Battles' Dave Konopka discusses La Di Da Di, the band’s writing process, video games, David Bowie and being a fellow high altitude crier.
What distinguishes Battles from most experimental post-rock bands is that they actually have a pretty good sense of humour. Just check out their funnily concise song titles or take a look at the food composition featured on the cover of their latest record to know what I am talking about.
But behind their apparent light-hearted abandon and playfulness, there is actually a meticulous and lengthy creative process. Their music is kaleidoscopic, dense, maximalist, situated between the methodical propulsion of loops and the smashing power of impulse and calculated surprise.
Formed in 2002, the New York trio (now comprising guitarist/keyboardist Ian Williams, drummer John Stanier and bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka) won critical acclaim in the indie-music world thanks to their debut album -the 2007’s math-rock masterpiece Mirrored- and the more electronic-pop oriented Gloss Drop, which followed four years later.
Their third full-length La Di Da Di, that came out last September on long-time label Warp Records, is not as cutting-edge as its predecessors and overall sounds more austere and streamlined, but it's still rich with wit and inventive melodies.
I hang out with Dave Konopka before their show at Electric Brixton, London to have a long chat about the band’s writing process, video games, David Bowie and being a fellow high altitude crier.
How do you think La Di Da Di was received in comparison with your first two albums?
It is very difficult to tell, because the music landscape has changed so much over the past decade, and before, when you would get an album out you were more able to see a reciprocal response than today. Having said that, from what I understand I think it has been doing well. I don’t know if record sales mean anything, but I think people like the new songs and the fact that we went back to the instrumental format. It’s all based on perceptions though.
As you just mentioned, on the new record there are no vocals at all. No Tyonday Braxton, no guest vocalists, no one-liners. Do you think in a way the band’s instrumentation has changed because of that and some instruments are now filling that space?
Vocals never took too much space as they way we had always written music was starting from an instrumental perspective and then the vocals were the last things to be added, so it was really not too huge of a transition for us. With our new album we were interested in stripping back a little bit and not being so maximalist, but it is hard for us not to be completely maximalist…. it is definitely difficult for us to be minimalist, because we like the idea of manipulating some of the material we are working with, adding to our setups and trying new technologies, so it ends up becoming this bombastic type of approach to song writing.
To me, your music is very colourful and saturated. Do you ever associate any colour or image to a particular sound in a synesthetic way, or do you work more with music as an abstract form?
Our process is really abstract. The way that we write songs is strictly linked to the byproducts of our process, so when we compose, nobody actually pictures any sounds or colours, but we are very literal in the way that we work with the music we make and join our ideas together. Conceptually things are more rooted in the elements of songwriting and its dynamics, and there is really no message behind anything. It really comes from the medium itself.
You are also in charge of the art direction. What is the relationship between that and your music?
There is definitely a relationship as I always take in consideration the way that things are coming together and the way the music sounds in connection with the art for sure. The two things are not as separate as I anticipated being, because I found myself being very involved in the artworks, and in that sense it has become a full time job. It is a brewing process, from the initial idea of the way things are sounding versus the final aesthetic result, but there is a long gap in between when I get confused and change my mind about things dozens of times. Generally, it always starts from having an idea based on the music, like for instance Gloss Drop was way more poppy, so I wanted a more poppy look too, whereas this time it was more abstract.
How well-defined are the roles between members?
I think they are very well defined. Usually the foundation of a new song starts with looping, and though John is a writer as well, it is mainly Ian and I at the beginning. It takes the two of us a lot of time to come up with new source material and loops on our own to then bring them to the table, and there is a lot of separation in the way that we write especially at the start. Then John tries to come up with beats that tie all together, but it also usually happens on an individual level. Because it is such a lengthy process, it’s better to get entrenched with the nuances of the loop and work with someone else’s part separately, rather than having the pressure to sit down with the others in a room and try to do that right away.
You guys all live in a big city, you and Ian in New York and John now in Berlin. Would you define your music urban?
Yeah, I think it ends up becoming urban. It is not hip-hop, but there is definitely an urban aesthetic. It is nothing intentional, it is just that the music shows where you come from. So yes, I would define it modern and urban.
Is it true that you can’t write on the road?
Yes. We already have a hard time getting to the shows, because every time we have to load all our gears, set everything up, unpack all our stuff, soundcheck making sure that everything is OK from our sound guy end, and by the time we get all of that going we then have to leave the stage because someone else has to soundcheck….. so there is no much free time really.
And what about writing while you are traveling?
A lot of the traveling is just sleeping and chilling out. Even when we are hanging out we really try not to think about that stuff.
Describe your ideal place to compose music
It would probably be more in the comfort of a studio that you set up yourself, not necessarily a recording studio, but a space you go to in order to be creative in a part of a city where it is convenient to travel to.
So it is more in a city rather than in an isolated place?
That would be cool too. Sometimes I fantasize about hanging out in the desert, and sometimes being in the woods is also nice, but I am thinking more of something practical, like a place close to where you live, unless you completely remove yourself from the city situation. The studio where we recorded La Di Da Di [Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket, Rhode Island] is very isolated and that was really good for us for recording, as trying to record an album in New York would take forever because there are so many distractions….
Is it a coincidence that so far you’ve released one album every four years?
What do you usually do when not working on new music or touring?
The music is always there. You put out an album, then you tour for a year maybe two, and then you write for a year and record for another year, deliver it to the label and then finally decide what is the best time to release the new record.
