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On a cool night in L.A.’s trendy Silver Lake neighborhood, The Helio Sequence is eating dinner at a cheap Thai restaurant. It’s an unglamorous but not unusual night for the band, which recently set out on a tour to promote its new album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead. The band’s fourth album—and second since inking a deal with indie mega-label Sub Pop—reveals a more confident sound and mature songwriting, but front man Brandon Summers and his best friend, drummer Benjamin Weikel, have tried to let go of any notion of hitting it big. “The whole music thing is a crapshoot,” says the soft-spoken Weikel over a plate of yellow curry and chicken. “You never know if people are going to like things, or if it is the right time. The longer you do it, the more you realize that. For us to worry about stuff like that, it’s just a trap, I think.”
The Portland, Oregon-based duo is getting attention nonetheless for its latest album, which strips away the layers of shimmering synths and reverb-heavy guitars that have marked the band’s previous albums. The pair pulled its two-seater van into town a few nights ago to play perhaps its most-watched show ever when they appeared on the Jimmy Kimmel Live show. (Summers confessed on his blog that it was nerve-wracking to play on national television, but he didn’t admit as much in person.) The Helio Sequence will play the SXSW festival in Austin this week and will then work its way across the country before a mini-tour of Europe.
Touring has, in many ways, become a way of life for the band. “It’s hard to be away from home and the people you know and love for that long,” Summers says. “It’s hard, but I enjoy it.” Nonstop touring nearly tore the band apart several years ago when Summers damaged his vocal cords and almost lost his voice for good. And the nightly grind is wearing both of them down. “I’m 30 now, and more and more, my body keeps telling me I can’t do it anymore,” Weikel admits. “After the shows I have to put a heat pad on my elbow, and I hit my leg every time I hit the snare drum, so now I have to wear a pad on my leg when I play. I’m slowly destroying myself.”
It’s no surprise, really. The band plays a raucous live show with a sound and energy of epic proportions. Weikel—arms flailing, head thrashing, mouth open—does his best imitation of Muppet drummer Animal while backing Summers, who handles the vocals and guitar with aplomb. Indeed, the live show—particularly “[Square] Bubbles,” off their second album—is a visceral and invigorating experience. Perusing blogs and Internet message boards, it’s clear the band has developed a following as much for its live show as its studio albums.
But The Helio Sequence is still a small band, albeit with a very big sound. With a MySpace posse roughly 20,000 people strong, they’re in the company of labelmates and fellow Portlanders The Thermals, and about half the size of, say, Rogue Wave. But if a band can be judged by the company it keeps, then The Helio Sequence is a class act. You see, they’re more than just MySpace friends with high-profile bands like Modest Mouse, whose front man Isaac Brock let The Helio Sequence record its bubbly third album, Love and Distance, in his own garage. Weikel even played drums on Modest Mouse’s mainstream, breakthrough album, Good News for People Who Love Bad News. The Pacific Northwest is home to a vibrant music scene that includes a bevy of highly regarded indie acts, including The Decemberists, The Shins and Minus the Bear. And for The Helio Sequence, there is much more an air of community than competition among the bands. “We go to each other’s shows, and we go to each other’s birthday parties. It’s a lot of fun,” Weikel says, smiling. “But we’re all doing our own thing.”
But all of that almost fell apart after the band released Love and Distance, when relentless touring shredded Summers’ vocal cords. “That was really scary. I thought, ‘Oh my god, what am I going to do? What are we going to do if we’re not able to keep going?’” Summers remembers. “It was a really tentative time and I was really rethinking everything.” He considered going back to school and finishing his degree and thought about producing other bands, but after taking some time off to rehab his voice, Summers decided to stay in the game. Soon, he and Weikel got to work on the next album, and this time, Summers says, it was going to be different: “I think we both wanted something different from the songs. We recorded Love and Distance. We don’t want to write another Love and Distance.”
The duo decided to take a more organic approach to the songwriting on the new album. In the past, Weikel might create some keyboard loop, or Summers would play a riff on the guitar, and the two would piece together the song, writing lyrics last. That, they said, sometimes resulted in a disconnect between the words and the music. “Instead of putting vocals on top of whatever music we made, it was a chance to help the music relate a little more to what is being said,” Weikel says. And Summers is quick to jump in: “Yeah, if you write a bunch of [music] first and you write vocals afterward, you find yourself trying to relate the vocals to the tone of whatever you’ve written; whereas, if it all comes together, there’s a lot more interplay between what’s being said and the chords that are being used. We felt that we really wanted to have that kind of sensitivity and detail to what we’re writing on this album.”
That sensitivity certainly shines through on gentler tracks like “Broken Afternoon,” which is miles away from the bubbly electronica of Love and Distance. The stripped-down, acoustic track, which echoes Bob Dylan circa 1963, is a gloomy meditation on ambition and loneliness, with bleak lyrics like, “Sometimes you feel so lowly, haunted and stark, waving in the wind like a flag that’s torn apart.”
But Keep Your Eyes Ahead still contains many of the hallmarks of The Helio Sequence. The ethereal synths and oversized guitars are still there, just in more manageable doses; the band has infused its ambient, shoegazer sound with a greater pop sensibility. On the title track, the duo proves it can craft a beautifully structured pop song, with crisp guitars and smooth drumming, before the track erupts into a raging tempest of swirling reverb and layered vocals.
As Summers finishes his $6 dinner, he is reflecting on the latest album and what it says about him and his longtime bandmate, who first met in middle school. “We’ve been a band a long time, and we’ve definitely changed as people in the more than ten years that we’ve been making music together,” Summers says. “That is reflected in the music. The music is always a reflection of our lives and where we’re at.”
More on The Helio Sequence here: www.myspace.com/theheliosequence