By Jeremy Hallock
By James Khubiar
By Observer Staff
By Kelly Dearmore
By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
Last month, at the Glastonbury festival in the U.K., the members of Battles found themselves in a dressing room next to the current queen of pop radio, and perhaps the polar opposite of their band in terms of style, Kesha.
Multi-instrumentalist Ian Williams, who spent his earlier years playing guitar for the influential group Don Caballero, didn't scoff at the close proximity to a bastion of disposable pop. In fact, he felt like it meant that his band's brand of primarily instrumental, groove-intensive noise had simply begun to meet the challenge of finding an audience that hadn't been there before.
"When people tag us as a challenging band, I think it means that we're getting across to people we might not normally get across to," Williams says. "For us, though, the music is just normal. It isn't hard to listen to."
To view the band's limited catalog as exacting is certainly understandable. Whether it's the trio's previous release, 2007's critically lauded Mirrored, which was recorded when the band was a four-piece, or this year's rhythmically primal, intricately arranged noise treasure, Gloss Drop, Battles offer a very different product than can be found elsewhere in the music landscape. Unpredictability and dynamic shifts are the key ingredients of the band's recipe for exciting creations.
Still, the new record does at times find the band reveling more in dance-inducing territory than it had in the past. Williams says the band's development in this manner is a simple matter of remaining artistically and personally genuine — even if means overcoming a hurdle or two.
"We try new approaches and it keeps us honest," Williams says. "We couldn't remake Mirrored for our new album. A lot has happened to us since then, and we are different people now. So it just wouldn't have been honest to simply remake Mirrored."
While Williams acknowledges that Battles aren't a mainstream act, he isn't interested in dwelling in some isolated music-elitist colony, either. Descriptors such as "challenging" and especially "experimental" can scare people away from a band's music — and that isn't a goal for Williams.
"I don't think we want to challenge people to the point where our music is hard to listen to," Williams says. "We're not trying to be obscure. We want to make fun music that just seems different, and music that's really interesting to us as a band."
Part of the creative process within the band includes the individual players evolving and, yes, challenging themselves, even if by accident. When primary vocalist and guitar player Tayondai Braxton left the band, Williams, guitarist Dave Konopka and drummer John Stainer found that moving forward wasn't as difficult as many might have assumed. The dynamic within their band drastically altered, sure, but the music that followed came easily. Williams, who has historically focused on guitar, even goes out of his way to suggest that the main musical task to tackle for him individually was something entirely unrelated to the attention-grabbing departure of Braxton.
"When I started with Battles, I mainly played guitar and a little bit of keyboard," he says. "Now I'm playing two keyboards on stage and just a little bit of guitar. So I guess I'm the keyboard player."
In the often-times too-serious world of indie rock, it's nice to hear what Williams considers perhaps his most daunting charge: "It's hard to rock out on a keyboard like you can with a guitar," he says. "So it's a little dorky. But it's an important instrument, and I actually like that challenge."