article by jessica suarez. photos by kate hennessey.|
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If you're planning on seeing the Helio Sequence play some time soon, there's some good news and some bad news. The good news is that their albums are nothing like their live performances. They are incredibly energetic live. Benjamin Weikel, Helio Sequence's drummer and keyboardist, is an impressively sweaty blur of energy, and an impressive drummer overall (if you heard the last Modest Mouse album, you already know that). His drum kit sits at the front of the stage, reinforcing the fact that he and guitarist/singer Brandon Summers are equal members of the band.
The bad news is that their live show doesn't do their records justice. The Helio Sequence love to play with the recording process -- and it definitely sounds like a process for them. The layered, swirling sound they perfected on Love and Distance is reminiscent of some of the best of British music, from the Beatles to Creation-like psychedelica to early '90s shoegazer pop.
I spoke to Benjamin Weikel and Brandon Summers while they ate dinner at the Hotel Congress, which is also where they played and slept that night. I think Benjamin had some sort of gourmet hamburger, while Brandon had the special, Ginger Confit of duck, served with a poached fig and balsamic glaze and Sambal mashed potatoes. I had a glass of water.
Splendid: Your last album...was that recorded before or after you worked on Good News For People Who Love Bad News?
Benjamin Weikel: At the same time. All at the same time.
Brandon Summers: It's funny how they coincided. We went to Oxford, Mississippi, where they were recording the Modest Mouse album, for -- what? A week? A week and a half? -- while he was laying down drum tracks.
Benjamin Weikel: I had the demos of all of our songs with me. I would listen to them every day. After we were done recording I'd go for a walk to a convenience store and listen to them again. I was staying with Isaac a lot so I didn't want to sit there and be listening to my album and have him ask, "What are you listening to." As soon as I got back, Isaac gave me the keys to his place. He would have to go back to Oxford to do vocal and guitars, so while he was doing that we were recording the rest of our basic tracks.
Splendid: So you were recording it in his...
Brandon Summers: In his garage. I was just about three miles away. We would just go there in the afternoons and record all the way through into the night. It took us two weeks to get all the basic tracks done on our album.
Benjamin Weikel: Three weeks, I think.
Brandon Summers: Yeah. By the end we had all the basics and almost all the vocal stuff. Then we moved into Ben's basement. We finished the vocals. Then we wrote two totally brand new songs. So two songs were totally recorded down there.
Benjamin Weikel: Once we were recording at Isaac's, it was super sunny out. Having this atmosphere, where we're in the hills, there are trees around, it's really beautiful. We were feeling really good. So that was kind of like what happened with the record -- the vibe of that place. When we went to my parents' house, we wrote a totally brand new song to kind of fit in with the new idea. Then there's another song that we were working out brand new vocals for.
Splendid: That brightness and happiness also transferred to Ben's basement?
Brandon Summers: Well, once we got there, we knew what we wanted the album to be.
Splendid: Was there anything you picked up during the recording of the Modest Mouse album that made you want to change something once you got back to Portland?
Brandon Summers: Modest Mouse didn't musically influence us.
Benjamin Weikel: There were some recording techniques that were good. There was a really good engineer who worked on the album. We would say, "Oh they did this on the album" -- things with how he placed the microphones. We were just getting into engineering at that point and we used some of those things he did.
Splendid: I don't think, as far as the sound goes on Love and Distance, that there are any similarities.
Benjamin Weikel: I've heard a lot of people say, "The new Modest Mouse album sounds like Helio Sequence."
Brandon Summers: Yeah, that was weird.
Benjamin Weikel: Both bands were recording at the same time, and I think we were both trying to write more positive albums, but I think that's the only similarity between the two, if any. And the drumming, too.
Splendid: Does it bother you that...I've seen posters for this show that say, "...featuring the drummer from Modest Mouse," but Helio Sequence has been around for almost a decade.
Brandon Summers: What bothers me is when people call us a Modest Mouse side project.
Benjamin Weikel: We've been a band for nine years.
Splendid: So you guys met when you were 13?
Brandon Summers: He was 13, I was 12.
Benjamin Weikel: We were in a punk band together. We played our first show in '96. Three songs of total ambient pretty...
Brandon Summers: It was a family picnic. And it wasn't always like this. I was friends with his little brother. He was in the band for a little while, in '96. We did an EP in '99 and that was the first thing we called "The Helio Sequence", and that had just the two of us.
Splendid: Why did you decide to stick with two people?
Brandon Summers: We auditioned. We tried to play with tons of people from about '96 to '99.
