The Beat: The two sides of Birds & Batteries

Birds & Batteries: playing with dualities

What do a parrot and a vibrator have to do with a well-known San Francisco band you ask? Well let me tell you.

Birds & Batteries is the indie-pop project of singer and multi-disciplined musician Mike Sempert. Together with Christopher Walsh and Jill Heinke, the band is a homegrown, hometown staple in The City's arsenal of great local acts.

I meet with Sempert and band manager Dan Koplowitz -- also of Friendly Fire Recordings fame -- at the Lone Palm in the Mission for what turned out to be a series of stories and Manhattans. Initial probes into the name Birds & Batteries brings us to the story of Antonio the parrot.

Antonio was incredibly despondent, tells Sempert. "He was just a really sad and lonely bird," he says, "and he was always crying." A solution popped up in the form of a battery-operated orgasm-yourself appliance (read: B.O.O.Y.A.!). "We found that if we were to give the bird a vibrator that it would comfort him … it wasn't sexual at all, it was purely a comforting vibration." One day, however, Sempert and his college roommates ran out of batteries and Antonio died of sadness.

Gripping, I know.

A moment of silence followed this tale as we sipped on our drinks and avoided eye contact, contemplating the fragility of life. But then the absurdity sunk in, eyes met and laughter burst forth.

Now, it should be said that while Sempert is a force of musical talent, there is also a great streak of whimsy and humor to the man. I can't help but also mention the band's moniker might be a reference to the Tom Robbin's book "Still Life with Woodpecker." Whether it's because of Antonio and the vibrator, or "Woodpecker" (I'm sensing a theme here) Sempert wanted Birds & Batteries to express both the organic and synthetic elements of his music.

Performing at Public Works tonight for "Broke & Classy: Broke-Ass Stuart's 10-year anniversary of living in SF," Sempert and band are gearing up for the release of their next full-length LP Stray Light in August. Having just dropped the EP Unfold last month, Sempert wrote and recorded both records at the same time. By a happy accident, a dichotomy emerged from the results of his studio sessions -- some songs were of pain but most were those of happiness and love.

The more harrowing tunes cover darker territory and ended up on Unfold. Truths and spirits "loom in the future" on track "Greatest Minds" while Sempert finds himself breaking down and questioning his cool on "Epic Fail." He croons over foreboding synth melodies, melancholy and dejected. Sempert says he wanted to "filter the ones [songs] that felt that they would get in the way of joy."

As for the joy, jubilance was reserved for Stray Light. "The goal of this record was to tap into those moments of clarity with love," Sempert says. "The idea that light and happiness and joy are accessible to us." The album is positive and upbeat. Lead off number "The Golden Age of of Dreams" is about a bright future -- in stark contrast to Unfold's "Greatest Minds" -- and is brimming with hope. Triumphant harmonies swirl about while synthetic plinks and plunks sparkle throughout. Stray Light is a blast into the cosmos sonically (nerd note: Sempert is a recently-converted Battlestar Galactica addict). This time around, Sempert sings with hint of a promise, as if paradise is right around the corner. The album ends with ballad "Arctic Flowers" in which the singer surmises "we are new again."

For those B&B fans who fell in love with 2010's Panorama and its quirkily rad video for single "Strange Kind of Mirror," Stray Light will be decidedly more synth-tacular. B&B "dials down the Americana," explains Koplowitz, "the music is getting richer, the song structures more interesting, and Mike has a way of coaxing these really interesting sounds out of his instruments."

Although Sempert admits, "I take some pride in unpredictability," he has always had a taste for what he calls his "dancey future-flavor." Synthy elements have existed throughout B&B's 8-year career as heard in 2009's Up to No Good EP and other singles. 

As for Sempert, is he unfolding or enlightened? Is his future bright? He smiles and answers, "Blindingly so."

Julia B. Chan is a writer and hosts "Play for Today," a radio program about new music on every Friday from 6 to 8 p.m. Follow her on Twitter @onTheBeat.