The Helio Sequence: A Certain Ratio

Tempted to split and tested by hard times, the Helio Sequence holds steady as the constantly reinventing center of Portland, Ore.’s indie-rock scene. By Matthew Fritch

In 2004, Benjamin Weikel walked away from the biggest alt-rock band in America. Weikel, a gifted drummer from Portland, Ore., had been recruited by Isaac Brock to play on Modest Mouse’s platinum-selling Good News For People Who Love Bad News. Over the course of four subsequent tours as a member of Modest Mouse, Weikel experienced the golden moments of success: the late-night-TV performances, the swelling crowds and bigger venues, the feeling of driving into Los Angeles in a tour van and hearing the DJ on KROQ trumpet the arrival of sure-shot hit single “Float On.”

But Weikel had already made plans to swim upstream. “[Modest Mouse] wanted me to be in the band at the end (of the last tour),” he says. “They asked me fairly often, even after I’d officially left. I was supposed to do Jimmy Kimmel with Modest Mouse and had to say, ‘Well, I have a Helio Sequence gig booked on that day.’ Then that was it.”

“[Weikel] gave up on the number-one band in America,” says Trevor Solomon, a friend and Portland-based booking agent. “It’s fascinating, because he stuck to his guns. Most people would have sold out for the money.”

For Weikel, the road to fulfillment lay with his longtime pal Brandon Summers, the singer/guitarist with whom he’d partnered in the Helio Sequence. Tonight, that road has led to a small club in Philadelphia, where the Helio Sequence plays to 30 people instead of the 3,000 routinely attracted by Modest Mouse. Dead-tired after a long drive from Ohio, operating on a tight budget and playing songs from an album no one has heard yet—the upcoming Keep Your Eyes Ahead (Sub Pop)— the 30-year-old Weikel and the 27-year-old Summers nevertheless proceed to astonish the curious Sunday-night crowd. They make a visceral dream-rock noise with sheer volume, flawless manipulation of guitar and electronic sequencing by Summers, and primal drum-set domination that leaves Weikel slick with sweat. After the show, Weikel and Summers break down their equipment, peddle their own T-shirts, load out and look forward to a late-night drive to a budget motel en route to the next tour stop.

Says Weikel, “There’s nothing else we can do.”

Beaverton, Ore., is a study in what author James Howard Kunstler has famously called “the geography of nowhere.” The Portland suburb is home to Nike’s world headquarters and a bland blur of housing developments and strip malls.

“There’s no center to anything,” says Summers, “just a bunch of unconnected roads.”

But Summers and Weikel, who both grew up in Beaverton, unwittingly made their town a hub of local-band activity via their employment at Beaverton Music. The shop is neither a hip, High Fidelity-style record store nor a hesher haven for Flying V guitars and gnarly effects pedals; it’s mainly a marching-band instrument store located across from Beaverton High, where students Summers and Weikel played flute and drums, respectively, for the school band.

The two initially met through Weikel’s younger brother, Paul, with whom Summers played in a band called Zippers. While Zippers mainly did covers—songs by Nirvana, the Pixies, Green Day and Operation Ivy—Weikel was toiling in a series of badly named new-wave/punk bands such as Jefferson Dumptruck. By 1996, both Weikel siblings and Summers had joined forces to play a family picnic for the Summers clan. If it weren’t such a painfully uncool gig, the picnic could‘ve gone down as a watershed moment, not only for the Helio Sequence but for the whole of Portland’s indie-rock future. The trio performed with pre-programmed synth tracks.

“At that point, having sequenced keyboards was a crazy idea,” says Weikel. “Which is funny, because every band in the ’80s used sequenced keyboards. But the (punk/grunge) community we were in were all like, ‘Get a bass player!’”

Back at Beaverton Music, co-workers Weikel and Summers—younger brother Paul soon dropped out of the picture—began using the shop as an after-hours recording space. The Helio Sequence would eventually record three dense, dark-star releases at the store: a 1999 self-released EP, 2000’s Com Plex and 2001’s Young Effectuals. In the beginning, the boys would pull all-nighters, sweep up the shop and head across the street to Beaverton High for morning classes. (Summers had left for college by the time Com Plex was recorded.)

