Battles: "I don't think quitting ever crossed our minds"

Battles drummer John Stanier steps out from behind his ride cymbal to explain the uneasy genesis of Gloss Drop

Feature by Dave Kerr | 31 May 2011

“These situations aren’t supposed to happen to somebody like me,” states a humble John Stanier, having already served time as the rhythmic backbone of a forward-thinking rock group in a previous life. “Helmet was when I was like 19, when we started a band from scratch and it became somewhat successful. For that to happen again, from a totally organic level, is almost unheard of.”

A chance encounter with former Don Caballero guitarist Ian Williams on the streets of New York was enough to set in motion an exchange of ideas that would ultimately become 'Battles' as we know them today. “It wasn’t even a band,” says Stanier of their formative days. “It was like this strange entity…took a couple of years before we even knew what we were doing. ‘Art project’? It definitely wasn’t that. ‘Side-project’ is the wrong way to put it. It was just this thing – it took a while before we even called ourselves a band. It was very strange, there was no rush.”

With a nonchalance that belies the mania of Battles’ music, Stanier appears anything but rushed as he reclines in a sunny Manhattan park between tour dates – confident in the knowledge that, against some odds, Battles are about to unleash an album he was prepared to “pour every last drop of blood” into finishing. Gloss Drop has the vibrancy of a band just off the starting blocks, taking a collective approach that sounds daring, fun and healthily unhinged – earning every bit of the ‘future rock’ slogan Battles have had slapped on their backs from day one.

It could all so easily have been snatched away when, fuelled by the distraction of his solo career, fellow founding member Tyondai Braxton quit the band last August. Although Braxton had been considered the band’s de facto leader of sorts – if only by virtue of his vocals taking prominence on 2007’s critically lauded Mirrored – Stanier, Williams and guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka were determined to march on.

“I don’t think quitting ever crossed our minds, because there were three of us who were just like, what the fuck?” says Stanier of the initial reaction to Braxton’s departure. “I was really surprised by it, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t kind of see it coming. I certainly didn’t think it was going to be right in the middle of recording. It was just ‘Hey, I’m outta here,’ and I haven’t heard from him since.”

With half an album done, the band went about the process of ‘unweaving’ Braxton’s contributions from the mix and rewriting the album. A scenario that could only seem an insurmountable challenge to any group trying to tackle their second album was welcomed with open arms by the trio. “It was a relief!” Stanier gasps with unexpected candour. “It would be one thing if we had this amazing record and he left, but that wasn’t the case. It was awful. We were more than happy to press delete on the keyboard. In a really strange way, we already got the wack second record out of our system. I wouldn’t even say we had enough material for an entire record, but we had a collection of songs that no one was really into. It was just a little uninspired and it wasn’t really a team effort. Becoming a three-piece made this record so much better because it really put the fire under us – it was a do or die situation.

"It forced us to go into survivalist mode, we went with our instincts. We didn’t ever sit down and think ‘how are we going to do this – do we do an instrumental record, or do we get a fourth person who’ll sing on the whole record?’ Those options weren’t even there, it was just ‘OK, these songs need vocals, let’s ask these people. They were very methodically and specifically thought out.”

“These people” range through such far-reaching figures as techno producer Matias Aguayo; Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino and Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye. But the most instantly recognisable name attached to the album – and perhaps most immediate collaboration to most – is eighties electro-pop icon Gary Numan’s turn on a motorik space jam called My Machines. “We saw him play in Boston last October,” says Stanier of his meeting with the dark synth king. “He’s really nice. He was just like ‘Aw yeah, Battles is really weird.’ It’s pretty strange – Gary Numan telling you that your band is weird.”

A weird band in so many senses: back in March, billboards featuring Gloss Drop’s artwork began to spring up everywhere from New York to Nairobi, without any mention of the band name – an unusual tactic at a time when anyone with something to sell is begging for consumer attention. “That was actually Warp’s idea,” says Stanier. “Because the artwork’s so strong, it was like – ‘let’s see what happens if we put up the image on its own for three weeks to a month.’ Then they put the type on there. So on top of Amoeba Records in LA, people were saying ‘what the hell is this giant weird pink blob?’ It was this weird, guerrilla, sneaky campaign – but I loved it.”

