Brandon Summers of the Helio Sequence on the unlikely influence of Frank Sinatra on the band
Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel formed the Helio Sequence in Beaverton, Oregon, in 1999. On their first few releases, the duo created vividly realized, playfully psychedelic songs that made a languid, rockist format seem expansive and upbeat, particularly 2001's Young Effectuals, which was like a day-glo-hued daydream of an album fueled by enthusiasm and imagination.
The band's studio and practice space was housed in the basement of a dance studio, where Summers and Weikel were able to develop their craft for the better part of a decade. Eventually the space was flooded, and the two relocated to Portland, where they regrouped and revamped their studio. The move also changed their dynamic of working together as a band; Summers took care of his children during the day, and he and Weikel experimented, recorded and wrote music at night.
After settling into their new digs and reconsidering the band's direction, Negotiations followed in 2012. Though not directly inspired by Wire, Negotiations employs a similar use of space and atmosphere, while also recalling landmark albums like Talk Talk's 1991 post-rock platter Laughing Stock and Slowdive's genre-bending 1995 masterpiece Pygmalion.
We recently spoke with Summers about how the initial isolation of growing up in Beaverton was actually inspiring, the profound influence of Sinatra's "suicide songs", from his Capitol era, and how Negotiations is really a night record because of how it came about and the influences that went into it.
Westword: You and Benjamin Weikel grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. Growing up there, what kind of musical experiences did you have that made you realize you could do music yourself?
Brandon Summers: The interesting thing about Beaverton -- especially at the time, being a teenager in the '90s -- is it was extremely cut off, for as close as it was in proximity, geographically, to the stuff that would be going on in Seattle and Portland at that point, like the grunge stuff and the counterculture. So there was a thirst we had to be a part of that whole thing, just from being so close to it and yet it being so far away.
At the same time, a lot of underground music didn't make it out there, so anything we were able to find going into Portland and browsing in record stores and reading zines and happening upon imports from England was really valuable to us. The isolation of it was really inspiring in a certain way.
Was there a band from that area that was an inspiration to you early on?
No, not really. I think that was kind of the point to being isolated out there doing our own thing, and it was really exciting. I guess you could say the Dandy Warhols were from Beaverton, but no one would think that. There were certainly bands from Portland that were very inspiring. At that point, it was the tail end of the whole grunge-rock thing. So the Dandy Warhols, Hazel, Heatmiser, Pond and all these bands were on Sub Pop and Cavity Search and other Northwest labels.
So it was a regional thing, and there were definitely people doing things that were really inspiring. And we kind of took our cues from that, you know -- they could record a record and just go for it. We set up our little studio inside this one-room music store we were both working at at that point and learned how to record our songs and started writing music.
What is it about Roedelius's music that made the most impact on what you did on Negotiations?
There's the minimalism of it. Particularly, Benjamin was listening to the minimalist stuff from the '70s. On previous records, we had a lot of stuff going on and more rhythmic keyboards. This time, there was more texture, mellow tones and analog keyboards, and exploring the depth and the space in those kinds of sounds. It lent itself to the minimalism of the songwriting.
You did kind of a single-take approach on a number of tracks on the album in developing the material?
I just think, in general, that when you're recording, you're looking to capture something. Oftentimes, if you're able to get it in the first take or early takes, then there's less conscious thought going into it, and you're not double-thinking yourself, or trying logically to get at something. It's always more pure in the early stages.
How did you become exposed to Sinatra's Capitol-era "suicide songs"?
I had been reading about famous recording studios of the past, and there was a section on Capitol Studios, and they mentioned that record [No One Cares] as a classic; I had never heard of it before. It wasn't hard to find -- I found a copy lying in bins at record stores. I listened to it, and it was amazing, and I went to look for more records recorded in that vein. That led to that fascination.
It had to do with the minimalism of it, the starkness of the arrangements and how lyrically focused it is and how vocally focused it is. And it could be so focused because the songs were so amazing. We looked at all the amazing songwriters of the past, like the Tin Pan Alley songwriters, whose songs have been done a million different times by a million different people, and it can be amazing, sung by a handful of people.
What was that book you'd read?
I want to say Temples of Sound [by William Clark, Jim Cogan and Quincy Jones].
What was it about Sinatra's lyrical approach and conversational tone that you found appealing?
That comes from hearing a lot of those old songs written by older writers. A lot of them were written for musicals in the '20s, '30s and '40s, originally, and then they were adapted to popular music later. There's something really interesting to see that instead of having a song that would be a verse, which is explaining something, and a chorus that reiterates a hook or a line or something that's thematic and ties everything together, I like the idea of listening through a song and almost having it be a narrative. So that if you're listening to a song for the first time, you're actually able to put together a story as the lines go along [on songs like] "I Get Along Without You," by Hoagie Carmichael, or "Something Cool," which June Christie did on her record.
So these little vignettes, or stories, where you get an idea of who this character is from this little story they're telling you only in snippets. You can put together this conversation that they're having with a person, or the story that they're telling. It's really fascinating, because it's a different angle to write from. I wanted to use something like that, but more abstract, in writing lyrics for Negotiations.
