Three years ago, the two musicians that make up The Helio Sequence faced the grim reality that their band might be totally and irrevocably screwed. Lead singer Brandon Summers had suddenly lost his voice after years of playing taxing shows in dingy clubs night after night after night.
On the scale of things that can irreversibly change the fortunes of a band, Summers and drummer/keyboardist Benjamin Weikel were stuck in limbo somewhere between a Scott Weiland relapse and a plane flight with Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“There was a definite fear about the future of the band,” Weikel says. “We were both wondering if we were ever gonna make another record.”
Eventually it was determined that Summers had severely strained vocal chords, which could be rehabilitated, but he'd never fully recover. He traded in whiskey for Throat Coat (a special herbal tea) and began a regimen of vocal exercises in an effort to bring a semblance of his voice back. But it wasn't going to be the same.
Certain songs from the band's catalogue, like “Repeater” (off of 2004's Love and Distance), couldn't be performed again because of the strain it put on Summers' voice. Meanwhile, the lyrics of songs like “Cut the Camera” (off 2001's Young Effectuals) now contained an eerily prophetic twist: “Predicaments of residence, indifference is forded to make a choice/Sacraments of pleasantness, two-sidedness, I think I've lost my voice.”
Weikel says he and Summers were terrified when it came time to play their first live show (with the Thermals at Bottom of the Hill in San Francisco) after the injury. The show went well enough to convince the band that they could continue touring, although Weikel—who subsequently suffered an injury of his own after a snare drum slammed into his leg—says the band now proceeds with caution before and after each performance.
“Today, before every show, both of us have a ritual,” Weikel says. “He warms up his vocal chords and I stretch out my leg.”
The two Portland natives formed the band a decade ago with the hope that music would liberate them from their suburban existence. It did just that with their inventive (and surprisingly loud) sound, thrilling music fans with a minimalist approach that refuses to adhere to any one genre.
Summers' injury has undeniably altered the band and its music. But, in a strangely serendipitous way, it may also be the best thing that could have happened to the band's music. It forced Helio to depart from the dynamic of previous albums where Summers' wailing voice competed with loud instrument clashes.
Their latest release, Keep Your Eyes Ahead, takes a softer, more melodic approach, with vocals at the forefront and instrumentation on the periphery. According to Weikel, the duo stumbled upon the more atmospheric sound during the trial-and-error recording process.
“One day in the practice room, Brandon stuck the [microphones] in the closet and it created this crazy reverb,” Weikel says. “We ended up doing that on almost every track.”
Weikel points out that Helio isn't inventing the wheel by using a technique employed in “the old days” by producers who transformed studio hallways and closets into makeshift reverb chambers. But the band put enough of their own spin on the old method to allow Keep Your Eyes Ahead to sound fresh.
“That happens in music a lot,” Weikel says. “Someone will copy something old, but in a different way, and all of a sudden it will be a new sound.”
That new sound has also changed Helio's live performances but, Weikel says, the duo has discovered that slower pacing on songs hasn't robbed any resonance from their loud anthems of the past. But the fact that the album was recorded at all is an emotional triumph and, as a result, underlying themes of loss and redemption run throughout.
“The first song, ‘Lately,' is about someone who has experienced loss,” Weikel says. “By the last song [“No Regrets”], you know he's lost something, but that he's OK with it and he's forged ahead. It really ended up being about what we went through.”
“No Regrets” also showcases Summers' talent as a musician by boasting a gritty quality that makes it sound as if the song was recorded in somebody's living room with a group of friends singing backup.
“That's almost true,” Weikel says. “That entire song is just Brandon, from the instruments to the choir in the background.”
Summers achieved this effect by placing a microphone in the middle of the studio and moving around to different parts of the room, playing instruments, clapping, singing or shouting out encouraging words—to himself.
“We were going to have a choir come in, but after [he did] that, we didn't need to,” Weikel says. “It just sounds so natural.” The Helio Sequence plays on Sunday, June 15, with Talkdemonic and Years Around The Sun at the Belly Up Tavern in Solana Beach. 858-481-8140. www.theheliosequence.com