THE AUSTERITY PROGRAM’S JUSTIN FOLEY INTERVIEWS HELMS ALEE
Left to right, in front of the Baltimore Marriot: Hozi, Ben, Quan, Dana, the bellhop.
Helms Alee have put out the best record of the year so far with Weatherhead. I am thrilled that their tour gives me the chance to interview them, because it means I get to do things like write this opening paragraph, and maybe one person in the world will read this article and then go listen to them and be blown away by this band like I am. I cannot think of any real band that so deftly covers such a wide range. With the same three people playing the same three instruments, the most recent record continues what they did on 2009’s Night Terror – shifting from an ethereal shimmer to a massive whallop to a hypnotic drone, often in the same song. And while others seem to do so much less trying so much harder, Helms Alee is truly fantastic in part because their choices never seem forced or artificial. This band is incredible and if you can see them live, see them live.
They’re currently in the middle of a month-long tour with Torche and Big Business. I called them on the phone on Monday while they were in Baltimore. On the line were drummer Hozoji Annie Matheson-Margullis (aka Hozi), guitarist Ben Verellen, bassist Dana James, and merch man Quan. They also said that their ‘business associate’ Mike was on the line, but I don’t think that he said anything.
Justin: How’s it been going?
Hozi: It’s been really fun.
Hozi: We like the bands we’re touring with, they are a bunch of nice guys. The venues we’ve been playing at have been cool. I’ve been able to see stuff and places that I’ve never seen before. It’s great.
Ben: Even though I’ve been to a bunch of these places, it’s still been great. There’s a camaraderie between us and the response from the crowds has been great. Compared to other tours it’s been more work and long drives, but definitely worth it.
Have there been particular moments so far that have stood out for you?
Hozi: Oh yeah. [General sounds of agreement from the rest of the band.] Are you guys thinking about Atlanta? [Everyone: “Yes.”] So in Atlanta, we had just finished up loading out in a crazy torrential rainstorm. We were at the restaurant in the venue, eating when this guy came up and asked if he could sit down with us. We said sure and he explained that his brother had recently passed away. We were the last band that his brother had been into. He was happy to have been able to come and see us; he and his brother shared a connection through our music. That was great.
Quan: I’d also say it’s watching the guys from Big Business just do this night after night.
Has this tour been important for what you’re trying to do as a band?
Dana: Well, I would say that it’s been rewarding as hell. I mean, I’m doing this in part to be able to travel to new places and play this music and see things that I haven’t seen before. In that sense, it’s definitely been important.
Your band strikes me as pretty singular. When I’ve listened to your records, I’ve often been surprised – “Where the hell did that come from?” I don’t think there are very many other touchstones for comparison; you’re not obviously part of a scene or sound. Has that affected how you’ve been perceived on the road by new folks?
Ben: I think that makes sense. I think we’re probably lucky that we’re playing with bands that aren’t pigeonholed. There are loud guitars and some yelling among all of the bands playing together, but that’s where some of the similarities end. I think that’s helped to make sure that the audiences have an open mind about it.
Hozi: I agree that we’re in good company to be able to do what we’re doing. People at the shows are usually are open minded enough to sort of see what’s going on.
Of course, there are moments of awkwardness.
Tell me about an awkward moment.
Hozi: Well, Tampa, right? [Others: “Yes.”]
Ben: So the show in Tampa was at a big dance club, disco-bar, kind of a ridiculous place for a show like this.
[Suddenly everyone starts laughing.]
What’s going on? I can’t see what’s so funny.
Ben: We’re waiting for the bellboy.
Ben: One of the other bands let us know how to get into really nice hotels for cheap. So now we’re staying at the Marriot in downtown Baltimore. When I went downstairs to get one of the carts to get all of our stuff out of the room, they shushed us and said, “We’ll send a bellboy right up for you.” So we’re sitting here talking to you and waiting for the bellboy.
[Some dumb jokes are made about that.]
Ben: Right. Tampa: the stage was six feet tall…
Hozi: There was a drum riser.
Ben: …and a drum riser. We were playing deer-in-the-headlights style. Of course, that was the night that Big Business played off the weirdness of it, switching instruments, throwing amps into the crowd, and generally taking what should have been a weird experience and just having fun with it. They played their finale song for something like twenty minutes.
