The Helio Sequence Interview Audio
Nichole vs. The Helio Sequence
The EARL Atlanta, GA
May 31, 2009
Nichole Bennett: Alright, I’m Nichole, and I am lucky enough to be here at the EARL in Atlanta with members of The Helio Sequence. Would you guys mind introducing yourselves?
Brandon Summers: I’m Brandon.
Benjamin Weikel: And I’m Benjamin.
NB: So, there’s a lot of information online about the story of you guys, and most people who are literate and have an internet connection can look that up. If they were to reenact your story, would they use marionette puppets or sock puppets?
BS: Finger puppets probably.
BW: I was thinking we might as well go all the way with marionettes. Or Jim Henson, you know?
NB: We’re going with muppets?
BW: Yeah, totally muppets, dark crystal, that would be cool.
BS: Lo-fi or big budget.
BW: I think we would get more realistic drumming action with like the Animal thing.
BS: Animal, yeah. Animal could play you.
NB: That’s a good one. So, we settled on muppets? And you guys used to work at a record store together?
BS: We did. It was actually a music store. It was more like a band instrument rental store with some guitars. So we were renting instruments to kids who were beginning band.
NB: Any stories from that? Any funny…or scary stories?
BS: Oh jeez, too many to remember. We used to practice there, which is sort of a story in and of itself.
BW: We actually recorded our first records there. I was a band instrument repo guy for a while.
NB: I didn’t know that existed!
BW: I became responsible for all of the accounts. And there had been people who basically had never paid for years, and I’d have to track them down.
BS: It got to be where you knew these people. It was like “Oh, that woman would come in and say she paid it off and would actually drop twenty five dollars on us.”
BW: Some people would be alright, but some people would be really weird. They’d bring their kid to the front door and be like “This is what happens!” Yelling at the kid because he can’t fifteen dollars a month for a clarinet.
NB: The drama of a music store!
BS: Like “He could have been the next Jon Bon Jovi, but you took that chance away from him”
BW: I have a pretty bitter taste from all that repo business. It’s not my kind of thing.
NB: Yeah, I played saxophone, so that was kind of expensive. But that’s another story.
BS: But you paid for it?
NB: Yeah…upfront. That was not very fun. So, again anybody who is literate and has an internet connection can learn about how you lost your voice and how you gained it back.
NB: But I was curious about something most others had skimmed over and that is the Bob Dylan connection. You got to read a lot during that time, and his was the first book. And there are some of my favorite Bob Dylan covers on this album. And I read that you gained your voice back by playing a lot of Bob Dylan. Is that true, or am I just making this up?
BS: Yeah, in a way. That’s kind of a gloss over. You know how records come to you at a time when you really need them? I don’t know if that makes any sense. You just happen to hear a record at a certain point in your life, and it means a lot to you. For some reason when I lost my voice…it’s not like I didn’t know who Bob Dylan was before I lost my voice, but I happened to be at the record store, and I happened to come across a copy of The Times, They Are a Changin’ And I was like, I’ve never really listened to this record. I just bought it on a whim, and it really meant a lot to me, particularly the song “Boots of Spanish Leather.” That was the first song that I decided to learn. And then from there, I thought it was interesting to actually put the chords under my fingers and actually learn a song, so I should do more of that.
NB: I really like that. I think that one of the big things music does for people. It’s kind of a soundtrack, in a way. Yeah, I was actually going to ask you what your soundtrack album was from that time, and you just answered that for me.
BS: And other things come along. What else were we listening to during that time?
BW: I don’t know. That was such a long time ago.
BS: I remember listening to a lot of Dark Side of the Moon during that time. You can infer a lot from that, I’m sure.
NB: Oh yeah, I get that in the album.
BS: So we decided to put some extended guitar solos in, and then we cut them all out.
NB: Speaking of the latest record, there’s kind of an almost a paradox between a more polished sound, but you still have that “off the cuff” sound. I heard that “The Captive Mind,” you just recorded.
