The Helio Sequence

2007 Preview Bonus Interview

Jan 02, 2007 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


 

Time and space seem to be the cornerstones of the untitled work in progress from Portland, OR duo The Helio Sequence (vocalist/guitarist Brandon Summers and keyboardist/drummer Benjamin Weikel). Summers cites the use of odd micing in closets and a more acoustic writing approach as having influenced a record unlike anything the duo have produced before. “It’s been a really epic experience,” he says. Under the Radar spoke to Summers about the band’s forthcoming fourth album via e-mail.

Under the Radar: What progress have you made on the new album so far—how much has been recorded and how much is left to record?

Brandon Summers: At this point we have 7 songs fully recorded and mixed and about five or six on the table which need written/arranged/finished.

UTR: Where is the album being recorded and who is producing it?

Summers: We began recording in the last months of 2005 and it’s been a really epic experience. (I think I did this very same interview last year actually.) In the Fall of ‘05 we had a very small room that we had set up our studio and recorded three songs in. As we got to mixing we realized that we just couldn’t get the sound we wanted out of the room. It took us a few months of looking around until we were lucky enough to find an old dance studio available for rent. We moved there at the beginning of this year and spent a month or so working on proper acoustic treatment. At this point we scrapped all of the recordings we had done previously and started fresh. It was very important to me from the get-go that we had a “home” to record this album. We recorded Love and Distance in very tentative circumstances, in a borrowed garage. I really wanted a place to stretch out, and feel comfortable to help the flow and depth of ideas and allow us time to experiment and get things right on this record. It’s been a big struggle just to find the right place to record, but our new studio feels like home now and we’re used to all of it’s acoustical quirks. As with all of our albums we are taking on the production, engineering and mixing duties. But it’s definitely not a closed circle. Both Benjamin and I are always showing mixes to people and getting advice/ideas. In this way I would say the new record is a more open experience than our previous albums. I took a song to a friend (Brent Knopf of Menomena) to get some advice/opinions. We spent an afternoon exchanging ideas and he helped write a bass line that really transformed the end of the song and made it a better song overall. And we’ve had a bunch of help from Bryan Sours, a tech in Portland who builds preamps and amplifiers. He’s helped us on the technical end with some stuff that’s been really critical. We’re really fortunate to have a lot of people close to us who know us and our music—friends and family—who can give honest opinions and understand where we’ve come from and how we’re trying to develop and use new ideas.

UTR: Is there a title for the album yet?

Summers: No title yet. With all of our records we wait until the end, when everything is recorded and lay everything out on the table in front of us, so to speak—lyrics, the “sound,” the experience of recording the music itself—and distill a title from this.

UTR: What can we expect from your next album in terms of its sound and how it compares to your first two albums? The sound and production on Love and Distance was less shoegazer-like (for lack of a better phrase) and more muscular sounding than your first two albums. Will your next album sound more like the first two albums or more like Love and Distance?

Summers: I don’t think the new material we have is like Love and Distance or our first two records. I’m in the middle of it—the recording, the conception—so it’s hard to say, but it feels like something different is going on. I’m really focused on good “songwriting” on this record. I know this is really a vague term and could mean a million things to anyone, but for me it involves following a feeling more than a sonic conception. There’s just a feeling that I recognize when it comes to me—something that moves itself forward that I’m lucky to grab onto when it comes around and I’m just trusting that feeling when writing and recording this record. The “sound” of the record is just an extension of all this—a reflection of how something feels, so it could sound like anything really. And I think that this album is varied a lot in it’s sound-scape and conception at this point because the most important thing is that each song is expressed well. Both Benjamin and I are interested in serving the song and what comes out of this will be the “sound” of the record. So we’ll know when we’ve got all the puzzle pieces what the overall picture looks like.

UTR: Are there any new influences that you are including in your sound on this album, influences that weren't brought out in your previous releases?

Summers: I had sort of an awakening listening to Bob Dylan a few years ago—a peek into a different depth of music that’s lead me to a million new places. The song “Boots of Spanish Leather” really blew my mind and opened up a lot of things. I think it’s one of the greatest songs ever written. It really inspired me to play more acoustic guitar and I’ve started writing more in this mindset. So on this level, there may be a bit more acoustic or natural elements (even more natural sounding keyboards) in the “sound” of this new record—something more “song” oriented in the feel. But, this isn’t to say that our new record is a folk record or anything like that. The influence has been more on how I see a song. Ideally I would like it if every song on this album was strong enough to be performed bare-bones, just guitar and voice, and still remain as powerful.

UTR: Can you give us a hint as to what themes or subjects are tackled on some of the lyrics on the new album?

