Some musical duos rely on primitive guitar-and-drum setups. Some operate with turntables and a microphone. But no two-man group generates a racket as beautiful as The Helio Sequence. Pacific Northwest natives Brandon Summers and Benjamin Weikel traffic in soaring synth-pop and psych-tinged indie rock that sounds like — thanks to the magic of keyboard sequencing — it’s being created by a colossal 10-piece ensemble. However, The Helio Sequence also has a living, breathing analog heart that makes its digitized music sound organic and alive. Folio Weekly chatted with Summers about being a gearhead, receiving inspiration from Frank Sinatra and touring with hip-hop visionary Shabazz Palaces.
Folio Weekly: How does an indie rock band like The Helio Sequence end up touring with a hip-hop group like Shabazz Palaces?
Brandon Summers: It really comes down to both of us being music lovers. We played tons of shows in Seattle in the early 2000s, and there’d always be this guy standing in the corner watching us. It wasn’t until a couple years later that someone came up to me and was, like, “Hey, you know who that guy is? Butterfly from Digable Planets.” That totally blew my mind, because both Benjamin and I are huge Digable Planets fans.
F.W.: What first compelled you and Benjamin to pursue The Helio Sequence’s brand of pre-programmed, partially electronic music?
B.S.: Originally, we were in a punk band. But The Helio Sequence came about in 1996 when my mother said, “By the way, you’re playing a family picnic next week.” I was 16 years old and didn’t have any songs, so Benjamin and I got together with this crazy idea of using sequenced keyboards and playing live music with it.
F.W.: How hard was it to work out the kinks of such a challenging pursuit?
B.S.: It did take some time. At first, Benjamin’s brother and I both played guitar and Benjamin played drums to a sequence — no vocals. We did really long, drawn-out, eight- to nine-minute Pink Floyd-like jams. But when we actually tried writing songs, it shifted.
F.W.: How do you two write today?
B.S.: It’s not very organized, which is good because it keeps us on our toes. A song can be written from a keyboard loop or an acoustic guitar, from lyrics written front to end or from melodies going around in my head. Everything comes from a different angle, and the challenge is cementing it both sonically and conceptually. We don’t write a bunch of songs and slap them all together on an album; we write one song and let the path make itself as we go. It’s almost like molding something in clay, realizing what works in the contours and what fits in the narrative of the story.
F.W.: Are you guys unabashed gearheads?
B.S.: That’s one of the things that define us. It’s not just a fascination with equipment, either, but having the power to achieve what we want to hear. When we first started, there really was no self-recording. But everybody kept coming back unhappy with these recordings they’d paid $1,000 for. So we thought, “If we want to get these sounds, we’re going to have to find them ourselves.”
F.W.: In 2009, your studio flooded, prompting you to embrace vintage analog gear. How does that jibe with your digital beginnings?
B.S.: We started listening to tons of vinyl, which informed how much we value that analog sound. The more we listened, the more we realized that there’s an undeniable feeling — a certain realism that sounds so warm. But it’s been a slow evolution.
F.W.: I also understand that Frank Sinatra inspired your lyrical approach on The Helio Sequence’s last album, “Negotiations.”
B.S.: After 2008’s “Keep Your Eyes Ahead,” I was at a really positive point in my life. My first daughter was born, and I was having intensely happy times with my family. But then I’d go to the studio, which was a solitary place. I found these Frank Sinatra concept albums called “suicide” records containing really down, late-night ballads that were totally different than the swinging hits that most people know. And I remember being absolutely blown away by this side of Sinatra I’d never heard.
F.W.: The Helio Sequence visits St. Augustine nearly every tour. How does a band from the Pacific Northwest end up loving Florida?
B.S.: The first time we ever came to Florida was in support of Modest Mouse. We’d never been to that part of the country and didn’t know what to expect, but we had such an amazing time that we kept coming back. As different from the Northwest as it is climate-wise, it feels really similar in the supportive and open people who come out to the shows.