Perhaps the weirdest trait of all is Battles’ perverse commercial viability: with increasing regularity their music crops up in locations more unlikely than those giant blobs. If you didn’t catch them on a Soccer AM goal montage, the odds are you’ve heard them soundtrack a liposuction treatment on an episode of Nip/Tuck or another night of Mad Dog fuelled debauchery on Skins. Whereas Stanier formerly enjoyed Helmet’s cinematic endorsements through projects like The Crow and Judgment Night (shit film, killer soundtrack) that were aimed at an ‘alternative’ market in the early nineties, Battles feature on an Audi advert and the last Twilight film. “It’s crazy I know, but times have changed,” he rightly points out. “I remember a really long time ago when someone would do an ad for Volkswagen. The reaction would be ‘how could they do that? They’re selling out!’ I don’t think that’s the case now. I hope people realise that, hey, no one buys records anymore. We have to make a living at this somehow. That being said, I wouldn’t want our music to be in a McDonalds commercial or American Pie 8. There are limits.”

As the conversation turns to future plans, Stanier makes it clear that Battles will remain his primary focus, even if he does have other plates to spin; this month also sees the first fruits of Cologne Tape, a long-term project that counts Stanier and minimal techno stalwart Axel Willner [AKA The Field] in its ranks. “It’s a big collective, we record stuff usually through the mail but you never know who’s on each release. So it’s this mystery; everybody knows who’s involved, but they don’t list who’s on each release, which is kinda cool.” There’s also talk of reconvening with Mike Patton and Duane Dennison to take up unfinished business as experimental rock supergroup Tomahawk. “We’re going to do a record over the summer…finally!” he reveals. With the Battles machine gearing up for extensive work on the road, it’s hard to imagine where Stanier will find the space in his diary. “One thing at a time,” he says with a pinch of realism. “The record’s not even out yet and this is already the start of some extreme touring, probably for a year and a half to two years.”

And are the crowds taking to Battles 2.0? “Oh yeah, completely, and we’re only playing new stuff because we haven’t figured out how to play the old stuff just yet – we’re working on that.” With each of Gloss Drop’s vocal contributions coming from outside the band’s camp, and no ‘singer’ to speak of, how can Battles get away with it live? “That you’re going to have to wait to see,” he offers ominously. "I’m remaining tight-lipped about that – sorry.”

Stanier’s unmistakable command of the kit in the live arena has seen him become an influential force for the modern drummer. As Tool’s Danny ‘no slouch on the stool’ Carey once noted in an interview with The Skinny: “I like Stanier’s style, he lays into the drum good.” We relay the praise and he’s chuffed, so who did Stanier take cues from? “I grew up with the usual – Neil Peart, John Bonham, but then started getting into more fusiony stuff like Return to Forever, then I went straight into punk.” These days Stanier is more inclined to keep up with developments in electronic music, confessing an admiration for certain constituents of the Scottish electronic scene. “I’m giving a shout out to Kode9,” he booms. “We hung out with him at Sonar in Japan – he’s an awesome dude.”

The last time we spoke to Battles they were watching The Last King of Scotland on their tour bus; you wonder what – if anything – they can collectively agree on listening to. “A lot of krautrock – driving music. Can? Neu? Yes,” Stanier confirms. “We all like TV on the Radio – but who doesn’t?” Pinning down any shared influences that they can carry into the studio proves even trickier. “It’s not like we all enjoy some genre of afro-pop,” he shrugs. “It’s not that specific.”  

A burning question that has hounded the band since the release of EP C in 2004 still remains unanswered: What should we call this – ‘Math rock’, ‘Ewok-step', or the next phase of ‘post-Oompa Loompa’? One thing’s for certain: Battles are a phenomenon of our time – a band whose increasing popularity has been earned the old-fashioned way, through skill, innovation and sheer bloody-mindedness. Stanier still pinches himself to check their steady rise has been for real. “I definitely never thought we would be in the position we’re in right now,” he offers, bringing luck into an already complex equation. “I feel fortunate that I ran into Ian in the street one day.”

Gloss Drop is released via Warp Records on 6 Jun

Battles Play The Arches, Glasgow on 7 Jun