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Battles - Repeat Assault

Author: Cyclone
Friday, 11 January 2008
it’s only been a few months since their last visit, but Battles are back to do your head in with more abstract time signatures and densely layered rock. 3D’s Cyclone found out how they do it from guitar/vox/keys player Ty Braxton.

Battles is a supergroup spawned by a crowd of musical exiles. They're also the most surprising breakthrough act of 2007. Indeed, the US troupe are being credited with reviving – and, importantly, putting the fun back into – the usually pretentious math rock.

Not that Battles' fans care for labels. They're dancing wildly. The countercultural quartet from New York, famed for their gigs, wowed Australians with a recent tour. Now they're joining Big Day Out. The critics' darlings will likewise guest at the Beck's Festival Bar.

Battles' Tyondai "Ty" Braxton is excited when briefed about artsy happenings in Sydney, including (admittedly old) news that in 2008 Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton are assuming the directorship of the Sydney Theatre Company. "I love Cate Blanchett!," he extols. Nevertheless, Battles will stage some theatre of their own this month. "We're really excited to come back down there for Big Day Out," he enthuses. "It's been great."

Battles were impressed with the response to their inaugural visit. "We were very happy about it," he continues. "We really had a ball. I mean, we were only in Australia for three shows - we did two shows in Melbourne and one in Sydney. We had a great experience for our first time down there. We were very happy."

The group's all-star personnel, most multi-instrumentalists, couldn't come from more disparate backgrounds. Battles' drummer John Stanier was originally in the post-hardcore Helmet. After his departure, he played with Tomahawk as well as, just to underscore his Australian connections, The Mark Of Cain. Stanier briefly DJed. Ian Williams has performed in Don Caballero and Dave Konopka in Lynx. And Ty is, like his Dad, radical jazz composer Anthony Braxton, an avant-garde muso. It was he who initiated Battles, then called Abomination Restitution, with Ian, circa 2002.

Battles went on to issue underground EPs, culminating in 2006's mini-album EP C/ B EP on Sheffield's Warp Records, the label responsible for the '90s' IDM boom. Last year Battles unveiled their official debut, Mirrored, transcending rock, jazz and techno. They've modernised krautrock for the hip hop era.

Mirrored, which finds Braxton adding his processed vocals to Battles' previously instrumental mix, has garnered spectacular reviews from Pitchfork, NME and The Guardian. NME pounced, too, on the lead single, Atlas, an anti-club banger. Even the video was a YouTube hit.

Somehow Battles make software-manipulated music sound raw. For all the media's comparisons, Battles are a postmodern hybrid. They're The Roots of techno. Ty is unsure where Battles belong in a contemporary milieu. "I think, in other people's opinion, we may have found our own language of sorts, but we still work within the framework of a traditional band. The music didn't appear out of thin air.

"We just embraced our reference points, and have happily stolen from people, but it's the combination, and the subtlety of the combination, that allows us to exist on our own accord. Hopefully people will just think of us as a good band - I guess that's all you can hope to be qualified as."

In terms of what each player contributes stylistically to Battles, nothing is clear-cut. "See, that's just it," Ty asserts. "The foundation of the band is the personality within it. Every single person in the band is very accomplished in music and has a very wide variety of influences.

"I think a lot of people want me to say, 'Oh, John brings in the heavy metal, or Ian brings in the complicated math [rock] thing, and I bring in the composition' or something, but that's not the case at all.

"We each have a lot of love for and a lot of interest in a lot of different kind of music. It's too hard to quantify specifics as far as what someone brings in, because the bottom line is we all bring in our own individuality and personality to the formula of the band - and that's what makes it sound the way it does."

The members participate in external projects. Ty, who records solo, has no desire that they abandon these. "My other focus is my own composition. I haven't been able to do that this last year-and-a-half just because we've been too busy touring - and then writing the record before that. That's gonna be another thing that I will be working on this year. John is still playing with Tomahawk and Mark Of Cain, and the other two do projects as well. But I think the formula for a healthy band is to not use it as a singular thing. The band benefits if you have outside perspective."

Ty isn't yet seriously contemplating Battles' follow-up to Mirrored. "I have some ideas of things I wanna do but, as far as literal songs or even general concepts, there's nothing there. It's definitely gonna be a while before we flush out another record."

Still, for Braxton, Mirrored has been rewarding - and enlightening. "Mirrored reminded me what it means to work with people in this capacity again. Unlike the other guys, who have been in professional bands for a long time, I opted to compose for other people, so it was usually my own voice and I'd be pitching my music for other people to play, as opposed to actually having that interaction. Battles in general has reminded me what it means to have an interaction in a band. You can hear it musically as well - you could really hear the clarity of members. That's been a really exciting thing for me personally - to understand what it means again to talk to somebody within a band, musically speaking."

There may be no new Battles LP for a spell, but Braxton is keen to further expose their music through such outlets as film. "The music even from Mirrored has been featured on a couple of TV shows and some movies and stuff already. That's something I would really like to get involved in - I think the band would be interested in working on stuff like that as well. We have a very narrative-based music and it's applicable for those kinda projects. It would be very exciting to do stuff like that."

In the interim, Braxton is anticipating returning to Australia with Battles' ever-evolving show. "It's just simultaneously become tighter and looser," he reflects. "When you're working with people, you get to a point where it's just beyond you're locked in with them, it becomes this psychic thing where you can really relax and be almost loose in the way that you play. It'll still be a tight organism - it's just way more fluid. I think fluidity is something that we've achieved through touring so much."

WHO: Battles
WHAT: Play Sydney Festival Beck’s Bar / Big Day Out / Mirrored out through Inertia
WHEN: Wednesday 23  / Friday 26 January / out now