Friday, July 28, 2006

Mini-Interview: Helio Sequence

Portland’s Helio Sequence is pop music army of two made up of Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel, a duo are well known for both their bombastic live performances and super sonic EP and albums (the last on Sub Pop).

In the middle of work on their third cd and preparing for a performance tonight in Seattle, Brandon somehow found time to answer a volley of RFSL questions -- both enthusiastically and extensively. (Which is in a word? Rad.)

Hey, Brandon. How’s Portland treating you? I love that town. The people are so damn nice.

Yeah, Portland's great... Everyone knows everyone...

So, correct me if I’m wrong in my facts here: You two began playing together in a makeshift recording studio at a music store you both worked at back in tenth grade.

Benjamin and I both worked at a small independent music store in Beaverton, a suburb of Portland, called Beaverton Music. It's actually a musical instrument store, not a record store. Mostly band instruments and some guitars, basses, and drums. Our boss was a really cool guy and would let us have run of the shop after hours. It was a small store with two rooms.

We'd clear the floor of one of the rooms and use it as our practice/studio space. We'd stay up literally all night and work on music...writing, practicing, recording, hanging out. A lot of times we'd work until seven or eight in the morning and just sleep at the store for a couple of hours before opening again at nine... or maybe go get coffee and just skip the whole sleep thing. It was always kind of a coffee-fueled marathon.

Did you know each other before then? What made you start up the band?

I actually met Benjamin through his younger brother Paul. Paul and I were good friends in middle school and still are to this day. He's a drummer as well and we played in bands together. Depending on how you look at it, it's kind of an endearing or embarrassing story about how the Helio Sequence came together... I was sixteen, this was in 96... I was asked to play at a family picnic and at that time the band that Paul and I were working on kind of fell apart.

Benjamin had a keyboard project that he had been working on and really wanted to try some of the songs out in a live setting so we all sat down and worked out a couple of long "pieces" and wrote another for the show... I don't know if I'd even call them "songs" ... They were about 8 or nine minutes long and all instrumental... Paul and I played guitar, Benjy drums, and the keys were sequenced.

Benjamin came up with the idea of live sequencing, which to us at that time seemed really novel and has really been the backbone of Helio Sequence since the beginning. It was really cool and inspiring and the Helio Sequence grew from there. (Actually we weren't even called "Helio Sequence" then...the original name was "Grendel".) Paul left the band to pursue drum corps and Benjamin and I carried on. He did play guitar on a song on Love and Distance ("So Stop") though. The amazing thing is that we have a video of our first performance! Someday we'll post it on our website!! The whole thing went down at a sort of ghetto amusement park/carnival called Oaks Park outside of Portland to give you an idea of the strangeness of the event.

What music would you play there?

Well, like I was saying, Beaverton Music wasn't a record store but we did have free reign to put whatever we wanted on the big PA that served as our stereo. If you walked into the store in those times you'd be bound to hear all of the stuff we were listening to and being influenced by then blasting through the PA: My Bloody Valentine, Mouse on Mars, Talking Heads, Miles Davis, The Beatles, The Who, Aphex Twin, Stereolab, Holst, Coltrane, Bowery Electric...too many to mention all of them.

We're both music junkies and there's always something new we're listening to.

Then, after you quit the store to tour, you moved your operations to various family basements and garages. Where do you work on your music now?

It was pretty rough when we quit our jobs to start touring. In effect we lost our practice space, recording studio, and overall place of inspiration. Beaverton Music was really such an incubator for our band. When it came time to really sit down and begin working on what would be Love and Distance we were in a hard position.

We'd been touring A LOT to make ends meet and support Young Effectuals and realized that here in Portland we had literally nowhere to practice or record. We were still able to write at home but tying it all together and getting it recorded was a different matter. And we actually do a lot of writing in the studio and playing live and fleshing ideas out and there was nowhere to do this.

But events really fell together and Isaac Brock was very kind and lent us his practice space at the time. In about three weeks we recorded the basic tracks for most of the songs in Isaac's garage... most of the guitars, keys, drums. I took some of the songs home and worked out and recorded guitar ideas and vocals in my apartment. And Benjamin and I got together and finished the vocals and overdubs and all of the mixing in his parents basement in rural Washington. The album really came together in a lot of different settings and environments over a long period of time.

