The Helio Sequence's self-titled, self-produced sixth album (out on Sub Pop Records) is so airtight and riveted with ingenuity, you get the feeling that vocalist/guitar player Brandon Summers and drummer/keyboardist Benjamin Weikel could construct anything they set their collective minds to, be it a dreamy crystal pop song or an indie-rock masterpiece. The duo recorded the material last year in their Portland, Oregon, studio (which they built themselves, of course) with the intention of seeing how much music they could create in a one-month time span. Twenty-six songs later, the 10 tracks that ended up on the new LP were whittled down via votes from trusted family and friends. Summers spoke from the Best Western Outlaw Inn of Rock Springs, Wyoming. The Helios are touring and were about to hit the road for Pendleton, Oregon. It was early morning.
How's the Outlaw Inn?
It's cowboy-themed. Built around 1972, and hasn't been updated since. The Outlaw Saloon is attached to it. Real cowboys hang out there. We've stayed here a few times, and mostly keep to our rooms. Two guys, traveling together, wearing pink shirts, maroon pants, striped socks and shit? [Laughs] We don't exactly fit in.
You and Benjamin are such resourceful craftsmen of sound. Have you guys ever thought about building a submarine? What type of vessel does this album represent for you? Besides a submarine.
Something reactive and moving. A hovercraft?
How do you get such crisp goddamn drum sounds on your songs? They're so beautiful, I weep.
We spent two or three months in 2013 all suited up in fiberglass-proof suits doing a huge studio upgrade. So a lot of it is the acoustics of our studio, which we calculated in terms of bass trapping, frequency reflections, and absorption. I think one of our secrets is a pair of custom-made ribbon microphones. They're Beyer 260s, but they've been re-ribboned with RCA-77 ribbons, which is an old broadcast microphone they used to use for radio. They're different than small-diaphragm condensers and large-diaphragm Neumann mics. They have good midrange bite, especially on the snare drum. We've also worked on mic placement a lot.
You guys could totally build a submarine.
A good-sounding submarine.
Your studio is in the space where a cafeteria and break room used to be in an old Portland factory. Can you sense what lunch items were served the most there? Do you sense mystery meat?
It was the cafeteria of the old Jantzen swimwear headquarters a long time ago. It has checkerboard floors and baby-blue walls. Judging from the condition, I'd say the item that was served the most was dirt and mud. We went through about 10 mops when we cleaned it up. They might have used it for mud wrestling.
What about the mystery meat? Do ghosts of the cafeteria whisper about questionable stroganoffs?
Oh yeah. Stroganoffs and stews. There may even be some whispers of soy-based products.
"Phantom Shore" is my favorite track. You sing, "What remains to be seen is a dream to hold on to." What are you saying there?
I write completely in the moment, so lyrics tend to be subconscious. In the moment, I might have no clue what I'm saying. But that one was pretty evident. It's hard to get by as a band. We've been professional musicians for about 15 years, touring around the country endlessly and recording. It's something we absolutely love. That song is talking about how fragile it all is, and the gratitude I have for being able to do it for this long. It always feels like there's something ahead, something to grab on to, something driving us forward.
Define kaleidoscopic sound.
It's more a feeling than something aural. I experienced it yesterday in the van listening to the Miles Davis Quintet, his stuff right before Kind of Blue. It was sunny, I was lying down, and I had this feeling of floating. It's not because there are a million sounds at once. That was very structured music. People were taking solos, coming in and out. It had that feeling some music hits on, that body rush. You feel it at live shows. I think that's a big part of the Helio Sequence—being as much about a feeling as it is about sounds. We'll work on a song until we find a feeling.
The way you sing and play on "Stoic Resemblance"—the ends of lines are the beginnings of others. That feels kaleidoscopic. Openings coming out of closings.
Exactly. It's also about movement. It's about keeping that momentum going through the music.
You said mistakes didn't matter as much on this album. What's an example of a mistake you left in?
Some of the vocals are super rough, first takes. My thought was: "These are just placeholder vocals, I gotta come up with something more clever later, and I will, but I'm gonna lay these down now." But when I tried rerecording them, the newer vocals were just wrong. They were too straight-ahead, the lyrics were way too clear and too complex. We were like, "Why rerecord it? The feel is there. Maybe they're a little mumbled, but that's just part of the song's identity." It was about resisting the urge to self-censor. You can get so self-conscious with the creative process. Benjamin will get to the point where he's like, "I hate the way I hit the snare there. It's a little bit off." I'll be the same way with my vocals. Sometimes songs can be ruined if you try to make them too perfect.
Benjamin has one of the better drum-faces on the planet. When he plays, it looks like he's being electrocuted with happiness. How do you describe it? Where does it come from?
I think it's coordination and concentration mixed with movement. He's been doing it from the beginning. It's not something he just started doing one day. It's part of how he drums. It's like a dance. It just happens to be that his mouth and his face are part of the dance. People don't know it, but Benjamin is a very good dancer. He's that guy on the dance floor you see and you're like, "Shit, that guy really has some moves." Full body, just like he drums. It's funny, people come up to him after shows and say, "You seem so happy! Are you always so happy?" And I can definitely confirm that he's not always so happy [laughs].
You just outed Benjamin's dancing prowess to the world.
Well, we both dance a ton in the new video for "Battle Lines," which is coming out soon. The Helio Sequence's moves will soon be revealed to the world.