Heavens Help Us: The Wheel Workers Send an "S.O.S." to the Cosmos

The Wheel Workers
The Wheel Workers Photo by Allison McPhail, courtesy of The Wheel Workers

The Beatles once sang about getting by with a little help from our friends. A new single by The Wheel Workers takes that notion to intergalactic extremes.

The new song is dubbed “S.O.S.” The upbeat, synth-driven track releases today and you might describe it as Stereolab meets Radiolab. Sonically, it recalls Flaming Lips or the Octopus Project, but thematically it’s pure Wheel Workers. The veteran, Texas music collective has never shied from speaking pointedly on political or moral issues on record, in live sets and elsewhere. “S.O.S.” fits comfortably in the band’s oeuvre because it suggests going boldly where no man has gone before for possible answers to our modern day crises.

“There’s so much hate and division in the world right now, particular in the U.S., it feels like humanity is on the edge of catastrophe in so many ways,” said bandleader Steven Higginbotham. “Of course, it doesn’t help that we have a president whose answer to every problem is to inflame tensions.”

That particular Earth creature may not be the sole spark for this musical big bang, but Higginbotham said the group did look to all things political when deciding when the new song would debut.

“It makes sense for the song to come out a little before this crazy election since the lyrics are essentially about how humanity is blowing it and reaching out to intelligent alien life for a helping hand."

There are some neat Easter eggs associated with the song, musical winks and nods that Carl Sagan might enjoy from wherever he’s listening in the universe. Consider this your official spoiler alert, in case you’d prefer to not read on and seek out these hidden gems on your own.

Higginbotham said drummer Kevin Radomski’s percussion rhythms tap out “S.O.S.” in Morse code on the track. The cover art, designed by the band’s guitarist, Craig Wilkins, is divided into sections which represent the same dot-and-dash-based pattern. The new track ends with samples from NASA Voyager’s “Golden Record,” an audible time capsule of sorts, sent spaceward in 1977 to communicate planet Earth’s story to ETs. Sagan oversaw that mission and the new song includes samples of greetings in different languages borrowed from the one-of-a-kind record.

Higginbotham wrote the music and lyrics for “S.O.S.” and the track features Wilkins, Radomski and fellow Wheel Workers Erin Rodgers, Zeek Garcia and Alli Villines. The band entrusted production duties to Josh Applebee and longtime collaborator Dan Workman, whose birthday is today. Happy birthday, Dan!

The track is timely and thought-provoking for reasons far beyond what’s happening politically here on the third rock. Higginbotham’s vocals literally echo out to “Martians in outer space” at a time when the idea of life on Mars has moved from 1950s sci-fi spacemen to studied, science-based possibility. Last month, researchers reported newfound, sub-surface bodies of water on the planet. Microbes found in Venus’s atmosphere recently also have planetary scientists examining its potential for sustaining life.

These themes aren’t alien to The Wheel Workers, either. The band’s observations on politics dot the landscape of their records but rise to Olympus Mons levels on their 2018 album post-truth, a sometimes scathing and thought-provoking indictment of the Trump era. And a video for “Whole Other World” from the fine 2015 release Citizens pictures Higginbotham blasting off to interstellar solace from the planet’s crime, wars, corruption - and traffic!

click to enlarge The Wheel Workers send a new signal to the cosmos today. - ALBUM COVER ART
The Wheel Workers send a new signal to the cosmos today.
Album cover art

Higginbotham sings about “transmitting into space our deepest doubts,” so we asked why he believes intelligent life out there might bother helping us out here.

“I was inspired to write the lyrics because we've got a lot of serious issues to deal with on this planet, but we seem incapable of uniting and dealing with our problems. In fact, we seem to be making them worse. Sometimes it feels depressingly hopeless and that we could use a little outside assistance from the stars. Maybe an advanced alien civilization that avoided destroying itself could give us a few pointers,” he said.

“Whether they would be inclined to help is another good question. Perhaps they have some kind of Star Trek-like ‘Prime Directive’ that forbids interference. Or, maybe they just don't want to deal with human drama,” he continued. “But I think a ‘first contact’ experience with intelligent alien life would do a lot to unite humanity and dispel nonsense like religious fanaticism and ultra-nationalism. If we knew we weren't alone in the universe that might really be a transformative experience in terms of how human beings think of and treat one another. Maybe.”

If nothing else, we suggested, at least the ETs would have a solid new tune from Houston to add to whatever amounts to an intelligent life form’s playlist. We asked Higginbotham if he felt aliens would appreciate music made here on Earth.

“I think music might be one of the most interesting and attractive things about humanity for aliens. Rhythms and melodies transcend language and communicate something deep about who we are. I think aliens could learn a great deal about how human beings think and feel through music,” he noted. “I also wonder what alien music might be like. Would we even be able to perceive it? Perhaps their sensory systems are set up in a totally different way so their rhythms and melodies would be written in an alternate frequency spectrum or perceived through a medium other than air waves. It probably sounds like Tool.”

The Wheel Workers’ “S.O.S.” is available today on Bandcamp, Spotify and other online streaming music services. For more news about the band, follow it on Instagram and Twitter.
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Jesse’s been writing for the Houston Press since 2013. His work has appeared elsewhere, notably on the desk of the English teacher of his high school girlfriend, Tish. The teacher recognized Jesse’s writing and gave Tish a failing grade for the essay. Tish and Jesse celebrated their 33rd anniversary as a couple in October.