I had a chance to catch up with The Helio Sequence after they returned to Portland from a six week tour. Brandon Summers talked to me via phone, as he was getting ready for the Sub Pop 20 this weekend, about the new album, touring and what might be in the future for the band. Summers and I have met each other previously the last couple times he was in Philadelphia so after a brief delay due to connection problems on his end, we got right into it.
Ed Roper, Popwreckoning: You just had a new album (Keep Your Eyes Ahead) and it’s been four years since your last one.
Brandon Summers: Yeah, Love and Distance came out in 2004, so four years.
PW: Where have you guys been? What have you been doing in that last four years or so?
BS: Well, we toured a bunch. We toured a bunch before Love and Distance came out. Then we spent like six months on the road. Then we took a little break because I lost my voice, and that was kind of like a three months break and then kind of got back into things in 2005 and part of 2006 and we were touring so much and writing and trying to get things done.
PW: So the album came out in January and you mentioned before you guys self produce all your stuff?
BS: Everything that we’ve always done, we’ve self engineered and produced and it’s only on the last two records that we handed off mastering to somebody else.
PW: You used to master your own stuff?
BS: The first two records, yeah, I guess you can call it mastering–no real mastering engineer.
PW: Now that you’re on a major label, do they have any creative input?
BS: No. Sub Pop is really hands off and they trust us to do what we do. And you know we show them demos , like three or four songs. The first three or four songs we showed them demos and was like, “Hey this is the record we’re working on so they have an idea and not in the dark.” But they’ve always been totally hands off. They don’t have any input in terms of song writing or anything like that. If we ever have questions, we’ll go to Tony, our A&R guy, and ask him stuff because he’s just a music lover himself.
PW: Have you been in any bands where it wasn’t like that?
BS: No its always been like that right from the beginning, we did our first two records with a label called Cavity Search, and you know we record a record and we show it to them.
PW: What about the writing process between you two? Do you go off on your own and come back and compare notes, or is it totally collaborative?
BS: Yeah, I think more and more these days it’s something like we write on our own. And then we get together and collaborate and finish a song and fill it out, or talk about what we think needs to change and that kind of stuff. A lot of writing on this record was done, like we would jam and stuff. I guess you could call it jamming. Like Benjamin (Weikel) would come with a keyboard loop and we’d play it in our practice space and maybe record it with a few mics. And I could then take stuff home and rearrange it and write lyrics. You know, work on the song at home off of what we worked on and like a lot of them just came together being alone.
PW: Are you the main lyricist or does Benjamin help out with lyrics duties, as far as writing them?
BS: No, I write all the lyrics, but there’s a couple songs on the past records where he sung and wrote his own lyrics.
PW: “Lately”, is one of my favorite tracks off the album and I guess a lot of people wonder was it written for anybody in particular?
BS: Yeah, definitely. It was written–it’s hard to describe kind of personal, but multiple people. Kind of written for a close friend of mine as well.
PW: Is that echoing with a lot of people? Are a lot of people responding to that song?
BS: I’ve been kind of really surprised with this record, a lot of people would come up at the merchandise table and sort of asking me about lyrics and just kind of start a conversation along those lines. I had a guy email me on MySpace about how “Broken Afternoon” helped him with some stuff he was going through and it really meant a lot to me. And a bunch of people have actually come up and I’ve had a lot of conversations about “Hallelujah” with people.
PW: What is the general consensus on that song (“Hallelujah”)? Do people give you their own interpretations of it or do they ask you?
BS: Well, they ask me but they kind of come with their own thoughts on it. For me it’s about belief, and some people come to me like, “Oh I get it, you don’t believe in anything,” or some people come up to me: “Oh I get it, you’re a christian.” Or starting a really interesting conversation about it, because people take the song in really, both ways.
PW: How has the crowd reception been to the new songs?
BS: We kind of have a group of really vocal fans who are fans of the old stuff and calling out for stuff on the old records, but I’d say the new stuff has been really positively received. I’m actually surprised by how the song “Hallelujah” answers to people, because it was one of the last songs picked to be on the record and one of the last songs we put together live. We weren’t playing it for the first couple of months and people were saying,”Gosh, why aren’t you playing ‘Hallelujah’? Why aren’t you playing that song?” And we’re like, “oh ok, they really like hearing it.”
PW: I really like the outro on that song.
