Los Angeles band BATTLE TAPES have managed to inject a well-needed energy boost into a scene which was sorely lacking an act that could deliver a hybrid rock / electronic / dance sound.
Comprising of Josh Boardman (vocals / guitar / synth), Riley Mackin (synths / programming / vocals), Stephen Bannister (bass) and Beak Wing (drums / percussion), BATTLE TAPES fill a genuine gap in the market for an electronic-based act that isn’t overly self-conscious and isn’t afraid to rock out with their synths…
Taking their cues from several of TEC’s favourite artists, Josh and Riley kindly spoke to The Electricity Club about the challenge of integrating electronic elements with live ones and how BATTLE TAPES tick.
Who are the band’s main influences?
Josh: We all grew up listening to different things. Everything from KRAFTWERK and T.REX to MASSIVE ATTACK and PANTERA. For the live execution we looked to DEPECHE MODE, NINE INCH NAILS, LCD SOUNDSYSTEM, SOULWAX and maybe even a little ARCADE FIRE – those acts have always had the feel of a rock band. It sounds like humans performing to me.
The lyrics to ‘Valkyrie’ are quite cryptic, what is the song about?
Josh: I try not to be too specific when asked about song meanings. I like the audience to have some room to make it their own. That being said, roughly it’s about how modern technology has revealed some of our more unflattering behaviors and shifted our cultural values in an unexpected way. Celeb-u-lust, out-rage-of-the-week, self-obsession and so on.
How easy or hard do you find integrating electronic instruments into a band context?
Riley: It depends, but usually it’s pretty easy. There are a couple of sounds we use that are harder to work with. Live, we used to just use soft synths but we ran into some stability issues. So now we just try and recreate most of the sounds with sampler instruments as much as possible. It saves on CPU and is a bit more straightforward.
Josh: Yeah, it’s a case by case kind of thing. When writing, it’s more about “Is the instrument doing the job I need it to do? Does it convey what I’m trying to say?” On stage the sonic bandwidth of what you can get across clearly is more narrow, so you have to scale back a bit and try to say the same thing with less.
What are you viewpoints on artists that over rely on computers and sequencing for their live shows?
Riley: Computers on stage seems to be a touchy subject for some people. I mean in a way, you could say we over rely on the computer. We use our computer to run our lights, process vocals, and host all of our software and sampler instruments. Sometimes we’ll use hardware synths on stage, but most of the time it’s sampler instruments and soft synths. However, I do feel that when some artist just play tracks and sing along to them…. well that’s just professional karaoke.
Josh: I’m fairly neutral. Don’t get me wrong, like Riley said, there is a point with some artists where it can feel like you’re watching Synth Karaoke. But at the end of the day, if people are entertained and people are having fun, who gives a s***!
Has the United States’ embracing of EDM helped or hindered the band?
Josh: Bit of both. It’s definitely encouraged your average listener to give electronic music an honest listen, but at the same time we don’t really fall into what I would typically call EDM, so I don’t think we are really reaping the benefits of its current popularity.
How does the songwriting process work in BATTLE TAPES?
Riley: One of us usually comes up with an idea and we throw it back and forth until something comes of it. Or Josh just puts together a banging track. Josh does all the vocal writing, for the most part. With ‘Solid Gold’ things were a bit more collaborative in regards to lyric writing just because we were doing things differently while working with Elana Belle Carol of PARTY NAILS.
The gap between the release of the first EP and ‘Polygon’ was a pretty big one, was there a particular reason for that?
Josh: We set out with a certain idea of what we wanted our first record to be. And up until recently we were all working day jobs or hustling to get studio work to keep the lights on. So between that, steady performing and stealing studio time in the middle of the night to track drums or whatever, that’s just how long it took to make this record. I’d love it if with the next LP we could pull some two week studio blitz and be done with it. The idea of not having time to overthink it is really appealing at the moment. 🙂
Josh: When we first started talking about releasing our original EP ‘Sleepwalker’, I mentioned to a friend about the idea of packaging our CDs in old 5¼ inch floppy disks. Coincidentally her dad happened to have boxes of them in their garage from back in the day. We had custom labels printed, CDs pressed and ran with it. People’s reactions are great. It’s nostalgia for some and an artefact of tech folklore for others.
What are your favourite bits of technology live and in the studio?
Riley: In the studio, I would have to go with Logic Pro music software itself. It does so much and can be a very creative utility. For live, my Roland System 1 has been an awesome work horse. Like I said we do a lot of our instruments as sampler instruments in the computer, but the System 1 gives me a bit more confidence on stage, having a hardware synth there to be utilized if something happens to the computer.
Josh: On stage, we are loving the MOTU AVB line. That protocol is revolutionary. The Eventide H9 is a favourite. Our bass player, Stephen, has a few of them on his pedalboard. I personally have been loving the Kemper Profiler Amp. A friend loaned me one for our last tour and I was sold after our first rehearsal with it.
Riley: Yeah, Initially we did a lot of the writing for the record using soft synths, but then we took time to go back and replace a lot of that stuff with the real deal. I think we actually ended up using a bit of both in the final mixes.
Is the availability of cheap synth apps / technology a blessing or a curse?
Josh: Blessing. The thought that right now there is some kid on his family computer using stock software making us look foolish is terrifying as much as it is exciting. Things are evolving and shifting so fast I can’t wait to hear what people are going to be doing 5 years from now
Riley: I think it’s a blessing. It helps keep things exciting by always having new sounds or a different GUI to mess with. I feel like anyone who disagrees would also think that the guitar ruined stringed instruments… I mean c’mon the piano was already holding it down for years.
Riley: The GTA exposure has been super big for us. It is such a big game and the way people find new music on there is really very cool.
So we gained a lot of new fans from that. The ‘Need For Speed’ game is more recent, but we are seeing quite a bit of new fans from the game as well. The comments section of YouTube has been a big indicator of where people are finding us.
Do you have any European dates on the horizon?
Josh: Nothing set in stone. But we are definitely working towards it. We’ve had so much love from the EU. I think it would be awesome to go and reciprocate.
What are the future plans in 2016 for BATTLE TAPES?
Josh: Remixing and writing with other artists. Going to do some touring and maybe some Techno / DJ sets. It’s going to be fun to go back to the drawing board with new inspiration and see what happens. I’m excited about having the time and space to write new stuff and explore new ideas.
Riley: Yeah, you know, one leg at a time just like everybody else.
Finally or a more light-hearted note, how do you feel about being described on another blog as “synth sex rockers”?
Riley: I’d probably feel okay about it, if wasn’t so hard to say. Doesn’t really roll off the tongue, does it?
Josh: Sounds kinda like an oxymoron, right? I always felt like our synth love solidified our place in the dorkisphere. But who doesn’t like being called sexy? So, we’ll take it!
The Electricity gives its sincere thanks to BATTLE TAPES
‘Polygon’ is released by Battle Arts via the usual digital outlets
Text and Interview by Paul Boddy
11th February 2016