Battle Tapes, formed in Los Angeles in 2010 by Josh Boardman (vocals/guitar/synth) and Riley Mackin (keyboards, vocals) are joined by a revolving group of friends and musicians, and are purely motivated by the desire to make awesome music. Whether the influence of the day is thrash metal, punk, electronica, vintage synthesis or even George Michael – it all gets thrown into the pot.
The result is something utterly unique, yet clearly very appealing (judging at the very least by the millions of streams the band’s music has had on Spotify). Battle Tapes’ music has been heavily picked up on by the world of soundtracking – in particular, their song Feel The Same was used in 2013’s record-breaking video game Grand Theft Auto V.
As they finish work on their latest record, and following keyboardist Riley Mackin’s stint working with Childish Gambino on the song of 2018 This Is America, among others, we speak to vocalist, songwriter, guitarist and all-round synth-head Josh Boardman about the Battle Tapes rollercoaster.
Our interview takes place on the morning after the passing of the great Keith Flint, a vital influence on the band, as Josh explains before we start: “One of our mantras is punk rock, and Keith Flint definitely had that same attitude,” Josh tells us. “So I’m really really gutted that he’s no longer with us. It’s not punk music, but it’s definitely a punky attitude.”
So how did it all start for you Josh? Where did you first pick up the music-making bug?
Well, I started playing drums when I was young. A neighbour of ours ran an apartment complex and when someone moved out, they left a drum kit there, which ended up at our place. So I learned to play that. When I got a bit older, I wanted to write songs and got into piano and guitar. When I got my first four-track, I really started writing seriously.
After high school I got money for college, but instead, I used it to invest in a sampler and a drum machine. From there, I totally threw myself into recording. I loved doing it.
I graduated high school and then moved to LA and ended up working for some film composers here, one of them being Charlie Clouser [formerly of Nine Inch Nails]. So I worked as his assistant for a few years and then I ended up assisting for music duo Wendy & Lisa [formerly of Prince And The Revolution] and then somewhere in the middle of that I started Battle Tapes as a creative outlet. I had no intention of doing it full time and didn’t really have a plan for where it was going to go. I wasn’t aiming for the top of the world or anything, but it started getting really popular and gained more ground.
Did you and the other band members all know each other at the time you formed Battle Tapes?
Yes, the band were all friends already, and we all knew each other from various places. Original bass player Stephen and I were teenage friends from growing up. Riley Mackin, the keyboardist, I knew from being in the studio with him and working together. It was so not like your average band. It just kind of formed from a shared love of music. It was really organic and had really honest intentions.
The band definitely grew from a tech-based/studio origin and we weren’t like a rock band that discovered synths or anything, we would do a lot of writing in-the-box and then think later about how we were going to translate that to the stage.
The Battle Tapes sound is quite difficult to describe. Do you guys ‘define’ the music you make in any way?
It’s hard to explain what genre we are and we’ve been called so many different names from ‘indie-tronica’ to ‘electro rock’. But I just think it’s all ‘music’. Though we jokingly call what we do ‘rogue WAV’ [like the file format – but pronounced ‘rogue wave’]. That’s really a joke though, we don’t limit ourselves by defining what we do in genre terms, really. We just make what we want. We thought that we’d all just call it something even dumber!
Our influences include The Prodigy, The Chemical Brothers, Massive Attack and Depeche Mode, as well as Daft Punk. A lot of it is just an attitudinal thing to music-making. Doing what we feel is right and trying not to appeal to any trends. All of those bands inhabited that spirit.
So, in a songwriting context, do you think the approach to what you do has evolved or changed over the years?
I think the goal for us is always to be thoughtful in what we do, and keep striving to improve our craftsmanship as songwriters. It can be really easy to get hung up on the tangible world of tech, as opposed to the more abstract ‘songwriting’ component. I find that people get really tied up in the specifics of what they use and don’t really talk about the art they make with that stuff. At the end of the day, I just want a song that kicks my ass, in the best way possible. It has to emote something. It’s got to make you feel and connect something human. That’s more interesting to me than what snare-drum sound you’ve got.
The great thing about songwriting is that you can express your vulnerability and show people that they’re not alone. Strangers all feel the same way. That’s the most important thing that we, as a band, have to develop. The sonics will always be there.
Let battle commence
Do you work together in the same room, or do you write separately and bring your ideas together later?
We usually write separately, Riley and I both have our own home studios here in Los Angeles and so depending on the vibe that day, we’ll write for a day then bring it to each other. If it’s a collaborative song, then he might have an idea and he’ll bring it over. He might say: ‘I’ve got this skeleton of a thing,’ then I’ll take that and add to it, moulding it into more of a song format. Stuff like Valkyrie, No Good and Feel The Same all began that way, they were collaborative efforts.
Sometimes, it’s just me in the studio and I’ll get an idea that just happens so fast that I need to record it and work on it before anyone else gets in. But we’ll also just volley things back and forth. We’ve got a shared server and we’ll throw things up on it. Sometimes ideas can sit there for a few months before the other gets round to looking at it!
Our last single from our last EP sat on that server for like a year before we decided what we were going to do with it. It took a while, but once we got a strong idea, the whole thing just clicked. It’s kind of unorthodox songwriting I guess, rarely are we in the room together when it’s happening.
