Houston Music

'Citizens' Brings the Wheel Workers' Power to the People

Not so long ago, it was not easy to practice the indie trade in Houston. There were exceptions, but many bands who didn't necessarily push a lot of beer — blues-rock, punk/metal, alt-country, etc. – were generally met with low turnouts, and many eventually opted to move to Austin or points beyond. But that was then, and thousands of millennials who grew up on the Postal Service, the Shins and Death Cab For Cutie are now in the Bayou City, whether natives or transplants from somewhere else. So is it tough to be an indie band in Houston in 2015?

“I actually think it’s a good time to be an indie band,” says Steven Higginbotham, himself the principal creative engine of one of Houston's fastest-rising indie bands, the Wheel Workers. “It’s tough being in an indie band [period], especially if you don’t have a trust fund supporting you. But I think there seems to be more opportunities in Houston than I can remember in a while.

“There’s lots of people that are coming out to see music, and a lot of really good bands,” he continues. “I don’t know. It might not be the most ideal city, but we’ve done pretty well overall, and feel pretty good about how things are going for us here.”

Tomorrow night the Wheel Workers will tick off another milestone as the quintet hosts their release party at Fitzgerald's for third album Citizens, officially due May 26. Most of its eight tracks are as accessible as they are ideological, no easy feat when the songs carry titles like “Wage Slaves,” “Smokescreen” or “Citizen Incorporated”; the latter is a Devo-on-acid synth-punk screed that snidely rattles off advertising slogans like a priest's incantations during an exorcism. “Whole Other World,” then, goes after the complicities and contradictions of consumer society with lines like “you will take it and smile for the camera/ and if we happen to make a profit/ well, that's the awesome beauty of our system.”

Driving home the point even further — with a hammer and sickle, you might say — is the striking artwork by Dallas-based design firm Magnificent Beard, which evokes Soviet-era propaganda and other familiar socialist imagery. Higginbotham says he changed one image involving a meat grinder and pink slime because it was too close to a scene in Pink Floyd's The Wall; logically, he decided to go with clockwork-style gears instead. (“We are the Wheel Workers.”) Conservatives and One Percenters are unlikely to be thrilled with the content of Citizens, and Higginbotham sounds 100 percent OK with that.

“I tend to gravitate towards socially conscious material,” explains Higginbotham, a U.S. history teacher at Dobie High School when he's not making music. “A lot of bands I really liked growing up like the Clash, Bad Religion, and even bands like Pearl Jam — the Beatles and so on — all have an element where they’re engaging the world socially through their music, and I think that’s a perfectly good way to do it.”

Noting that licensing deals are one of the last remaining avenues for fledgling artists to see some real money — “now that music is essentially free online and it's optional to pay for it,” he says — Higgenbotham says he recently engaged someone to shop the Wheel Workers' songs around the corporate-America bazaar to see who would bite, and it worked a little bit too well. Their agent was approached by a major company (either Chase or Bank of America, he thinks) who wanted to use a Wheel Workers song as part of an image-rehabilitation campaign to show the public, in Higginbotham's words, “'look at all the great things we’re doing in the local community.'” He turned them down.

“I just so happened to be reading Predator Nation, by the guy who did Inside Job, the documentary about the financial crisis [author/filmmaker Charles Ferguson]," Higginbotham says. "I was like, ‘Is it Chase or Bank of America?” [The agent] was silent, so I assume it was one of those two. It was quite a bit of money they waved at us, but I had to say no.”

But was that cool with the other Wheel Workers?

“Yeah,” Higginbotham laughs. “They understood.”

Not all of the Wheel Workers' songs are quite so ideologically charged. Indeed, “Burglar” and “Run Away,” two more single-worthy tracks on Citizens, stem from an especially difficult breakup he went through during the album's two-year gestation period, Higginbotham notes. During that time, he also battled mold, termites and flooding at his house, where he has converted the attic into a recording studio and rehearsal space. (The other Wheel Workers are Allison McPhail, keyboards/vocals; her brother Craig Wilkins, keyboard/guitar; bassist Matthew Schwabenbauer; and drummer Tyson Sheth.)

On the other hand, Higginbotham says all that time allowed him to work more closely with producer Dan Workman, an owner of Houston's historic SugarHill Studios. Once drummer for a pretty radical Houston band himself, '80s art-punks Culturcide, Workman first collaborated with the Wheel Workers on last year's Past to Present and here has been bumped up to co-producer and unofficial sixth member; he's credited for “flowing robes of rock” in Citizen's liner notes.

The record has already been picking up radio play on The Buzz's Sunday-night local-music show — KPFT has supported the band “since the beginning,” notes Higginbotham — as well as faraway markets like Santa Barbara, Calif. and New England, and this summer hopes to up their regional profile in places like Austin and Dallas. Next year Higginbotham hopes to mount an even more extensive tour. If there's one band in town that would know the potential rewards of building a five-year plan, and sticking to it, it's probably this one.

“While I loved our work on Past to Present, I feel like we really hit our stride on Citizens,” says Workman, adding that he really enjoyed his role “playing George Martin” while making the record. “The lyrics are more focused, the songwriting is tighter, and the mix presentation is more sophisticated and refined.

“I think that we effortlessly lead the listener right into the sweet spot: memorable melodic hooks balancing weighty personal and political messages,” the producer adds. “The band does that so very, very well.”

The Wheel Workers release Citizens tomorrow night upstairs at Fitzgerald's (2706 White Oak) with special guests New York City Queens and Oil Boom. Doors open at 8 p.m.

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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray