attles are a band about processes. In 1974, the artist Sol LeWitt designed a work called Incomplete Open Cubes, consisting of sculptures of all the possible formations of a cube. He diagrammed the variations, started constructing them, and finished the piece when he laid them all out in front of him, all the variations of an incomplete open cube. It resonates because it’s clean, finite, a full articulation of an idea, no foofy affect to parse—the artist as a conduit for a logical system. He abstracted what it meant to be a cube, came to understand a cube’s constituent parts and how it works as a shape. I imagine him finishing the project with the total satisfaction of peeing.
Ian Williams, who plays guitar in Battles, is drinking beer in Tampa, first on a beach, then on a balcony. “Yeah, I’ve always been aware of patterns. I like processes that seem to be almost neutral. I was writing this thing for the Guardian in England, about this artist named Tim Hawkinson, and he does this stuff where he seems bizarrely detached, like he’s not making the art, there’s just a neutral machine. He has a piece called Signature that just generates his autograph with this awkward robot hand. There’s this weird tension between ‘Yes I am the artist’ and ‘I let these processes take over.’ You get the beauty of the system itself. See, you’re asking good questions, which always throws me for a loop. I’m used to the standard 15, just ‘blah blah blah’—my brain goes on autopilot.” Ian’s on vacation, so I don’t expect him to stoop to the irony.
Dogs and cats have a way of playing that looks like they’re hurting each other. They are not. They are making each other stronger and having fun and perhaps—perhaps—even getting their sex glands slightly, deliciously inflamed. People are oversensitive, that’s all; it’s the same misunderstanding that leaves some friends wounded after a good debate and others exhilarated. Battles are puppy tussle. Battles “play hard.” “There’s a lot of competition of ideas,” says Ian.
He used to play guitar in Don Caballero, a precise, brutal instrumental band who inspired pretty much every abuse of the term “math-rock”—rock music was supposed to be anti-mathematical, feeling-based. Don Cab approached music like engineers huddled over a plan; their gleaming, undistorted recordings and perfect, cog-symphonic momentum made punk rock’s presupposed freedom and personal perspective look really dumb. They seemed absent from their own records. They were instant black sheep, and a faster cult.
The video for “Atlas,” the first single from Battles’ Mirrored, shows the band in a mirrored cube. They bounce around. You get the feeling that, in both the video and the song’s monstrous, stadium-worthy shuffle—it sounds like Gary Glitter’s eternal “Rock ’n’ Roll Pt. 2” with all the tickly mischief of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King”—they’re all tug-of-warring with each other. I bring up Don Cab because Don Cab would’ve built the cube; Battles try to push it to its breaking point.
Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, one of the most inspiring books I’ve ever read—and I’m not really a comics fan—asserts that the m.o. of cartoons is “amplification through simplification.” In that sense, part of Mirrored’s triumph is how cartoonish, how exaggerated its features are: take a song like “Rainbow,” whose country guitar figure is so unmistakably country, like an animated sun springing up over a field of daisies bouncing in time; or how unmistakably elfin—archetypically, almost—Tyondai Braxton’s wordless vocals on “Atlas” are.
While working on the album, the band started naming each passage—something abstract, imagistic, or funny—to remember them and how they fit together. Amplification through simplification: Battles sound huge and colorful because they break everything down into vivid, understandable, almost universal gestures—a cube, how a cube works, what you can do with the parts of a cube. The attitude is best articulated, actually, when I ask Ian about the architectural layout of New York. “We tend to see places mostly for their generic qualities when we’re an outsider. But I always like movies where you have these very clear types—‘This man is a Businessman; this man is a Dangerous Spy.’ I almost like movies when they’re really shallow and have these types of people rather than real people. When personal psychology comes in, it’s boring to me. I like that coldness.” Later, Dave Konopka, Battles’ bassist, tells me he used to do graphic design for book covers. “I always come back to a really similar set of rules and guidelines when doing design or making music.” There is something cold about Battles.
But their ability to create and manipulate those sonic signposts and set them reeling in musical systems is also what makes Mirrored a really funny album. Even the band’s previous EPs—B, C, and Tras—dabbled in that same brawny, clenched-ass austerity that often makes instrumental rock the most tedious genre of music known to humankind. It’s not that Mirrored isn’t austere, but it doesn’t exactly go down like astringent—somehow, they’ve made sonic militarism seem natural, creative, even fun.
I ask Ian, “What’s something I can ask Dave to really piss him off? Or get him really riled up?”
“Hmm. You could ask him about the Yankees. He’s really passionate about that…. Oh, I know. Ask, ‘Why did you leave a great band like Diamond Nights to join Battles?’”
Diamond Nights is a hokey cock-rock band that Dave will definitely not want to talk about playing in.
“It’s Mike, from Stylus.”
“Hi! Sorry it’s so noisy! I’m outside Madison Square Garden and there’s this huge line of Rangers fans waiting for tickets and it’s crazy!”
“So, why did you leave a great band like Diamond Nights to join Battles?”
“No. Oh no. No. Are you…are you fucking serious?” He is choking on laughter. “No, you can’t do that. How did you...?”
“Ian couldn’t come up with any memorable Battles pranks, so I orchestrated one.”
Ian tells me that Dave’s the funny one, and he is; he’s as loose and easy as water. But he constantly circles back to talking about rules and systems. Ian tells me, “At this point, for me, I’ve been through so much with bands that I don’t even care. Which actually makes it better for me. I sort of don’t give as much of a shit. It’s very freeing.” But Ian can barely conceal how shit-giving he is, which is wonderful. I am happy that he’s on the beach drinking beer because listening to him play, you get a creeping feeling that he hasn’t smiled since farting as an infant—the kind of guy who registers his deepest appreciation for a joke by squinting really hard. The measure of seriousness is natural. Battles reek of conviction, and to appreciate what they do is an almost animal response, a marvel at precision and natural grace. I mean, even clouds and broccoli are made of fractals.
Dave and I joke about how the best measures for success are the elderly and the prepubescent.
“You guys should do a nursing home tour,” I yelp, possibly being crass at this point, but at 6 p.m. on a Friday, definitely not caring. “You should make some sort of instructional soundtrack for aerobics videos for the extremely decrepit.”
“Ha! That’s a great idea, totally. And kids—I mean, I knew we’d done something right when my eight-year-old nephew kept wanting to hear ‘Atlas.’” We have a laugh. Dave quiets down. “Actually, we played a show at NYU just after the whole Virginia Tech thing.” A little quieter. “There was a vigil in a building and then this little sign that said, like, ‘BAND UPSTAIRS: BATTLES,’ or something. And I was sitting at the table selling some stuff, and this woman came up to me—just this ancient woman, talking about how much she liked the show. I had to say, y’know, ‘I’m sorry, but how old are you?’ And she said, ‘I’m seventy-three years old.’ She just loved it. She said, ‘It was wonderful, but how do you make the music do so much in here?’, and she was just clutching her heart.”