Thao and The Get Down Stay Down plays Wonder Ballroom on March 25. Read our interview with Thao Nguyen about her personal and daring new album.
As far as experimental rock goes, Battles has dipped a toe into just about any sound, shape and layer that one could think of. From the group’s early EP work, to 2007’s critically adored Mirrored, to the newly released La Di Da Di, the range of exploration paints a swirling picture of a band that is more interested in avoiding creative stasis than adhering to any kind of genre or artificial intellectual boundaries.
Through three studio albums, Battles has maintained an eclectic approach to its musical development. Mirrored marked a distinctive departure from the group’s earlier EPs by incorporating vocal elements, treating the inclusion as more of a multifaceted instrument rather than a traditional “singer.” The result is a winding album full of complex musical ideas and layered sounds. 2011’s Gloss Drop saw the group reign in the complexity somewhat and rounded off some of the hardened industrial-style edges that propelled Mirrored. Again, the group included vocal elements. But, this time, Battles brought on guest vocalists like Matias Aguayo and Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead to flesh out an album that is at both tonally explorative and delightfully playful. One year later, the group solicited a large group of artists to remix Gloss Drop, culminating in the quirky and transformative Dross Glop, released as a series of two- sided vinyls over a three month period in 2012. Featuring work by Shabazz Palaces, Hudson Mohawke, and The Alchemist, among many others, Dross Glop demonstrated the versatility of the sounds of Battles as each artist sliced up, repurposed and molded the respective tracks into wholly new creations.
La Di Da Di, released in September, is the group’s third full-length LP, and by their standards the most conservative (if that word can really be deployed with regards to anything Battles does). Sprawling and springy, La Di Da Di eschews vocals in favor of replacing the sound with the expanse needed for each member of the trio to develop and fully flesh out ideas. The album is more loop-oriented than the previous releases, as it thoughtfully roams through gritty grooves. The drum work of John Stanier, formerly of Helmet, is stellar. He pounds, displaying equal parts aggression and nuance. The group recently made its way through the Northwest, playing shows in Seattle and Portland in support of La Di Da Di. Bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka described the Hawthorne Theatre show as a turning point for the 2016 tour as the trio begins the next wave of shows in the U.S. before heading abroad.
We had the opportunity to chat with Konopka to talk about how Battles has changed over the years, and its approach to making music. For a band like Battles, the transition from live shows to studio recording can be a challenge. The complexity of the music, not to mention the gear needed to pull it off, can result in grueling sound checks and exhaustive shows, leaving little time to crank out new ideas for albums in the meantime. We learned how they approach collaboration, the business demands of the modern day rock band, and why Konopka doesn’t really give a shit if people try to categorize Battles as “math rock.”
ELEVEN: You guys just played in Portland a week or so ago?
Dave Konopka: Yeah! At the Hawthorne [Theatre].
11: You guys played with Shabazz Palaces in Seattle, how did that come about? I saw that he remixed one of your songs from Gloss Drop?
DK: We did this remix album called Dross Glop, and we asked a bunch of artists to do remixes, and Shabazz Palaces did a remix of the song “White Electric,” and he actually just kind of took elements of it and made it such an awesome hip-hop song that when we re-ran into those guys in Barcelona–I’m a huge fan of Shabazz Palaces–originally, when we asked them to do the remix, we didn’t know them, and then we finally met them at Treasure Island in San Francisco–we were on the same bill–we were like, “Oh man, you guys did that remix for us, really nice to meet you.” And then we didn’t talk to them for a little while and we ran into them again in Barcelona and told them we’d be coming to Seattle and that we’d do the song. We were kind of joking, like, “You guys come out and we’ll do the ‘White Electric’ remix,” and he was like, “Yeah, let’s totally do that!” So, we called them up to check in with them when we got into town. Those guys rule. I think they’re one of the best hip-hop acts around right now.
11: It seems like you guys share a lot of the same creative, experimental background in your respective genres.
DK: Yeah, there is a nice common thread there.
11: Your new album that came out in September (La Di Da Di), compared to Gloss Drop (2011), is a little more subtle and loop-heavy. There aren’t really any vocals or anything, and I’m curious about some of the decisions and production choices were that went into that?
DK: Ha, I don’t know, a new album usually starts with Ian [Williams] and I experimenting with some new things, maybe some new tools that are interesting to use. I might incorporate some stuff into my pedal board, elements that I want to use, and Ian delves deeper into the Ableton Live, so it just comes from us experimenting with new tools and the byproducts that it yields and trying to make sense of it. It’s weird to say, I wish we could say–actually, I don’t wish we could say–that we’re that dialed that we can decide exactly what type of album we want to make, but there’s a level of “Yeah this is coming together somehow.” I mean, I think there’s more to it than it just magically happening as well, but there’s that healthy balance of this building process where everything starts to culminate, but there was no definitive plans to make an instrumental album. I was hoping for an instrumental, or not necessarily an instrumental album, but I was hoping to not go down the guest vocalist route again, just for the sake of not feeling like we were repeating Gloss Drop, the Gloss Drop formula, and then just becoming this band that does guest vocalists on every album, you know?
