The Negotiations of Helio Sequence
Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel have been playing together as the Helio Sequence since 1999.
With Summers on vocals and guitars, and Weikel on drums and keys, the pair has released five albums and one EP in its 13 years together. The latest, Negotiations, was made in a new studio after the band’s last was completely flooded while they were on tour. While it didn’t seem so at the time, the move turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to the band.
Because the new studio was out of the city, instead of smack dab in the middle of it, the band was free to work at any hour they chose -- an incredible boon to Summers, a father of two young children. The new album was also recorded using mostly vintage gear, and the result is one of the warmest and well-constructed things they’ve ever done.
Summers and I spoke about it from his home in Portland before the band’s show at the Irenic on Saturday night.
Scott McDonald: How are you?
Brandon Summers: Good, man, thanks. I just flew in last night from the short leg of our European tour. We did eight or nine of the big cities over there, and then we start tour again on Tuesday. So we’re super busy.
SM: I love that you guys have stayed in Portland. You’ve become synonymous with the music scene there.
BS: [Laughs] Well, we’ve been doing it a while. I feel like we were the band that was coming up as the old Portland was kind of phasing out or going away. That whole ‘90s scene had gone through its whole thing, and heading into the early 2000s is when we really came up in Portland. We were playing every weekend, if not more. Slowly we became a national band, and we only play the city about once a year these days.
SM: I guess I just like it when a band digs in somewhere and does its thing.
BS: In general, it’s kind of the opposite in Portland. Bands will get big and then they’ll move to Portland. It’s the “summer home” idea of a band -- "Wow, it’s cheap here? It’s a really cool scene? Everyone’s really nice? We’ve done our thing and gotten to a certain level. Let’s move to Portland" -- and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think it’s pretty cool. It’s just, for such a long time, people wanted so badly to get out of Portland -- to Seattle or L.A. -- to make it. It’s nice to be able stay and be successful.
SM: Negotiations is finally out. Tell me how the new studio played a role.
BS: It was amazing. It allowed me to make my own hours, and that allowed me to be at home with the kids during the day and to work on music at night. My wife freelances, so many times she wouldn’t be home until the evening, and then I’d shuffle off to the studio. And it really is a nighttime album. A lot of people think that because I have kids, it’s strange that the new album is so pensive, introspective and deals with heavier stuff. And that really comes from the divide between my days of happily gallivanting around with the kids, the joys of my life, and then going to the studio and having this quiet, introspective time with no bands around us and nothing to disturb me.
SM: It really does feel like a nighttime record.
BS: It’s funny, because it really depends on what your nights are. Being in that secluded studio was totally different. We recorded our first two albums at night as well. We worked at this little shop during the day and would record at night. But it was so different because we were going out every night, trying to be at every show we could, meeting people and hanging out. It was the whole party side of night. And this was so different. It was quiet. The phone wasn’t ringing, and we could actually listen to the music instead of concentrating on all of the other things that are going on around you.
SM: Outside events have seemed to define things for you a lot lately -- whether it’s really losing your voice or getting the call that your studio is under water.
BS: Well, losing my voice was super earth-shattering because I really didn’t know at that time if I’d ever be able to do what I do again. There was definitely a time of complete fear and so much uncertainty. Looking back, I can say that it was amazing, and it forced me to do a lot of things that made me stronger at what I do. So I can look at it now as a blessing. The flood was interesting because it came at a time when everything was so positive and moving along so well. We were playing all these sold-out shows, and everything was so good. Then we get this strange call when we were out on the East Coast. Our next-door neighbor called to say that they didn’t have the keys and were breaking down the door so they could get some things off of the floor for us. We were on the other side of the country and knew there was nothing we could do. It was pretty messy, and we had a lot to deal with when we got back, but it was during our downtime after getting back from tour, so we could think a lot about how to handle it. And looking back, that really was the beginning of this record.
SM: Oddly enough, it seems like these things have been positives instead of negatives.
BS: I’ve realized over time that a big part of my personality is very hopeful and optimistic -- no matter how hard things are in life. And somehow that finds expression in the music. So much of it is just a weird subconscious thing where you’re just creating.
SM: Everything you do is in-house. Planned or just happen that way?
BS: Well, I see the production that we do as being married to the songwriting. The idea of writing a song and then having someone else come in and produce it is a completely foreign idea to me -- especially in modern recording. Production accounts for so much of how a song fulfills your vision. And we want, whether we fulfill that vision or not, for it to be in our own hands. [Laughs] The last thing I want is to say after the fact, "Why didn’t I do something about that?" But we really value recording. We’re high-fi geeks and music lovers. It’s part of what we do -- and what we love to do. But we work with other people in other ways and love that time.
SM: Well, it seems to be working.
BS: We’re always trying to find whatever that vision is for each record. It’s hard to explain, but Benjamin and I have a meeting point where we know what sounds we both love and what aesthetics we both share. So we’re always looking for what we can do with that. It takes us a lot to find the right footing, but then we do, and we find the right place on each record. And that’s important.