John Stanier interview: ‘Math rock is a pretty gross term… really unsexy’

Check any random definition of the term ‘math rock’ and Battles will probably pop up somewhere. It’s been a catch-all shorthand term for the band over the last 15 years, with their flitting rhythms, overlapping modular loops and glinting smithereen-like guitar riffs with zero link to any idea of blues-based rock.

Drummer John Stanier winces at the term though. “It’s a pretty gross term, really unsexy,” he says over a skype call from Miami on a break from touring. “It’s just because people are really lazy. I didn’t like the term to begin with, but now it’s super annoying, it was already over by the 90s and now people are still acting as if they’re the first to use it, anything a bit different is math rock. I guess everything has to have a name, but I’m not really into math rock.”

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You can almost understand how people got hooked on the term. Even In a recent mini-documentary called The Art of Repetition, about the recording of Battles’ latest album La Di Da Di, there’s a close-up of huge charts they use for ‘notation’, and they look like abstract commands and non-sequiturs. Rather than transcription, chords or lyrics – Battles is now a tight instrumental trio with Ian Williams and Dave Konopka – they work off directions like “IRREGULARS MOUNTAIN CLIMB 1 (x16) 2 (x16) 3 (x16)” or “IAN abandons ship / DK San Marzano > follow / JS gorilla Cue”.

It’s not some academic formula though, Stanier says it’s just an intuitive syntax that’s evolved over time.

“It’s this total weird language that only we understand, it’s a very personal weird thing that we do,” he says. “Years ago when the band first started it was so complicated, there was so much going on. Everyone had their precious little parts, the songs were like little minuets, little plays. So they had themes, and characters and moods and stuff like that.

“And seeing as we’re basically an instrumental band and we’re not like the standard verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge, double chorus out… you gotta write this stuff down. So we started writing it down on giant pieces of paper and we named stuff. So yeah it’s our own little universe.”

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After the departure of fourth member of Tyondai Braxton, who went solo in 2010, Battles lost their de facto vocalist. The pitched-up chants of live belters like Atlas and Tonto transcend conventional frontman singing, but it still seemed like a massive blow. They largely scrapped an album they’d been working on and rebounded with Gloss Drop – a more direct, gleaming and upbeat record with definite hooks and guest vocal slots that didn’t feel tagged on. Ice Cream featuring Matias Aguiyo is still their catchiest tune – its glitchy calypso and abstract vocal lines still a live favourite.

La Di Da Di is technically their first album from scratch as a trio, and Stanier says they felt like they “just had the confidence to make an instrumental record”.