By Carl Begai
Helix frontman and founder Brian Vollmer is a prime example of someone who makes music for the right reasons. While some long-suffering veterans of the biz jump on the nostalgia / reunion train for (supposed) big bucks and other artists – old and new – bitch about how unkind the music industry is these days as they release uninspired slabs of forgettable tunes, Vollmer is busy leading the bull around by the horns. As far as he’s concerned the present day lack of big production budgets and flashy marketing that punctuated Helix’s ‘80s heyday doesn’t make his new music any less viable, and he’s out to prove it. So while he looks back fondly on the past, Vollmer is focused on the future, ready to remind people why Helix is called the hardest working rock band in Canada.
And for those who are only dimly aware of Helix, stick around. You may learn something.
“Personally, I think the best album we ever did was No Rest For The Wicked,” he says of the perceived runaway success of 1987’s Wild In The Streets, an album that had long legs thanks to two videos put into high rotation at home in Canada. “The best selling album was Walkin’ The Razor’s Edge, at least in North America, and Long Way To Heaven was a #1 album in Sweden, so I guess Helix’s popularity depends on the territory you’re talking about. Wild In The Streets, I think Capitol Records decided even before the album came out that they were going to drop the band. The way record companies used to work back then, you needed to have the support of one of the top guys at the company, and our top guy who was basically demoted and finally paid out to leave the company for supposedly doing some things…”
As mentioned, Vollmer’s ability to keep the Helix machine moving forward rather than trying to merely keep it afloat comes from his uncomplicated love for music.
“The thing that keep me going is the thing that got me going; writing songs. It’s always been about writing songs for me, and then going out and performing them. And even though those Capitol album were our best selling albums, on a personal level I’m actually more satisfied with some of the stuff I’ve written since then. As for whether or not I get frustrated, there are pros and cons with being in the business nowadays. I have total control over the project so I only have myself to blame if it doesn’t work out, but on the other hand the money is definitely a concern. You need money to record, so I have to go out and work to get the money to do that.”
Vollmer finances his Helix life in part by teaching music, specifically the classical Bel Canto method of singing. A second career he’s had for quite some time.
“Yes, that’s true, and I’ll expand on that, because I’m one of the last people in the world to teach true Bel Canto, which is the only way to sing as far as I’m concerned,” says Vollmer. “Bel Canto is about maximum effect with the minimum amount of effort, and if it wasn’t for Bel Canto I wouldn’t be singing today. This is 35 years after I had nodes on my vocal chords so bad that I was told by a throat specialist I would never sing again. I’ve been using it since 1975.”
“I developed nodes on my vocal chords very shortly after I went out on the road,” he explains, “and back then it was required to do three to five sets a night for six or seven nights a week. A lot of times we’d do Saturday afternoon matinees on top of that, which totally shredded the voice. Many singers had their careers ended because of that kind of schedule. Nowadays I see my peers in the business that have been around since the ‘80s, and you can hear them cheating at notes, trying to sing around the high notes, changing melodies, dropping key, and it’s all because of vocal abuse. The very nature of rock is not conducive for relaxed singing. Bel Canto is actually a classical method of singing. You can take a lot of the tension out of the vocal chords and not hurt your voice.”
Look to the Helix catalogue (listen here) for proof of just how effective Bel Canto truly is. Vollmer’s voice is just as big and brash now as it was 25 years ago, no studio tricks or backing tracks required.
“Yes, it comes from learning how to sing properly. The biggest comment I got on Power Of Rock N’ Roll, which was our second last album, was that my voice sounds exactly the way it did back in 1983.”
Making music for over three decades, Vollmer has experienced the change from analog to digital recording. Asked if he has a preference, it turns out that as old school as he may be Vollmer enjoys today’s way of working in the studio.
“I like recording nowadays because it’s a hell of a lot cheaper,” Vollmer admits. “Back then just the analog 2” tape would cost us a bloody fortune. You’d use five reels to record an album but you always had to have safeties, so you’d need 10 reels at $250 a pop. That was a major cost, and the tapes didn’t last. I don’t notice a big difference between analog and digital.”