Going into the recording of this new record we realized that we needed a place to call our own, a home base... something more stable and conducive to our meandering sense of creativity. In March, we set up our studio in the basement of an old dance studio we've leased and have been working on the new record there since.

How do you feel like your sound evolved over the years?

In the beginning of Helio Sequence, we were very focused on texture, sonic effect and "the sound" of music. Songs were basically written over and around sonic conceptions. As time goes on I've become more focused on writing songs from a more elemental place... something where if you played it on an acoustic guitar it would have the same power as a fully arranged song... a song where the power lies not only in the arrangement and sonic quality but at the root.

I think as Helio Sequence has progressed we've become more song oriented. I've had a real awakening over the past few years listening to Bob Dylan. Music means something different to me now than before. There's just a new depth I feel. I think that both Benjamin and I are really set on bridging the idea of a big sonic sound with elemental songwriting... and although this sounds kind of paradoxical, Helio Sequence has always been about creating something from disparate sources... melding things... combining things.... skewing things... to create something kind of off kilter and hopefully new.

I imagine you guys spend a lot of afternoons and nights hiding out in the studio, experimenting with new sounds and compositions. Is that an accurate assumption? Whats your recording process like?

I know it sounds crazy, but we work every day of the week from 10-6 in the studio. And we both have home studio set-ups at home where we can work on things during the weekends, nights, and evenings. We'll take chunks of time off to work at home on songs and stuff like that during the week too. This is a new thing... We used to work more evenings and nights. This record has been a bit different than the others in the writing process so far as well.

In the past Benjamin would have a pretty well-structured keyboard song and we'd work from there.... arranging and writing the "song" live and in the studio. For this record it's been more based on loops as far as keyboards go... a more simple repeating chord pattern/part that Benjamin will bring to the table. We'll jam on the loop in the studio until we both have an idea of what we're doing... a verse/chorus or structure idea or a couple of parts. Then, we'll make a rough recording of that loop.

I'll take that file home and put it on my computer and essentially write a song from the loop. Lay down guitars, overdubs, and vocals and arrange the song and what not. Then we'll meet up at the studio together and discuss what's working and finish the song together. This way of writing seems to lend itself more to song writing becasue if the vocals and the structure are down first you can think about how to complement and offset them with the arrangement rather than competing with what is already in the mix when adding vocals as the last thing.

Of course, this isn't the only way, but seems to be what's going on so far. There are songs that I've brought to the table fully written that we'll then work out together and the same for Benjamin. In the end, I'm sure there will be a bunch of different processes that we use to get this record done, just like in previous records.

Which do you like more: playing live or in the studio?

I don't like one more than the other. I just love music. I love listening, playing, writing, eating, breathing, living music... everything.

What’s next for you?

We're deep in the thick of recording a new record which will be coming out on Sub Pop in early 2007. Like all of our records, this one is shaping up to be different than the one before it...

Any touring plans?

Nothing definite right now, but we may go out do a few shows in fall? We're really concentrated on getting this record done first and foremost. I do know we're playing a show in Portland this September though for the MusicFest NW Festival. I'm really excited to share the stage with two people who I have A LOT of respect for and both of whose music I LOVE: Jeremy Enigk and Britt Daniel.

Last question: What current bands are you listening to these days?

Current bands... Do you mean "new" bands? Well, I'm always listening to new stuff and old stuff all at once really. I just went through a big Van Morrison kick and have been listening to Moondance, Astral Weeks, Veedon Fleece and Saint Dominic's Preview a lot. And Neko Case's new record Fox Confessor Brings the Flood is absolutely amazing. Benjamin and I went to see her when she came through Portland and she is the real deal.

Also, a friend just gave me Johnny Cash's last record American Recordings V as a gift. I love his cover of Gordon Lightfoot's "If You Could Read My Mind" and his cool version of "God's Gonna Cut You Down." And I picked up a copy of Lou Reed, John Cale, and Nico Le Bataclan '72, a live acoustic recording from Paris...really cool. Oh and Daniel Johnston, Rufus Wainwright, Os Mutantes and Talk Talk's Laughing Stock.

And of course a lot of Helio Sequence as we sit in front of the monitor speakers and record the new record!

That's it! Thanks for your time, Brandon.


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