Where: Zhijiang Dream Factory (68 Yuyao Lu, near XikangLu 余姚路68号，同乐坊内)
Starts: Saturday, March 28, 8:30PM
Pitchfork’s called them “thrilling and disorientating,” Ignore Magazine called them “extrinsic, calculated and precise,” and Vice called them “twiddly noodling and fearless” – just quit calling them math rock! The four-person experimental band from New York has been thrilling musicians and the underground music scene since they began releasing EPs five years earlier.
Battles consists of four men with long histories in music making: Tyondai Braxton, son of alterna-jazz musician Anthony Braxton, has worked with hip hop producer Guillermo Scott Herren and noise rockers Parts & Labor. Ian Williams is originally from Pittsburgh math rock pioneers Don Caballero, and also played in noise rock trio Storm & Stress. Dave Konopka, guitarist and bassist, brings the rhythmically complex guitar style of his previous band Lynx into the equation. Veteran of the hardcore scene John Stanier used to play for Helmet – now, when he’s not drumming for Battles, he fills out alterna-metal rock supergroup Tomahawk and Australian hard rock band The Mark of Cain
Their first full-length album “Mirrored,” released in 2007, received all around positive reviews and appeared on numerous indie top 10 lists. Their first single “Atlas” blew up YouTube and became that year’s weird alternative summer hit. Check out the video once China quits blocking us again. It’s worth it.
Speaking of China, they’ve finally reached our shores and will be playing at Zhijiang Dream Factory in Shanghai on Saturday, along with supporting acts Mr. Particle, LAVA/OX/SEA, and AV Okubo. We got the chance to chat with Tyondai right before they entered the mainland.
First off, welcome to China! How’s the Asia tour been treating you so far?
So far it’s been really awesome. It’s a really special tour for us this time – it’s definitely not the norm when it comes for us and touring.
Is it your first time traveling to these parts?
Yeah mostly. The only other place we’ve been to in Asia before is Japan… so it’s been a real treat for us to travel all over this time.
Yeah, from what we’ve heard you usually do Europe. How did you end up heading over here this time around?
We first got an offer to play in this festival in Singapore: the Mosaic festival. Being that we were coming all the way here from New York anyway, we decided to try and set up a tour that was feasible. To our surprise it ended up working out, and we jumped at the opportunity.
We went to Singapore, headed to Kuala Lumpar, Bangkok and then Taiwan… next stop: China.
Wow, how’s the jet lag been?
Oh god, jet lag is awful. It takes such a toll. We flew from New York to Hong Kong and then went straight away to Singapore. I think it’s crazy what jet lag does to your body and it’s funny – this tour is two weeks and it takes about a week and a half to really adjust, so we get to do all this over again right away… though at least we’ll be at home.
You guys all come from pretty storied music backgrounds, but from also vastly different genres – how do you think that influences the music you end up making as a group?
As far as the kind of music we make – I think it’s the differences between us that makes it interesting. Each of us have different influences and so the foundation of the whole Battles sound, I think, is the diversity between us. It’s like that tug of war between what I want to play, and what [guitarist] Ian [Williams] thinks, and what [drummer] John [Stanier] thinks, and [guitarist] Dave [Konopka]… that tug of war gives us our music, I would say.
We’ve heard a lot of people use the term “math rock” to describe your sound, but we’ve also heard you don’t actually like to be categorized like that…
Well yeah! No one really likes being categorized as anything. That term is just such a short sell to the music – it overlooks a lot of the other techniques and the aesthetics that go into our work. Just because we don’t play in four four time all the time we get labeled as math rock. It’s kind of a nasty word.
In a way, I think it just means the same thing as… well, like “alternative music in the 1990s,” and then “indie” at the turn of the century.
It’s a derogatory term for a band that wants to do something that’s slightly outside of the convention… slightly… not mainstream. I don’t even consider us as being so completely out there so… I feel it’s a cheap term. Yeah. It’s cheap.
Right, but so – if we were trying to explain to our friends what you sounded like and we, for some reason, couldn’t actually put your music on, what should we say?
(laughs) I guess it’s harder for me to say since I’m so involved in the music. I would just call us a modern rock band. (pause) Um… a lot of our songs are loop based, so we’re loop based modern music.
I like to leave that door open, honestly. Being a little more vague than what other people are comfortable with. But that’s what I believe we are, just because I know what goes into our music and I don’t think it can really be categorized.
The songs you guys end up coming up with seem to have so many layers and don’t follow any typical format. It’s not anywhere close to being verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus… So what’s the process for getting to that point where you end up saying “Okay, we can’t add anything else to this. This song is done.”?
It’s different every time. The basic way is that someone comes up with an idea and we all contribute to it; let our personalities come through the most in the polarity of the music. Someone gives an idea and you present an opposing figure to that idea. Then you create a spectrum between all of us like that and the idea keeps on getting more clearly defined… and you end up with something that’s a nice dialog between all the parts.
Yeah, we start with a small idea. And then we pull it apart. We see if it works forwards, backwards, upside down. We add simple things in a way that’s complicated. So rather than someone doing just one super crazy solo (which doesn’t sound as intricate anyway), we end up with simple ideas working together in tandem.
So fans of your EPS were surprised to find actual voices in your album, Mirrored. What made you decide to start singing (kind of)?
You know, there was some voice stuff in the EPs. In my own music (outside of Battles), I use my voice predominantly and… honestly, it was just a natural extension to our work. It just fit. No one in the band wanted to subscribe to us being an instrumental rock band ONLY kind of thing.
We kept our options open… and it was fun. It was a fun thing to add in stuff like voices, filtered through the lens of what we’d created before.
What instruments do you use anyway? Especially to create that weird chipmunk sound in Atlas and stuff?
It’s a guitar pitch sifter pedal that I sing through. I’m able to alter the pitch as I sing it real time. Otherwise, we use a Klay keyboard and an M Audio MIDI controller. And then I have a custom-made guitar – a Jazz Master… and the rest of the guys use Gibson guitars. John plays his TAMA drum kit.
What do you guys like to do when you’re not touring or playing music? Are you one of those bands that hang out together constantly – or is it more of a just “hey, we collaborate musically really well. But then we go back to our separate lives?”
We’re definitely more like the latter. Which I think is healthier too. We work well creatively and then we have our own other lives. Myself, I work on my own music. The other guys also have their own projects, whether it be visual art or other types of music.
We all respect each other and we’re all close, but we like to maintain a professional relationship in that we don’t hang out too much when we’re not working.
You’re known as being a New York band. Do you think being from the city’s influenced your work at all?
I would say so, definitely. We all love New York. It rubs off on you as an artist. It’s one of those indescribable quantifiers because it’s in the energy around you and the air your breathe and your daily interactions. Our music wouldn’t be the same because there’s no other city like it.
Do you miss it a lot when you’re out on tour?
Yeah. I miss home. I’m definitely a guy who misses home when I’m touring. My family’s there, that familiarity is there… But I am having fun too. it’s good to step out of your comfort zone and challenge yourself.
What are you hoping people will take away from your show here?
You know, I hope the Shanghai audience really enjoys the show. I hope they’re entertained by it. I hope the same thing for them as all of our audiences. I hope they’ll want to follow and see what we’ll do next. This is a once in the lifetime opportunity for us… as an American band to play in China right now, we’re humbled and excited by the experience.
And what is next for you guys?
Well, I’m releasing my own CD soon. And Battles will be getting ready to release their second record sometime in 2010. Look out for it!