Birds & Batteries have been making their own blend of electronic Americana, with a side of funk, since Mike Sempert came to San Francisco from Boston in 2006. His first album as Birds & Batteries, Selections from Nature vs. Nature, was built around home demos he made, but his melancholic take on life was already evident, along with an eclectic method of arranging his sharp vignettes of life and love. Since then, he's made two more albums and two EPs, each showing a marked evolution in production and songwriting. In the studio, Sempert tends to do most of the singing and playing, but on new album Stray Light, which dropped this week, he enlisted some of the players from his touring band -- Christopher Walsh on guitar, Jill Heinke on bass and synthesizer, and Colin Fahrner on drums -- to flesh out some of the tracks. The album sees Birds and Batteries moving away from their country/Americana sound with a collection that's decidedly more pop/rock. We recently spoke with Sempert about how the new album came together and his plans for the future of the band.
Stray Light is an evocative title. Is there a deeper meaning to the words?
Stray Light is the light that got away, but isn't lost. It's the light we often forget about. Light travels to us from far away. It's free and there's so much of this light that it can't be contained or accounted for. Stray light is the extra light. Who can say which light is the light ambling around the universe and which light is the light that came here for us to enjoy? They're indistinguishable, so maybe Stray Light is just light. I don't know.
How does this project differ from your last album, Panorama? Did you change your production method at all?
I obsessed over Panorama and worked on it for years, with lots of different versions and mixes. Hard drives crashed. By the time Panorama was out, it had gone through a lot. While lots of care and love went into Stray Light, it felt more direct and immediate. Many of these songs were written straight through in one sitting and recorded mostly at home. This time I was also singing about love in a simple way and it took me a while to get there. I'm 31 years old. I'm old enough now where I'm comfortable with where I am, musically. In the past, I was always trying to find ways of being interesting or different, with mixed results. Now I'm just trying to do something real that works. That said, the next album might be about something else entirely.
The album seems brighter and more hopeful than your other records. And more pop, with less obvious Americana touches.
I wanted to create something positive and joyful, in spite of a lot of pain I've felt in the past couple of years. I think we all look to art and music for some level of escape, and perhaps that's the melancholy side of it, that we need such escape in the first place. Stray Light has some of that escapism, but there's a consciousness to it. Paradox is a theme that runs through the songs. I think we all live with some amount of contradiction, just to get by. We like to think that we're in control of our lives, and yet, we're not at all. The future is crazy, beautiful, and terrifying as well. As for the genre stuff, we've always had this odd mixture of American folk music with synthesizers and dance music. I still think there's something folksy about some of these songs.
It's the closest thing to a pop album that Birds and Batteries have done. It's still got some twists and turns, and it ends with a synthy country ballad, so who knows? I wanted to be really straightforward and direct with some of these songs, which I think is a decision influenced by pop music, the desire to create something memorable, simple and broad.
What are the challenges of producing yourself?
The hardest part is always that final push to get it finished. Getting that last five percent done often takes as long as the making rest of the album. Making records is always challenging, with a great producer or without. I'd love to work with a producer who I completely trust, like Nigel Godrich or Jon Brion, but making records can never be the effortless thing we want it to be. My melodic choices are intuitive, of course, and hopefully a direct line to the inspiration for the song itself. In some cases though, like "Let The Door Swing," it took a lot of work to be able to really execute those melodic intuitions. Sometimes you dream big as you're writing, but pulling it off live every night is a little different than singing in your bedroom.
Your band contributed to many tracks on this album. Are you headed toward a sound that's more "live?"
I can't say what the next album will be like, because I don't really know. We have a new drummer, Colin Fahrner, who's really fun to jam with. He's got this relaxed, but tight feel, So I'm optimistic I'll get off the computer for the next album a bit more. That said, electronic music is always going to be a big part of this project.
How do the collaborations with the other musicians work? Will you ever co-write with other band members?
I hope so, but I don't have any expectations in any direction. This was still a pretty solitary writing process for me, but it was the most input I've received from the band on a Birds and Batteries album. The song "I Want You" was just done for fun at home; I wasn't sure it belonged on the album. Jill and Christopher were big advocates for that one. The track stands out as this '80s R&B song, but I love it and I'm glad it made the cut as a result of their encouragement. We've got a remix coming out soon on that by Doom Bird.
How does your live approach to the songs differ from the recording?
We always strive for a tight and focused-sounding live show. It's really fun that way. These days, we jam a bit more. The live approach has to find the essence of the recording, and the song, and express it with gusto, as opposed to a literal translation. Naturally, the live show is more bombastic and rough around the edges than the albums.