- Allison McPhail
- Woken of the world unite: The band shares an agit-pop moment.
If you were to hear a typical Wheel Workers song in passing, you probably wouldn't peg them as the kind of band that would be a finalist in the 2016 Houston Press Awards' "Most Woke" category. In fact, you might totally overlook the political undertones that lie at the heart of their brightly layered synth-and-guitar rock offerings. There are no brittle Gang of Four guitar riffs to speak of, no chant-along choruses, no Clash city rockers or earnest Flobots raps.
But take a closer look at the indie group's third album, Citizens, and you may come away with a different impression. The stark cover illustration recalls Chinese and Soviet propaganda posters, albeit with darker imagery that's more Metropolis than Mao. The Wheel Workers logo, meanwhile, is identical to that of the Industrial Workers of the World labor union, albeit with the IWW replaced by a TWW.
And while the collection does include a handful of breakup songs, the lyrics to tracks like "Wage Slaves" ("Atrophy in solitary confinement / Recline, and feed yourself propaganda") and "Citizen Incorporated" ("I own your seed and I sue your farmers / I'm finger lickin' good") are clearly not the stuff of which pop dreams are made.
"I've always enjoyed the artist that can talk about social issues, whether that be The Beatles or The Clash or Bad Religion," says bandleader Steven Higginbotham, who went through a big Chomsky phase and, like Bad Religion's Greg Graffin, teaches when he's not out on tour. "But what we do is not necessarily typical protest music. I listen to all kinds of stuff and, to me, it has to work on a musical level first. It has to have an emotional draw. Because if it doesn't have that, then nobody is going to listen to the lyrics anyway."
Which is not to say that the band — which features Higginbotham on lead vocals and guitar, Erin Rodgers on keyboards and vocals, Craig Wilkins on keyboards and guitar, Zeek Garcia on bass, and Kevin Radomski on drums — doesn't let its outrage rise to the surface from time to time.
Take, for example, the new single "White Lies," which will be the opening track on The Wheel Workers' next album, Post-Truth. It's the rare instance where Higginbotham gets to unleash his Inner John Lydon (circa mid-period PIL), his uncharacteristically sneering vocal fitting nicely with the accompanying video's footage of Houston protests spliced together with clips of Donald Trump, Charles Manson, Steve Bannon, and that clown from Stephen King's It.
The song also reprises the prominent synthesizer lines that emerged on Citizens, and Higginbotham promises that producer Dave McNair — whose past credits improbably include Destiny's Child — will be bringing along his Casio SK-1, the $50 sampler that was responsible for some of the cheesiest sounds in '80s pop. ("It's kind of his signature instrument," says the singer with a laugh.)
The ongoing challenge, in Higginbotham's view, is to create a sound that's layered but not overly dense. "I think there's something to be said for minimalist music," he says, "but that's kind of not what we do."