Interview: Battles’ Dave Konopka on Boston’s ’90s scene, Machines With Magnets, and rendering vocals insignificant

Despite all the creativity, innovation, and pioneering in music over the past half century, the ability for musicians to create new and interesting sounds is still limitless. Whether it has to do with the rhythms and beats or just with the particular instruments being used, it’s still very possible to do something different while not being redundant. Some of the best music in history was created by accident or by someone taking a chance. Tonight at The Paradise Rock Club, one band that always has a habit of keeping things forward-thinking will be gracing the stage tonight.

New York City instrumental experimental rock act Battles are as complex as they are accessible. The structure of their songs can sometimes be downright insane with lightning fast rhythms and unpredictable changes that makes every song a genuine listening experience. Vanyaland had a chat with bassist/guitarist Dave Konopka about him starting his musical career in Boston, playing in an instrumental band versus being in a band with a vocalist, the band’s love affair with Machines With Magnets in Pawtucket, and what’s next for the ever-evolving trio.

Rob Duguay: You started your musical career with the Boston-based instrumental band Lynx in the late ’90s and early 2000s. What was the scene like for the band back then and are there any major differences between playing in Boston versus New York City?

Dave Konopka: The scene back then was pretty awesome. There was a lot of inspiring indie rock music happening at the time and Lynx was coming in on the tail end of that. We had a great time as a band and I feel that we were great for what we were doing at the time. The scene in Boston was great, you had bands like the Wicked Farleys. I had a lot of friends that were in bands like Helms, Robots, and Dagobah, who were the guys who started it all off for us. It was just an awesome, awesome scene. Playing in Boston is more intimate than it is playing in New York. Maybe it’s because I’m from there, but that’s how it feels. It’s definitely changed from the ’90s until now for sure.

What was the turning point for you as a musician that made you want to get out of Boston and move to New York City?

I actually made a pit stop in Chicago for two years with Lynx and that was kind of against all of my instincts to want to go to Chicago. The drummer in Lynx was like “I’m going to Chicago and you can come with me or not and the band can continue or it cannot.” All of us were like “Well, we might as well try it out.” We had an awesome run in Boston, even when we lived in Chicago whenever we came back to Boston it was like our home field advantage. I think we wanted to try to get signed to a label out in Chicago because there was so much awesome stuff going on at that time. It was rough at times but it was a really great move for us. It was really healthy for us to just kind of get out there and try to make this push to be a professional band.

I look back on those days in Lynx so fondly because we were just doing some awesome stuff and all of it was a great learning experience. Lynx broke up in Chicago and I actually just moved to New York because I didn’t want to be in the Midwest anymore [laughs] because I feel like I’m such an East Coast person. I never thought that it would be such a factor but I needed to come back to the East Coast. I grew up in Worcester, I lived in Boston for eight years and I just wanted to try something different. There was a girl that I really liked in New York and I moved there to be with her and to give New York a shot. It was a lot different than the place that it is today and it was a lot easier for somebody to move to New York and try to do something.

What preferences do you have when it comes to playing in an instrumental band versus being in a band with a vocalist?

I never think of vocals, it’s just one of those things. To me, vocals are like this fourth instrument that is totally insignificant in a band like Battles because we kind of have nothing to say and out of the three of us none of us are capable of really singing. The decision to not have vocals is more of a self-sufficient, functional decision than anything. I love plenty of bands with vocals, don’t get me wrong. When it applies to us and the chemical makeup of Battles it’s just inexplicable.

That makes sense, if you can’t sing then don’t make a fool out of yourself.

There’s more creative ways to get around it, you can write interesting instrumental music. We always start with the music first and vocals have always been an afterthought. It’s not a huge step in a new direction for us, it’s just staying true to who we really are.

Recently, Battles put out their third album La Di Da Di and you guys went back to the same studio where you made 2011’s Gloss Drop at Machines With Magnets in Pawtucket. What made the three of you want to go back to that particular studio?

Because Machines With Magnets is the best recording studio, they are the best and I will tell you why. We also recorded Mirrored there as well. The reason why we started going to Machines With Magnets is because when we got signed to Warp Records in 2006 we were trying to find a place to record our full length and I reached out to Keith Souza who started Machines With Magnets and he originally recorded Lynx in his mother’s basement. I knew he had Machines With Magnets going on in East Providence for a while and I remember stopping by there when Lynx was on tour. It seemed like a great space but it was raw at the time, he didn’t have it fully developed yet. I was calling him to see where he was at with the studio because we were looking for one.

Keith is awesome, he’s really smart and has a great ear. He was like “I actually just opened up this brand new studio in Pawtucket” and we were one of the first bands to record there, we recorded our song “Atlas” there. It sounded so good that we went back to do the full length, it was serendipitous and everything kind of aligned properly. Since doing Mirrored, Keith and his assistant engineer there Seth Manchester, I can’t even call him an assistant, they’re both awesome engineers. Not only is the studio, space and gear great but those guys know how we work and they know our process so well that I can’t picture recording with anybody else. We have a very unique and complicated process and I’ll leave it at that but those guys on top of being great engineers that can pull off great sounds and get the best out of you, they also have a great ear and they know how to deal with us.

Everything I’ve heard from that studio always sounds impeccable and Gloss Drop is amazing, it sounds great and everything. There are a bunch of other bands I know that have done albums there and they all sound awesome.

Me too, those guys are so underrated. I remember in the ’90s it was all about the recording studio and I think that technology has changed things a lot where people are more capable of recording their own albums. I think that it’s so much more important to work with somebody who professionally has a recording studio because it yields so much more out of the creative process. I feel like those guys are so underrated because in the ’90s it was all about stuff guys like Steve Albini recorded and the recording was so much a part of the music. That hasn’t changed for us and I don’t think those guys get the credit that they deserve. Don’t get me wrong, they have an incredible studio but I think that they are so important to what we make and it’s not talked about enough.

Machines With Magnets are talked about a lot in Rhode Island because everybody wants to do something with them but I can definitely see on a national level where they probably don’t get the respect they deserve. After tonight’s show and with the new album out, what’s next for Battles? After the tour do you all plan on taking a break?

There’s definitely no break in sight, we in the beginning of as much touring as we can possibly do. It’s how we make a living so it’s really important for us to get out there and play shows because it’s other half of the animal. The recorded document is one thing and it’s great to get it out there as what you commit to but the live show is just as important. It feels great to be able to travel, play to people and have this visceral response with an audience.

BATTLES + MAETHTRO + BUKE & GASE :: Wednesday, September 30 at the Paradise Rock Club, 967 Commonwealth Ave. in Boston, MA :: 7 p.m., 18-plus, $20 :: Advance tickets :: Facebook event page