Benjamin Weikel: When we did the first EP (Accelerated Slow-Motion Cinema), it was about 20 minutes of music. We did the same thing about a year later. We were still playing with my little brother then. My sister somehow managed to get us an eight-track DAT recorder, so that's when we were sort of working on things together. My little brother was doing other things, he was in other bands, at the same time.
Brandon Summers: We were just really getting into the idea of recording, so with that eight track we started doing a bunch of different things. Over time we worked out the live show.
Splendid: When you guys started there weren't many two-person bands. Now it's pretty common.
Brandon Summers: We thought we were the only two-person band. And in the beginning, everyone thought it was kind of weird.
Benjamin Weikel: People would say, "I like your band, you're pretty good for a two piece" or, "You need a bassist."
Splendid: Now that seems like a ridiculous thing to say.
Benjamin Weikel: But still, it's funny because it seems like a lot of them (two-person bands) are just guitar and drums. I don't see too many bands sequencing with a drummer at all.
Brandon Summers: It really seems like something that only bigger bands do, too, like you'll see the Flaming Lips doing it in their live set. But it's always in a bigger, stadium-type setting. I think most two-pieces are more just straight-ahead rock.
Splendid: You have a big sound. You definitely don't sound like two people. Did you write songs thinking about how they would sound live?
Benjamin Weikel: I was bored of just being a drummer. And I wanted to be in a band where I could write keyboard parts, because I have a lot of ideas too. And that was what was so great about working with Brandon, being in a situation where he was just always open to that idea, whereas a lot of other people were like, "You can't do that in live setting, you know." A lot of people that I was in bands with didn't think sequencing was something you could do.
Brandon Summers: It's a huge stretch if you look back at how we began. Playing a sequencer is something totally different, because you can be in a band and play with a sequencer, but you're just kind of playing along with things, like the way you sing along in karaoke. It has a totally different feel than what I think we've always tried to do, which is to be a whole band. It's about live energy.
Splendid: I like the harmonica on the new album. Who thought of that?
Brandon Summers: That was a weird thing. I don't even know how that happened.
Benjamin Weikel: I think what happened was, right after we were done writing Young Effectuals, we started experimenting with these weird freestyle jams with the sequencing.
Brandon Summers: Live stuff with the sequencer. We would sit there and just layer songs. It was crazy. I would play around on drums for some of it.
Benjamin Weikel: I can't play drums and do keyboard at the same time, so I would be looping stuff on the keyboards, and he might play drums for a little bit. Then he might start playing guitar and I would sit down and do drums. Then I would want to do something else. The harmonica song was part of some three hour loops that we played. Maybe an hour or two into it, he pulled out the harmonica, and then we knew that was something we had to do. We didn't have a song at that point, but that's kind of how it happened.
Brandon Summers: I've always liked harmonica and we worked at a music store before... Well, that was what we were doing all the way up to...
Splendid: That's where you recorded your other stuff.
Brandon Summers: Yeah. We recorded the last two albums there. There used to be this guy who would come in, Ronnie Sarota. He would call himself Little Ronnie. He was a harmonica player in town, and he's really a sort of local character. He would just come in and talk about harmonica. I had always wanted to play it. I just kind of started dicking around with it.
Splendid: How long ago was this?
Brandon Summers: Right after Young Effectuals. So 2001, 2002, something like that.
Splendid: There was a big gap between Love and Distance and Young Effectuals. Was it just because of all your touring?
Benjamin Weikel: It was mostly because of touring. I think that was the biggest thing. We didn't get to do our first big national tour until the year after Young Effectuals. We did this tour, total mercy tour for us, opening for this band called Echobrain, which was fronted by Jason Newstead of Metallica.
Benjamin Weikel: There are two younger guys in that band who wrote all the songs. They had seen us play in San Francisco in front of something like 20 people, the first time we were in San Francisco.
Brandon Summers: That was when we booked our own shows.
Benjamin Weikel: They decided they wanted us to come with them on tour, so we used it as an opportunity when we got to New York to have a bunch of booking agents come out. That's where we got hooked up with Robin, who booked Modest Mouse and a whole bunch of bands. That's when we started touring.
Brandon Summers: Really, we didn't get to tour for either of our first two records, so it was, in a way, making up for lost time by going out and touring for a long time. We didn't have a place to practice and write music really because we had quit our jobs at that music store.
Benjamin Weikel: We were let go.
Brandon Summers: Yeah. We started touring so much that our boss said, "Well, I can't let you work here if you're going to be gone for so long."
Splendid: But he must have been a pretty cool guy if he let you record at the store.
Brandon Summers: Oh no. Yeah. He just called the other day. We're really good friends with our ex-boss.
