When the Helio Sequence last came to Birmingham — performing alongside Shabazz Palaces at the Bottletree in January 2013 — they were touring behind Negotiations, their reserved and introspective fifth LP.
When they return to Birmingham on June 12 for a show at Saturn, they’ll be in a very different headspace. Their latest release, this year’s The Helio Sequence, contrasts nicely with the darker tones of its predecessor, right down to its colorful, sun-drenched album cover.
Their self-titled album is an effortless listen, a collection of ten short, simple songs drenched with shoegazey reverb that surrounds and bolsters lead singer Brandon Summers’ unassuming vocals. There’s a summer-y warmth to the record as well, particularly on songs like “Inconsequential Ties” (which owes more than a little to Stealers Wheel’s 1972 classic “Stuck in the Middle with You”) and mid-album standout “Upward Mobility.”
Some of that warmth, Summers says, might come from the unorthodox way the band recorded the record. Last May, the band, consisting of Summers on guitar and vocals and Benjamin Weikel on drums and keyboards, entered the studio with a very specific goal: to make as many songs as they possibly could by June 1.
“Our friends had been playing a game called the 20-song game, which had everyone agreeing to meet at a certain time in the morning and writing, or trying to write, 20 songs throughout the entire day, and then getting together at the end of the day and listening to what each other had [done] and just appreciating what went into the process.” Summers said.
“We started to do that, and spent our first day doing it, and got a lot out of it,” Summers added. Inspired by the process, the group expanded the 20-song game to over a month. At the end of that month, the group had recorded a staggering 26 songs. They then sent those songs out to friends and family, asking them to vote on their favorites. The 10 songs with the most votes were chosen to be on the album.
Summers says that the process was buoyed by their work with Brazilian band Quarto Negro, whose album they had spent the previous year helping to record and mix. The group also spent two months “making huge upgrades” to their studio, collaborating with the Portland Custom Shop on new, custom-made recording equipment.
“There was a lot of momentum,” Summers said. “We felt really good, really positive going into recording the new record, and that really rubs off.”
The result of that optimism, as well as the band’s expedited writing and recording process, led to an album that feels much less belabored over than Negotiations, Summers said.
“That has as much to do with the process as wherever we were in life at that point, emotionally,” he said. “There was the conscious half of it — in writing the songs that quickly we were eschewing the introspection. It was more about working in the moment, getting the first idea out and doing a lot less self-censoring.”
Similarly, the new album’s influences are harder to detect. After Negotiations was released, Summers pointed to albums like Brian Eno’s Ambient series or Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock as clear reference points. Now, however, he says the new album’s inspirations are much more implicit.
“The interesting thing about this process was that with less time to consciously think about what we were being influenced by — because everything was in the moment and there was a lot less of an [external] input — it felt like the stuff that was coming out [of the recording sessions] was really native to us, our own thing,” Summers said. “It wasn’t like we were sitting down, swapping music and saying, ‘Oh, that’s really cool, yeah, we’re listening to Talk Talk a lot right now,’ or whatever. It was just solid head-down work for one month.”
“Honestly, it was stuff we had built up over the years, having now played together for 15-plus years and having listened to all this music that we share,” Summers added. “Working in the moment like that, it really felt like what was coming out was an expression of Benjamin and I, and that’s another reason why it’s called The Helio Sequence.”
Despite the title, though, Summers says that the album is not a definitive statement of the band’s identity.
“Every record is an expression of the identity of a band,” he said. “It’s not explicitly meant to be about that. It has more to do with the fact that when Benjamin and I wrote all the songs and had compiled the 26 of them that we thought were finished enough to give out to all of our friends and family, we kind of stepped back and looked back at the body of work that we had and we thought it was really all-encompassing of everything we had done in the past, everything that we are interested in at the moment and things we see for the future.”
And even though the Portland-based duo have been playing together since 1999, Summers says that their dynamic is still shifting in interesting ways.
“It’s always changing. That’s been the main thing about it,” Summers said. “Every album that we put out, we surprise ourselves with where we are. The beauty of it is actually not trying to consciously choose that too much and to let the music take you where it does. That’s what we’ve always done, and that’s what’s kept us going for this long.”
The Helio Sequence will perform at Saturn on Friday, June 12. Lost Lander will open. Doors will open at 8 p.m.; the show begins at 9 p.m. Tickets are $12. For more information, visit saturnbirmingham.com.