MUSIC Michael Sempert, frontman of Oakland synth-folk outfit Birds & Batteries, has a talent for avoiding questions. Sitting across from me in a Mission District café near the studio on Cesar Chavez where his band practices, he evades my hardly tactful attempts to adhere a concise creative vision to his efforts as a songwriter, producer, and multiinstrumentalist. "I think that meaning isn't fixed, no matter the intention of the artist," he resolves. "The same song can mean something different even to the same person every time."
Well, Sempert's right, and I might qualify that my predicating Birds & Batteries as synth-folk at the beginning of this article only begins to hone in on the project's constantly evolving hybrid aesthetic. The 2007 full-length I'll Never Sleep (eightmaps) contains robust, electronic toned folk-rock, including a crackling cover of Neil Young's "Heart of Gold." In contrast, last fall's EP Up To No Good (eightmaps) pulls as much from "Atomic Dog" electro-funk as from warm 1970s studio pop. Most hybrid bands experimenting with pastiche tend to get lost in the process, but Birds & Batteries finds ways to craft strangely charming and captivating music.
A brief tale at just short of 20 minutes, Up To No Good summons a playfully dystopian mood and story line. At first, we follow a roguish protagonist in the wake of some apocalyptic catastrophe that struck the heart of a sprawling city. "Now I believe in the villain/ I believe in the thief/ Who steals what he is given/ Keeps it in his teeth," a husky-voiced Sempert croons during "The Villain."
Eschewing conventional choruses, Sempert lets rhythmic tides carry the songs forward in alternating patterns, layering them with haunting synth arpeggios and mellifluous string cords. An enchantingly ominous world emerges one populated by verdant creatures that shape-shift among the animate and robotic and ghostly inciting revelry more than any horror. The effect is similar to that of watching a John Carpenter film or reading a Phillip K. Dick novel, where we can drop our critical guard, at least for a moment, to take ironic pleasure in the evils of the world and a less than promising-looking future. That pleasure might also arise from the numerous strands of the familiar that ring in Up To No Good, sparking nostalgia for a sort of childlike innocence before we had to be so crafty in our coping.
The climax takes a propulsive turn in "Out in the Woods." A bubbling, boogie-funk bass line quickens and slows as the melodic chords warp unexpectedly, mirroring the racing thoughts of the supposed villain who loses himself in an enigmatic black forest. "Up to no good/ But we're up to no bad/ We are only what we are," Sempert sings over a howling whistle that sounds like a synthetic gust of wind.
"With music, I try to get at the unexplainable," Sempert says. "The lyrical content deals with the climate of moral ambiguity." Such conceptual play on the notions of good and evil casts the Up to No Good EP with the aura of a pensive and cautionary fable, despite its tongue-in-cheek facets.
Birds & Batteries' oncoming third full-length set for release this summer with the tentative title Panorama will follow similar explorations into right and wrong. However, that might be the only solid thread linking it to the highly polished Up To No Good, even though the tracks were recorded during the same time frame. "[Panorama] is informed a lot more by the live show and live process," Sempert says. "It's a shift back to earnest and uplifting music."
The dynamic nature of Birds & Batteries is born from Sempert's restless character and overarching creative control. "It takes months to make music," he says.