Roadburn Recall: Helms Alee talk self-preservation, longevity, and redefining heaviness

Photo: Ron Harrell

Last month, Astral Noize packed its bags and boarded a comically short flight to the Netherlands to attend Roadburn Festival 2022. As the first in-person edition of the celebrated event since 2019 many were simply thrilled to be attending at all, but never one to play it safe the festival has continued to diversify and expand its own definition of heaviness; consider this year’s introduction of a bona fide jazz stage, or the incredible performances of UK Grime MCs Flowdan and Logan playing alongside The Bug.

We spoke to a number of the artists playing across the four day event, and in the coming days and weeks will be sharing these discussions under the banner Roadburn Recall.

Below you’ll find our first interview, with Ben Verellen of Helms Alee. We’re publishing extended versions of these interviews for Patreon subscribers, so if you want to know more about touring post-COVID, how the band found britpop, and the artwork for their latest record, consider becoming a subscriber via this link.

So, on Roadburn and the fact that this is your first rest date since the festival. My first question really is, how is the ‘romance’ of being on the road in ‘22? How does it feel to be back at it?

Ben Verellen: That’s been the big question. And, you know, we hadn’t done any kind of travelling to do music, obviously, for the last three years. So on paper it sounds dreamy, tagging along with our good buddies in Russian Circles. And in Europe, where touring is so well accommodated compared to the States. We’re very much in the comfort of a best case tour scenario for guys like us. So it all sounded like it was going to be dreamy, but then there was the fear of, well, how’s it gonna feel? To be really out there and really away from home and just sitting in a van all day, how’s that gonna feel? All my memories are the best parts of it, but then getting back down to it and then inserting additional stress and anxiety around COVID stuff, it’s kind of a question mark, sort of looming. But, you know, we’re three weeks into about a six week tour. And the conversations have all been about how amazing it’s been.

And also, we’re a few years older than last time we did this kind of thing. So there’s that as well. It’s another factor. So we’re figuring out how some of that has played into different ways to do things, how hard to hit it, trying a little more self care. Self preservation is kind of part of the calculation these days, but we all seem to be keeping our head’s on, and still having a good time. So it’s awesome, it kind of forces you to solve some problems that probably could have been dealt with a few years earlier. Like maybe we shouldn’t go out all night, or at all, maybe you should just kind of keep it together. Because tours are exhausting enough as it is, but it’s always tempting to be like, oh I can see all these old friends and catch up! We’re finding a balance.

I know that feeling, I think I’m at the age now where those nights are a good thing, but need to be deployed strategically with gaps in between.

Exactly. Yeah. I mean, that’s the trick. My friend Aaron, I think he said it well: if you can, treat a tour the same way you might treat your home time when there’s a weekend, which is kind of an acceptable time to plan for all the fun in the world. But then, also have your scheduled Monday night, you know, trying to insert that down time into tour life can be helpful, but sometimes easier said than done. You never know where you’re gonna find your old friends and whatnot.

You’re touring with Russian Circles who were at Roadburn too, on the same day as you guys. It’d be interesting to hear a little bit about the experience of playing Roadburn – originally Emma Ruth Rundle invited you guys as part of her curation for the cancelled 2020 fest. I’m also interested to hear a little about your relationship with her and how that came about.

Sure. I mean it goes so far back, Emma was playing in the band Red Sparowes when we first met her. And we did a tour, I think both us and Red Sparowes supported ISIS. And that was our first ‘get to know you’ with Emma, back in probably 2008 or 2009, something like that. And then we just stayed friends. She ended up starting the band Marriages, we did some touring with them. And we’ve been friends throughout, and also through Sargent House and old buddies there, and so it was really cool when she invited us to come when she’d gotten the chance to do the curation thing. But of course, that fell through sadly.

