Lock down and the past few years seem as a period we want to leave behind and move on. But further we go, it proves to be very significant period in our lives. American atmospheric sludge metal trio Helms Alee always had their own journey. But recent two years proved how much writing and sticking together means to them. With their new album Keep This Be The Way coming out on 29th of April through Sargent House, they stayed loyal to their unique sound, but took their dark melancholic melodies and vocals symbiosis into another level. Next to very helpful process of writing of the new album, we spoke about their current European tour with Russian Circles, as well as dealing with pandemic period mentally by closing yourself in your own world once in a while. Thank you Hozoji and Ben.
Photo credits: Ron Harrell
Hello Ben, thank you very much for finding time for this interview. It’s great we will be able to see you guys in Czech Republic after seven years. What are your memories on our country and what are your feelings about coming back to Europe after some time?
Ben: Hoz jumped in to help on a bunch of these as I was slammed with work. Thanks Hoz!
Hozoji: We are thrilled beyond words to come back after so long! My memories of being there years back are all very swirly and dreamlike because it was my first time there and I was so excited to be touring in Europe. Something that stood out to me was that being in cities as old as they are over there feels very different than the feeling of the comparatively young cities in the USA. We have land that feels ancient and knowing in the US, but the cities do not have that same feeling.
If I understood correctly, Russian Circles are regularly getting some parts of their gear in Prague and start their European tour here. Are you also picking some part of the gear from Nomads of Prague?
Hozoji: Yes we are renting our gear from Nomads.
Did you manage to check some of the local support bands on the tour? I can gladly recommend guys from Czech band Manon Meurt supporting you.
Hozoji: Things have been so hectic for all of us leading up to the tour that we haven’t really had a moment to dig into many of the details of the tour including local support bands. I watched the link you sent though and I really enjoyed the video! I look forward to seeing that music live and meeting those people.
How does the whole EU tour plan sounds for you? What are some of your favorite EU locations and are you excited about some new ones? As a half Yugo/half Czech, I have to ask, if you ever played in Croatia? Rijeka sounds amazing.
Ben: Man, so many. All of my favorite tour memories are in Europe. I get a lot out of the old stuff. Prague has so much of that. I like those sorts of places where they didn’t stomp all the cool old streets. Excited for Spain and Portugal. I’ve never been to Oslo, my mom is deep into the ancestry research thing and she tells me I have lots from up there, so I’m psyched to see what that place feels like.
Writing music was a huge help with getting through the weirdness of the last few years.
Lock Down Setting
I spent the last couple of days with your latest album and it really clicked with my setting and taste. When were you writing the album?
Hozoji: We wrote this album over the first year of covid lock down.
How were you dealing with the situation during the past two years? In a certain way, I personally wanted to close myself away from the whole wave of information. I kept it on the necessary minimum and concentrated on re-watching my favorite movies, I started teaching languages again and spent more time in the nature. Was there also something new in your attitude? I heard stories of artists being in certain phases more creative, learning new languages and finally doing things, for which there was “not enough” time before.
Hozoji: Definitely writing music was a huge help with getting through the weirdness of the last few years. Not only the creative catharsis but also just the comradery of being together and collaborating. It helped get complicated feelings out in a productive way and also kept a sense of community which was needed more than ever. The three of us in Helms Alee have different thresholds for “news”. I am like you in that I have to dip in every few days to stay up to date and then shut it off for a few days so I don’t freak out. I watched a lot of comedy to keep my chin up. And also for sure spent more time outdoors.
New album shows the band’s chemistry is continually progressing. How were you keeping that connection during the past few years? Did you dive into intensive playing/writing/practicing or were there breaks due to a weird situation around?
Hozoji: After about three weeks of lock down Helms Alee decided we needed to be playing music with each other to help ourselves deal with all that was happening in the world. We moved out of our practice space that was a shared space with a bunch of other bands and moved into the small studio Ben had built in his amp shop. Then over the course of the next year we got together regularly to create music with no true goal other than just to keep ourselves sane. That was the biggest way we dealt with what the world was serving up.
For a long time, I am heavily interested to know, how the raw ideas for the songs get written. How did you for example come up with the main guitar riff at Do Not Expose to the Burning Sun?
Ben: We were just sort of practicing and letting the “tape” roll and all of the songs came out of little noodles that one of us would stumble onto, usually mid conversation. These all came together so fast I don’t even recall the circumstance that brought that one together.
