Ian Williams has been playing in instrumental bands—or, to be more specific, bands that focus on instrumentals—for a long time. The Johnstown, Pa., native joined Don Caballero in 1992, spent time in Storm and Stress later that decade, and jump-started Battles, his current and most successful project, in the early 2000s. Along the way, he developed a philosophy about making experiment-heavy music: “Once you have something really mastered and down, it’s like you expect less emotion, and it somehow becomes a little less truthful. For me, [playing music is] always about discovering a new way to generate sounds, melodies, textures or whatever the hell I do. It’s always sort of a struggle ... You always have to move on and keep finding yourself in new positions—redesigning your menu.” He adds: “I’m not going to make any more restaurant metaphors.”
Since Battles’ inception, the Brooklyn, N.Y., band has eagerly treated its math-rock-gone-whatever-pop like a spongy, multicolored, and particularly malleable piece of Play-Doh. Guitars have carte blanche to sound as rubbery or machinelike as needed; synthesizers can touch on high, unexpected notes; rhythms can speed up or slow down at will. The band considers any kind of sound fair game, with the right context and execution.
“Atlas,” off the band’s 2007 debut album, Mirrored, exemplifies the gorgeous weirdness that can unfold in Battles’ world. Led by Tyondai Braxton’s helium-soaked vocals, the song is good-natured and absurdly catchy, with a brilliant bounciness to its movements. Unsurprisingly, it’s Battles’ most popular track (both in YouTube views and Last.fm plays), and it was well-loved enough to spawn what Williams sees as two distinct fan bases. “ Mirrored kind of put us in this position where we had a foot still in this experimental world, with underground music fans liking what we were doing,” he says, “and yet we had that one song with vocals ... right at the moment when singles and videos were happening in the indie world on the Internet.
“‘Atlas’ took us into this larger Pitchfork spectrum of your average college kid who listens to kind of interesting music. We suddenly developed these two different constituencies that were interested in what we did. I think it’s great when you can achieve [the task of satisfying] both within one breath, but it’s actually very difficult to do that—and that’s why a Battles album is pressure for us.”
These conflicting viewpoints came to a head when Battles began developing its second record in 2009. After earning many compliments for Mirrored and devoting two years to touring, the group began assembling the record now known as Gloss Drop. They worked in the same Pawtucket, R.I., studio where they made Mirrored , with many of the same personnel, but the sparks of inspiration just weren’t there. A sense of complacency took over the band, Williams says, leading to work that drummer John Stanier later characterized as “a little uninspired and it wasn’t really a team effort.”
In August 2010, a public statement announced lead vocalist Braxton’s exit from the band in what was “a sad but amicable split.” Williams cites creative differences between the two as the cause for the split: Braxton, naturally enough, was pushing for a poppier, more vocal-based sound in the wake of “Atlas,” which Williams didn’t think was working. Losing Braxton made a dent in morale, so the band decided to start over. Recording turned into a hectic scramble of 14-hour work days; finally, after five months, they finished Gloss Drop , which hit in June 2011.
To get an idea of how smartly Battles handled the problem of losing its most significant voice, consider the variety of guest vocalists that appear on Gloss Drop. Electronica artist Gary Numan of “Cars” fame shows up on “My Machines” to sound, well, just like Gary Numan; Blonde Redhead’s Kazu Makino goes all coy on “Sweetie & Shag”; distant-sounding chants and wails from Boredoms’ Yamantaka Eye populate “Sundome”; and the singy-songy voice of Matias Aguayo provides a mix of Spanish and English vocals on “Ice Cream.” Battles leaves enough empty space that the music can accommodate singers so varied without stretching the band’s aesthetic too much. “I like to think of us as an instrumental band that happens to have vocals,” Williams says.
Despite the headaches that accom-panied Gloss Drop ’s construction, the record’s music is sweet and upbeat. The band plays with tropical rhythms on “Ice Cream,” tinkers with psychedelia on “Sundome,” orchestrates the perfect conga line soundtrack with “Dominican Fade,” and whittles a four-hour jam from guitarist/bassist Dave Konopka down to almost five minutes for the incandescent “Inchworm.” About half of the original Braxton-era Gloss Drop was retained for the final product, and when Williams compares remaking the album to “salvaging a house,” his quick use of a non-restaurant-related metaphor mirrors Battles’ playful, nothing-is-sacred approach to putting things together. “The fireplace is awesome,” he says. “We’re going to take that out of here.”
Battles perform Tues., June 12, 7pm. $15-$19. With Work Drugs + Grimace Federation. Theatre of Living Arts, 334 South St. 215.922.1011. tlaphilly.com