Musician to Musician: The Wheel Workers
I have seen The Wheel Workers three times in the past year. They are relatively neglected by the Houston music media, but hopefully I can begin to change that. There’s something about them that screams, “we should be on tour opening for The Decemberists,” and that’s really saying something. In this interview, singer Steven Higginbotham was the person primarily answering my questions, but the rest of the band did a wonderful job of adding their input, as well. I’m excited with the results, so here is my “Musician to Musician” interview with The Wheel Workers.
SCR: For those who’ve never seen you guys, can you give me a short bio on the band?
Steven Higginbotham: Sure. The band was formed in mid-2010, after I finished recording our debut album Unite and wanted to play the songs live. I’ve known Allison [Wilkins McPhail] and Craig [Wilkins] since we took piano lessons together in middle school. Jason Williams and I played together in a high school band, and we were lucky to find an awesome drummer in Jason Carmona on Craigslist.
The first album has a lot of folk-influenced songs, but since that time we’ve turned to a more electrified, indie-rock style that we play live and will be heard on our second album that we’re recording now at Sugar Hill and my home studio with Dan Workman.
Are the names just coincidental, or are there two sets of siblings in the band?
SH: Just one set — Allison Wilkins McPhail on keys and vocals, and Craig Wilkins on keys and guitars.
How do you tend to write songs?
SH: I usually write the songs and then bring them to the band, where they help bring them to life.
Craig Wilkins: It’s very Frankenstein-esque, indeed.
I get two distinct impressions from seeing you play. First off is that big wall of keyboards! What are those keyboards and what makes them special to you? Why did you choose them? You also have more keyboards on the other side of the stage! But even with all those, you don’t come across as a keyboard-driven band — although “Right Way To Go” sounds like it may have been written on keyboards.
SH: We’ve got four keyboards we use live. I know, I know, that seems excessive, but to pull off the arrangements at a show, that’s what we’re using right now. We have a synth station made up of a Nord Lead and a Roland JP8000 and piano/organ set up that has a Roland RD700 we use mostly for piano sounds, and then a Nord C1 Organ. We tried to go to one keyboard each, but it really took too much away from our sound.
CW: Believe it or not, there are actually parts being left out because Allison and I physically don’t have enough hands. I’d say we need more people, but we barely fit on stage as it is.
The other impression I get from you guys is that you seem to take a great deal of care with your songs. It feels like you hone your songs on acoustic, then put the effects on later. Am I right, or do you guys just jam and riff and come up with the songs from that?
SH: That was true for the first album’s material, but the newer stuff was written with a live rock band in mind. The songs start from a variety of locations; sometimes a melody will be playing in my head and I will realize that it isn’t from a song that has been written yet. Other times, I just sit down in front of the computer and sequence drum parts until something happens. It just depends.
How did you do the strings on “The Seal and Whale?” Did you hire people, or have some good friends? I am always impressed when I hear strings because I know it took some extra work.
SH: I’ve been playing violin since junior high. I wanted something interesting to end the album that would be unique, so I decided to play every part on violin and gradually fade out the band as the violins faded in.
What are your other favorite pieces of equipment or musical toys? A go-to guitar?
SH: I just got a new Fender Mustang that is a lot of fun to play. That and my Telecaster get me the electric sound I like.
CW: Anyone who owns a theremin will put that at the top of the list. That thing is magical, especially with the help of our Moogerfooger analog effects module. I’ve got another Moogerfooger in-line as a foot pedal for my Stratocaster with some similarly fun results.
Have you had any good reaction from new fans who have seen you for the first time?
SH: Yes. It’s been really encouraging. You put so much time, effort, and money into making art, and it’s nice to get some good feedback here and there.
At the show we played with you [Alkari] and the Miniature Tigers at Fitzgerald’s, the crowd was almost entirely Miniature Tigers fans, and they nearly packed the place [downstairs]. It seemed like we really won them over. It’s always very rewarding to have “earned fans” — people who you don’t know that are coming out regularly to support your music because they enjoy it. We’re seeing more and more of that as our local crowd continues to grow, and we couldn’t be happier.