BS: Yeah, a lot of the vocal stuff was just first take. We would be working on something in the studio, and I would be able to take it home and work on the vocals.
BW: The demos.
BS: Yeah, the demo stuff, really rough. And bring it back and record the real version of it. And when I went to lay down the real track, something was missing from it. Something about the energy or the feeling of it or the meaning. And it was kind of “Well, what if we just redo some of the instruments around it. Lay down the drums again and the guitar and the bass, all kinds of stuff, and just use those vocal takes.” A lot of it ended up like that. A lot of it was first take stuff. It’s almost better that way.
NB: Yeah, you get a combination, almost a paradox between…it’s definitely very polished, like you tweaked it, but at the same time it’s very organic.
BS: That’s probably a lot of the mixing process. We spend a lot of time working it out. We record our own records and mix them.
NB: I think it’s neat when a band takes things from start to finish.
BS: I can’t imagine doing it any other way. It amazes me when a band is like, “Yeah, when we recorded the record we went in for about a week, and then we handed it off to a bunch of people and they finished it for us.” I don’t understand it.
NB: I imagine you would get handed back something totally different than you had actually put out. But you guys have control over that side of things.
BF: Maybe we’re just control freaks.
NB: This record is also more lyrically focused. And I say that, but at the same time, if you took the lyrics out, the songs would be able to stand by themselves. And it’s a little less cluttery. I hate the word cluttery because I do like the older stuff too because it is that way.
BW: Yeah, but when you compare them, that sums it up in a way. We approached the record thinking that way. Bob Dylan is a great example of somebody that makes songs that to us that are really really meaningful. And it’s not so much about the music as the lyrics or the story. And so we thought, we love music with orchestration and all of the crazy sounds, but let’s try to see if we can make more of a lyrical connection. So when we were doing all the orchestration, instead of just throwing it all together and being like “Here’s everything!”.
BS: And having to work the vocals in after that.
BW: It would be like “That’s kind of just getting in the way of it.” It’s really all about the vibe. It had a feeling from the beginning. Whenever we did something that felt like it was changing it too much or it was losing that feeling, we just cut it out. So then it ended up being…compared to the average band there are still more parts and more orchestrated, but for us, it was a little more sparse.
NB: Yeah, I think you can get that. I discovered you guys after you opened for Minus the Bear, and I immediately picked up Love and Distance there. And I never buy albums from opening bands.
Matt Crisler [taking photographs of interview]: Band snob!
NB: That is not what I meant at all. I meant I never buy an album from a band that I don’t even know, like right there, and I did. And I listened to it. And then the new one came out, and I was blown away by how different it was, but it was still you guys. But you guys put it much better than I could. Obviously, I’m very terrible with words.
BW: It’s a good thing you’re a writer.
NB: Yeah, it’s a good thing. I actually really wanted to ask you guys. You did something on this latest album that is sometimes scary for smaller bands, scary for indie bands. I think this was a lot more universal than most bands would go.
BW: Yeah, it’s totally out of fashion.
NB: It’s not very fashionable to appeal to a lot of people.
BW: I don’t know if it’s a question of appealing to a lot of people. I think it’s more a question of meaning.
BS: Well, I think it’s a question of just saying what you want to say. Like, when I’m writing lyrics, I’m thinking something to myself, and I’m just writing. I’m not thinking of something being universal or trying to get to a large amount of people. But I know what you’re saying, I think that a lot of lyrics, especially in the indie world come off as impressionistic. Like, a little image here, a little image here. Don’t do something that is too specific because then you’re going to have to take responsibility for having said that.
BW: Some people do it so well that they are creating a mood, and the only way to keep it that was is by not saying something, by having it be almost sort of more background. Almost commercial. And I don’t mean commercial in the sense of sellable, but commercial as literally in a sense of in the background. Like background when you’re driving, background when you’re hanging out in a bar. Nothing that is really going to get that close to you. Something that is going to be off. You can push it away, and it’s there and it sounds great, feels great, you know. But the moment somebody starts saying something that are personal, that means something, and I don’t think that’s the fad of music right now.
