EXCLUSIVE: Classicalite Q&A with Ian Williams on Battles, American Composers Orchestra's 'Clear Image,' 'High Fidelity' Cameo and Having a Baby Girl

By Maria Jean Sullivan on Dec 14, 2014 04:28 PM EST
Ian Williams "I’ve always liked classical music, as well as jazz and experimental melodies. To me, it’s all just the same stuff." -- Ian Williams (Photo : Getty Images )

Ian Williams, erstwhile guitarist in math rock pioneers Don Caballero, has been busy as of late--working on a new Battles record, writing his first piece for the American Composers Orchestra to perform at Carnegie Hall, fathering his first child. With Classicalite favorites George Manahan behind the podium, Theo Bleckmann on vocals and members of the Meredith Monk Vocal Ensemble lending support, Williams debuted his Clear Image work during the ACO's Orchestra Underground: Monk's Sphere, opening night of that storied ensemble's 38th season. We recently caught up with Williams to chat about his rocker past, the ACO collaboration, having a daughter and even his cameo in High Fidelity.

Classicalite: Congratulations on the world premiere of your piece Clear Image, commissioned by the American Composers Orchestra. You have been involved in indie rock band Battles for a few years now. When did you decide to do the crossover?

Ian Williams: Well I don’t really consider that I’ve done a crossover, I’ve always just considered that I’ve made music, and there’s just different venues to get it out and different instruments that you can use. I really don’t see it. I realize that it’s one of those formal things, but to me, from my perspective, I’m just sort of like making music and it’s not about that crossover, it’s just sort of a continuation for me.

Clite: I like that term, continuation. Is an orchestral piece something that you’ve always wanted to do?

IW: Well no, I think it’s more just, Derek Bermel offered me the chance to write something and it just sort of seemed natural. Most musicians would want to try that I think, if you have people like that at your disposal, so why not see what it sounds that. I’m used to working in multi-track format, a recorded rock band, and to some degree, the beast of an orchestra is a different thing, but it’s also it’s multi-people. So it’s sort of just finding different roles for different people, it’s not that different of a way to think. Being interested in electronic music for quite a long time, I’m entrusted in how, ADSR, the attack, the decay, sustain, and release of electronic sound and all the ways we can play with stuff and thinking of an orchestra as just a large instrument. It’s a new think I want to explore and try, that’s all.

Clite: What would you say is the theme or concept of Clear Image? 

IW: Well I’ve always, let me see, it’s kind of gone through a few forms of me. I was trying to play around the sound of jump cuts, basically I made a multi-track mock-up of the piece and it had the sounds of jump cuts between different instruments and I was sort of interested in seeing how to get the sound of an instrument jumping from one instrument to another, but the dream always being that it would be real people in real space as opposed to in electronic format. So then, I wanted to try to get an orchestra to be able to do these kinds of things. So I was trying to play around with the idea of jump cuts with single sounds as done by real people, but then there’s a tension with that goal because on the other hand, real humans when they’re really counting in real time to play parts they have to, it’s easier when you make the changes on the eighth note rather than on the 64th note, so it’s to some degree, clarifying and simplifying the idea, so that real people can play it. For me, it’s an experiment, finding out about all of that kind of stuff.

Clite: What was your inspiration?

IW: That word to me is always a weird word, inspiration. I don’t know, Chuck Close said “inspiration is for amateurs," and real artists just have to go to work everyday and I don’t know. It’s something I was just making some music. I’m excited to see it play out in this larger format and also a more acoustic format and to experience the difference and see what that’s like.

Clite: How would you describe your experience writing for an orchestra with jump cuts?

IW: I’ve always been into the idea of balance and sharing elements amongst whatever you have, amongst whatever your insinuation is rather than having say a lead guitarist play a whole melody, I like splitting it up between instruments, or a lead singer taking the spotlight, I like to split the song up amongst a lot of different instruments. And so, when you say something about there’s going to be a bunch of musicians on instrument on stage at once, it sort of expands the potential of making things jump around a lot more and expanding that dynamic. So you have longer lines played, but have the line move amongst different instruments and stuff like that. So you’re trying to create balance, a sense of symmetry, that’s one of the things that you always respond to. A satisfying piece of music will always have that sense of symmetry, I think. Whether it’s Bach or a Beyoncé song.

Clite: Totally, I agree. So how do you think that translates to the world of electronic music right now, because it’s pretty different/ Do you think you’re going to stay in this realm, maybe incorporate some of this with your Battles work?

IW: It probably won’t make its way into Battles. It’s more like I would make my way into this. Yeah, there’s always been a certain strain; I’ve always liked classical music, as well as, jazz and experimental melodies. To me, it’s all just the same stuff.

Clite: I would say that yours is more experimental in this realm.

IW: Yeah, right. And I’m used to the format of being in a rock club or a smelly dressing room somewhere, wherever in the world, but shows happen in a million different spaces and kind of places, so I’m happy to go here too.

Clite: Yeah, this is definitely the biggest of the deals--going to go the orchestra route. Carnegie Hall and all, congrats to that.

IW: Practice, practice, practice.

Clite: Was this an easy transition from Battles? I know you did the dance remix of Gloss Drop. You've got rock, then classical music and now there’s dance electronica somewhere in the middle.

