Battles' Ian Williams on their evolution and future
Ahead of their appearance at Doune the Rabbit Hole, and with the recent departure of Dave Konopka, we speak to Ian Williams about the evolution and future of Battles
"You only live if you evolve," says Ian Williams, now one-half of Battles, speaking from the band’s New York rehearsal space to explain recent line-up changes. Battles formed in 2002 before releasing several EPs, but their breakthrough came in 2007 with the inventive, experimental rock of debut album Mirrored for which they were cover stars of The Skinny. At the time of its release, the original line-up saw Williams (guitarist/keyboardist) joined by John Stanier (drums), Dave Konopka (guitar/bass/effects) and Tyondai Braxton (vocals/guitar/keyboards).
In 2010, it was announced that Braxton had decided to leave the band to concentrate on solo endeavours. It left a noticeable void. The remaining trio could’ve easily disbanded, but they instead embraced change, returning triumphantly the following year with Gloss Drop, which featured the likes of Gary Numan as guest vocalists. Their third album La Di Da Di arrived in 2015 and was toured sporadically over a two year period. Last summer, prior to their next release taking shape, Konopka decided to leave too, which the band communicated to fans via social media in May this year.
On Battles as a duo, and Dave Konopka leaving the band
As Williams speaks to us again, Battles are in the process of evolving once more, with the duo’s outlook for the future being positive, albeit uncertain. We begin by discussing Konopka’s reasons for leaving. "Being in a band is a long, strange, thankless journey, so I don't think Dave had it in him to make another record," he answers, honestly. "He wanted to do other things with his life, but I can't really get too much into the soul of another person and say exactly why he didn't want to do it anymore."
Williams adds that while the departure was sad, he did find a silver lining within the cloud. "It's almost a selfish thing to say, but I've always been pursuing a certain path in what I'm trying to accomplish while making songs, only for the people around me to then change," he explains. "To me, the fact that it’s not going to be the same now is actually the reason to keep doing it. That's the interesting part, but the overarching point of making new music is still the same."
The next album is in progress but a completion date is not imminent. How did the duo feel about continuing without the support they’d been accustomed to? "At first, I think John and I thought maybe we wouldn’t do another Battles record," says Williams. "I knew it would be different, but I was like, 'I think we can make a good record' – and to me, that's the only reason to try it – so we've been moving forward together and part of that is us playing some shows again."
Battles' new live show
Battles will begin to mark their return with a select number of UK live dates, including a performance in Scotland at Doune the Rabbit Hole, the Stirling festival which celebrates its tenth birthday this year. It currently remains to be seen whether Williams and Stanier will be accompanied by additional musicians on stage, but whatever happens, their recent rehearsals have provided them with a modest arsenal of new material to play.
Williams tells us that he's having fun experimenting with his beloved Elektron Octatrack and guitar pedals, while Stanier has added a few new elements to his drum kit. "It’s still unfolding – and people will see some of it unfold at the shows – but describing it any further would be an insult to the experience, so people should just come and see it," he says, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
Beyond a few snippets of rehearsal footage on Twitter last year, there's little indication of the new Battles sound, but the looping synonymous with the band is confirmed as featuring in some shape or form. Williams discussed his love of looping in detail during the 2015 short film Battles: The Art of Repetition and maintains this passion years later. "We are nothing but an accumulation of our technical tools," he accepts. "But those things are definitely different at this point compared to where they were on the last record."
During the film, Williams also comments on his perfectionism in the recording studio. "By saying that I’m a perfectionist, it implies that I end up making things perfect – which I think is probably not the case – but I am a weirdo who will seriously spend a week doing a little part, working on a particular sound or something," he laughs. "I’ll tell John – who is a 'first take, best take' kind of guy – and he’ll be like, 'What the fuck is wrong with you?' so I know that, for better or worse, I can be kind of ridiculous about things like that."
Outside of the band, Williams and his wife have been raising a family since Battles last released new material. Their two young children both "get exposed to great music all the time" but aren’t yet old enough to show signs of musicianship. Elsewhere, Stanier featured as a guest member of the 8G Band on Late Night with Seth Meyers last year. The former Helmet drummer also worked with the French electronic producer Rone – contributing to his most recent record Mirapolis, before joining him on tour – which is likely to have provided influence on his rehearsals with Williams.
"We fired on all cylinders" - reflections on Mirrored
Our conversation turns to Mirrored. Williams is proud of the band’s full-length debut but admits that making such an ambitious record as a four-piece took its toll. "It was a great record – I felt like we had fired on all cylinders," he says with fondness, before elaborating. "It was a good time for us, but I could never put myself through making another Mirrored again because it would be torture. When it came to collective decisions, we used to work as a 'democracy' and it was always really messy to get everybody to agree on anything. It was a nice adventure to make such a statement with the album, but I couldn't do it again."
However, despite the challenges of recording, he still believes that pushing boundaries in the studio is essential. "The most honest way of existing is being at a point where you think you can do something; you're not sure, but you’re trying. It's the most authentic artistic effort: you might fail, you might succeed, you might come up short or you might end up doing something totally different to what you were trying to do. When you say, 'I know I can do this thing well, so I'm going to do it', that’s when it dies."
Ahead of their UK dates, Williams cautiously considers his hopes for this third incarnation of Battles. "Now it’s only two of us, maybe we’ll be a little lighter on our feet and be able to make quicker decisions," he says. "Right now, we’re just trying to play a few shows to have people remember we’re a band. We want to get back into the swing of things and get some practice, playing our new material. We’re not going for broke yet – that comes later – but I hope we can grow and continue to evolve."