We had done Roadburn once before, again coming along with Circles in 2015, and that was a whirlwind, but fun. This similarly was a whirlwind, probably even more so, we were playing The Engine Room. It’s a stage kind of a little bit off the beaten path from the majority of stuff. And we find ourselves kind of schlepping our gear over these cobblestones, and there’s some confusion about how to get in the building. And it was initially like, wow, this is a little bit of a nightmare, I wonder if this is even gonna happen, we’re supposed to play in 20 minutes. But soon as we got in the door, all these really smart people whipped everything up. And before you know it we were set up ready to play, and it looked like a big room and we were worried – does anybody even know we’re here? How’s this gonna go down? But next thing we turned around and there was what looked like 1000 people in the room and it was just like, okay! We were shocked at how fun it turned out to be despite how chaotic it seemed at first, so hats off to those guys that are doing a bang up job of putting on such a crazy event for that many bands at that many stages and all that, pretty impressive.

Well from being in the audience it didn’t look like you’d only been outside the building 20 minutes earlier! I guess the outward vibe at Roadburn to someone like me who attends as a fan, is that it’s this place where like artists can meet and grow together as well. Does the reality match up to that, is there enough downtime to bump into peers and meet inspirations?

I think the way to get the most out of that (which I think is very much a real opportunity) is if you could play a show and make a weekend of the rest of it and plop yourself down and be able to wear both hats, you know, and be a performer one night and then the other nights just be out watching your buddies play and all that. I think you can have a totally ‘get to know you’ experience with all kinds of mutual weirdos, which is amazing but in our experience both times it’s been one and done. It’s like we show up, we play, and we’re out an hour after we play or two and it’s ‘hi and bye’, so unfortunately we didn’t really get to see much, I kept hearing from people like Emma saying ‘I saw you guys and shouted out!’ And I was like I didn’t see you at all and what a bummer. Kind of nuts, but yeah. It’s harsh grazing by a lot of old friends but I’ll take it, it’s better than not.

The last thing on Roadburn – this year their tagline was ‘redefining heaviness’. It feels quite apt for Helms Alee to be playing there, in that you guys have always seemed to have a slightly wider range of tools in the box than a typical heavy band. Do events like Roadburn make more sense to you guys, compared to a more typical ‘heavy’ festival? Or is it that, between the three people in the band, you like to play different styles of events?

Well, I mean, to be honest, I don’t think we typically get invited to too many of those sort of like, you know, ‘card-carrying member of the metal community, check in with your black hoodie on the way in’ sort of things. I think a lot of those people, they don’t really know exactly what to do with us to be honest. I think some people will say they’re heavy, but I don’t know, I just don’t quite get it. I think it’s sort of the general consensus amongst a lot of people that are hardcore members of the like, you know, strictly metal very specifically, I think they’re kind of a little bit lukewarm to Helms Alee, which is fine. I think that Roadburn is pretty special. I mean, I was just looking around at the bands playing and I was like, I can’t believe there are this many weirdos that are into this very specific thing, a little bit more broad than like, just a black metal festival or you know, like a desert thing or whatever. It seems to me that Roadburn is a little more specifically weirdo. So it’s pretty encouraging in a way, it’s super cool.

It’s awesome. I think we went from watching Jo Quail to watching LLNN, which was just like the most crushing thing, just so crazy. I think what’s great about Helms Alee is that very thing that you mentioned, being on paper a heavy act, but challenging people’s assumptions about what that could be. And it must be really fun, confusing heavy music fans like that?

Well, we’re confusing ourselves at the same time. It definitely feels like such a brew of what the three of us bring and there’s a constant, you know, tug of war and shifting around of ideas, we’re just as confused. And you know, whatever we are, there’s very little intention. There’s very little: let’s set out to do this exact thing. So I guess we’d share in the confusion, you might say?

Keep This Be The Way, artwork by Brian Montuori.

We’re with you along the journey. Your new LP – Keep This Be The Way. Whenever I say the title in my head I have to kind of stop and have a very deliberate rhythm with it. Because they’re familiar words in an unfamiliar order, could you tell us a little bit about the title?

Yeah, it was the record that we pieced together in our little home-built recording studio amongst the three of us as a COVID pod kind of thing. There were definitely some questions: should we keep doing this music thing? Is this helpful to us right now? But very quickly we realised it was pretty amazing. We don’t necessarily have a lot of close family around but we’ve like, we got each other, we got this music thing. So we’re saying we should definitely do it and this is, I’m sure, a few sips in, but we were just like, ‘keep this be the way’ and then someone said what did you just say? That doesn’t make any sense? But it’s got a ring to it. Let’s just stick with that. Perfect.