IW: Yeah, well also I’m writing a piece of music for the Mantra Percussion Ensemble, that’s showing in January at the World Financial Center. So those six drummers, or percussionists, I’m doing that kind of format. Then I’m also doing a piece of music, an artist’s video, it’s a 15-minute insane, intense video and the music’s kind of insane and intense the entire thing too. I’m also making a new Battles record right now; actually that’s what I was doing when you called, so making a new Battles album that should be out in the spring. So it’s all there, it’s all kind of coming from the same place the stuff I’m doing. I realize the rules of each genre are different and the social scene around each scene are different, but I guess I’ll learn more about that as I go.

Clite: Well, they don’t always have to be either. I think that’s what is really interesting about Clear Image--no dividing line, as it were.

IW: I think to me, I’m sure it’s been said a million times in your generation, everyone’s kind of grown up with AC/DC and Arvo Part, and somebody knows both sides of the coin and it’s not, it was more your parents generation, like what side of the line were you one, but nowadays it’s a lot more mixed in. it’s all from the crust pollination, where the cool, exciting, new, interesting, strange things happen rather than people sort of banging on the tree for tradition or the right way of doing something, the canon.

Clite: Are you in the studio right now?

IW: We were in the studio all month last month in October up in Rhode Island, which is the same recording studio we’ve made all of our stuff at, Machines with Magnets and most of it’s done, except I have a bunch of little details to finish up here and there so I’m trying to sort of clean things up and make it sound the way I want it to sound and I’m just doing that at home. And then, I don’t know, it will be out in the spring, that’s all I know.

Clite: What’s the sound with the new one?

IW: What’s the sound? I guess it’s instrumental. It’s all instrumental and we’re just sort of making music that we want to listen to, that’s all. Which is a really simple way of putting it I guess, we’re not trying to please anyone with this record, just trying to please ourselves. Do I think that we did things right? Yes, but I don’t know if the rest of the world will think that, but I think that they’ll like it. We got the chance to play one show late September, this past September. It was the first time we had actually, when we made the previous record we hadn’t played live with any other material, so we had to sort of make the record in the studio and afterwards we had to figure out how to play it. This record, we actually had the chance to play it live on stage at least once, it was probably a pretty sloppy show, not that great, but it was sort of like we played all brand new songs on stage, and to actually stand in a room in a space together and play it, it’s a small accomplishment. So the fact that, going into the studio this time we sort of know how to play it this time, which is for the better because the thing that happens is, after you record a record then you get to play a lot of live shows off of it. After you’ve played the songs for like a year and a half on stage, you become so much better at it, and then you look back at what you recorded and you’re like “oh my god, it was so primitive when we recorded this and now it’s our show, playing it in such a better way.” At least we got play it once before we recorded.

Clite: Hey, you can always put out a live album.

IW: I know, I always, my whole thing is, I never think live recordings sound good. In my mind a live show is “oh my god, we were so good last night, it was amazing, the crowd was going crazy, we were smoking.” Then you listen back to the tape and I always am like “oh god, that sucked.” Somehow the recording never reflects what you thought was going on at the moment, and I don’t know, I’ve never been able to be happy with a live recording. It’s almost like live, is supposed to be live, like the moment. The next day, it doesn’t exist anymore, it’s just a memory, just let that be that, and then the recorded documents the studio thing that you get to groom and make it the way you want it to sound, a bit of cheating that goes on, you overdub, you say that’s not good enough, I’m going to redo it, so it’s sort of a fictional version of events as opposed to the documents.

Clite: That’s an interesting description, I like that, too.

IW: With digital and technology, every musician and artist now has access to cheap ways of recording themselves, it’s almost expected, and I’m totally willing to say this, probably not an entirely good thing, but I think our ears today are so used to perfection because it’s such a cheap commodity, access to a recording studio at this point, that everybody has it, so everybody can make everything perfect. Of course, as you know, what that leads to is not a better play, in fact a lot of music is kind of stupid or something, but just because it’s perfect doesn’t make it good. So it’s one of our responsibilities today. We can all make things perfect, but that doesn’t make them better, you have to watch out for that.

Clite: Totally. I have to ask about High Fidelity just because I think it’s pretty awesome.

IW: I lived in Chicago for like four years in the 90’s, John Cusack  sort of help produced that movie, so he based it in Chicago where he’s from, and then he actually included some of his local cohorts in that movie who had closer connections to the Chicago music scene and they roped local people and bands into the movie. That’s how that came about.

Clite: So, you guys are cohorts?

IW: No, I never really got to know him. I got to know Jack Black and the other guy Todd. Although at this point Jack Black probably wouldn’t know who I was on the street. That was a long time ago, he’s so much more famous.

IW: Now, I’m also doing the Facio piece and that I’m doing the thing with Mantra in January, and then the Battles record, some of the main things to talk about. So that’s it.

Clite: Alright, super busy it sounds.

IW: I am, and I just had a daughter, my first kid.

Clite: Congratulations!

IW: And I’m a dad. I have no life anymore, seriously. Working and recording and being a dad. Although really it’s a great life, making music and having a kid, it’s awesome, but I don’t have a free second.

Clite: But that’s got to be really fulfilling, though.

IW: It’s a nice bunch of things on my plate. The baby came out in August actually. We’re contemplating having her come to the ACO gig but then we’re also like, is she going to start crying in the middle.

Clite: Yeah, she’ll only be a couple months.

IW: Yeah, if people heard a baby cry at the ACO piece it would be my daughter.

Clite: What’s her name?

IW: Her name is Wiles, like Miles with an upside down M. Wiles Williams.

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TagsEXCLUSIVE, Classicalite Q&A, Ian Williams, American Composers Orchestra, Clear Image, Battles, High Fidelity

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