On the 1st of April you reissued EP C/B EP, Mirrored and Gloss Drop. Why did you decide that now was a good time to do that?
Traditionally, record labels like having this second wind of energy blowing into your sales when you are on a campaign for a new album. Also, we were talking about releasing the early EPs, because only one of them originally came out on vinyl and we wanted to have them all together in one place. This was a good time, as being on tour, we can take the opportunity of playing some of those old songs live. As for Mirrored and Gloss Drop, they were both out of print, so we just needed to re-release them to keep them in circulation.
“Atlas” is probably your biggest hit as yet…. Do you ever get tired of playing it or in a way you always add something to it every time you perform it live?
I actually don’t ever get tired of playing “Atlas”, because it has kind of evolved from what it initially was. A lot has to do with Tyonday leaving the band and since then we have used the vocal tracks of some English school girls, just to have that melody in there, but really it has always been the rhythm that has driven the song for me, and as we play it, I still enjoy building the loop and the rhythmic climax. I have never actually thought “Atlas” was that amazing, if you want me to be completely honest, but it is really fun to perform live!
Quite a few of your songs were featured on video games. How do you feel about it? Do you even play video games?
No, I don’t play video games … It is such a waste of time without getting anything out of it! I waste my time in many other ways, but video games are the last thing I would do to kill time, I'd rather make art or something more rewarding instead. Having said that, in the past we somehow got a refurbished Xbox for free, and though initially I was more thinking I could play DVDs through it, I then started playing basketball games and I was really good. Then my wife would come home and say "man, you are playing video games!" and that was embarrassing, because you shut everybody around you and just stare at the screen for hours. Also when I am on the train it drives me nuts to see everybody playing Candy Crush, which looks so boring to me. Tetris can be cool on your phone sometimes, but I think you just have to focus and pay attention on what is going on around you instead. Did I spend too much time talking about video games? [laughs]
Well, you didn’t really answer my question ….
How do I feel about having our songs featured in video games? I just find it funny that our music is in video games I don’t even know about, but it is another way for people to find out about us, as radio barely exists anymore for bands like us. Though college radio has always been good for us, you wouldn’t just come across our songs on national or mainstream radio. So I think it is good. It is not that I necessarily condemn video games, but having a song in a video game doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
Is there any record that can move you so much to actually make you cry?
Maybe not the whole record, but there are some songs that get you so pumped up that you can hardly handle your own emotions and think you’re going to cry, though you don’t really cry, you just tear up a little bit. When David Bowie died I listened to all his early albums up to Lets Dance alone in my room for the whole day, and it was great to hear all those in succession. Hunky Dory has some songs there that are really moving and can make you feel that way.
And what do you think of his last record?
I didn’t actually listen to that one yet. I think everybody was so surprised when he died because he had just released the new album so everybody assumed he was healthy. But I think it is great that he didn’t tell anybody he was sick. I actually heard there is more material that is going to be released, like another new album. Anyway to go back to your question I should also say that I am a high altitude crier, like wherever we fly somewhere I find myself easily crying at the dumbest movie…
Me too!! I thought it was just me… do you know if it is actually a common thing? It can be quite embarrassing ….
Yes, it is definitely embarrassing! That is why I don’t like sitting close to my bandmates on the plane. We were once flying to somewhere in Europe and before leaving the airport I ate an edible marijuana gummy bear or something. I was then sitting towards the back of the plane near the bathroom, drinking wine and watching this Adam Sandler and Kate Hudson or Jennifer Aniston movie where he had kids, she had kids, and they ended up in Africa at some resort, and don’t ask me why but I started crying, and when Jon walked by me on his way to the bathroom, he caught me crying at an Adam Sandler movie!! Then I also watched Me and Earl and the Dying Girl on the plane once, which I thought it was actually a great movie, and when she knows she is going to die the music, which was composed by Brian Eno, builds up and I burst out crying and tried to say to myself “keep it together, keep it together, Dave!”
You recently played in India for the first time. How did you find the whole experience?
I was actually a little concerned at first, as I didn’t know what to expect, but it turned out being awesome. There is a great scene in Bangalore where we played.
I saw you were welcome with lovely banana and watermelon food compositions backstage...
Yeah, there was this Canadian woman catering for us who was being very careful, putting a little of vinegar on everything so that we wouldn’t need to worry about getting sick or anything. Also at the club there was this bartender, voted the third best cocktail maker in India, and before we headed to the airport he made us a pitcher of bloody mary, which was the best I have ever had in my life with freshly crushed chilly and crushed cherry tomatoes. So yeah, everybody was so nice and hospitable and made sure to show us around. There aren’t many bands playing there so people get excited, which actually makes you play better. It is such a difference from when you play in jaded places.
Yeah like London, where people take their selfies on their IPhones
Ha, yes! But India was actually culture shocking. I wasn’t expecting so many huge, beautiful trees on the sidewalk, but the roots had ripped out all of the stones, so it was just all dirt sidewalk. Also the traffic and the horning were just insane, but it clears out at night and there are dogs running around everywhere. And I love dogs!
By the way do you prefer banana or watermelon?
They both complement each other very well as you can yield a lot of juice from the watermelon, but banana is just so good for substance in the morning. Banana is easy to eat, you don’t have to wash it as you can just peel it, you don’t have to carry a knife to open it and spit out the seeds. Watermelon is very refreshing and delicious… but for practical reasons I am going to have to go with banana.
La Di Da Di is out now on Warp Records
Originally published on The 405