“As an artist, your job is only to make the music as cool and crazy as you want it to be.”
The art of capturing and manipulating the infinite loop is a tricky thing. Do it right, and you can take a listener on a journey that’s never quite the same from one minute to the next, despite the constant element of repetition. Do it wrong, and it’s a one-way ticket to Yawnsville.
Good thing we have the Brooklyn-bred trio Battles to show us just how it should be done. On their new album La Di Da Di, out next Friday via Warp Records on various formats, Battles bend and shape their loops at will, ranging from the multi-movement intensity of opening track The Yabba to the percussive drama of Non-Violence to the burbling ping ’n’ shuffle of Megatouch.
As noted, while these loops create some semblance of structure, where a song goes next is up to the creativity of the players involved — especially when they’re onstage. “In these new songs, we didn’t necessarily acknowledge the format of the pop song all that much,” observes Battles guitarist Ian Williams. “And it’s open enough that we can interpret the songs however we want onstage. I might discover a new plug-in on the road, and then I’ll make this thing happen to create a new section in the song where I’ll make some crazy new guitar sounds. It still works within the context of the song, and it doesn’t cease to be the song.”
Digital Trends called Williams on a tour stop in North Carolina to discuss the band’s unique brand of loop magic, wrestling with art versus commerce, and how Battles songs continue to evolve in a live setting.
Digital Trends: I’d say the way you work with your loops on La Di Da Di shows you practically have it down to a science.
Ian Williams: Well, we’ve always made loops as a band. And when you talk about doing it live, there’s the immediacy of it being an instant photograph. It’s already a little removed from you actually “playing” it, and it becomes something that’s a little more un-human. It creates a lot of possibilities — manipulation, and taking the music to a different place than you could if you were actually playing it.
It’s a blessing and a curse. It has its limitations and its downsides. One is this monolithic thing that keep repeating throughout the song. But then that’s the thing we’ve always struggled with within this group — how to keep it interesting, and how to shift it. Can we actually change the key of the song? Can we give your ears a break so you don’t have to hear the same thing again? It’s one of the things that we work with that harnesses us in too tightly, but sometimes it lets us go more places than we could by playing.
I see that as a freeing concept for you. How has the gear you’ve used to make your loops evolved over the years?
In the very beginning, I was using the Akai Head Rush — those older, ’90s pedals. And then pretty quickly, we all got Gibson Echoplexes, the digital ones. With those, you could sync the pedals up together.
Dave [Konopka, guitarist/bassist] still uses his; he has a couple of them. I have shifted away from that and have evolved into Ableton. Ableton, to me, was like when you have one pedal and you think, “Oh, I can do this, so if I had two pedals, I could do twice as much.” The revelation to me with Ableton was that I could do 300 times as much, in terms of making loops and having multiple things going at once. And then I just go apeshit with it. At this point, I’m Digital Dude, and Dave is Analog SoundWorld Pedal Dude.
It’s a nice contrast, considering where the band started.
People spend forever trying to put their finger on what is digital sound and what is analog sound. We have the discussion that maybe Dave should get Ableton, because technologically, you can do more things with it. But that’s actually a bad idea — keeping us in both worlds keeps the spectrum of our sound bigger, and we get the best of both worlds sometimes. There’s more of a beefy aspect from the analog stuff, but there’s this crazy precision you can get off of the digital.
Because you’re a self-taught player and Dave comes from a design background, you guys are often fighting structure versus, “Let’s just see where it goes.”
Yeah, yeah. Dave is a bit of a minimalist, musically speaking, and I’m a bit of a maximalist: “Let’s make it more intense!”
“People spend forever trying to put their finger on what is digital sound and what is analog sound.”
We eventually get to the middle ground of what a song is. For us, there’s no bandleader. It’s a committee where the three of us have to agree that something is good. But sometimes it’s hard to get us all to agree.
To me, Summer Simmer seems to be the perfect mesh of everyone’s ideas — and you have that great windout near the end of it.
Yeah yeah yeah. On that song, I used the Ableton Push to get to that repeated 16th-note setting, on the intro. The Push made that song possible.
How should people listen to this album? Does MP3 cheat us out of the experience of getting all of the textures of the loops and the compositions?