Benjamin Weikel: When we did that last tour, he was basically like, "I'm going to do this to you guys because I want to push you, so when you come back you aren't going to have a job." So we basically had to tour almost every other month to pay rent.
Brandon Summers: Neither one of us could get a job in Portland to save our lives.
Benjamin Weikel: So we just toured for a while, got back home, went back out on tour.
Splendid: So really, you hadn't decided to quit your jobs.
Brandon Summers: It was our decision. Well, sort of. It was a leap of faith. It was also because we were just a two piece, so there was a little bit more money coming our way, just because we didn't have to split it with four other guys. We still didn't have a tour manager or a merch person or anything.
Splendid: So even though you've been touring so much, Portland is still home?
Brandon Summers: Oh yeah.
Splendid: And you guys grew up outside of Portland?
Brandon Summers: Yeah in the suburbs.
Benjamin Weikel: In Beaverton. It's not a little suburb, it's a sprawling suburb.
Splendid: Was growing up out in the suburbs one of the reasons why you started a punk band?
Brandon Summers: We decided to start playing music just because we loved music.
Benjamin Weikel: When I was seven and I convinced my mom to buy me my first drum set, I don't think that I was thinking about the plight of being a kid in the suburbs. That comes later. But it is part of where I feel like we're coming from. It's really miserable in the suburbs. I think that if you're at all artistic, it's a...it's like that for anyone who grows up in that environment, where normal is what is on television.
Brandon Summers: I don't think that people realize how miserable they are in the suburbs. It's not that if you live in the city, everything's perfect, but being a kid who's a little bit different was just the weirdest thing, because very few people listened to indie rock. If you found someone who was like you, you just said, "Oh my God, we have to talk," because everyone else was listening to what was on the radio. You felt this special connection. That was really how Ben and I got to know each other, because we had both really gotten into the local music scene that was going on in Portland. We would always go, "Do you know this band? Yeah. Do you know this one?" We were always finding new stuff and getting real excited about it.
Splendid: What did you guys listen to while you were growing up?
Brandon Summers: The first band that got me into alternative music was Nirvana.
Benjamin Weikel: The first really huge thing for me was Tears for Fears, Songs from the Big Chair. I remember I would get home and listen to the whole album on headphones, and I would call my friends and say, "Isn't this rad?" And they would just go, "Yeah...cool." I think my friends were just listening to the radio. Even in the first grade, I remember this little group of kids, we would talk about music. I was so into Michael Jackson, whatever was going on. And I don't think that lasted very long for other kids. But for me, it was important.
Brandon Summers: When I was a kid, it was kind of the same thing too. I was convinced that I wanted to be a writer. Sgt. Pepper was my inspiration music or whatever, while I would write stories I would listen to that.
Splendid: So what have you been listening to lately while you've been on tour?
Brandon Summers: This band called the Movies. In One Era Out the Other. It's awesome. And we've been, well I've really been on a Bob Dylan kick. Just the other day Ben bought four or five Brian Eno CDs, so we've been listening to that. And My Morning Jacket. I really like that. This band called Mr. Airplane Man, out of Nashville.
Splendid: Now, every review I've read of your records compares you to The Beatles and My Bloody Valentine. Were you really influenced by those bands?
Benjamin Weikel: I guess that was where the two of us were coming from. I was really into My Bloody Valentine. To me it was all about sitting between the speakers and listening for the placement of everything. And for Brandon, it was the same thing with The Beatles.
Brandon Summers: I think that's how our songwriting really works. We listen to so much different stuff that it just kind of makes its way into our music, subconsciously. But it's not like we sat down and said, "We want to be this column between these two bands, and all of our records are going to sound like this."
Benjamin Weikel: I think if we really wanted to sound like those two bands, we could probably copy them a lot better.
Brandon Summers: It's not hard to rip off a band, it's easy.
Splendid: As far as writing songs go, is it easy because you've known each other for so long, or is it harder because there's always one person to veto your ideas?
Benjamin Weikel: I get vetoed quite a bit.
Brandon Summers: (Laughs) Yeah.
Benjamin Weikel: I write a lot more songs than he does. Keyboard ditty type of stuff. I've got lots of endless keyboard ditties no one's ever going to do. I'm thinking I need to.
Splendid: Time to start a solo project.
Benjamin Weikel: No. I could do that, but I suck at singing, really. I sing on the albums, and I don't really mind those tracks, but I'm not a singer. I think maybe if they bring back the old Nintendo, I should just donate them to a video game soundtrack.
Splendid: Is that how you write songs, then? Do you write a lot on your own, lots of keyboard parts and things to start?
