Battles: “Of course, we are fans of jazz, but I don’t think it has much to do with the music of Battles.”
Cologne on a midsummer day in July. John Stanier, the drummer of the American experimental electronics band Battles, is originally in town to record the second album with the Cologne metal band ZON and to participate in a team meeting of the collective project Cologne Tape.
But why not take this opportunity to visit “Familienbande” (family ties), the current exhibition at Museum Ludwig showing works by Kai Althoff, Cosima von Bonin, Lucy McKenzie, Isa Genzken and Dan Graham, among others, and at the same time give an interview on the new, fourth Battles album “Juice B Crypts”? For Stanier, who values functionality and efficiency and who is also a friend of the visual arts, this is a compelling proposition.
For some time it wasn’t all that sure if there would be a new Battles album. After all, Dave Konopka, guitarist/bassist, who was a founding member of the band and was very important for the songwriting process up until then, left the band after the very extensive tour for their last album “La Di Da Di”.
However, his departure was so fast and totally out of nowhere that the other two straight away went on “automatic pilot”, says John Stanier. “Never once did Ian Williams or I go into crisis mode. I think, if we would have taken a bunch of time off and overthought the situation it might have turned out differently, but we pretty much just took the bull by the horns and went for it.”
While Battle’s albums in the past were always also characterized by a longer discourse process of the band members, first four and later three, the new constellation as a duo had a simplifying effect in this respect. “In a really weird way this was a much easier record to make than all of our previous albums,” John Stanier gives insights into the new processes of the band. “There wasn’t really a definite process other than Ian (who is responsible for keyboards, guitar and electronics for Battles; author’s note) coming up with tons of ideas and then I would twist and manipulate them and change them rhythmically.” There were as little strategic considerations regarding the guests, as Ian Wiliams and John Stanier had a big master plan for “Juice B Crypts”.
As little as Ian Wiliams and John Stanier carried around a big master plan for “Juice B Crypts”, there were little strategic considerations regarding the guests. Xenia Rubinos, Jon Anderson, Prairie WWWW, Sal Principato, Shabazz Palaces and Tune-Yards, who all play a crucial part on one song of the new Battles album, have just dropped by the studio, and that’s how not few of the new Battles songs ended up with vocals again, surprisingly many for a band that is still perceived by many as primarily instrumental band.
But with one name I have to inquire about: Jon Anderson, the singer of the prog rock band Yes? How in God’s name did he end up on “Sugar Foot” (to which the Korean musician Prairie WWWW also contributed), this slowly boiling primordial soup of a Battles’ song? “Eight years ago his management sent me an email saying he was interested in me playing drums on a track on his new record,” remembers john Stanier. “That never happened for whatever reason, but he did offer to give us some vocals whenever we wanted. Eight years later I found the email and we got in touch with him and the rest is history.”
As dry as Stanier is commenting on the questions and events, it’s time to point out what a remarkable album Ian Williams and he have accomplished. “Juice B Crypts” represents nothing less than a small paradigm shift for Battles, as the two have learned to stand on their own two feet, free from the often constricting expectations of the purist fans of the classic Battles set-up with synthie loops, significant riffs and drum infernos, as well as a considerable amount of external influences from their guests. This can be heard immediately on the two instrumental opening tracks “Ambulance”, and “A Loop So Nice”, each an Aha experience in itself. “Ambulance” sounds like it was produced by two teenagers for whom the world is a big playground, the song is bursting with energy and dynamics. On “A Loop So Nice” they disintegrate a keyboard melody so incredibly jazzy cool, a gesture that a bit later on “Fort Greene Park”,with a less clear sound signature and inspired by Krautrock influences, leads to a completely different result , but no less stirring.
In fact, you are constantly reminded of jazz when you immerse yourself in “Juice B Crypts”. “Titanium 2 Step” for example, the collaboration with New York’s no-wave legend Sal Principato (Liquid Liquid) captivates with an unreal bebop habitus in which Miles Davis seems to jam along. On hearing the word jazz John Stanier initially reacts sceptically: “I’m not sure I agree with you on this one,” he remarks seriously. “Of course, we are fans of jazz, but I don’t think it has much to do with the music of Battles.”
Well, maybe he should change his mind, after all it would finally be a way to get away from the undesirable term math rock, which still relentlessly sticks to Battles, like the first internet reviews of the new album show – and that just because William’s old band Don Caballero involuntarily helped birth the genre. Stanier’s snappy commentary: “We both seriously hate the term “math rock”. To me it is a lazy 90’s term!”
But that’s the thing with perceptions and attributions anyway. While I think “Izm”, the song with Shabazz Palaces is probably the most catchy Battles song ever and ascribe real hit qualities to the hiphop track, for Stanier it’s “one of the weirdest songs on the album”. But who says that musicians and recipients have to feel the same as long as they share the same rooms, everything is good.
Also worth mentioning are “They Played It Twice”, on which the New York-based Puerto Rican Xenia Rubinos can be heard, whose vocals negate the title and even puts it into an endless loop, and “The Last Supper On Shasta”, the collaboration with Tune-Yards, a dignified fidgeting final moment for the album.
There is only one question left: What does “Juice B Crypts” mean? A comment on the cryptocurrency hype of recent years? The surprising answer from John Stanier: “Juice B Crypts is a term from Ian’s two children. You need to ask them what it means, because I have no idea.”
Translation by Denise Oemcke