Houston’s The Wheel Workers recently released its new album, Unite, and celebrates this Friday (2.18.11) with a show at Walter’s On Washington. Featherface–which recently released its impressive debut–and Fort Worth’s The Orbans are also on the bill.
The Wheel Workers’ Steven Higginbotham answered a few questions in advance of the band’s CD release show.
Houston Calling: What are the songs on Unite about? Is there a theme, or are these songs a collection of things you’ve written over the past few years?
Steven Higginbotham: The songs were written over a few years. “Hey Man” is the oldest song, written around 2005. Some of the songs like The “MOP” and “Stereomad” were written as I was recording the CD. This first album took a while to write and record because I was transitioning between cities (moving from Austin to Houston), and band members. I wanted to have a full band to be able to play live before I released the album.
Lyrically, the album deals with a variety of themes. There are socially-conscious songs like “The MOP” that talk about the alienation felt by low-wage workers. Most songs are personal. “Hey Man” and “Open Door” deal with overcoming self-loathing. “Epicenter” and “Sidewalks” deal with death and loss. “I Don’t Know” celebrates humility in the face of life’s complexities.
HC: Are you pleased with the response you’ve received to your music so far?
SH: Yes, we’ve had good radio play on KPFT and most people who have heard it were genuinely complementary. I was particularly happy when my two nephews, who are two and four years old liked it so much they have learned the words to several songs. Or at least their interpretations of the words. Kids at that age are brutally honest and feel no obligation to say things just to be nice. Hopefully the album will sell well at shows and get some attention outside of Houston once we do a wider release of the album later this year.
HC: What do you consider to be your primary musical influences? How do you (or do you) think those play out in your music?
SH: I was a classical musician studying piano and violin for most of my early life. That comes through in my music from time to time, especially when I add strings to the arrangements like at the end of “The Seal and Whale,” the final track on the album. Some of my favorite artists are Sonic Youth, Stereolab, The Flaming Lips, Black Mountain, Nick Drake, among many others. I’m sure they pop up here and there throughout the album.
HC: What can you tell me about the CD release show? Fort Worth’s The Orbans are playing as well. Are you fans of those guys? Good stuff there… And Featherface had a new one recently as well.
SH: Featherface and The Orbans are great bands. Featherface is a young group with a great debut album. Every time I seem them I enjoy them more and more. I discovered The Orbans when they played a show with Buxton at Walter’s a few months back. Buxton was great as always. I had never heard of The Orbans but they blew me away. One of the best new music discoveries I’ve made in a while. I bought their album at the show and must have listened to it 30 times by now. It’s really impressive.
HC: The songs on Unite range from what seem like protest songs to ruminations on love and observations of day-to-day life. What do you draw from for your lyrics?
SH: I teach politics, sociology, and psychology at the high school level. I got into politics in the late 1990s, mainly anti-war and environmental and economic justice issues. I think songs have a great potential for the communication of ideas. As Joe Hill said (I’m paraphrasing), “a pamphlet is read once and thrown away, a song is memorized and sung over and over.” I have strong opinions about society and politics, and I sometimes use my songs as a means of communicating them.
HC: How does the band approach the songwriting process — it is a collaborative thing or do you head it up and go from there?
SH: I wrote all of the music and lyrics for the album and recorded it before the current band got together. Allison McPhail helped on background vocals and Craig Wilkins helped lay down some theremin. They have been close friends for many years going back to the days where we had the same piano teacher in junior high school. When I wanted to get a band together to play the songs live, I was happy that they were interested in playing. Jason Williams, who plays bass, helped me record the album. Jason Carmona is the most recent addition and he plays the drums. He’s a really great player and has taken our live sound to a new level since he joined up.
Since we have started playing the material live, the songs have evolved in a direction that I’m really happy with that reflects the contribution of the players. The next album is likely to be a more collaborative process.
HC: What’s your goal for Unite?
SH: I try to focus on immediate goals and what I can have some influence over. I think it will garner enough positive reviews and airplay to get us noticed locally and give us something to build on as we try to expand beyond Houston over the next year. If we sold enough CDs and downloads to pay for the costs of recording the next album, that would be nice. I think the songs have the potential to do much more, but that depends on a lot of factors beyond our control. Already, between the friends and fans who have advance copies or have heard it online, and the radio play KPFT has given the album, thousands of people have heard the music. That’s something that was far beyond the dreams of most musicians until the last century. Mostly, I hope to get the music out to as many people who will genuinely enjoy it as possible.
HC: Where did you record the album?
SH: Actually, we recorded the album at my home studio and then took it to mix at Studioplush with Kelly Donnelly and Matt Presley.
HC: Do you guys plan to tour outside of Houston? Outside of Texas?
SH: Absolutely! No shows booked right now, but over the next few months we’ll spread out to the rest of Texas, and hope to go beyond that very soon afterwards.
HC: How are you guys planning to use online technologies to help spread the word about the album?
SH: We’ve got a website that is up and running at www.thewheelworkers.com.
We have a Facebook, MySpace, Twitter account. The album is up for sale on CD Baby, iTunes, emusic, among other places. We’re working on a series of live videos that should be done in the next month or so that we’ll be uploading as soon as they are finished. I haven’t promoted an album online before, so it’s a learning process, but I’m enjoying the challenge of finding out all the opportunities that are available online that were completely inaccessible to independent musicians even five years ago.
The Wheel Workers plays at Walter’s this Friday, 2.18.11, with Featherface and The Orbans. $10 cover includes a copy of Unite.