The Helio Sequence: TAS In Session
The flood that severely damaged The Helio Sequence's studio and equipment a few years ago also afforded the Portland, Oregon duo the chance to start anew with a clean slate. The setback was a push forward, giving singer/guitarist Brandon Summers and drummer/keyboardist Benjamin Weikel the perfect excuse to purchase gear — much of it with a vintage twist — and discover a new path that led to their fifth album, Negotiations.
The record, out now on Sub Pop, is awash in dualities, both carefully crafted and freewheeling, which also describes Summers and Weikel's recent conversation with The Alternate Side. Listen to The Helio Sequence's exquisite four-song session when it airs on TAS on 91.5 WNYE this Friday, January 11 at 11 a.m. EST, also streaming online. Read highlights of the inteview and watch the performance videos below.
The Helio Seqence begins a Southern-focused wintertime tour on January 14 in San Antonio, Texas, reaching the Pacific Northwest by February.
Alisa Ali: You put out your first EP [Accelerated Slow Motion Cinema] in 1999, but you got together in 1996. So you guys are like an old married couple.
Brandon Summers: Yeah, we’ve been together as a band for half of my life, if that’s not crazy enough.
Benjamin Weikel: Clearly the best half of your life.
Brandon: I was sixteen when we started Helio Sequence and it was all because of this family picnic that I was told that I was playing about a week in advance. I didn’t have a band at that point. My mom told me that I was expected to get up in front of everyone with my band. I didn’t have a band; I was just playing Nirvana and Green Day covers at that point. Benjamin was a friend of mine, he had this great keyboard project going, and had a really cool idea to mix using sequencers and live music. It all started there.
Benjamin: Which at the time was not really cool, [to have sequencers on stage]. It was at the tail end of grunge. I grew up listeining to '80s music and it wasn’t that weird to me, but at the time it was very odd. I had my real band with my older friends, but I really wanted to try something different.
Brandon: To this day we still get screamed at from stage to get a bass player.
Alisa: That’s really funny that you should say that! I was at your Bowery Ballroom show and you guys were rocking out. At some point someone in the audience [yelled], “You guys! You know you’ll eventually have to get a bass player, right?”
Benjamin: I like that it was “eventually.”
Brandon: Yeah, and it always comes out after the show that that person [who yelled] plays bass. [They’ll tell us] “By the way, man, I play five-string and I’m really good at slappin’. I’ve been in a bunch of bands, I know a bunch of covers, here’s my résume´."
Benjamin: We have a cup in our van that says “No bass slapping zone.”
Alisa: Where does this dislike of a bass player come?
Brandon: We really dislike low frequencies.
Benjamin: We tried different bass players and nothing was working. I somehow convinced Brandon that we could be a duo and that was a viable solution.
Brandon: We have had bass players, but it ended up as a total style mismatch.
Benjamin: Now we’re just too poor to have anyone else come into our situation (laughs).
Alisa: I really enjoy watching you on the drums, Benjamin. Is that super fun? Some guys have "guitar face" when, Brendan, you do not. You have “serenity face” when you’re playing.
Brandon: The biting-the-lip thing, tongues out. Yeah. I used to do that (laughs). No, I think a lot of it is a subconscious thing. People often come up to Benjamin and go, “You’re smiling the entire time!”
Benjamin: I don’t feel like I’m smiling the entire time. Every show’s a little different. It could be that I’m feeling old and tired and trying so hard to keep it going.
Brandon: In fairness, there’s a certain place that you go when you’re singing. Concentration. It’s a kind of internal thing.
Benjamin: Every song you have a place that you find. When you’re recording, you’re discovering what something is and you lay it down. When you start playing the song every night, you find this place that you go to with that song. Once I find that place, everything else just disappears and I could be making all sorts of faces, I’m sure. I don’t wanna know!
Alisa: Brandon, you said you were control freaks. I figured that about you guys, but in a good way. You take control of all of your album: writing, producing, recording, all of that.
Brandon: I think that was the impetus of Helio Sequence in general. We grew up outside of Portland, [Oregon] in a suburb. We had friends who were in bands and they’d always go to a studio, excited, with a batch of songs. These weren’t world class studios, but they’d get these recordings back and they’d be really unhappy with them. Benjamin had been in some other bands with a similar experience. So we took it upon ourselves to take control in that area, long before there was Garage Band or any of these things. It was important to the creative process.
