Helio Sequence wrings brilliant "Negotiations" from adversity
There was a time when a band released a record (sometimes two!) every year. But those days are long gone. So much so that the fact that Oregon's The Helio Sequence just released its first record in four years hardly even seems newsworthy.
But Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel hadn't meant for "Negotiations" to arrive so late. The record, the duo's fifth full-length, was released on Sept. 11 and was heavily delayed.
While on tour for the acclaimed "Keep Your Eyes Ahead," the band's rehearsal space and studio was flooded during heavy rains. Though the group had its best gear along on the road, much was still destroyed and, upon returning home, The Helio Sequence had to regroup and find a new home to make "Negotiations," an epic, melody-driven record that is improbably soaring and intimate at the same time.
The group is back on the road again and headed toward Milwaukee for an 8 p.m. gig on Thursday, Nov. 9 with Ramona Falls. We got a chance to chat with Summers about "Negotiations" and the soggy road to getting it finished.
OnMilwaukee.com: The bio for the new record says "Negotiations" would sound different were it not for a flood. In what ways would it differ, do you think?
Brandon Summers: The tone and ambience of "Negotiations" was very much influenced by the new studio space we found after leaving our old flooded studio. We went from recording our last record, "Keep Your Eyes Ahead," in a small ex-dance studio in the basement of a building that was wholly rented out to bands as practice spaces. We were surrounded by tons of other bands and musicians.
By about 3 o'clock the entire building was teeming with noise ... metal bands shredding, a jam band next door, the reggae group upstairs, people coming and going. We had to get to the studio early in the morning and work through the day just to get anything recorded before all of the noise made it impossible to capture anything or even hear our mixes to work on things without background noise interfering.
By contrast, the new space that we've found is very isolated and private. It's an old cafeteria in a warehouse with no bands playing next door or anywhere near us. We started working evenings and staying late into the night. We were the anomaly, a rock band working away diligently into the wee hours while hidden in a quiet unassuming neighborhood. There was certain romanticism about it all; a sort of isolated freedom.
When I look back at the recording process for "Negotiations" I see that the solitude of our new studio really contributed to the introspectiveness and melancholy of the record. I would sit in front of the mic working on vocals unhurried in quiet contemplation. Being alone late at night in a large studio really fostered the more reflective, nocturnal vibe of the record – a time when your mind roams to the past, reflects on conversations and exchanges, and strays into more abstract thought. The romanticism of being sort of "of the map" while recording Negotiations gave us both the mental space to go to these places and explore depth both sonically and emotionally.
Also, with less limitation on the times when we could play we were free to experiment more. A lot of the songs on "Negotiations" started as "jams" that we recorded over time. We would start with a keyboard loop, having no idea what it would be, and just record whatever came out in one take. These ditties were shelved away and we came back to them during the recording process and used them as the backbones of the songs "Open Letter," "Silence on Silence," "Negotiations" and "Downward Spiral."
OMC: Did the flood damage and the lost time that resulted hit the band hard in emotional terms?
BS: The main feeling that the flood imparted was less of an emotional downer than a feeling of necessity and excitement: the necessity to find a new creative space and the excitement of making it a new home. The flood was more of a motivating force, a catalyst for change and moving into new territories both literally and creatively.
OMC: How about in terms of work; did it upset the momentum?
BS: The flood absolutely upset momentum. We had planned on coming back from tour and jumping right into recording the new record and it was very frustrating to realize that we would have to tear everything down and find a new space. It took us a good six months in all to move out of the old space, find a new one, and work out all of the acoustic treatment and technical details. There was a lot of cleaning that needed to be done.
Even once we were ready to work it took some time to settle in and get used to the new acoustics and equipment. We worked on a few "b-sides" and a song for a Record Store Day seven-inch split with our good friends Menomena first to kind of get our bearing before jumping into working on new album material.
OMC: Did the flood leave its mark on the lyrical side of the record?
BS: The lyrical side of the record was affected by the new space in that it encouraged the more introspective approach as I've described above. I would say the flood or the space itself was less of a factor lyrically than more personal things.
