Big, Sparkly, & Loud: Birthday Club Makes Everything Alright in the End
Once, there was a band called Featherface. They were awesome, an intense, thoughtful blast of fuzzy psych-pop goodness. They toured, played SXSW, moved up to Austin, made some trippy, strange videos, got some cool press, and then…poof, they were gone. Before what turned out to be their last-ever show, they warned that it might be their last for a while, and that while turned out to be for good.
A year or so later, word started going around that guitarist/keyboardist/vocalist Stephen Wells was back in Houston, and Featherface was no more, he was doing something new. And “new” is the right word; with new outfit Birthday Club, Wells has left the psych stuff behind, for the most part, trading it in for shiny, retro-ified pop that bounces and sways along alluringly, with synths that fell through a timewarp from 1985, primary-color melodies, and a vibe that’s simultaneously cheery and sneaky.
Strange though it is to type, on the one track the band’s released so far, “Having Too Much Fun,” Wells sounds like he’s smiling this knowing, half-smirk little smile while he’s assuring the listener that it’ll be alright in the end. Then, as if to flip things around, he’s suddenly sweetly crooning “feel so alone,” over and over again until the song comes to a close.
It’s a great, fun, subversive little song, and the prospect of an EP of stuff like that is pretty damn appealing, at least to yours truly. Said EP will be coming out soon, so us SCR folks reached out and had a little chat with Wells about the new band, the old band, the recording process, and how to help the Houston scene, all at once.
Away we go…
SCR: First off, is there any kind of story behind the name? I have to admit, I keep wanting to say “Birthday Party,” rather than “Birthday Club.”
Stephen Wells: Ha! Honestly, I wouldn’t say that there is much of a story behind the name, other than I was trying to come up with a name for the project while getting coffee with a friend, and I happened to be wearing a button that said “Birthday Girl.” It wasn’t actually my birthday. [laughs] Caffeine and a little bit of inspiration took it from there!
Who all’s in the band? Can you give some history as to how everybody came together?
We’ve actually gone through a few lineup changes since I moved back to Houston and started the band. Joey Mains from Hearts of Animals first started out playing drums and is also the drummer on the recordings for the Lighten Up EP, coming out on the 30th.
I also knew that Valeria [Pinchuk] used to play accordion in Trio Musette, so she was a natural fit for making weird sounds on the keyboards. The three of us started hashing out these songs that I’d been working on, and we then recorded the EP in Austin as a three-piece, choosing to go to a separate studio for overdubs.
We then changed things around a bit, and Shan Pasha from Ruiners joined us on the bass guitar and Travis [Peck], who used to play in my old band Featherface, switched over to the drums. Not long after that, we changed things around yet again to form he lineup we have today, with Josh Cobb, aka Mojave Red, on the bass guitar. Whew!
I know it’s not strictly about Birthday Club, but I have to ask…what happened with Featherface? Things looked so damn promising, even with the move up to Austin, and then suddenly — from an outside perspective, anyway — you were done.
Things really did feel promising for us around that time, too. It was super inspiring getting to tour around the country and play shows for bigger crowds than we had ever played before. Our last show was a sold-out gig at House of Blues here in Houston with our pals in Wild Child, and it was just a pretty chaotic time for me, honestly.
I’d been really struggling with my mental health while I’d been living in Austin with the band, and I just had this really intense feeling that whatever we were doing wasn’t working for me. I think we all felt that it was just time to start doing something different. The past two years have been the most challenging years of my life so far, but I think I’ve definitely grown in so many ways that I could never have anticipated.
I know you’re going on tour very soon — where are you headed? Is this something that’s been in the works for a while now?
Yup! We’ve been working really hard on getting ready for the road again. We’re doing a month long run in October down the Gulf Coast, up through several states, over to Nashville and then down through Oklahoma before coming back home for our Houston release show at Walter’s on November 5th! Our full tour dates are listed over at our Facebook page.
I’ve only heard a little bit of the upcoming EP; can you talk about what it’s like, musically? It already doesn’t sound like Featherface Mk. II, at least know from my brief exposure to it. Is this aiming in a different direction?
It’s tricky trying to describe your music to people, because it’s so hard to separate yourself from it. I guess I could point at a few things or artists that it might sound similar to, but I might just leave it at this: big, sparkly, loud.
So, for Friday, what’s the deal? Are you going to do a set yourselves, or is it just a true listening party?
Yes, Friday! We’re throwing a free listening party and art show with our pals in Wonky Power over at TOMO Mags to celebrate the release of our new EP, Lighten Up. We’ve worked with several artists over the past year, and we’re going to be showcasing a few pieces from them, in addition to releasing a lyric zine for the EP featuring work from the artists.
We will not be performing live — our Houston release show/tour homecoming is November 5th at Walter’s, with Deep Cuts, The Lories, and Mantra Love — but there will be an awesome listening room sponsored by Steamboat Ampworks where people can spin the new album in super shiny hi-fi. It’s going to be a really fun night, and it’s also Travis’ birthday, so we’ve got a whole lot to celebrate!
