Battles open up a world of possibilities on new album ‘La Di Da Di’

Photo by Grant Cornett
Photo by Grant Cornett

Experimental Brooklyn trio Battles have returned with La Di Da Di, their third LP on Warp Records. The band blew up countless year-end best-of lists with their 2007 debut album Mirrored, a heart-racing monolith filled with pulse-pounding time signature changes. But on La Di Da Di Battles never rush. Instead, they meticulously unfurl purely instrumental textures – an even starker contrast to the band’s guest-vocalist-laden second album Gloss Drop (2011).

Now that Battles have eliminated the most blatantly human element that is vocals, keyboardist Ian Williams’ skittish electronics, guitarist Dave Konopka’s flickering pedal effects, and John Stanier’s muscular, resonant drumming command all the attention.

Konopka took time to answer a few questions from Vancouver Weekly, discussing the creative process behind the band’s organically mushrooming new album, their trusty Pawtucket studio Machines with Magnets, emotional neutrality in their music, and choosing the right collaborators to establish a continuous visual aesthetic.

Vancouver Weekly: La Di Da Di marks your third time recording at Machines with Magnets. You’ve clearly grown comfortable with the studio. Do you even question where to record anymore?

Dave Konopka: Machine with Magnets is an excellent studio run by incredible engineers in Keith Souza and Seth Manchester (sometimes collectively referred to as Candles). I’ve known Keith since my first band Lynx recorded in the basement of his mom’s house in Rhode Island. As we were writing Mirrored and looking for a studio to record in, I contacted Keith and found out that he was opening a brand new incarnation of Machines with Magnets in Pawtucket, and everything just serendipitously clicked ever since. Battles has a very unique and abstract creative process, and I could only imagine that working with us would be like herding cats. From our perspective, it’s an absolute privilege to have engineers and co-producers that understand the nuances of your process and how you like to work and make decisions. Keith and Seth have become such a huge part of Battles’ creative process when it comes to making albums that it’s difficult to imagine it any other way.

VW: You named the new album La Di Da Di in reference to the generic vocalizations used to describe instrumental music. How does the band usually decide on titles for other instrumental tracks? Why did you decide not to give LDDD a wordier, more “descriptive” title?

DK: The titles usually stem from an initial idea, usually derived from a loop and a descriptive feeling that that initial idea embodies. So generally, throughout the course of making an album, we assign working titles to each track and each other’s respective parts primarily of the sake of reference. Sometimes, those titles stick and become the final title. For example, the “Dot Com” and “Dot Net” titles were based on a neo-Krautrock vibe that the foundational loop took on, and the title stayed because it played into the track conceptually. Other times, a track like “The Yabba” was originally called “Voodoo” for a really long time because of the main loop, and we were reluctant to call the song “Voodoo” because there were too many songs already referencing Voodoo. “The Yabba” as a title was a lot more fun, and it is in reference to a great Australian film called Wake in Fright.

VW: You’ve emphasized the importance of not repeating yourselves, specifically referring to vocals, which featured prominently on Gloss Drop. Maybe this is jumping too far ahead, but can you give an example of something on LDDD that you may try to avoid on the next record?

DK: It’s probably too early to determine that at this point, and it would be too contrived to decide on that for our next album this early in the life of Battles a la La Di Da Di. The most important part is how interconnected we are as a band and that we complement each other with an interesting exchange of musical communication. That has been the focal point since day one, regardless of if vocals are present or not. By releasing an instrumental album, we’ve opened up a world of possibilities of where we could go next.

VW: Ian has stated that the band never approaches a new album with a game plan. Has this always been your approach, or did it take a few failed experiments to prompt you to work without any preconceived ideas?

DK: For the most part, this has always been the approach. The furthest we go with a preconceived notion as to how to approach a new album really begins with any new technology or tools that we decide to incorporate, and even then, there is a gestation period of ideas on our own as individuals before we start composing together. Sometimes, we come from completely different angles, but I think the combination of those differences is what enriches our process. There is a partial element of chance as to where we could be headed for new music, and often times, the by-product of our experimentation is how we follow our interests and get inspired to build upon where we left off on our last album.

VW: You’re all known perfectionists. John even told Rolling Stone there weren’t really any mistakes on LDDD, that everything on it was supposed to have happened. Would you say that’s accurate? Doesn’t a plan need to exist in order for there to be things that are supposed to happen? Also, Dave said the band jammed “for hours” to work out “Megatouch”. Isn’t jamming essentially a process of refining a series happy accidents?

DK: We are usually pretty deliberate in what we put forth and commit to, and often times, happy mistakes do happen and inform a new direction in our writing. However, as we write the album, the majority of jamming that happens occurs during solitary moments. I will loop a part that Ian has while I am in our rehearsal space alone and play to it for hours in order to conjure up as many ideas as I can to bring to the table. And vice versa: Ian will write to my parts on his own. From there, there is a lot of editing down of our recorded solo jams in search of interesting parts.

