"I feel like I just vented for an hour. This was like a free therapy session."
After the departure of founding member Tyondai Braxton, Battles bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka knows what folks want to talk about. After a string of experimental avant-rock EPs dating back to 2004, the group released their critically acclaimed debut LP Mirrored in 2007. In the middle of recording their follow-up album Gloss Drop, Braxton decided to leave the group to pursue a solo career.
The current trio of Konopka, guitarist Ian Williams and drummer John Stanier reworked the tracks, removing Braxton's contributions and enlisting techno producer Matias Aguayo, Blonde Redhead's Kazu Makino, and synth-pop pioneer Gary Numan to handle vocals. This is not the way any band wants to record an album. Far from breaking up, the trio has emerged stronger, ready to discuss the past and excited about the future.
Konopka talked at length with Hive about the circumstances surrounding Gloss Drop.
During Mirrored, the band worked out parts of songs live before recording them, and subsequently reworked songs on stage after they were recorded. Are you still going for that?
You know that it's the same song. Generally, we're still trying to play the songs exactly as they are on the album. The recorded song versus the live song is such a different animal, and we're all just so excited at this point that when we're playing, the adrenaline and energy from the audience is there. It seems a little fiercer than something you'd commit to on an album. The album is all about trying to encompass that perfection, but the live show is about being in the moment and responding to what's happening. It's easier as a three-piece to improv on stage and build segues and play with dynamics.
Without being on the standard two-year tour/record schedule, it seems like you had more time to take a step back and reflect on the band.
Yeah. To quote Bret Michaels, "Don't know what you've got til it's gone." Wait. Is that Bret Michaels?
I think that's Cinderella.
Oh, right. We've experienced so many setbacks in the making of this album that at any point, we could've just been like, "We're not up for this. This is not happening." I think we had an incredible amount of perseverance to see it through. For a while, things weren't gelling and it took a major change within the lineup and how we work as a band to make us realize this could all go away, or we could make this happen in the best way possible.
So you must have the Tyondai script ready in your head by now, right?
[Laughs] Oh, yeah. Of course. Unfortunately, it's part of the narrative of this album. It's written into the narrative of how this album came about, but it gets old after a while.
Yet Gloss Drop has some of the most upbeat songs the band has recorded. There's a certain playfulness on tracks like "Inchworm" and "Futura." How do we reconcile your bandmates calling this time a "dark period" with the tone of the tracks?
It wasn't like, "We're going to pretend like we're happy for the sake of the album." It took us a long time to record this album and it started with Tyondai in the studio with us, and then he took off and wasn't into it. I think he saw the light at the end of the tunnel, with all of the work that it takes to be a properly functioning band, and I don't think he was willing to commit to us in that way. That's totally cool. If that's something he needed to do, that's fine. But it didn't make for an easy process.
I'm going to play devil's advocate for a second. When Tyondai left, didn't anyone go, "You couldn't have done this before we started recording? You had to wait until now?"
That was very much the feeling. The timing was totally wack, but that's the story of where we've been for the past two years. We've constantly been experiencing the repercussions of poor timing. It wasn't a shock.
Why did it take so long to get back into the studio in the first place?
We weren't prepared to get in earlier. We still weren't prepared by the time we went in. With Mirrored, we wrote a lot of stuff in our rehearsal space and then we went into the studio more prepared. In this situation, we totally changed our process. We were less prepared going into the studio with the hopes that things would totally come together and we'd start gelling again. And that was not happening. For the sake of multitasking, we would separate into different rooms. We would record all our stuff individually. It was like an assembly line process where we would turn all of our parts in.
It sounds like the Beatles' Let It Be sessions.
It seemed like that. We were there for three months and I only saw Ty a handful of times. And we're in the same building. It was kind of gnarly. In retrospect, it takes something drastic to make the best thing happen. For us, it was difficult for sure. But it put the fire under our asses and made us go back and delete all of Ty's contributions and rewrite the album as a three-piece.
Was there any thought of keeping what he already recorded and working around it?
It was definitely no question to remove his parts. We were still using the material that we had for ourselves. We were essentially salvaging all of the parts that were worth it and parted with the stuff that was definitely not how we wanted to represent ourselves.
