A genre-defying heavy-rock trio with three singing members, Helms Alee has had no trouble subverting expectations. Its latest album, Sleepwalking Sailors, once again is a mixture of metal attitude, structural experimentation, and surprising beauty.
Getting it released, though, was a hell of a task. When long-time label Hydra Head dissolved, the band entrusted the fate of its next record to its fans. And, thankfully, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Sleepwalking Sailors found a home on Sargent House, which released the album to much acclaim. We talked to guitarist Ben Verellen about the record, his side business making amps, and what makes for good camaraderie with band-mates Dana James and Hozoji Matheson-Margullis.
It’s still relatively rare to see a woman, let alone two (including a drummer), in a heavy rock band. Do you guys ever get any weird or sexist reactions?
Sexist reactions are pretty few and far between because the music community we are a part of is full of shredding women. It is still not an equal balance, but it is definitely not rare by any means. Just off the top of my head, Tacos!, Whore Paint, Trophy Wife…
What was it like starting work on a record without a label behind you? Was there any reticence when you were setting up the Kickstarter campaign?
When we found out that Hydra Head wouldn’t be involved with releasing new music, we were already a couple years into writing for Sleepwalking Sailors, so we knew that the record needed to happen one way or another. Before Sargent House stepped in, we were prepared to release it ourselves. Sure, that would’ve been a lot harder,and the Kickstarter could’ve failed, which would’ve been tough to bounce back from. But we were dedicated to getting the record out somehow, and this seemed like our only option.
How did you guys hook up with Sargent House?
Chris Common, who we had roped into coming up to do the engineering on the record, was living at Sargent House, and when he got home with the masters and was doing some tweaking to the mixes, it kind of fell into Cathy Pellow’s hands. She really liked it and told him, “I think I’m going to try and sign them.” Word got back to us, and we had already sent off the masters to get pressed ourselves, so we had to undo some of that, but that turned out for the better.
Has your work building amps affected the way that you record or write songs? What’s the next big thing that we can expect from Verellen Amplifiers?
Testing out amps after I have built or repaired them allows me lots of opportunities to mess around with riffs. When it comes to recording, I try not to get too far down the tone-chasing, amp-“A/B-ing” thing. I have a couple amps that I rely on, and I just try to focus more on playing. I’m working on a line of hi-fi tube stereo gear that is exciting and a new challenge. The prototypes so far have been well received; it’s gotten everyone really excited.
With the proliferation of -cores and other such microgenres, you guys still are very hard to pin down. Where do you draw your influences?
We’re par-core all the way! We really just like all that music, so it’s pretty hard to pin down for us too.
Going by your videos and the Kickstarter introduction, you guys seem to have a blast together.
There are no really outrageous stories that jump to mind. We tend to have a good time, but the other thing you might notice from our videos is that it’s all pretty poo-poo, pee-pee, silly adolescent-style hijinks. It’s that brand of fun more than hiding a shoebox full of turds in your tour-mates’ van or a penny in the wheel well.
Bands do this thing where they think, “Let’s see how much we can fuck with the other band, really bum them out.” And that’s not fun. And what other reason is there to do music? You’re not really in the band to make money. Even the bands I know that are “doing well”… that’s a hard living. You’re just going to let yourself down if you’re not trying to have fun.