"We are a rock band, believe it or not," John Stanier says.
The drummer of the New York trio Battles maintains that even though its music is densely layered, digitally processed and often lacking traditional song structure, the tools behind it are nothing special.
"We're using things that anyone can go and buy at any music store anywhere," Stanier tells weekends on All Things Considered host Guy Raz. "It's about having fun using technology to your advantage, but not allowing machines to play you."
The members of Battles showcased that ethos on their 2007 debut, Mirrored, tweaking the sounds of their instruments until they were almost unrecognizable. What sounded like a guitar might actually be a keyboard; what sounded like a synth might be a bass. And then there was singer Tyondai Braxton, whose heavily filtered vocals sounded like something not of this earth.
Braxton left the band last year, during the making of what would become the band's second full-length album, Gloss Drop. The departure of a key member often spells the end for a rock band on the rise, but Stanier says the shake-up was a new beginning for the album — which, at that point, was long behind schedule and failing to live up to members' ambitions.
"There was a small body of work that I don't think anybody was that happy with. It wasn't a team effort; it wasn't focused," Stanier says. "I feel that in a strange way, we got our sophomore-slump record out of our system, but it never physically existed in the first place. So when we turned into a trio, it really put the fire back underneath us and forced us to instantly reinvent ourselves."
Part of that reinvention simply meant filling Braxton's vacated role. Stanier says the band didn't necessarily want vocals in every song, but didn't want to go fully instrumental either, so it decided to enlist some outside help. Chilean singer-producer Matias Aguayo, new-wave pioneer Gary Numan and a few other like-minded singers appear on Gloss Drop as guest vocalists.
Other changes were less deliberate. Stanier says scrambling to re-imagine the band's dynamic lent the new album special urgency it would never have had otherwise.
"Our last record was written in the rehearsal room. We tested it on the road. We were much more prepared for Mirrored when we went into the studio," he says. "With this record, it was pretty much entirely written in the studio. On one hand, that's a very stressful situation — it's risky and expensive and time-consuming. But on the other hand, you're constantly amazed at what you're capable of doing at 5 o'clock in the morning on a Monday. A lot of really weird, magical things happened to us."