How much of that decision was wanting to express your musical vision versus thinking he just he didn't deserve to be on the album?
That could be part of it, but we're not that spiteful and malicious about that shit. For us, it was more about securing the future of this band as who we are and the statement that we wanted to make. I just think it would've been some half-assed release if we still had Ty on the album. It wouldn't have been indicative of who we are as a band. It wasn't out of spite; it was just the most logical, realistic thing that we needed to do. A lot of his contributions were vocal and that allowed us to collaborate with other vocalists that we thought were awesome.
When he left, how far along into the recording process were you?
Part of the separation — when we started listening back to the songs to see how completed they were — it would be like, "Wait. Whose part is that? Oh, I didn't realize that you finished." There were times you'd see Ty and be like, "Oh. That song's done?" That's kind of a fucked up way to make a second album if you ask me. It's hard to quantify the level of completion. We had enough of a body of work that could represent an album, but I don't think any of us were behind it. You could hear the dysfunction in the music.
There'd be a weird dynamic on stage as well.
Oh, no doubt. There already was. A separation was happening for a while there and I think everyone was trying to deny it. But whatever. It's not about dissing Ty at all. It was very amicable.
What's the relationship with him now?
We're just coming off our first tour, which was extremely work-intensive. The level of intensity that it took to complete the tour, and the way that we got along and handled all of that work, was extremely pleasurable.
That was a slight avoidance of the question.
Nah, it's pleasurable. John, Ian and I have always enjoyed touring and it's hard to do that when not everyone's on board with that. I think this time around – and this gets back to why Ty was removed from the album – we're a self-contained, self-sustainable unit in the sense that we can do what we want and we don't have to take into consideration meeting somebody halfway when they don't feel like putting in the amount of work that it takes to make this band successful.
For the collaborative songs, was this the Battles wish list?
Beyond that. We had these songs that were semi-completed and it was more about who would be more applicable to how they would complement the song. We had a few challenges that we thought would be really interesting to try to do. With Gary Numan, we were just like, "Let's pretend that we have the clout to actually get Gary Numan to sing on one of our songs." We met with him in Boston and he told us, "You guys are really weird and I like what you're doing." It was awesome. Gary Numan was calling us weird.
What drove the desire to reach out to all these people?
When things happen and you're presented with a problem and you need to solve it, then a lot of really good things come out of that constructive thought process. We really wanted to try a super-poppy song like "Sweetie and Shag" and cover the spectrum of pop to experimental. It was important for us to sit in that pop world a little, but back it up with some really experimental stuff. It was really tricky to find one person that could do all of that.
If Tyondai was still in the band, would the collaborations still have happened?
After Tyondai left, was there ever a thought of the band breaking up?
I think any speculation of this album not happening was happening a lot more when Ty was in the band and you saw how things were gelling between the four of us. Once you get over that threshold of "He made this decision. He's walking away from this," we were so in tune with our process that it turned into, "We need to solve problems on a consistent basis." It had nothing to do with, "Let's just break up." We would've all been defeated. Breaking up was not an option for us because we knew that we had such an excellent album on our hands and we could turn all of this into a positive situation.
The voyeur in me wants to see a Some Kind of Monster-type video documentation of the recordings.
[Laughs] I would be lying if I said it would be interesting to watch. You could tell the engineers – who also worked with us on Mirrored – were like, "What the hell's going on with you guys?" There were points where it was like, "Are you guys trying to sabotage your own album?"
It sounds like you guys are in a good spot now.
I feel amazing. We went through a lot of shit. And I hate that. I hate that we have to say in these interviews, "We went through a lot of shit" because that's not the point at all. We just grew as a band exponentially and ironically, it took a concession in our lineup to allow that to happen. We're just a rock band trying to make interesting music that is fun for us at the end of the day.
What's worse: the lowest point you hit with the band in the past two years or the thought of talking about it with countless journalists?
Definitely the lowest point that we hit. That's the reality. It's a privilege to be able to talk about this shit with countless journalists. That means that we overcame all that stupid shit and we're here.
I figured it would be like someone repeatedly asking me about my ex-girlfriend and I keep going, "She was definitely cool, but…"
But have you met my new girlfriend?