Glam rock is currently going through something of a reappraisal. Having spent years strutting around the musical hinterland beneath a stratocumulus of hairspray whilst punk wantonly pillaged its archives to gobby acclaim, the glam aesthetic has been increasingly leaking back into the collective consciousness – with Dave Hill no longer regarded as the insurmountable zenith of bad taste he once was. Well, almost…
The latest troops adding their livery to this swelling renaissance are Warp Records’ giddy troubadours Battles (aka Ian Williams, John Stanier, Dave Konopka and Tyondai Braxton); a math rock super group who inspired many earnest bloggers to piss a thesaurus up the wall in acclaim for their early string of labyrinthine EPs. Imagine then the chin-stroking recoil as lead single ‘Atlas’ from their debut LP ‘Mirrored’ unfurled its wings through a stomping glam beat that approximated Kenny’s ‘The Bump’ – albeit fed through an aural wood-chipper alongside gallons of lacerated instrumentation and a delirious vocal that make Alvin, Simon and Theodore sound like heavy smokers. The po-faced Mojo cabal, predictably, weren’t happy.
Whilst most of us can appreciate ‘Atlas’ for the grin inducing, balls-to-the-wall party tune it evidently is, there are those out there who would consider Battles to be committing seven grades of sacrilege given their avant-garde early releases and a membership culled from Don Caballero, Tomahawk and Helmet.
Yet when you hear their motivation for this new sound, even the most cerebral of followers must find themselves sated. “The idea of writing a song like ‘Atlas’ originally spawned from re-adapting an electronic musicians interpretation of glam-esque rock – such as Gary Glitter and Slade,” Konopka explains. “It’s essentially bringing it back into the rock arena via the Black Forest back-roads of many a shuffle DJ; both of which are genres that we admire.” So can we expect to see this glam influence encroaching beyond their music and into other aspects of the band? “As far as Battles sporting some mirrored top hats in the future, I wouldn’t hold your breath.”
Written over the space of a year and then recorded in a little under three months (“we entered the recording studio as boys in October and left as men in December” Konopka jokes), ‘Mirrored’ might seem a dynamic leap from their earlier EP’s collection ‘EP C/B EP’ to some, but for those who have witnessed their incendiary live shows it all seems far more organic.
Catching the band before a gig in Cleveland, Williams agrees. “When we recorded the EPs, Battles were playing with a restrained neutralism – but as we toured we discovered a lot more possibilities of what we could be” – a viewpoint backed up by Konopka. “In a sense the EPs could be considered a bit premature due to the nature of how the songs eventually evolved after playing them so much on tour. On ‘Mirrored’ we were interested in trying to convey the sensibilities of being a good live band on record.”
Having formed in 2003, the four-piece quickly realised they “had something pretty awesome” and set about “making the kind of music we’d like to hear if we were our own audience”. Complex and enthralling, Battles initially represented the kind of challenging band who seemed destined to remain on the fringes – a well kept secret amongst aficionados who would drop their name in an eternal game of bravado Top Trumps. However this all changed when Warp made the canny decision to sign Battles and their presence rippled beyond the closed-gate community of a blogging elite (see their chin dribbling remix of Four Tet’s ‘A Joy’ for homework). Labelled as unpredictable, Battles have certainly lived up to their tag with ‘Mirrored’ – a record drenched in buoyant optimism and spectrum straddling styles.
So does this represent a conscious change in style? “I agree that there is a more present sense of playfulness in the newer songs – but this can be attributed to a level of comfort that we have developed as musicians and friends,” Konopka explains. “I don’t think that there is ever a point where a musician or an artist can say “I found it, this is what we’re all about!” But there are stages of familiarity that we have achieved as a band that allow us to operate as a tighter organism.”
I’d love to have Battles do music set to a short story with the words read by Meryl Streep, Angelica Houston, Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver…or even Forest Whitaker.
Probably the most noticeable addition to the Battles oeuvre is the inclusion of vocals – although jazz impresario Tyondai Braxton counters that these aren’t as new as people might believe. “Thing is, there were vocals on the EPs but they were used more as a neutral instrument –held notes / beat boxing etc. I utilize my voice as a primary instrument in my solo music so it wasn’t an overnight idea. It blends both of the worlds I’m used to.” Labelling the band as “restructural”, Tyondai hints that a further twist could await the use of lyrics in future releases. “I’d love to have Battles do music set to a short story,” he reveals, “with the words read by Meryl Streep, Angelica Houston, Tom Hanks, Sigourney Weaver…or even Forest Whitaker.” Jackanory; eat your heart out.
Signed to a British label, it seems a fitting close to ask whether their success in dear old Blighty has come as a surprise. “Not at all,” Konopka reveals. “I would say the UK appears to American eyes as a nation of music maniacs. From the minute you hit passport control and they see that you’re there as a band to perform, the agent starts talking about their favourite group or something. Everywhere you go there’s people reading about this band or discussing so-and-so’s new single.”
However, before your chest begins to swell with patriotic pride there is, as ever, a caveat. “I would add that it’s usually trashy pop music,” Dave concedes, “but it carries over to a devoted underground world too. I love the energy devoted to the whole enterprise.”
And with that Battles tool up and return into the theatre of war for a musical skirmish that will see yet another audience fall to their glam-blitzed artillery, perhaps as the words of Henrik Ibsen echo round our heads; “A man should never put on his best trousers when he goes out to battle for freedom and truth.” Amen.