CW: I’ve heard nothing but really positive feedback from fans after our shows. I think we have a quite different sound, and people are at least surprised, interested, or both, to hear it. I gotta say, the drunken, loud, nonsensical compliments might be the best. I don’t need to understand you to know what you’re saying. Know what I’m saying?
Does anyone compare your sound to famous bands or say, “you sound like this or that”? If so, who? To me, you have a Belle and Sebastian and a Decemberists feel. Some take comparisons as a compliment, while others try to steer clear of them at all costs… I feel that if I have some kind of a “jumping off” comparison point with a band then I can actually enjoy them more. Do you have a feeling one way or another about that?
SH: I’ve heard Belle and Sebastian and Decemberists and I’m happy with that. I love both of those bands.
Jason Williams: I have heard a couple comparisons but I have heard more often that people can’t quite pin us down or compare our sound to any band they can think of and I think this is a great compliment. There’s nothing wrong being compared to other bands — it’s inevitable, and flattering, in my opinion — but it is also nice to know we have a unique sound, as well.
CW: I’ve heard everything from Radiohead to Death Cab, but those are from people who have seen us play live. The one I get the most is “You sound like somebody I think I’ve heard, but I can’t put my finger on it.” That’s probably my favorite.
What has been your favorite show to play so far?
Allison McPhail: We had a really great turn out for our CD release party at Walter’s in February. I really love when we have a crowd that is into the set because I know we feed off of the crowd’s energy.
Yes I was there and agree with you on that. It was my first time seeing you. It made me take notice of you guys.
CW: I really enjoyed opening for Elf Power at Walter’s, as well as every other time we played there. Fitzgerald’s always makes for a great show, too, especially upstairs. The sound is phenomenal up there.
JW: One of our earliest shows we played was with The Tontons at Walter’s. That was a really fun show for us all.
SH: Yeah, I hope Walter’s comes back soon. Our two last shows at Fitz have been great. I already mentioned the Miniature Tigers show, but we also opened up for the Sideshow Tramps and had a great response from people who had never heard us before.
At shows, do you usually play the same set or do you change it up?
SH: We’re working on a lot of new material, so the last few shows have each featured a new song that we want to try out on a crowd. Based on the response, we decide if it should be included on the next album.
CW: Between us changing up existing songs and playing new ones, you’ll probably never see two shows of ours that are exactly the same.
Your website says you’re now working with Dan Workman. What brought you to Dan? What’s working with him like?
SH: I sent Dan a demo that had a few songs off of Unite after I saw that ZenHill Records got started and had some really great local bands like Roky Moon and BOLT! and the Sideshow Tramps on their roster. Dan liked what he heard, and so I approached him about producing our next record.
Working with him has been great. He’s provided wonderful insights into the music and we have developed a great working relationship with him. In the past, I’ve always produced everything myself, and having something along for the ride that has so much experience and success has been very helpful. He’s a great guy and really likes the music, so every session has been a pleasure. We’ve finished three songs so far for the next record, and I think they are the best material I’ve ever recorded.
CW: Dan is both laid-back and insightful, with a magical pair of ears. I can’t say enough good things about that guy. He puts up with my Beyoncé jokes, as well, which is also important.
When do you think your next release will arrive? How long do you take to record? Do you fund it personally within the band, or is there someone backing the band?
SH: We are tentatively planning to release the second album in the summer of 2012. We are 100% self-funded but would be happy to talk to any potential investors out there!
CW: I’m really excited about this next album. I think it’s a lot more reflective of how we sound live. We really stepped on all the pedals for this one, and I think people are really going to like it.
What would you like to see happen to make Houston a more originals-band-friendly place? Or is it perfect for you? Do you have a favorite venue?
