KEXP at MFNW, Day 2: The Helio Sequence

photos by Kyle Johnson
review by Leigh Bezezekoff

Portland’s own The Helio Sequence has spent much of 2008 touring the US, but before they embark on the next leg (which includes gigs in San Francisco and Hawaii) Brandon and Benjamin get to enjoy a few hometown shows during Musicfest NW including one today on KEXP. Not bad for two guys who met in Beaverton in middle school. Their latest effort, Keep Your Eyes Ahead, marks quite a transition from 2004’s Love and Distance, which was filled with sparkly Indie electric pop and bursts of harmonica. While on tour supporting Love and Distance, Brandon damaged his vocal chords limiting his ability to talk and eventually sing. During this doctor-imposed silence, he read incessantly and pondered on what he wanted from his career. This reflection helped him rededicate himself to music, and he spent much of 2005 re-learning how to sing using vocal exercises and experimenting with mic techniques. As a result, Keep Your Eyes Ahead combines their signature layered keyboards and driving guitar and drums with more focused songwriting. The songs are more minimal and the lyrics reflect a stream of consciousness and have a more haunting quality mixed with a sense of hope. The Helio Sequence is always exciting to see live and we hope you get the chance to see them live tomorrow at the Crystal Ballroom (note: read why you should be there in the interview below!).

Interview by Jim Beckmann

Jim: I saw you at the KEXP BBQ, but I didn’t get to talk to you afterward. How did that go? I heard there were a few issues the rain you had to deal with.

Brandon: It was amazing. Common Market was playing before us and I was working through the setlist backstage. I noticed that there wasn’t much bass, that maybe someone turned the bass down, but we realized that the subwoofers had actually blown out from the rain. When we were ready to go on, there was so much water on the stage that the crews had to shut down the PA, because half of was already blown, and then dry it all off and see if it works when they turn it back on. They said, “If it doesn’t work, then everything is all over, but if it does then you can perform.” They turned it back on and it actually all worked. It was awesome for us because just at that time, the clouds broke, there was a rainbow, and it was all sunny.

Jim: Well, thanks for playing our benefit show. I know a lot of people who were anxious to see you. The Helio Sequence has been pretty busy this summer because you also did the Sub Pop party. And you’ve been getting a lot of great reception for the new album. Have you been getting a lot of feedback?

Benjamin: It’s been really positive. I think, the good thing for us is that we’re already thinking about new songs and thinking about new stuff, and it’s only been out for 8 months.

Jim: Do you ever perform any new songs? Or do you work them out all in the studio first?

Benjamin: Mostly. There are a few songs we start playing before.

Brandon: We’re still in the writing process.

Jim: How does that work? Do you write songs together or do your parts separately?

Benjamin: Every song is different.

Brandon: I think the process this time begins with getting our studio together, in a nice big space that we can move in to and start to get the technical side of everything together so that we can go in there without any worries. And if you have an idea, there are going to be mics already set up on the drum kit and all the guitars, so we can come in and get our ideas down.

Jim: Brandon, I was listening to you talk with the stage engineer today, and you definitely seem to know a lot about sound. Do you do most of your recording on your own?

Brandon: All of it. All of the engineering, mixing, and everything else. The only thing we have given out for the past two records is mastering, and it’s a good thing we did because it’s a crazy black art.

Jim: It seems that if you ask those guys what they actually do, they can never explain it. I don’t know if it’s that difficult or an unwillingness. I guess that it’s so different every time.

Benjamin: I don’t think it’s that complicated. I think it’s actually simple.

Brandon: But you need to have really nice gear. A lot of these guys have like $30,000 sound systems. Even the cabling is like $1,000 per cable.

Jim: What I like about seeing you guys is how you don’t make any effort to hide your use of a computer. You don’t ask forgiveness for it in any way. I’ve seen you turn the computer towards the audience and it’s like almost a third member of the band. But do you ever catch any flack for that?

Benjamin: At the very beginning, in like 1998. For some reason at that time, people were not into sequencing that much. Things have changed so much since then, ten years ago. Now, it’s like every other band does some. Every huge band you see in concert, I would say 90% of those bands use sequencing.

Brandon: I’ve read a few things where we’ve caught flack for using computers as backing tracks, but it’s about how you use it, and it doesn’t mean that we do anything less than we would without it, especially when you have to fill up a stage with not just sound but energy. Actually, [Saturday] night, it’s a surprise somewhat, but we’re going to do a version of Keep Your Eyes Ahead with Menomena singing and playing. So we’re not going to have sequencing on that one.

Jim: Wow. Have you ever done this before or played with other people?

Benjamin: It will be the first time The Helio Sequence has ever done like this. It will be the first song we’ve ever done without the computer.

Jim: Besides that, if anyone has ever seen you on stage, they’d know that you aren’t just kicking back and pushing a button. Anyone who gives you flack for any of that obviously hasn’t seen you live, that’s for sure.

Benjamin: We can’t expect everyone to be into what we’re doing. I’m sure there are some people who want to see something more raw and loose. Maybe we don’t provide that for them.

Brandon: It’s just something we do, and we don’t make any apologies. We love it and hopefully other people will love it too.

Jim: Recently, Brandon, you lost your voice. Is that something you’re still worried about?

Brandon: I’m less worried about it because I know how to take care of myself now, and I do, a lot more, especially on tour. Last year, we did six weeks. I was able to keep my voice through all of that. It’s very difficult when you’re singing every night, and I think that the whole experience of losing my voice was life-altering in how I look at things — in music and how I take care of myself, and even how I make records and my songwriting.

Jim: What else is coming up?

Benjamin: We’re playing in Hawaii on Halloween.

Brandon: The first time there ever, in Honolulu. A benefit show in Eugene. We’re opening up for the Dandy Warhols in San Francisco.

Jim: Have you played with them before the KEXP BBQ?

Benjamin: That was the first time we had met any of them.

Brandon: I was talking to Peter (Holmström) about this before the show. I remember seeing them when I was a kid at the event called Hempfest in maybe 1995. It was one of the first bands I saw live, and it pretty much blew my mind. Then I went to see them one time after that opening for Bauhaus. And then I told Peter, “I haven’t seen you since.” And that was like ten years.

Jim: And they’re also a Portland area band.

Benjamin: Yeah, but they’re definitely in a different scene than we are.

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One Comment

  1. Leigh
    Posted September 7, 2008 at 1:27 pm | Permalink

    Awesome interview Jim!

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