Gone Fishin’: An Interview with Battles

The math rock trio talk spearfishing, guest vocalists, and the Vietnam war in their first interview about La Di Da Di


    For a band with only two albums under their belts, Battles are surprisingly intimidating. Both 2007’s Mirrored and 2011’s Gloss Drop explode with vibrant personality, but after I ask my first question during our three-way phone call, guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka, and drummer John Stanier all hold their breath for what feels like a full minute before simultaneously bursting into laughter. No one knows who should talk first.

    La Di Da Di, their first album in four years, follows an extended period of silence after the end of their two-year Gloss Drop tour. Battles can’t write on the road, so Williams and Konopka holed up in a New York City rehearsal space to jot down sketches while Stanier, who had relocated to Berlin, tapped out beats virtually. Once they reunited at Pawtucket, Rhode Island, studio Machines with Magnets in late 2013 and early 2014, the sounds began to flow.

    La Di Da Di is less fragmented than Battles’ last album, suggesting the type of natural undercurrent that’s only achievable after you’ve spent more than a decade pushing your bandmates’ creative limits. Over the phone, they’re happy to divulge its contents. While they do throw around arbitrary jokes (“My house is filled with plants now. They love me!”) and are wary of detailing equipment (“Trying to steal my chops?”), much of our conversation rotates around a project that sounds like it’s been in the making for far too long.


    How do you title your songs? I laughed at “Dot Net” and “Dot Com”, especially since “Dot Com” is far more vibrant and energetic than the prior — fitting, given the name.

    John Stanier (JS): We always have working titles, which is usually stuff like “Barclays Center” or “Irish Butter” or something that’s weird to get it out of the way. We’re definitely the kind of band that will stick with a working title until the very last minute. We name stuff later on, and some are far more literal and tied to the actual song. Otherwise, it only makes sense to us. They’re not random words. A lot of the time it has to do with how it looks. Sometimes we come up with the names after the sequence, so they’re usually the last thing we come up with. On La Di Da Di, there’s a couple we actually decided early on, which are personalized.

    Which ones?

    Dave Konopka (DK): Sometimes the working titles are something you want to live with, to reference for the eternity of the album. One song that we had on the album, “Winter Wonderland”, is … well, Ian, you should answer that.


    Ian Williams (IW): The final track started with a working title of “Winter Wonderland” because it reminded me of ice skating, like a choreographed ice skating team. But then it started to get this South Asian guitar solo thing, and towards the end there’s a helicopter sound, so it all started to turn partly Vietnam or something. Basically, in the last few years, my parents died, and I started thinking about my family. We adopted a girl named Luu Le from the Vietnam war. This is a true story. Her plane crashed coming over to the United States, and so she died. I actually just found out that she had a twin brother on that plane who survived, which is kind of crazy, but I was thinking about how to talk about that American to Vietnam relationship in a song, so I thought it would be good to honor her name.

    That’s very nice. I imagine that’s the peak when it comes to song meanings and titles.

    IW: Yeah, there’s really no correlation between titles and sound. We’re not a band that has a lead vocalist or has anything to say, per se; we’re purely working with music as form. We weren’t trying to bridge this gap by writing a winter wonderland-to-Vietnamese-sounding track. It’s just that’s what happened by working with the musical elements we were interested in. Usually the song titles get applied to make a little more sense to the way we’re reacting to what we’ve made.

    So what, thematically, did you focus on in La Di Da Di that’s different than Gloss Drop and Mirrored?

    IW: Despite that last story I told you about the song title, which is a pretty nostalgic, sentimental title, it’s the opposite of that process. The sounds that form the concreteness of the songs. The meaning is in the sound. The meaning isn’t always necessarily a deeper thing than that. A strip of white paint sometimes is just white paint. It doesn’t mean it’s a picture of snow. Not all our songs are representations of things, and that’s especially true on this album.


    The most prominent change is that there are no vocals. There are no guest vocalists, no Tyondai Braxton, no one-liners. Why return to a purely instrumental sound?

    DK: It started off as working within the elements we can control and what we can do between the three of us. We started writing songs we felt were interesting in an instrumental format. It was a different story when we were writing Gloss Drop, and we had guest vocalists because, as you’re writing, you can easily layer and layer and layer. As you’re writing, you have to leave a little space for vocals. I think that as we started churning out more material, we found that we were most interested in writing an instrumental album, not predictably repeating what we did on Gloss Drop or Mirrored. It’s working with the elements that we have control over. Generally speaking, we’ve always been mostly instrumental, so it wasn’t too much of a leap for us.

