Even though Birthday Club were founded in late 2015, they've already accomplished a great deal as a band. They've released a fantastic EP, Lighten Up; they've done countless tour dates in support of their music; and they've even managed to snag spots at festivals like SXSW 2016. I had the pleasure of chatting with Stephen Wells, the founder of Birthday Club, about his transition from previous band Featherface, the band's single "Having Too Much Fun", and the process of bringing the EP together.
There’s a pretty decent music scene in Texas. Is that a fair statement?
I think that’s completely fair. As far as Texas goes, Austin is the city that most people think of first. You have South By Southwest there, and that brings people here from all over the world. A lot of the, I guess, cultural bleed-over from that hits Houston too. Houston has been getting a lot more press and a lot of bigger festivals coming out here. Most people just think of Austin, though, when they think of the Texas music scene.
It’s really interesting, because whenever I head out to New York or anywhere up in the Northeast, it’s so cliche but people literally think that we ride horses everywhere. I guess people don’t come down to the South from there very much. *laughs*
*laughs* It’s the same as the people who think that Florida is basically just Disney World.
Yeah! It’s no different, honestly. I mean, Houston is I think the fourth largest city in the country, and one of the most diverse. We’ve got NASA and all this stuff that people never really consciously think about. The culture is really starting to become the counterbalance to what people know Houston for, like oil, concrete, and swamps.
With all of this new culture and everything the city has to offer, how does the story of Birthday Club come into play? How did you guys essentially come together?
I was playing in my old band, which was called Featherface. I’d been playing in that band for about five years with some of my childhood friends. We were touring really hard and just trying to make it happen. At some point along the road, I realized that I was just not having a very good time for some reason. I had all these songs we had been working on, and none of it was matching up with the direction that I had wanted to go in. The other guys kind of felt the same way.
I was living in Austin at the time with all of them. After that, I decided to move back to Houston because that’s where I’m from. South Houston, right by NASA. I thought I’d come home and try to start a new band, and really explore what the city had to offer. I left Austin, we ended the old band, and I just started putting feelers out there for local musicians who wanted to play. I had been gone for about three or four years, and it was kind of challenging getting back into the loop of things. Houston does have a lot of touring musicians and session musicians. It’s hard to rangle some of these people, and you don’t want to steal your friend’s bass player or guitarist.
Birthday Club started with the songs that became the EP we just put out. I started working with a guy named Joey Mains; he played in a band here in town, and [we brought in] Valeria [Pinchuk] who plays keyboards. We started putting these songs together as a three piece. We booked studio time and decided to record them. So the record is really three people. We had a few lineup changes after that. It’s been a little adventure, honestly, just trying to get everything to line up correctly. It’s been a challenge; starting a new band has been a learning experience for me. It’s been a learning experience with not only learning how to find people, but how to find people that are available to do what I want to do, which is tour a lot. That’s a very challenging thing to do, to strike that balance.
Fast forward to today, and we’re about to hit the road next week. I think we have a really solid lineup now, and it’s been about a year since the band really started. I think we’re at a really good spot.
It sounds like it’s been quite an adventure, and an exciting one at that.
*laughs* Well, exciting might not be the best word because it’s been so challenging a lot of the time. But I feel like I’m in the exciting part now, you know what I mean? It’s been an uphill battle trying to shake a lot of the mindset that I was stuck in, which is what the EP kind of documents. It’s kind of a bookmark in that period of time, as I’m transitioning from that one way of being in my old band and my old way of thinking into the new one.
With this EP, about how long would you say that it took to put the entire thing together, after you had the lineup put together and the songs in the form that you wanted them to be in?
I’m a really big fan of pre-production. Some of these songs I’ve been patching out in my head for over a year before recording. The way I go about recording and production is to have eighty-five to ninety percent of the song hashed out before going into the studio. You kind of have that ten percent up to the producer and whatever you decide to do in the moment. There are even parts of these songs where I didn’t have finished lyrics before we went to record that just came in the moment and all fell into place. There’s a certain element of trust that you have to have, I think, because you’re always trying to get that sense of magic on the recording. I think that [magic] is either a good performance, when you’re cutting the tape and just feeling vulnerable in the moment and trusting your intuition and bandmates. I like to leave a lot of space in the production in order to let that happen. A lot of the producers we worked with had the same sort of recording philosophy, and that really made for some interesting discussion and recording. We would just decide on things in the moment.