Brandon Summers: Yeah. A lot of our songs come from keyboard. Then it goes from there.
Benjamin Weikel: I might write an entire song, then we'll cut it up and put things in different places.
Benjamin Weikel: When we write songs, they'll be this chunk of songs we wrote together, maybe four or five. Then when it comes to recording the album, all the songs we didn't choose to work out live, it'll be like, "Look what I got! Check these out over here!"
Splendid: So is that your way of vetoing songs? Just ignoring him and working on the ones you want to work on?
Benjamin Weikel: And then when we have to finish an album, that's kind of my way of getting back at him. Because we have five more songs we have to put on an album.
Brandon Summers: It has just worked out really well, though.
Benjamin Weikel: And it's happened every album.
Brandon Summers: Yeah, it has. We've had two songs that wouldn't work out live, but in a studio atmosphere you can do totally different stuff with it. Live, we could do some things, but it doesn't come across quite a well. I can sing it a different way, or he can sing, because he doesn't sing live.
Benjamin Weikel: We really haven't tried that.
Brandon Summers: We tried once or twice, but we gave up on that. You gotta get the headset, like Phil Collins.
Benjamin Weikel: I can't do that. I don't want to. No headsets.
Splendid: Love and Distance, like your other two, you produced yourself.
Brandon Summers: And mixed and engineered. And this is the only album we haven't mastered ourselves, actually.
Splendid: Is that just part of your spirit of doing everything yourselves?
Brandon Summers: We have a pretty good work ethic, because when you start, there's nobody else who can do things for you. Even down to recording. We had friends who would go into a recording studio, and it never sounds good, it's never good for the band. It was just having the confidence to do the recording ourselves, I think.
Benjamin Weikel: The records that people do in a studio for ten days are always just totally boring. And I just feel like, even if someone says, "I saw you live and the recording didn't sound anything like that," there are people who aren't into our recording. To me though, 15 or 20 years from now the recordings are still going to be totally interesting.
Brandon Summers: Recording is an aesthetic choice. So when you're recording in a studio that everyone else has recorded in, it's kind of like getting pictures of different things painted by the same person. Why not do the painting yourself? You might not be the best in the world, but at least if you have your ideas you can work as hard as you can to make your record how you want it to be.
Splendid: For a lot of bands, it seems like paying to go into a recording studio is an ego boost.
Brandon Summers: I don't know. Sometimes I think it's just a matter of them not knowing how to record. You learn by just screwing around.
Benjamin Weikel: Even up to Young Effectuals. Sometimes I listen to it and say, "My God I can't believe we made this." But at the same time it's really great that we made it. It was reflective of the time. It was what we wanted.
Brandon Summers: It turned out how we wanted it. It was so hard during the process -- the sleep deprivation, all the stuff that makes it into your recording. There are so many parts where I look back go, "That could have been cut there. Why did we did do that?" But overall we accomplished something.
Splendid: And for this album, you also made the jump to Sub Pop.
Benjamin Weikel I was going to say, it took so long (to record). We had the option to do another on our old label (Cavity Search). Our contract was ending, but it was so hard to travel outside of the country and not see our albums anywhere. The label was designed to support local recording bands. We just really wanted to find another home. We did have to find another label.
Brandon Summers: But we didn't submit anything to any other labels except Sub Pop.
Benjamin Weikel: They came out to some shows, and in January we started talking. We had just started a four-song demo just to get ideas for the record. And then we ended up giving that to them.
Splendid: I think many people think that labels like Sub Pop are big labels when they really aren't huge.
Benjamin Weikel: I think it depends on the band too. Like the last Shins record. They knew that was going to sell.
Splendid: Lots of people say you have a really great live show.
Benjamin Weikel: I don't know. We just play with a lot of energy.
Brandon Summers: We really project outward. And we try not to suck.
Benjamin Weikel: I guess there's a certain amount of freedom when we play, that people experience when we're playing.
Splendid: A lot of two-piece bands, especially ones who use keyboards and sequencers, like to move a lot on stage, because I think they know the audience doesn't like to see an empty stage.
Benjamin Weikel: We have drums, so I think it's different for us.
Brandon Summers: It's still very much a rock show.
Benjamin Weikel: I think we're just like a regular band. We don't have to do anything extra to compensate for the fact that we're only two people. I've never even thought of that. We're just a regular band. And I think we're pretty good at playing live, we love playing.
Splendid: Even though...
Benjamin Weikel: Did you want us to say we had fireworks and...
Brandon Summers: Hula hoop dancers?
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jessica suarez is new, so we're being nice to her.
[ graphics credits :: header/pulls - george zahora | photos - kate hennessey :: credits graphics ]