Battles on Ditching Vocals, Echoing Slick Rick and the Art of Food Porn

Hear "The Yabba," first new track in four years from powerhouse NYC art-rock trio

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John Stanier, Ian Williams and Dave Konopka (from left) return to an instrumental approach on their third album, 'La Di Da Di.' Grant Cornett

Battles create mostly instrumental music heavy enough for metalheads, nuanced enough for jazz cats and weird enough to pull in all sorts of fans from the fringes. From 2007's Mirrored up to the present, the New York art-rockers' surprisingly hooky, electronic-tweaked-to-sound-organic (and vice versa) creations have also soundtracked ads for Honda and the FIFA 12 video game, and shown up on the Twilight: Eclipse soundtrack. Currently a three-piece featuring guitarist-keyboardist Ian Williams, guitarist-bassist Dave Konopka and drummer John Stanier, Battles will release La Di Da Di (Warp), their first album in four years, on September 18th.

Related: 50 Greatest Prog Rock Albums of All Time

Unlike 2011's Gloss Drop, which incorporated guest vocalists on songs like the spastic pop exploration "Ice Cream" (featuring Matias Aguayo) and the driving industrial-rocker "My Machines" (featuring synth-pop vet Gary Numan), this record lets beats, loops, glitches and effects provide its voice. Like dividing cells, the patterns of the songs morph naturally — albeit, occasionally drastically. Over head-nodding krautrock rhythms, cascading album opener "The Yabba," premiering here, exhibits the trio's uncanny ability to find clarity in complexity.

Recorded at the Rhode Island studio Machines with Magnets in late 2013 and early 2014, La Di Da Di finds Battles arm-wrestling the urge to repeat previous efforts — and winning. Through the magic of Skype, Rolling Stone simultaneously reached Williams and Konopka at their respective Brooklyn homes, and Stanier in Berlin to discuss food-porn-as-cover-art, La Di Da Di's Slick Rick–related title, and the inherent problems with trying to be futurists.

A recent Instagram post suggests that the music video you just filmed in Barcelona takes place at the Star Wars Cantina.
Stanier:
Riiiiight.

Konopka: The music video has nothing to do with the Star Wars Cantina. That's just our manager trying to...

Stanier: ...be funny.

What can you share about the video?
Konopka:
It was directed by Roger Guàrdia. He's one of the members of the CANADA production group, who produced our "Ice Cream" video. We went back to them to collaborate but with a different director this time. Those guys do awesome work.

How do you pronounce the title of your third album, and how did you come up with it?
Williams:
Ladi-dadi.

Stanier: Like the Slick Rick song.

Williams: The one idea behind it was that it's an instrumental record, so what words describe instrumental music? Using "la la la" — like generic voicings for singing — using this to describe instrumental music. It's sort of a playful, whimsical thing that takes pressure off of us by saying, "We're not overwhelming you with heaviness or anything."

Stanier: Dave, I remember you bringing it to the table really late at night when we were at a bar in Berlin. I instantly liked it because I thought of Slick Rick. I'm not into a heavy-handed explanation on it.

When did you know you were going back to an all-instrumental approach for this album?
Stanier:
It was kind of open-ended. We never said, "This record, we're gonna go out and make it, and there will be no vocals whatsoever." It was more like, 'There might be; there might not be. Let's just see what happens — let's not worry about it right now.' Then, the next thing you know it's like, "Well, I guess there aren't any vocals on this record." It didn't seem that important.

Williams: When you create music, it comes from this more blank place, before you can really think. At least for us, we never walk in with a specific game plan. It's not an idea first; it's the sounds and the textures first. That informs what the project will be about.

"When you create music, it comes from this more blank place, before you can really think. At least for us, we never walk in with a specific game plan. It's not an idea first; it's the sounds and the textures first." —Williams

Konopka: When you consider the trajectory of our albums, including guest vocalists on this album didn't make sense because it would be going down the same road as our previous album. It was more like, "What's the next step to figure out something less predictable than getting four guest vocalists to sing on a couple songs?"

Without question, though, the songs on Gloss Drop that did feature vocals helped to expand Battles' audience.
Konopka:
By far, any music that we've had with vocals has allowed us to attain a certain level of popularity and break through to some form of mainstream-ness — for a band like us. It allows people to hear about you more, but I also think the world has changed enough that people are willing to accept instrumental music more than they were in the past.

