Taking some well earned time off in Miami, John Stanier of experimental rock group BATTLES speaks to Seán Hayes of their upcoming European tour, the pressure of creating good music and his love for Irish audiences.
The notoriously outspoken Robert Christgau once wrote that American experimental rock group Battles simultaneously tintinnabulate and grunt while performing on stage. Whatever that pompous statement means exactly, drummer John Stanier doesn’t seem to care too much. In fact, Stanier doesn’t seem to particularly care about anything these days. And why should he? He’s currently taking some time off from the road, kicking back on a “very pleasant, beautiful sunny morning in Miami.” The fact that he emphasises his current situation, seemingly for good measure: “It really is beautiful here, not to rub it in”, does little to alleviate the pangs of jealousy emanating from the dismally grey, Dublin side of the phone call. The fact is, Stainer is a cool character, and cooler still for seemingly being completely unaware of this fact. His stories are scattered and oftentimes interrupted, rarely arriving at a conclusion that answers the original question. Yet a warm, almost Southern-inclined voice keeps any potential listener within ear-reach hooked and makes for fascinating and rewarding conversation.
Battles originally formed in New York City in 2002, a comparative lifetime – or even two – in the fast-paced and fickle music industry. From talking to Stanier, though, there’s little doubt that his laid-back, unassuming manner played a large part in the longevity of the group. He expresses genuine surprise at the fact that they have now been successfully playing together for the past 13 years. Reflecting, he admits that “the band started out not even as a concrete idea. It started out as the possibility of an idea which may turn into something or may not turn into anything. When I came into the picture, it was not one of those situations where the moment I walked in the door I knew there was something special there. There was none of that. I think I even blew off the next rehearsal. It took me a good bunch of times before I even wanted to commit to it. It took such a long time to develop. It definitely took four years of touring the US in a van, playing to 50 people and sleeping on people’s floors.” Their perseverance seems to have paid off, however, despite their shaky beginnings. The band has just returned from playing Mexico City and they are now gearing up for an extensive tour of Europe, which will see them take in cities such as Berlin, Paris and Milan. A sold-out date in Dublin’s Button Factory has just gone by too.
“It took such long time to develop. It definitely took four years of touring the US in a van, playing to 50 people and sleeping on people’s floors.”
What makes their successful trajectory even more surprising is that, for a band that has been around for more than a decade, their creative output has been somewhat limited. In an industry where pop acts are contractually obliged to release an album every November and an eighteen month period between releases is considered a hiatus, Battles’ three albums make for an average of just one release every four years. The group’s third record, La Di Da Di, was released in September of last year to continued critical approval. Stanier, however, goes to lengths to dispel any rumours of a lacklustre effort behind the band’s output. In fact, it is the only point in the conversation where Stanier’s sunny disposition appears to break, instead revealing slight frustration. Explaining the band’s desire to maintain originality, Stainer reveals that “half the reason it takes so long is because we’re working hard not to repeat ourselves and that doesn’t necessarily mean just writing new stuff. The writing is simple. We do that all day long. It means sometimes using an entirely new set up, using more futuristic technology and learning how to do that.”
As well as the technical skill behind each of their releases, Stanier reveals a sometimes- unacknowledged problem experienced by many musicians and artists – knowing when to stop. “That right there is the hardest thing to do, knowing when to stop painting. ‘When is the painting done?’ It’s like sculpting everything into the perfect sculpture. That’s really hard. We get into the biggest arguments over whether stuff should stay in or out. There’s a certain finesse to that that’s pretty tricky.”
Indeed, this skill appears to have paid off. Battles’ records and live performances have always been well received by critics and audiences alike. Stanier claims that the audience plays a large part in the overall show. Perhaps unique in the sense that the band does not have one dedicated frontman, all three members, instead, prefer to get as close to the audience as possible. Explaining this, he enthuses that “there’s no frontman, but then all three of us are pushed up to the front of the stage. It’s not like we’re this bashful, really shy, shoe-gazer band that’s hiding behind our singer. We want people to have fun and we want people to be in the middle of the music as we are.”
“We have some of the funnest nights we have ever had in your wonderful country. Seriously, really crazy nights. I’m talking about getting back at noon kind of nights.”
One audience that has been particularly receptive, according to Stanier, is the Irish audience. Pausing for a moment, as he recollects his time in the city, he decides: “We have some of the funnest nights we have ever had in your wonderful country. Seriously, really crazy nights. I’m talking about getting back at noon kind of nights. And Dublin is always the type of place it takes four days to recuperate from. We usually go really crazy in Dublin. We really like the audience, of course. It’s always been super receptive to us – very non-judgemental. Comparing it to London, it doesn’t even compare. London is always very strategic and you’ve got to do this and that. Dublin is always fun, I love it.”
Despite being around for longer than most bands could even dream of and dealing with the internal pressure of producing nuanced collections of music, Stanier and his bandmates are still just looking to have a good time. This laid back attitude is part of Stanier’s appeal and it’s certainly played a large part in the band’s overall success. This happy-go-lucky mindset can be noticed in the group’s plans for the future too, as Stanier reveals. “I think we’ll tour for the rest of the year, at least until the early fall. And then, who knows? I’m sure we’ll take some time off. I have some other stuff going on that I’m going to do and then I guess there’ll be another record.” Whether this takes another four years or not has yet to be decided.
La Di Da Di is out now.