11: It seems like having already made a few albums and having spent a lot of time playing together, it leaves more space for you to individually expand and chase some ideas.
DK: Yes. I think you kind of have some roles to some extent. Like John [Stanier], he’s the drummer; he’s kind of the constant where Ian and I are the variables. For Ian and I the setups change with every album, and I think it comes down to we’ve worked with each other for so long now that it’s hard to communicate, but it’s easy to just get a sense of how to work off of another person’s part to draw the best out of it. It’s tricky! It’s tricky. That’s all I can say [Laughs]. The roles are semi-defined, like I’m sure Ian would expect me to be doing such-and-such thing, and I would expect things to come from Ian, but I think it’s surprising every time because there is such a long gap in between albums that I think there’s kind of a jump with the routes we take to explore new sounds. I dunno. I guess it becomes less about roles and more about the freshness you feel–it’s like starting over again. It’s hard for us to switch from being a touring band to being a recording band, and vice versa; it’s a gradual process all over again when it comes time to make a new album.
11: Taking so much time off from recording–when you’re getting back together to make music again, does that live aspect affect the way that you make music when you get back in the studio?
DK: For sure it does. I think, generally, as we become more familiar–like, we’re not even at that point now even with having just played like three weeks straight of the US tour. During our sound checks, we’re still trying to nail certain things that maybe were glitchy during the show that maybe some people can’t always tell, but sometimes you can most definitely tell, and then you’ve got to fix it the next day. Like I was having a problem with a few of my loopers syncing, and the end of “Atlas” [hit single from 2007’s Mirrored] was a trainwreck on the last couple shows, so my last couple sound checks was like, “Where is that problem coming from? Why is that not syncing?” and then getting some mixed signals coming in from another thing and all this shit. So, we’re not at the point, where once we get to the point where we’re like “same old show, here we go again,” get to sound check, play that song for the sound check, but a lot of times it’s like you can end up just fucking around and finding some new ideas and trying some new things.
But we’re definitely not the type of band that can write on the road because it’s hard–our sound checks are just so long and arduous–it’s hard to even have a moment for someone to be like, “There’s nothing going on in this room for the next four hours, so feel free to just like play your instruments if you want to.” That never happens. It’s usually like, “OK, you guys have 15 more minutes then you gotta get off the stage, what do you want to do?” So we don’t write on the road, so when it comes time to write an album, it’s this huge transition. You don’t even communicate the same way when you’re writing an album than you do when you’re playing a live show. Two completely different animals for us. You know, playing live every night, you’ve got the chops, you’re exercised and you’re playing well, and maybe even have some other ideas that come out of different things. Then it comes down to like, “Well, I wrote this part for a new album–do you like it?” Because when you’re playing live it’s never like, “Did you like when I did that on stage?” Nobody ever asks that. It’s just like, we go out there and we do this thing, and we become this band and we play this show and we put on this performance, and then there’s this like whole other animal of just communicating to make new stuff–it’s a whole other learning process of how to get along and get ideas across and be productive. It’s a really weird transition for us.
11: Do you prefer one over the other–live versus the studio?
DK: I don’t actually. I love the creative process in general, and I often find myself frustrated during the making of an album because it’s like, man, I don’t know if this is going to work out, I don’t know if I want to play a song like that–stuff like that–or it’s just like, I love this so much but nobody seems to be responding to it, and then it might not mean anything. It might be like, “Oh I totally overlooked that email where you sent that MP3 of a new loop that you had.” But, in general, I love thinking critically and being enveloped in the creative process. The sense of accomplishment is very rewarding even when it’s like small doses of, “Wow, we made a little bit of progress today,” and then the completion is this cathartic experience. Playing shows live is more immediately rewarding, like you play this song for people and they go, “Yeah, we loved it!” And you get to replicate this thing you documented in the studio in front of human beings, and there’s this satisfaction of sorts, of people responding to it well. So, it’s like these really weird, opposite ends of the spectrum where one is this long-form satisfaction versus short-term reward. The live thing is more the short-term, good energy, and recording the album is this like long-term, “Someday this will be good. Hopefully.” [Laughs] If that makes sense.
11: Is there more pressure to go on longer tours, to play more shows to make up for the fact that people can just find music online if they want to?
