An Interview with Michael Sempert of Birds & Batteries

Photo credit: Su-Yin Mah
Birds & Batteries, with Rubblebucket and The Wandering Bears
Mission Creek Music Festival, Monday, March 28, 8:00, Gabe’s

Mission Creek is gaining a reputation for opening on a high note — last year’s strange and wonderful Pocahaunted show at Gabe’s was an unexpected festival highlight. This year’s first-round lineup looks to be no exception, featuring an act I’ve become particularly excited about – festival alum Birds & Batteries.

Sometimes, for me at least, music needs to be accessible. That’s not to say that Birds & Batteries latest album, Panorama, is unchallenging, either lyrically or instrumentally. But the band’s thoughtful, well-crafted songs, buoyed by groove-tinged guitars, syncopated synth and piano, are mostly a whole lotta fun. It’s the kind of music that makes me say, “Ahhh, thank you, pop band. Thank you so much for not jamming a bunch of noise into my already overburdened earspace.” Not that noise is always bad, but nine times out of ten, I’ll pick the pop.

Lead singer Michael Sempert was kind enough to take a moment to talk with me about the band’s latest
album and what’s new with Birds & Batteries.

Have you guys been to Iowa before? What are you most looking forward to about your

We’ve played Iowa City twice now, both at The Mill, once for Mission Creek last year.
I’m looking forward to taking a walk by the river.

Has the band been involved at all with Mission Creek in San Francisco?

We played MC in SF a couple years back.

How do you feel the new album Panorama articulates the growth and progression of Birds &

I think Panorama is the strongest set of songs I’ve put on a record. I also think that the
arrangements, recording quality and mixes are a big step up for B&B.

Your music has been described as “difficult to categorize.” Reviewers seem to struggle to depict your
sound in words on the page … bouncing from electronica (which I think is more apt to previous albums)
to alt-country to synth-driven pop. So, help a girl out … where do you see B&B landing in the spectrum of
genres with Panorama?

Each record pulls from different influences, for sure. As for Panorama, the song “Raincheck” is
influenced by ELO a bit, “Another Inferno” by John Lennon’s Walls and Bridges as well as the Cars. So I’d
say the studio rock of the 70’s and early 80’s is a big influence. Also, some of David Byrne’s solo records,
like Grown Backwards and Look Into The Eyeball.

Your single, “Strange Kind of Mirror” was inspired by a friend’s wedding … the listener is privy to an
internal conversation about how the path we choose to follow can alter the kind of person we become, for better and for worse. How did seeing your friend enter into this new phase change your perspective on your choice to pursue music as a way of life?

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Well, the friend’s wedding story has been misconstrued a few times over like a game of telephone.
Essentially, I just noticed similarities in the haircut and dance moves between myself and my close friend
the groom and it inspired me. At its core, the song “Strange Kind of Mirror” is also about learning about
yourself through the music you make. So, the Mirror is actually the song itself (little known fact). It’s an
odd experience when people sing your lyrics back at you, and you see a reflection of yourself in there.

Does the theme of finding, creating, maintaining and discarding identity influence the direction your
songs take? How do you think the “uncategorizable” nature of your changing sound could be attributed
to the same fluidity of identity you address lyrically?

It’s an interesting question. Like I’d guess most artists do, I use creativity as a way to learn about
myself and life in general. So sure, there’s some of that shedding and reinvention. But I doubt the
people I’m close with would say I’ve changed in any obvious way with these creative outputs. The
album Panorama attempts to address empathy and compassion. The villain is the CEO and the terrorist
and the soldier. And we’re all a part of this situation. So the swapping of identity isn’t as much about
some changing identity, its more about an interchangeable humanity. I’m not sure if I succeeded in
transmitting these ideas through the songs, but hopefully somewhat.

I’m personally loving the crafted, organized style of your songwriting and arrangements. You site
some pop powerhouses as influences: David Bowie, Queen, Tom Petty, Sam Cooke, the Sea and Cake
… diverse sounds, yet all with a dedication to pop-candy hooks, narrative-driven song structures and
an overall catchy, melodic groove. In a world of experimental sounds, noise, freeform, stream-of
consciousness music, do you ever catch flack for being a bit too, hate to say it, easy-listening? What do
you think your more stylistically traditional sound lends to the current indie music scene?

Soft-rock is certainly an influence (Paul Simon, Fleetwood Mac), but I’d draw the line there. I’d like
to think that B&B challenges listeners enough to be considered art. I like hi-fidelity recordings and good-
sounding mixes, which it seems is a no-no in the current climate of garagey lo-fi. People can go as deep
with Panorama as they want, or just enjoy the fact that it doesn’t sound like ass.

Why is your show with Rubblebucket and the Wandering Bears a Mission Creek must-see?

Our live show is super different than the record, just a lot more rocking. Rubblebucket looks
amazing and I’ve heard good things about the Wandering Bears. Should be a great night.

Will you be able to catch any other Mission Creek acts while you’re in town? Who are you looking
forward to, or should we be looking forward to?

Unfortunately, we’re on a pretty intense tour, so we’ll have to hit the road the next day early. If we
were sticking around, I’d be excited to see Jeff Tweedy and our friends Snowblink.