Battles’ Ian Williams: Finger-tappin’ good.

Our editorial assistant, Adam Lovinus, described Battles in MKE six months ago: “Funks out like Talking Heads on LSD, plus math-rock explorations and psychedelic texturing to gritty guitar funk” when they stopped at Stonefly last July. Back then, MKE theorized they were going to be the next big thing and Milwaukee audiences would be able to say “I saw them when….”

Six months and a tour through North America, Asia, Europe and Australia later, it’s happened.

Battles’ “Mirrored” is on most critics’ top ten lists of the year, and the MKE newsroom is still continuously, consistently rocking out to it. We’ve googled and brushed up on all of the members’ old bands’ catalogs (Don Caballero, Lynx, Helmet, Tyondai Braxton’s solo work), looked up their tourmates (Prefuse 73) and even family members (Donari and Anthony Braxton). I guess you can call that an obsession.

So a return to the Midwest definitely heralded an interview, what with more than a few Milwaukeeans trekking to the Metro to see the band again. A few phone calls to Europe were aborted by a too-busy schedule (including a BBC appearance), but as soon as they were stateside, I was able to call Ian Williams. He missed my first call; he was swimming in Las Vegas, after their Vegoose performance.
battles ian williams
Ian Williams at the Pitchfork Fest last July. Photo by Lille Bose.

Still, he very nicely called me back an hour later. On the tail end of their eight-month tour, Williams admits the band does get battle fatigue. “Not in a bad way, where you get tired,” he said. After all, he said, people who work Monday to Friday get tired as well. So they band rebounds pretty well: “It keeps getting more fun.”

Williams joked audiences do watch them over and over again, even when the set list is the same. “They say the set feels different, maybe depending on what shirt I’m wearing,” he said, laughing. Playing both festivals and club shows almost daily since they started touring, is both good and band, Williams says. “Both have their strengths,” he said.

While festivals enable you to build an audience by playing for people who may not have seen you before, it’s also stressful to get ready. “We have a lot of electronics, and there’d be times when we’re putting our gear together and cables are in mud, or you’d have to pee in the woods…there are raw elements to it where you think, it shouldn’t be this hard to play a rock and roll show, whereas at a club show you control the pace of the night. It’ s more comfortable.”

The trick to being a live musician, Williams explained, is that you have to approach your playing in an inspired manner. Channelling your moods into your songs makes your playing honest and legitimate. “So if…one night you’re happy, another you’re mad, or bored, or uncomfortable, you have to play from that point of where you are, and if you have to play the songs from that mold, it will be honest when you play it.”

That way, you’re not just going through the motions of doing the same thing every night. “Like if you think, this is the part that will rock, so I will ROCK! And this is the gentle (part of the song), so I will be delicate,” he said, laughing. “It’s ok if you’re bored and sick of the song, at least know that when you play it.”

Playing shows everyday isn’t as tiring as you might think, either: “You kind of realize that’s the only point of the day that matters. That’s the hour or hour and 10 minutes, however long the show is, that’s the point of the whole day. When you’re carrying your amps, or eating, that’s not really the point. The only reason anything is happening is that hour, so you focus on every second of that. People who jog everyday probably work harder than we do.”

A lot has been said about Battles’ creative songwriting process (for “Mirrored,” they wrote movements of their songs in parts, wrote crazy titles for them, and pieced them together). How do they stay creative while touring? “There’s a minimal amount of writing…it’s tricky,” Williams admitted. “For the most part, we really write not on the road.” Since they do have a lot of gear, their sound checks tend to be more about making sure everything works technically, “not noodling for two hours before a show.” The one hour or so that they do have free, Williams said, they take to zone out. “I sort of appreciate the mindlessness of that…You don’t necessarily open your laptop and start composing a midi sequence,” he said.

The plan is that the follow-up to the wildly successful “Mirrored” will get written after this tour. While “Mirrored” reflects their attitude towards sound and music at the time of its creation, “when we sit and make music, it will be a reaction to the year we’ve had…something that will still sound fresh to us,” Williams said. “It’s too tedious to make more of the same…although we have a few songs we made that didn’t work on the record, and we might try to rescue them.”

And when they’re not making music? “I think my fear about (coming home after touring) is that after two days, I’ll be like, ‘what am I supposed to do now?'” At the moment, Williams is building a list of things to do. Like what? “Go on the Internet for hours,” he joked.

No, really. “Oh, buy musical equipment and play around with stuff and have fun. Go to Costa Rica. There’s nothing conclusive just yet,” he said. “I still haven’t made the list.”

MORE ON IAN WILLIAMSHow he developed his two-hand tapping technique: I was always a nervous tapper. I would drum with my hands. My first instrument was the piano. (When I got in a band I began) tapping on the fretboard, the same way as Van Halen, just not in the same spirit.

It was a technique I started in Don Caballero, and I was playing keys and guitar. I would keep my left hand on the fret and the right on keyboard. It’s the same tapping stuff, but extends into two different instruments. It’s the first thing that inspired me (in Battles), and the extension of that idea was pretty natural to me. It was like a new band, a new lease on life. I got Ty to do it too.

Why is it called Battles? We were called Deep Cuts for, like, a week. Everyone else was like, “that’s awful!” And when people started saying, it’s good, I said, “No i hate it. Let’s go with Battles.” It could be anything, it’s not an overly defined meaning. I felt like it was a new attitude for making music in a way.

Math rock, schmath rock: Did you good math grades in school?
No, I was always weaker in math, personally. The whole math thing, it doesn’t make sense. All music has counting and time. The only sensible explanation for it is that Don Caballero had that title. I don’t know where else it would come from. It’s really pulsatory, it’s not shifting time signatures. “(It’s not like someone says) count this, (and someone else says) no, count this! Count this!”

What he’s reading now: “The Human Stain” by Philip Roth. A book on the Tokyo Underworld, about the seediness of post-war Japan and the Yakuza, “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle” by Haruki Murakami.

Bands he likes:
We just toured with the Dirty Projectors, they’re very very good. We just saw Daft Punk, it was the best show we’ve seen in a long time, it was so good. I like some techno like Via Lobos and Lucero; DJ Kotzen did some remixes (for us), as did the Field and Four Tet. I usually get more excited by left-of-center techno, which sometimes overwhelms me.
IF YOU GO
what Battles
when 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 8
where Metro, 3730 N Clark St., Chicago, Ill.
how much $15

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