First Look: The Multisensory World of Helicopter Copter

Helicopter Copter is not a band, really. And though a group of musicians came together to create textured pieces of sound, they don't necessarily consider the finished work songs. And though there are six recorded sonic expressions in this first body of work entitled Whisper Down The Lane, the pieces won't be released as an album — but each piece will have an accompanying video. So what, exactly, is Helicopter Copter and its resulting collaboratively produced music and video experience?

"The Whisper Down the Lane project was based on this idea: what if each musician had the freedom to do whatever they wanted for this song-thing, recording ideas and passing them along to another musician, with each person adding to the recording?" explains Michael John McKee, the brains behind the Helicopter Copter conceptual project and drummer for bands like Glowing House, Go Star and Strange Americans.

McKee goes on to verbally diagram how each piece of art resembling a song comes to life — he and two other musicians each record a piece of a track, then send it on to another musician in the trio, who adds a layer. By the end of it, each player has been the original creator of two tracks and collaborated on all six, creating a collection of soundscapes produced as a joint effort. "The crux of the whole idea was to record and pass it on — the end goal wasn't to have songs to perform later," says the musician. "It was more like, let's throw these things at the canvas and see what sticks."

The two additional players — bassist Neil McCormick from current projects Safe Boating is no Accident and Glowing House and guitarist Ian Argys from The Yaga Yagas and Chance Trio, among others — were musician friends of McKee's who were receptive to this non-traditional way of co-creating music. Each portion of the work was composed individually by the trio and then recorded by Brian Hunter at Sawtelle Recording Studio and mixed and mastered Alex Scott at Collective Multimedia.

The drummer says the idea for Helicopter Copter came out of a desire to make an alternate avenue of songwriting and do away with any customary notions around being a "band." "As drummer, specifically in the projects I'm in, it's best if I take a backseat — that's my role. Sometimes when I put my stamp on a song, I only feel like I have ten percent of the creativity involved of the final product. It's not a bad thing at all — it's just how I see myself," says McKee. He says as a musician, he really enjoys these conventional aspects of being in a band, but a non-linear approach to sonic collaboration was a long-held desire. The songs — or multi-layered musical pieces that make up Whisper down the Lane — were made in an intentionally isolated fashion. No matter where in the process each person was playing from — be it the first, second or third layer of a track — there was no verbal feedback exchanged between the musicians along the way. The artists had to rely on what they heard and what they were inspired to add to the existing pieces of material. 

Finally, Whisper Down the Lane — the finished group of six "songs" — were passed on to photographer and videographer Merne Judson III, who constructed a visual component for each. Over the last month, Helicopter Copter has been releasing the music and art collaborations online. Whisper Down the Lane "5" is above, a first look at this second-to-last installment in the series. 

"It's really interesting how everyone interpreted the project — it was kind of like, these are the rules, this is what we're doing with it," says McKee. Those rules were simple — each person added to their instrument to the track without communicating directly with the other players, so there was no certain direction. "Throughout the project, I think we saw what both the limitations the benefits were, without expectation of what would happen," says McKee. 

Because Helicopter Copter is built on the idea of impermanence, McKee hopes to bring a new group of musicians and a visual artist together for the next version of the project. He'd like to do a take-off of composer Steve Reich's "Music For Pieces of Wood" but instead, trade wood for classic Ludwig Acrolite snare drums. It's all up in the air at this point, as McKee is sort of waiting to see what — and who — materializes. The whole idea behind the flexible, interchangeable Helicopter Copter project is that it isn't meant to have one solid formation of musicians or ideas; its about experimenting with players, execution, collaboration and what it means to create musical ideas together.
To see all works together on the big screen and with a superior sound system, the Helicopter Copter project will screen this coming Monday, April 27 at 8 p.m. at Syntax Physic Opera. The event is free, but donations are accepted at the door for the musicians. The regular Monday night experimental jazz jam Queen City Quarter — the gathering that inspired some of the ideas behind Helicopter Copter — will go down as usual directly following the screening at 9 p.m. For more information or to watch and listen to all of the videos in the series thus far, visit the Helicopter Copter website
Be my voyeur (or better yet, let me stalk you) on Twitter: @cocodavies