“Everyone’s looking for the new next, and sometimes that means going backwards.”
When you’ve finally hit upon a sound that defines the identity of your band, it’s so seductively easy to become complacent with that discovery and just continue to make music in a similar vein. After all, why mess with success?
But Josh Boardman, the mastermind behind the forward-thinking L.A.-based electro-collective known as Battle Tapes, most decidedly wanted the flip the sonic script while working on Form, the genre-busting EP available today in various formats from Battle Arts that serves as the follow-up to the band’s full-length synth-rock breakthrough album, 2015’s Polygon.
“One of the motifs for this EP was accessing terrible sounds we didn’t like before by going, ‘How can we use things we had a negative view towards because they were used in the past on a Whitney Houston record?’” Boardman revealed to Digital Trends. “That meant taking things like the Korg M1 [vintage synth] and E-Mu Emax sound samplers, listening to their libraries, and instead of going, ‘I’d never use this!’ we went, ‘Well, let’s try to use all of those sounds, and see what happens.’”
Digital Trends got on the line with Boardman while he was taking a break from hooking up the latest Roli light block in his home studio to discuss the current nostalgia wave for vintage formats, making great, immersive videos on a budget, and the one piece of gear he can’t do without onstage.
Digital Trends: I see you’re releasing the CD for the Form EP inside vintage 5½-inch floppy disk packaging, much like you did with some of your earlier releases. I have to ask — where do you even find floppy disks these days?
Josh Boardman: eBay! (chuckles) When we first started the band, a female friend of mine asked, “Hey, are you releasing CDs, or what? How are you putting out your music?” That was around the time of the Sleepwalker EP [in 2011], and I said, “I had the idea of finding these old floppy disks, and making my own labels for them. I just want to do it all kinda DIY.” I thought that would be kinda fun, and a nod to our vibe. And she said, “That’s funny — my dad has an old grocery bag full of those things.”
Her dad was an electronics hoarder up in San Francisco — he might have worked for Apple at some point — and just had tons of esoteric ’80s technology laying around in the garage. The next time I visited her after that, she ended up handing me two big grocery bags full of floppy disks with old 3M and BASF labels on them.
The funny thing I’ve found with people who were around when floppies were the current product is there’s that “Oh my God!” nostalgia factor. For people who were too young to experience it in its original context, it’s a relic, like, “Wow, look at this thing!” There’s a mystique to it, because it’s a thing they only heard about. It’s like the first time you see the Hollywood sign, or something.
So we kept going with the floppy thing, and people just love it. I’ve seen photos where fans have framed them and put them up on their walls, which is great to see.
Will you also release Form on vinyl at some point?
We’re not doing vinyl for this one, but we might when we do our follow-up EP, which is aptly titled Function. So, we might do a full-size 12-inch where one side is Form, and the other side is Function.
Oh, that’s perfect. There’s also this nostalgia for the cassette right now, but it’s about the worst medium to put your music on because it deteriorates each time you play it — even worse than any vinyl record, I’d say. Do you agree with that, or do you think there’s also a coolness factor attached to it?
Everyone’s looking for the new next, and sometimes that means going backwards. For some, it’s nostalgia, and for others, it’s this esoteric thing that’s gone the way of the dodo. People are just looking for something that’s different, and there’s always that group who are looking to be elitist and will say, “Well, I really like the sound of cassette.”
The main reason we got into cassettes in the first place was because they were portable. It was one of the first ways we could take our music with us. It wasn’t because of the sound quality.
Recording something in low quality is like talking with your hand over your mouth.
I guess MP3 was the next iteration of cassette — you compromised quality for convenience. We try to record our music as high-quality as we can, so we always do at least 48kHz/24-bit. Anything less, and it’s like you’re talking with your hand over your mouth.
You want to communicate your message as clear as possible. When you start degrading your sound quality, you start getting into some territory where you’re limiting what you can actually say.
I like how Battle Tapes music fuses modern EDM sounds with ’80s new-wave sensibilities. Are you going for that aesthetic, to some degree?
You know, we don’t necessarily move with intent. We do what feels good, and we come across certain things by accident. We joke around that our process is like that scene in Star Wars [Episode IV]: A New Hope, where Luke’s training with Obi-Wan in the Millennium Falcon and he’s got the blast shield down on the helmet. And just by feel, he’s blocking the training shots being shot at him. We’re more like that — trying things out, and when we find out what feels good, that’s the thing we go with. There’s no irony in what we’re doing; we just like that sound, and what it feels to us in the moment.
