Album Premiere + Interview: Battle Ave — ‘I Saw The Egg’
Posted: by The Editor
Battle Ave has spent the last decade putting out monstrously underrated DIY records in spite of life’s unpredictability. They’ve made music community upstate, cementing themselves in the orbit of Marcata Recording in New Paltz, NY, and Kevin McMahon, owner of the studio and producer of Real Estate, Titus Andronicus, and everything Battle Ave has ever released. For a while, Kevin was arguably the last bastion of consistency surrounding the band. Whether it’s the cancer diagnosis of their wickedly talented drummer Samantha Niss, or the glacial trickle of tape sales that drift in like visiting strangers (lead singer and guitarist Jesse Doherty admits that sometimes he only recalls that cassettes of 2015’s Year of Nod exist precisely every few months when somebody orders one), it’s fair to say the ship has not exactly been steady. Thankfully, Samantha has long since been cancer-free, but commercial standards had somewhat remained as hollow indicators of success for the group. Now firmly in the throes of fatherhood in 2022, Jesse has seen his values rapidly realign. Rest assured, there’s no need to commiserate. He has more than reckoned with his adolescent dreams of stardom. Coincidentally, he and his bandmates also happen to be making some of the best music of their entire careers.
I Saw The Egg is a happy medium for Battle Ave. The hypnotic tendencies of Year of Nod inform the record’s overall texture, but Jesse isn’t afraid to kick out the jams. Rather than mellowing with age, Battle Ave has become more holistic. Musical styles and influences are no longer either/or forks in the road. War Paint and Pavement can sit on one shoulder with Year of Nod and Destroyer on the other. It’s that kind of thinking that’s allowed a band like The Armed to innovate on hardcore punk’s homogeny, and it’s what gives I Saw The Egg its flavor. Once one rigid dichotomy came down, others began to crumble. Success for Jesse is no longer a deal with Sub Pop, an army of scenesters, or a positive review in Brooklyn Vegan. Success for Jesse is living life with his daughter, family, and friends in the Hudson Valley. Pushing through an unrelenting spring break of car troubles and his dog pissing on pet store floors, Jesse Doherty, the supposedly on-vacation English teacher, was kind enough to join me for a call.
The Alternative: Have you sold all of the Year of Nod tapes yet?
Jesse: Thankfully, we’re very close to being sold out. We ended up getting such a big run of tapes (250-300) for a record that we didn’t have any idea if anyone would be interested in. I’m really hard on Year of Nod actually, because there was this one Brooklyn Vegan comment. I don’t even know why, but it’s like a rite of passage that you have to go through. But there was one comment when we had a premiere there during the Year of Nod cycle where they were like, “great, another band that made great music, now shifted to making elevator music.” [Laughing] It’s one of the things that I’ve thought about a lot, is like, our very first album in 2011, War Paint, it’s just awesome. We talk about it all the time, like “man, we love it.” We have this dream of doing an Exile On Main Street type thing, where we’re all just gonna rent a house, make a record together, and play all day every day for like a month. It’s probably never gonna happen because we all have jobs, but we talk about getting back to that sort of harder stuff. And that’s one of the things that I feel most critical of with Year of Nod, that it really was such a downgrade in terms of energy. It was so much more, I hate this term, but chill. I don’t think you can really hear it from the singles, but when you listen to the album, there is a little bit more grit and edge to it then there was to the last one. Because I think we’re trying to bring back a little bit of the punk influence.
For a long time as a kid, Jesse remembers thinking that anything with an acoustic guitar sucked. He was only interested in punk and grunge—that was it.
Did The Replacements get ruined for you when they dropped an acoustic-leaning album?
No, I mean, this is the thing, it’s not like good punk and grunge. When I say punk, I was listening to like, The Misfits and Gwar. It was all surface level. I didn’t know The Replacements back then. I didn’t know Black Flag, or Minor Threat, or Fugazi. My understanding of punk was The Misfits. My understanding of grunge was Nirvana. But I was so into loud and distorted rock music, which you can hear on War Paint. That’s sort of where I was coming from. The band sort of slowed down after a couple years. We went on a tour and we just slowed down. I moved to the city and started writing stuff for a solo project that never ended up happening. Well, it did end up happening, but it became Year of Nod. And in that time, I was finally opening up. “Oh, music that isn’t distorted is actually cool.” It just sort of tracks my arc of becoming much more open-minded and broadening my horizons in terms of the music that I like. I like to describe the two records like, I was very far in the extreme on War Paint, where I didn’t think I could do any singing unless I was yelling. I didn’t think I could play any guitar parts that weren’t at least mildly distorted. And then I swung hard to the opposite end of the spectrum and everything was all about groove, atmosphere, and just sort of like an ethereal vibe. You know what it was, the Destroyer album Kaputt. When I first heard it, I was like, this sucks. I wanna go back to like, [Destroyer’s] Rubies.