“We were probably sleeping two or three hours a night for the last couple months of recording Com Plex,” says Weikel. “I would be running a credit-card transaction during the day and would just fall asleep.”

According to local drummer Danny Seim, word soon spread about the tastemakers behind Beaverton’s foremost shoegaze band.

“It took me a couple visits (to Beaverton Music) before I worked up the nerve to talk to them,” says Seim. “I would pretend to be fascinated with a guitar or amp while trying to eavesdrop on their artsy conversation. I remember they always had this weird, abstract music playing in there that sounded like I was either stuck in Africa or stuck inside an 8-bit video game. I would later discover that it was Talking Heads and Kraftwerk. At the time, I was only familiar with bands that sounded like Eddie Vedder singing.”

On Seim’s third trip to Beaverton Music, he finally worked up the courage to hand Weikel a copy of the self-released debut EP by his own band, Menomena. Says Seim, “I didn’t go back to the store for several months, mostly out of fear that Benjy wouldn’t like it or, worse yet, that he wouldn’t remember me giving it to him.”

Around the turn of the millennium, the Portland music scene was experiencing a dry spell. Local rock luminaries such as Pond, Hazel, Thirty Ought Six, Crackerbash and Elliott Smith’s Heatmiser were either burned out or fading away. In these lean years, the Helio Sequence sounded like manna from heaven.

“The whole grunge thing was hanging around in a weird way, and then there were these Dandy Warhols clones,” says Weikel. “We came around at a time when there were a few bands trying to do something different, and then everything changed very rapidly.”

“In my opinion,” says Seim, “the Helio Sequence are the most important transitional band from the ’90s heyday of Portland music to the current heyday that we’re all so fortunate to be a part of.”

Embarking on short West Coast tours, the Helio Sequence soon got noticed by a member of a certain mega-selling rock band; as fate would have it, it was Metallica rather than Modest Mouse that first took the group under its wing. After a 2002 gig in San Francisco, Weikel and Summers got an unexpected phone call from the William Morris talent agency, asking if they’d tour with Echobrain, Metallica bassist Jason Newsted’s side project. This turn of events pushed the Helio Sequence into full-time service.

“We couldn’t tell our boss that we were leaving for a month and a half to tour,” says Weikel. “He was like, ‘I’m going to do you guys a favor. When you come back, you’re not going to have a job here.’”

When the Helio Sequence next found itself on the undercard of a large-scale tour—this time with Modest Mouse—it was a gift, an obligation and a test. Jeremiah Green, Modest Mouse’s drummer and a friend of Weikel’s, checked out of the band due to psychiatric problems in 2003. Brock asked Weikel to fill in, originally enlisting him for a handful of shows, then inviting him to Oxford, Miss., for the recording of Good News. Weikel also agreed to tour with Modest Mouse—with one key stipulation.

“I said, ‘If you want to take out Helio Sequence (on tour), I’ll play with you,’” says Weikel. “We did three more tours. [Green] wanted to be back in the band. The whole time I was trying to convince them that Jeremy needs to be back in the band; that’s how it should be. It took a long time for everyone to be OK with Jeremy being back.”

Meanwhile, the Helio Sequence was plotting its own trajectory. The band signed to Sub Pop and recorded basic tracks for third album Love And Distance in Brock’s practice space near Portland. Released in June 2004, the album was a confident move toward brightly colored modern rock, but its adventurous mix of Anglophile guitar pop and politely beeping electronics made it sound like a rocky marriage between Supergrass and Saint Etienne.

“People don’t understand that record,” says Weikel. “We were trying to apply modern recording techniques to what we did.”

“We’d been tagged for so long with the space-rock or shoegaze thing,” says Summers. “There’s a conflict with that, because most of those (shoegaze) bands are known for this dark, non-confrontational show where the energy is all self-contained. Love And Distance was trying to get away from that. As a live band, there’s so much energy going outward with us.”

