The Perils of Complexity
Indie kids, for the most part, are frustratingly reluctant to dance. They stand at shows and bob their heads, maybe shuffle a little from side to side. Generally, though, they are either too cool or too embarrassed to shake it with abandon. Add Battles into the equation, however, and the whole thing changes. At the band's show with No Age at Great American Music Hall in San Francisco November 2, the front row went from passive to frenzied within seconds of the first guitar riff. I myself wasn't a particularly good judge of the rest of the crowd, as I was standing in the aforementioned front row, but when the mosh pit pushed me into the stage, I assumed everyone was in the same boat.
And yet somehow it was unsurprising: Battles' music has a transcendent quality that can unite seemingly disparate fans. Drawing on their collective decades of musical experience, they've developed an amazing skill for striking the perfect balance between catchy and complex, dense and precise; it dispels any argument over the band's merits. No one, hipster or otherwise, can resist music this good. You can't help but rock the fuck out.
Several hours before the show, I spoke over the phone with Battles multi-instrumentalist Tyondai Braxton. We talked about the band's approach to music, Braxton's solo work, and the omnipresent label of “math rock” perpetually hovering over Battles' achievements.
Before we start, could you tell me how to pronounce your first name?
Yeah, no problem. It's "tie-awn-day."
Okay great, thanks. So Battles just came back from playing Vegoose. How's it been transitioning back to smaller venues after a festival?
Well, it's been cool. The venues we're playing this time around are the biggest that we've played in the states. They're nowhere the size of a festival, but it's still great playing at the larger places. It's a healthy trajectory. And it's been something we're all really happy about. I think it has a lot to do with the videos we did and airplay on the radio, we're getting more of a general audience reeled in. So it's great, it's nice.
Yeah, I was on a plane a couple months ago and I heard "Atlas" on one of the radio stations. It was nice to hear something different. Do you find appreciation for your music in unexpected places?
Yeah, sometimes. We're just generally getting out to more people now. I think it's a testament to the fact that our kind of music can be more widespread than it has been in the past. It's funny in a lot of ways, and it's cool as the person who's making it. It's really humbling to have one person like your music, let alone all the people you wouldn't expect to be interested.
All the layers and sounds that get put into a Battles song really intrigue me -- how do you write music that's so complex?
Well, it can start from a number of things. People are surprised to find out that the foundation of our songwriting is usually a simple idea. We've all been playing music for a long time, so playing outside of a common time signature or only playing in a major key isn't that shocking to us. A lot of people are like “Wow, you play in odd time signatures,” but it's not that big a deal. It's more of an accessory of the song itself. It's just a quality. It's not like we sit down and say “Oh, we've gotta play this in 7/4 or do this in 11/8 just to trip people out.” It really just has to do with fleshing out small ideas and watching where they go. Sometimes it calls for an orthodox approach and sometimes it calls for unorthodox ones.
So it starts with an idea, and you use all your respective outside experience to form an ability to be creative and expand on something.
Absolutely. It's not necessarily just one process, one way. Sometimes someone will bring in a concept and we'll have to fill in the blanks around it. Sometimes someone will bring in a whole song, and we'll have to learn parts. And everyone does it -- it's a 25% each kind of writing process, not just one person. In the end, I think you can really hear that in the music; I think you can really hear the polarity of the band members. It's a very healthy way to write, a very healthy creative process. Again, I think we're proud of the fact that we're at a level of playing where we can all get something out of the music, as different as we each are.
If Aretha Franklin had a song out right now that was in 5/4, people would say “Oh, she's math rock, or math something,” just for the simple reason that the song was in an uncommon time.
One thing that gets me is how everyone always says “Oh, this is Battles, they're math rock.” Does that ever feel limiting or inaccurate that it's so often categorized as one thing?
Absolutely. Every single journalist asks us that, and it's always in the same way you said it.
No, it's okay. In fact, I think it's a testament to how eager people are to put things into categories. We get asked if we really agree with that and it's like “Of course we don't agree with that.” On one hand, you have labels that people need to have as a foundation to get into your music and kind of find their way into what you're doing. They shouldn't have to read a thesis to understand it. But on the flip side, to define somebody by a single quality you think exists in their music, and then only define them as that, I think is dangerous. I think it marginalizes what musicians do. If Aretha Franklin had a song out right now that was in 5/4, people would say “Oh, she's math rock, or math something,” just for the simple reason that the song was in an uncommon time.
Now another thing that's funny is that most of our songs, even on Mirrored, are in a common time. Most are in straight tempos and the few that aren't are the ones that people have latched onto and turned into this global description. It's inaccurate at best. As a person in the band, it's frustrating to see that people aren't noticing qualities besides those in the couple of songs that are in odd time signatures. It's kinda weird, you know?
Yeah, I agree. The music is definitely varied, and there are a lot of songs that are in straight time. The only one I still can't seem to count out is Ddiamond.
(Laughs) Yeah, that's a hard one.
One difference between the EPs and Mirrored is the prominence of vocals. The EPs were so much about instrumentation. The vocals on Mirrored are noticeable. How did you decide to include them more prominently?
That was an element that I wanted to pursue more in the record. In my solo music, I sing and I wanted to find a way to incorporate that into the band, and I think everyone was into that. It was a matter of being able to play multiple roles, as everyone does in this band; to be able to play lead and also be able to play a neutral instrumental role as well, as opposed to lead vocal all the time and an instrument behind it.
The vocals aren't on every track, though.
Yeah. Surprisingly they're actually on most tracks, but on some they played a very subdued role, just as sometimes the guitar plays a very subdued role on some tracks and then a lead role on others. In a way, I used the voice diplomatically, in the same way that everyone else used their instruments diplomatically depending on the nature of the song.
You talked earlier about how you used voice in your solo work. I was listening to it and I noticed that you beatbox. I tried to learn once and I was horrible at it. How did you learn to do that and to be able to sustain it? Because when I did it, I would just get lightheaded and fail miserably.
Well, let me tell you, your motivation increases when you're younger and you can't afford a drum machine and you think “Well, fuck it, I'll just do it with my mouth!” That's really how it came about. I appreciate the form of it in the hip-hop community, but my approach wasn't really from that. It was more motivated from a place of wanting to use percussion and not make it sound like it's my mouth. I don't like how people showcase the fact that beatboxing is from their mouth, how they're proud of it. I try to obscure it more. Hopefully that comes across.
I think it did. It didn't sound as prominent as when people make a big deal with all the fancy tricks they do.
Yeah, I'm not a trickster. I try to be more practical.
Yeah, practical is definitely good. Are you working on anything outside of Battles right now for yourself?
For this year, it's all Battles, but next year my solo record's going to come out.
Thanks. Looking forward to the show tonight.
Well, come say hi. We'll be around.