Yeah, give me some gravelly, kind of whiney Bejar. Not the maximal stuff. [Laughing]
Exactly. I was like, “screw Kaputt.” All this weird synth stuff, all this blank space. I wanna go back to Rubies or Streethawk: [A Seduction], which were some of my favorite records at the time. And then a couple of years later, I was driving with my girlfriend, now wife, and that record came on. I was like, “agh, this record sucks,” but she had never heard it, so we listened to it. By the end, I was like, “that’s the best thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” And now I would say that that’s up there for me in terms of top 10 records. But that sort of was the moment that I realized that I’m really interested in this softer, more contemplative music that builds in ambience. So I like to think of [I Saw The] Egg as finding a happy medium between songs that can establish that sort of atmosphere and songs that have an energy, that are in your face, that aren’t just sort of loungy. Not that Year of Nod was loungy, but it’s finding a middle ground.
Battle Ave: the combination of Gwar and Destroyer.
Yeah, that’s definitely, we always say that. We’re always saying that! [Laughing]
We spoke more of influences like Guided By Voices and laughed about Stereogum including a link to Jesse’s comprehensive, chronological Robert Pollard playlist in their new music post featuring “My Year With The Wizard.” Brian Eno even came up, Mr. Atmosphere himself.
Most of the songs on that EP [Battle Ave.] were recorded alongside Egg, and most of them came from song-a-day workshops that I do with friends. There are definitely songs on the record where I was trying to like, really do a good knockoff of like a David Bowie song. And then I write it and I’m like, nope, didn’t do a good job of that. But I wrote a song that I like, so I’m going to use it now.
Brian Eno came out saying fuck NFTs.
Well yeah, he did. But then he still has like an $80 pack of cards that he sells. So like, you know?
Are you a capitalist, Brian Eno?
I’d say he’s… probably.
Although a lot of the time the influences process subconsciously, were there any books, poems, movies, or TV shows that had a profound effect on you or the group during the writing of I Saw The Egg?
The Overstory by Richard Powers is amazing. At this point, I think it’s my favorite book I’ve ever read. Specifically, it’s about environmental activism, and it’s sort of a fictionalized depiction of events surrounding the ELF (Earth Liberation Front) in the 90s. But really, it’s about a bunch of different people that’re all grappling with the beauty of trees and the fact that we are destroying all of them. Why I would point to that as something that sort of influenced my thinking while I was writing and making this record, at least lyrically, the book is really about how to find meaning in life, even if that meaning is on a relatively small scale. Some of the characters find meaning in fighting for the Earth in really major ways, like setting fire to logging camps. But then there are other characters who create internet communities or just let their lawn overgrow. And in the middle of the suburbs, they have one half-acre of wilderness. That’s my favorite story in the book. The couple that lets their suburban home go wild. I can make that connection of just finding purpose in your life, even if it’s doing small things. I grew up with this fame complex as a child and wanting to be a rockstar. Stepping back from that and realizing you can find meaning in life, you can do a lot in life on a smaller scale and that is totally valid as well. I think that was very revolutionary for me to find out.
Can you tell me which track off of the record is the rumored 16 year old song and a little about its resurrection?
The song is “Temple.” It’s the second song off the record, but not all of it is 16 years old. The majority of it is in fact, that old, because it was my high school band. It was like, our big hit. How I got started in music before I knew anything about DIY, when I was 14 living in small-town Woodstock, NY, there was this one venue called Colony Cafe, and I asked if I could organize youth shows. And they let me do one a month, and they ended up being really packed. And so this was the song that was called “Peter The Squirrel” back then. And [that] was the song that got everyone, like, really riled up, so I always remembered it. I always knew that it was something that I really liked musically. But the verses were really stupid, and they were so obviously, this is one of those instances where I did a really good job of mimicking Stephen Malkmus and just making, like, the most obvious Pavement rip-off ever.
