Skip to main content
A Magazine for Sheffield

Battles: Patterns in Drones and Buzzes

I was at a dead end job, pining for the halcyon days when I lived in Nottingham, somewhere around 3am in a cold Datacom centre in Northern Cuernavaca, Mexico. I was sitting alone, running some tests and watching Torchwood. A main character was back from the dead and clearing his house. A bizarre song played during the fast-paced sequence.

A quick web search yielded 'Atlas' by Battles. “Who are these guys?” Sod the test results. I needed to immerse myself in this band. Members of Helmet and Don Caballero were involved, so I was on board. Dave Konopka’s Lynx took time to find, but also ended up in my collection.

Battles had a new fan. The intense madness they dealt intertwined with the feelings I had before moving to Sheffield. The strange clash of Sheffield's abandoned industrial spaces and leafy suburbs felt in tune with their music. ‘Snare’ was my River Don theme tune. ‘Ddiamondd’ was the loud hustle and bustle of West Street on a Saturday night.

I neglect to mention any of these things when I email Ian Williams for this interview. He who once strutted with Don Caballero now waves a guitar and a keyboard, sometimes at the same time, in Battles.

So what has happened in the toroid-shaped world of Battles? “We toured on Gloss Drop for a couple of years. Spent another year in downtime mode, focusing on acquiring new gear, figuring out how to make it sing, try to find direction for new tunes. Then the last year we recorded and here we are.”

That explains so much. The band has made it clear that they don’t write much while on tour, focusing more on the intricacies of the live show. “I do write on the road. But as a band, all three of us with amps and drums, we can’t.”

Ian’s output, when not handling Battles guitar and keyboard duties, speaks for itself. He’s done solo stuff for the Connect Sessions and also a piece called 'Clear Image'. “'Clear Image' was a piece of music I made for the American Composers Orchestra. I played it last fall at Zankel Hall in New York. It was a regular chamber orchestra with me on electronics. I also did a thing called 'Public Transaction' with a percussion sextet named Mantra last winter.” From what I could gather, this side of Ian won’t be a one night stand.

Gloss Drop came out while I was in an intense part of my PhD. Most people I knew who were fans swore off Battles because vocalist and guitarist Tyondai Braxton was no longer with them. Truth be told, no one is irreplaceable in a band. Gloss Drop felt right. “Change, my dear, and not a moment too soon,” as a perm-headed Doctor used to say in a certain BBC show. Gloss Drop danced less around the issue. It was a straight bullet.

It was also a transitional album. The fight or flight instinct permeated all tracks. You could feel it seeping through syncopated beats and vocals. ‘My Machines’ was a loud statement, assuring you that they were in it for the long haul. Gloss Drop's audacity was evident with the videos for 'My Machines' and 'Ice Cream'. You could feel it was all coming together amidst the chaos. Never mind fair-weather fans and bloggers with vendettas. The songs stood undefeated.

You often hear the term ‘sophomore slump’ used to describe the difficult second album, but is there a term for a third album? Ian ponders the whole process: “I think you need to take time off to re-ignite things. Everybody around you, from labels to managers to agents to fans, want you to hurry up and go straight from the road to the studio, because you’re going to make more money, more quickly. But that usually ends up with people saying, ‘Well, their old stuff was good’.”

That backward mentality sometimes drowns good albums in solipsistic waves of nostalgia. Fans sometimes look back, not forward. For what it’s worth, Gloss Drop felt like a cohesive yarn, much more than their debut, Mirrored. Just by existing it earned its accolades.

One of the finer points of the band is the cyclical nature of their music, as if a mathematical pattern lies hidden inside the drones and buzzes. I ask Ian if there is any truth in this. “[We're] into patterns! [La Di Da Di] had a fair bit of 16th note fed into an 8th note gate, captured by a 1/4 note loop, and then playing with the different ratios and seeing what unpredictability arises. The longer the logic chain, the more 'WTF' the results, but if you’re doing it digitally you can save settings and begin to understand the beast.”

Considering the electronic nature of Battles, I had to ask if they were fans of the BBC Radiophonic’s rather enjoyable music. You could almost pick out a few hints of these in the fresh sounds and drones of La Di Da Di.

“I’m aware of the history of musique concrète, but never thought of what we do on that continuum. I guess you could draw a connection in the sense that we’re interested in sound as sound, and not necessarily having to be about how it’s connected to an instrument. Besides the drums, a lot of times you might not recognise the source of the sound. Guitars sound like keyboards, keyboard lines are re-sampled guitar notes, abstracted recorded sounds - there’s a round-about connection for you.” Manipulated found sounds and re-converted instruments - sounds like Delia Derbyshire and Brian Hodgson would have enjoyed La Di Da Di.

Even if I didn’t want to be confrontational, the elephant in the room was that major line-up change with Gloss Drop. It still surfaces in reviews and it's still a point of discussion within fandom. When I ask Ian about looking back to Gloss Drop, he is curt: “Gloss Drop was a response to a mistake. La Di Da Di was the opportunity to start afresh and on our own terms.”

La Di Da Di is a clean slate which Battles have painted, erased, smudged and painted over again. It's never a baroque piece and no element could be removed without it falling like a Jenga tower. This puzzle of an album, with its strong contrasts, brings yet another face to the band. It’s a strong leap forward.

With that said, did Battles have a particularly challenging song while recording? “My favorite is 'Tricentennial', which I think is looked over by most people as a little half way to a song, but not a real song. But the texture of that is really good, I think. Same goes for 'Flora>Fauna'.”

La Di Da Di is a fresh start for a trio that has a veritable cornucopia of ideas. These ideas may come in slow, controlled bursts, like a greater integer function, so long as they remain a cycle that lives for many open intervals. )

Next article in issue 91

Breakbeat Lou Ultimate Breaks and Beats on Tour

Co-creator of the legendary Ultimate Breaks and Beats compilations between 1986 and 1991, Breakbeat Lou has made a huge contribution to hip hop, soul, R'n'B and pop musioc

More articles