"It Was a Very Good Year" [written by Ervin Drake and made most famous by Sinatra] is in that vein as well.
Absolutely, that's another great one.
Late-era Talk Talk had some impact on your songwriting, presumably The Colour of Spring and Laughing Stock -- especially in "Hall of Mirrors." What do you feel Mark Hollis and the band did especially well that impacted how you thought about making sound and writing songs for Negotiations?
Particularly listening to Laughing Stock, it was the minimalism of it. The vibe is so mood-oriented at the same time as being song-oriented, and it has a heavier, late-night vibe to it. There's something about that that was inspiring for Negotiations, as well -- clearing things out as we were writing. That is in the arrangements, and it was more about atmosphere.
What effect do you think that having to relocate your studio and practice space had on you, psychologically and creatively?
Psychologically, at first, it was really uprooting because we had kind of a long-term thing going on in our space that was in that basement of a dance studio. When you're on tour, everything is running a million miles an hour as it is. I remember getting that call, and half of me was thinking, "Oh, well, we just had a flood in our studio, and our neighbor had to break down the door and lift our equipment off the ground." Part of me was thinking, "Oh, that's okay; these kinds of things happen." When you're on tour, you take everything as it comes, whether it's a flat tire, or your van breaking down, or something happening in the show while you're on stage.
Then there was the reality of coming home and seeing the damage that had been done, and realizing we weren't going to be able to stay there. It took us six-plus months to find a new space and move everything into storage, because we wanted to find the right space. It had to be right, acoustically, layout-wise, and location-wise, so that we could play until a certain time of night. It just took a while to find, and it slowed things down at first. Then getting into it and familiarizing ourselves with the sound of it took a while, too, because it was really different from the studio space we had had.
So it was another three to six months of recording in there and getting used to it. It ended up being a really good thing. You're always kind of reacting to where you're creating. This studio is isolated in a good way, and we can be loud whatever time we want to be, and there aren't all the bands playing next door, and there's something really meditative about that, and that rubbed off on the writing for Negotiations.
There's a really beautiful photograph that Pavlina Summers took that looks like a big city being shot from a nearby mountain or hill. Is there a significance to that image?
Yeah, going into putting a record out, you're always assessing what you have. So it's always interesting to go through the whole process, be in the thick of it, and part of that is not knowing where you are and then coming out of it and realizing where you've been. I think the thing we culled from the whole experience of that was that it was a night record, because much of it was written at night. During the day, I was actually taking care of my two kids. I had two kids between Keep Your Eyes Ahead and Negotiations. Benjamin and I would meet in the studio from six o'clock until one or two in the morning.
So it has that kind of nocturnal vibe. Maybe this goes along with the whole Sinatra thing, but there's something very urban about the record -- that urban kind of isolation. There's something about the contemplative feel of that photo looking out over a bustling city from far away that we thought was really symbolic for the tone of the record.
Your guitar sound is a bit reminiscent of the Chameleons and Slowdive -- whose 1995 album Pygmalion was influenced by Talk Talk's Laughing Stock as well. Do you use multiple delays on your guitar?
Yeah, especially on Negotiations. I used to use a lot of delay, and a lot of it was this digital-delay stereo pedal by this company called George Dennis. I used that for years, and I still use it for recording, even though I have a bunch of other stuff. I think for Negotiations I really had a fascination with reverb. I think Pygmalion is actually a really good reference for that. Both of us really love that record and the use of space on that.
We used newer, digital stuff that was really cool, like a Lexicon reverb and this old vintage stuff we acquired, like spring reverbs, and some analog delays, that have a lot more depth and are a lot more woolly and dark-sounding, like these old Dynacord DLS, German delay. Benjamin bought two of them, I think, in a studio in Germany, and we got another one over here in the U.S. We had to have them rewired and the power redone.
I think that space was really important recording the record, sonically. First you have to have a good sound, and then there is the matter of putting it in the right space -- searching for the right vocal space that would sound big but still be connected with the mix. The same thing for any of the keyboards, something that would sound big and have a lot of depth and not be overpowering the mix. So there was this kind of balancing act between all that and finding the right space for everything.
Were there particular Eno albums or songs that you found inspiring in terms of writing music for your most recent album?
Oh, yeah. We listened to his Ambient series, including Pearl and other stuff from that era. Probably that side of Eno more than Here Come The Warm Jets or Another Green World -- more than contemplative, open, ambient stuff he did and the quirky stuff he did -- I thought was inspiring for this record.
He also collaborated with avant-garde pianist Harold Budd on some of that music, and he did that score for Gregg Araki's film Mysterious Skin.
Oh, yeah, all of Harold Budd's records and the records he did with John Foxx -- we've been listening to those. And the Laraaji one, Day of Radiance, is really amazing. Benjamin and I are both really record geeks at heart. Once you find one thing, you see, "Oh, Harold Budd did a record with Brian Eno? Now I have to go get everything Harold Budd ever did."
That's how all of our listening works, and that's what steered us into recording Negotiations. I found that Sinatra record -- who scored that? Nelson Riddle. Who else did he work with? Gordon Jenkins. Who played in the back sections, what other records did they do? You're constantly following these lines, and they connect to so many things.
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