    There was a pretty large gap between this record and the last — about four years. Were you drawn to any other art forms in that time that helped direct where you wanted the sound to go?

    IW: It’s hard to talk about inspiration sometimes because it’s nice when you’re inspired, but a lot of times it’s really about going fishing. You have to throw your line in the water, and eventually you’ll catch something. You have to just show up and put in the time instead of clocking in and going to work. You have to remain patient. Things will mysteriously appear from the ether of the unknown. I feel often that the inspiration, for me, comes from a new gadget we pick up that does new tricks. [laughs]

    DK: The same goes for me. It’s usually the addition of something new to work with. Being entrenched in that exploratory process of making new process.

    What new equipment did you bring on?

    DK: It sounds like Ian brought up fishing poles.

    JS: Yeah, Ian’s gone fishin’.

    IW: You know that bumper sticker that says, “A bad day of fishing is better than a good day at the office”? That’s true. I think I can say, “A bad day of trying to create music is still better than a good day at the office.” Okay, but I’ve never gone fishing before in my life.


    DK: Really?

    IW: Well, actually, I have twice.

    DK: I’ve done some deep fishing, and I’ve done some lake fishing.

    JS: I’ve done spearfishing. That’s awesome. I did it at Martha’s Vineyard, and it ruled.

    You went spearfishing at Martha’s Vineyard?

    JS: Yeah, with the assistant secretary of defense under Reagan and his two sons. [laughs] True story.

    DK: So, I guess the Reagan administration was a lot cooler than we thought.

    IW: The news item here is that John hangs out with Republicans. He specifically hangs with conservative, Republican, spearfishing families.


    Whose idea was it to organize food for the album art? There’s no fish on it, but that organized stack of pancakes and the banana stuck through the watermelon slice … it’s ridiculous in all kinds of ways.

    Konopka: We go to iHop every day before practice, so we took a quick photo. [laughs] No, that was a series of food relationships I was working on for this album. My friend Leslie is an awesome photographer, and I asked her if she wanted to get together to shoot some food arrangements I put together. It was intentionally for this album.

    The press photos were Grant Cornett. I noticed his work in the New York Times, and he shoots for them often, but sometimes he does food shots for the magazine. I did a few other food versions for the album cover, which may see the light of day eventually. When I was getting ready to do that, I was just leaving my house in the morning to pick up a bunch of stuff, and I saw this article about parmigiano reggiano or something, and the photo looked so good to me. It was really flat and detailed, and the colors were centered. I got to Leslie’s and said, “By the way, this is kind of what I’m thinking the cover should look like,” and I showed her the photo. She immediately was like, “Oh, that’s my friend Grant!” Leslie and I have worked on stuff before. Since she’s a close friend, she was letting me do really dumb shit like fuck a watermelon with a banana. Stuff like that is either really funny or really stupid. When it came time to do press photos, I still wanted to work with Grant, so we contacted him. It’s easy to do stuff with people you feel comfortable with when you want to go out on a limb … which is just like Battles.


    What was the hardest part of working on this album?

    IW: Living in Pawtucket, Rhode Island, was really hard because the only food you could order was Domino’s. When I was in high school, I once worked for Domino’s. I have this theory about pizza: that the pizza made for delivery is best within 30 minutes after it comes out of the oven. It’s possible that Domino’s skips that, because brick oven places can’t send theirs out. You have to eat it then.

    Anyway, the hardest part was deciding what would become a song. We came up with a lot of versions. A lot. The material could have gone a different way, but it comes down to decisions for presentation.

    JW: I actually think in a really weird way that this is the easiest record yet for us. I don’t think it was hard at all to record. It took forever, sure. It took a really, really, really long time for us to be able to take that leap and make the decision to get the ball rolling. Once we went over that hurdle, I thought it was really smooth sailing.


    DK: I thought it was difficult! You have to get three people on the same page about music that’s scattered and wild and all over the place. In a way, this exact indecision is indicative of Battles. Sometimes I think, “Holy shit, why is this so hard to accomplish?” We go into this incubation phase of focusing and focusing and focusing and trying to come up with source material to put together. The more options you have, the more the songs can follow through in some type of concise direction. The most difficult part of the recording process is the unknown and not being completely comfortable with it. Sometimes when each of us are in incubation cocoons, I have no idea what the other guys are thinking. Then you get to this point that forces you to make decisions. You have to present what you’ve done. Given the nature of three grown men trying to sculpt the same stone, it’s difficult. Once you get to that point where you realize that you all have the same vision, then it becomes this really rewarding thing. The differences between the three of us in that process is what makes for really interesting music.

