Leon casino, Birthday Club. Photo: Bryan Chan
You don’t have to look far to find indie rock bands with plenty of pop hooks, and while that’s become the norm, it shouldn’t be lost on anyone that you’ll remember a catchy track just by hearing the name of the band who performs it. That’s what happens to me when someone mentions the band Birthday Club. The Houston four-piece, which rose from the mind of Stephen Wells after the demise of his old band Featherface, dropped an EP last year that featured several songs I just couldn’t shake. After song premieres in national publications, a tour, and slots at some great shows, Birthday Club is ready to spread the sounds of Lighten Up to other parts of the country. Free Press Houston caught up with him prior to the band’s tour kickoff show this Friday to see what we should expect from the band at their show and what they have planned for the future.
Free Press Houston: For those who don’t remember, you were in a band called Featherface before this band. Can you tell us why Featherface ended and what prompted the formation of Birthday Club?
Stephen Wells: We had started touring around the country quite a bit towards the end of the band and there’s an interesting thing that starts to happen when you’re locked in a van day after day for 4 to 8 hours at a time. The van becomes a strange sort of isolation chamber where you’re given many, often much needed, opportunities to be alone with your thoughts. I think at that point we had been a band for a little over 5 years, and although things really did seem to be picking up for us, it was definitely getting harder and harder to ignore the fact that we were beginning to go in different directions.
It’s the natural cycle of things that people grow and change, and no matter how hard it can be in the moment, it’s always an incredible experience to remind yourself that you have the ability to create a new reality at any moment. We all went through that extremely challenging process of breaking up, and the rest of the band ended up moving out to Los Angeles. I decided to move back to Houston from Austin to begin working on my new material and start getting a band together. You can hear the end result on the Lighten Up EP.
FPH: The indie rock landscape is a pretty large one. Were you concerned about breaking into such a crowded marketplace with a new indie rock band when you started Birthday Club?
Wells: Honestly, I wasn’t really thinking about that when I started the band. I had all of these songs in my head, and I definitely wanted them to be heard by as many people as possible, but my main focus is always first and foremost trying to find a way to accurately convey whatever is bouncing around in my head. The songs won’t stop bothering me until they finally get let out, so that’s my focus, for my own sanity. I think as long as you’re working on staying true to your vision and voice, it doesn’t really matter what genre or label gets applied to the end result, because the end result will always speak for itself.
FPH: You’ve added what sounds like plenty of Britpop influence and hooks on the Listen Up EP, what were you listening to when you wrote and recorded it?
Wells: I’m definitely able to admire a well written pop song, but the genre tends to be what I listen to the least. It’s like candy for me, so I can really only take so much of that without getting a little sick. I listen to a pretty wide variety of music from day to day, and I think part of what’s so fun about songwriting is that you’ll notice that these little artifacts from everything you read, listen, watch or experience start popping up in your writing in really unexpected ways. At the time I was writing and recording, I was thumbing my way through a sliver of the Smithsonian Folkways catalog and spinning an awful lot of Lata Mangeshkar, Kim Jung Mi and Big Star. The album art for the Lighten Up EP, which was shot at our first show at Walter’s, is actually a bit of a nod to the cover art of Big Star’s Radio City LP.
FPH: For the tour kickoff coming up this weekend, you went with a warehouse instead of a traditional venue. Was there a reason you decided to do it all on your own rather than the traditional space?
Wells: We knew that we wanted to have the tour kick off party in a space that would not only provide the visual canvas that we wanted for the projectionists, but one that would also get people excited about experiencing something new in an unexplored space, right here in Houston. The venue is located at 215 Grove Street and it’s owned by an very generous and active member of the community who also operates the Preston Theater. When we first stumbled upon the space and pitched the show concept, he was extremely enthusiastic and encouraging about it, so things sort of fell into place organically.
I think it’s really exciting for us because we love seeking out spaces that bands and artists may not ordinarily consider, like when we had a big listening party for our EP at TOMO Magazines in Montrose before our fall tour. It’s also been inspiring playing and visiting the great shows that Mario and Elizabeth throw at the Wonky Power Records warehouse, which could also be considered a non-traditional venue. They’re actually helping us put the whole tour kick off show together, and we’re really grateful for their help in the community. It’s honestly just a whole lot of fun to do something different!
FPH: The lineup is pretty diverse, including Galveston’s EL LAGO and the visuals of Austin’s Ether Wave. What gravitated you to working with both and what should people expect from the pay what you can show?
Wells: I was first exposed to Ether Wave’s work as liquid light show projectionists during my time living in Austin with Featherface, and I was completely blown away. Ether Wave has done projections for Austin Psych Fest and more recently for the Japanese band Kikagaku Moyo. They use a combination of live liquid light performance with both analog and digital video manipulation that constantly shifts and morphs into itself. It’s really beautiful. While I don’t necessarily consider Birthday Club to be a “psych” band, what really attracted us to their work is their skill at seamlessly blending, interacting and accentuating different elements of a band’s performance on the fly and in the moment, regardless of genre or sound.
As far as the bands go, people can absolutely expect shredder sets from Holly Halls, EL LAGO and a few guest DJ’s, including Pearl Crush. Holly Halls are an incredible new band that we stumbled upon during one of their shows at Axelrad. They are a pretty new project in the music scene but we really believe in their music and I’m really excited to see where they go from here. Don’t miss their set! EL LAGO have also become friends of ours and we’ve also become big fans of their band. We’re really looking forward to hearing their new record when it comes out.
FPH: We’ve discussed this in the past about how a band should ultimately spread a wide net that goes well outside of their stomping grounds. Do you ever think that people don’t get that you’re not against the scene here, but rather that you’re looking at having a presence in a larger pond than just in Houston?
Wells: I think it really depends on what a band is looking to achieve with their music and how they are willing to share it. Some bands and artists are content with putting out singles or records and then just playing a few shows here and there, in or around town. That’s definitely nothing to look down on, but it’s also something that I don’t think we’re interested in. For us, we’re working as hard as we can to spread our music as far as we can because it’s so exciting and fulfilling for us to physically share and spread something that we really believe in, no matter where the audience happens to be. Houston is our home base, but it’s not our end goal. It’s such a great place to live and develop as an artist, and I’m very thankful for the community we are all growing, but I think that our hometown is just one piece of a very large, challenging and fulfilling puzzle we’re all working to put together. I don’t think that’s anything to look down on, either.
FPH: At this point, the EP is getting closer to a year old. What’s next for the band after this tour is done and when should people expect a full length?
Wells: Since the EP came out on September 30th, we’ve been doing several rounds of national touring through the South and Midwest, but there’s still plenty of touring left to do on our EP throughout the year, especially out to the west coast. Our summer tour is taking us on a two week long run along the east coast to NYC and back, and we’re hitting a lot of spots along the way that we’re really excited to get back to — I’m looking at you, Mobile, Alabama. We are constantly working on new music, and there’s definitely going to be some new material not found on our EP performed at our set this Friday. As far as what our next release might be, we’ll have to make that a separate interview.
No matter what you think, Birthday Club is nothing if not ambitious and driven to make it in every place they play. You can stream their “Lighten Up” EP at all of the usual platforms, you can purchase it here, and you can catch them at 215 Grove St, on Friday June 30 for their tour kickoff party. The show has doors at 9 pm and a pay what you can cover, with sets from EL LAGO, Holly Halls, a DJ set from Pearl Crush and Ether Wave visuals, with all of the details here.