Monday, June 16, 2008

Helio Sequence interview

(This article originally appeared in North County Times)

The Helio Sequence has done its fair share of unusual gigs over the past nine years, but a San Diego appearance last month at the Red Bull Air Race World Series definitely topped the list.

“Playing corporate events is always more on the bizarre side,” admitted singer/guitarist Brandon Summers, while en route to a gig in Dallas. “Everything gets a little surreal. You had 150 girls dressed up like flight attendants and other weird stuff that doesn’t usually happen at our shows - like three guys jumping off a building with parachutes. It was fun though.”

A recent European tour in support of stellar fourth release “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” (Sub Pop) with Low proved to be another unique experience. “They tend to have a sit-down audience, so there were a lot of nice theaters and cathedrals. It was a little more polite than a rock show.”

Fortunately, there were no transportation problems for Summers and drummer/keyboardist Benjamin Weikel. That hasn’t always been the case in America. “We found out our van’ wheel axle was breaking on one of the last West Coast runs that we did (in the Bay Area). We just had time to pull over…threw everything in the U-Haul and got it to the show in time to play.”

Onstage, everything tends to run smoother for The Helio Sequence, whose previous albums have been compared to My Bloody Valentine and Flaming Lips. It recreates the densely-layered tunes by triggering various effects and programmed sounds.

“Using sequencers and keyboards has always been the backbone of what we do,” explained Summers. “We’re constantly working in the studio on the keyboard mixes…it’s very different from recording to translating that to the live process. You can’t just take the tracks you’ve recorded and play along with them through speakers. It’s a really long and meticulous process.”

If there’s any justice, scores of people will discover the allure of The Helio Sequence. Back in February, a million or so late-night TV viewers saw the band on Jimmy Kimmel Live! (the show’s highest rated episode to date, thanks to the infamous Sarah Silverman/Matt Damon video skit).

Plenty more are expected to check out the duo during Sub Pop Records’ 20th Anniversary concert on July 12-13 in Redmond, Wash., with Mudhoney, Iron and Wine, The Vaselines, Flight of the Conchords and others.

On “Keep Your Eyes Ahead” (sporting great flying bat cover art by Summers’ photographer/graphic artist wife Pavlina), the Portland alt-rock duo has crafted its best effort to date. All studio duties (except mastering) were handled by the band as usual.

They took a minimalist approach to the songs, using first takes, spruced up demos and got their points across quicker. The “less is more” technique stemmed in part from a grueling string of shows in support of 2004 album “Love and Distance” with Kings of Leon, Secret Machines and Modest Mouse.

Weikel had played on the latter’s platinum-selling breakthrough disc, “Good News for People Who Love Bad News” (including modern rock radio hit “Float On”). He also did double duty live with them and Helio Sequence, which served as opening act.

Meanwhile, Summers shredded his vocal chords. A doctor advised the singer to be silent during the day and eventually stop altogether for two months.

“Losing my voice made me refocus. I think that comes through in the concision of some songs. We were conscious the whole time of not embellishing things too much…we ended up paring down in general.”

Yet there’s still an atmospheric splendor to tracks like “Captive Mind” (propelled by synthesizer), “Back to This” and album opener “Lately,” with shimmering guitar work reminiscent of The Edge.

“I’d never been a huge U2 fan,” Summers admitted. “The recording of this record was probably the first time I really started listening to ‘The Joshua Tree’ a lot and really got into it.’

The upbeat and Modest Mouse-esque “Hallelujah” and “You Can Come to Me” (think mid-period New Order) are ripe for alt-rock radio play. A folk undercurrent is at the heart of “Shed Your Love” and “Broken Afternoon.” After reading Zimmy’s “Chronicles: Volume One” during his exile in silence, Summers immersed himself in Bob Dylan music.

“In order to get back to basics, I started playing a lot more acoustic guitar and singing,” he said. “If there was a Dylan song I really liked, I’d learn how to play it.” Summers’ fondness for folklorist Harry Oster’s audio collection of 1959 prison spirituals was parlayed into the CD’s old time gospel closer, “No Regrets.”

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