NB: It’s almost dangerous.
BS: Yeah I guess it could be. But more and more, the older I get, the music I am listening to, I’m actually listening to what people say. I’m listening to what is going on behind the sound of something or just “I like how that part sounds” or “That’s a catchy part.” That’s one level of music, and I don’t think you should discount that, especially if you’re making pop music, in essence. But if you’re able to make a song on that level, and then think to yourself “Well, what are they saying. What is that guy saying?” And it may be that I’m not getting anything from that. It doesn’t make any sense, or it’s all mixed up. That, to me, it actually brings the value of the song down.
BW: There are a lot of records, and I’m definitely not naming any names, but there are a lot of records on the surface that I’m really immediately excited about. But the more I listen to the music, I’m like “What is he saying?” It’s kind of killing it for me. The lyrics are either really horrible, or you can’t hear them. Everyone’s hiding behind the lo-fi.
BS: What you are saying is that if you’re saying something, you have to take responsibility for it. And you’re saying there’s something dangerous about it. And I’ve thought about it—that you somehow risk not being cool anymore by not agreeing with somebody. So it’s interesting that more and more, you get less of that .
NB: It’s very fashionable, I think, especially in a lot of hyped bands…We were just talking about the internet mentality earlier with Venice [is Sinking]. To not make sense, to be esoteric, and “Oh you guys, you just don’t get me.”
BW: It’s all very impressionistic.
NB: Impressionistic is a perfect way to put that. So if you were to describe your sound to a five-year-old, what would you say?
BS: I wouldn’t describe it, I would just put the CD on.
NB: I don’t talk to five-year-olds.
BS: No, I talk to five year olds very often. I have a nine month old. I’ll just put on music for her.
NB: So, no need for description…just put it on.
BW: I have a three year old nephew, and he came out to our show in Los Angeles, his first rock and roll show. The first time he’s seen me playing. My sister, his mom, she plays him the songs, and he knows that this is uncle Benjamin’s band. And we were playing the set. We stopped playing after the second song, and everything kind of died down for a second, and I just heard this “That’s Uncle Benjamin!”
BS: And mind you, this is in a three or four thousand person venue.
NB: Do you guys read press about yourselves?
BS: No, not anymore. I used to.
BW: It just bums me out.
NB: Yeah, it would be something that would just tear me apart.
BW: Yeah, it’s really depressing…
NB: I’m already self-critical enough. I don’t need any help.
BW: It would be dumb to say there is no point to music journalism, and I’m definitely not making a judgment of music writing. It’s more of just that I have an understanding that a journalist is a writer, and they have to do something interesting. If you write a bunch of reviews, that don’t say anything, then your job is boring. It’s a realization that somebody writing about music—you can’t take it personally because there’s always agendas just beyond the music. I don’t want to read it.
BS: And at the same time, you can’t truly get away from it. Someone’s actually going to come up to you and say “I read your review in Rolling Stone or blahblahblah.” And then you don’t have to read it.
NB: Since music journalism is so much more accessible with blogs and the internet, do you feel that it is affecting you guys in anyway, even though you aren’t reading it?
BS: I’m sure it helps just general awareness. And the way that people find out about music is all over the map these days. I’ve had people come up to me on this tour and tell me that they found out about us because we have one song on the Google phone. They came to us and asked us if they could include our song, for free, so it comes with the phone when people buy it. I’ve had people come up to me and say that they didn’t know who we were, and I heard you guys on my new phone. I love you guys. I went out and bought your records, and I’m a fan now. You can find music in so many ways. It’s just crazy.
NB: That’s another thing. When bands talk about commercials, they say that people heard their song on a commercial.
BS: I want to find someone who became a fan because of a ringtone.
BW: I think we did! There was a myspace comment once that they had downloaded “Don’t Look Away” ringtone.
BS: They probably meant to download The Chili Peppers.
BW: And then he went and looked at our myspace page.
