Battles: “Ice Cream”[audio:http://alarm-magazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/05/Ice-Cream.mp3|titles=Battles: “Ice Cream”]
Everything has changed. Shaken up and stripped down, the three members of experimental post-rock outfit Battles spent the better part of the last year reshaping and restructuring a band that was, up until then, four men strong. With their new record, Gloss Drop, already mostly written and scheduled for release at the time, they faced a grave challenge. This is the story of how one band fought through its darkest moment and emerged from it better than ever.
Battles formed in 2002, in New York City. For five years, the four founding members — guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka, drummer John Stanier, and multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton — established their heady, experimental music. Already considered veterans, Williams had been in Don Caballero, Konopka in Lynx, Stanier in Helmet and Tomahawk, and Braxton his own avant force in music. When the four came together nearly a decade ago, it verged on super-group territory, but the relative underground approach that Battles took in creating and sharing its art kept it out of the spotlight until 2007, when its debut album, Mirrored, heralded the band’s arrival to the world at large.
Last year, as the group was recording Gloss Drop, the long-awaited follow-up to Mirrored, Braxton dropped the bomb. He no longer wanted to be a part of Battles, no longer wanted to tour, and no longer wanted to collaborate. It was not a decision made of spite, nor one that caused it. After eight years in the group, it was time for Braxton to strike out on his own as the composer and solo performer that he knew he had to be.
It was the healthy choice for Braxton, but it devastated the rest of the band. Not only was Braxton a gifted performer and artist, but his multi-instrumental ability was one of the defining aspects of the group. For all of the talk of Battles being a prog band or math rock, it was the sounds of Braxton that kept the group from being pigeonholed. He was, of course, just one of four men that crafted this complex and winding narrative of music. But Battles now had to either adapt or die.
Fortunately, death was never an option. Williams, Konopka, and Stanier re-focused and regrouped, determined to deliver a sophomore album as inventive and groundbreaking as their debut. “When we became a trio, everything changed — how we wrote music, how we played,” Stanier says. “We went back into the studio and rewrote the entire record. Now you’re writing with three people all on the same page, who all want to be there. It’s a much more unified effort.” Before, Stanier explains, the group worked more like a game of musical Monopoly, with each member trying to get his piece of real estate before it was all eaten up. The songs worked as a musical melting pot at best, according to Stanier, and a “schizophrenic Frankenstein” at worst. Now the three members found themselves with too little time for games and too much pressure to take a breath.
“There was this subliminal result from being in a shitty, horrible place mentally, and trying to get out of that.”
“A lot of this record was so down to the wire; at a certain point, we just went on instinct,” Stanier says. “There was no time for a new master plan.” In any normal situation, when a band has a member leave or a major lineup change, there is usually a “what now?” discussion that leads to the resolution. Battles did not have this. The record was due immediately. The band’s contract was on the line. The pressure was on, and Battles used it to its advantage. “We were forced into this position,” Stanier says. “And we took this negative situation and turned it into a positive.” All in all, the trio rewrote, re-recorded, mixed, and completed Gloss Drop in four months. Stanier regards it as “miraculous.”
And the miracle of Gloss Drop doesn’t end with its completion in the studio. The new record is a shimmering, fascinating detour from Battles’ previous output. Forged in darkness and bathed in light, the album soars with ebullience and sheen. It bounces about on dance-y, frenetic beats and ripples in restorative whirlpools. The music retains Battles’ signatory edge and cerebral tone, but the band’s instinctual process has brought about a surprising, new result.
Stanier admits that it’s a strange record, and acknowledges the tonal change in Battles’ musical dynamic. But looking back, it’s clear that this evolution was spurred by the events of the last year. “There was this subliminal result from being in a shitty, horrible place mentally, and trying to get out of that,” Stanier says. “We were forced to reach deep down inside and pull out ideas and stuff we had experienced, and bring these ideas out into the open.” Those ideas turned Gloss Drop into an upbeat, danceable album, with lively guitar parts and math-rock riffs fused with swirling indie-rock rhythms. Songs like “Futura” incorporate Caribbean percussion, and “Sweetie and Shag,” featuring Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead, features dazzling melodies over a playful composition. Other guests on the album include DJ Matias Aguayo, Boredoms vocalist Yamantaka Eye, and the one and only Gary Numan. Swirling in color and emotion, Gloss Drop does not sound like the record of a band that was contemplating its own demise while creating it.
“I feel like we’re old war buddies who just got back from a tour of duty or something,” Stanier says. “We made it out of the treacherous stuff, came home, got a couple medals, but we’re not done.” Williams, Konopka, and Stanier have always been close friends as well as band mates, and the tireless days and long nights of rebuilding Battles from the ground up has only smoothed away any remaining bumps in the band’s road. “It’s smooth sailing from here,” Stanier laughs. “Everything just seems so much easier now, and with us being a trio now, majority rules. I mean, it sucks if you’re outvoted on which kind of beer you want on the rider.”
“To make it out of this alive, I’m still kind of amazed by that,” Stanier continues. “We’re in a much better place, across the board. When the mastering and sequencing was done, and the album was complete, there was literally, and I’m not exaggerating, a feeling of an enormous weight lifted off my back. I feel like a completely different person. I feel that I’ve changed more in the last year than I have in the last 10 years.”
Battles is not a band that needs to reinvent the wheel at every turn, but it knows the dangers of complacency. Gloss Drop is a major change in the band’s musical road map, and it is ready to celebrate that with fans and friends alike. Touring, after all, is one of Battles’ best features. “There is no way I could be in this band without playing live,” Stanier says. “From day one, that’s been the most important thing.” Now that the turmoil and hard work is over, the three plan on focusing their live show, starting with an extensive European tour this summer. “Live, we are a souped-up Toyota Celica,” Stanier says. “We roll into town and open the door, and anybody who wants to go on this crazy joyride just piles on in.”
With its sense of humor still in place and an exciting new album on the shelves, Battles remains one of the most dynamic and uniquely adventurous bands around, threading a difficult needle of music that is both challenging and appealing, personal and popular. After the frenzy of the last year, after all of the smoke has cleared and the tallies taken, Gloss Drop will prove to be a turning point unlike any other for the band: the moment when Battles became one.