Justin Douglas, one of our producers, has one of these really tiny synthesizers. He didn’t even really know how to use it, I think, but we just started playing with it and we recorded it. It sounded amazing. You can’t really plan [stuff like that] out in pre-production, because I think that becomes kind of contrived or forced, if that makes sense.
You always have to leave a little room for spontaneity. You can do as much pre-production as possible, but with the little bits of spontaneity, they almost become little identifiers and DNA marks that help you learn about who the band are.
Yeah, and it’s really interesting because we were talking about a lot of records that have come out this year that we’re really big fans of, like this new Radiohead record, with this idea that there’s these little things that happen on an album that you can tell were accidents, but then they consciously adopted them into the songs. If we’re putting our songwriter hats on and being technical, things can happen that are spontaneous, but then you can recognize the habit of the spontaneity. If you have always have a certain characteristic about the accident that happens and the way that you incorporate back into the song, then that’s what makes it sound like yourself. If something random happens, and it doesn’t sound like your sound, that’s exactly how it sounds; it’s out of place. I think a great skill that a lot of these songwriters have is allowing for those random moments and then being able to reincorporate them in an interesting way. I’ve always really, really liked that idea of allowing randomness to creep into what you’re doing. It’s really important to me, personally.
Let’s talk about the track “Having Too Much Fun”. When did that track come along in the process for you? And since this was the first single you guys had put out for the EP, what made your gravitate towards this one for a single release?
That’s actually a really good question, because it begs the question of, “how did we record the album?” It’s sort of like a “Franken-EP”. “Having Too Much Fun” was the very first thing we recorded for the Lighten Up sessions. We started cutting the song, and it just started feeling like “the single”. We really, really liked the layout and the sound of it. The tone of that song set the tone for the rest of the EP, because that was the first thing we worked on, and we all really connected around it. We thought it was only fitting that [this song] would set the tone before people listen to the rest of the songs. As far as the sonics and the way it sounds, we wanted to introduce that [song] first to give people an idea of what they can expect. Working with that pallet of sound was what we were going for, in the sense of “hey, here’s what you can expect, but we’re not gonna give it all away just yet.” I think that’s why we chose that song first. It’s a fun, sneaky song. It’s catchy too, which gets annoying to me. (laughs) You don’t want to wake up with your own song in your head.
There was a statement from the press release that was sent over to me surrounding the EP. It states: ”Lighten Up is a record that was written during a journey from one vision to another. It was written for people who could use a little help along the way. In short, it was written for ourselves.” What did you mean by the “one vision to another” part of that statement?
So when I talk about the vision, it’s for me personally as the songwriter. When you’re in your first band, it’s your introduction to who you are because you are really learning how to put yourself out there in an honest way. When my old band broke up, it was so hard for me because that was my vision for my life at the time. You get really attached to things being a certain way. That ends up hurting you a lot, because you’re not open to the growth and change that necessarily happens in life. The record is really a literal documentation of shedding that attachement, because you never know what’s going to happen in the future with your music, your art, your friends, your family, or anything like that. I was just trying to be as honest as possible about how challenging that was for me, and put that into a record. That’s kind of the general idea for the record.
I would say that the vision that I jumped from was “things are gonna be this way with this group of people, we’re gonna sound like this.” I don’t want to say that it’s a coming-of-age record but it definitely was a moment in my life that I’ll look back on and say, “wow, things are not always gonna work out how you think they are. You should really be careful about gettting attached to that.”
Last question: what does music mean to you?
I would kind of divide this up in a few ways. As a listener, music is the thing that I use to process what’s going on for me. One of my go-to artists is Nick Drake, because there’s something about that guy that I really identify with. It’s just brooding, and he’s in a sense of contemplation. I have this handful of artists, and I think everyone does, that I find myself going back to over and over. I think the reason for that is because this person is saying, “hey, you’re not alone with whatever you’re going through. See? I’ve gone through this too in my own way.” Music to me is an open invitiation at all times to join with someone else, whoever made the song. If I really connect with a song, I like to think that person was trying to consciously put that energy out there too, and they’re trying to connect with the person on the other end of the headphones.
As a songwriter, it’s just the exact inverse of that. I’m trying to communicate what’s going on with me, but other people can connect with that if they feel like they should. I think it’s just a mirror image, and that’s exactly how I think about it. You’re not alone, and here’s an open hand.
Birthday Club's debut EP, 'Lighten Up', is available now. Click the iTunes link below in order to purchase it.