Umm, man, it’s so weird these days. My sort of getting out of answering your question answer would be the longer I’ve played music, the more confused I am about how it’s disseminated and consumed, and the more I focus on making music and letting the people around me decide whether it’s going to be on a Spotify playlist and things like that.
The more precious we are about the “correct” presentation of it, the more that can gum it up. I do believe that as an artist, you have a responsibility to make the best thing you can make. But then, the distribution of music is so strange now — people listening to music on their cell phones, and not even with headphones. (chuckles) But I know if you say, “No, it’s not for that format,” you’ll cut yourself off from so many people.
I don’t know if it’s a good or a bad thing, but a lot of it steers you to go to the live concert. There was a New York Times article a few weeks ago in the Media section about the new digital economy and how it’s actually good for artists. In it, there was a lot of talk about how concert ticket sales of the last 20 years have trended way up while record sales have trended way down. The recorded thing is now just a way of saying, “Hey, come check out the show.” Maybe that’s the way it’s going now.
That’s the literal opposite of the ’60s and ’70s, where the album was the be-all. The album is looked at now as a taste of what you’re going to get when you come to the show. But the live experience is one of the few areas we can get people together these days on the same page about the same thing.
We’re left-fieldish and experimental in the DIY tradition. I try not to be too precious about it. There was a Buddhist monk in the United States in the ’60s and ’70s named Chögyam Trungpa, who was hip with the hippies and Allen Ginsberg. His whole thing was that when he taught Buddhism, it wasn’t just a sacred text that should only be taught in the temple, but that it should be accessible to everybody, like a magazine for sale in the supermarket aisle. It was OK to be this commodity available to be everywhere.
“We’re left-fieldish and experimental in the DIY tradition.”
I sometimes think about that with music. If you do put it on a TV commercial, I’m OK with that, because it makes more people hear your work. It’s not about being in a museum. As an artist, your job is only to make the music as cool and crazy as you want it to be. After that point, how it’s disseminated to the world, well — how do you make money off of your music? Are you a smart businessman, or not? I know that’s a totally different conversation as opposed to, “Are you making ‘cool’ music?” I’d rather focus on making cool and interesting music.
Let’s talk about that live experience. With all of the elements you deal with onstage, how will that dynamic change now that you have a new record to play?
As the drummer, John has always done kick drum, snare, hi-hat, and crash, and that’s what he does. He’s the acoustic traceable element of the band. You see him hit the snare drum, and you understand that sound.
And then Dave is leaning over his pedals, doing a filter sweep or recapturing a loop from one pedal to another pedal. And then with my stuff, I’m triggering a synthesizer and playing a guitar at the same time. I’m usually playing guitar and key[board] at the same time — key with my right hand and guitar with my left hand. Or I’m triggering synths and samples with my guitar. I’m doing 50/50 blends where it’s the synth and my guitar blending together.
It’s a lot harder to trace what we’re doing in the narrative of it. You see other performances and you go, “Oh yes, the guitarist is playing, and I hear a guitar.” Now with us, it’s a lot more confusing, but it’s fun to play with that. There’s a lot to manipulate.
Do you find the new songs are evolving onstage the more and more you play them?
For us, it comes down to our touring schedule and whether we have two weeks off where we could all be in the same city at once and we could actually rehearse, because there’s probably half of the record we don’t know how to play right now. We still have to practice those songs, and I still want to figure out how to play them live. I’m looking forward to learning how to play them. Right now, we’re doing The Yabba, and that one’s getting tighter. We’re also doing FF Bada, and that’s pretty playable.
“For us, there’s no bandleader.”
To the extent that we are an electronic band, the thing about the electronic musician is, “You just saw me press a button.” That’s the extent of the performer-crowd relation there. The crowd goes, “OK, you pressed a button; so what?” What you don’t get is, “You didn’t see the whole day where I had to be very clever about how I programmed this thing to make it happen! It’s all the things behind the button push that you didn’t get to see. I very cleverly figured out how to do all this stuff, and brought it up onstage with me to make it happen.”
It’s not like, “Oh my God, I just saw Eddie Van Halen play this amazing 15-minute guitar solo.” Now it’s like, “Yeah, he’s the guy who presses the button — but boy, was it brilliant, the way he had to do it!” It is weird the way that does or doesn’t come across.