Interview - Battles' Ian Williams on the story behind Gloss Drop
Ian Williams on life and making music after four members became three
While deeply ensconced in the making of their second album, Battles singer/guitarist Tyondai Braxton announced his departure from the band last year. The news hit fans keenly anticipating the follow-up to 2007’s math rock masterpiece Mirrored hard; as he was the closest thing the cult egalitarian outfit ever had to a frontman. And although they claim that calling it a day never crossed their minds, Braxton’s sudden flit has had a profound effect on the music that makes up Gloss Drop as well as the Battles mindset. The List finds Ian Williams on philosophical form.
‘We made happy sounds because we were upset … just trying to make a positive situation out of a negative one,’ the guitarist explains, raising his voice to be heard over a truck whizzing down his New York street. ‘We knew the record wasn’t working out, everyone knew it, including Ty, which is maybe why he quit. And you’ve got to understand that I connect to putting our music out on a very primal level. It’s not like a conscious thing, “Oh we’re in a band, this is what we need to do”, for me it comes from a place way before that. So I was just like, OK he’s gone, how do we get this thing released? And this animal instinct kicked in – we needed to get these songs across the finish line regardless of what got in our way.’
So Battles went in to, ahem, combat mode, drawing up a wishlist of guest vocalists to feature on the tracks they had individually been working on while Braxton was still around. His parts ditched – ‘It didn’t feel right to release a record with vocals from the guy who had quit the band’ – the New Yorkers enlisted an array of top talent including Gary Numan, Kompakt producer Matias Aguayo, Kazy Makino (of Blonde Redhead) and Yamantaka Eye of Boredoms fame. ‘It’s kind of crazy,’ chuckles Williams. ‘Like this dream line-up that only came about because of this hurdle we never could have foreseen.’
Now one band’s setback is another’s challenge, and Williams (who describes the musician’s life as ‘a very random set of variables’) seems well-equipped to deal with whatever the cosmos decides to chuck at Battles. We should have guessed that experimentalists thrive on tests. ‘This past month the new dynamic of the three of us is slowly revealing itself,’ he says, ‘on a daily basis in fact, and it’s kind of cool. There is something magical about three you know – a trio is tight and nicely economical.’
Musically too, the Battles we encounter in 2011 are irrevocably altered sans Braxton. ‘It was a case of four cooks in the kitchen,’ laughs Williams, ‘and so it was hard for us to ever iron out a full song. I mean look at it this way – it took us a year and a half to almost make a recording with Ty; he leaves and then all of a sudden in four and a half months we re-do tracks and make a completely new recording with fewer people. We were actually able to accomplish a lot more in a shorter period of time. This experience made us cut all the bullshit and just re-connect to the real basic reasons why we make music, like making stuff we actually want to hear and getting to a more pure place. For us less people was definitely more.’
Gloss Drop is proof of that. A mindblowing example of the kind of brilliance a band can come up with when their backs are against the wall, tracks skitter out of speakers and attack the ears like a symphony of angry wasps – utterly terrifying in an electrifying way. Which way will they go next? ‘I definitely like the mystery of not knowing how things will turn out you know,’ says Williams. ‘We’re not ever interested in repeating ourselves or doing what people expect us to do, it’s such a turn off. The moment everyone thinks I’m the guitarist who shreds the most will be the day I don’t want to play guitar anymore. And a guitar solo? If you expect a guitar solo and then I play it a part of me will probably die inside,’ he laughs. ‘It’s all about where you stand at that moment.’
Battles play the Arches, Glasgow on Tue 7 Jun. Gloss Drop is out on Warp Records on Mon 6 Jun.