
Um, that’s very observant of you. Not too many people picked that one up. But, uh, yeah, the intro is – really, it’s not a loop. It’s really a line that he’s playing. And the intro is a lot faster. And the outro is much slower. A lot of people aren’t really picking up on that one. But, uh, no, “A Loop So Nice… / They Played It Twice” is really originally one really long song. And then we cut it in half. And the second part of it has vocals on it. And it’s like two different songs, but it’s the same loop. So we wanted people to know that it’s really kind of like Part One and Part Two. And it’s like the same loop, but it’s a completely different song. So it’s like similar, yet different. But it should stay connected sort of to the first one, but not really. It does, it has its own life.

Ginger Baker sadly passed away the other day. As a drummer, I’m just wondering if you have any thoughts on that? Were you much of a fan? And do you have a favourite record that he played on?
Nah, not really. I wasn’t a huge Ginger Baker fan. I mean, I like Cream, just, yeah, I mean, okay, of course, he’s great. And yeah, I like Cream. But I’m not like a Cream fanatic. I like Masters of Reality. I like that one record. He’s on a couple of songs on that. That was a cool record. Uh, Cream, yeah. I like Cream, for sure. I think he’s one of the first double bass guys. I think, I could be wrong. I’m not sure. But yeah. I appreciated him, but he’s not like a huge influence or anything.

Yeah, for sure. Have you ever heard the live record that he recorded with Fela Kuti?
No. I did see a documentary, though. That was pretty scary. He’s insane. Yeah.

Alright, well thanks so much for your time, John. I’ve got one last question for you. If you could collaborate with any artist, in any medium, who would it be and what would you create?
Oh my God. You’re going to leave me with that fucking, heavy-handed question? It’s going to take me 20 minutes to even like – goddamn, man, um… alright, well, then I am going to hit back, also heavy-handed. And it’s going to be… I would like to collaborate, I would like to go back in time and collaborate with Oskar Schlemmer. He is a choreographer from the ’20s, um, and he’s just, he’s total Bauhaus. He was a part of Bauhaus. A major part of Bauhaus. Um, a pretty accomplished painter and sculptor. But he wrote this ballet. And to be honest, I found out about him by – do you know Nurse With Wound? It’s this like industrial band from, I don’t know, I don’t even know when they started. But they’ve just been around forever. And they have thousands and thousands of records, crazy cult following. I was searching for Nurse With Wound songs, or videos on YouTube. And this video came up and it was Oskar Schlemmer’s ballet. It’s called “Triadisches Ballett”, with the music of Nurse With Wound. And it was perfectly in sync. It was incredible. And I was like, “This can’t be Nurse With Wound’s actual video,” because I could tell the footage is from like the ’20s. It’s like insane costumes, really geometric stuff. It’s just super, super trippy stuff from the early ’20s. Like really psychedelic. He was influenced by Cubism. And it’s not your typical ballet, like ballerina, modern dance thing. It’s way more about the costumes. And just, it’s complete insanity. But from the ’20s. It’s really impressive. I would like to collaborate with him.