Local Artist Spotlight: The Helio Sequence

photo by Benjamin Mobley

Every week, KEXP features a new local artist with an interview and suggested tracks for where to start. This week, we’re featuring Portland-via-Beaverton duo The Helio Sequence, who play Concerts at the Mural tonight with Summer Cannibals and COSMOS.

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Since 1999, The Helio Sequence have pushed themselves in fascinating and startling new directions. From the skittering, synthesizer experiments of their debut Com Plex to the dreamy guitar-work of 2008’s Keep Your Eyes Ahead and their 2015 self-titled LP, they’ve constantly usurped expectations as to what a Helio Sequence album should be – other than something unexpected. We caught up with guitarist and vocalist Brandon Summers about the band’s evolution, the changing Northwest scene, and what’s next for the band.

One of the most exciting things about your band is how much you embrace change from record to record – your debut Com Plex sounding much different than your 2015 self-titled record. What motivates you to continually push yourselves in new directions?

I really appreciate your perspective on this. Records are a snapshot… a picture capturing the emotions and feelings of a given time. For me, listening to our old records is really like looking at an image of my subconscious and the circumstances of the time when it was written. And like viewing an old picture of yourself, this can sometimes be a bit strange and uncomfortable. But my consolation is that whatever awkwardness I find in our records or whatever hindsight may say to me, I know that the work that Benjamin and I create together is in earnest. And this is the most important thing to me.

In terms of process, when we go into writing a new record we always work on intuition. Sometimes we’ll have really broad discussions about what kind of record we aspire to make, but we never set out with a strict plan or road map. We’ll record a few songs, or sketches until we come to one that we both just know is “it”. The right feeling, something fresh and exciting to both of us. Then we use that song as a stepping off point and write the songs as we go… kind of completing the story and following where it leads us, reacting along the way. So the change from record to record is a result of following where the music leads rather than premeditated stylistic choices.

And because we’re both always inspired by and searching for new music and feelings in our listening (new bands, types of music, etc) we draw from different tonal pallets and recording techniques for each record. Whatever sounds/records we’re listening to just find their way into whatever music we’re working on. For instance, Com Plex was informed by our love of British shoegaze music of the ’90s, My Bloody Valentine, and ’60s psych-rock a la Pretty Things and The Beatles. Young Effectuals was hugely influenced by Talking Heads’ Remain in Light, Mouse on Mars, and Stereolab. Keep Your Eyes Ahead was an expression of my personal “discovery” of Bob Dylan’s lyricism and folk music. Negotiations married my obsession with Frank Sinatra’s downtempo “suicide albums” and Benjamin’s immersion in vintage electronic music. And our recent self-titled was in a way a reconnection with some of our early shoegaze influences. But the main point is that we’ve never stopped and decided “this is the type of band Helio Sequence is” just as we would never stop our listening and inspiration and say “I only listen to such-and-such band” or “I’m only inspired by this type of music”. Inspiration is endless if you pursue it.

And this is the most exciting thing to me because there are so many influences and ideas that I know haven’t found their way into Helio Sequence’s music yet. I can’t wait to see how our music continues to change and the things that we are able to express as we create more. Discovery is the motivation for change.

With your last album, you started with 26 songs and then whittled them down to 10 tracks by consulting your friends on which songs they liked best. Did that process change at all how you think about how you might structure your next album? Is that something you would try again?

The fast and intuitive process of our last album was largely in reaction to the long and tiring process of writing and recording our previous record Negotiations. Going into working on Negotiations I was a jumping headfirst into fatherhood. My daughter Malvina was born in 2008 and Apolena in 2011. I was a stay-at-home dad with them during the days (the most tiring and amazing experience of my life!) and when my wife got home, we’d have dinner together and I’d run off to the studio to meet Benjamin and work on the record until midnight or 1 AM. And as anyone with young kids knows, there’s no such thing as a solid night of sleep. So needless to say this was a pretty exhausting schedule and the overall progress on the record was slow going. I have a lot of memories of doing guitar or vocal takes and then laying in a half-awake daze on the couch as Benjamin went through takes and mixed stuff, hah.