But there are definitely some influences from that ’80s era in our music, though it’s more Depeche Mode than New Order. I don’t mind if someone sees that connection there; that’s fine with me.
That’s the key to being modern, though — you take all those influences in, but then you translate them into creating your own sound. Like there’s a definite shift you can hear in the sound from the Polygon LP to the Form EP that shows growth to me, as a listener.
That’s great to hear, because that was a hurdle we were trying to get over in the early recording process. I didn’t just want to go in and do Version 2.0 of the LP. I definitely wanted you to feel the shift of us being in a new phase: “What did we learn from doing the last one?” We had to move on with Form — not totally rewriting the script, but making choices to move forward. If that alienates some people, that’s OK. The ones who come along for the ride are the people who celebrate creativity, I think.
I mean, I definitely get bored quickly. It’s like any relationship, even with a good friend. You’re going to change and grow independently — and hopefully, you grow together.
That’s a good point to make, because some people don’t want their artists to change. I prefer seeing as much of an artist’s new material done live as possible, especially to hear where you’re going and how you deal with the different bandwidths you have onstage, as opposed to what you can access in the studio.
It’s so funny you use the term “bandwidth,” because that’s the same term we use. Literally, the bandwidth is different onstage. You have the unlimited palette in the studio, the mega Crayola pack of colors you can use. But live, it’s, “OK, now you only have eight colors — deal with it!”
Right, and now there may not be any Burnt Orange for you to use out there anymore.
(laughs) Yeah, yeah, exactly! I guess we’re not all that precious with our songs, and we just rephrase them for whatever medium or format we’re delivering them in.
I also have to mention how much I like the video for No Good, which you directed. I think it’s the absolute perfect soundwave-driven audio/visual representation of the song.
Oh thanks, man. I appreciate that. It came to me so fast. Not to disparage any of the great work done by so many creative people for us on all our videos before this one, but they always felt like an island off of the coast of Battle Tapes, somewhere off the mainland. (both chuckle)
It was really important this time around to lock in this visual component and wrap it around the band’s aesthetic. I just went, “Fuck it, man; I’ll just do it myself.” That’s always been a theme throughout my life — I just figure it out for myself.
So, I went to Best Buy and bought one of those DJI gimbals that cost 300 bucks, and then rented a space on Peerspace, which is like the Airbnb for production spaces. I found a place right over the hill in Burbank. I booked it on a Wednesday, and we were in there the next Tuesday.
Using an app called Glitché on my my iPhone and the gimbal, we went in there and shot it with just the four of us on one of those Infinity White Walls. I shot the other guys in the band while they were playing. Then, Stephen [Bannister, bass] shot me, Riley [Mackin, keyboards], and Beak [Wing, drums/percussion] playing together. Then Riley shot me, and we just went around the room like that, shooting it separately. After that, we literally mounted the gimbal on a chair, and shot the whole band.
The next day, I rendered the video in Glitché and I edited it in Final Cut, and it was done. We spent under 500 bucks doing it.
I didn’t just want to go in and do Version 2.0 of the LP. I definitely wanted you to feel the shift of us being in a new phase
Oh my God, I love that dude — [director] Michel Gondry. The guys who did the upcoming video for Last Resort & Spa did an amazing 360-degree thing for it, and the reference for that one was The Chemical Brothers video Gondry did for Star Guitar — the one where you’re looking out the train window, and everything’s passing into the beat. I was literally just referencing him to them for that video idea.
I appreciate you noticing how the video reflects the vibe of the music. We were originally going to do it as a lyric video, but by the time I got to the edit on the first chorus, I went, “I think this might actually be a real video…” I’m glad it translates.
Is there one piece of gear you’re hardline about having with you onstage, no matter what?
This may not be the way you’re intending the question to be answered, but it’s the laptop! (both laugh) That’s the core of it for the age we’re in. That’s the engine of the ship right there. It’s going to run it. It does our lights, it does our vocal effects, and all of our keyboard parts. It does everything.
That said, if you put us up onstage with any set of gear, we’re going to handle it. Even if the laptop wasn’t there, we’re still going to figure it out. The songs are the songs, regardless of any medium you’re playing them through.
You know, I’ve never bought a piece of gear just because my favorite artist used it. That’s kind of missing the point a little bit, because it should be, “Well, what’s my version of that thing?” I never wanted a Fender Jag-Stang guitar because, well, that’s Kurt Cobain’s guitar, not mine.
And that’s the point some younger artists miss sometimes. You’re trying to find your voice, and your sound. Once you do that, no matter what gear you pick up, your voice and your sound are going to translate through that gear, regardless of what that gear is.