In most circles The Helio Sequence are described as electronica–tinged indie rock. However, vocalist/guitarist/lyricist/ Brandon Summers thinks of his band first and foremost as “songwriters.” After three albums and ten years of touring and recording, The Helio Sequence (Summers and Benjamin Weikel) have recorded Keep Your Eyes Ahead, a straight-forward album encompassing “less is more” in a traditional singer-songwriter approach. Although compared to label mates Band of Horses, The Helio Sequence are more versatile despite having only two members, while honing a folksy side that too often goes unnoticed.
Formed in Beaverton, Oregon, the duo have performed and recorded on the indie platform in every sense of the genre, from releasing two albums (Com Plex, Young Effectuals) on Portland-based label Cavity Search and their last two on Sub Pop (Love and Distance, Keep Your Eyes Ahead). While songs from the band’s early releases spanned up to 7 minutes, even the longest, lushest, catchiest track on Keep Your Eyes Ahead (fiery anthem “Hallelujah”) clocks in at 4 and a half minutes, showing how they have avoided what Summers calls the “dead wood,” paying attention to structure and flow, and leaving room for the meaning of the lyrics or instrumental part to breathe.
On the full mend from shredded vocal chords following six months of tours in the U.S. and Europe with Blonde Redhead, Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon, and Secret Machines, Summers had the chance to chat with Glide about their latest record.
You’re described in wikipedia as “indie electronica.” In your own words – how would you describe The Helio Sequence?
I don’t really like sound-bytes or quick labels in general because I think they belie the complexity of ideas. This is especially true for something as complex as music. I think of us as a band, as songwriters, first and foremost and this really frees me from thinking of what we do in terms of a style or a genre. I’d like what we create to be evolving and changing as we grow, learn and understand more about music…so to personally label what we do seems limiting.
I think that the unifying factor in our music isn’t necessarily the form that it takes on externally but some more intangible love and understanding of music that Benjamin and I share and try to express. At the core Benjamin and I are music lovers. Both of us listen to a huge variety of music and there are a lot of things that store up inside of our heads. We subconsciously incorporate elements, styles, and “feels” from different types of music, not for the sake of copying a form or making a stylistic statement, but in order to communicate something. Sound itself is a language and it’s more interesting and rich in meaning to me when disparate elements are juxtaposed and combined. Sometimes it’s better when you’re not able to condense an idea into a few words.
You’ve been playing together for ten years as The Helio Sequence. Ten years is a long time in the music industry. What do you attribute your longevity and partnership to?
Looking back to even when we were teenagers just beginning to play music together, somehow we just had a sense that what we were beginning was going to be a long road. I would attribute our longevity to the fact that both of us are constantly learning more about music and discovering new things and really like to share these things with each other. And we really feel a responsibility and respect for each other and a belief in what we do. Simply put…we’re friends.
Some of the bands that I respect and love the most are/were bands that you can watch through the years and see their growth…both triumphs and missteps. Bands like the Beatles, U2, Paul Simon, Modest Mouse. There’s something humanizing in seeing a band for a long time and knowing them in different forms. There’s a longer narrative to be constructed watching a band over many records.
Are there any directions that you went musically in the past that you regret or were a result of a trend?
There are definitely things that I look back on with a bit of embarrassment…listening to our first self-released EP and it’s “youthful exuberance” is a bit much for me. (I was 18 when we recorded it!) Then again, most people seeing pictures of themselves at 18 are a bit squeamish. But I wouldn’t say there’s anything that I regret. Everything we’ve done has been in earnest, not to chase trends or otherwise, and that’s all you can ask of yourself really.
Where has The Helio Sequence not gone musically that you still hope to go?
My focus right now is to keep trying to write good songs…songs that mean something to me and communicate what I’m feeling at whatever point I write them.
You have a massive collection of synthesizers, pedals, guitars and amps. Talk about your favorite find(s) and where you found it?
It’s strange…there’s a perception of us in some places as “mad scientists” playing in our world of electronic toys and gadgets, but I’d say that we have less toys than a lot of other more “normal” sounding bands. I have 6 guitar pedals and 4 amps to my name and Benjamin has 4 or 5 synths. Most of what we do is look for different ways to use and record what we DO have.
There are a couple of things that I have that I really love. One is my amplifier custom made by Bryan Sours at Soursound. Bryan is a tech, amp designer/builder, and all around nice guy here in Portland. He built a 50 watt custom head from scratch for me after I discussed the shortcomings of my old amp setup with him…It’s amazing. AND he built the tube preamps that we used to record our drum overheads for the entire album! (Keep Your Eyes Ahead.)
Another piece of gear that I have that is the backbone of my live sound is a George Dennis GD130 Delay pedal. George Dennis is small boutique company out of the Czech Republic. I just found them randomly when I worked at a music store in high school and have used the pedals ever since. There’s something about how their delay sounds that blows away the Boss and other brands. Unfortunately they just discontinued it and I’m scouring the net to find backups!
Keep Your Eyes Ahead reflects the band’s newfound appreciation for minimalism and narrowing the track lengths down. Where did this come about?
