The drummer sits down with fellow New York City indie-rock drummer Keith Carne to discuss his years in the city, how that setting has informed Battles’ latest release, and his loving frustration with the cymbal, perched ridiculously high above his kit, that has become Battles’ visual calling card.
John Stanier will tell you flat out that he’s been lucky in finding work as a musician. He’s had “like, three careers,” as he puts it: playing drums for the alternative-rock band Helmet, with former vocalist Mike Patton in Tomahawk, and, for the last eighteen years, with the indie-electronic pioneers Battles. During that time Stanier has witnessed New York’s shifting ethnographies through the prism of rock music. He’s homesteaded in Gowanus, Williamsburg, and the East Village, New York City neighborhoods now infamous for being hip and recreationally over-the-top. When Stanier was there decades back—when these neighborhoods represented places where broke musicians lived, rehearsed, and played shows—they looked nothing like they do today.
All that time in New York has made an impact on Stanier’s personality. He speaks about the city’s changes in population and culture with the tinge of both affection and annoyance you only learn how to affect after decades spent living through them. He speaks fondly about his formative days in the East Village, and about how fun Williamsburg was before it got lame, as he puts it. (Even though many today see Williamsburg as an adult promised land, Stanier has witnessed the way big money has washed away the neighborhood’s character and integrity.)
And he’ll admit that this city finally seems to have seeped into his music. Reviewers have described Battles’ latest album, Juice B Crypts, as maximal, cluttered, chaotic…and these are terms of affection. Battles’ sound is built on synth and guitar loops stacked atop other loops, stacked atop quirky melodies and sound effects, all connected by Stanier’s raggedly aggro, explosive dance grooves. There is a lot of theme and variation in their sound, and within the record. Stanier and bandmate Ian Williams take seemingly contrary sections of music and place them adjacent to one another in the same song. Alternatively, multiple songs on the record stem from the exact same loop, and it’s only the textures around the loop that change (yet these songs sound completely distinct from one another). It’s similar to the way veteran New Yorkers can recognize certain street corners, but not the business and people that populate them.
Battles as a unit has undergone similar shifts. With the recent departure of bassist Dave Konopka, this album is the band’s first release as a duo. (They began in 2002 as a quartet.) We begin by talking about the city that still defines so much of what they’re about.
MD: You’ve been active in the New York City music scene since the late ’80s, playing drums with Helmet. I imagine you’ve seen a lot of things change here.
John: The Music Building [a legendary twelve-story building of rehearsal and recording spaces on Eighth Avenue in Midtown Manhattan] was the first place I’d ever rehearsed with Helmet—that was in the late ’80s, early ’90s. It was all metal bands. Helmet eventually moved out of there, but then Battles came back years later and spent about ten years there. It’s where we wrote Juice B Crypts. It’s just really changed now. I feel like it’s all rap production studios now.
I can go all the way back to 1989, but that’s not even worth talking about. I feel like the last “scene” in New York was kind of like early-2000s Williamsburg. I’m not saying that there isn’t stuff going on now—of course there is. It’s just all spread out. That’s the last time everything was concentrated into one area. In the ’90s it was the East Village and Lower East Side; that’s where you would live and rehearse. Then that got too expensive so everyone moved to Williamsburg.
Then there was the class of 2003: Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Interpol, Liars, TV on the Radio, Black Dice…I could go on and on and on. And we were all rehearsing in the building that is now Vice Media. That was a really fun time. It was just when Williamsburg was about to become super lame.
MD: And despite the fact that New York City has been Battles’ home base for eighteen years, you’ve only now released what you consider the band’s first “New York” record.
John: Juice B Crypts, as corny as it sounds, really is our New York record. We’re not the kind of band that’s going to sit down and go, “Okay, let’s write a New York record!” I don’t even know what that means. What does that mean? It’s just going to sound like early Talking Heads? Is that a New York record? I don’t think so. You can mimic a certain era of New York, sure, but everyone’s already done that. It’s a New York record in the sense that it’s the first time we’ve ever recorded a full-length record in New York and we could go home at night.
