Previously kings of ushering in a new generation to the math rock genre, New York three-piece Battles now continue to push the instrumental-electronic-math ordinance even further with their latest effort, La Di Da Di. Built on its expanding resonance of looping electricity, the group announced via video documentary their passion for the art of repetition. Now on tour and en route to Australia as part of the Laneway Festival circuit, Jake Wilton had the pleasure of speaking to bassist / guitarist Dave Konopka about the band’s intrinsic love affair with musical recurrence and their approach to marrying that with the analogue and digital worlds.
In contemporary music, repetition is often affiliated with negative connotations. Why choose to announce Battles’ love in the art of repetition?
Viewing repetition negatively is only one way of seeing it but there are many other musicians who use repetition as an element that can be very interesting. Steve Reich, for example, is one of my favourites; he’s a real perfectionist. As far as Battles is concerned, the interest lies in not making that repetition boring. Working with that element in trying to manipulate it in a way that it doesn’t seem like it’s repetitive; that’s the challenge for us.
Your bandmate Ian [Williams, guitar / keyboards] has spoken about the process of making music with pedals and looping and marrying it with what can be achieved through the digital world. Three albums in now, has this process changed much for Battles?
It’s forever evolving. John [Stanier, drums] has been the biggest constant with Ian and I being the variables. John’s setup hasn’t changed since the first incarnation of the band thirteen years ago. Although for Ian and I we’ve been adding new technology to explore new possibilities. Between the two of us, Ian is the one who changes his setup between every album whereas I still remain in the analogue world with a very large, and stagnant, array of pedals.
John comes from a punk background and has previously described his instrumental technique to Battles as being punk. Do you see Battles coming from more of a punk rather than an electronic orientation?
No, not necessarily. I think our strengths as a band are that we have the ability to combine genres or alter the definition of categorisation. I really respect punk ideals in the way that rock bands formed. Personally, I came from the indie rock world of the ‘90s which was very subscribed to the punk mentality maybe on a more evolved level. I also respect the… [laughs] precision of the electronic approach so I think it’s the marriage of the two which is important.
A huge part of how we write our music is not to rely on one thing too much. At the end of the day, there’s a dichotomy of man versus machine. With each album, we’ve never thought, “this is going to be our acoustic song,” or, “this is going to be our electronic song.” It depends, there are variations and gradients of the electronic involvement but, in the end, it’s coming through the eyes of a rock band.
Part of the challenge, and the appeal, of me enjoying Battles’ music is the investigative process of deciphering where and what the sounds are coming from.
I think that comes from the exploratory process of playing with sound and not being so direct or literal when it comes to adding the “man” element of the man versus machine equation. For example, on Gloss Drop, everybody thought John was playing steel drum; but he never played steel drum on that record it all came from the effects he was using that lent that impression.
Now thirteen years into the band’s life, is it still as enjoyable experimenting and playing with the possibility of infinite guitar tones from pedals and effects?
For sure! Every time we go back to the drawing board, literally, and start writing new music, there’s always new additions to Ian and mine setups that encourage exploration and keep us intrigued and captivated with the process of learning while writing.
You’ve been on tour for some time now and still being added to festival bills whereby Battles looks a little out of place compared the other bands on the poster. Is it interesting seeing how people react to your music who don’t necessarily want to hear your music?
That’s always really fun. I don’t think you can deny seeing a good rock band doing something unconventional. Of course there’re people who say, “Oh my God, there’s guys are so obnoxious and suck.” But they leave go watch Soundgarden. Part of the challenge of being in such an unconventional band is trying to win people over and when you achieve that it’s pretty awesome.
Battles play St. Jerome’s Laneway Festival across the country with a stop in Brisbane on February 6th.