Q&A With Battles Drummer John Stanier: "I Was Determined To Use The Last Drop Of My Blood To Make This Happen."
The rock band Battles is often likened to a machine. It's not too much of a stretch: on their breakthrough debut Mirrored, they soldered together eerily controlled riffs, futuristic textures, and fiendishly powerful drumming; and on stage, the group's wrench-heavy, wrench-throwing music is more kinetic, yet still airtight.
Jason Frank Rothenberg
But for the past year, the well-oiled quartet has been beset by very human problems. Tyondai Braxton, one of Battles' founding members, quit the band in the middle of recording sessions for their new record Gloss Drop. Suddenly, the remaining trio of Ian Williams, Dave Konopka, and John Stanier had just four months to come up with a record that capitalized on momentum they'd spent nearly seven years building.
The latest incarnation of Battles is still working out how to deal with Braxton's departure--Wednesday's sold out show at Le Poisson Rouge is likely to consist solely of new material. But it should also show that they've both endured and delivered, all thanks to a superhuman (maybe even machine-like) effort. I grabbed some time with Stanier, the band's incredible drummer, to discuss Braxton's departure, Gloss Drop's influences, and touring.
A few weeks ago you guys played some shows in Japan. Those were the first gigs you guys had done since finishing Gloss Drop, right?
Yeah. Japan was the first time we'd performed as a three-piece, and the first time we'd performed the new songs. We barely made the deadline for this record. We finished it, finally, mastered it, and then we were like, "Oh wow: now we have to figure out how to play this stuff live." Then we rehearsed for about two weeks, these 10, 12-hour rehearsals every day, and then we flew to Japan. I haven't had five minutes to myself in over a year. It's been super-super non-stop.
I think that it was very fitting that we played Japan. We kind of wanted to because of what had happened, and now we're really glad we did. I didn't know if it would have been disrespectful to go there, so we were kind of waiting to see what Japan said about whether we should play or not. But they were like, "Yeah, you've gotta come down and play here."
But I think that, on top of that, even without the catastrophe, Japan kind of is our home away from home. They were the first to really get us. Our first real show was in Tokyo. We played, like, two shows at Northsix and then we played Tokyo. That's definitely the first shows and tours we've done outside of New York, ever, eight years ago. We have this really cool connection with Japan, and so I thought it was kind of fitting to debut Battles 3.0 there.
Let's talk about Tyondai. His stated reason for leaving was that he couldn't commit to the rigors of touring. That struck me as odd, given that he's currently touring behind his solo album Central Market, but that must have been a slap in the face, given how central the live show is to Battles' identity. How do you feel about touring?
Obviously playing live is such a major element of what we do. It's at least 50% of what we do, [or] for any band. Playing live is fun. You should want to tour, and we've always done that. And out of nowhere, [to want to] turn the band that we'd taken seven years to get where we are, and then to turn around and want to turn it into this side project recording thing was just a little too much to take, I think. We definitely were not into that at all. And it was kind of a shock that he pretty much refused to tour, for the most part.
So, that was kind of a bummer.
I think it's crazy that a musician could decide that he refused to tour. Do you think you could get to that point?
I don't know. I know for a fact we're not going to tour as much as we did on the last record at all. Even on the Mirrored tour, I mean, we toured, but I think we toured as much as any other band. It wasn't some marathon, road dog kind of a band. We kind of played everywhere once. We'll probably do Europe twice and the US twice, if you count festivals and that kind of thing, but it's kind of standard touring, really. And it's spread out. Everybody has lives, and girlfriends, and wives and stuff, so yeah.
Yeah. You can't just sort of out of nowhere...
Turn it into Steely Dan.
Yeah. And so it was kinda like, "C'mon dude. Really?"
But whatever. He had to do what he had to do, and we had to do what we had to do.
Let's talk about Gloss Drop, then. It feels rougher, and more open than Mirrored. Was that part of some overarching plan? In previous interviews, you and Dave have described this record as summery.
I don't think we've ever done that. With this band, it's pretty much impossible to do that, simply because from [the moment] when a song begins to when it finally finishes, it could go all over the place. I mean, it could start out as something with a light-hearted little loop, and then it could turn into this dark, epic monstrosity two months later. You never, ever know. The vibe of one song will change drastically over the course of our writing and arranging it. So we can't really sit down and stick to some master plan about a record.
I mean, this was a really painful record to make. Obviously, there's a lineup change in the middle of it, but two really significant things happened in our personal lives--one at the beginning and one at the very end--and there were just non-stop obstacles.
And I really think that's kind of like a cliché, after a band's been gone for a while, where you read reviews and it's like, "Divorce! Drug addiction! Rehab! The record that should never have been made!" All that kind of hype that makes people go, "Ooh, I've gotta go listen to this." But I'd be lying if I didn't say that this is probably the most difficult thing I've ever done in my life. So it was kind of the three of us having to reinvent ourselves and just kind of deliver the goods, really. You know, really focus, go back up there and write a record, which I feel like we did.
I feel like, in a really strange way, it's kind of like taking an extremely negative situation and turning it into a positive one. And this was done subliminally. I don't think we ever got together and were like, "Man, we're really bummed and depressed, so let's make a happy record!" It's kind of how opposites come out of you. I can't really explain it exactly, it just sort of turned out that way. It wasn't our purpose, but I can hear it.