MD: What role did New York play in shaping the record’s sound?
John: I hate the neighborhood where the Music Building is. It’s gotten disgusting and only gets worse and worse, and it takes an hour to get there, and there’s so many people in the subways now…that comes out somehow in your songs. That’s how it’s a New York record. We recorded it there. It’s funny how that works. It’s very subliminal. It’s in there, but there’s nothing deliberate. It’s not like, “Let’s record in Barbados and jet ski during the day. Then it’ll have this reggae tinge to it.” It’s not that blatantly obvious.
MD: You recorded the album at Red Bull Studios in Chelsea [Manhattan]. How was that different from recording at Machines with Magnets, the Rhode Island studio where Battles has recorded all of its previous albums?
John: Recording it in New York meant that we had a producer, Chris Tabron, who was really cracking the whip and forcing us to make decisions then and there. We had limited time to record in this studio and limited time to mix. In the past, all of Battles’ records were done in this compound in Rhode Island where you sleep and live. That’s great, too, but I don’t think I’d be talking to you right now if we worked there: we’d probably still be recording. It’s an amazing place. But we needed a change, and I’m very happy we did it in New York.
MD: The drum sounds on Juice B Crypts are wildly diverse. Some songs have drums that are so resonant they sound blown out; others sound tiny and dry. What drums did you use on the record?
John: Ninety percent of the record is my main Tama setup, the yellow Artstar II from ’97, which they don’t make anymore. I always go back to the yellow Tama. It’s this monster, and I feel the most comfortable with it. Every record I’ve done, I use that kit.
Chris Tabron is an extreme drum nerd. I think he had ten snare drums: Vistalites, Black Beauties, and old Slingerlands. I ended up using my Tama brass snare a bunch.
I still have the snare drum that I used on the very first Helmet EP, Strap It On. It’s a 6.5×14 metal Slingerland from the ’60s. I think it’s the first drum I ever got. I kind of restored it. All it needed was a rim and some new snares. [laughs] So that’s on the record, and it’s special to me.
On a couple of songs we used a 16″ kick drum with a blanket over it in an isolated room, and like 12″ hi-hats. It was the absolute driest, tiniest drum sound you could imagine.
MD: Sometimes the drum sounds change mid-song. Did you experiment a lot with mic placement?
John: We did a lot of switching up the drum sounds in the middle of the song, which I thought was totally amazing. The drums are recorded differently, and I love that.
[On our previous records] we’d work really hard to get this great drum sound, and then just use that for the entire record. There’s nothing wrong with that, but on this record every song has different-sounding drums. It’s all the same set with a different snare on every song. Then we’d take a couple hours and change the mics. And it was a lot in the way [Tabron] mixed it as well.
MD: Juice B Crypts is Battles’ first album without bassist Dave Konopka. How did going from a trio to a duo change your songwriting and recording process?
John: It changed both completely. Obviously there’s only two of us now, not three or four. Before everyone had a million things to say that they had to get in, and everyone had to be happy—“Oh, I can’t do this because this person isn’t able to change what they’re doing. Therefore I have to wait until….” It was just this assembly-line process of doing just one song. It’s maddening.
Now all of that has completely gone away. There was still a ton of material to weed through, but it was faster, easier—and it was fun! We’d go into the Music Building during the day and then go home. Not waking up at 3:30 a.m. to track while everyone else is asleep. It was a more relaxed, adult way to make a record.
With a duo there’s way more musical real estate that’s opened up, and decisions are made much faster. We didn’t have these arguments anymore, because it’s either going to work or it’s not. It was a beautiful thing that happened to us in a weird way.
MD: How has the transition to a duo affected the live show?
