Having existed as a band for more than twice the length of an average US marriage, Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel of The Helio Sequence are growing into their role as elder statesmen of the indie community. The distinction, it should be noted, doesn’t just come from longevity—from simply existing—but from battling, experimenting, and, without hesitation, diving headfirst into an ever-changing musical landscape with new ideas and approaches (ultimately emerging, in their case, with just a little bit less hair than when they started).
For the Portland duo’s sixth go-round in the studio, they were inspired by “The Twenty-Song Game,” a twenty-four-hour songwriting challenge that’s exactly what it sounds like: twenty new songs written and recorded in a single day. Eventually, the game evolved into a month-long mandate to simply write as much as they possibly could, after which they enlisted the help of friends and family to democratically narrow down the resulting demos into the ten tracks that made the album. The finished product—last month’s The Helio Sequence—is quite possibly the best set of their career.
Just before heading out on a long summer tour, Summers took a break from packing to talk with us about the complicated path that his band, his family, and his town have taken over the past couple of decades.
One of my favorite things about The Helio Sequence’s body of work is how shapeshifting it is. When working on new music, do you guys approach it with a mindset of change, or is it always something like “The Twenty-Song Game” that drives the sound?
I think the root [of The Helio Sequence] is that Benjamin and I are music fans, and we’re constantly listening, and we’re constantly absorbing tons of new music. Like, when we wrote Com Plex or Young Effectuals, which people would say are shoegaze-y or more spacey and messy, well, that’s because it was a direct result of what we were listening to. We were crazy into My Bloody Valentine and Ride and Cocteau Twins and Lush and all these bands coming out of England at that time. One way or another, we have a way of letting those things that we listen to seep into our music, which we hopefully make into our own. And that really drives all the change.
Having worked through a very interesting time period for the industry, do you think it’s a better climate for independent music compared to what it used to be?
I would say there have been things lost over the years and things gained, but that’s like anything else. That’s the innocence that you lose growing up. Time changes and there’s not much you can do about that. But looking back, the way that I found music, being let’s say fifteen years old, growing up in the suburbs of Portland, was very different from the way somebody would find music now. You can find crazy Blogspots with African records that you would never have dreamt of being able to get a hold of in the suburbs of Beaverton, Oregon. You know, fully curated sites of jazz records that would cost $500–$1000. You can learn and find so much.
That’s why indie music is a strong thing. Because it’s not only dictated by what’s given to people. It’s as much dictated by what you find and that thirst that you have to find it.
So more is out there, but it takes a willingness to go find it and this thirst. To have that impetus on your own to go out and find things, to learn, to dig through the information—that is the important thing. And that’s why indie music is a strong thing. Because it’s not only dictated by what’s given to people. It’s as much dictated by what you find and that thirst that you have to find it.
Speaking of Portland, the city has changed a lot with you guys. Do you still feel at home there? Do you feel involved with the city and believe that it still influences your music?
Yeah, absolutely. I would say increasingly so, the longer that we’re a band and [the longer] that we live here. Like, I grew up in Portland—I think it’s probably one in five people you’ll talk to that are actually from Portland. But it’s a part of us, and I realized that when we’re writing music, how influenced [the music] is by the climate here. The rain, the certain feeling of—I would call it—weight or melancholy that Portland has that’s its own unique thing. And I definitely find myself tapping into that because it’s such a part of myself, having grown up here.
I think it’s probably one in five people you’ll talk to that are actually from Portland.
And it’s also changed a lot over the last ten to fifteen years musically, but the positive thing is there are more great bands than there have ever been, and I think there’s more of an ability to actually get the word out there about your band, and play outside of Portland, than there ever was. Growing up in the ’90s, there was all this amazing stuff going on in Seattle, and there was also great stuff going on in Portland—you just had such a hard time getting out. It was very insular and you could have something really going for yourself in Portland—like Helio Sequence did—and then you’d find that you could go to Seattle and play to ten people and they’re like, “I’ve never heard of you.” So the Internet really facilitates getting the word out there.
What about fatherhood? How has that influenced your writing and the career of being a musician?
Having kids—that’s a really interesting question because I’m not the type of person that sits down and writes a song about a subject or necessarily to a direct person. Like, “Oh, this is going to be for my wife,” or, “This is going to be a song for my daughter.” Stuff like that comes out subconsciously, and that’s how I tend to write. Going into recording Negotiations, I thought, for all intents and purposes, it would be a joyous record, and it was anything but. It was extremely introspective, extremely heavy, and just like the title says, it was some strange sort of negotiation between stuff that was going on. It should’ve been happy.
Coming around and writing this new record was really this kind of freeing process—kind of letting some of that joy of my family and the lightness of life make it into the music.
We put out Keep Your Eyes Ahead and everything had been amazing at that point—it was our most successful record yet. I had two beautiful kids—two little babies—and everything was going great. So you know, it’s more on a subconscious level that I work musically, and I do, on that note, think coming around and writing this new record was really this kind of freeing process—kind of letting some of that joy of my family and the lightness of life make it into the music.
And now here we are, back in 2015. The new record is wonderfully bubbly—my favorite album that you guys have put out yet. So I’m curious, do either of you have any favoritism toward this one?
Yeah, this album feels like both a culmination of everything we’ve done and a beginning point at the same time. And it feels really amazing to me, personally, for that reason. I have a strong connection to it because usually when I finish a record, it feels like a statement that Benjamin and I have worked through as musicians, and what’s going on in our lives, and then we put it out and you have to take this time to kind of retract, recalibrate, re-energize, kind of figure out where you are. Whereas this record feels like the opposite. I feel like we’re ready right now to write another record, and [I] have an idea of what I want it to feel like. That’s an amazing place to be. FL