With no time for rest or recuperation between Modest Mouse commitments, the recording sessions and their own two-man tours for Love And Distance, Weikel and Summers hit a wall at the end of 2004. Summers lost his voice during a cross-country tour with the Secret Machines, which made for dead-silent van rides and endless cups of throat-soothing herbal tea. On a subsequent trip to Europe with Blonde Redhead, the Helio Sequence ended up cutting songs from its set to spare Summers’ wracked vocal cords.

“That was a low moment,” says Weikel, who at the time was being courted by Modest Mouse and weighing his options.

“Our band was feeling extremely tentative,” says Summers. “Is this thing going to keep going? I was losing my voice, and the Modest Mouse thing was still up in the air. ‘Are you going to go with Modest Mouse or are we going to do Helio Sequence?’ I hadn’t seen a doctor yet, and I was terrified that I wouldn’t ever sing again.”

Upon returning to Portland, doctors ordered Summers to not sing for a month and a half. Solomon, who booked some of the Helio Sequence’s early shows, recalls having heart-to-hearts with Weikel over breakfast around this time.

“It was like a come-to-Jesus one day,” says Solomon. “We sat and talked for three hours. I asked, ‘What do you want?’ And he said, ‘I want my band to succeed. I love Isaac, but I want my band to succeed no matter what.’”

While the early-’90s shoegaze movement was dubbed “the scene that celebrated itself,” Portland, Ore., circa 2008 is surely the scene that sells real estate. Now populated by Jicks, Shins, Decemberists, an ex-Smith (Johnny Marr) and the sultan of Spoon (Britt Daniel), it’s not the same landscape into which the Helio Sequence first painted itself.

“When you meet someone who’s actually from Portland, you’re surprised,” says Weikel, who’s typically diplomatic about the city’s influx of musicians.

The Helio Sequence’s new album, Keep Your Eyes Ahead, sounds like it’s taken no cues whatsoever from the new neighbors. It doesn’t sound much like anything the Helio Sequence has done before, either. The majority of the LP exists in a dream-pop haze bottled in mid-’80s England; the pearly romanticism of OMD is summoned on leadoff track “Lately,” and Brian Eno’s Joshua Tree-era sense of patience and grandeur is employed throughout. While the post-millennial ’80s revival is still rehashing new wave’s spiky, quirky sounds, the Helio Sequence has already moved on to the decade’s more elegant era of sonic sculpturing.

Surprisingly, Weikel and Summers say Keep Your Eyes Ahead is largely an album of first takes. And, as always is the case with the Helio Sequence, it was self-produced and put to tape in living rooms, bedrooms—almost anywhere but a proper recording studio. The only outside assistance came from engineer Greg Calbi (who did the mastering) and some consultation from Menomena’s Brent Knopf (who claims the duo needed little input at all).

“I get intimidated by the feeling they know what they’re doing, whereas I feel like an amateur,” says Knopf. “They take a lot more aesthetic risks with this new record, and it’s evidence of an enviable musical maturity, and these risks pay off.”

Keep Your Eyes Ahead isn’t all fog-machine rock, however. Tucked into the album are some seemingly incongruous, Dylanesque folk tunes. While on sabbatical from singing, Summers had begun fingerpicking songs by Bob Dylan and Nick Drake to pass the time.

The folky stuff doesn’t make it onto the set list in Philadelphia; Weikel and Summers are too busy swinging a wrecking ball into the crystalline pop songs on Keep Your Eyes Ahead, splintering them into loud, hypnotic, high-energy shards. Onstage, the Helio Sequence is in perfect form and combination, and the balance of power is unlike that of any other drums-and-guitar duo. With no headliners to upstage, it’s the kind of performance that sends local opening bands slinking home to practice more. When people ask Weikel if he got rich touring with Modest Mouse, his reply speaks volumes about the Helio Sequence’s natural focus.

“Actually, no,” he says. “We bought a van and some preamps.”