When he’s not on tour with the Seattle-based metal alchemists, the Tacoma-born musician runs his own business, building Verellen Amplifiers. Naturally, those amps are used by Helms Alee, which also includes bassist Dana James and drummer Hozoji Margullis. What’s interesting is the way that, at various points on Sleepwalking Sailors, one is left wondering what kind of hopelessly trashed gear Helms Alee is using.
Consider, for example, the blown-speakers meltdown “Pleasure Center”, which kicks off the album. To untrained ears, it seems like Helms Alee pulled a couple of cabinets from the Verellen Amplifiers repair dock, plugged in, and then decided to ignore the acrid smoke as the tape rolled. Reached in the Emerald City, however, Verellen says that wasn’t exactly the case.
“It’s kind of weird because, personally, I’m actually a big fan of amps that are loud and clean and do their thing with a kind of tube-y smoothness,” the guitarist states. “I like the kind of amps that don’t have a lot of distortion themselves. And then I have an array of pedals that I’ve had for over 10 years that I really like, including one that makes everything sound like it’s broken. That’s what you hear on that song.
“It’s a Japanese copycat of a Univox Super-Fuzz from the ’70s, or maybe ’60s even—they are super-ancient,” Verellen continues. “It’s a crappy, half-assed mistake of a version of that super-famous, popular pedal, but it’s got its own thing to it. I then tweaked it a little bit and made it my own.”
Helms Alee does an admirable job of making heavy music its own thing on Sleepwalking Sailors, released on the formidable indie label Sargent House. Along with his bandmates—who share the vocals with him—Verellen isn’t shy about mixing and matching disparate genres, often within the confines of a single song. Take, for example, “Dodge the Lightning”, which starts off with two minutes of savage riffing, suddenly veers off into the land of California-sunset MOR, and then charges across the finish line sounding like an artifact from the golden age of grunge. “Slow Beef” is heavy on reverb-soaked atmosphere off the top, before upshifting into a tribal postpunk workout, while “Heavy Worm Burden” will thrill those who love the dissonant early years of Sonic Youth.
That Sleepwalking Sailors is all over the place was perhaps to be expected, considering the record was two-and-a-half years in the making, and was finished only when the group embraced crowdsourcing.
“Because it happened over such a large amount of time, there was no feeling of ‘Let’s write a record and see how it comes out,’ ” Verellen relates. “It was more people bringing in parts—every moment on that record is the sum of all three of us throwing our two cents in. It all felt disjointed at times, but when we put the whole thing together, we were able to put the songs in a sequence where it felt like things were moving in a direction. And because it’s all over the place sonically, I think that helps keep it interesting.”
Right down, one might argue, to the cover art, which features a giant and fantastically horrific-looking anglerfish whose teeth have been modified to read “Helms Alee”, and a minnow-size diver swimming nearby.
“Hozi dives for a living—she dives for geoduck,” Verellen says. “She started tripping out on the whole bioluminescence thing, because there’s some of that in Puget Sound down here. She’s interested in it as an aesthetic and a theme—the fact that there can be all these horrifying sea creatures at the bottom of the ocean that glow in the dark and have all these weird appendages. So that was the idea, which we hashed out and then commissioned our buddy Aaron John Gregory from the band Giant Squid in the Bay Area to do the artwork.”
“I actually made him some gear for the artwork,” Verellen says with a laugh. “So I got to walk away with the finished piece. It’s hanging up in my shop right now.”
Helms Alee plays Electric Owl on Saturday (January 17).