I had to apologize to Brian Vollmer, lead singer of the veteran Canadian hard rock/metal band Helix. Even though they've been around since 1974 and released a load of records, they've often got overlooked in my house. And I've realized that's a major crime.
Checking out their latest record, Best of 1983-2012, I found out I had been missing a ton of great material. There are 21 songs on the record and all of them make an impact on your ears. Far from burning out over the long haul, the band's later material is actually some of their best. Songs like "Axe to Grind", "Champagne Communist" and "Make 'em Dance" rival their better known material from the mid '80s heyday, "Heavy Metal Love" and "Rock You".
It's been my loss but I'll be making up for lost time in the future. In the meantime, I spoke with Brian about the band's career, his new solo intentions and his involvement with the Metal on Ice book/record that is coming out shortly.
antiMusic: Considering most young men get into rock & roll for the girls and partying, I realize this is your job now and how you support yourself and the easy answer is you like what you do but how do you view playing music in the year 2013 as opposed to the mid '70s when you first started?
Brian: Well, it's always the excitement that draws me. I love traveling. And my biggest kick in the world is writing a new song and listening back to it in the studio. So nothing in that respect has changed. As far as the sex, drugs and rock & roll
I'm married and my wife is my best friend. She helps me with the band. She sends out the records and she's a rock & roll girl just like I'm a rock & roll guy. She worked at the original Hard Rock Cafι in London England and she knows as many people in rock as I know. But I guess, as far as what keeps me going? It's just the love of music.
antiMusic: Like most bands that have been around for a while, there has been a stream of lineup changes. I'm sure you've lost friends and situations that you thought were good for the band at the time but do you think the continual infusion of new blood has actually kept the band going forward?
Brian: Well, I think there's been something like 28 people in Helix over the years but the main lineup has always been the recognizable lineup from the '80s: Paul, Brent, Paul, myself and Daryl. And it's still me, Daryl, and Fritz. Brent is still involved with the band in video production but he's decided to go off the road and I can kind of understand that because if you're not into the road, it's pretty tough. I love the road personally. I love traveling. I love going to new places and that really turns my crank.
antiMusic: In the past you've mentioned about the stress that you felt while writing albums like Walking the Razor's Edge. Is it easier now just to do your job now that you've achieved a level of success?
Brian: It's definitely easier to write, that's for sure. I think I have more of an understanding of how the actual process works. Having said that, I hope I haven't put the curse of death on myself (laughs). But you know, when I get together with Sean Kelly, my writing partner nowaways, we don't have much time to write because Sean is so busy traveling the world and I have a full plate of stuff I have to do too. So we make the most of our time and usually our writing sessions only last 3-4 hours and then we don't see each other for a couple of months. But we get a lot done in that time and we've been very prolific with the time we had. I think Vagabond Bones, for instance was written in three or four writing sessions. Then we got Moe Berg in for one or two and that was it.
antiMusic: Your most recent record is the Best of 1983-2012. It's a pretty packed affair, I might add. When you were assembling the record, I'm sure it prompted more than a few memories. Are there any songs that surprised you by becoming one of your bigger hits?
Brian: Ah, not really but we had underground songs, you know, everywhere we go, people ask for different songs. We don't always know them, but if we do, we try to play them. I remember when we played with Del Shannon very early in our career and Del Shannon as you know had the hits "Runaway", "Hats off to Larry". But he had many hits in many different territories in the world and I remember talking to him about that and he would switch up his set depending on where he was playing to reflect the hits in that territory.
antiMusic: During the earlier years and the initial successes of the band, you were a songwriting force together with Paul Hackman. Why do you think you meshed so well together and was it like that right from the start?
Brian: Paul was just very much into writing and so was I, so you know, we just agreed to do a lot of work together writing. It was simple as that. Whereas the other guys weren't as involved, let's say as the two of us. But Paul was another guy who just loved writing songs and that's what he was there for. Early in the band's career when we were a cover band, it was me that pushed and pushed and pushed to do an album, not realizing at the time (laughs) how impossible that really was for us. But we somehow scraped together 26 thousand dollars and we did our first album, Breaking Loose and that was in 1979.
antiMusic: What is your favorite song from your collaborations with Paul?
Brian: Oh, geez there was many songs that I was proud of, that I wrote with Paul. You know, "Running Wild in the 21st Century"
"Heavy Metal Love" was probably the biggest hit we wrote together, "The Kids are All Shakin'". Some of the other ones Paul wrote with other people like "Deep Cuts the Knife", Paul wrote with Bob Halligan. "Wild in the Streets" he wrote with Ray Lyle. But I was always going out to Paul's place. He lived in Lucan, Ontario and we'd go out there and many a days were spent churning out songs.
antiMusic: "Heavy Metal Love" was one of your first big hits as well as popular videos. You started gaining mainstream success as videos were just starting to become popular. Were you a fan of them initially or were they viewed as a necessary evil?
Brian: Well, they weren't around when we went and made that video. No, there was I guess, film clips of artists back in the '50s but it was the first year for MTV and when Capitol first came to us and said they wanted to make a video, we thought they were going to bring in video cameras. I remember being very surprised when they brought in 36 mm, 35 mm, whatever the hell it is, right? And started filming in film and how bit a production it was. We had no idea. But it was the first year for MTV and we went right to heavy rotation in the United States because of that, because they didn't have any videos. But the effect on our careers was amazing. We were down in the United States, I remember coming into Washington, DC where we'd never played before in our career and there was a line up a block long.
antiMusic: Some of your later songs really took me by surprise. They were outside of what I expected from you guys compared to the mid '80s stuff. Tell me a bit about "Champagne Communist" which is one of my favorites by you.
