Battles Return to the Instrumental Throne with Their Thunderous New Album 'La Di Da Di'
We spoke to Battles about getting back to the beats on their third album.
Battles are a band who should need no introduction. Formed in 2002 by guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams (Don Caballero/Storm & Stress), guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka (Lynx), and drummer John Stainer (Helmet), the group relies on loops to create some of the headiest and most technically proficient experimental rock in existence. The band is also incredibly deliberate which is why third album La Di Da Di, out yesterday, dropped almost exactly four years after 2011's Gloss Drop. While Battles' last two albums featured vocal elements, La Di Da Di sees the band returning to the instrumentally bent sound of their early EPs. But even without lyrics, these twelve new compositions are utterly captivating. We caught up with Williams the morning after he flew from Prague to North Carolina to discuss the new album, the band's aesthetic approach, and how through looping you can technically live forever—if you're into that sort of thing.
NOISEY: The new video for "The Yabba" is a performance clip in a way but not in the traditional sense. How much thought goes into the visual element of Battles?
Ian Williams: We put a lot of thought into that for sure and Dave our guitar player is a graphic designer by trade, so I can't get away with ever releasing something with a bad font. [Laughs.] We played a show in Sicily in the beginning of August so we stopped off in Barcelona on the way back and shot that video in Spain.
So were those all extras?
Yeah. They did a call for Spanish fans of Battles to come to the video shoot and they walked around us.
Obviously you're all playing the actual parts which are pretty complex but none of the gear is plugged in. Is that weird for a band like you?
It's not weird. The biggest challenge is that it's actually boring to sit there all day and go through takes; it took three full days of shooting because that song is over seven minutes long. The biggest challenge is just to try to feel inspired by the music while you're playing it again and again. But it was nice that the extras were there for those shoots because it was two long days for them doing it, too.
Speaking of tedious, you're just starting the press cycle for La Di Da Di. Are you getting sick of talking about why this album is instrumental?
[Laughs.] For some reason, I feel like I should be better at answering the questions than I am because often we are asked similar questions and I still get stumped. It'll be the twelfth time I've heard a question in a day and I'll be like, "Uh, I don't know what to say." But actually on a day like today where I'm doing a bunch of interviews by the third or fourth one, I know how to talk. I'm warmed up.
How did you know when this album was finished? It seems like you could keep going forever.
That's sort of my joke: If one of us ever dies onstage the loop will keep going on. We'll be like, "Don't turn that off! That's his last expression!" But I don't know, you have to learn to edit yourself. Loops can help you but they can hurt you too; they get boring if you hear the same thing played back forever so it creates an extra burden to keep things interesting. You have to make all these other things happen to keep it captivating, but you still get a sense of when things are over.
How much of the songs on this album came out of improvisation versus, say, mechanical failure?
You always learn from mistakes so you have to remain open to when those random things occur. For a year, I would go to our band practice space and Dave would work at home and every single day I would make myself make sounds and create different rhythms of loops. A lot of days nothing great happens, but the thing is, every fourth day at least, something cool happens and it's like, "Oh, there's a song." It's that old artist thing—not as much about inspiration as it is just clocking in and going to work because you don't really know when something good is going to happen, so the more time you put in the more you finally will catch something that's worthwhile. We work as a committee and everyone has to be into something so you'll throw 30 song ideas at your bandmates and there's maybe only ten that everyone thinks is cool. You have to take your ego out of it a little bit and go, "Okay, I thought that was brilliant but nobody else does" and then try to build full songs around what everyone is excited about.
I play in a band that plays power chords and I sometimes get lost. Do you ever find yourself in the middle of a nine-minute-long song thinking, "What am i supposed to be doing here?"
Yeah. I have that feeling at first and then hopefully with the repetition of playing it that doesn't happen. I don't know what I'm doing but I know eventually the drummer will play a fill and I'll have to play something else. I try not to have that happen; when you play a live show it's worth ten practices, don't you think? So if we play a few live shows in a row. I tend to get into the moment and I know what I'm doing a lot better.
How do you feel like Battles fans will respond to this album?
I think the technical way we went about it was a big leap forward in a lot of ways for us. But it's interesting, because to outsiders, I don't know if it comes across as any different. I could actually see how you could think it's more of the same because we've mostly been an instrumental band and this is instrumental music and it's rhythmic and there's some weird shit going on. Maybe to outsiders, it's the same. I don't know what other people will think of it but it feels very different for us.
Is it crazy to think about the fact that Battles has been around for 13 years?
Yeah, it's crazy to think that number is so big. [Laughs.] How did that happen? We're slow with making albums. We generally make one every four years. So it only feels like there are three real albums, but by the clock, we've been doing it for a long time. Some people have started a band, put out a record, blown up, broken up, and started another band all in that time. I guess we're just sort of on our own time schedule.