Strange Reflections

This month The Skinny talks shop with John Stanier, Tyondai Braxton and Ian Williams as they give us the lowdown on life on the frontlines of the war against musical conformity.

Feature by Jay Shukla | 11 May 2007

Complacency can be a wonderful thing. Without it we wouldn't be able to enjoy the big goofy grin and sense of blissful astonishment that comes after being smacked around the chops by the full force of the unexpected. Any idiot can be shocking, but to surprise people in ways that they couldn't have foreseen is the aspiration of every artist.

Without a doubt, the most surprising record that The Skinny has heard this year is Atlas, the lead single from Battles' forthcoming debut LP, Mirrored. With a sound akin to Marilyn Manson's The Beautiful People as re-imagined by a team of very merry, Glitter Band-loving munchkins, it has been heralded variously as both the single of the decade, and (less charitably) Crazy Frog for the avant-garde set. Its accompanying video - depicting the band performing inside a mirrored cube which is floating in a black void - plays up to the idea of the group as heroic scientists of sound, drifting alone in space, oblivious to the dumb machinations of their contemporaries. Romantic hyperbole, perhaps - but after hearing the full, irresistible scope of Mirrored, it's an image that The Skinny is happy to indulge in.

So, how exactly does a song as freakishly beautiful as Atlas come into being? Battles' straight-talking powerhouse drummer, John Stanier, fills us in: "Atlas is our take on 'The Sound of Cologne', which is where I spend most of my downtime. A part of their sound (which is really the Kompakt and Trapez labels) used to have a shuffle rhythm to it, which ironically is their reaction from hanging out in rock clubs listening to Slade, Gary Glitter and other 70s 'boogie' bands... So it's our take on their take of a very infectious 70s boogie beat. After seeing Tyondai doing his solo stuff, I think we realized what an amazing voice he has and that we should incorporate that more into the music." So are the band concerned that new fans may mistake Braxton for the frontman of this non-more-democratic unit? "Fuck lead singers" is Ian Williams' only musing on this particular point of discussion.

Braxton's incredible, elastic vocals may be the most immediately obvious element of their new sound, but an increased use of synthetic elements also brings a new warmth and depth to Battles' music. When the two play off against each other, the effect is often gloriously surreal. If you find it impossible to imagine that Autechre's ominous-sounding synth patches would make an appropriate backing to a soulful loop of Prince-like vocals, then wait until you hear Leyendecker. "I think the way the vocals are presented are with the same character as the other instruments," comments Braxton. "They are able to sit in the music as another voice or come out as a lead line - just like another instrument. The addition and subtraction of elements in the new record came a lot more naturally than people think. Those elements were always there, it was just a matter of finding a measured way of using all of these textures tastefully." The endearingly laconic Williams is notably less oblique in describing their philosophy: "I think we try to stay contrary to our own aesthetic. If we think it feels x, x, x, x, then please, get me a y!"

Braxton is unequivocal that Battles' decision to gift their new songs an extended evolution in the live setting was of crucial importance in cultivating the startling wealth of ideas which permeate Mirrored: "It was easier in the sense that we've had time to play around more and experiment. We're not as self-conscious as a band anymore. The music's guard is let down a little bit – there was room for us to let in more humour, more fear, more mania." Williams, as ever, offers a slightly different perspective: "Recording this album was harder than recording the EPs in some ways. We did have more resources this time, which I admit can help, but we also set ourselves goals. This new stuff had some specific ideas in terms of wanting to try some singing, Dave [Konopka] playing bass rather than being another guitar in the mix. And by now, everyone is writing and contributing, so the process is more strenuous."

Although the metronomic precision and angular rhythms of last year's reissued EP C/ B EP compilation saw Battles labelled as the saviours of math-rock in some quarters, Stanier is confident that the unbridled exoticism of Mirrored will force many people to reconsider their assumptions: "One of the great things about this band is that we don't take ourselves too seriously. Our music is fun to make and fun to play live too and I think it's important for that to come across."

In singling out the band's essential playfulness, Stanier has really cut to the heart of what makes Mirrored such a special record. From Braxton's wordless vocals – which recall a kind of ecstatic Glossolalia – to the breakneck, three-way guitar call-and-response of album closer, Race Out, the sheer joyful exuberance of the band's experimentation ensures that Mirrored can confidently lay claim to being one of the richest and most accomplished debuts of recent times.

Of course, a band as ceaselessly creative as Battles cannot rest on their laurels, and every live performance is embraced as a chance to evolve their sound – to push and pull their music into strange new shapes. Those who witnessed Battles at last year's Triptych festival will already have their tickets for the show at ABC2 or their appearance at this month's All Tomorrow's Parties Festival. The rest of you can look forward to the spectacle of four very intelligent men having a lot of childish fun – and changing the course of modern music in the process.

Mirrored is released 14 May on Warp Records.
Battles play ATP Festival, Minehead on 19 May and ABC2, Glasgow on 23 May.