By Sarah Bennett
By Adam Lovinus
By Jena Ardell
By Nate Jackson
By Gustavo Arellano
By Nick Keppler
By Nate Jackson
By Alex Distefano
Ruminations With a View
The Helio Sequence resist pigeonholing while dreaming big
Brandon Summers, singer/multi-instrumentalist for the Helio Sequence, has a talent not always shared in rock & roll—sounding in speech like his band's music. In conversation, he moves easily from quick, rapid-fire discussion to thoughtful contemplation, but he always sounds engaged and active, aiming to energize—earnest, but far from off-putting. He matches the range of his band's music well, which makes sense, as he feels variety defines his aesthetic.
"We've been up against a fair amount of people who want to think of us as only one thing: 'Oh, an electronic band.' 'Oh, they're shoegaze.' 'Oh, they're a British-sounding band.' 'Oh, they're folk.' It was always really confusing to us, since the only thing we've ever done is aim to have an eclectic flavor to our music."
For a lot of bands, this type of claim proves to be idle boasting hardly verified by the resultant songs, but over the band's near-decade of existence, Summers and musical partner Benjamin Weikel have been able to demonstrate it very well. Their latest album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop), is as much mélange as focused presentation, touching on everything from the opening soar of "Lately," a striking meditation on the back-and-forth mental struggle following a breakup—the best song the U.K. band James never wrote—to the concluding rough-and-ready folk sing- and stomp-along "No Regrets." Over it all, even at its most energetic, there's a certain serene precision, a conclusion on which Summers readily elaborates.
"In the act of creation, there was a very focused feeling-in order to get somewhere that was deeper, it really did take a lot of focusing on the moment," he says. "It's very touchy to describe it; it's different from calling it deliberation or concentration. It's just an inner focus on the songwriting."
Summers' voice gently slips between big, belting performances to meditative ruminations, a variety of control all the more striking given that while on tour for the band's last release, he lost his voice and had to reconstruct his singing style after some medical advice and much practice to preserve his vocal cords. That, combined with shorter songs overall, might have left some longtime listeners feeling apprehensive, but according to Summers, reactions have been very positive.
"It's been a really good response—hearing back from everybody close to us, getting their thoughts on demos, having the final product out there. It's been a welcome shift of gears for most people, though I don't really look at it as shifting gears; we're always constantly changing our type of music."
While the variety is certainly clear on Keep Your Eyes Ahead, it's also true to say it's an album that embraces what's been referred to—with a tip of the hat to the Waterboys—as "the Big Sound." It recalls the kind of arena-scale post-punk drive the Waterboys, Simple Minds and U2 rode to great success in the '80s. Songs such as the anthemic-as-heck title track, brawling and inspiring all at once, and the dance-leaning "The Captive Mind" further bear this out, but Summers sees it less as an homage and more simply a product of the band's artistic drives.
"None of it was conscious. I didn't go, 'I love how such-and-such sounds; let's write this type of song.' We're always listening, trading different things, and we end up drawing from that vocabulary, finding different sounds and different textures to fit together," he says. "In the case of 'The Captive Mind,' Benjamin had a keyboard loop and a beat; I took it home, recorded a guitar part, sang some stream-of-consciousness lyrics—and that's the final performance on the album."
With touring for the new album occupying the Helio Sequence's schedule for much of April, Summers knows what he's doing next, but he is already looking forward to what's after that, ending his thoughts on, unsurprisingly, another high note.
"I think I'm comfortable enough to keep doing what I'm doing, but nowhere near satisfied enough that I've found what I set out to do," he says. "There's so much to learn and so much to get out there."
The Helio Sequence perform with Modern Memory and Builders and Butchers at the Detroit Bar, 843 W. 19th St., Costa Mesa, (949) 642-0600; www.detroitbar.com. Thurs., Feb. 28, 9 p.m. $10.