    The fact that your music varies a lot, especially on this record, suggests there are several conflicts in the studio where you each want a song to turn in a different direction.

    IW: We often have different opinions about the way things should go. I might write a riff, and then John will hear it, compliment it, and make the one on my three or something. It flips the way I hear it, like, “No, the way you hear it is wrong.” Where do these cyclical, looping lines start?

    JS: Or even with the vibes. Someone will picture a really mellow, cinematic, ambient track on the record, and someone else is like, “You’re totally crazy. This is a banger. Speed it up.” We always reach some weird, happy medium. I tend to embrace a lot of that. Of course, we get into these huge arguments when recording like any band does, but I definitely try my hardest to embrace that in the early stages of writing. I’ve learned to make peace with a song no longer going straight down a path that I foresaw it going. There’s always this question mark lingering that these guys might not hear it in the same way. Being a part of this band means you have to accept that. If you embrace it, that’s a healthy thing to do rather than fighting with two other people to get your way.


    DK: I totally agree with John. The more you can embrace that difference, the better. You can get wrapped up in it, like, “Oh man, this is such a good part, and those guys don’t see it,” but obviously it’s just not that great of a part. You have to trust your bandmates’ gears on that. Gloss Drop was a very insular process. We were in the studio for eight months. We got lost in the project and spent a lot of time trying to repair it. It took a long time to find our way. We still do that and go off to record in separate rooms, but you can find this space of comfort where eventually, within your own private process, you get to create a ton of individual parts. When you come back to the group, it’s not as heartbreaking when one idea gets shot down, and when someone does respond positively, it feels incredible. We got together in the live room a ton. Ian and I had a stockpile of parts to try out. Once we formed things individually, the three of us played in the live room and recorded hour-long jams. We were throwing spaghetti against the walls to see what stuck, and when you’re re-listening, which can get boring during some patches, you find good stuff.

    Did any particular song absorb a lot of your attention and patience?

    DK: “Megatouch” was difficult in that sense, but we jammed a lot on that one and found stuff that became a huge part of the song. “Dot Com” was another one like that. I envisioned it as a slow krautrock builder, but the more we tried making it that, it really wasn’t conducive to it. What we learned from this was that when we were stuck, rather than go back to our room to fiddle and turn longer, we decided to jam for a bit and get it out of our systems. That yielded some interesting parts on this album.

    In that sense, did it feel similar to EP C/B EP? Some of those early songs, like “IPT2” or “Tras”, are very short but full of energy.

    JS: The EP was a really, really long time ago. We recorded those songs at different studios at various different times of the night. We would record after hours at a studio from 4 p.m. to 6 a.m. We would get in where we could. It was so random. We didn’t have the luxury of going to the compound that is Machines with Magnets. You’re up in this compound, and you can get so much work done. It’s like Andy Warhol’s factory. There’s nothing to do there, you sleep up there, and you’re so focused and productive. The EPs were more randomly recorded at different studios. We had to live with what we got, so they’re super punk in that sense. There’s some one-takes in there. We didn’t have the luxury of perfecting stuff. Of course, this was back when we recorded live onto 2-inch tapes and no correcting on ProTools. As a band, we’re extremely, more than anything, a live rock band. We’re a 2015 version of a live rock band, and having that live feel in the music is really, really important to us.


    It sounds like this studio is fairly empty or desolate.

    DK: It’s a pretty awesome studio. It’s just over the Pawtucket, Rhode Island line. It’s easier for us to not have any personal life connections there other than just focusing on the album and staying in that creative space. Really execute what we’re there for and keep it fresh and make decisions. If we recorded at a New York City studio, it would be equally great, but we would be calling out “sick” more often. It would have been harder to pull off what we’re trying to accomplish. It’s awesome when you go to the studio, sleep at the studio, wake up and you’re entirely entrenched in the process. The studio itself is very beautiful.

    JS: Though we do all sleep in one giant bed —

    DK: — and we take turns snoring like the Three Stooges.

    IW: That was a good one. [laughs]