BS: Oh cool.
PW: How long were you on tour this last time around?
BS: It was a six week tour. It started in Minneapolis and went to the east coast, and went down the east coast through Florida and the south to Memphis and through Texas and the southwest and then back up the west coast.
PW: You sold out the Bowery Ballroom on one night and then the next night, not so much in Philly. What do you think might explain the different pockets of fans scattered about?
BS: I don’t know, it’s funny you mention Philly because Philly is just like an enigma to us. We’ve played there a handful of times and things, for being a big city we expect more people to be out, but I don’t know.
PW: Is Philly one of the main towns where you have that issue?
BS: Yeah, there are towns you never know what to expect. You go to one town; you’re really surprised and the next town there’s not many people there and the next town, it’s sold out, you never really know. It just probably has to be the timing and who’s playing there that week and all that kind of stuff.
PW: Have you had any van troubles this time around?
BS: Yes, we were pulling into Dallas and the check engine light came on. We were able to take it to a place and he was able to fix it in the morning and not miss a show.
PW: What was the low point of the tour?
BS: Well, touring is really strange. Probably for me the low point is the Northeast of the U.S., going up through Canada. We had a great show in Buffalo, but we never played Montreal or Toronto that many times and so, and like Cleveland and stuff, so it was pretty scarce in terms of audiences, but the whole tour overall I would say was really great.
PW: Was there any highlight or anything that stands out?
BS: I really enjoyed playing Austin on this tour, an outdoor show with a bunch of balconies where people were standing and it was just a cool venue. And uh, I really liked playing San Francisco on this tour too. Dallas was awesome, actually.
PW: What’s your favorite city to play?
BS: I don’t know. I love playing Portland just because it’s hometown and so many familiar faces and it’s always a big fun show.
PW: Do you get a chance to write much when you’re out on tour?
BS: No, I wish I did. Things are just so busy I feel like I’m more in tour mode. If anything, I’m just soaking up things and when I get back I’m able to write about things and reflect. Things move so fast on tour, maybe I’ll get an idea or something and jot it down, be able to work it out when I get home. I don’t write anything at sound check or anything.
PW: So, while you were out on the road you had both a Target commercial and your first major network TV debut. Any more surprises up ahead?
BS: Not that I know. It’s always a surprise to me, too. I mean the Target thing is kind of funny because they called and said at 10 in the morning and said, “Oh, if you want to have this song, it’s something to do with Target, then just give us the song by 4 o’clock”. So we’re all like, “Oh, hey no problem.” And we didn’t know if it was just an Internet thing, or what it was and the next thing we know people are calling us, saying, “Oh my God I just saw this thing on TV after the season premier of ‘Lost’.” And we’re like “What? It’s a national TV ad?” We had no idea, kind of cool.
PW: You mentioned in other interviews you guys are getting older and getting in your 30’s
BS: Kind of, I’m only 27. I’ll be 28 this summer. But I’m getting old, definitely.
PW: Has it ever made you think, how far do you want to take things? How long do you see yourself doing The Helio Sequence?
BS: It’s just a part of life, and like anything else, step by step…I think anyone can think about things like that and kind of spook themselves or get weirded out about things. But I really love what we’re doing right now and just try to keep going.
PW: What do you think would be the pinnacle of your career?
BS: For me it’s not about a destination, it’s more about doing it. You always want to be more, have more recognition, but just doing it is good.
PW: So there will be another album?
BS: Yeah, we’re hopefully going to start writing really soon. Bunch of stuff we’re doing in the summer and other personal stuff.
PW: The Sub Pop 20 is this weekend and it’s a pretty big show, how does it feel to be on such a historic label? Sub Pop, they are kind of iconic.
BS: It’s really cool, when I was a kid I had both a “Hazel” tape and a “Bleach” tape, which are both on Sub Pop, and I was like, “Someday wouldn’t it be cool if I was in a band on Sub Pop?” And look at things now. It’s like, “Wow;” it’s really cool.
PW: So in a way your childhood dream kind of came true.
BS: Yea, I guess, that’s why I’m not Kurt Cobain.
PW: Well, hopefully you don’t have the same outcome as him.
BS: Yeah, it’s really a blessing in a way.
PW: Well, thanks for doing this interview!
BS: Yeah, thanks!
Photo Credit: Under The Radar