Homegrown: Birds & Batteries

It’s inevitable, great bands go unheard amidst the digital noise. Technology has done nothing but exacerbate this. This weekly blog, featuring some of our favorite local artists, is an attempt to combat that digital noise.

Birds & Batteries (Photo Credit: Su-Yin Mah)

It will not be tied to upcoming releases or show promotion. Rather, it is the written form of a dude or a lady standing next to you at a party saying, You have to check out (insert obscure band name here).

Some other guiding principles:

  • I will not attempt to describe an artist’s sound (there will be plenty of video embeds and links to their music…no “folk-neo-electro-soul meets Nirvana” bastardizing of genres here)
  • I’ve picked the bands because I love them. If you’re looking for a scathing review, then you’re in the wrong place
  • I will always include a video embed, but if you like what you hear, then stop watching Mad Men on Netflix, get off your butt, and go see local music live.

My choice for this first post was easy. I first heard Birds & Batteries (Spune / Velvet Blue Music) about two years ago. To put it bluntly, I don’t know of a more talented songwriter in the Bay Area than Mike Sempert. Along with tUnE-YarDs’ w h o k i l l (4AD), Birds & Batteries’ 2010 release Panorama is the best album to come out of the Bay Area in the last few years.

In a word, Birds & Batteries recordings are lush. Layer upon layer of synth, guitars, ambient percussion, harmonies, strings, and seemingly whatever else is lying around the studio. It’s as if each song is a collection of intersecting flight patterns that all land on the same, unexpected runway. Sempert, along with guitarist Christopher Walsh, bassist Jill Heinke, and drummer Brian Michelson know how to deftly navigate unexpected turns. Sempert had this to say about the arrangement process:

“I really enjoy the process of arrangement and production, almost as much as writing the song itself. And often, the two process are intertwined. I think the desire to build something multi-dimensional within a recording comes from listening to records obsessively as a kid and becoming quite attached to those kinds of details. I also see it as an expression of my enthusiasm for the process. But every album is different and I’m still learning as I do this.”

This is not to say the lyrics are an afterthought. There are times when songs take on the role of dumping ground for tired clichés (see: 2 out of every 3 love songs/break-up songs), but Birds & Batteries don’t waste original ideas on familiar language. Take this example from “The Villain” (a masterfully haunting track near the end of the album): “You become an abstraction / you become an idea / and when you represent something to someone/ your face will disappear.” How often do you re-read lyrics like you just did?

Surprisingly, it seems the lyrics are another element—not the centerpiece—to Sempert. When asked if he has a guiding philosophy when it comes to writing the lyrics, he said, “I try not to over-think lyrics, though there’s plenty of songs that I’ve labored over.  I don’t have a philosophy other than ‘whatever it takes.’  Just get it there.  The song is bigger than the words.”

Another example of Birds & Batteries in top form lyrically can be seen in the video for “Strange Kind of Mirror.”

At the risk of sounding odd—I just checked my iTunes counter, and I’ve listened to Panorama all the way through 11 times and some songs as many as 20 times. As I’ve been working on this short article, I’ve been forced to ask myself what brings me back to these songs.

It all comes down to Costco. Yes, Costco. I make a trip over there every week or so to get some food for the production studio I work at, and I hate that place (Costco, not the studio). I don’t use that word lightly—I really hate that place. I wouldn’t be surprised if the phrase “going postal” is replaces with “going Costco” within five years. I find myself coming back to this album when I have to go over there. The prickliest parts of my day are smoothed over when I listen to these songs.*

The songs pull me away from the mundane. It’s not like the subject matter is lofty or sentimental, but the sounds and the matter-of-fact vocal delivery of some really thought-provoking ideas have the ability to pull me out of the muck in a way…I don’t know, in a really comforting way. It’s reassuring, like a great children’s book is reassuring to an adult. I just get the feeling Shel Silverstein would love this album. It comes off whimsical in its detours,  even when I know it’s anything but, and I love that about Panorama.

To hear or purchase Panorama, go to Birds & Batteries website.

* If my biggest complaint is going to Costco once a week, then I am one lucky turd.

Phil Lang is the Director of Music Operations at BAMM.tv (Beta). BAMM.tv curates, produces, and globally distributes performance video content of the best unknown artists. Built by musicians for musicians, BAMM.tv shares net profits 50/50 with the artist through a fair share arrangement that benefits everyone. For more information, email [email protected].


  1. […] the full article here, buy Panorama immediately, then listen to Sempert’s latest at […]

  2. My favorite local band by FAR. Amazing amazing songs. I want them to be known far and wide…

  3. Thanks Annie and Fernando! Wanted to mention to everyone that we are playing a free set at Rock Make Music Art & Street Festival on Sept 17 at 530pm. Cheers!

  4. Fernando Estrada August 30, 2011 at 2:37 pm

    Great article! I also think that Birds & Batteries is one of the most talented bands in the Bay Area.

  5. thanks for the article & the premise of the blog. I love Birds & Batteries too and I think when the chaos settles, the bands that are screaming ahead out of blind ambition will be lost, and bands like this that are making gorgeous music will be the ones left standing and remembered.

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