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”.

“I don’t feel like there was ever a lead singer anyway,” he adds. “The vocals have been really sparse all along. At the very beginning of making this record we were like, ‘Are there gonna be vocals on the record?’ And the answer was, ‘We don’t know but let’s not dwell on that’.

“We’re not the kind of band who can have this meeting and say, ‘Let’s try to make a reggae record. Stuff just happens naturally whether we like it or not. We don’t all live in New York, and so it’s written in these spurts of time, everybody goes off writing for long periods of time, and everyone tweaks their personal stuff. That being said, there are an awful lot of quick arrangements while we’re in the studio.

“Again we kept putting that question off, then after a while, well I guess it’s an instrumental record, and I was completely fine with that. What did we have to lose…”

Stanier arrived in Battles by the scenic route. He was the backbone of New York abstract hardcore pioneers Helmet from 1989-98 and takes the call from Mike Patton every few years for Tomahawk. He assures me there’ll “eventually” be another Tomahawk album even though “it’s difficult to get everybody’s schedules to click”. He also drums for veteran Australian hardcore band Mark of Cain. The New York hardcore scene was a big jump from his years as an orchestral percussion major in college, and marching in drum corps bands. He says he got obsessed with the drums when his parents used to invite musicians around, and his first gig was a Sun Ra concert when he was two.

Just don’t call him a mere timekeeper – Stanier propels bands with piston precision, with his giddy breaks, snare thrashes cutting through any riff thrown at him. Through mastering Steve Reich’s drumming at college, his drum corps military precision, his hardcore chops and his obsession with 90s New York hip-hop, Stanier thrives off repetition, and says in Battles he gets to follow, he’s no longer the backbone.

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Helmet in 1992

He explains: “There’s this master loop on every single one of our songs which either of the guys will set, or they’ll pass it back and forth, that’s really dictating what’s going on. It’s dictating the tempo, it’s dictating what key the song is in, dictating the cadence. It’s everything. Everything is writing to that.

“It’s always been like that, from the first EPs, everything started off as this really hypnotic main loop and then everyone else would go around it and between it. That’s the repetitive, hypnotic psychedelic element to our music. There’s always a constant, and that constant is always the master loop. That master loop is driving the music, not the drums.

“In a normal band situation the drums is what’s in the driver seat. You’re determining the tempo, giving all the cues, all the changes, you’re orchestrating, but in Battles the loop is the boss. Everything is the loop. It took me a long time to get used to playing with that because I hate playing with a click. But now I almost can’t play without it. It’s amazing… it’s like a click, actually it’s more than that, it’s my lifeline.”

Stanier says Neil Peart of Rush is his biggest influence and Rush are his “all-time favourite band. Period”. But it’s Peart’s dynamism and heavy playing that gripped Stanier — not the uber-prog 30-40 piece kit. Stanier’s kit is as minimal as it gets — six pieces. His six-foot high crash cymbal is Battles’ great live signifier, at the front of the stage like an all conquering flag with Stanier reaching up to knock it into next week.

He says: “I think with battles I wanted to do something really different, something really unique… at first i didn’t want to have any cymbals, it’s always been very, very, very minimal. I want it to be 100 per cent acoustic drums, no electronics. It’s still this minimal aesthetic, which also makes it much more difficult… you have to reinvent the wheel every record.

“The reason the cymbal is up so high… originally it was a joke, but it’s also because in the very beginning I would rarely hit it, sometimes only once in a song, so when I did hit it I wanted it to look like a really big deal. It’s a marker, like a reset button, or it indicates that something is about to happen.”

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Battles’ Forbidden Fruit show in Dublin this Saturday is their third Irish show in nine months (“Yeah I know it’s crazy, we play Ireland way more than anywhere else”), and Stanier is quick to point out that the jazzy fills and playful dialogue between percussion and loops during downtime hides a deep precision and meticulous stage craft.

He adds: “Our records take so long to make and it takes so long to figure out how to play them. Like we’re still not that band with six records that can go back and play all the hits. We’re not like the Allman Brothers making quick decisions on stage and jamming.

“Most of the improvisation on stage comes from in between the songs, we improv a lot on that, but the actual songs themselves are very well thought-out. I mean extremely. You’d be able to tell if it wasn’t as meticulous, it would fall apart… there’s no messing around.”

  • Original version in Irish Daily Star