Helms Alee’s Dana James on Working Through Tough Spots in Song Development
With a mix of melody-driven post-rock, punk, prog, and pop, enormous, chugging riffs, and unusual use of time signatures and vocal interplay, Seattle’s Helms Alee has charted a musical path that touches on various influences but remains entirely distinct from its musical peers.
Comprised of of bassist Dana James, guitarist Ben Verellen, and drummer Hozoji Margullis, the band takes an egalitarian approach to its music, with each member contributing to songwriting and vocals. Together they have released four albums in less than a decade, starting with its powerful 2008 debut Night Terror up through their most recent LP, Stillicide. Adding to the magic are the rich, velvety tones that flow out of the band’s gear from Verellen Amplifiers, the boutique amplifier company Verellen has run since 2007. James plays her bass through a Verellen Meatsmoke and uses a pick because, as she says, “I play bass like a guitar.”
On Stillicide, Helms Alee has continued its mergings of intricate twists and textures with crunchy rhythms and hooks, a tactic that has resulted in what are arguably their most compelling songs to date. “Half of our brains want it to be something that is relatable, but the other half of our brains want it to be something that sounds interesting and weird. When we write songs it’s usually a mash of technical and feeling,” James explains.
Given those polarities, it seemed like James might have some words of wisdom to share with other musicians when it comes to working through difficult parts of song development. When we met up with James before the band’s recent show at Chicago’s Beat Kitchen, it turned out she did.
Check out her tips below. Stillicide is available now through Sargent House Records.
- Record everything. Helms Alee makes a habit of recording their songwriting sessions so they can revisit ideas later on. You never know when an idea you previously passed on could be a perfect match for something new. “We record everything,” James says. “No matter how bad it sounds we record it.”
- Listen to the recordings in the car, or another private space if you don’t have a car. “[My car] is my version of practicing at home,” James says, adding that “practicing while driving” helps her work out how to fit her vocals over complex rhythms since she doesn’t have to focus on playing an instrument at the same time. Connecting the two will come naturally. “It’s just creating the neural pathways. Doing two completely different things at the same time, the neural pathways aren’t naturally there and you have to slowly build them.”
- Trust your instincts. “[When I am writing] I never really think about how something is supposed to be,” James says. For example, the title track for Stillicide, which opens with a heavy, fuzzed-out bass solo, was born out of a riff she was experimenting with when she was the first to arrive at practice one day. When her bandmates arrived, they pieced the rest of the song together from there.
- Have patience with your bandmates (and vice versa) and with yourself. Though James says that some Helms Alee songs, like “Stillicide,” come together fairly easily others take more time and effort to get them just right, which makes good communication and cooperation between the bandmates that much more essential.“When you’re frustrated it is easy to give up,” James says. “If one of us has trouble getting something after playing it over and over, we’ll move on and come back to it later.”
- Don’t give up. “My thought about playing an instrument is that anyone can do it. If you’ve got the time and the determination you can do it,” James says. “If something seems hard, just keep trying and keep doing it because eventually you’re going to move on and time is going to pass. One day in the future you will realize that it’s easy for you now, and you’ll think ‘how was that ever so hard for me?’”