Not Hummable: a Band Called Battles A New York-based rock quartet, Battles create a loud collage of music that's not exactly catchy, but is absolutely memorable.

Not Hummable: a Band Called Battles

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The band Battles is a quartet based out of New York, and all four musicians came to the project with formidable pedigrees. The former drummer of Helmet, two indie guitarists from well known bands Lynx and Don Caballero, the son of an avante-garde jazz musician. Now in the course of putting out a series of EPs in the past three years, their styles and sounds have worked together and sometimes against one another to create this loud collage of music that is not necessarily hummable or singable, but definitely memorable. This year, they released their first full-length release, "Mirrored." They tour with the basics - drums, keyboard, guitars and bass - and then they incorporate technology to create this explosion of sound live. It is hard to believe it's just four guys on stage, and here's Ian Williams and David Konopka to explain to me how they get it done.

Ian, how many guys are actually in the band?

Mr. IAN WILLIAMS (Guitarist, Battles): Four people.

STEWART: Four people.


STEWART: Explain to me who does what, because if you just heard your band for the first time, you would think there were about 15 people on stage.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. There's some two timing going on, the instruments. Ty and I both play the keyboard and the guitar at the same time, left hand on the fret board, doing half of what Eddie Van Halen did when he - with the tapping, but then the other - but the right hand, instead of tapping on the guitar, you tap on the keyboard. Dave also plays two instruments. He plays the guitar and the bass, sometimes at the same time as well. And John, he just plays the drums.

STEWART: Dave, when you first got involved, did you know you were going to have to be double duty? Did they say, okay, we're going to have everybody play two instruments or…

Mr. DAVE KONOPKA (Guitarist, Battles): No. It was just - really, the way the band formed, there was no, you know, huge, like, mission statement.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KONOPKA: We really formed fairly organically, so it was, you know, for me, like I was primarily just the guitarist in the band then. But I was really kind of play like base-liney type low-end stuff. So - and then for the new album, I just - we incorporated bass, and we also incorporated vocals. It was just kind of like, really, just kind of choosing from, you know, the spectrum of what you can make sounds lift to, you know, incorporate into the mix to make more music.

STEWART: Well, you all came to this band from other projects and having worked as musicians before. Can I hear that in Battles, or did you have to abandon your previous musical identity to be part of this band?

(Soundbite of laughter)


Mr. KONOPKA: Well, I think that people develop their, you know, the styles or ways they'd like to do things. But when this band was created - yeah, you can notice that that's John Stanier, the drummer from Helmet's snare-drum sounds. But, you know, as a whole, I think when we're all playing off of each other and, like, we're pulling from each other's corner, you know, I don't hear too many of, like, past projects in there.

STEWART: How about for you, Ian?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, yeah, I think we all were conscious of not wanting to repeat past bands we'd been in, and - but it's easier to just sort of imagine you want to do a new thing versus, like, actually doing it. So…


Mr. WILLIAMS: …we still - whenever you maybe take a step forward in something, you're still stepping from where you were. So, I mean, for me, I still have, like, a lot of my internal language built up, and I think we all do. You know, like, all your trips are still, you know…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KONOPKA: Very strong internal language.

Mr. WILLIAMS: There is a lot of conversations in my head. Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Loud in there.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: It's a little noisy in there.


STEWART: "Mirrored" is your full-length release, right? Am I correct on that?

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah. Technically.


STEWART: Technically. Because you had a compilation of your EPs before…

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah.


STEWART: Did you have to approach it differently?

Mr. WILLIAMS: When we made the EPs, we were just beginning. So we barely - we didn't know each other that well. I mean, you know, I got a band basically has, like, set of rules like, you know, the White Stripes know that they're guitar and drums and some vocals and some blues. It's sort of like, you - we were sort of defining those rules on those EPs, and it was sort of a…

STEWART: They were your adolescent years kind of thing?

Mr. WILLIAMS: They were.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Figuring out who you are…

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah.

STEWART: …testing in your boundaries.

Mr. KONOPKA: And so, at this point, when we made the album, I think we knew some of our tricks more.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: One of the interviews I read that you did - you talked a little bit about how technology has really allowed you to add another dimension to your sound. Can you tell me a little bit about that, how technology has helped infused the sound of your last record?

