When Tyondai Braxton said adieu to Battles in the midst of a writing session for their latest album, Gloss Drop, the band replaced his would-be instrumentation and vocals with some of music's most venerable voices. Ranging from '80s anti-pop icon Gary Numan to techno producer Matias Aguayo and Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, Battles turned what was a difficult situation into an advantageous one and ended up extending their math rock to a larger, more diverse audience.
A trio of self-proclaimed music geeks, Battles first entered the scene in 2004 but did not find significant success until their Atlas EP in 2006. Perhaps most notably recognized for the track 'Ice Cream,' the band is one of those rare acts that has maintained underground appeal while achieving mainstream success.
While the band was in Chicago to headline the Pitchfork Music Festival, we sat down with bassist Dave Konopka to chat the geeky process of naming an instrumental track, 'sexy music,' and his all-time favorite ice cream.
Out: Battles, in many ways, is a well-curated collective. Is there a distinct emotional journey you want your listeners to feel? Dave Konopka: I don't think so. I don't think we are the kind of band that typically prescribes emotions to our music. It is more about playing with sound, texture, and rhythms. If emotion becomes a byproduct of that, then that is good thing. And if you can get something out of that emotion, then that is a good thing. I don't think we are in the position to prescribe emotional sensations.
What about visuals? You music videos have some really intense visual moments. Do you want to invoke a synesthetic reaction with your music? It's very important for all of us. This is especially true with our newest single, 'Ice Cream.' Our last album was very cool. We were in a mirrored room and it was all slick and we are playing in these cool environments. This time, it was more fun to play around with things. There isn't usually a sexual aspect to our music, but it was fun to play with that on a single like 'Ice Cream.' It is more summertime. It has this Tropicalia sexiness to it.
What is your definition of 'sexy music'? Saxophone music.
Kenny G? There is something with working with Matias Aguayo on a single like 'Ice Cream.' If you strip away the vocals and get another vocalist in there, that song can be really dorky. Don't ask me what dorky music is, but it can be a Hanson song or this Os Mutantes, Tropicalia thing. I always associated that Tropicalia sound with being sexy.
You are also involved with ATP (All Tomorrow's Parties). What was the process of being selected as a curator for their December showcase in the U.K.? Originally, a little while ago, we were asked to curate this smaller festival they were starting to do. They asked us to do a weekend in London. It wasn't the whole go to a resort and camp out sort of weekend. It was three consecutive shows of people we would curate. That ended up falling through because of our album coming out. When we gave them our list, they were interested. We had worked with Barry Hogan from ATP on all our London concerts. Through the experience of befriending them and working closely with them and seeing the list we gave them for a short festival, they thought it would be cool for us to do something for ATP. This particular ATP we are splitting with Caribou and Les Savy Fav. We have one day and they asked for a list. The three of us came up with seven bands we would like to participate. We tried to sculpt an interest for all different types of music the audience would like.
Are the other acts complementary to your day? I have no idea. It's totally unclear what those guys have chosen. We have played with Caribou on a few shows and I think he was saying that he chose a lot of free jazz guys. We played with Les Savy Fav in France and they mentioned trying to get some older bands to reunite. I can't tell what it is going to be like. We tried to cover a lot of bases. Like anyone else curating a show, I am sure it's not only going to be free jazz one day. There is going to be some good stuff in there as well.
Since Tyondai Braxton has left Battles, have you seen the band's writing dynamic change? The absence of one member of the band actually happened during the writing of the album. It was an immediate shift to going from a four-piece to a three-piece act. It is simply displacement. We had a body of work that we approached as a four-piece and none of us were too excited about it. We rewrote the album to fill in the space or leave the space. We needed that at times. We have a tendency to overstimulate our listener -- and people like that -- but with this album, it gave us the opportunity to play with space a little bit more. It's all for the better. It was challenging and stressful. We had to readapt our band on the fly. We are still learning the process but it's a really exciting learning process to play as a three-piece and moving on. It is rewarding in its own sense.
I read that Gary Numan was your dream collaboration. So after you collaborate with your dream, what happens then? We have plenty of dream collaborators.
Who else is the list? We will have to see. We were going for whoever was applicable to each song that we wanted to have vocals on. It's tough. We were trying to come up with a lot of people we could ask to sing. Sometimes it doesn't make sense but, depending on the music you have contextually that would be ready for a vocalist to jump on, it's easier to figure that out. I don't think I would have ever assumed that Gary Numan would be on a Battles album, but it's really cool! It's awesome because the three of us really love his music from when we were younger. There are some parallels between what he does and he is a pretty groundbreaking guy. I am not saying that we are groundbreaking but he has made some really interesting musical choices. We question that pop world. We have similarities in that world.
Do you think that having collaborators on the album will broaden your audience? I would hope so. I think having vocals on the album, period, helps soften people's approach to us. Sometimes I think people are turned off by instrumental music in general, but having a collaborator like Gary Numan brings fans from his world to a band like Battles. I can imagine it would be something fun to find out. Maybe Blonde Redhead fans are in the same world, but mixing the worlds of Battles and Matias is fun as well! It's nice to reach an audience depending on collaborators. If people really love an artist and they see that the artist is willing to work with another band like us, those people will be exposed to our music.
This is a geeky question on my part, but how do you name an instrumental song? It's a really geeky process. It stems from when we write parts -- in order for our own sake of reference -- we name them. Sometimes they don't have names but 'Sundome' was called 'Bouncy' for a while because John wanted us to play into that bouncy rhythm. It is as simple as that. The beginning of 'Sundome,' when we were writing our parts, I was imagining this beer garden on a warm, sunny day and hanging outside. I found out about this basketball team in Brooklyn called Sundome and I thought it would be a good name. There is no rhyme or reason to how we name an instrumental song. 'Africastle' was a loop I wrote originally and it reminded me of the video game Castle Mania but with an Afro-pop perspective. I thought the name was funny, and we referenced it as that for a while. Either it becomes the name of the song or, like a song called 'Bouncy,' we couldn't commit to that as a band so we changed it. Song titles, as long as we can live with them forever, than it's okay. It's hard to find that balance.
What is your favorite ice cream? My favorite ice cream is coffee ice cream. Sometimes if you can find coffee ice cream with some Oreo in there, that is really good. You know something else? We are playing Capitol Hill Block Party in Seattle, and they asked us if we wanted to make our own ice cream with this ice cream vendor who is a sponsor.
That is everyone's dream! I really like craft beers and in Seattle there is this place called Elysian Brewery and this caf' called Caffe Vita. I asked if they could contribute espresso and Elysian could have some sort of stout combination. I wanted to make an espresso stout ice cream. I think they are doing it! I am looking forward to that.