It's been quite a year for Portland indie pop masters the Helio Sequence. An acclaimed sixth album, record mixing for Corrina Repp and Brazil's Quarto Negro, remastering their two first albums for reissue, and now a New Year's Eve party at Revolution Hall to see it off. Guitarist and lead vocalist Brandon Summers talks endings and beginnings.
The Helio Sequence will be 20 years old next year—congratulations! How did it all begin?
We both (Summers and drummer/keyboardest Benjamin Weikel) grew up in the Beaverton suburbs, and met in 1994. I was in middle school, in eighth grade and was good friends with his younger brother. In 1996 my mom came to me and said, “Hey, you’re playing at the family picnic next month at Oak’s Park.” I said, “But I don’t have a band, I don’t have any songs!” And she said, “Well, you better write some, because I already told everybody.” Benjamin had been working on his solo keyboard project, an Aphex Twin/Mouse on Mars kind of thing. We got three really long, ten-minute Pink Floyd-like songs together and played this picnic. By the end of it we had a whole lot of people watching that had just walked by, nothing to do with the family picnic, and that was really encouraging. That was really the birth of the Helio Sequence.
When did you put out your first recording?
Over the next three years we wrote tons of songs trying to find our sound and experiment with different things, and in 1999 we put out our first self-released EP. That’s when things really started to take off for us. We got signed with a small label in Portland, Cavity Search records—part of their history is that they put out Elliott Smith’s first record, as well as a lot of really great music from that era from Portland bands. We did two records with Cavity Search and then signed with Sub Pop.
You've had four albums on Sub Pop, international tours, and countless shows and appearances, and you're ending your 20th year with a Revolution Hall gig . . .
It feels like a culmination and a stepping off point. There’s something symbolic about playing on New Year’s—it’s the end of something and it’s the beginning of something at the same time. Our year has been like that.
It was a year in which you released your sixth album, The Helio Sequence. Was naming the album after the band intended as a defining statement about where you guys are right now?
Honestly, we don’t name a record until after it’s done. In this case, we found ourselves with 26 songs on this album after the process that we put ourselves through—writing it in one month. We had been living in this forest of our own creation while we were trying to pare things down, and getting feedback from everybody else, and figuring out what was going to be on the record and what we would release otherwise.
And when we went to name it, we realized it was such a broad stroke of all of these influences that we have had throughout our entire career, all of theses different places that we’ve allowed ourselves go over the years when we’ve been writing, that it was really so reflective of who we are as a band. That’s really why we chose to name it that. I wouldn’t call it a rebirth or a restart, but it feels like this new stepping off point for us.
You've also been working on other people's music, right?
We have had two records that we mixed come out—one from Quarto Negro, a Brazilian band, and one from Corrina Repp. Remixing is an extension of what we’ve always done and it’s something we’re starting to do more.
We’ve always self-recorded. We started on the ground level not knowing anything—it’s kind of amazing listening to these old tracks at the moment and hearing how much we didn’t know but managed to do because there was just this will to record. This was very early digital technology. We couldn’t even listen to an entire song all the way through, because there wasn’t enough memory on a computer to do that. We were super early adapters of digital recording, in a DIY sense. This was before Garage Band or plugins or any of this stuff, it was very archaic. And we’ve just kept going since then.
You came up at a particular moment in the Portland music scene...
It was a very transitional time, and you could feel that. I was twelve years old when I first heard Nirvana—that’s when I had to go out and get a guitar, just like Kurt Cobain’s, and learn all of the Nirvana songs. That was my introduction—I was a kid looking up to that generation of music. So by the time the Helio Sequence was starting to play in clubs, that whole thing had kind of blown over, or was folding over into something else, and it was very unsure as to what that was.
There was an openness, especially in Portland, because Portland wasn’t as tied up with the whole grunge thing as Seattle was. It wasn’t quite as at a loss for an identity as Seattle was at that time. Everything was super wide open, and it’s maintained that, because there’s no Portland sound. You don’t expect a band to sound like a certain thing because they’re from Portland—it’s just about the variety of music here.
Do you think, even as it grows and morphs, the city still has a strong musical offering?
Yeah, absolutely. In the past I had a tendency to think maybe nothing was going on in Portland. But these past couple of years, it’s an explosion, There are all these bands coming up like the Wild Ones, or Radiation City—it’s all there. You go on Bandcamp and find twenty Portland bands and you're scratching your head, thinking, "How have I not heard of these, and where are they playing?"
Have you ever considered relocating?
Early on, my thought was that Portland’s great, but—similar to the problem that I think it still faces—there’s so much great music here, but it has a hard time getting out of Portland. We had an experience like that. We came up and there was a point at which we were Willamette Week's number one band, playing sold out shows at clubs every weekend, and then we’d go to Seattle and realize we had half that much [support], and then we'd tour to San Francisco and realize, "Woah, almost nobody knows who we are!"
There was a while we thought maybe we should move, is Seattle better for us? But after touring around so much, I love Portland. It’s my home, and it’s as much a part of the Helio Sequence as the music is.
The Helio Sequence plays Revolution Hall on December 31.
Enter our ticket giveaway here before Christmas Day to be in with a chance to see the band rock it on
New Year's Eve.