The perceived “minimalism” and shorter track lengths really stem from the fact that our main concern on this record was writing strong “songs.” We made a conscious effort to avoid “dead wood,” pay attention to structure and flow, and leave room for the meaning of the lyrics or instrumental part to breathe. We stopped often during the arranging and mixing process to ask ourselves “is this necessary and helpful in communicating the emotion and meaning of the song?” This way of thinking naturally led us to exclude more things than add things. We’ve always been able to come up with many instrumental parts/melodies to use with the chords of a song and it was a welcoming challenge to us not to just throw them all down together and move on, but rather look at things closely and use what “meant” the most in the given situation/part. It was really a matter of being as sensitive as we could to the fragile core of a song…respecting what is at root in a few simple chords and a vocal line…being careful to work with the subtlety of meaning rather than obscure it…the old adage: less is more.
If we only had five minutes with Keep Your Eyes Ahead, where on the album should we go directly and why?
I wouldn’t be opposed to someone just putting it on random and seeing where it takes them first. I love discovering music randomly. Most of the albums I find these days are discovered when I hear something in public and it catches my ear and I have to go track it down and learn about it, and especially when someone I speak to tells me why they love something. It gives me something to relate to…I found this record when I was “here” at this time…or through “so and so” that one time.
Is there a particular statement or message behind the textures, lyrics and orchestration of Keep Your Eyes Ahead? If not, what was the creative inspiration behind it?
More and more, I look at writing songs almost like writing letters to people…or notes to myself sometimes…less of a concrete statement than a flow of ideas and impressions. I would hope that our songs are less didactic tracts than open-ended communication. In this way I don’t see the record as being a “concept record” in the sense that it was pre-meditated. But because it is about communication I think that the ideas tend to flow into each other and reoccur in different forms, which really lend the glue to record as a whole.
There were many things going on in my life that just kind of came out during the writing of KYEA and the creative inspiration was mostly about letting these things flow and worrying about sorting them out later. It was very a subconscious type of creativity. A lot of the lyrics were just stream of consciousness, when I would sit down in front of the mic and just let whatever was on my mind out without really checking myself. If I needed to go back and clean things up to make sense I would worry about it later.
The creative impetus behind the record was to let things happen. On one level this sounds easy, but it takes a large amount of focus in order not to lose your way in such an open-ended process and a lot of faith that when you do lose your way things will come around.
You’ve toured with Blonde Redhead, Modest Mouse, Kings of Leon, and Secret Machines in the past few years. Did you learn anything musically from any of these bands?
I’ve learned a lot from all of the bands that we’ve toured with. I’m constantly humbled by other great bands and performers. I would say that Benjamin and I have taken a little of everything from the bands that we’ve toured with..less so musically, more so in being inspired by how they do what they do.
Watching Blonde Redhead always impressed me because they are such a tight band…such great musicians. They’re like pillars on stage…very sure and solid. I learned a lot about playing to larger audiences when watching Modest Mouse…there’s something about the freedom and unchecked energy of Isaac and the band that blows me away. There’s something about the directness of Kings of Leon that always inspires me when I see them…they’re truly “inside” of what they do and it’s a reminder to me to stay close to the songs. And it was always inspiring seeing Secret Machines reach beyond and above things every night.
What modern artists do you admire?
Artists…as in “musicians?” I think Rufus Wainwright is absolutely amazing. Such a great songwriter and with such a great voice. I love all of his records…especially the Want series. I first heard the song “The Art Teacher” in a shop in downtown Portland and knew that I had to find whoever wrote it. I’ve seen Wainwright twice live now and the way he pulls off the variety and depth of his show floors me. He can go from a full band song to a solo piano performance…to an a capella Irish folk song to a piano-accompanied Judy garland tune, to a lip-synch and it all works! His talent holds everything together.
Another artist that Benjamin and I both really like is Neko Case. She writes really interesting non-linear songs and has an amazing voice. Her band and Kelly Hogan, who sings with her, are phenomenal. So soulful. And I really love the Walkmen as well. Their record, Bows and Arrows, has a special place in my heart.
The best show that I’ve ever seen was the Charles Lloyd Quartet with Reuben Rogers, Geri Allen and the most amazing drummer I’ve ever seen, Eric Harland. Benjamin and I saw the show at the Portland Jazz Festival by happenstance. A friend of ours had tickets and couldn’t go, so he gave them to me. The show blew our minds…it was really a spiritual experience.
Although you’ve never worked with an outside producer, is there anyone that you particularly admire that you’d like to have work on an album with you?
We’ve considered working with an engineer or other person that could help out and be a second set of ears and opinions. If we did work with a producer it would be a co-producing relationship. On the flip-side we’re actually moving towards producing other bands ourselves.
There are a few producers who’s work we both really love and respect and would love to work with. Daniel Lanois has an amazing aesthetic and working method from what I’ve read. It’d be a dream to work with him. And Nigel Godrich is unbelievably good. Peter Katis did a great job on The National’s The Boxer and it would be exciting to work with him as well.
For more info see: http://www.subpop.com/artists/the_helio_sequence