NB: You guys have been around for quite a while. What advice would you give to a band that is just starting out.
BS: Keep going. I don’t know.
BW: Stop if you’re not good. We usually don’t take support bands on the road with us. So we get tons of local openers. Sometimes people are really excited, and they ask us “How do you hook up with Sub Pop” or “What do you do?” And I think some people want to try to skip steps. They just want to jump up ahead. And all that I can say is some people win the lottery, and some people don’t. Start thinking one step at a time. Book your small show, and get some friends there. Do one thing at a time. Don’t think about this big thing far off in the future. Enjoy making music
BS: And keep sight of that as you keep going because there are going to be people coming along saying “We want to sign you and throw all this money at you.” That kind of stuff happens. We had that happen to us especially early in our career.
BW: We said no.
BS: And we said no. For us, anyways, it was the right thing to do. Some bands can sign some gigantic contract and have a bunch of people throw money at them and get paid. But, I think you really run the risk of falling on your face.
NB: Definitely. Which fictional character is most like you guys?
BS: One character? Or is it a duo?
BW: The three muskateers.
NB: It can be one. You don’t have to pick a duo. You can pick separate ones.
BS: Probably Animal for Benjamin.
BW: Why? Why would that me be? I’m thinking the geeky guy in Real Genius.
BS: I’m trying to think of a fictional character.
NB: It can be cartoon.
BS: Yosemite Sam?
BW: What? How are you like Yosemite Sam?
BS: I don’t know. He’s fictional.
James Sewall [of Venice is Sinking]: Droopy’s good.
BS: I’m down with that.
NB: Okay, if you guys could break any world record, what would you break?
BW: Richest dude in the world.
NB: Richest dude in the world!
BS: Longest touring band in the world. We’ll be 90.
NB: Never stop touring. Do you guys prefer studio or stage?
BW: Both, in their own ways.
BS: Yeah, they are totally different worlds.
NB: As a duo, with a keyboardist/drummer, I’m sure it totally different both ways. And we talked earlier about how you go back in and tweak things.
BS: Yeah, it’s a totally different. A lot of bands come back from touring and record an album, but for us, I feel like the studio process is a lot slower, much more methodic kind of a process.
NB: And at the same time, your live sound is very similar to your studio so. So, whatever magic you guys are working…
BS: That’s what it is.
NB: And if you could turn in your tour van for a dinosaur, which one would you choose?
BS: What’s the fastest dinosaur?
NB: I’ve never seen a dinosaur race.
BS: Because that’s all you need out of a tour van---get to that next city.
BW: You’re thinking you want the dinosaur to be a vehicle?
BS: Well, if we didn’t have a tour van, we’d need something to get from show to show.
BW: I mean, I don’t think a dinosaur is going to work.
BS: We have to trade it in for a dinosaur, though.
BW: If we had a dinosaur, we could open a zoo…
BS: And then from the revenue of that, okay.
BW: We could totally buy a new van. I’m thinking we should go for a big one, like T. Rex.
BW: Well, maybe a brontosaurus, though. It doesn’t eat meat. It would be more indie. It would be more cool. A vegan dinosaur. And less likely to eat anyone.
NB: We would like to request a vegan dinosaur, please.
BS: Okay, I’m down with that.
BW: We would have to buy some land.
BS: We could get a loan from the bank.
NB: With the brontosaurus as collateral.
BW: But where would we put the dinosaur while we are waiting for the loan?
BS: This is really tricky.
NB: This question is a lot more complicated that I had originally thought it would be.
BW: Or transportation too. We’d probably have to hire a construction company for it.
Matt Crisler: You could walk it.
NB: Dinosaur rollerskates.
BW: I wonder if you could lease a brontosaurus. Like if we had a huge, a really heavy truck, that we could chain it to.
BS: Or a van…oh damn, we gave it up for the dinosaur.
NB: On that note, we’ll end on if you were any animal, what would you be?
BS: A panda.
BW: I don’t know. A brontosaurus.
NB: Thank you very much for being with me.