Portland's the Helio Sequence has been hanging around the fringes of mainstream rock for 15 years. In that time, the duo of Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel has released five outstanding albums, including 2012's Negotiations.
From his home studio in Portland, Brandon Summers talked with DC9 about the trials and tribulations of losing a studio to a flood and surviving damaged vocal chords. Despite such setbacks, Summers sounds hopeful for the future of his unique partnership.
This is your new home studio you built after your first one flooded?
Yes, the place that flooded was an old studio that we had that was in the basement of an old ballet studio. We were on tour and one of those huge, Portland storms came through. We got a call in the middle of the night from one of our neighbors that the water was raising quickly. Luckily, the neighbor was able to get in there and rescue some of our stuff. We lost some stuff, but it was anything life or death. We had taken a lot of stuff on tour with us.
Was that the studio where you recorded Negotiations?
No, it was the studio where we did Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The place we are in now is where we recorded Negotiations. It's in an old warehouse, the cafeteria and break room of an old warehouse. It is right up the street from our old studio, even more secluded. We can play through the night and we have the place to ourselves.
Do you think the change in studios affected the sound of the recent album?
Absolutely, when you are in on the level or engineering and recording the album yourself, you know what the room is capable of. You can be quite specific. The space can be a really big part of any recording. When we got to the new space and realized we had a bathroom at one end and a hallway at the other end. You are always working with your space and it even influences the type of music you are working on.
When the band first started back in 1999, did people assume you played electronic music just due to the band name?
Yes, and that's one thing about the Helio Sequence since we decided to form a band. We didn't want to pigeonhole ourselves. We never had a desire to. It was about whatever inspires you at any given time. It can be what we are listening to, what we are reading. That stuff is going to make it into the music. There are certain times that we sound a lot more like an electronic project. Other times, it may sound like most people think is a normal band. It just depends on our inspirations. When people see us live, they understand more what we are about.
Maybe that's why your music has been described as everything from atmospheric indie psychedelia to dreamy folk/pop.
I hope that would make people listen to it and try to figure out what it is. What it all comes down to and what we care about most is having emotion in music and communicating the emotions you are going through at the time. We want that to be the basis of the band rather than simple the sound alone. The sound can become kind of empty when you pigeonhole yourself as an electronic indie band. You can't create boundaries for yourself. I never think that I can't write a certain kind of song. You never want to limit yourself as an artist.
What were the circumstances that lead to hurting your vocal chords? You had to relearn to sing. That must have been a frustrating experience.
That was something where we just started out touring and there are very few guides to touring and how to take care of yourself on the road for that long. We spent months on the road. We would be out for eleven weeks and come back for a week and then be out for another month. There were certain things that I was doing that we not good for me. I couldn't drink as much as I did or smoke as many cigarettes as I did and expect to have a voice. Besides being a physical thing, it was a huge visualization on other levels. I had to literally stop singing. Being quiet became a really reflective time. When I was able to start singing again and then write songs, I had to learn to rewrite because I had spent so much time away from it. It was like coming at it from a totally fresh perspective. In that way, it was great. It was like a rebirth. But at the time, it was devastating.
I assume you were seeing doctors during this time.
Yes, I went to a voice specialist. The first thing he asked me was what the hell had I been doing to my voice. Things looked really bad and I was in really bad shape. He told me that I was singing incorrectly. Then, he told me not to sing, not to even talk for a month or more. I just got away from everything. I came back and things got rolling again.
You are singing differently and that has to affect how you write a song.
It was kind of like when I was talking about the studio earlier. The type of songs you write have to do with how you can sing them. I try to have more openness when I sing now. I think I have a more open delivery. Part of it is growing up, seeing different things and getting into them at different levels.
One reviewer compared your voice now to Tom Waits.
I have a lot more smoking to do to really reach Tom Waits level.
Being in a duo, have you ever been tempted to add members to the band?
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The beginning of Helio Sequence was with the purpose of having that limitation. It was just Benjamin [Weikel] and I. When we first started, we actually had a hand drum player and another singer. We went through a lot of changes and after awhile, Benjamin and I just looked at each other and figured out that we could do it as just us. We made a decision at the point of what the band was going to be about. It is great because you have to find a way to get around that limitation. I am not a bass player per se, but you have this idea for a bass part so you have to learn to play bass. You have to learn different instruments. Helio Sequence is a close bond between Benjamin and me.
When your label, Subpop, began, it was mostly known for the grunge movement. Nowadays, however, the label is known for alt-country acts. Where do you fall between those two?
Being on Subpop is great. Like Helio Sequence, they have a very open ear and they are always looking to grow. To give props to them, they would never say they are a folk indie label. They have signed a lot of music that doesn't fit into either of those two categories. I love hearing all the band that they sign. I like being in an atmosphere that is so open-minded