And on top of being a physically exhausting schedule, being a new father really brought me to a very introspective place. So there was a lot of emotional stuff I feel like I worked through when writing for Negotiations. By the end of it, Benj and I were both extremely proud of what we had created together and pretty worn out. So going into recording our next record we thought “hmmm, let’s not do it the same way again.” The 20 song game idea (and presenting songs to friends) was the perfect challenge to work quickly and impose a fast pace. Involving other people would take out the element of isolation and the resulting echo chamber effect it can have on creativity. The complete opposite of the process for Negotiations. And at the same time, we hoped it would connect us with some interesting things subconsciously by taking the filter off of creativity that can occur when the process gets too long.

I learned a lot with the process of our self-titled album… trusting first instincts, accepting imperfection as a strength, and keeping multiple irons in the fire at once in order to keep pace. I’d like to bring these lessons to the next record and at the same time work on something more conceptual with Benjamin, melding the fluid approach to a more formal album structure.

You’ve been a band since 1999 which means you’ve seen the Portland and Northwest scenes change and evolve a lot over the years. What do you think has changed most in that span of time and what’s stayed the same?

One of the things that I marvel at in terms of change in the Portland music scene since we started our band in 1996 is how Portland went from being a very isolated city to being not only connected but a focal point in many ways of the music world. When we were starting out as a band in the mid 90’s it was really difficult to “break out” of Portland. It took us years to even make it to Seattle. And the idea of touring regularly was a miracle that only a few bands we knew had made happen. With the internet and the cultural focus on Portland nowadays a new band can form, write a record, connect with people all over and begin touring in no time flat. Pretty amazing and very different from the sometimes isolating vibe of Portland in the 90’s.

Of course, even though it may have been more isolated that doesn’t mean that there weren’t amazing connections between bands and musicians. One of the things that I’m happy that has remained constant in Portland is a huge variety of great music where people are generally supportive of and interested in each other’s creativity. There’s no “Portland sound” and there never has been… just a lot of people with a hell of a lot of talent and passion making music that they believe in.

Outside of The Helio Sequence, you’ve both worked with a number of other artists such as Modest Mouse, Kyle Craft, Genders, and Ramona Falls. How do you feel collaborating with artists outside your group has influenced your own work?

We both absolutely love collaborating with other artists! In fact, we’ve recently officially opened the doors of our new studio, Helio Sound, and have been doing a lot more work with other artists lately. We’ve recently mixed the Wild Ones new record Mirror Touch out on Topshelf Records in October, mixed Kyle Craft’s forthcoming second record, are in the process of recording Genders’ new LP, mastered tracks for Shabazz Palaces and the whole Bob’s Burgers Soundtrack, mixed the single for and mastered Black Belt Eagle Scout’s new record, and have a ton more things in the works on the collab front! Both Benjamin and I have talked about how we learn something new from every collaboration. Whether it’s a different perspective in arrangement or production when listening to another band’s raw tracks for a mixing project or seeing how different bands work in the studio. Problem-solving during mixing projects always teaches you new technical tricks as well. We’re both really happy to be a part of other people’s music and creative process and enjoy helping people bring their visions to life. It’s really an honor that other artists would reach out to us to work together.

What’s next for you two? Is there another Helio Sequence album in the works?

We’ve already got a handful of demos for the next record. We’re also kicking around some ideas involving a concept to guide this record and I’m excited to see where this one leads us! We’ll be touring in support of The Church this fall on a full US tour from September 8th to October 14th [ed. note: including a Saturday, September 9th show at The Neptune!] and our plan is to really dig into recording and writing for the new record when we’re back home in Portland in October.

For those who’ve never seen you perform, what can they expect from your set at Concerts at the Mural?

A warm summer eve with a warm musical embrace. Who could ask for more? Looking forward to seeing everyone there!

 

 

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