Battles: Still Plenty Loud As An Army Of Three

Originally published on July 17, 2011 6:35 pm

"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."

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GUY RAZ, host: Time now for our regular music feature, and a band that made one of the pioneers of electronic music Brian Eno, say this.

BRIAN ENO: When you see a band you really like, the reason you really like them is because you wish you'd had that idea. And I saw them and thought, why didn't I think of that?


RAZ: The band is called Battles, and they released their debt album in 2007 after years of rehearsal. Critics fell over themselves to find ways to describe this sound. The band was led by singer Tyondai Braxton whose digitally altered cartoonish vocals grabbed attention right away.

But last year, as Battles were recording their follow-up album, Braxton quit. And without a lead singer, the future of the band was in doubt. But the quartet became a trio, and last month, Battles released a new album. It's called "Gloss Drop."


RAZ: And for the drummer from Battles, Jon Stanier, he's still amazed at the sounds his bandmates are able to conjure up.

JON STANIER: It really is a band that is almost untouched by outside influences simply because it really was just locking ourselves in a basement in Brooklyn. And we were never a part of a particular scene. It was really well thought out and cared for before it was sort of released for other people to listen to. You know, nine years later, I still am just constantly perplexed on what we can come up with as a group. I still don't really know what's going on, which I think it's a great thing.


RAZ: One of the signature sounds from your last record "Mirrored" were the vocals, the kind of the way the vocals were manipulated, vocals of Tyondai Braxton. He left the band somewhat suddenly last year. You had almost completely finished recording this new album, "Gloss Drop," at the time. What happened?

STANIER: Well I don't think that we almost finished the record. I just - it wasn't a team effort, I don't think. I think you could just sense that. So oddly enough, I feel that in a strange way, we got our sophomore slump second record out of our system, but it never physically existed in the first place.

RAZ: Yeah.

STANIER: So I feel that when we turned into a trio, it really put the fire back underneath us, and it forced us to instantly reinvent ourselves.

RAZ: So most bands would probably consider, I guess, just splitting up at that point when you lose vocalist, your lead singer. You guys did something really creative. You brought in a whole number of guest vocalists for the new record. And I want to hear one of those tracks. This one's called "Ice Cream."


MATIAS AGUAYO: (Singing in foreign language)

RAZ: This is an incredible song. And I saw a video performance of you guys doing this at the Glastonbury Festival in Britain, so energetic. Tell me about the singer on this track and how you came to work with him.

STANIER: Matias Aguayo. He is a Chilean/German producer, deejay, techno artist. I had lived in Colon for a while in Germany, and there's a label that was across the street called Compact. And he's on Compact, and it was a phone call away.

RAZ: Is he - what language is he singing in?

STANIER: Supposedly, he's speaking in Spanish. But when we recorded it, I brought it back to another one of my best friends who's Dominican and played it for him, and he sat there for quite some time. I think he thought he knew what he was saying, but...


STANIER: So, yeah.

RAZ: And the thing about the song is it just doesn't really matter. It's so - there's something so joyful about it. And that - I mean, that's the thing is that it's lyrics are almost kind of just another sound in the mix, right? I mean, you guys don't use a human voice in a conventional way.

STANIER: No. I think we - ever since the band first started, it was - we didn't want to have vocals on every song. But at the same point, we didn't want to - I didn't want to be an instrumental band. So I think if you can use vocals in an interesting way as another instrument, you can have the best of both worlds.


RAZ: I'm speaking with John Stanier. He is the drummer with the band Battles. Their new record is called "Gloss Drop." When Tyondai left the band, did you guys just sort of sit around and start pitching singers that you always wanted to work with, or was it more sort of deliberate? Like, this person would sound great on this song and this person would sound great here.

STANIER: I think it was pretty deliberate. I mean, it forced us to act on complete impulse because there was no time for the three of us to sit down and devise this master plan. I mean, it was literally a little over a week and a half maybe we were back up in the studio. And I think it was defiantly a song by song basis. It was just like, someone mentioned, like, let's just call some people. Out of the four songs that have vocals on this record, Gary Numan, I think he was the fantasy artist.

RAZ: And if that name isn't ringing any bells for anyone listening, let me just play a bit of this song from Gary Numan in the 1980s.


GARY NUMAN: (Singing) Here in my car I can only receive, I can listen to you it keeps me stable for days in cars.

RAZ: That's Gary Numan. That is such an awesome song. You guys brought him in for a track called "My Machine."


NUMAN: (Singing) My machine (unintelligible).

STANIER: We had this song, and it obviously needed vocals. And I was like, it would be amazing if we could get Gary Numan. But, you know, I doubt. He probably doesn't even know who we are or care or whatever. But it was, again, just a simple phone call away. We met him - he was on tour in the U.S., and he played Boston. When we met him, he was very, very nice. And he thought our track was weird, which I found that kind of funny.

RAZ: It's pretty (unintelligible).


NUMAN: (Singing) (Unintelligible).

RAZ: In the 1990s, you know, you played with a really heavy band called Helmet. Actually, let me just play a little bit of Helmet for a moment.


RAZ: It's a different sound from what you're producing now with Battles. And then...


RAZ: ...when that ended, you took this completely different direction. You became a deejay, and you're a big hip-hop fan. And I guess - I wonder if people really even knew that about you.

STANIER: Well, actually, what happened was is I fractured my wrist, so I couldn't play for...


STANIER: I couldn't play for about nine months.

RAZ: And you fractured your wrist, I imagine, because of your drumming.

STANIER: Snowboarding.

RAZ: Snowboarding, OK.


RAZ: It sounds like you're sort of at this really fulfilled point in your career where you can kind of push the limits of your creativity. And clearly, you love it. I mean, you love making this music.

STANIER: Absolutely. It's - I feel very, very fortunate and lucky to be involved with this, absolutely.

RAZ: That's John Stanier. He's the drummer with the band Battles. Their new record is called "Gloss Drop." You can hear a few tracks at our website, John Stanier, thank you so much.

STANIER: Thank you.


RAZ: And for Sunday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

Remember, you can hear the best of this program on our podcast, WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. Subscribe or listen at iTunes or at We post a new episode every Sunday night. We're back on the radio next weekend. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great week. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.