As geek as it gets
- Joseph Gallivan
- Portland Tribune - Features
For the musicians of the Helio Sequence, the mix isn't everything Ñ but in their hands it's an art form
Up on the hill behind the paper mill at Camas, Wash., where the steam stacks pump a smell like boiled cabbage, sits a wealthy suburb of putty-colored snouthouses. Today, three-story windows and megadecks look out on the gloom of Lacamas Lake. December weather rolls in over the mountains, five flavors of cloud.
Old Glory waves outside one house, where the halls are heavy with Christmas decorations and more than one leather-bound Bible sits around. Two young men are holed up in the basement. To reduce echo, the framing has foam stapled to it, and the two sit on stools between hanging bedsheets. Brandon Summers plays guitar and sings into a $5,000 Neumann microphone (borrowed), while Benjamin Weikel clicks at a computer workstation and twiddles knobs on two banks of recording gear. This is the Helio Sequence. Geeky, charming, fiercely musical.
And finishing their third album in their own sweet time.
The Helio Sequence's trademark is layers of synth swoosh over searing vocals and battering drums, a slightly psychedelic songcraft that's seen them compared to so many bands (from the Small Faces to Mercury Rev) that comparisons have become as odious as uptown Camas.
Nothing about the Helio Sequence can be pigeonholed. Except how Portland they are. They'll be ringing in the new year at Berbati's with fellow musicians the Swords Project in what could be the gig of the year.
'Someone said we sound like a cross between My Bloody Valentine and the Beatles, and it just stuck,' says Weikel, 26.
'We love both bands, but that's not all we do,' Summers chips in.
'The Aphex Twin is just as big an influence,' Weikel adds.
They talk like that, finishing each other's thoughts. After playing in marching bands in high school, they sold instruments together at Beaverton Music Services, recording their first two CDs for Cavity Search Records, 'Com Plex' (2000) and 'Young Effectuals' (2001), in the store. They often crashed on the floor there, serving the first customers frazzled and groggy.
In April 2002 they quit the day job to tour and have since gigged with Modest Mouse (owner of that $5,000 microphone). The reason they are in Weikel's parents' tony house in Camas sits on Weikel's desk: four bookshelf-size speakers, which output their music after he has shaped the sound waves on his computer screen using Cakewalk Sonar software. Weikel's father, who works for Logitech, made them especially for him, and they provide perfect playback when mixing a song. To cut down on interference, the computer has had all of its IRQ ports disabled, meaning no printers or other peripherals are running. This is Weikel's domain.
Sub Pop, the band's new label, has given the two ample creative freedom for their third full-length CD.
'If someone gives you a $2,000 recording budget, that's only a week in the studio and the work can be really rushed,' says Summers, who likes to take months. 'We believe recording is part of the songwriting process.'
'The Battle of Los Angeles,' by Rage Against the Machine, is their idea of a perfectly recorded album.
'We even want to go to New York when the CD's being mastered (having the final polish put on the mix) at the Sound Factory,' Weikel adds. 'Every knob you turn is creating.'
Analog is creeping back in
If there is a theme in the most interesting music of the last five years, it is the analog growing back on the digital, like moss growing on concrete. Both men predict that this CD will surprise their fans, since they've added acoustic elements.
'I put some harmonica and acoustic guitar parts on one song recently,' Summers says. 'It started out as electropop and ended up sounding like Paul Simon!'
That song, 'Everyone Knows Everyone,' is about Portland. Using the same chorus, three characters discuss how the town's small-town status makes some want to stay and make it, while others want to leave for the same end.
'Portland is a great place to come home to,' Weikel concludes.
They talk amusingly about growing up in a place where nonmainstream music is almost impossible to find.
'It's like, Good Charlotte Ñ ugh. I had a friend with a tape of Sunny Day Real Estate that changed my life,' Weikel says.
One of their pet peeves is the plastic emo band, Dashboard Confessional being a good example. But bands they like include Deerhoof, OMD, Can and the Kronos Quartet, especially the 'Nuevo' CD. (The name Helio Sequence is some spontaneous nonsense under pressure. They have a hard time coming up with song names, too, often referring to them by a musical 'patch,' or sound effect, or a silly analogy.)
Both lads Ñ Weikel lives in Northeast Portland and Summers in Northwest Ñ dropped out of Portland State University to play rock 'n' roll. At 20, Summers married his Czech wife. After being worried for a while, their parents are now supportive, even useful.
'My dad's an avid listener Ñ he's into Joni Mitchell Ñ while my mom was more into Jimi Hendrix and Led Zep,' Summers says. 'He tried to convince me recently that Sting is a musical genius,' he says, laughing.
'My dad had (the Who's) 'Tommy' on reel-to-reel tape,' Weikel says, impressed. 'Then he bought the remastered CD and it sounded worse, except on the car system.'
Soundcraft matters almost as much as songcraft.
'We're audiophiles,' he adds, showing off their Sennheiser HD600 headphones and NAD integrated amplifiers.
They dislike the way modern rock recordings have no dynamic range and hate the way consumer audio gear sounds, cringing at the thought of listening to a $40 Discman.
'People respond to boom and hiss,' Summers says, with some pity.
College radio loves Helio
Summers and Weikel made their name on college radio, but CD sales still number a few thousand.
'We're used to living off $600 a month by now, so we're good at managing the band's money.'
For all their overdubbing, they try to write songs they can play live. They can be a wall of sound, or they can sound like a pair of laptops: A show can go either way.
'In Oklahoma City, all the kids just wanted to rock out, so we did. We've done a Beatle cover ('Tomorrow Never Knows') and paid the price. But sometimes people aren't sure of what we're doing until they hear that.'
Helio Sequence is often tagged as a suburban band because the lads met at school in Beaverton, but they lit out for Portland as soon as possible. As the two ponder their musical lives, it becomes clear that if you live in the suburbs, half the fight is already lost. If you leave, the fight is half won. But Camas' lofty suburb is leaving its mark on the new CD.
'There was this huge windstorm the other night; it sounded amazing,' Weikel says. 'I rigged up the microphone outside at 2 a.m. There are wind chimes on there too, kids playing, rain É so I guess it will have a suburban flavor.'