The Battles Variable
Published May 29, 2011What do you do when the vocalist, a key member of your band, quits halfway through recording your second album? Scrap the record, find a new singer and start again? Continue as a purely instrumental band? Or assemble a variety of guests to sing on the album and take them on tour as virtual performers? For Battles ― never believers in taking the obvious path ― they chose the final option.
It would have been easy to retreat to the instrumental format of their early EPs or to replace Tyondai Braxton with another vocalist, but the remaining trio decided instead to pick apart the half-finished recording and invite a handful of guests to lay down vocals on several tracks. The resulting album, Gloss Drop, is a stunning and original record that pushes the inimitable Battles sound even further forward. "It was important that when we released this record that it reflected who we are right now, which is the three of us," says guitarist/ keyboardist Ian Williams "So we had to take all of Ty's parts out. In some ways it was a record of constantly changing variables over those two years of recording, so when Ty left it was like 'Okay, there's another variable we have to factor in.'"
As bassist/ guitarist Dave Konopka explains "It opened up a lot of great opportunities for us because we never really had the chance to collaborate with people because the space was so tight, in the arrangements and just sonically."
When it came to the question of who to get in to guest on the album, it happened fairly organically. In the case of Boredoms' Yamantaka Eye, Kazu Makino of Blonde Redhead and techno artist Matias Aguayo there were vague personal connections. Williams explains that the rationale was "Just us thinking 'Who would be interesting to have on the record?' and 'Let's work with a woman' because we're sort of this guy band sometimes so it'd be interesting to take that on as a challenge. Somebody like Gary Numan was a bit of a 'Wouldn't it be crazy if we could get this guy to sing on the record?'"
Having guest vocalists so prominently on the record presented Battles with yet another challenge ― how could they perform these new songs live? "Vocals for us have always been this thing we've danced around," Ian explains. "Even in the previous generation of Battles, the singer sang electronically, with processing. It was never this 'here's the lead singer' thing and I think we've continued that tradition of playing with vocals. Whether we're an instrumental band or a band with singing, I don't know what we are exactly. So it's a challenge in a way but that challenge is where the opportunities lie, because there are a lot of ways we can solve being a live band and have vocals."
They eventually decided that they would trigger the vocals as samples, with videos of the performers singing projected on two screens at stage level, to appear as virtual band members. "I didn't want to have just some big screen behind us and have people staring up there and watching someone sing," Konopka explains, "so we have it set up so all the visuals are incorporated with our live playing." At least that's the solution for this tour. Konopka describes it as a work in progress, "It's more about having fun and keeping things fresh. It's good to back up your arsenal with some variety from time to time."