I can feel this free spirit/loopy guitar element in your overall discography. What helps you to come up with the raw ideas for the guitar lines? Morning routine/long walk…
Ben: 99% of my contributions come together when we’re in the room just getting ready to practice our other songs and things just pop out. The gtr loop thing is really helpful, because if you just some drone or drone-ish thing to riff atop, that seems to help ideas get realized faster.
At the same time and it didn’t happen to me for a long time with another band – I have a feeling, you are coming to a crossroad with your songs all the time. As if I heard: “Do we go wilder or more ambient now?” What determines within your power trio, where do you go forward for a next part? Good example of positive unpredictability was a track called Tumescence the first time I heard it.
Hozoji: Everything is very democratic when it comes to writing in Helms Alee. If someone has an idea we follow it through and if it works we go with it and if it doesn’t work we try something else. There isn’t a lot of purposeful strategy to our writing process. The “how” often feels like a blur to me once we’ve finished a song. As if the song always existed.
Where do you gather sources and inspirations for atmospheric and “frustration/darker” side of your sound? For the atmospheric, I hope you will like Manon Meurt and within the really dark sources, while listening to your discography, I thought of Belgian band Amenra. It’s hard to explain but both dark and atmospheric music bring peace to my mind.
Ben: I think most of my favorite music is dark and atmospheric, so cool if that’s how our stuff comes across. Maybe it’s just the sorta therapy part of making music, you make this sort of safe place to put the bummery feelings and then you don’t have to carry them around so much.
It’s probably weird, but I tend to function in a constant re-evaluation of my choices, experiences and further steps. I was just recording a one hour radio show for Czech radio Český rozhlas Jazz about a drummer called Chris Dave. I stopped for a moment and thought about the way I use my voice in such a prestigious/official setting. To be honest, I realized I have my voice setting for numerous occasions: Official/family/friends and also moments while I am singing Balkan songs in a Balkan bars/restaurants with my really good friends. During the recent two years, I felt I had more time to think about things I never thought about before. Did you have during the last two years thoughts about something absolutely automatic and you had to re-assure yourself why and how are you doing it?
Hozoji: Weirdly, as much as creating music was saving my spirit and brain from the stress of the world during the last few years, I also found myself reassessing my place and purpose in the music world. It felt very difficult to come up with beats I found interesting which caused a lot of insecurity and unsureness in my mind about whether I still had it in me to create music. I have been active in the music world since I was 15 years old and have always thought of myself as a “lifer” when it came to playing music. This was the first time since I started that I felt any sense of unsureness about whether my body and mind would be able to keep creating in this way for the rest of my life. Now that things have started to get back to a version of what we used to know in the music world, I am finding my confidence in belonging again. I feel stronger having gone through that low and I think I will ultimately come out the other side with a better head for creating.
I spoke about this recently to Emma Ruth Rundle, but I was just wondering, if you had some time to dig around your personal storages and past, while it seemed the world took a break? I went back to our family house for a number of times and I remember going through boxes, I haven’t opened for years and listening to albums from my teenage days.
Hozoji: Absolutely. I have a strong tendency to hoard memories so I have many boxes in my basement that I started digging through during lock down. I found and watched a bunch of old home videos from my childhood that I hadn’t seen in many years. Also, my mom passed away last summer and she was a memory hoarder as well so I inherited all these new old memories to process. Tons of photos and drawings and journals. It’s simultaneously heartwarming and nauseating to dive into your past in that way.
What were some of the strongest cultural experiences you had recently? For me it was definitely movie Dune, including its soundtrack. I remember having totally bad day, right after New Year’s. Back to January working regime and a couple of negative surprises. So I decided to take a long walk with Cult of Luna’s Mariner album in my headphones and to watch Dune for the second time in a cinema. Did you like the movie and its soundtrack?
Ben: I loved it! That’s the last movie I’ve seen in the theater also. I love a sci-fi block buster! And yeah the music was incredible.
If I understood correctly, your previous project Harkonen took an inspiration from this world. How far did you get with the books? I am just in the middle of the first one. How far do you recommend me to go with the Dune books series?
Ben: Oh man, I’m such a fraud in that! Harkonen was named from a coffee table book of HR Geiger (sp?) artwork. He apparently designed the ‘House Harkonen’ in the old movie. The word looked interesting and that was all that was.
Just a close up of the corner of my face with my right eye. We liked that little chunk so much we ended up making it the cover.
Artwork of your new album is amazing. What do you see there? I see a face and my friend sees a city. I love how the material sticks out and it calls for a touch. What were your instructions within the cover image?
