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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.
what Battles
when 8:30 p.m., Thursday, Nov. 8
where Metro, 3730 N Clark St., Chicago, Ill.
how much $15

The fact that the Pitchfork Music Festival 2007 sold out, partnered with ATP, and had a lineup that was every snotty indie music nerd’s wet dream meant that there was a lot of pseudo-intellectual music analysis overheard this weekend.

If I carried a recorder while walking through the crowds I could’ve remembered a lot of it. Thurston Moore’s wailing guitars matching the Yoko Ono art-squeal, Stephen Trask (of Hedwig fame) playing keys for her, Judah Bauer of Jon Spencer Blues Explosion playing guitar for Cat Power, Mastodon + Battles being the festival equivalents of cocaine, etc. etc. etc.

Overall, it was an easy, breezy weekend where people were quiet when they needed to be (Twilight Sad, Califone, Iron and Wine) and crazy rabid when called for (Mastodon, Dan Deacon, Girl Talk).

I couldn’t get off work early enough to go to Friday’s show, so I missed Slint, the Gza and Sonic Youth — all playing whole albums released 10 years ago. I did get to Union Park early enough on Saturday to catch the first act of the day, and stayed late enough that I had to walk six blocks to get a cab back to my hotel.


Something about this festival — more esoteric than Coachella, definitely the antithesis of Summerfest — made me realize why I love live music so much. I grew up on an island where bands I liked rarely ever played, so a festival like Pitchfork, where the acts playing were revered by many, many reverent fans of music, was like heaven.

The thing is, reviewing a festival put together for music geeks gives me the heebie jeebies. One, because everything I say will probably refuted by some wiseass who thinks he knows more music than I do. Two, musical taste is so subjective that barring technical difficulties, mood and skill, a show can be good or bad, depending on the person watching it. Three, as Elvis Costello said, writing about music is like dancing about architecture.

You know what’s not like dancing about architecture? Cute boys. That said, I decided to give the performances grades ala Pitchfork reviews based on two things: how cute the bands were and how much I liked their shows.

Twilight Sad: 7.1


Performance: Sweet, sad, yummy.
Cute factor:The Scottish band’s lead singer is very cute. Hooray!

Califone: 6.5


Performance: Chill-out, solid and near-perfect for the early afternoon spot, when many were lounging in the shade.
Cute factor: All those horn players, and not a cute boy in sight. Aww.

Voxtrot: 7.3


Performance: Bouncy! Happy! A teenager’s PG version of sexy! “Soft and Warm” was my favorite song of 2006, and the lead singer’s voice was like honey. Exceeded most of my expectations, but I thought more people would be dancing.
Cute factor: High. Skinny boys from Austin singing pop songs about love? How can you resist?

Grizzly Bear: 6.9


Performance: Sonorous and dreamy, the thought that Pitchfork’s programming was as perfect as a 1990 mix tape occurred to me during Grizzly Bear’s set. Everything came together — the pink shirts, the wind instruments, the echo of voices in the wind.
Cute factor: With their distinct (and pink) fashion sense, the Grizzly Bear boys aren’t physically cute as they are (collectively) art boy cute. But I wouldn’t throw any of them out of bed for eating cookies and then leaving crumbs all over the place. Or maybe I would, I dunno. It would probably depend on the cookie flavor, or if they shared, or if I was PMSing.

Battles: 9.3

battles battles

Performance: Intensely awesome in a kick-ass, I-know-kung-fu, jiu-jitsu-and-capoiera way. The multi-instrumentalists played funkified, hard-core prog rock that challenges my brain in many appealing ways.
Cute factor: High. I mean, how cute is playing with an 8-foot cymbal? And their Nikes were neon! And that guy with the ‘fro! They may have been the cutest band on the bill. Battles, you can destroy my equipment anytime!

Fujiya and Miyagi: 5.1

fujiya and miyagi

Performance: Ho-hum. I love their album but I couldn’t get into their live set much. It must’ve been the lack of cute dudes in the band. Milan Zori, by the way, was disappointed that they weren’t Asian.
Cute factor: Eh.

Iron and Wine: 6.3


Performance: I have deep feelings for Sam Beam as he is the only male performer who has ever made me cry. (It was when he was solo at the Pabst.) But after watching Battles I just didn’t feel slow and lazy anymore. He did cover Radiohead’s “No Surprises,” and that was good.
Cute factor: I’m torn here. Some angles he looks like a vision of God. (Specifically, he looks like the guitar-toting Jesus, as per the image pushed by the Roman Catholic church for centuries.) Other angles, he just looks like a hairy mountain man.

Mastodon: 8.9


Performance: Speaking of hairy…Mastodon played an excellent show. Just thinking about how metal it all was still makes my heart pound. It was super tight, super loud, and super brutal. While they were playing dust kept rising up to the stage; later I found out that it was courtesy of people in the mosh pit. I think it was great that two hours later I still had a headache from how solid and brutal it all was.
Cute factor: I bet Mastodon’s singer would be cute if he applied a brush to his head. And maybe a razor. Or at the very least, some soap.

Oxford Collapse: ???

oxford collapse

Performance: I didn’t see them play, I was just caught them while waiting for Dan Deacon.
Cute factor: See Fujiya and Miyagi.

Dan Deacon: 9.1


dan deacon's setup: note the ipod taped to a banana


Performance: First, he set up the stage right in the pit. Then, he plugged in his blue iPod shuffle taped to a banana to be able to kick out the jams. He encouraged people to mosh around him, namechecked Milwaukee during the first song when he wanted people to sing along with him in one breath (actually he said “don’t take two breaths like those jerks in Milwaukee”), organized a killer dance contest amid a crush of people (with rules such as “you have to dance as sassy as f***, like Prince in ‘Purple Rain'”). Triumph of the geek!
Cute factor: He’s fat, he’s balding, he wears two variations of aqua in the same outfit, he is sweaty and wears oversized glasses, but seriously. That was a swell show. So for some chick who likes to dance and doesn’t mind dudes that don’t wear deodorant, he is totally cute.

Cat Power: 6.4


Performance: Every single time I used to see Cat Power it was like she was on heroin; she would start a song on guitar, stop, start a song on piano, stop, then make like she had Tourette’s. I love all her albums, but I hated the shows. Last year a bunch of friends reported that shows where she performed with a band were awesome; I had to see for myself. It was OK; members of the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion made up her band and she actually finished her songs. But the sound was poor during most of the set, and I think a lot of viewers chose to eat dinner then.
Cute factor: It’s easy to hate Cat Power for being beautiful and talented and uber-cool. So try not to.

Yoko Ono: 7.8

yoko ono


Performance: It was a beautiful caterwauling idealistic mess. Audiences were given flashlights and encouraged to blink out “I love you” in morse code while the video presentation went on for far too long. But Stephen Trask (who co-wrote the music for “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) was her pianist, and Thurston Moore joined her onstage. She’s Yoko Ono, man. Even if I couldn’t last through the whole set, she can do no wrong.
Cute factor: She’s so tiny and cute! She hit the stage in a black pants suit, a hat and red shades. I think she’s 70, and she looks better than most 50-year-olds I know. Asian chicks rock.

(Coming up next: A blog about all the other things I did at Pitchfork, and a guest appearance by R. Kelly with some Milwaukee folks. Also, Justin Shady will be blogging about Day 3.)

–Text and photos by Lilledeshan Bose