When Battles released Gloss Drop in 2011, the brilliance of the music on it was somewhat overshadowed by the news that founding member Tyondai Braxton, the guy whose squirrelly, pitch-shifted vocals drove the group’s breakout track “Atlas,” was leaving the group. The rest of the group—drummer John Stanier and multi-instrumentalists Ian Williams and Dave Konopka—somewhat compensated for the loss by inviting a batch of singers to help flesh out their groove-heavy experiments, but the songs and their subsequent live shows proved the three could ably stand on their own.
That feeling is amplified on the trio’s latest album, La Di Da Di. Anchored by an intelligent use of looping technology, the 12 songs are opaque and busy in the manner of the best experimental electronic music with Williams and Konopka heaping on modular synth lines and processed noise among their guitar and bass splatters. And as ever, holding everything in check are Stanier’s vicious breakbeats and tasteful percussive touches.
We caught up with Stanier in one of his rare moments of downtime to pick his brain about how La Di Da Di was written, how the band’s heated live shows are put together, and how he progresses as a musician from album to album and project to project.
: When I heard the new album, it put Gloss Drop in a new light for me. It feels now like that was your transitional statement, with you three moving away from having Tyondai in the group but still incorporating vocals into the mix. Now with La Di Da Di, it is as if you’re fully committed to being a trio.
John Stanier: Sure, I would say that. It’s much more relaxed this time around. We were much more prepared. We did tons of pre-production. It took a long time to write this record, but we were still way more prepared. We knew what we were doing and it wasn’t as jarring as all of the sudden becoming a trio. We had toured for almost two years for Gloss Drop and gotten a little more used to being a three-piece.
: What does pre-production mean for you? I know Dave and Ian are making loops and working on the roots of songs on their own, but what are you doing ahead of time?
Stanier: A lot of it is me playing by myself. This record was written in spurts. We would get together and bounce ideas off of each other. Then we would go away. I live in Berlin, so a lot of this record was written with everyone by themselves. When I say pre-production, overall, the last record we wrote in the studio from scratch. It took us almost nine months. This time around, everything was pretty much composed.
: In the songwriting, are you driving many of the songs with your playing or are you simply reacting to what the other two guys have cooked up?
Stanier: I’d say this particular record it’s more of a reaction. A Battles song can be written starting with any and all kinds of ideas. It can start with a drum beat. There were definitely songs on Mirrored that were started with a drum beat. This time around, nine times out of 10, it was the original, master loop that someone will bring to the table. Then of course everyone rips it apart and twists and turns it and takes it from there. It’s never one person coming with a completed song. That never happens. We’re not that kind of band.
: That must also force you three to really be open with your ideas and not get too precious about things.
Stanier: I don’t think the songs would sound the way they do if it was just Dave’s song, Ian’s song, my song. Maybe one day we will try that, but for right now this is the way we work.
: Do you have the drive, with each new album and each project that you work on, to challenge yourself and your abilities as a player in some way?
Stanier: Definitely. I feel that sometimes I have the hardest job. Not really. But I am the only constant in the band. I have the same setup that I’ve been using for every single record. So I basically have to reinvent the wheel with every record. I can’t rely on new hardware or a radically different setup. It’s super challenging keeping it interesting and not repeating myself. It’s super hard, but it’s also fun. Really challenging but in an interesting, cool way.
: Are there particular songs on La Di Da Di where you feel like you really pushed yourself?
Stanier: I don’t really analyze myself like that. It’s much more simple. I realize that I’m going to be playing this for years, so you have to keep it interesting. You’re going to be playing a lot. It’s very easy to be lazy when you’re writing. You just have to keep it interesting.
: Having seen Battles live a couple of times, I’ve never been sure how much of your sets are really meticulously constructed or do you three work out the setlist on the night of the show?
Stanier: It’s very, very, very scripted. There will be little parts here and there where there’s a tiny bit of improvisation going on. There’s a new song on the record—”Summer Simmer”—where every night it’s ever so slightly different. But that’s one tiny part in the beginning. For the most part, there’s not really any jazzy improvisation going on. It’s all meticulously thought out beforehand.
: Is that good for you as a player to know exactly what to do when?
Stanier: I would prefer that. That’s just the musician I am, I guess. I like to be prepared. I like to commit to things and have a sense of purpose rather than it being a wishy-washy thing. I’m not into improv too much.
: You’re also one of those players that doesn’t spend a lot of time dwelling on the past. Like, you’ve never felt the urge to jump back in with the guys in Helmet to do a Meantime tour or something like that.
Stanier: Absolutely. That just wouldn’t make any sense to me whatsoever. That was a long time ago. I did that already. It’s not a bad thing, but that just doesn’t even compute to me, feeling the urge to do that. I want to do something totally different. I still have that urge to not just repeat the past. I feel like that’s way too easy. You’ve already done that. That’s all you have to say? I’m not into repeating myself. Just keeping going forward for sure.
: You also seem to have this need to keep pretty busy. Between the last album and tour, you worked with both Tomahawk and The Mark Of Cain on new albums and live shows.
Stanier: The weird thing is I don’t go out of my way to find it. I’m kind of a lazy person really. I don’t always have to have a job or I’d freak out. I can very easily sit on the couch for two weeks and do nothing. I actually have mastered that. I am somehow constantly busy. I do think that’s important. I don’t go out of my way to look for new stuff. It just kind of happens.