Simply put, Helms Alee are awesome. Throughout the course of their seven year existence, they have managed to embody a sound that is as melodic, heavy, and creative. Sleepwalking Sailors is the band’s third and arguably best effort, and their first release for B.G.M.’s favorite label Sargent House. Though still early in the year Sleepwalking Sailors, has set the bar very high for heady heavy music in 2014. I spoke with guitarist and vocalist Ben Verellen about the record, their new label, the road, and the upcoming Superbowl.
1. How is the New Year treating you so far? Broken any resolutions yet?
Immediately! I just spent my first vacation in about 6 years glued to my work email on the dumb phone. Hopeless.
2. To all the readers of our site who have yet to experience you guys, how would you describe your music in five words or less?
Loud aggressive melodic rock music
3. Hydra Head’s demise was a blow to the incredibly fertile ‘heavy but interesting’ music scene. How has your transition to Sargent House been?
Yeah, Hydrahead exposed some of the best music of my formative years, and they took a chance on my bands too. It’s a shame that their artistic ambition didn’t propel them into the kind of financial success that less adventurous labels enjoy, but their demise has birthed some new entities that are exciting like the Austerity Program’s new label, http://controlledburnrecords.com/, and Aaron Turner’s new label, http://sigerecords.blogspot.com/.
Sargent House is a unique label in their own right, we’re honored to have their support and it’s exciting to be in the mix of such a broad roster of killer oddball musical outfits. So far things are moving along smoothly and excitingly.
4. As a whole, would you consider Sleepwalking Sailors to be conceptual, or more just a collection of (awesome) tracks?
I don’t think there’s an intentional concept, but I feel like there’s some unspoken conceptual glue there just from spending as much time with each other over the last several years writing this music. The record feels cohesive to my brain.
5. Helms Alee’s music and image has always been nautically themed. Three albums into your career as a band, how has this theme evolved to remain relevant?
We used to sail around Seattle on this crappy sailboat I had and it got me into all these weird nautical terms. A few years ago I had to sell the boat so that’s died down some, but Hozi (Matheson Margullis, drums / vocals) started working as a fisherman, diving for geoducks for the Puyallup tribe. So she comes to practice w/ all these freaky stories about swimming with sea lions etc.. so I guess the idea sticks around one way or another. It’s just a source of imagery that we like.
6. In the past, you’ve described your songwriting process as a ‘patchwork’ of ideas brought to the table by each member of the band. How do you determine what ideas work together and which ones don’t?
We’re generally agree pretty automatically on what we like. Sometimes I’ll start playing some kind of riff and if no one reacts I’ll just quietly chuck it. But then Dana (James, bass / vocals) might start in on something that we all get eyes wide on. It’s pretty random how songs come together.
7. The cover art for Sleepwalking Sailors is extremely badass. How does it feel to see your band’s name written in the teeth of a terrifying sea monster?
Amazing!!!!!! Aaron John Gregory is a talented man. I love the concept of that painting.
8. Sleepwalking Sailors sounds amazing and feels like the record that solidifies the Helms Alee vibe as unique and vital. Three albums in, do you feel any pressure internally or externally to ‘break out’ to a larger audience?
Wow, that rules of you to say. Our goals are pretty simple. We really want to just be able to make records and have adventures playing music for a long long time. It seems like getting older, responsibilities start to set in and it becomes harder to do things like tours and spend time making records on the drop of a dime, so a little more planning has to happen. We just want there to be enough people interested in our music that we can do things on our own terms.
9. How did working with Chris Common influence the making of this record?
Chris did an awesome job. He had a lot of patience with us, he was really receptive to our ideas, and put in a lot of hard work. We were grateful to have that kind of talent involved.
10. There’s a song on the new album called “Slow Beef”. What the hell is slow beef?!
Man… what the hell IS slow beef?
11. In a few weeks you guys are off on a run of the States with Russian Circles and KEN Mode, who both had a pretty big 2013. Are you excited? What’s your relationship like with those guys?
Super excited. We’ve toured with Russian Circles before and had an incredible time. Goofy and talented musicians with their shit together….. perfect tour-mates. Growing up, Brian (Cook, bass player) was one of my big brother sort of figures. He played in Botch with my older brother, Dave (Verellen), so I’ve been kind of tagging along ever since. It’ll be fun to be on the road with him again. My old band, Harkonen, crossed paths with KEN Mode years ago, and we made friendly acquaintances then, it’s awesome to see the attention they’re getting. Their record is amazing.
12. Touring gives you the chance to essentially live with your bandmates for an extended period of time. Prior to Helms Alee, you were a member of a number of groups comprised entirely of men. Now, it’s you and two women. Are there any essential differences between touring with a bunch of chicks as opposed to hitting the road with a bunch of dudes?
You know how bands do stupid things like drive all night and day to play a show, eating at gas stations and taco bell.. the whole time? Not helms! Dana and Hoz have a different attitude about this kind of thing where they want to enjoy the whole thing and not torture ourselves for the “super gig” or whatever. It took some getting used to, but I really think that has a lot to do with the longevity of the band. I can’t say if that has anything to do with them being ladies, or just them being them, but it’s a different approach than in other bands I’ve done, and it seems to work for us anyways.
13. The melodic components of Sleepwalking Sailors seem a lot more pronounced than on Night Terror or Weatherhead. Was this a conscious decision going into the writing of the record?
It’s funny, we think of it as the more aggressive of the 3 helms records. We always do this, where we look at a bunch of songs and say “oh, they’re all super dreamy and melodic. maybe we should write more rockers”, and then immediately someone else says “wait what about this short pissed off song and that heavy angry song, etc…” and then we realized there’s at least as much of that too.
14. Can we expect any killer pirate-themed music videos?
No plans yet, but I hope we can do some kind of visual stuff for this record.
15. In the wake of an era of over-produced music, many bands these days are choosing to record directly to tape, yourselves included. Do you feel as though this action is disciplinary, forcing you to focus on the level of songwriting? Or is this just the method you are more comfortable with?
It sounds cool, it means everyone has to be rehearsed and paying attention which lends urgency, and most of all it forces some humanity into the record which is something that is missing from a lot of modern records.
16. What’s upcoming in 2014 that you’re excited about that we should be excited about too?
It looks like it’s going to be a mess of new records and tours for us as well as a bunch of buddy bands I love. Not sure which ones are secret, so I’ll keep my mouth shut. But I’m gearing up for a good one. Oh…. and a Seahawks superbowl victory.
Sleepwalking Sailors is out February 11th via Sargent House.
(via Bearded Gentlemen Music)