Benjamin: The idea too was that you had this old guard of musicians, that would say, “This is what the pros do, this is how it should be.” I don’t think anyone’s going to listen to My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and be like, “This is what a pro does.” Artistically, everything was done wrong for the right reasons. We definitely [found] our own way instead of letting someone else decide what things should sound like, what things should be.
Brandon: A big part of that stemmed from the D.I.Y. or grunge culture of the ‘90s that was in the Northwest. Very much a take-it-in-your-own-hands kind of thing which keeps going through what people call “indie” music now. The idea being, you have control to follow your vision. Even if you don’t at least you know in the end, what you were going for. You have yourself to blame.
Alisa: So once you got signed, you never had the situation where someone said, “Hey, check out this hot producer.”
Brandon: Definitely at the beginning.
Benjamin: But Sub Pop was pretty supportive of us doing it ourselves. Especially once we turned in that first record, Love and Distance. Ever since then they’ve been like, “You guys can do whatever you want.” We’ve talked to them about whether we needed a producer and their answer is always, “Well, when you guys put out a record that we feel is stagnant or isn’t moving forward, then we can talk about it.” They haven’t told us that it’s happened yet.
Alisa: I know on your last couple of tours, crazy things have happened while you’ve been away from home. [When you were touring 2008's] Keep Your Eyes Ahead, your studio got flooded and your whole space got ruined. And Brandon, you lost your voice on one of your tours too.
Brandon: I did. Everthing’s been great at home, knock on wood, on this last tour [we did], but I think we brought the craziness with us, on tour. Our van has broken down five times over the last two months of touring. But every single time we were helped by amazing people, mechanics in small towns, and we made it to every show on time.
Benjamin: It’s this ballet of “How are we going to do this?” It’s 2 a.m., we’re stranded in this city, we need to go to this hotel, take it to a repair shop, and we haven’t missed a show yet.
Alisa: Your engineering skills do not transfer over to mechanics.
Brandon: Engineering is not a very transferable profession.
Alisa: Seems like you might be able to change a spark plug.
Benjamin: I’m kind of wussy and nerdy, more than tough mechanic guy.
Alisa: I understand that you got a lot of new gear for your new recording space.
Brandon: We did. We were listening to a lot of older records and became really fascinated with a lot of the old technology, old spring reverbs, tube pre-amps, analogue delays, tape echoes — all of that kind of stuff. We found a lot of cool, old things and used them on Negotiations. So the sound of it does impart a darker, more spacious tone to the music. It’s inspiring too.
Alisa: I also read that this is the most sponteneous process.
Brandon: Well, we left a lot of it open, which is what it was. We were concentrated on writing songs.
Benjamin: It was really more the beginning of the process which was sponteneous. For the last two records we really hadn’t been jamming much. It was [on the] earlier records that we would do these crazy jams and a lot of songs came from that. We went back to that on this record in which we did a lot of improvising and jamming. But once we had those core pieces, then it got really meticulous and constructed.
Brandon: There were songs like “October,” for instance, which started as a minute demo, a verse or a chorus, and it would be a matter of finishing off the song. I’d have that recorded, we’d listen to it together and then sat down together, fleshing it out and getting it from a beginning to an end in different parts. There were other songs, like “Downward Spiral,” which started as these jams where Benjamin would have an arpeggiated keyboard part and we would come into the studio and play through 30 or 40 of these jams. We had mics up over the kit and guitars and just jam. Some went on for 10 or 15 minutes and then it was a process and listening to all of those months later and hearing glimmers of things or almost fully-executed songs, taking those 10 or 15 minutes, and organizing them into a song.
Alisa: So “Downward Spiral” was one where you listened back a month later and found a fully formed song ready?
Brandon: Kind of. There were no vocals, but I’d take what we’d formed together and improvise over them and find vocal parts.
Alisa: You’re seeing writing lyrics differently too.
Brandon: For Negotiations I went into writing lyrics without a lyric book, or a book where you jot down ideas and you pull things. I was much more in the moment where I’d sit down, we’d have the backing tracks for a song, and I just started singing whatever melody came to mind. A lot of it would be gobbledygook — not melodically quite working or lyrically it’s repetitive or strange — but after working like that, for 30 or 40 takes, you have this idea. Phrases will stick in your mind. And it’s more a matter of recognizing that and saying, “Oh, that’s what that song is about!” Building from there, in the moment, on the spot.
Benjamin: Or we’d play this game sometimes where I would tell him what I thought he was saying and it wasn’t what the actual lyrics were. Sometimes you have the consonants and the vowels, but not the words.