John: Now we have way more responsibilities. At first we weren’t going to play any old songs, but that’s ridiculous. And we can’t do all of our old songs; we didn’t want to do this thing where Ian presses a button and we just kind of stand there while a backing track plays. So we weeded through the ones we can do. Ian is going crazy with the amount of stuff he’s doing. And now I’ve introduced a Roland SPD-SX to my setup.
MD: How does the SPD factor into your setup?
John: I’m really using it now live—way more than I thought. I’m using it in every song. I have triggers on my kick and snare that [fire] samples of the drums from the record, and I layer those from the SPD with my own drums.
At first it was just to have those samples. Then as we were getting closer to touring I was just learning more and more. It’s a work in progress. Sometimes Ian needs a bit of time between songs—if he has to change a guitar or reload something—so I do these “skits” with the SPD-SX, which is basically a sample that I play along to. I kind of go crazy with it. I’m also turning stuff off and on.
We’re trying to do as much as we possibly can live. Of course we have to play along to certain things—like obviously the singer isn’t there. There’s certain things that are coming in and out [of the mix], and there’s only the two of us. We didn’t want to hire another band just so we could play it live. I’d rather just play 90 percent of it live.
MD: Vocalist Tyondai Braxton left the band in 2010, and since then Battles hasn’t had a consistent singer in the group. Yet you often prominently feature guest vocalists on your albums. How did you decide which vocalists to collaborate with?
John: That was the easiest part of making the record, believe it or not. Everyone on the record we have some kind of connection to.
Xenia Rubinos is a really good friend of ours. She’s toured with us, so she was a totally obvious choice [for “They Played It Twice”]. Jon Anderson [singer from the band Yes]: about nine years ago I got an email from his management saying he was a really big Battles fan and asked if I wanted to play drums on a song for his solo record. I couldn’t do it for some reason but thanked him and told him I was flattered. Then Jon emailed me and offered to collaborate with Battles and for us to feel free to reach out. Just super personable and mellow. I was like, Okay…Jon Anderson… [laughs, sounding somewhere between surprised and starstruck]. Then we were in the studio and we did this song [“Sugar Foot”], wishing we wrote it nine years ago, because we could have asked Jon Anderson [to do vocals]. I literally just searched through my email, found the thread, and emailed him back. He was just like, “Yup! Send me the track!” and he did it and it was the easiest thing in the world. When he eventually sent us the track he just nailed it. We did zero editing to his take. It was fantastic.
We never really know if a song will have vocals. Some are obvious. Like the Shabazz Palaces song [“IZM”], someone should be rapping over that of course. Again, it was super easy. Sal [Principato of Liquid Liquid, on “Titanium 2 Step”], Xenia, and Shabazz Palaces were all like one take.
MD: Your yellow Tama kit has become emblematic of the band. It’s pretty much the first thing I think of when I think of Battles. That, and, of course, the way you position that cymbal.
John: Yeah, for sure. I only do that with Battles. In all honesty it started out as a joke at our very first show. When the band first started out, I wanted to be as minimal as possible. It was going to be kick and snare and no cymbals at all. Then I realized I needed hi-hats. Then I said, I’ll use one cymbal, and when I do hit it, it’ll be a really big deal. I wanted to get it out the way, so I just raised it really high. It’s an optical illusion as well. At first I thought it was funny, and everyone said, “Leave it, leave it!” so it just turned into our thing.
MD: Has positioning it up there changed the way you play long-term? Has it made you more conscious of hitting cymbals in general?
John: No, I don’t think so. I use the cymbal now way more than I did on the EPs. There are times where I’m like: [faking an anguished voice] “Why did I do this…why?” It’s kind of exhausting. But aesthetically it looks crazy, and it’s very recognizable and people seem to like it, so I just stay with it.
MD: How sick of that question are you?
John: [Laughs] Not at all. It’s ridiculous looking, so people ask, “Why the hell do you have your cymbal that high?” Some people think it’s funny. Other people think it’s stupid. Drummers who don’t have a sense of humor are like, [sounding professorial] “Well, if you lowered your cymbal, you could….” It’s like, “Yeah…I know.”