The largest, most prominent cymbal on Battles drummer John Stanier's kit stands about seven feet high, towering over everything and everyone: Stanier, the rest of the drums, the rest of the band and the rest of the people staring at it; i.e., the crowd. One cannot strike this cymbal nonchalantly. Stanier has to look directly at it, lean forward and reach for it. Whump. This has deliberately been designed to require a very deliberate act.
"It's an event," Stanier explains, "an event unto itself."
"It's a cool anchor to the stage it looks like a flag," adds Tyondai Braxton, one of Stanier's three bandmates. "The cymbal looks like the Battles' flag."
On a mid-April Thursday night, the Battles' flag flies over an all-NYU-student crowd at the Kimmel Center, split more or less evenly between passive bewilderment and aggressive awe. Stanier's drums are front and center, a feng-shui decision both symbolic (Battles is a democracy, no one is a star, etc.) and practical he is the focal point, and the master loop amp lurks directly behind him, burping forth the endless streams of percussive, labyrinthine, menacingly merry melodies that Braxton, Dave Konopka and Ian Williams supply, and which Stanier somehow hammers into some sort of coherent, rational shape, turning chaos into chaos theory.
Describing this band is a pain in the ass. The stage is haphazardly strewn with guitars, keyboards, drum machines and the various accoutrements Braxton uses to morph and mutilate his voice to high-pitched, creepy, otherworldly effect; the jams that result from all this seem to resemble actual organic "jams" random, meandering, easily distracted but are also robotically precise and technically exact. Primal sentiment, futuristic execution. The tunes often start with one, two, sometimes three muted, skittering guitars, no melody, just rhythm, sketching out a nervous beat that Stanier, when he joins in, obliterates entirely and rebuilds to his own specifications. Whump. Describing this band is a pain in the ass. Listening to 'em, whether you trend toward bewilderment or awe, can be life-affirming.
The next afternoon, gathered at a bar near the Soho office of their label, Warp Records, the guys prove that describing this band when you're in this band is an even greater pain in the ass. "We are a modern garage band," Stanier offers; Braxton disagrees, and suggests other tags, only to promptly dismiss them. "Improvisational" sounds half-assed to him, like they're just making shit up. "Rock and roll" ain't cuttin' it. (His bandmates start bleating derisive Chuck Berry guitar riffs with their mouths to crack each other up.) "Experimental" is fraught with negative connotation and so vague as to be meaningless, but Braxton actually kinda likes that one, if only because "if I'm gonna be labeled something, I'd rather be labeled something that doesn't mean anything."
Battles began with one single ("Tras") and two EPs (EP C and B EP, respectively), all of which Warp helpfully re-released on one disc as EP C/B EP in 2006, thankfully bringing to a close the era in which Battles named songs and releases with the sole intent of antagonizing people. The song "Hi/Lo" is from this era, with Stanier thwacking out a slow rumble as an octave-jumping keyboard sketches out a simple little tune (like a particularly chipper fax machine), as muddier, more sultry guitars riff beneath, through and around it.
On record the tune's appealingly stiff, charming in its rigidity; onstage at Kimmel, with three years of live interpretation to draw from, Battles churns out a grittier, nastier, more swinging version, in both the jazz and phallic senses of the word. It's got a furious beat; you can't dance to it. So as with the rest of the set, the crowd stares, transfixed, with the exception of a small pocket down in front, stage right: a sort of Enthusiasm Corner, where shirtless dudes thrash around and execute spastic Diamond Dave high kicks.
Battles is one of the best live bands in New York City; part of the reason for this is they're rarely there. From their earliest days together, the dudes found themselves mostly on tour with folks like Prefuse 73 and The Mars Volta, assaulting unfamiliar crowds and reveling in the confusion they'd cause. Onstage they're intensely tuned to each other, to the point of not acknowledging the crowd at all. "I've never really been into bands that cater too much to the audience," Braxton says. "We don't want to alienate anyone it's not about that. But it's another thing to be overly accommodating (grating game-show-host voice) ‘Heyyyy everybody!'"
Nor, apparently, does he care for audiences that cater too much to the band. "I don't really like it when the shows get too violent," Braxton continues. "When the audience is like (boorish frat-boy voice) ‘Party time! Party time!'; that kinda shit isn't that cool to me." Instead, he prefers hushed absorption preferably seated. Ian happily recalls a gig in Japan, opening for The Mars Volta. Battles played their first song. Silence. No crowd response. Another song. No response. So on and so on. He figures no one's into it, alas. But at set's end, suddenly there's a huge ovation, hahahhhhhhh, a deep concentration finally broken. Battles seeks to write anthems that paralyze rather than rouse you.
Which brings us to "Atlas."
"Atlas" is the lead single off Mirrored, Battles' debut full-length, released last month to already hyperbolic and much-deserved acclaim. "Atlas" is hilariously terrifying. "My favorite interpretation is ‘a fascist Smurf society,'" Stanier says; indeed, there's a distinct march-of-the-munchkins lilt to its robotically loping beat, the bleeping guitars and keyboards jostling along in sharp staccato, as Braxton, his voice horrifically distorted and pitched skyward into a cyborg chipmunk whine, cheerfully sings...something. Some cyborg chipmunk call to arms. It's disturbing. Though it scans as gibberish, there are in fact actual words, actual lyrics involved, which Braxton will not reveal, even to the folks in the front row he's noticed lately intently studying his mouth as he sings them. (Knock it off.)
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The Battles dudes love "Atlas." It's their anthem, their gateway drug, their weapon for "luring more people into your weird world, but with the most conventional ways," Konopka explains. "If a sorority girl can get off on ‘Atlas,' and then come to a show and hear a song like ‘TIJ,' that's fuckin' great."
What's really fuckin' great is that Battles considers "Atlas" conventional this is their pop concession, when in fact Mirrored's "TIJ," though frenzied and discordant, is only slightly more disconcerting than the alleged pop hit that will trick sorority girls into hearing it. "In some bizarre way it is a pop song," Williams says of "Atlas."
"Being able to access this, like, anthem, in the middle of our craziness is actually really kinda cool for our set. It's a nice place to go." Another flag successfully planted.
Battles performs Saturday, June 23, at Numbers, 300 Westheimer, 713-526-6551. For tickets, visit pegstar.net. Ponytail and Sharks & Sailors also perform.