Summers: One thing that I’ve always been fascinated by is the suburbs because it’s where I come from and what I have to deal with when looking at my past. I still grapple with a lot of my experience growing up in the suburbs and the things that I dislike so much about them: the struggle to understand and escape, commercialism, television, car culture, fast food, mainstream culture and music—the suburban psyche. I’m far from being a ascetic, but I live in a “city” now and I don’t own a television or a car, so I’ve distanced myself from these things consciously over the years. But I always find myself returning to thoughts about what it was like growing up in the suburban world, and a lot of these thoughts end up in the lyrics of our songs. The more I return to these things it feels less like a denouncement than a reckoning. “Lost” and “found” are two things that keeps coming back to me in lyrics on this record as well. I lost someone and they’re hanging around my mind and come back in words sometimes, and I lost something but think I found something else because of it. It all runs in circles.

UTR: What have been the biggest challenges of recording this new album?

Summers: The biggest challenge has been finding a place to record the record. Everything from finding a big enough space, to all of the acoustic treatment that is involved. And finally settling into the space and getting comfortable creating and working there. It’s also been a challenge to expand what we view as a “Helio Sequence song.” Finding a footing at the beginning of a record has always been a bit tricky for us because the possibilities are endless. The first song we write that we both love usually influences the “direction” of the record. But it can’t be forced and we’ve spent a lot of time waiting for the right songs to fall into place and also taking songs that we usually wouldn’t consider “Helio Sequence” songs and seeing them through. Working on ideas that we would have rejected before has put us in a new place.

UTR: What aspects of your last album were you unhappy with, aspects that you’d like to improve upon with your new album?

Summers: Working on Love and Distance we were very rushed in the recording process. Isaac Brock from Modest Mouse was very kind and lent us his garage/rehearsal space for about three weeks while he was off working on overdubs for Good News for People Who Love Bad News. We had nowhere else to record and had to get all of the basics (drums, keys, guitars and most vocals) done is just that amount of time. We went into recording with only a handful of finished songs and had to flesh things out as we went along. I know that this is a normal amount of tracking time for most bands, but we tend to work much slower, which gives us more time to experiment. Some things on Love and Distance feel a bit hasty looking back on them. With this album I’m happy that we have more time and our own space and I really want to give each song the attention that it needs and let things grow rather than force them into place. We’re approaching things differently by only tracking one or two songs at a time and writing as we go.

UTR: Are you using any strange instruments on the new album or have you utilized any weird recording techniques?

Summers: One strange thing about the recording of this record so far is that I’ve recorded a majority of the vocals at home. I’ve gone into most of the vocals thinking, “this is just a demo,” and then listened back at the studio only to have Benjamin say, “we should keep these, they’re really good.” Another thing that we’ve recently discovered is an amazing room micing technique for the drums and guitars. I was listening to Led Zeppelin I one day and thinking about how amazing the room sounds on the guitars and drums were and I decided to look into it online. I read about Eddie Kramer’s use of stairwells and other spaces as echo chambers. We don’t have stairwells at our studio space, but we do have two small closets at the other end of the studio where the instruments are set up. I stuck a small diaphragm condenser microphone into one of the closets and raised it just below the ceiling facing upwards and it was magic. I recorded a few guitar tracks for a song I was demoing and was blown away. The closet produces a pretty trashy, flutter echo but when paired up with a close mic’d source and panned it’s like magic. We’ve been recording everything with the room mics now just in case we need the sound later on in mixing. I’ve also recorded some backup vocals with the mic in one room while singing in the other with just an open door in between. I double them and compress them and it produces a really smooth, warm sound that sits well in the mix behind lead vocals because so much room sound is compressed into them.

UTR: What are your commercial expectations for the album when compared to your last album? Are you hoping to win over a lot of brand new fans with this album or do you hope to mainly preach to the converted?

Summers: I’m not really thinking about things on this level. My main concern is writing good songs and putting together a good record.

UTR: Is there anything about the new album that will really surprise your fans once they hear it?

Summers: Sure, but if I told you it wouldn’t be a surprise.

UTR: Can you give us a description of one or two songs to give fans a little more information about the record?

Summers: Two books that I’ve read kind of came back to me in song: Czeslaw Milosz’s The Captive Mindand James Howard Kunstler’s The Geography of Nowhere.

UTR: After being together for so long do you find it difficult to still create inspired music? What have you been doing to keep things fresh?

Summers: For this album in particular we’ve kept things fresh by working to write songs by a different method and trying to be open to each other's ideas. We’ve developed less songs by “jamming” on this record and more by giving each other loops, ideas, or completed pieces and seeing what the other does to them when they take it home for a while or work alone in the studio. It’s interesting what gets changed, rearranged, and reworked. It’s very collaborative and independent at the same time in this sense and there’s a good discourse of complete ideas. But, I think the important thing is that Benjamin and I still love music. That’s why we started playing music together and writing songs together. We’ve been through many ebbs and flows of creativity as individuals and as a band. We still talk often about ways we could become a better band and the things we’d like to do which helps to keep us on track. And both of us are interested in change and always finding new types of music and bands to share with each other.

www.theheliosequence.com

 



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