My wife and I had two kids, two beautiful daughters, between the recording of "Keep Your Eyes Ahead" and "Negotiations" and I think that had a big affect on where I was in life and what came out in "Negotiations" lyrically. Somehow the "bigger" picture was more in focus. There is definitely a dual vibe, an interrelationship rather than a conflict, between the celebratory and melancholic on "Negotiations" – hence the title of the album! "Negotiations" is a record of the heart, it's about the push and pull of of love and empathy.
OMC: Does that account, too, for the sound, which is equal parts celebratory and melancholic?
BS: This duality of celebration and melancholy was really a part of my daily life during the recording process. On the one hand, I had two of the greatest things that have happened to me in my daughters and an unquantifiable love and joy because of them. I would spend days with them running around town and being a part of their world. I was very much in the present. Then in the eves I would find myself alone in the studio.
In solitude and contemplation my mind would roam to the past – relationships, friends and family who I've lost track of and parted ways with, the unfinished, unsaid and unresolved. I realized that though the two places – past and present, new and lost relationships, etc. – seemed very opposing they were both unified facets of love. There are equal parts loss and gain, present and past, joy and pain in love. In writing each song it felt almost like a letter or diary entry untangling and working through it all.
OMC: I really like the sound of "Negotiations" because, to me, it's modern and of the moment, yet something about it also transports me back to the feel of records I remember loving as a teenager in the mid-'80s. What's your musical inspiration?
BS: Both Benjamin and I are as much music lovers and listeners as we are songwriters, producers, recording enthusiasts etc. We're constantly finding new music and sharing things with each other. One of the big factors that influenced "Negotiations" was that we both went on huge vinyl binges during the recording process.
Benjamin really got into collecting and listening to vintage electronic and ambient albums – Roedelius, Brian Eno, Manuel Gottsching, etc. – and I got deep into old jazz from the '50s and '60s – everything on the spectrum from West Coast stuff to later free jazz. The more "natural," less compressed, and analog vibe of the records we were listening to really influenced the tones and spaces we were going for when engineering and producing "Negotiations." We went and sought out old spring reverbs, tape and analog delays, tube and ribbon mics, vintage pre-amps chasing the tones and vibe of the old records.
I also really got deeply into Frank Sinatra's Capitol concept records of the 1950s, particularly the more downtempo and dark "Suicide Albums" – "Sings for Only the Lonely," "Where Are You?," "In the Wee Small Hours" – were a big inspiration on many levels. The late night vibe, romantic tone, starkness, directness and unity of mood of these Sinatra albums were really an inspiration.
And it's interesting you mentioned the '80s. I was also listening to a lot of Blue Nile, Talk Talk, U2, etc. It all kind of comes back to the idea of elevation that I love about a lot of music from the '80s, lifting a listener from the beginning of a song to a peak; a kind of arching trajectory that lifts. And there's something about a lot of '80s music that was intimate yet at the same time had a sort of expansiveness and grand sweep ... a bigness. These ideas were definitely and inspiration for "Negotiations."
OMC: Has the band been to Milwaukee before? If so, any fond memories?
BS: Well the only memory I have of Milwaukee is a pretty strange one, hah. We've only been to Milwaukee once before and it was on our first tour ever in 2002 opening for a band called Echobrain, whose main claim to fame was being the new band of Metallica bassist Jason Newsted.
We were asked out of the blue to tour the entire U.S. with Echobrain and you can imagine the Spinal Tap moments that ensued. It was surely a learning experience for us. We had never played venues that large before, met a rock star who had a personal jet fly him between shows while the rest of the band and crew drove a bus, or met a professional crew with full stadium style production including arriving early to a venue in order to rip out and rewire the power to spec!!
I learned a lot from Billy Idol's guitar tech on that tour. My memory of Milwaukee is playing a gigantic Masonic Hall that seemed HUGE to us at that point as we'd never played shows that large at that point ... other than that it's all blur!! I don't expect this time around in Milwaukee to be quite that large of a production – we'll leave the venue's power at current spec – but I'm definitely looking forward to the show!
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