Mr. KONOPKA: It was never like a spirit or an idea to be a futuristic technology…

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KONOPKA: …slanted band. Like, it started with this idea of maybe having like a Fender Rhodes keyboard and a Hammond organ.

STEWART: Mm-hmm.

Mr. KONOPKA: And I mentioned to my friend, I was like, oh, you know, I want to do this music project, maybe drums, guitar, organ. You know, like, so I have to get like a Hammond organ. And I was like, how much are those? And he's like, ah, dude, get a laptop. You know, nowadays, you know, the software. All you -you just need like a midi keyboard and, like, you carry it around your laptop to practice. It's a lot easier. And so I actually, and I looked, and you can do the same thing. You simulate like a Fender Rhodes. I mean, these are both like old kind of '60s and '70s technologies that are this huge, bulky things, and that you really can't carry around the subway in New York City to your practice space or something.

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think, like, at the end of the day, like, the setup of our band is no different than a garage band from the '70s or something, you know. It's just kind of like - but we just have the ability to make loops and travel with, you know, small, like, looping samplers and things and have 10,000 different sounds for his keyboard in his laptop. But we don't use samples, or we don't rely on technology to do something to take the place of what a human can do.

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: What challenges do you have taking the sounds that you've made and the songs you've made and you've put on this record, and translating it to the stage? You toured a lot. But it's - for someone - I haven't seen you live. I've only seen you on videos and heard you through my headphones. I keep thinking, what is it like live?

Mr. WILLIAMS: Well, we have the advantage of a big, muscularly, strong drummer who sets up at the front of the stage.

STEWART: You just got a big dude.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. So we want that - I mean, you know, the big drummers, the oldest trick in the book, you know, because it's something to look at on stage, like, wow, look at that guy. Look at that, like, gorilla play his drums.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. WILLIAMS: So it's entertaining, you know, endlessly. We have eight amplifiers on stage, too, which keeps it, you know, loud.


Mr. WILLIAMS: Although, see there's an ongoing debate within the band, because John says - John always says that we're too loud. John, the drummer, who plays the acoustic instrument and has to compete against our volume. But then we always say, well, Johnny, you play the drum so loud, we have to turn it up really loud to hear ourselves.

STEWART: You're so dang big. Come on.

Mr. WILLIAMS: Yeah. You know, so it's this sort of like circle that just like…

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah.

Mr. WILLIAMS: …escalates the volume all the time. So we're loud, I mean, but, you know…

Mr. KONOPKA: You know, as compared to listening to it on the album, like, some of the songs on the album we had the privilege of being able to tour with before we recorded it and, like, we could work out the nuances of some of these songs on the road before we went into the studio. But then there are other songs that were constructed in a practice phase, never played out loud before, but had ideas that we're working on, and other songs that were purely put together within the, you know, like, the studio.

So when you see us play, like, I think it's like a total culmination of the creative process of what you hear documented on an album just totally expanding before your eyes and, like, seeing how everything plays out. You know, everything we do is live. If we have a loop, we play it live and we record it live in front of the audience. There's nothing that's pre - you know, no new samples or nothing pre-recorded. I always kind of liken it to, like, you can go to a museum and you can see a beautiful painting by…

STEWART: Gauguin.

Mr. KONOPKA: All right. Gauguin.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KONOPKA: But you never have the ability to go back into time and see Gauguin painting that painting. That's what's special about seeing the live band. In particular, I think that's what's special about seeing Battles is because the four of us on stage, we look like total freaks. We're like little rats in a cage, like, trying to work out all this stuff. It's like a juggling act. But it's like you are seeing, like, the creative process at work, at how we arrived at these songs that were documented.

STEWART: Normally, this is such a dorky, basic question, but I think it might actually be interesting. But do you guys - how do you write your songs? I'm sitting there, I'm listening - and I listening and I'm like thinking how does this - how did this even start? Does it start with a loop? Does it start with a riff? Does it start with an idea about some emotion you want to convey?

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah. It's, you know, like the way we work when we write is - it's all very, very simple, like, little ideas that intermingle that, you know, Battles as a whole is this, you know, a Battles song as a whole is this - seems like a fairly complicated thing.