So when you’re writing solo, what elements tend to come together first?
It varies, it’s all dependent on where inspiration strikes. A lot of it comes from just playing around and not going in with intent to do anything. We’ll get a chord structure and just start playing around it, just because it’s fun. Not because I need to write a song. Other times, stuff like a phrase will just get stuck in my head. Our last single Weight Of The World in particular just stuck with me and the title inspired the tone and mood of the song. The lyrics came really easily.
The feeling of having the weight of the world on your shoulders just brought the feel of the song together quickly. You have to just let inspiration take you.
How difficult is it to combine these often disparate elements of genres the way you do?
I guess it’s all compatible. I’ll hear things when I’m just listening to music. Like for example, the intro to I Want Your Sex by George Michael just sounds awesome. It sounds really tough. So that’s a vibe that I might want to take and put into a new song I’m writing. Then you’ll hear something else, like some 808 percussion thing. I think it’s like cherry-picking and dissecting the songs that you like and figuring out how to fuse those elements, and also making it sound good! It’s a lot of trial and error, but you definitely know immediately when it works.
What inspired the floppy-disk packaging on your Polygon EP?
Well, I had the idea forever ago, when we first started the band. It was around 2010 when CDs were really starting to be seen as a lesser delivery mechanism. I wanted to convey what we were about and thought of a different visual approach. A friend of mine’s dad works at Silicon Valley and he worked for Apple for a while; he just had grocery bags full of old floppy disks. I expressed an interest in them and he sent me down a boxful of these things.
So we opened them up, gutted them and hollowed them out for CDs to go in. So they’re genuinely floppy disks that have just been gutted. The fun thing about it is, for Gen Xers, it’s pure nostalgia and for millennials and younger, it’s like an artefact from the past. It has a different appeal for different age groups.
Is there a particular Battle Tapes composition you’re most proud of?
I think unanimously our favourite song is a track called Dreamboat. It’s a six-minute-long instrumental. It’s really simple and I wrote it in like two hours one night. It was like midnight and I just started building this thing. I played it to the guys the next day and we had great fun just tripping on it. We all just love that song. It’s got a nice vibe and the feeling is really nice.
I think that’s our collective favourite. There’s something I’m more proud of from a songwriting perspective… Alive, which is the last song on our last EP, as well as our new song Weight Of The World. I felt like I challenged myself as a writer, where I feel like I overcame a hurdle to create it.
Given that your music has been used in a wide variety of media, is soundtracking a film, show or game is something that you’d like to get into?
Eventually, I’d love to do score work. I love now where I just make music I want to make and then luckily, it lends itself to the video-game medium particularly. Music supervisors pick up on it, like it and want to use it. Considering my work in score previously, before the band, I think it would be fun to do a score. I wouldn’t want to do anything too grand or ostentatious, but maybe something like the Dust Brothers did for Fight Club or what The Chemical Brothers did for Hanna.
Scoring is definitely an interest and I’d love to turn my hand to it properly one day. But I do love where we’re at now. Where, after the fact, we’re taking what we’ve already done and seeing it fit in something huge like Grand Theft Auto V.
Is it difficult to maintain a career as an artist in 2019?
I think it can be, depending on what your intent is. The bandwidth for success is so narrow. That’s always been the case. There’s a lot more white noise to fight over. You have to ask yourself what version of success your project lends itself to. Our path with placements is really working for us. Some bands are more like ‘Instagram bands’, where their visuals and branding is great and that’s where they attract their audience.
Definitely looking back, I might be a little more wary about getting into it. It’s so hard to do, it’s a really tough thing. I think the problem that a lot of artists have is the refusal to see what they do as a business. Some people have an expectation that success just happens overnight. It’s actually a slow burn and you can’t have this belief that one day you won’t have to work anymore. If anything, the work gets harder! You have to spin a lot of plates, adding to it while also keeping the ones you’ve got spinning going, too. There’s never a finish line.
What advice would you give to anyone looking to have a career like yours?
Work! Imagine there’s somebody who doesn’t sleep, working twice as hard as you. Try to keep up with them. That’s always my thing. Create an imaginary adversary to work against! When I’m feeling lazy or uninspired, I just imagine this other person.
Also you should figure out what you’re good at, figure out what makes you unique. That’s really important. Find out just why you stand out. Why should people pay attention? If you want to do something that’s culturally impactful, I think you’ve got to answer that simple question – who are you?
What’s next on the agenda for Battle Tapes?
We’re finishing our next record and I think we’ll do a few more singles before we release it. We’ve got a good little selection of songs that we’re really feeling. It’s always kind of nice when you work on something and the shape of the album starts to reveal itself to you. You’re kind of in this place where it has to grow organically, you’re not so much steering the ship as guiding it.
We had a kind of listen back to some of our stuff. The rough sketches and like, it’s just surprising. It’s really cool when stuff starts to really stick in our minds. We’re kind of going down a more heavy, sonically volatile route as well. We’ve been listening to a lot of that old acid and drum ’n’ bass stuff that just really kicks ass still. Those guys just didn’t give a fuck! That’s really inspiring.
Find out more about Battle Tapes here.