During the recording session of La Di Da Di, the most unique part of our problem-solving this time around was rather than try to solve problems from an individualist standpoint, we would force ourselves to play as a live band in the live room and record our jams. Often times, there would be a bunch of nothingness. But every now and then, we would hit a zone where there was something interesting taking shape, and then we would try to compose something out of that. This in particular happened on “Megatouch”. We had a lot of parts for it, but it wasn’t gelling as a song, and the exploration of those parts as a whole under live pressure of a recorded jam created a new tangent in which we could build off of. I realize that this is nothing new or earth-shattering to a lot of other bands, but for us, it’s kind of uncharted territory as to how we write. We realized a long time ago that jamming in our practice space doesn’t work so well because nobody is paying attention to each other, and everything just becomes this maximal sounding piece of shit.

VW: In Ableton’s The Art of Repetition documentary, Ian commented that Seth will often just pick one of the first few loops Ian hands over, leaving dozens of others to fall to the wayside. How much discarded material does the band revisit when starting a new album?

DK: Often times, the stuff that is left by the wayside is the same as what got used, but they just lacked that certain je ne sais quoi. We have a lot of unused parts, but I think that there was something lacking there that prevented them from naturally becoming part of the album. It takes a bit more work to re-contextualize ideas for a new album, and I would say that generally, because we are always pushing forward, the stuff that doesn’t get used gets shelved in the back of our minds, and they generally tend to stay there. I have a loop that I wrote at the beginning of writing Gloss Drop that still sounds good, and everybody in the band is still on board with it, and I’ve tried working it into the mix for La Di Da Di, but generally, it hasn’t worked out because it will always be this loop from the Gloss Drop era. It’s hard to re-imagine that type of thing without taking into consideration the way you were thinking about it eight years ago. Maybe someday it will work out though.

VW: The difficulties that surrounded the making of Gloss Drop are well documented. But John has said Gloss Drop‘s sound didn’t reflect the band’s mood at the time. Can the same be said about LDDD?

DK: I would say that La Di Da Di is more closely related to the overall spirit that we had encompassed during the writing of the album. It’s always pretty stressful for us to write a new album, but we still try to have fun with what we are making and try to write music that transcends who we are as emotional human beings. The emotional neutrality of our music is more important than if Dave, John, or Ian are being grumapsaurases and feel like writing a dark song. Boo-hoo. Who cares? There’s never really that direct correlation.

VW: The band suddenly found itself having to adjust to being three-piece around the time of Gloss Drop. How long did you take to find your creative and performative footings as a trio? Did figuring out the three-way dynamic increase the band’s confidence going into the new record?

DK: It didn’t take us long to find our footing as a trio because that was a baptism-by-fire type of situation. We had to make a decision on the spot as far as what the new direction of Battles will be, but I don’t think that any of us had a doubt in our minds as to the new triadic direction being the best thing for the longevity of the band. It was a bit tricky trying to figure out what we needed to do to salvage the album that we had been putting so much work into, but the reality of the situation was that it just meant that we needed to put our heads down and just get back to work. The separation had already existed, and it was evident in the music. It was up to us as a three-piece to fix it. A lot of the narrative as to what transpired out of that entire evolution was about a loss, but the real story behind it is about the gain of who we became as a trio and what it took for us to move Battles forward.

VW: You released a music video for “The Yabba” earlier this month. The brief shots of John juicing oranges ties back to the breakfast motif of LDDD‘s album art, as do the video’s overall brightness, crispness, and bold colours. These latter details seem to refer back even earlier, to Gloss Drop‘s cover art. Are these instances of continuity intentional? How much control over imagery do you relinquish to your collaborators?

DK: Continuity in our aesthetic is always intentional. It’s a job within itself. I try to approach the making of a new album cover the same way that we approach writing a new album: it should still have this common thread of who we are, but the new material should be a fresh take on that. Part of establishing the aesthetic of Battles also plays into finding other collaborators that are like-minded. I collaborate with my friend Lesley Unruh to shoot the cover art for me because I know that she will understand where I am coming from and how I want things to look, and she is extremely talented at making anything art that I make look ten times better in a photograph than what it looks like in real life.

It becomes harder when you collaborate on things that are a bit more beyond your control, like making music videos, but working with [director] Roger Guàrdia and [production group] CANADA to make our newest video was primarily based on the love that we have for the work that they do. They are masterful at conveying an original aesthetic while working with the idea of the music video from a form-follows-function perspective, both evident in the “Yabba” and the “Ice Cream” videos they made for us. The key for us as Battles is to try to find and choose the right people to collaborate with to convey these similar ideals of aesthetic in order to maintain that continuity and often times push us even further

VW: Is it always interesting to see how others interpret your art through different media?

DK: It is, definitely. One thing that I’m really excited about that is coming up on English television is a collaboration that we did with my friend and extremely talented artist Ben Jones. He made a video for “Dot Net”, and it completely rules! It is above and beyond an awesomeness that we as a band are capable of. It should be coming out soon, so keep an eye out for it!

La Di Da Di is available now on Warp Records. Battles play the Imperial Vancouver on October 6. Tickets are available at Red Cat Records and online.

Leslie Ken Chu

Leslie Ken Chu