In Essential Albums, our favourite artists dig up a handful of records that they consider “Essential” by any definition they choose. This week, guitarist Ian Williams of the experimental rock trio Battles discusses the band's particular collision of influences.
Battles is a three-headed monster. Formed by alum of '90s math and post-hardcore noisemakers Don Caballero, Helmet, and Lynx, their output over the last decade has explored where those heavier sensibilities might intersect with techno or afrobeat or minimal music. Ian Williams, John Stanier, and Dave Konopka, the three centrifugal talents, pull from disparate corners of space and time. The songs they join to make — mechanical, propulsive, and transmogrifying things — accord by their own peculiar logic. They motor away on alien tech.
We spoke with guitarist Ian Williams ahead of the release of the band's third studio full-length, La Di Da Di, about the far-flung sounds and worlds that Battles is trying to stitch together. It's a battle more literal than you might have imagined.
Battles' latest, La Di Da Di, is out today on Warp.
Where does a Battles song come from? On La Di Da Di, they seem like these wild, far-travelling things; how do we get from the ideas you bring in to writing sessions to what we hear on the album?
Ian Williams: We usually start with a loop that originated by me or Dave Konopka and we sort of pass them around — each with its own texture and rhythm and melodic suggestion built in. We would all read different vibes off of them, like, “this means this, this means that.” And then we’d discuss, “okay let’s turn this into a song or let’s turn this one into a song.” We try to get everybody to agree that they're into the song. If someone doesn’t like it, it doesn’t become a song — it’s sort of a collective songwriting style.
And, then, you know, at the risk of stating the obvious, you get some drums in there — possibly overdub some melody, some increased melodic information. Sometimes, you go with the non-melodic information. You flip it upside down and you make the anti-song. Sometimes, when you feel like you’re supposed to do one thing, you should do the other thing.
A loop is a little lie. You play it once into your machine and it repeats back to you, but it has this transformational quality.
But it always starts with a loop?
Yeah, I think so.
Why are they always at the heart?
I don’t know why. It’s always been a thing since the beginning of this band. I’d been doing it at the end of my last band Don Caballero. In the late ‘90s, it’s kind of when the digital loop pedals became cheaply available to the world. I was using the Akai Headrush with the loop amp behind the drummer so the loop blares it’s rhythm tempo at the drummer. Then the drummer can play along as loud as they want and they can still hear it. And the rest of the band can glom onto a combination of the loop and the drummer. There’s aren’t any click tracks or anything involved.
That was the genesis of this band. John Stanier is the kind of drummer who enjoyed doing that kind of thing. It frees the drummer a bit. They don’t have to be the metronome anymore. A loop is a little lie. You play it once into your machine and it repeats back to you, but it has this transformational quality. You could be like, “hey, I’m a heavy metal guy *guitar noodling noise*” but when it gets mechanically repeated to you, it suddenly throws to the realm of hip-hop or dance music or something. It’s instantly a strange genre flip.
So if you guys are coming in with these little ideas — loops and textures and sounds that you like — do you have a grand vision for the song at the beginning or is that totally futile?
You might have an idea for the whole song, but by the time we’re done with it…you know. That’s the thing we find: everybody has a different idea for what the song should be. That’s probably the heart of the Battles issue, when we collaborate and come up with solutions for what a song is, there are often wildly different ideas. And sometimes, those car crashes work. Like, “there’s a ballerina in the middle of a football game. What’s going on?” Sometimes, it makes sense and sometimes it doesn’t, but those are the kind of calls we need to make.
So Battles is, like, very literally battling with each other to figure out where these songs go?
Yeah, it always happens. You might come in, “I know exactly what this song’s going to be like.” But I’m reserved about that now, because I know that it’s gotta get through everybody else and by the time everybody’s done with it, it’s like, “okay, now it’s a different kind of song.”
Are there ever serious arguments about that or have you all learned not to be precious in that way?
Everybody has real limits. There are things that some people care about more. You have to make the call. You can say, “this really matters to my bandmate, so I’ll go along with their vision even though I might think it’s stupid.” Or you might be like, “this is terrible. We have to do something different.” There’s always confusion.
Can you point to a spot where that happened on the album? Where you wanted to go a different way?
If you look at that song “Megatouch,” the loop gets set and then there’s the intro melody, and then it goes into this middle section. That was supposedly supposed to be a trance section, but I added the melody thing overtop and turned it into a totally different thing. You’re always upsetting somebody else’s expectation for what something is going to be.
But not so bad that they were like, “cut that out.”
It’s case by case, you can never tell.
Has working in this band in this way taught you something about the place of compromise in creative work?
