Interview: The Helio Sequence

interview by jeff mckibben

The Helio Sequence is Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel. They are musicians. They are artists. Their art is music. Their music is meticulously layered with airy orchestration and a swift undercurrent of pop sensibilities creating a sound of ambient electronica juxtaposed with singer/songwriter sheen. “Love and Distance” is the latest effort from The Helio Sequence. It is at once brimming with a bright & sunny turn-your-stereo-up-while-at-the-stoplight-with-your-windows-down-to-let-the-blonde-in-the-convertible-next-to-you-and-any-passersby-that-you-are-hip hipness while simultaneously possessing a subcutaneous (although not subverting) darker edge. If their music were a pattern, it would be paisley. If their music were a moment, it would be quarter till five on a Friday. If their music was a film, it’d be directed by Wong Kar-Wai. If their music was a book, it’d be written by Pynchon. If their music was music, it’d be crafted by The Helio Sequence.

Brandon and Benjamin recorded the album over a year’s time. During that span, Benjamin lent his drum kit to Modest Mouse, recording “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” and all the subsequent tours that Modest Mouse went on, with The Helio Sequence opening on some shows, doubling the drumming time for Weikel. Unlike their previous two albums, “Com Plex” and “Young Effectuals”, which were recorded in a room at the musical instrument store where they worked, “Love and Distance” was recorded in various locations ranging from Brandon’s apartment to Benjamin’s parent’s basement to the garage of Isaac Brock (of Modest Mouse). The album, like the two before it, was recorded, mixed, and produced by the duo. Unlike the two before it, “Love and Distance” was not a translation of their live performance intensity captured on tape. But like the two prior to it, it is an album of beauty and grace.

“Love and Distance” was recorded in a multitude of locations. Do you think that the transitory nomadic recording process benefited the album?
Brandon: In the end, for what our goal was for this record, it ended up helping. It was a difficult way of doing things in constantly trying to find a place to record. Our other two records were recorded in one place and had a more straight-through feeling and unified sound. For this record, we were going for a collection of songs, concentrating on each song, letting the album be dictated on a song-to-song basis. We’d ask, “What does this song want? What does it need? What is the feeling?” Changing around to different places really helped that. Being in different places means being in different frames of mind. Some of the vocal takes were done in my apartment when Ben would be on tour with Modest Mouse for a bunch of weeks at a time. I set up the studio here and laid down a lot of the vocal takes which I thought were scratch takes but ended up becoming finals. There’s a totally different feeling when you’re doing things in your own space, especially in a very personal place. And then there was Isaac’s garage, which was kinda weird cause we’d never really recorded in anyone else’s space before.
Benjamin: Every place that we went to was a really good environment to be in, unlike the at the music store. We worked there and our boss wasn’t excited about us recording there so we had to hide what we’re doing a lot of the time. And so it was definitely cool to have different places where we felt we could make noise and have the freedom to do whatever we needed to do.

The crux of your live performance is in your intensity and volume. How did you translate your live performance into your recording process as you’ve done in the past?
Brandon: This album has been a reverse process. I think you can hear it in the songs. They fell together really uniquely. “Harmonica Song” was completely conceived live, written live, and we attempted to capture that live intensity as we’ve done before. Other songs grew of bits and pieces. Benjamin would have a keyboard song written out and we’d take that and build a song around it. So it would be an additive process of finding an arrangement, like “S.O.S.” Some written initially as lyrics and then piecing a sound around them, which is something we had never done before. “Blood Bleeds” is a case of that. They all fell together differently. “The People of the Secret” was a highly collaborative process. Ben and I would do as much as possible and then pass it off. I take it and do what I could, and then he’d take it, and then I’d do some over dubs and then he’d splice it and mix things. So it is a different process than taking live performance and putting it to tape, which was really like “Young Effectuals”.
Benjamin: A lot of recording is learning how to capture things. Every time we recorded we’d play hard and sing loud and sometimes it wouldn’t come across as intense as it did live. In listening to what people said about our earlier albums, we got the feeling that instead of trying to do something that was more artistic, which I feel the first two albums were trying to be, more than trying to represent what we sounded like. So we mixed them to sound like that rather than something fantastical and over produced.

Part of the pitfall of the duo as a live act is relying too heavily on sequences. How did you mitigate your intensity and integrity as performers by playing over pre-programmed sounds?
Brandon: Everything is going at 100% always – not necessarily volume or intensity. Idealistically, its supposed to be full-on. The idea is to always be there on stage mentally. The common misconception that some people have is they think that because you have a sequencer going, that they don’t have to be 100%, that they don’t have to be mentally aware. Sometimes that is the case and that becomes evident to the audience because they’re watching them slack off because they have a sequencer. And then the sequence takes over the power of the music. We just have it mind always to just try to be there and be doing it. A lot of people used sequencers. The Flaming Lips, for example, they’ve got so many sequences going on. You can use sequencers and there can still be that energy and intensity and vitality.
Benjamin: Just from the beginning, the key to being a good sequencer band is sheer volume. If we’ve got the sequences up so that I can play drums loud and Brandon can play guitar loud, it all mixes in together so it sounds seamless. It doesn’t seem like we’re trying to keep in time with the sequences. If we play loud everything works out sonically.

You’ve again produced and engineered this album, and I completely understand the idea of having a complete vision and wanting to see that vision carried out unfettered, but do you feel that any outside influence might hinder the album’s outcome?
Benjamin: From an engineering perspective, I know very little in comparison to someone that’s been doing it forever. And equipment wise, I think using a computer is really inferior to mixing through an analog soundboard. But we tried to be realistic about our songs and say, “This is too long.” and “What’s he point of this song?” We tried to have a high degree of quality control. Its hard with the budget of an indie label. But on the other hand, it’s getting away with doing something as artistic as we did. You have to play devils advocate with production and try to fight yourself and step outside to critically look at the songs. Brandon and I fought a lot about the songs. And that’s the really great part about being in a band with your best friend that you have so much history with. There was no risk of stepping on the other’s toes or having to walk on egg shells. There was a lot of honesty that I don’t think you find in other bands.

So, your new album is coming out on Sub Pop, a highly respected indie label. Do you feel the excitement of initial success?
Brandon: We quit our day jobs about two years ago and have been touring exhaustively ever since. I don’t know if success is exactly the right word, but yeah, its nice to not have to worry about where you’re gonna get the money for rent for next month.
Benjamin: I have no idea how the record will do. And I’m not too concerned about it’s success. I know that we’ll continue to make music. So for now it’s about growth and getting to that next record…