Birds & Batteries' frontman steps dreamily out on his own. Plus: BottleRock 2.0, and The Chapel says "everyone chill"
LEFT OF THE DIAL As rock 'n' roll narratives go, it's a rather familiar one: Singer and bandleader who has achieved moderate success with one full-band sound announces that he's been repressing his true musical instincts for far too long, decides to go solo, and puts out an album that's a sonic 180 from what fans are used to. History tells us that this is either the moment when stars are born (Michael Jackson, Lou Reed), or the moment when everyone goes, "Oh, maybe the other band members are responsible for way more of the stuff I like than I previously realized?" (Hall, without Oates).
Birds & Batteries frontman Mike Sempert doesn't seem overly concerned about this fork in the road. For one, when the singer-songwriter began teasing new songs out into the world last month in anticipation of releasing his first solo effort, Mid Dream (out May 6 on Blue Velvet), it became clear that longtime fans of his old band — a San Francisco staple of the last five years that blended Sempert's husky vocals and Americana influences with an indie electro-pop danceability (aka plenty of synth) — weren't going to be upset. Far from it: While the album is a clear departure from the heady, airy detachment of Birds & Batteries' oeuvre, the element that brought those songs down to earth — the understated soulfulness of Sempert's vocals and songwriting — has emerged in full force on Mid Dream.
A richly introspective album written and recorded in the months before Sempert left the Bay Area for LA last year (to be with his now-wife — SF music scene doomsdayers, calm down), Mid Dream is equal parts wistfulness and hope, uncertainty and a surprised sort of satisfaction about growing up; in other words, it sounds exactly like those rare, heightened moments when you can actually feel one chapter of your life coming to an end and another beginning. Stripped bare of synthesizers and most other electronic elements and loaded up on melody, wall-of-feeling choruses, and ocean imagery, the album also serves as a kind of coming-out party for Sempert's love of '70s folk-rockers like Tom Petty, Harry Nilsson, and Randy Newman. Sempert will play these songs for the first time on home turf at the Rickshaw Stop May 14.
"I always had two personalities that I was exploring with Birds & Batteries. Initially it was this merging of the folk-Americana-singer-songwriter thing with the synthy art-pop stuff," says Sempert. "But I'd gotten to a point where I wanted to zero in more on a sound, and instead of taking my singer-songwriter stuff and trying to adapt it, I just started putting those songs to the side...so I've had this stack of songs I wanted to try developing for a while."
After a few years in a row of hustling full-time in B&B, the timing felt right last year to take a breather and consider the pile, he says. "That's a hard-working band, and we had a lot of good times and successes, but frankly I got pretty burned out...especially with the kind of 'take over the world' thing we were trying to do. I got married, I moved to LA; it just felt like time to focus on making music for the right reasons and from the heart, without a big agenda."