Hozoji: The artist, Brian Montuori, paints these awesome, trippy, smeared, fucked up portraits. Ben had the idea to have him do some portraits of us for the album art. The first glimpse we got of what he was working on for us was just a close up of the corner of my face with my right eye. We liked that little chunk so much we ended up making it the cover. He made three other portraits that ended up on the inside of the record. I agree, one of the koolest parts of the cover is how you can see the texture of the paint. Thick and touchable for sure!
What is your feeling towards drawings in general? I gladly went recently to support my friend a painter about 70 km to see her exhibition, as I have really stronger motivation to support everything meaningful these days.
Ben: Absolutely. I feel very compelled to be around people and do things. This trip to Europe is going to be overload, I cannot wait!
You are with Sargent House label for almost ten years. How did it start and what are your feelings about the cooperation?
Hozoji: Sargent House swooped in and helped us out when we were scrambling to try and figure out how to put out our own record. We had previously been on Hyrdahead and had a complete album ready to go into the studio when they decided it was time to close their doors. We did a kickstarter and raised money to record the album, and when the album was complete Sargent House heard it and offered us a place in their family. They really do nurture a family feeling with their label and that is an important feeling to have in the music world.
How did you come up with the wild sax in the first track? As I have really dived into jazz for the past couple of years, I would like to recommend you the band called The Comet Is Coming, if you haven’t heard it before.
Ben: Ladies and gentlemen… Joel Cuplin! Joel is a dear friend of ours, I play in a band called Constant Lovers with Joel and he’s such a shredder on the sax, the bizarre nature of that song just seemed right. We got him to come up and shred a couple shows recently, wish we could always have him.
I am sorry to see your message on the Verellen Amplifiers website. As you are very passionate about gear, were there some interesting discoveries gear-wise lately for you?
Ben: Oh it’s not sad, it’s great! I can still make amps if/when I wanna and keep the business out of it. I love electronics and exploring new circuits is endless fun, but it’s real nice to put it back in the hobby column. To be honest, I can’t recall any discoveries but I’m kind of basic in that regard, I tend to use the same pedals etc. I’ve had for 20 years.
How is your brother Dave? What is he doing music-wise right now and if I understood correctly, both of you are really into beers. If I can take you for a beer in Prague, it will be my honor. I can also gladly arrange a trip to a small scale brewery, if you will be interested.
Ben: Dave’s great he’s busy with his family, restaurants, and working as a fire fighter. I got him out to see the Plosives show the other night. I don’t think I’m a super smart beer person, I like beer but I go for the real light cold bubbly stuff. Would be rad to get a beer!
With your brother, who brought who to music? Especially heavier music.
Ben: Dave definitely sucked me in. He had a guitar and a cd collection. I was definitely stealing all that stuff from his room. Then he started Botch and I’ve been tagging along ever since!
It’s simultaneously heartwarming and nauseating to dive into your past.
Are you looking forward to listen to some country/folk with Brian Cook on the tourbus?
Ben: Haha different vans, but I did also learn about a lot of music growing up hanging around with Brian. But I don’t know these days I imagine everything Brian listens to is like extreme noise or drone or something. He seems like he’s always pushing into weirder and weirder territories. His taste might be too far out there for me these days. I saw Brian and Aaron Turner at a show that was a bunch of straight up Deathklok style death metal bands. And I was like, I want to understand how this isn’t funny? Cookie monster between song banter and the whole thing. And everyone in the crowd looking on with tense facial expressions, there was Brian and Aaron, looking intense! Yeah though, separate vans. Hahaha…
You did a great job as an assistant engineer on Mastodon’s Blood Mountain album. Are you proud of the guys how far they got and how is your passion for audio engineering progressing? Do you also help some younger bands?
Ben: Awe thanks. I mostly documented the settings etc.. and sometimes run laundry. I did record the robot voice on Birchmen. That’s about the extent of my creative involvement. I do like recording and I’ve been getting back into that more in the depths of covid. I haven’t worked with younger bands in a long time, mostly because all my friends aren’t younger anymore. Haha….
For the past five years, I am organizing music presentations for visually impaired in Prague. I would like to play a track from your latest album, when it will be out officially. Which track from the latest album would you pick? I am still having hard time to pick between “Do Not Expose to the Burning Sun” and “Mouth Thinker”.
Ben: Ah.. I like Do Not… a lot
And what were some of the most interesting songs you heard for the past year or two, no matter the genre?
Ben: I got really obsessed with Marting Denny stuff last year. My friend and I built out a tropical themed airbnb and that was sort of the soundtrack for that project. Try and have a bad day listening to that stuff… Impossible!