When things are either going well on stage or not going well, can you guys immediately play off that, or is it just one of those things you forge ahead on and debrief about later?
Dana: If it’s not going well… in this band, we’re all awkward people, so… for example, that Big Business thing in Tampa, they managed to just make it hilarious and great. We are way too awkward for that. We just make our way through the set and just talk awkward about how awkward it was afterwards.
We just have each other. [laughter]
So am I nuts in seeing you guys as pretty much out there, doing your own thing? I can’t think of any easy comparisons for you.
Ben: We do feed some off things that are closely related to other bands, either in the Seattle area or beyond, but that’s not really a scene or anything. I mean, there’s no mission statement. We’re not trying to be ‘this’ kind of band. And the nice thing about that is that nothings immediately off the table. When we write, that makes almost anything possible. And so the band becomes mishmash that’s a representation of how weird we are. We’re not using some other filter to figure out what we’re doing. I prefer it that way for us. I really think that’s the best way to be in a band and it makes the best music.
Dana: We just want to write the music that comes naturally for us; we want to be able to do whatever we feel like doing. That means taking a look at different moods and different ways of playing music. Sometimes we’ll try something that’s unexpected and that fits into what we’re about as a band. Take a look at the song “Anenome of the Womb” off the most recent record. Ben came in and he just… he just really wanted to play some Spanish guitar. So now we have that song. It’s whatever you’re feeling at the time. And that’s the best way to make art; it’s the most satisfying.
Why? What makes that the best way?
Dana: The whole purpose of art is to do something that makes you happy and fulfilled. The only way to really do that is to be honest about it and not be self-stifling or feel afraid. And that’s especially true in a form of art that you’re going to present to strangers: not being afraid of what you’re doing. Because no matter what you do, someone’s going to think that it sucks. So you just have to go and make what’s honest.
Ben: And really, anything honest isn’t going to fit into a particular scene. I mean, come on: who always feels like Slayer? Those guys… they cry and always don’t always feel like Slayer.
But hold on. Maybe the guys in Slayer, maybe they get really excited about Christmas, right? Maybe on the morning of December 25th, they just can’t contain how happy they are that it’s finally Christmas morning. Sure, they can feel that way, but Slayer isn’t the best way for them to express that. So there’s some saying “no” to stuff if you want to maintain an identity of a band.
Hozi: Actually, I would say “no” to that. In this band, it’s a combination of three people who have a complimentary styles. That’s what’s honestly coming from us, it’s still us three. That’s the filter, that’s the thing that makes us this band. So none of us want to make hip-hop music. (Although we do have our hip-hop song on Weatherhead.) Or a Christmas album. But really, ultimately, because it’s the three of us there is a common thread.
Ben: And that’s where the editing happens. Someone has an idea, then someone else makes their piece to go on it, and that building is how we make the songs. For example, on the song “Revel” on the most recent record, all three of us wrote chunks of the lyrics. [This is probably the best song released this year. -JF] That’s how it stays cohesive. It’s not like three people’s solo records with “this song is a Ben song, this song is a Dana song.” The working together in an honest way, that’s how the band operates.
Now that we’ve talked about art and meaning, is there anything you want to broadcast to the readers of a site called MetalSucks?
Quan: Yes, metal does suck.
Hozi: Yeah, I have something to ask you, Justin. Why I always see reviews of HA as a metal band? We’re not a metal band. Where does that come from?
Quan: No, it’s “Heavy Metal.” You know, like Led Zeppelin or Black Sabbath were considered “HEAVY METAL.”
Or, you’re on a “metal label” and Ben has long hair, so just deal with it, right?
Inaudible: Did he just say ‘deal with it’?
Actually, my experience has been that most people who write about music on the internet are lazy, and it’s just easy to decide you’re a metal band.
Dana: I can agree with that.
For those in NYC, Helms Alee is playing at the Music Hall of Williamsburg on Wednesday night. Additional US tour dates through the beginning of August are here.
Justin Foley plays guitar and sings for the Austerity Program. Their record Backsliders and Apostates Will Burn is out now. Visit them online at www.austerityprogram.com. All messages about urban bike riding, vegetarian BBQ, and monetary policy will be answered first. You can also get a list of their upcoming tour dates here.