CW: I think Houston has a great local band scene. I learn about great local bands in all genres almost every day. There’s a lot more diversity here than the rap and folk that Houston may be known for. Festivals like Free Press Summerfest also do a great job of blending national acts with local ones so that people who normally just go see Big Label bands get catch a glimpse of what’s happening locally. I wish festivals like that one happened more often.
JW: I grew up in Houston and maybe it’s just me, but the community of musicians that exists now is not something I encountered 10 years ago. It’s awesome seeing what the music community in Houston has become, and I am very excited to see what it has in store for us all in the future.
AM: I understand that cover bands are pretty popular, but I do think that Houston’s local original band scene is gaining some recognition with festivals such as the Free Press Summerfest, as well as the more recent Houston Press BestFest. I personally really like playing Fitzgerald’s. I grew up going to see shows there, so it’s a place that holds a lot of great memories for me.
I see you played Austin once. How did it feel to get out of town?
JW: It was really great getting to play Austin. That was our first out of town show that we played with our good friends Boy + Kite. We all have lots of friends in Austin, and love the city. So it was really nice getting to play for them and Boy + Kites’ fans, as well.
AM: I loved it. Any excuse to get to Austin and I’m on board. Celebrating Steven’s birthday and playing with Boy + Kite was the icing on the (birthday) cake.
You sound like a band that would go over well in Austin. I have some friends in a band called One Hundred Flowers that you need to meet. You’d go great with them. Not really a question, just a thought…
CW: I used to live in Austin and really consider it my second home. Always good to visit my friends there, but even more special to get to play a show there. That night we played with our good friends Boy + Kite. Really amazing band. If you haven’t heard them yet, you definitely need to.
Do you have a favorite album of the year for 2011? As many of you that do can answer that one…
CW: I’d have to go with Mogwai‘s Hardcore Will Never Die, But You Will.
SH: I can’t stop listening to Wye Oak‘s Civilian.
AM: I’d have to say The Antlers, Burst Apart.
JW: I know I may be a little late to the game with this one, but I’ve really been enjoying Mumford and Sons‘ Sigh No More.
How about the best show you went to this year? Do any of you make an effort to get out to many shows or are you too busy with your own things?
CW: I just saw Mastodon the other night and am still coming down from that experience. That show was like getting punched in the neck for an hour and a half. I loved it. However, my favorite show of the year had to be Olivia Tremor Control in Austin a few months ago. I think that was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever been to. As far as locally? I gotta say, I enjoy Featherface more every time I see them. Those guys bring the good noise.
AM: I try to make it out to live shows as much as I can. Probably on the top of this year’s list was The Twilight Singers at Warehouse Live and The Antlers at Fitz. As far as local shows, I enjoy seeing Chase Hamblin, The Tontons, and Featherface.
JW: I just saw The Wild Moccasins‘ tour kick off with Little Lo — from Austin — and The Mathletes. It was a great night of music.
SH: I try to see as many as I can, especially local shows to support the music scene here in Houston. I really enjoy going to see Buxton, Featherface, Winter Wallace, and many of the other great local groups we have here. Denton’s The Orbans are a really great live band.
Any favorite Houston acts you want to give a shout out to?
SH: Yes, lots. In addition to Featherface, Buxton, and Winter Wallace that I mentioned earlier, I like Chase Hamblin, Sideshow Tramps, Roky Moon and BOLT!, Wild Moccasins, Tax the Wolf, Second Lovers, Placid Blue, Tame Blonde, Alkari, Jealous Creatures, Young Girls, Robert Ellis, listenlisten, and a lot more that I’m sure I should have included. Everyone should go see as much local live music as possible. We’ve got a really cool local indie-rock scene in Houston that deserves your support.
AM: Ditto to Steven, with the addition of Art Institute, Finnegan, and The Tontons.
CW: I’m definitely a new fan of the Art Institute, too.
Thanks again for the great interview! Okay — two excellent Houston bands down, and a ton to go. The Dead Revolt are on deck, and your band may be next!
(All photos by Jason Smith.)