Yeah, that it’s not easy. It’s not easy.
More difficult than in Don Cab?
See, in Don Cab, we were all young and half the people were such alcoholics. There was such chaos that you could almost do anything and nobody cared. Whereas this band is actually functional adults, and like, people together-enough to call you on something if something is wrong. It actually makes it more complicated. It’s sometimes makes it harder to navigate. We’ll have band meetings about subject A, B or C and it’ll be the most mundane subject.
Oh, I don’t know. What band should open for us at a show or something. And like the opinions will just go around and around. If you don’t call an end to it, we’ll talk about it for three hours. We don’t see eye to eye on many things.
How important, then, is jamming to this band? It seems like that might be the kind of dialogue you’d have to have to figure stuff out.
Yeah, but ughhhhh well, see the thing is: there are a lot of fine sonic details that we like to pay attention to — stuff that when you’re jamming in a room and the music’s loud and the drummer’s loud, to hear it, you have to turn your amp so loud. Then a) your neighbours hate you and b) it’s just like, “let me be by myself in a room for a while.” We get more done when we’re by ourselves. Then, we figure out a way to bring it to the other guys. I feel like a lot of our productive time is alone.
You guys don’t ever play over a loop for like an half hour?
Yeah, we do. But we rehearse in this place in Manhattan that’s called The Music Building that’s supposed to be, well, it is a music rehearsal space, but whenever we do that, our neighbours just don’t understand. Guys who are like piano players above us, they’re like, “what the hell is going on? I've heard that loop for the past three hours!” We’ve made people irate. I once recorded a guy. He stormed into our room. It was like a 10-minute screamer.
Is tightness an important quality to this band? I feel like you guys sound almost quantized or have this electronic precision.
Yeah and nah. No, the tightness, not to me. I think to me, a more important thing is making the music groove. Sometimes, it’s just better if everybody isn't together.
What are a few albums — 5 or so — that are central to what you guys do? Things that make sense of what you’re trying to pull together?
Fela Kuti, Shakara (1972)
I think in a bizarre way, we’re sort of a combination of some sort of… I’m not sure if it’s an afrobeat, Fela Kuti kind of thing with The Africa 70, something with Tony Allen. It’s like long form drowning and repetition sort of stuff.
Aphex Twin, Richard D. James Album (1996)
But then, mixed with the Richard D. James Album Aphex Twin stuff — that modern electronic pop, those innovative sounds. It’s just super playful, but brilliantly put together and musically, accomplished. There’s a lot of inspiring stuff about it.
Are those the kind of qualities you guys are trying to get at? The new album seems especially playful.
Yeah, I mean, we like to have fun.
So there are those two poles. Then, what else do I like? I don’t know. There’s probably some techno record I should pick to represent something. There’s probably also like the post-punk vibe. I would say Gang of Four, but John hates the groove on Gang of Four. Wire. The first one — Pink Flag.
Wire, Pink Flag (1977)
Somehow, I still think of us as punk rock. I learned how to play instruments listening to, like, Descendents and Black Flag records and copying bass lines. In my head, I’m still just adding onto that process that I discovered when I was 15. I’m still that guy that’s like, “oh, if I add just one other layer, it can be like this.” I’m still just adding layers to things in mind.
You said you should probably pick a techno album.
And I suppose it should be German, something on the Kompakt label and it should be that really stiff kind of unk, unk, unk, unk unk unk. Something like that. Our drummer John is really into techno. John lives in Berlin.
Actually, there was a sub-trend in techno in the early ‘90s. It was the shuffle. Like, producers playing with the shuffle beat, riffing off ‘70s rock bands like Gary Glitter and Slade, but Slade with the techno bass drum. Our song “Atlas” was our take on the German take on the English rock shuffle. Let me find a name…
I’m surprised you haven’t mentioned a metal album or something heavier.
Oh, Breadwinner. They were important for all of us.
Breadwinner, Burner (1994)
Weren’t they contemporaries of you? When did Don Cab start?
Don Cab started in ’91. Helmet started in ’88 or ’89 or something. They were a couple years ahead of us. Breadwinner was too. In fact, I think Helmet and Breadwinner played together. So we were a moment after that wave.
For the sake of good taste, I guess you could say like Terry Riley and Steve Reich.
Terry Riley, A Rainbow in Curved Air (1969)
I was really wondering when you were going to say Riley.
But that’s so internalized that I’m not even thinking of that stuff, it just sort of happens when you do loops. It’s just like, “okay, there it is.” You can definitely say A Rainbow in Curved Air or In C or Shri Camel. When we write songs, we have nicknames for parts of songs, and I think on every record we’ve ever made, there’s been a “Riley part.”