Battles were always meant to evolve.
The band's line up has expanded and contracted over time, currently focussing on Ian Williams and powerhouse drummer John Stanier.
New album 'Juice B Crypts' landed in Autumn, a superb return that emphasised the group's electronic leanings.
Live, they remain a pulverising rock force, continually adapting and evolving, while overhauling their previous work.
In keeping with this spirit, Battles have just launched a new website, which breaks down some of their tracks into their component parts.
Themed around a subway map, it's an ingenious move, one that is accompanied by a remix competition that sees Battles work alongside Native Instruments.
Clash spoke to Battles drummer John Stanier in the midst of self-isolation about this project, their future plans, and the potential fate of the football season.
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How is life in New York during this upheaval?
I’m OK, I guess! I’m holding there… sort of. It’s impossible to explain what is happening here, but it is what it is.
New York has been hit hard, it must be a strange atmosphere in the city right now…
Yeah. It’s pretty intense. I live facing this really big park. It’s the biggest park in Brooklyn, and I live right on it. It’s 300 yards away, right across the street. Maybe once or twice an hour I have to go for a really fast walk around the park, so thank God for that! But I just hope it doesn’t get to 100% total lockdown, where you’re physically not allowed outside. That would be catastrophic.
London is close to that – we’re allowed out twice per day.
How do they keep track on that?! The pictures of London are really intense. I saw this report on CNN of someone walking around Piccadilly Circus, and it’s… I mean, wow. It’s utterly empty. And the same here! But I wouldn’t know as I haven’t left my immediate vicinity in a really long time.
The remix competition will help keep people busy, perhaps. Where did that idea come from?
Well basically, I have always been obsessed with subway maps. I have this book of famous historical subway maps from cities all over the world. I’m really into subway maps!
Battles as a band, in all our different line ups, we’ve always written stuff down on giant pieces of paper when we’re writing songs because we’re such a maximalist band and there’s so much information… now more than ever! The irony is that now we’re two people, and it’s this maximalist electronic thing! A long time ago it was the complete opposite.
But we were still coming up with names, and putting them on giant pieces of paper, and then standing there, like, well how does it all work? Otherwise, you’re gonna forget everything. It’s going to be a complete mess!
It’s all files on a computer, anyway. It makes it a little less complicated, I think. And it’s something that we’ve always done. And instead of just Guitar Line A or Guitar Line B we’ll come up with actual, specific names. Like, OK these loops, basically, will live in this universe. That’s the way we’ve always written and made our records.
So I was curious to see what would happen if we could combine both of those worlds. We wanted each train line to be the song, and then each station would be specific elements throughout that song.
The other thing is, we’re only giving you a certain amount of information. The cat is not 100% out of the bag – and it never will, because it’s this secret language, and secret universe that only we understand, and no one else will ever get anyway. It’s playful! We went with this idea and it came out really well.
Then we wanted some sort of interactive website… which has been a long time in the works. Almost from when the record came out, actually. So, it took a minute to accomplish that, but Warp really, really bent over backwards for this one. They really nailed it! It’s actually how we wanted it.
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What are you hoping to hear?
Well, that’s kind of what is morphed into. At first, it was like: oh it would be cool to separate each particular song, and each station would be a different part. That alone would be awesome, but then we wanted to take it a step further, and make it so you could remix it. And that’s where Native Instruments stepped in.
Ian and I sat down and found the samples, extracted them, and handed them over. Now it has another life of its own, as there’s a contest. The sky is the limit! The cool thing is you can take elements of multiple songs – it’s not just one song, you can use a lot of different information. An entire record’s worth of samples, and you can pick and choose what you like.
The record came out a few months back, is that long enough to gain some sort of perspective?
It’s been almost six months, I think. That’s a good question because I’m of a certain age where I’m used to spending a long time working on a record, you put it out, and then you tour on it forever.
The lifespan of records, to me, used to be so much longer, but now it’s all about content. Groups put out EPs now five months after their full length comes out, people are putting out records once a year… it’s so much more information, and it’s faster. The lifespan is much shorter, I think. And you need tonnes of content around that to stretch its life.
This is so much cooler to do than any of the alternatives. We already did a full remix record, so if we tried it, we would just be repeating ourselves. It was successful, and people really loved it – they were great remixes – but we’ve already done it. This is something radically different for us. I hope people like it, because I think it’s really cool.
You’re a vocal Newcastle United fan – how are you filling your time with the football shutdown?
I know! I’m Newcastle, Athletico Madrid, and Hertha Berlin. I’m asking myself this everyday, and it’s funny because I still look at football websites all day long! I mean, there’s no news. But I read them more often than CNN! I still download ESPN podcasts daily, so I’m still paying attention but it’s kind of crazy.
I feel like each league is treating it a little bit different, somehow. I mean, I heard Napoli are training again! It doesn’t make any sense.
I don’t know what the immediate answer is, and it’s tricky too. I think it would be pretty lame to void the season. I mean, I hate Liverpool just as much as everybody else but… it would be unfair, I think.
Champions League bums me out more! No Champions League is… devastating. Especially after Athletico did what they did. It was really exciting! It’s been a really exciting Champions League season, I think. Really exciting.
Are Battles ready to begin recording new material, then?
I mean, thank God that we went ahead with this. We started working on this long before we knew (coronavirus) was going to happen. We decided that instead of canning this, we’re going ahead with it. And I think that’s the right move.
I’m starting to see now that people want things to do because no one knows how long this is going to last. And everyone’s touring schedule has been completely destroyed. I think we might be done touring on this record, which is a crazy bummer because we were only half-way through!
We had a big tour planned with Foals which I was really looking forward to, as they’re old, old buddies. So it’s catastrophic.
There’s so many musicians – and artists in general – who are out of work, just sitting around doing nothing. I bet there are so many damn people making records, writing records just now, and they’re going to record them. So that means that the world’s musicians will all have a new record by summer. There’s going to be so much new music coming out! I guarantee it.
You’re right that the album lifespan has sped up – it seems streaming has shortened people’s attentions. This subway map, though, encourages a deeper form of listening.
Absolutely. It breaks it down into fragments, and it’s a glimpse into the wacky world of how we make Battles songs. It’s this rare glimpse.
We can talk until we’re blue in the face about all this, and it sounds really nerdy and dorky – because it is – but this is a rare glimpse into seeing how the band works.
I mean, I would love to see how Tangerine Dream made a song – that would be insane. I hope people like it.
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'Juice B Crypts' is out now. Check out Battles remix competition HERE.
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