The incredibly high stakes of today’s election are not lost on Steven Higginbotham, founder, front man and songwriter-in-chief of The Wheel Workers. The Houston five-piece fuses an energetic, melodic synth-powered brand of indie-rock with socially progressive and even provocative lyrics, recently earning a nomination for Woke on this year’s HPMA ballot. So naturally, the ascendancy of GOP nominee Donald Trump fits squarely in Higginbotham’s wheelhouse. (No pun intended.)
Last month the Workers released a pair of scathing indictments of Trump and the rancorous culture that nurtured him, packaged as the split single “White Lies”/“All My Fault.” This past Friday the band also made both tracks available as free downloads on their Bandcamp site, but not before getting an official premiere at the Onion’s AV Club, which noted the songs “may be aimed straight at Donald Trump and the 2016 election, but musically and lyrically, it extends far beyond the political heat of the moment.”
The Workers will hit the stump to perform the new single and other songs from their latest release, 2015’s Citizens, this Friday at Rice University’s Student Center, as well as Sunday, November 20 at Last Concert Cafe. With election fever running high, Higginbotham and keyboardist Craig Wilkins were kind enough to field a few of the Houston Press’ email queries Monday evening.
Houston Press: How will you be spending Election Day (and night)?
Steven Higginbotham: I'll be spending the evening with my partner, my pets, and maybe a few friends (if they can tolerate my high anxiety) watching the returns come in and obsessively monitoring social media for every scrap of information on exit polls. Oh, and alcohol, plenty of alcohol.
Craig Wilkins: As I am currently without television, I'll be looking for somewhere to stream the madness online while I chug bourbon and wrestle dogs.
How long did it take to write these songs?
Higginbotham: These songs are the first released from a series of jam sessions we held at my house in the summer of 2015. "White Lies" came out of two separate ideas generated on two different days, with two different drummers and three different bassists. I've been fortunate to collaborate with some truly wonderful and talented people in this band, and we pushed the circle out even further with this record, having members of Cornish Game Hen (Ken Dannelley and Ken Shoen) and I Am the Albatross (Giuseppe Ponti) join the fun along with the core group of Craig Wilkins, Erin Rodgers, Josh Rodriguez, Tyson Sheth, and Dan Workman. Once the ideas were generated, Dan, Craig and I refined them into their final recorded form. Playing them live with our new amazing drummer Kevin Radomski has been a blast.
Were they written in reaction to one specific event/incident, or was it more of an accumulation?
Higginbotham: Both. The lyrics have a near-term influence of my personal revulsion to the Trump campaign. He's the single most unqualified, bigoted, immoral major party nominee in U.S. history. The audacity of his lies and his fundamental indecency are completely unprecedented. It is a national disgrace that he has a legitimate chance to become president.
But I've been writing political lyrics since I've been writing songs, and the theme of the working class being duped by billionaires pretending to care about their interests is not new. In particular, the right-wing media-entertainment complex has been pouring a toxic brew of lies, paranoia, bigotry and hate into the minds of conservatives for decades, creating an entire alternate reality largely divorced from facts and science, and now Trump has risen from that swamp. Still, it does surprise me just how enthusiastic 40 percent or so of the people are about fascism these days.
Wilkins: I just like to make beep-boop noises on synthesizers. I'm going to keep doing that no matter what the events are around me.
How are you hoping the fact that these songs are so catchy and danceable affects the way they're received?
Higginbotham: Well, I think music has to work on its own and connect first on an emotional level. If it doesn't move you, you aren't going to pay attention to the lyrics. So I always write the music first. Once I have a feel for the world the song creates, I start constructing the lyrics to live in that world.
Wilkins: Hey, whatever drills our message into your collective heads!
What do you think of the AV Club's assessment of the songs?
Higginbotham: We were thrilled to premiere the songs with them. They billed them as anti-Trump rockers, which is definitely true, but I was glad they liked the music and felt the lyrics worked beyond the context of this particular election.
Wilkins: I thought it was pretty damn great. But really, they could have shit all over it and I'd still be "Hey mom! I'm in A.V. Club!" Maybe we'll get to do a Debbie Gibson cover in their little room soon. Next goal for sure.
Have you voted yet? How did it go? Did you witness anything suspicious?
Higginbotham: Yes! It went fine, nothing suspicious. I went with my partner down the road to a courthouse. There was a line of maybe 50 people and it took about 20 minutes.
Wilkins: I voted on Day One. Only suspicious thing I saw was Donald Trump on the ballot.
Are you anticipating any trouble as voters go to the polls today?
Higginbotham: Well, there have been a few white supremacist Trump supporters who have talked about being "poll watchers" in minority neighborhoods. And Trump himself has disgracefully encouraged his supporters to do exactly that and claimed the election will be rigged with zero evidence. It's disgusting. This kind of voter intimidation recalls some of the worst racial violence in U.S. history and cannot be tolerated. Fortunately, I'm sure the Clinton campaign along with state officials are on high alert.
Wilkins: There always seems to be drama on election day, and I fear this one will be the worst yet. Tons of angry white dudes have had to sit through eight years of a black president and now, a woman? Especially one they seem to hate even more than most women? I'm not optimistic about a smooth election. I'm especially not optimistic about the weeks and months afterward. Tons of people are convinced this election is rigged, which just goes to show they don't understand how elections work in the first place. I mean, how do you calm down misinformed people who "know" they're right?
As a musician, do you have any advice on how this country might heal this terrible political divide? What do you think it would take for that to happen?
Higginbotham: I have no idea. But I think music has a unique ability to reach people, particularly young people, in a way a speech or article can't. I know personally my politics were influenced by reading the lyrics to artists like Bad Religion and Bob Dylan. A speech you hear once, maybe. But a song you sing over and over. I was introduced to Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn through music, and they've had a critical impact on my political views.
Regarding our political divide, I really don't think there's a short-term solution. There are institutional factors like the right-wing media, gerrymandered districts [and] campaign financing that make the current situation nearly impossible to change without some kind of enormously disruptive event. I think it's going to take a generational shift in political power. Frankly, we need a lot of old white people to die off so that younger people, who have much more tolerant views, can take over. That's where music can sometimes make a difference, by engaging and informing the views of young people who will one day hold the reins. In the meantime, we're in for a lot more right-wing extremism and political gridlock.
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Wilkins: I wish we could all agree on objective facts and move our arguments out from there. But when you have a large group of people spouting complete misinformation, where does the dialogue start? Spoiler: nowhere.
What do you hope to be doing on the next Inauguration Day?
Higginbotham: Celebrating the inauguration of our first woman president, and then taking a few days (or weeks) to not think about politics at all.
Wilkins: Party at Steven's!
As part of student station KTRU’s ongoing 50th-anniversary celebration, the Wheel Workers and special guests Melat and Since Always perform Friday, November 11 at Rice University’s Student Center, 6100 Main. Doors open at 6 p.m.