Michael Sempert of Birds & Batteries on Panorama and San Francisco
Su-Yin Mah Birds & Batteries
San Francisco's Birds & Batteries may be essentially a pop band, but the lushness of the act's songwriting and the ability to evoke and articulate complex emotions with poetry and intensity is a rare talent these days. The group's latest album, 2010's Panorama, lived up to its title as a thematically wide-ranging group of songs tackling politics and human relations without resorting to preachy lyrics or leaning on mere volume to communicate the meaning of the music in a visceral way.
Subtlety and grace is more this band's style; its songs and performances have a kind of quiet power that lingers in the mind. Don't think "indie rock" so much as a rock band in the mold of those great bands of yesteryear that didn't hold their noses at the idea of using electronics to help flesh out their sound.
In advance of the band's show tonight at the hi-dive, we had a chance to speak with frontman Michael Sempert about the influence of Bernie Worrell, the band's songwriting and the place of Birds & Batteries in the context of the sprawling community of music that exists in the Bay Area.
Westword: The synth sound you have on a lot of your music has shades of Bernie Worrell. Was his music at all an influence on at least that aspect of your songwriting?
Michael Sempert: Absolutely. I grew up listening to Talking Heads, and I definitely think my first exposure to synths was through Bernie but also through Stevie Wonder. A certain directness and excitement in his playing appealed to me.
Just like ELO, Mercury Rev, David Byrne and Peter Gabriel, there's a pretty even blend of electronic and organic sounds in your music. What got you interested in making a sound like that and what technical and songwriting challenges did you face in getting all of those elements to work together?
I feel like the greatest challenge for me is always to just put a song together that I want to sing every night on tour. The arrangement and the production is the fun stuff where you're exploring what the best sort of frame to put the picture in is. It's an important part of Birds & Batteries sound is the production. But it's just a way of framing the song itself.
I started writing music in college and trying to write jazz. I came to songwriting a little less directly. Those artists you mentioned were all artists I was listening to at that time, as well as Super Furry Animals and Radiohead, of course. Just putting on a record with headphones and escaping into this deep, multi-dimensional world and noticing new things every time -- that excitement about production motivated a lot of what I've tried to do with Birds & Batteries.
You recorded Panorama in part at Tiny Telephone. Why that studio in particular, and was John Vanderslice involved in any end of the engineering or production?
John was not involved in the engineering and production. But it's his studio and his spirit is a part of that place. He was friendly enough to hang out for a second when we were getting set up. He's sort of a fixture in the community, so working in his space is inspiring and it's great.
It came down to the space itself, the equipment they had and a certain devotion that he and the engineers who work there have, to using the best stuff, and doing it the best way, and not cutting corners when it comes to the sounds you create. I really do love that studio, but there's other great studios in San Francisco, as well.
We also did some recording at Hyde Street Studios, which is an amazing studio and the room itself has a ton of history. Credence Clearwater Revival, David Crosby and The Grateful Dead cut records in that small room so it has a ton of vibe and a great sound. We did most of our drums there and mixed there, so that's a big part of the record, as well.