The Helio Sequence finds its magic
All things considered, it’s amazing that the Helio Sequence still exists at all. The long-running Portland, Oregon-based duo would have been forgiven for calling it a day back in 2004, when singer-guitarist Brandon Summers lost his voice while on tour in Europe. Instead, he took some time off to recover, learned to sing properly, and came back a stronger performer than he had been before.
Then, in ’09, Summers and drummer-keyboardist Benjamin Weikel returned from a road trip to a flooded studio/rehearsal space. Most of their equipment was fine (much of it had been on tour with them), but the space itself had to be abandoned.
“We had to throw all our stuff in storage for six months,” recalls Summers, reached on the road in Florida. “It was definitely a momentum breaker, but in the end it was a good thing finding a new space that was much more secluded, where we could work through the night and not have to worry about, like, a reggae band starting to play next door in the middle of a recording session and ruining our chances of getting takes.”
The new studio is located in what Summers describes as a big warehouse in the middle of nowhere, and that’s where the Helio Sequence wrote and recorded its latest LP, Negotiations. The album, which is the band’s fifth full-length release and its third for the Sub Pop label, showcases an atmospheric indie-rock sound that occasionally takes a turn toward the epic. Such is the case with “October”, a storm of melody and propulsive drums that wouldn’t sound too out-of-place on a Coldplay record. It’s evident that Summers and Weikel lavished attention on the finest details of impeccably realized wide-screen statements like “Hall of Mirrors” and “When the Shadow Falls”. The singer points out, however, that the songs grew organically. The words, for instance, were written in a stream-of-consciousness fashion.
“I didn’t come in with lyric books or anything, because I just wanted to do something different, break out of how I was working in the past, which was both an amazing thing and really frustrating,” Summers says. “Because there would be nights when I would get nothing. I would record 35 takes, come back and listen the next day and say, ‘No, it’s not right.’ ”
It was one of those nights that gave birth to the spare and haunting “Harvester of Souls”. Summers says he was having no luck with whatever track he was working on, so he picked up an acoustic guitar, started singing into a microphone, and made up a new song on the spot, in one take. That take made it onto the album, with just a few overdubs and a bit of polishing.
According to Summers, he tried to improve on what he improvised that night, but he couldn’t: “I kind of rewrote the lyrics and tried to re-record it, but the magic was completely gone. So we were just like, ‘Let’s just leave it, warts and all.’ Because it’s more about the emotion that it expresses rather than any sort of logical coherence.”
And that, one would assume, is the sort of thing that makes all the struggle worth it.