Was it daunting at all to realize analog was on its way to becoming an antiquated form of recording when technology started to invade the studio?
“Not really, because I’m not the guy twisting the nobs. I hire people to do that because being a good engineer or producer is an around the clock job that requires you to do it every day all day long and be at the top of your field, so I don’t go there. I never had the time to learn that stuff because I’d rather be writing songs and hire people that have the expertise in that field. I just let them go for it. I listen to the finished results and I know what I want to hear at the end of the day.”
“I found back in the day there were too many cooks in the kitchen,” he continues. “I always tell this story about when we were in England doing the Wild In The Streets album. We used to have this habit of always listening to the mix, the whole band, and then we’d go back down to the studio where our producer Mike Stone was waiting for us, and we’d say ‘We want you to change this and that.’ After about the 10th take of this one song – and of course the bassist wants the bass louder, the guitarist wants the guitar louder – I said I couldn’t tell a damn difference between it and the last mix, I didn’t know what the hell the guys were talking about. They told me I was being lazy and didn’t want to take the time to get the best mix, so we took it back down and Stone played the new mix. The guys thought it sounded so much better, and Stone turned around and said ‘I fooled ya; it’s the exact same mix you heard the last time. The exact friggin’ same.’”
“That was part of the problem back then. You could beat things to death. There was also demo-itis, where you’d fall in love with the sound of the demo and it didn’t matter what you did when you recorded it properly, you had the demo in your head. Nowadays we go in and we record very quickly. Personally, I don’t think it rock n’ roll that you need to spend two years diddling around with the sound. We’re thinking about calling this new album It’s Rock Science, Not Rocket Science because that sums up what I think about it.”
The new album, due for release later this year, features the addition of Crash Kelly frontman Sean Kelly as Helix’ new bassist and songwriting partner for Vollmer. On top of that, singer/guitarist Moe Berg from Toronto’s AOR rock act The Pursuit Of Happiness has contributed song ideas to the next record.
“We try to stick close to the Helix sound, obviously, because I don’t want to make a right hand turn, but whenever you write with different people you’re going to get a different perspective,” Vollmer offers. “There are bound to be some differences in the sound. Sean’s influences are more along the T-Rex and David Bowie line, and you can hear that in his Crash Kelly stuff. Moe Berg… I don’t even know what his influences are. When we write we come up with something totally different, and when I throw my influences into the mix it comes out sounding like Helix, but it might be a little bit different from the last time around. We’ve done two tracks together; one of them sounds like it could have come off of Walkin’ The Razor’s Edge, the other is a shuffle, so we’ll see how it comes out. We clicked right off the bat when we wrote together and that’s a special thing.”
“Brent’s now back in the band,” he adds, referring to long time Helix guitarist Brent Doerner, who was on board from 1975 – 1990, “and the way we’ve been writing we’ve taken things to a new level as a band. Brent was largely responsible for that, especially on the one song we wrote with Moe Berg.”
Talk of Doerner quite naturally conjures up the memories of guitarist Paul Hackman, tragically killed in 1992 in a car accident while Helix was on tour. Vollmer credits him as “the heart and soul” of the band. He was an integral part of Helix and he is sorely missed.
“Paul was a very special person and a very special writer, too. He had a gift for coming up with these great guitar riffs but he wasn’t a technical, tight player. He had this pre-CBS Strat and there were grooves so deep in the frets that the strings would all go out of tune when he pressed them down (laughs). We kept telling him to get the thing re-fretted but he never would. Feel-wise he was a fantastic player and a great writer. He had a terrific sense of melody and when he left us I went many, many years trying to find someone else to write with. It took me years and years before I clicked with anyone else.”
Go to this location for an in-depth Helix history lesson.
Revamped Helix logo by Carl Begai… because he had some extra time on a Sunday morning…