You were getting into your esoteric lyrics that might mean something!
Exactly! Like, truly. I have a recording of the original version, and it’s laughable how much of a knockoff it was of like, something off of Brighten the Corners.
I’m picturing a lot of alliteration. Pavement is literally my favorite band of all-time.
They are likely my favorite. You know, between them and Frog Eyes. They go back and forth. It was funny, so I rewrote the verses and tweaked the feel a little bit for this record, but all of the instrumentals other than the verses are from my high school band. And why I chose it? Just because I’ve been holding on to it for so long. Just the notion that this was the first good song that I ever wrote, and I’ve wanted to bring it back for a long time. But I’ve never had any idea of how to change it to make it work. And the whole song’s lyrics are [mainly] about my kid and having a kid, and that’s so much of what this record is about. So maybe I just needed the right source material before I could really change it into something worth putting onto a record?
Having been spread around New York and Jersey for the previous two Battle Ave records, the group now all live in the same relative area. Grad school is complete, and each member has jobs that allow them time off (at least in the summer). All of the circumstances that once stood in the way of Battle Ave operating as at least a “semi full-time band” have now fallen to the wayside. Parenting and adult life don’t make it easy, but location and life stage are no longer prohibiting factors.
I know across the board things have been crazy for the band lately. You’re settling into fatherhood and, I don’t want to make this the focus, but Samantha Niss’ cancer diagnosis…
I know that she’s totally comfortable with it being talked about. I don’t wanna say that “derailed the band,” because that’s not the priority. The priority was it really derailed her. It was scary for a lot of reasons, but it sucked because she was just getting tapped to tour with these larger groups. And thankfully, she has been able to do that since, but it was really scary and it’s one of the reasons why we took such a long break. But she’s been cancer free for, I think, 5 years now! We’re all really, really lucky. I have a friend who’s in a similar situation, similar type of cancer, and not as lucky. And it’s been really hard and has also put into perspective that it could have gone very differently for her. So we’re all really happy about it. She’s now the drummer for Real Estate, which is totally crazy!
That is great news! You can remain ambiguous, but what does the album title mean to you and what you’re trying to accomplish with the record?
I’ve always really been interested in this one very specific, sort of esoteric image. This myth of the orphic egg. The egg, which is the world egg, it’s this big ole egg guarded by a snake. And there’s this one image of the snake coiled around the egg. When I first saw it, I didn’t know the myth. I just saw the image, but I thought the snake was trying to get into the egg. Turns out, that’s not actually right. But that was sort of my first take on it, so it started me thinking about this process of a thing that you really want to be a part of, or really want to get into, or really want to see inside of, but you couldn’t. There’s something stopping you, a barrier. And that’s defined a lot of my life. A lot of insecurity, a lot of imposter syndrome. A lot of wanting to be part of a group of people, or like, a community. Be a popular kid, or be part of the cool group of musicians at college or when I moved to New York. You know, get onto a cool label, I mean I love my labels now, but get onto like one of the labels with name recognition. It seems like every phase of my life I’ve been wanting to and not attaining some sort of status, or some sort of entry into some area. I grappled a lot with jealousy. Most of Year of Nod is about being jealous, which in hindsight sucks that I was so preoccupied with that! But then I had a kid, and so there’s that phrase that comes across in two different songs: “I saw the egg crack.” So the idea that like I’m trying to get into something for so long, and that thing changes, but it’s the same feeling of wanting to get somewhere that I can’t get to. And then it felt like a lot of that fell away once I had my daughter. It felt like I finally saw, “oh nevermind, this is where I’m trying to get to.” This is what I was working towards. I don’t need to be part of a scene, like a cool Brooklyn music scene. Or like, I don’t need to be in with the cool kids, or reviewed on Pitchfork, or touring to SXSW. Not that I wouldn’t do any of that, but it was just sort of a wakeup moment where I said “oh, no, this is what I like to do.” I finally saw the thing I was trying to get into, and it wasn’t any of those things. It was having my daughter.
I Saw The Egg will be available on Bandcamp April 1st via Friend Club Records and Totally Real Records, but you can take an early listen to the full record here.
Chris Burleson | @chris_b_kreme44
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