What the heck is TOMO Mags? I’d never heard of the place before now…
TOMO Mags is an independent magazine store in Montrose, at 1206 Hawthorne Street, that also has a great coffee shop and art gallery space inside. They’ve been so supportive of the local art community, and it’s an especially great place to have a show based around visual art, which gets me excited about trying something a little different in the space.
They also operate a tiny TOMO bus that allows them take the shop on the road. It’s honestly been really surprising to me how few people have heard of the place, so I’m happy to be spreading the word about all of the good work they do.
On a tech-y note, I saw you guys worked with engineers from Converse Rubber Tracks for the new EP; how did that come about?
Yup! We’ve become good friends with Aaron Bastinelli and Justin Douglas, who are both super-talented engineers for the Rubber Tracks program. I’d met Aaron at a Rubber Tracks session for Featherface during SXSW several years ago, and we kind of just instantly hit it off and kept in touch.
Once I had started shopping around the demos for the EP, Aaron recommended that I reach out to Justin for finishing out the production work. Those two guys just have this incredible way of producing that makes you simultaneously let go of any inhibitions you have, while still keeping you laser-focused. Justin ended up producing a lot of the EP, and I flew up to Brooklyn to finish mixing the record with Aaron in his studio.
I’ve learned so much from those two in the relatively short time that we’ve known each other. The basic tracks for the EP we’re actually tracked live to tape with our pal Erik Wofford at Cacophony Recorders in Austin, a Grammy-winning heavyweight in his own right, and then mastered by our friend Michelle Mancini out in Hollywood.
What was the overall process of making the EP like? Easy, painful, in-between?
Overall, I’d say that it was pretty manic. The writing process for me is so hard to pin down, because sometimes I’ll just be driving my van down 288, and an entire song will start playing in my head. Most of the time, though, it will more closely resemble these little pieces that come to you here and there, and your job is to painstakingly put them together, only to rip them up three or four times after that.
Once the general outlines for the songs were pretty much decided, we then cut these songs pretty quickly in the studio, and a lot of the production decisions were made in the moment. That’s what is so mind-blowing about working with a good producer. They know how to create an environment where the music just comes out of everybody in the moment, and there’s very little second-guessing in the room.
Since it’s been a topic of debate lately, I feel compelled to ask: what do you think of the scene in Houston? Is there a scene? If so, what’s good about it, and what maybe needs to change?
Oh, god, the hot topic. I’ll just say that I came back to Houston for one reason: I came back here because there was something about this place that made me curious and excited. Houston has always seemed to have this wonderful magnetism and subtle, but undeniable, creative energy hovering around the community.
I do think that this perception has changed a bit over the past few years, though. The main concern that I can speak to is that we’re definitely in a transitional time in this city, and as a result, there’s a bit of chaos ensuing in several ways. For one thing, I think there’s been a lot of consolidation of influence and “power.” On the other hand, there’s also more people than ever attempting to provide support and opportunity to local artists. It’s been inspiring seeing events like the music scene panel discussion series at Discovery Green take place, but I can’t deny that I still have many frustrations.
One line in particular that I frequently hear directed at artists after voicing criticism of the “scene” is, “Well, it’s a big city, why don’t you just do it yourself?” I think this logic is faulty in so many ways, as many artists have zero desire to start a promotions company or become the founder of the next big community arts and culture organization.
Artists already have to wear so many hats these days, so it’s incredibly challenging for an artist to be charged with staying true to their creative passions while also taking on the responsibility of managing and promoting others’. People like to say that Houston artists have a problem with talking down on the city so much, but I’m of the opinion that open and honest communication is the only way that true growth can take place.
If the creators in our community feel that things could be done in a different or more effective way, is it their responsibility to start these organizations or programs from scratch? Or is it the community’s responsibility to openly consider and attempt to accommodate the concerns of the artists in this city? I’d say that all of this points to the reality that Houston is going through a bit of a cultural identity crisis.
Another thing that I’d like to see in the future is more focus on getting musicians in Houston access to services that are similar to programs like the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians, which helps local musicians find the right healthcare and hearing protection. Many other cities do offer certain opportunities for the arts that Houston currently lacks, so if we want Houston to be more “creatively competitive,” we have a good bit of work to do.
It’s a tough but worthy challenge. Again, there are many people working hard to change this city in a positive way, but a healthy dialogue at every stage of growth is really useful and important, in my opinion.
If we get down to it, if an artist wants to see a scene grow and change, the best place to focus on is creation. Create the best art that you possibly can, working along with fellow artists in the community that you find inspiring. That’s how you make a music scene grow. That’s how you get people excited. It’s by working with each other and treating each other with respect and professionalism. You can’t fake that.
Along with that, are there any bands/musicians you’d recommend lately? This one’s a totally selfish and lazy question for me, since I’ve been out-of-touch with some of the more recent bands to pop up.
Hmm, these days I’m spinning a lot of old-ish stuff like Vashti Bunyan, Kourosh Yaghmaei, Kim Jung Mi. But as far as new music goes, check out Connan Mockasin, Angel Olsen, and Cate Le Bon. END
(Top photo by Desert Stone Photography.)