Birds & Batteries is a band that can't be pigeonholed. The electro-country-pop-indie-you-name-it group finds inspiration from every genre, every sound; they're reluctant to single out a sound they won't play--except maybe heavy metal. If it's appropriate to bring in polka, polka there shall be. (And really, when isn't polka appropriate?) Even the band's name is noncommittal, connoting serenity and volatility.
Their newest album, slated for a late summer/early fall release, is titled Panorama.True to their full-length album, I'll Never Sleep Again, Birds & Batteries is tirelessly touring the country. Tonight, they play the Rickshaw Stop, and Local Frequency caught up with the band's frontman, Mike Sempert, to talk about genre, the perfect venue and Neil Young.
You're in the middle of a national tour. Was there a defining moment when you felt like you've made it as a band?
Mike Sempert: I don't know if that exists. But I think there are moments where you sit back and say, "Hey, we've made a step. We've grown." There are little things. We had a song from the EP [Up to No Good] that got played on Radio David Byrne. I was like, "OK, cool. That's something I always wanted to do, and we did it." That's just one of hopefully many little things I'd like to do.
What else do you want to do?
MS: We haven't actually toured Europe at all, so I'd like to be touring it in general. I'd like to travel the world and play music. We have aspirations and hopes and dreams, and you know, some leads, but we definitely don't have any timelines or set dates to do it.
A lot of people say that it's hard to lump your band into a certain genre. If you had to choose a San Francisco neighborhood to describe your sound, what would it be?
MS: How about Oakland? That's where I live now. Or, how about Treasure Island? Sort of straddling both sides of the Bay there. Half the day I'm living in SF and half the day I'm living in Oakland, so I feel like I gotta represent both here. I like to think about music in terms of possibilities and potential. I think that Treasure Island is probably a good example of an open space with changes ahead.
I think the reason people talk about us as being hard to categorize is because that's what we said in our press write-up. People are jumping all over it, but it's not something I'm seeking to emphasize. People who know our music get it and they're not too concerned about defining it. I enjoy making it and I'm not too wrapped up in trying to define it either. We described this last EP as "spooky-funky." This upcoming full-length album is Tom Petty meets art-rock. We take it release by release in terms of the elevator pitch.
What was the recording process for the new album?
MS: This record, Panorama, has more live performance in it than the EP, which was really torn apart and put back together. It's got a little more of a full band sound. But in the past, we've done drums completely separately and then everything else one at a time. It's also got more of an open and optimistic sound than the EP. Each song is a little different; each process is a little different.
What's your favorite song from Panorama?
MS: There's a song called "Strange Kind of Mirror," which I think is one of the better songs that I've written, and I'm really proud to put it out. It's about seeing ourselves through other people and understanding ourselves through our relationships.
What's the story behind the title Panorama?
MS: Panorama and Up to No Good were actually written at the same time. The underlying concept is good and evil; love and hate. The EP focuses on the more negative stuff, hopefully with a bit of tongue-in-cheek. Panorama goes for a broader understanding of everything in life, with an optimistic and positive conclusion. Panorama does have negative lyrics though, and that's why it's called that; it's exploring both sides.
You got a lot of recognition in the past for covering Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." How do you pick which songs to cover?
MS: "Heart of Gold" in that particular instance plugged into the narrative of other songs I was writing about. It was one of the first songs that B&B was doing live and it got a good reaction because people knew it and it was a different interpretation of the song. I try to do covers that I can bring something new to. Sometimes it's based in a tribute to an artist who I admire. I want to recognize the extent to which they've influenced me. Other times, something just pops into your head and feels right.
What are you listening to right now?
MS: Recently it's been some dance music and a lot of pop stuff, like this Alicia Keys and Beyonce collaboration, "Put It in a Love Song." I like that one a lot. Cass McCombs, Hot Chip, Telegraph Canyon, Nik Westman. As for local artists, I'd love to give a shout out to Kacey Johansing -- beautiful voice and great songs.
In terms of sound, what's your ideal venue?
MS: The best sound we've had was at the Great American Music Hall, which was years ago. But we've had a lot of really good times recently at Bottom of the Hill. Café Du Nord has always been really good to us. We're playing the Rickshaw tonight -- trying to give Rickshaw a shout-out. But Great American sounds real good.