Williams: Back to the Herb Alpert days.

Stanier: Dude, Chuck Mangione! "Feels So Good," that was Number One. That and "Popcorn."

Give the lack of vocals and the quick transitions between songs, it feels like you're inviting the listener to experience La Di Da Di as a whole.
Williams:
Yeah, we didn't try to make a catchy hit song. It was some heavy tunes that we liked. It's not the obvious, "Which song do you put forward as a single?" In a lot of ways, you have to put forth the whole album to show the world what it is.

Konopka: We're trying to bring the record back in a world of playlists.

Stanier: In a cool way. In a "not to smack you across the face like a little child" kind of way. In a way that will still embrace the way that people listen to music now, but not pulling, like, a Pink Floyd where you can't buy individual tracks on iTunes. You have to buy Dark Side of the Moon in its entirety — which I think is kind of cool, but not every band can do that. We walk the fine line between a pop band and a heavy-handed new prog-rock band, which I don't think any of us would really want to be labeled as. It's the happy medium between the two.

"We walk the fine line between a pop band and a heavy-handed new prog-rock band." —John Stanier

As you were creating these songs, how often did a mistake turn into something you loved?
Stanier: I don't think there's anything that wasn't supposed to happen that turned into this beautiful accident. I think it's just the ever-so-slight twist. The ever-so-slight shifting of the loop. It makes the song swing way more by just shifting one 16th note. That could be a world of difference. It affects the nature of the song to such a degree that you can't even talk about it. There were moments like that. I don't know if there are any things that we're not supposed to do.

Williams: Which is its own prison.

Having no rules to break?
Williams: Yeah, give us some.

Stanier: The song "Megatouch" is a perfect example. That started with a Dave loop. Dave was like, "This reminds me of..." And the first time I heard it, I was like, "Wow, yeah, it really does. Let's totally roll with this, but let's be kinda careful. Don't go over the deep end with it." But we were that tasteful with it that we actually pulled it off.

Konopka: None of us are big reggae fans, but I wanted Battles to try and re-create a weird version of how we envision reggae. Even if we tried to do it properly, we probably wouldn't be able to do it. Our last album was so insular. We were broken up in separate rooms, and we were writing singularly. "Megatouch" was one of the songs where the noodles weren't totally sticking to the wall yet, and then we went into the live room and jammed for hours.

In addition to being another beautiful collaboration with photographer Lesley Unruh, the album cover could be the most vivid example of food porn ever created, and a great commentary on consumer culture.
Konopka:
That is a pretty accurate interpretation. I just wanted to work with a medium that was easily understandable. Chefs are the new rock stars. The Food Network is more popular than MTV. I wanted a medium to imitate our process in a weird way. There's a story that follows within the cover. Using something visually eye-catching, but also having the subtext of our process as a band. 

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"Chefs are the new rock stars," says Battles' Dave Konopka.

What type of offspring would a banana and a watermelon actually yield?
Konopka:
A kiwi, maybe?

When you bring the songs to life now, how different are the performances from how the songs were recorded?
Williams:
To play the songs live, I've had to reverse it back to where the songs came from. You can do sleuth work by going back in histories and find how things were the previous step, and the step before that. I'm facing the issue of, what's live music? Do I resample stuff? The way some of the stuff was made was by feeding an audio signal from one end of a chain to another and playing with the devices in between. But the reality is that somebody's just pushing a few buttons and turning knobs. For a stage presentation, the modern 21st-century electronic-music answer is, "That is music, and fuck you, and I don't need to play a piano."

How much do you think about creating something futuristic, sounds that have never existed before?
Konopka:
A lot of music that's made today, due to the technology, is created with the intention of futurism. But at the same time, they're making such a dated period of music. Sometimes I feel like EDM will be disco in 20 years. A lot of bros are going to be denying that they ever went to raves. The things that drive us and that interest us as a band are things that are new-sounding but not falling into certain categories. Then playing with those categories and trying to push forward a little bit.

Williams: You can do one of those "There's a giant line in the sand in the world" statements. There are the people who say, "You should figure out what you do well, and then just do it well." We tend to be the other side. I don't think I could ever summon the energy to make another Battles record if I already knew we could do it. We're always trying to modify the rules for ourselves to keep ourselves on edge. Somebody once said, "Real rock & roll is not being sure whether or not you'll be able to pull it off." I think there's something to that.

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