But when you, like, kind of look at it under a microscope, it's just a bunch of little simple parts that work off of one another. So like when we're writing, it could start with a loop, or it could start with a concept, or it could start with, you know, just like a rift or beat. We just write it down on paper. We have paper covering the walls of our practice space, and we name the little parts for the sake of reference, and just - it's kind of like putting together the pieces of a puzzle, like what works or what doesn't work in a good way, or what contrasts.

STEWART: Old-fashioned paper? You've got the computers on stage?

Mr. KONOPKA: Newsprint and the markers.

STEWART: Down there with markers, really?


Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah. Yeah.

STEWART: It must be a wild-looking space, then.

Mr. KONOPKA: Yes. It's cool in there.

STEWART: A little Unabomber-ish, maybe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KONOPKA: We used those charts as a background from one of our, like, a magazine cover, which is kind of…

STEWART: Oh, I saw that one.

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah.

STEWART: So that's really your space?

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah. They fill in our…

Mr. WILLIAMS: Magazine cover.

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah.

STEWART: Dave, pronounce your last name for me, so I say this right.

Mr. KONOPKA: It's called Konopka.

STEWART: Konopka.

Mr. KONOPKA: Or, it's pronounced…

Mr. WILLIAMS: It means - Konopka means good.

Mr. KONOPKA: Yeah. In Polish - like, sometimes people in Europe are like, your last name is Konopka. And they start laughing at me. But if you replace the O's with A's…

Mr. WILLIAMS: Just cut to the chase.

Mr. KONOPKA: It means sandwich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. KONOPKA: So there's a lot of people in Europe they call me sandwich.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: We're talking to Dave Konopka and Ian Williams from Battles. Your record "Mirrored" has gotten some really spectacular reviews, so you've got to feel good. And it's interesting because it's in a lot of alternative press, and they're not giving you a hard time for having hooks and melodies. They're actually kind of praising you in a lot of these reviews for going in that direction. Was that intentional? Did you want to make the music - and I know this is one of these sort of loaded words, and I don't mean it in a way - more accessible for people?

Mr. WILLIAMS: I think it doesn't have to hit you in a cerebral way to be, you know, as fun as anything. And that's just I really think a vague mission, I guess, but you can totally party to crazy music, you know. You know, I mean, I guess hooks and melodies were sort of considered sellouts at one point maybe, but, I don't know.

STEWART: What do you think, Dave?

Mr. KONOPKA: There's no rules. The bottom line is just the four of us are really experimenting with things that are really interesting to us. And I think that as far as luring people into your world with that bright lure is just kind of - is an interesting thing to do as an artist sometimes. So, you know, with a song like "Atlas" kind of existed for that reason.

(Soundbite of song, "Atlas")

Mr. KONOPKA: Because it is accessible in a way, and it's very - you know, it is fairly easy. Everything's in, you know, straight, you know, straight timing, you know, come, you know, four-in-the-floor-type deal. But it's luring people into your world with a song like that. The accessibility comes into - it becomes functional, in a way.

STEWART: Did I forget to ask you anything that you really want somebody to ask you about the record? You got to get off your chest or you're just meaning to talk about?

Mr. KONOPKA: All of the CDs were printed on organic plastic.


(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: (unintelligible)

Mr. KONOPKA: (unintelligible)

STEWART: All right, (unintelligible).

(Soundbite of music)

STEWART: I almost bought it for a minute. I've been up since 3 a.m. "Mirrored" is Battles' first full-length release, and the group has made an art-house style video in association with well-known light artist, United Visual Artists. It's called "Tonto." And if you go to our blog today, you can see the video as well as BPP exclusive commentary by Dave and Ian about that whole process. That's at

(Soundbite of music)

TOURE: That's it for this hour of THE BRYANT PARK PROJECT, which is also printed on organic plastic…

(Soundbite of laughter)

TOURE: …interestingly enough. Thanks for spending it with us. We are always online at

STEWART: You're Toure.

TOURE: I am.

STEWART: Will you come back tomorrow?

TOURE: And you're Alison.

STEWART: I am. I'll be here.

(Soundbite of laughter)

STEWART: Will you?

TOURE: It's up to you.

STEWART: All right. I say yes.


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