Inventive, Strange & Addictive: We Caught Up With Ben Verellen & Dana James Of Helms Alee

Stillicide describes the continual dripping of water. A rhythmic pattern which leaves an imprint wherever it lands. The word, which is a song title and also the title of the latest Helms Alee record, is suited perfectly for the band whose massive, deep and dense sound is unforgettable. We sat down with Ben Verellen and Dana James and talked about their oceanic inspiration and going with the flow.

What specifically about water [draws you to use it for album covers, lyrics, etc.]?
Ben Verellen: The first thing that comes to mind is just where we live. Seattle/Tacoma is surrounded by the Puget Sound and the ocean and all that, so it’s in our face every day. At some point, you get a little older and you start to appreciate it and get inspired by it. All of the stuff that doesn’t matter when you’re a kid. Then at some point it’s like, this is actually incredible and it’s right here and it’s been here the whole time and has probably had something to do with your outlook, your perception of things. Especially when you travel around the country and you see all the people who live in landlocked places. It’s just different. It’s a different feeling. You can’t put your finger on what it is and why. It’s just a subtle, different thing. It gets in you and it’s interesting.

Does the water inspire your sound at all? Do you hear waves and think, I need to make a song that sounds like this?
Ben: I wouldn’t say that literally…
Dana James: I think so. I think that Hozoji [Margullis] would, if she was here, that she would say yes.
Ben: Now she would. Absolutely.
Dana: I mean, she listens to the sound of bubbles. Like diving. The bubbles that rise from the apparatus. She listens to that to go to sleep at night. And whales and stuff like that. I would say directly.
Ben: And she’ll talk about a drum beat and be like, I just want to make it sound like rolling waves. It blows my mind.
Dana: She is the sea. She is the sound. The Puget Sound.

Wasn’t it just about two weeks ago that you got finished with the Melvins tour? Or a week ago?
Dana: Exactly two weeks ago.

Okay, so after you’re done with this tour, are you going on another one? Or taking a break? What are you doing after this next thing?
Dana: We’re definitely taking a break for a minute. I mean, we’ve got nothing on the books.
Ben: We’re going home. We’ve all got things, other life aspirations, waiting for us at home. It’s a good time to not be on tour in the dead of winter and get home and try to get back at all of the other things going on.
Dana: Paying off the bills and saving more money to go on tour again.
Ben: Right, regroup. But hoping to, during the springtime, do it again.

I feel like this album was really… like, one song to the next song it was completely different so many times. There was a lot of contrast. Did you purposely lay out the songs like that?
Dana: When we get the songs all done and mixed and everything, we all take it home and listen to it and we come up with the songs that we hear next to each other. Then we come together and discuss it and eventually end up at something.
Ben: The songs don’t have any sort of preconceived idea about a composition for a record. We just spit out whatever comes and, at some point, compile what we have and try to piece something together that makes sense. Inherently, the songs are probably all different from each other because it’s that sort of band.
Dana: We don’t ever really think about anything like that.

Did you go into this album wanting to do things that you had never done before? What was different about this one than anything before?
Ben: I feel like it’s pretty unintentional and there’s not any conversation about what are we going to do differently this time? I would say what ended up being different is that we ended up spending a lot more time on the details. Things like vocal harmonies and kind of complicated arrangements. Stuff that we would just bang out. And we still are just kind of banging it out, but it’s a little bit more.
Dana: It was a little more focused.
Ben: Yeah, a little more, let’s dive into that and tighten it up and figure out exactly what we’re doing there.
Dana: We learned how to do it better from record to record. This one seemed a little more dialed in as people working together in general.
Ben: Part of that, too, is we went to record out of town for the first time, across the country, and we had a real short time-frame to do it. The pressure was on to have our ducks in a row and know what we were trying to accomplish and do it in a week-and-a-half. We couldn’t go in with a real vague idea; we needed to be prepared.

When you write, how do you decide who sings on which songs?
Ben: Whether it’s a riff or a beat or something, we’ll come together and have a sketch for a song at some point and somebody will be like, “I have an idea for vocals for that”.
Dana: It’s almost whoever’s first.
Ben: First-come-first-serve. Or, I’ve got an idea for that but I’m not quite sure and someone’s like, “I can’t come up with an idea for that. What’s your idea for that?” And then they show it and we just do that.
Dana: Sometimes we combine efforts, too. Or sometimes we use one and mix them.

When you’re writing, when do you decide that a song is done?
Ben: I think it depends. There are some songs that are done the day we come up with them. Then other songs we have a riff or part and we spend sometimes a couple of months, sometimes over a year.
Dana: It gets kicked around a lot, just put with other things.
Ben: At some point some other idea comes up and it’s like, “Oh! What about that old thing?
Dana: I feel like all the answer to all of our questions are like, “Uh I don’t know, we don’t plan it, we don’t know! It’s not planned, it’s not planned! That’s even better though! If it’s this good and not planned.
Ben: It’s better that way, you know!
Dana: That’s what’s fun about it to me, I guess, is that we get to go do that and we get to play! We just get to have fun and hang out with our friends and play music.

This whole show none of you seemed forced. Some shows it seems like people are like, “I’m going to play this the exact same every night.
Dana: Definitely not us.
Ben: We wouldn’t be able to do that. We prefer not to.

Is there a song on this album that you’re the most proud of? Or one that you think you spent more time on than all of the others?
Dana: Honestly, I feel like every single time I listen to the record or play a song, a different one sticks out to me every time. Like, I really like that song tonight and the next night it’ll be something completely different. I just find little things I like about them.
Ben: I’m trying to think… in terms of a song we spent more time on or spent more effort hashing out the details on… I don’t know.
Dana: I feel like we did with all of them.
Ben: Yeah, all of the songs. I don’t think there were any songs on this record that came together [snaps] in an instant. They were all hashed out over long periods of time.

One of the Saturn employees brings up the topic of football, which derails us momentarily. Dana mentions that Ben has to bring up football in every interview. We talk about the Seattle Seahawks, of which I know nothing, and compare tattoos. Ben has the Seahawks bird logo on his arm and I have a realistic seahawk on mine. Again, Helms Alee are always linked back to Washington and the sea.

Are there any groups that aren’t so well-known that you think should be more well-known?
Dana: I’ve just been listening to Trevor Dickson a lot for the last couple of weeks.
Ben: Yeah, he’s not in the same genre by any means. He’s a guy from Tacoma who’s been in Brooklyn for about ten years now and he moved out there and started a family and got a job and made a life for himself. Brilliant musician and has been since the Tacoma days. He has a solo record and it’s really good.

Words & Photo: Teddie Taylor – Stillicide is out now on Sargent House.
You can also read the interview here:

No Comments Yet

Comments are closed