DK: It’s completely unrealistic to expect record sales to be your source of income, but at the same time, it’s like, playing shows is this really weird thing–it’s not this clear-cut this-is-what-we-do-to-make-money thing–there’s also this whole other element. We’re past the days of just getting in a van and driving from show to show ourselves, and setting up merch and selling t-shirts, and it becomes this weird supply and demand–I never expected indie rock to be this much in demand, so there’s this level of, “Your first show is in Boston, then you have to be in Toronto, and you’re doing a show every night and you have these really long drives where you have to go from Minneapolis to Vancouver, so this is going to involve a bus. And you’re going to need a sound guy, and your monitor guy is also going to be your tour manager, and you need a lighting guy, too, because you guys can’t just roll up on stage and stand there; you have to look kind of good, right?” So there’s all these different levels of things.
At the same time, where in the ‘90s it was like, “Yeah man, just get in the van, go tour, and do clubs and meet people and crash on peoples’ floors,” and we’ve done our fair share of that, but at the same time, in the ‘90s, it was like, “You’re going to let your song be used in an Audi commercial? You’re a sellout.” Whereas now, maybe it’s because of the change in the market with how music is digested and shared, monetarily, it’s effective. For us, we don’t have any qualms–I mean, there are some things where we wouldn’t be cool with people using our music–but for us, we get great offers for publishing, and that’s been a really important factor in sustaining our livelihoods and us still being able to make money, and make money to make music.
11: When I was listening through La Di Da Di, I was thinking, there are so many pieces of this album that I could see being sampled or remixed or repurposed somewhere–how do you guys feel about that?
DK: Yeah, I mean, it doesn’t happen that often, but I appreciate that for sure. And I actually think that the further the music that we make is in the history books… Right now, it’s like, if a hip-hop artist is like, “I want to use the loop from something off of La Di Da Di,” it’d be like, “Well, yeah, ok, I mean, it’s kind of new, but I don’t know, we’ll see, if it’s good, it’s good” type of thing. But, in the future, I think it’s awesome how hip-hop started as this essentially postmodern thing where they’re borrowing from the past, you know? Mining the history of music. And I just think as Battles gets older, when we’re old men, if there’s this young hip-hop artist that’s like, “I found out about your catalogue” and it’s comparable to Afrika Bambaataa finding out about Kraftwerk, I think that would be awesome!
11: Compared to your older stuff, this album is a lot more flowing and it seems like the counts are a little more straightforward. Is that a thing you’ve been conscious of?
DK: It’s actually never been a thing where we’ve tried to be too time-signature oriented; it’s more of a thing where we get into the groove. Even so, I don’t think we really said, “Let’s be more straightforward.” Maybe on Gloss Drop we were trying to be a little bit less “mathy” or flashy in that way, but it’s not something that occurs to us when we’re writing music, the time-signature thing. We’ll count it to make sure we know what it is. We’re not like, “That’s cool in 6/8, but if you could just make it 7/8 it’d be funkier.”
11: How do you feel about the term “math rock” with regards to Battles?
DK: It’s kind of like, we’re older guys, and we experienced that when it was really happening, and you know, if we carry the torch, that’s fine. But I’m kind of just at the point where I’m like, you know, I give up because you can’t control the way people perceive you, and it’s just like, “Yeah, sure, you want to put us in that genre, that’s fine, but we’re not.” It’s like if somebody was calling us a jazz band. You could call us a jazz band if you think we’re a jazz band, but we’re not. It’s not something that we try to be because the whole genre of math rock is something that happened in the ‘90s and was kind of fun at one time, but it just became this bastardized genre of kids or people who make weird music because they get off on mathy, weird time signatures, and then you kind of just lose it. It becomes this focal point where it drives the music more than anything else, and it turns from that feeling.
When we started it was like, “Yeah, it can be quirky if you want, and it can be danceable if you want, and it can be fun.” Having fun was more important to us than writing weird math rock. Because math rock isn’t always fun to a general audience, you know? It becomes this very dude-centric thing where a certain type of dude gets off on that, and I think that’s good as well, but I think math rock can be alienating, so labeling ourselves as that is just kind of us painting ourselves into a corner.
11: Well, thanks again for your time, and we’re glad you made it through Portland again this year!
DK: Yeah, actually, that Portland show was really one of my favorites on this trip. And I’m not just blowing smoke up Portland’s ass, but it was one of those like–I think it had something to do with us standing closer on stage, it was tighter knit; it felt like a turning point to me on the tour. It was like, we had these slow-dance type shows where it was like, “Yeah, we’re getting there, it’s feeling good” and then after the Portland show, it was like, “That was fucking great!” So Portland was a good one for me. »
– Charles Trowbridge