Amazing. So there you touched on the fact that you guys were in a bit of a COVID bubble, writing and recording together, did I read correctly that you guys did the lion’s share of the work in your amplifier shop, in the back room?

That’s right. Yeah, so I had slowly been winding down the amplifier business that I’ve been doing for fifteen years, I guess, but I had the space and I was kind of trying to figure out how to get the best use of it. And so at some point, we started punching holes in walls and putting windows in and glass and doing some sound treatment and acquiring little bits of equipment. And then COVID hit so it was pretty natural to just say, let’s get out of our practice space that we’re not allowed to go to anyhow, and let’s just go to the amp shop studio and just get to it.

Sounds fun. Sounds like dangerous levels of access to equipment.

It was, yeah. But it was, you know, throughout that whole thing the days were so short, we’d get up there about 10am or 9am. And we’d… Dana [James, bassist] manages a coffee shop a few doors down from where the amp shop was, so she’d break into there and turn on the machinery and make us coffee and we’d sit around and smoke and drink coffee and just talk about ideas. And then we’d stumble into the studio and just kind of chip away at something for two or three hours, and then it’d be like, everybody’s exhausted and wants to go home and go to sleep by 6pm. You know, it was a really weird kind of life. So there were no 12-hour sessions in there chugging away, it was just whatever tiny bit of creativity or energy to work that we could muster.

So you guys have had a relationship with Sargent House for four albums now. I feel like at this point, Cathy is almost as famous as the acts that she manages. And a real force for good. You see the footage of the retreats that they have for all the bands to get together. What’s that experience like?

Yeah, her and Mark are incredible. They work their asses off, they take risks on sort of otherwise inaccessible music. They’re like, man, you want to put another record? Cool, great, let’s do it. But they put a lot of thought into how to make the whole experience make sense, it’s not just like, go out there and hit the road and it’s gonna suck. It’s like, what makes sense to do? How’s everybody’s mental health? Those sorts of considerations. So everything’s a little bit more holistic. And you know, we’re not as hard hitting a working band as maybe a Russian Circles or a Deafheaven, or some of the other bands she manages – Chelsea Wolfe etcetera. But you know, she still has time to put energy behind what we’re doing. And has thoughtful ideas and creative solutions to how to make it make sense for little guys like us. So we definitely appreciate all the help.

You guys released your first two records on Hydrahead. And just purely because I’m a person of a certain age and I was definitely around for those years. I’m curious to know anything you can share about the experience of being on that label when it was at its peak in terms of roster and doing good things in the world of underground music.

It was great. That was all such a natural group of friends who were in bands you know. My older brother’s band Botch, I was taken along with them and helping them on tour. And in that process met you know, Aaron Turner and the Hydrahead guys, stayed at their house slept on their floor, you know, met like The Dillinger Escape Plan guys, the Cave In guys, the Converge guys, we were playing the same small little scrappy clubs here and there, the same basement shows and that sort of thing. It was just cool having a couple of people involved in the putting out records side of things to kind of glue what already felt like a pretty cohesive community, and to put the screws to it and make it a functioning thing and actually get records pressed and you put bands on tour together and that kind of thing. So yeah, it’s definitely a little potent snapshot from growing up and I feel really lucky to have been around all that stuff. It’s kind of crazy to look back all these years later and think man, I’m still in touch with a lot of these people. And I’m on tour with Brian right now and I grew up playing shows with those guys in bands together. And so it’s really cool that a lot of us did what we did, it definitely planted the seed for a lot of lifers and the music thing. There’s plenty of old weirdos still out here doing this, for one reason or another.

It’s really inspiring to see lovingly maintained acts with longevity. So yeah, absolutely couldn’t agree with you more.

We just, we all got the bug, you know, for better or worse.

Keep This Be The Way is out now on Sargent House. Order here.

Words: Luke Jackson

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