It’s hard enough for any band to lose a member, let alone the vocalist and right before they follow-up a successful debut album. But that’s exactly what happened to experimental rock outfit Battles when Tyondai Braxton left the band to persue his solo career after their 2007 record Mirrored was hailed by critics and fans alike for their intrepid mix of high-speed rock with an electronic edge. Now the band (composed of drummer John Stanier, guitarists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka) has soldiered on as a trio, put out their sophomore effort Gloss Drop, and shown no sign of slowing down. MXDWN got the chance to sit down with prolific drummer John Stanier (formerly of Helmet, currently of the supergroup Tomahawk) to discuss the new evolution of Battles.
“It was totally just acting on instinct,” Stanier says with regards to continuing on without Braxton. “I mean, we kind of went back to New York for a week, I think, and then we just turned around and went back into the studio. A lot of that is because we didn’t really have a lot of time to sit down and say ‘What do we do now?’ We acted on instinct and it was more of a reaction on our part.”
Though the band has never used a vocalist in the traditional sense, there was still a bit of a challenge when it came down to filling the vocal slots Braxton left behind. Luckily, the band was able to pull from a range of talent, including Yamantaka Eye and Gary Numan, whom Stanier described as being on their “wish list.”
“In the past we tried to use vocals as sort of an instrument instead of a lead singer. On this record though we wanted to explore the area where there can be a song that really does sound like vocals. We’re kind of just dancing around with those ideas.”
Stanier hesitates slightly when asked if he thought the on-stage dynamic of the band has changed now that they are a trio, but stresses that they were never really a band that relied on a lead singer.
“It was always the four of us on stage and some songs there were vocals and on a lot there weren’t,” he admits. “So it’s not like we were this pop band where the lead singer quit. It’s much more complicated than that. So I think playing live as a three piece, it was not as difficult as we had thought it was going to be. It was actually relatively easy.”
Just as Battles aims to use vocals in a think-outside-the-box manner, they put that same approach to their inclusion of electronics, realizing that “Battles is walking the fine line between being an electronic band and being a rock band,” particularly with an album like Gloss Drop that blends in many blips and video game noises with their instruments.
“I’d also say the majority of Gloss Drop is actually not electronic,” says Stanier. “It’s all messing with loops and pedals. But Battles is still at the end of the day a rock band. We are still using things that anyone can buy at your guitar center in your town, or whatever. It’s the way that you use the machines that you have, rather than letting the machines use you.”
Gloss Drop has been praised for its sunny, carefree vibe punctuated by steel drums though when it was recorded “was a very depressing time” for us the band, so any though it may be hallmarked with escapism, it was “purely accidental.”
“The overall vibe of the record…we certainly weren’t happy. But I feel like a record of us complaining would not last as long as us trying to make a good situation out of a bad situation. So I think that has a lot more longevity and I think that people would rather listen to that than….I didn’t want to make a dark, negative record and I don’t think any of us did.”
Stanier is no stranger to taking the unconventional route of rock and roll. His band Tomahawk with guitarist Duane Denison (of The Jesus Lizard) and singer Mike Patton (of Faith No More) has never played it safe with the boundaries of metal and music and their last album, Anonymous, was no exception. The album explored the “anonymous” music, chants and prayers of Native American tribes and applied their own rock twist to it.
“Duane found this book of Native American songs and no one knows who wrote them, and they are not all ‘make it rain’ kind of music, a lot of it is really crazy…I certainly don’t know that much about it but there’s a whole side of Native American culture that is totally brutal. And just the three of us did it. I went to Nashville and recorded with Duane. I didn’t record with Mike at all, he did that in San Francisco.”
The way the album combined traditional instruments with a rock composition was a fun challenge for Stanier who felt he was playing just a range of percussion.
“We did that record with just a completely different approach. Actually, I don’t think there is any song on Anonymous where I am playing a drum set, it was all just grabbing as much stuff as I could in Nashville and really having fun with it and going all the way with what we could with stuff like that. But that definitely also plays into the fact that is a theme record and we weren’t exactly concerned about knowing how we were going to pull this off live. Instead, we just wanted to make it a good record.”
Though Stanier is mum on the sound and approach for the next Tomahawk album, he does say “it’s definitely in the talking about it stages, possibly in the beginning of next year, we’ll talk some more…it’s a relatively easy thing to do though. Both times before we just met up and then it’s writing through the mail. Which is what I really like about it. It’s easy and it’s working with people who really know what they are doing and make things happen their own way. It’s really cool.”
In the meantime, audiences can check out Battles performing Gloss Drop on tour, something Stanier finds the fans are really enjoying. “I think it’s been really good, especially now that it’s out. It was sort of strange because we are only playing new songs and it’s all this stuff no one has ever heard before. I think you’re doing something right when the reaction to that is really good.”
Photo by Karina Halle