Battles can be a slow, lumbering beast. Live, the three-pronged experimental rock monster lurches into view, the system gently humming and pedals lit up by the dozen. The beat kicks off, then accelerates, then accelerates a little before the twin guitars begin emitting the strangest, most vital noises you can possibly imagine. It's an unholy mess but, somehow, it works.
It seems that this process is also, essentially, how the band works in the studio. “Four years seems to be our gestation period!” jokes guitarist Dave Konopka, and he's not far off the mark. New record 'La Di Da Di' arrives four years after 'Gloss Drop', and it's arguably the first Battles record to build – however tangentially – upon the wreckage of its predecessor. “Since the release of our last album we toured for two years and then we needed to kind of get back to living normal life for a little bit and in the interim just started developing new ideas,” he explains. “So it was really just coming down from touring our asses off and then once we started to write again it just took a little while to compile a bunch of ideas, and get 'em together and get John (Stanier, drummer) over to Brooklyn from Berlin and get some rehearsals under our belts. It just takes us a while to get an album together, generally speaking.”
“It's kind of like switching gears,” he muses. “We're not the type of band that writes on the road just because it takes us forever to get our soundchecks right, to prepare properly for shows. But when you're touring for two years on the same material you kind of get an itch after a while, so you kind of get inspired to start writing new stuff again. And it just takes a while.”
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Exchanging ideas via email, Battles found that they were often at loggerheads over their next direction, each with an unwillingness to commit fully to another's creative whims. “I think that a lot of our time was like a church dance!” he laughs. “Where we would exchange ideas and then you wouldn't hear anything from your band mates and someone would send something over and it would be like: what do I have? For us, the communication of writing an album, there's a re-learning experience there, like learning to communicate as a band again. And there was a lot of slow-dancin' going on! That shy slow dance.”
The new material truly took shape when the trio entered the studio. Once again opting for the confines of Machines With Magnets in Rhode Island, the role of the engineering team at the studio in the progression of the album should not be under-estimated. “They challenge us, for sure,” he explains. “They're incredible engineers. It's funny, there are just different ways of communicating. You can tell when they're talking about us when we're playing! And they're kind of like: this sucks, it isn't happening!” “They'll push us more if we're not coming through, for sure, so they do challenge us and they have a great ear. They know as well as us, where we should be and they'll totally call us out if they think that we sucked. I think that's great to have in an engineer. You don't need a 'yes' person the whole time if you're trying to make creative decisions.”
'La Di Da Di' is perhaps Battles' most perplexing work, but also their most human. Throughout, the cerebral cortex shuddering tech-led experimentation is allied to a genuine sense of wit – hell, one song is even named 'Tyne Wear' in tribute to England's North East. “That song is just a little ditty between John (Stanier, drums) and I and he is a huge Newcastle fan. A huge Newcastle fan,” the guitarist explains. “I had no idea what Tyne and Wear was, but he was like: I really want to call this song 'Tyne & Wear'. I was like, alright! The working title was 'Mexico'. The titles generally are not the most important part for us but you want to have something that you can live with and are happy about. So yeah, John wanted to do a little nod to all his Newcastle family.”
Often starting with tiny rhythmic pulses or shards of guitar, each track on 'La Di Da Di' builds up into hefty slabs of sound, granite chunks of rock abstraction. Those minute, pulsating patterns are, I offer, extremely similar to techno – a deeply physical, system-led experience, quite apart from rock's arena culture.
“When people start to label us as math rock, that's kind of one of the main reasons why we're so reticent to label ourselves that because it means that it's all music which is made with your head and trying to flex those brain muscles, instead of, y'know, your actual muscles. And that's really important to us and of course it's going to be a major facet of how we make music. It's also the most important thing to us, to be able to be a really good live band and make people feel it. I think that there's a lot of electronic musicians that create great sounding music but it's not as visceral as having the opportunity to be three dudes playing a song in front of you. It's important for us to be a good live band because at the end of the day we're a rock band that uses that technology. But the human element of what we are is the most valuable part of what Battles is.”
Set to return to the road, the three-piece view the studio document as a starting point, as a take-off platform for their thundering concert explorations. “There's kind of like this slow evolution to the process of our live show where at the beginning – kind of where we're at now – it's like, actually trying to learn what we committed to as the record. As a document. And then as get more comfortable you play every night and you're in that zone of repetition and getting more comfortable with the parts and with what the show is in its entirety. We started to build off of that and evolve things.”
“I think that's also a really important factor – playing a live show... if you're familiar with the music and you have the album and you know what the songs sound like, then to see a band take it further is interesting. I think it's what keeps live bands playing live music. It's important to explore what you at one point in your life committed to. And you just explore it further.”
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'La Di Da Di' is out now.