Brandon Summers of the Helio Sequence on the unlikely influence of Frank Sinatra on the band

Categories: Profiles

Pavlina Summers

Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel formed the Helio Sequence in Beaverton, Oregon, in 1999. On their first few releases, the duo created vividly realized, playfully psychedelic songs that made a languid, rockist format seem expansive and upbeat, particularly 2001's Young Effectuals, which was like a day-glo-hued daydream of an album fueled by enthusiasm and imagination.

See also: Thursday: The Helio Sequence at Bluebird Theater, 10/24/13

The band's studio and practice space was housed in the basement of a dance studio, where Summers and Weikel were able to develop their craft for the better part of a decade. Eventually the space was flooded, and the two relocated to Portland, where they regrouped and revamped their studio. The move also changed their dynamic of working together as a band; Summers took care of his children during the day, and he and Weikel experimented, recorded and wrote music at night.

After settling into their new digs and reconsidering the band's direction, Negotiations followed in 2012. Though not directly inspired by Wire, Negotiations employs a similar use of space and atmosphere, while also recalling landmark albums like Talk Talk's 1991 post-rock platter Laughing Stock and Slowdive's genre-bending 1995 masterpiece Pygmalion.

We recently spoke with Summers about how the initial isolation of growing up in Beaverton was actually inspiring, the profound influence of Sinatra's "suicide songs", from his Capitol era, and how Negotiations is really a night record because of how it came about and the influences that went into it.

Westword: You and Benjamin Weikel grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. Growing up there, what kind of musical experiences did you have that made you realize you could do music yourself?

Brandon Summers: The interesting thing about Beaverton -- especially at the time, being a teenager in the '90s -- is it was extremely cut off, for as close as it was in proximity, geographically, to the stuff that would be going on in Seattle and Portland at that point, like the grunge stuff and the counterculture. So there was a thirst we had to be a part of that whole thing, just from being so close to it and yet it being so far away.

At the same time, a lot of underground music didn't make it out there, so anything we were able to find going into Portland and browsing in record stores and reading zines and happening upon imports from England was really valuable to us. The isolation of it was really inspiring in a certain way.

Was there a band from that area that was an inspiration to you early on?

No, not really. I think that was kind of the point to being isolated out there doing our own thing, and it was really exciting. I guess you could say the Dandy Warhols were from Beaverton, but no one would think that. There were certainly bands from Portland that were very inspiring. At that point, it was the tail end of the whole grunge-rock thing. So the Dandy Warhols, Hazel, Heatmiser, Pond and all these bands were on Sub Pop and Cavity Search and other Northwest labels.

So it was a regional thing, and there were definitely people doing things that were really inspiring. And we kind of took our cues from that, you know -- they could record a record and just go for it. We set up our little studio inside this one-room music store we were both working at at that point and learned how to record our songs and started writing music.

What is it about Roedelius's music that made the most impact on what you did on Negotiations?

There's the minimalism of it. Particularly, Benjamin was listening to the minimalist stuff from the '70s. On previous records, we had a lot of stuff going on and more rhythmic keyboards. This time, there was more texture, mellow tones and analog keyboards, and exploring the depth and the space in those kinds of sounds. It lent itself to the minimalism of the songwriting.

You did kind of a single-take approach on a number of tracks on the album in developing the material?

I just think, in general, that when you're recording, you're looking to capture something. Oftentimes, if you're able to get it in the first take or early takes, then there's less conscious thought going into it, and you're not double-thinking yourself, or trying logically to get at something. It's always more pure in the early stages.

How did you become exposed to Sinatra's Capitol-era "suicide songs"?

I had been reading about famous recording studios of the past, and there was a section on Capitol Studios, and they mentioned that record [No One Cares] as a classic; I had never heard of it before. It wasn't hard to find -- I found a copy lying in bins at record stores. I listened to it, and it was amazing, and I went to look for more records recorded in that vein. That led to that fascination.

It had to do with the minimalism of it, the starkness of the arrangements and how lyrically focused it is and how vocally focused it is. And it could be so focused because the songs were so amazing. We looked at all the amazing songwriters of the past, like the Tin Pan Alley songwriters, whose songs have been done a million different times by a million different people, and it can be amazing, sung by a handful of people.

What was that book you'd read?

I want to say Temples of Sound [by William Clark, Jim Cogan and Quincy Jones].

What was it about Sinatra's lyrical approach and conversational tone that you found appealing?

That comes from hearing a lot of those old songs written by older writers. A lot of them were written for musicals in the '20s, '30s and '40s, originally, and then they were adapted to popular music later. There's something really interesting to see that instead of having a song that would be a verse, which is explaining something, and a chorus that reiterates a hook or a line or something that's thematic and ties everything together, I like the idea of listening through a song and almost having it be a narrative. So that if you're listening to a song for the first time, you're actually able to put together a story as the lines go along [on songs like] "I Get Along Without You," by Hoagie Carmichael, or "Something Cool," which June Christie did on her record.

So these little vignettes, or stories, where you get an idea of who this character is from this little story they're telling you only in snippets. You can put together this conversation that they're having with a person, or the story that they're telling. It's really fascinating, because it's a different angle to write from. I wanted to use something like that, but more abstract, in writing lyrics for Negotiations.

"It Was a Very Good Year" [written by Ervin Drake and made most famous by Sinatra] is in that vein as well.

Absolutely, that's another great one.

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Stephen Dryver
Stephen Dryver

Given the links between Sinatra and the mob, methinks these douchebags must've owed him quite a bit.

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