Brian: Well "Champagne Communist" actually came about from a phrase from I picked from Sue Anne Levy's column from the Toronto Sun, back when, before Rob Ford became mayor and I was following it because the phrase was talking about the latte-sipping downtown crowd that seemed to spend money like it was going out of style and then later on I kind of applied it myself to the premier and a few other people that seemed like they were sipping that latte.
antiMusic: "Deep Cuts the Knife" was one of the first power ballads. You were one of the first metal bands to go in that direction. I guess you were looking to reach the ladies as well as the guys.
Brian: Yeah, we were always bringing the women back then, you know. We were good looking guys and stuff. And let's face it. We didn't make a lot of money, so the fringe benefits were what we lived on.
antiMusic: "Make Em Dance" is another of my favorites from this record. This clearly shows that you don't have to sacrifice a good rock song by adding a catching melody. Tell us how this song came together.
Brian: Well that song is about when we used to do the bar circuit and back in the day we had to be a jukebox. And the first thing the hotel owner would ask us when we walked in the bar was whether or not we were a dance band. And so we had to play stuff
in the early days, we even had to play "Saturday Night" by the Bay City Rollers and then we'd play an Aerosmith song and then we'd play, I don't know, something by Bad Company, and so on and so forth. So that's basically, that's what that song was about, make 'em dance because they didn't really care about the music or how well you could play your guitar or sing. All they cared about was whether or not people could dance because in their mind that meant that people were going to sweat and then people were going to drink and then they were going to make money.
antiMusic: Last year you put out the new song and video "I'm a Live Frankenstein". How much fun was it putting together that video?
Brian: That's actually an old video. That was done by Ray Lyle. That whole, how else could I say it, that whole perspective of that video was to do kind of a take off on Ed Wood, who you know is the worst director in Hollywood for horror movies. And I don't think a lot of people caught the joke, right, but we arrived at that because we had no money to do a video so we were kind of going that route as cheap as possible just like Ed Wood did. But that was the joke anyway. I don't know if people caught on to it. It cost 500 bucks for that video.
antiMusic: Wow. Last year, you also released "All I want for Christmas". As a die-hard Sens fan, all I can say is Buddy the blue and white need every little bit of help they can get. Seriously though, it's a good song and I'm sure it felt good to show your support for your team.
Brian: Well, the way I look at it, I'm a Leaf fan so it's from the heart. I think every year they don't win the cup I get airplay. And even when they Do win the cup, I'll get airplay, if that day ever arrives.
antiMusic: Yup, works either way.
Brian: But I wanted to write a Christmas song and I wanted to write a Leafs song and it just happened that the two came together, quite by accident at Sean's place while I was sitting there waiting to leave actually, one day, after a writing session.
antiMusic: You've done some pretty heavy world-wide touring in the past, including going out with KISS all over Europe for instance. Most people know by know that touring is not the glamorous activity you imagine when you're a kid. Regardless, I'm sure there has been some highlights along the way. What are some of the ones that stand out for you? Either bands that you've toured with or events that have happened.
Brian: Geez, there's a million of them. Where do I start? I remember one time Eddie Van Halen jumped on stage when Brent was doing a guitar solo and was running behind him and Brent didn't even realize he was on stage. He grabbed Ann Wilson's guitar because we were backing up Heart on that tour. He grabbed Ann Wilson's guitar and was jumping on stage and I said, I didn't realize who it was, and I said to the security, "Are you going to get that guy off stage or what? He's got Ann Wilson's guitar." And the guy said, "YOU get him offstage. It's Eddie Van Halen."
And then after the show, Eddie and Alex were standing beside the stage when we came off, and Brent came off and he was kind of in shock and he said, "Hi how's it going? ah ah ah, Wanna come out for a beer?" And they went, "Okay." And they came up to the dressing room and you know, I remember sitting around talking to them.
I remember we had a chance to be produced by Mutt Lange and we turned it down to go with Mike Stone. I think that was a pivotal time in our career. Ah, geez I remember doing three dates with Rush at the Nassau Coliseum, and in Largo, Maryland where we sold out. I remember playing with Aerosmith at the Philadelphia Spectrum. Sold out 20 thousand seats. Touring all across the United States in 1984 with Whitesnake, Quiet Riot, 20 thousand seats. I don't know, I could go on for hours.
antiMusic: You participated in the London Show recently with Whitesnake and Journey and company. Did you get to renew any past friendships or because of scheduling was it business as usual?
Brian: No, I didn't really. Coverdale was back there, but I didn't really talk to him. I don't know, he may have been having a bad night. But the guys in Journey I talked to, they were great. Neal Schon and the new singer, Arnell Pineda and Deen Castronova. You know, that band's professional on and off stage. I'm not really a huge Journey fan. I can appreciate the songs, that's for sure but they were a class act. I can't say enough good things about those guys.
antiMusic: So you're involved with the Metal on Ice project. What can you tell us about it that hasn't already been out there?
Brian: Well, first off there seems to be confusion about what Metal on Ice is. Metal on Ice is a book that Sean has written about Canadian metal, hard rock bands from the '80s that have influenced Sean's career. Sean Kelly has his own band, Crash Kelly. He also plays guitar for Nelly Furtado, Carole Pope. Plays with Carl Dixon all the time. And he plays bass for Gilby Clark. And he works for Coalition Management out of Toronto which is Rob Lanni, Arnold Lanni's brother. Coalition is the business behind all this.
And they have an advance order of 5 thousand units of the book through Indigo and the release party is also going to be accompanied with a concert. It's going to feature Lee Aaron, Darby Mills, Russ from the Killer Dwarfs, Nick Walsh from Slik Toxik, Carl Dixon and myself. We're going to do a couple songs each. Christopher Ward is going to be the MC that night and they're also bringing out a CD to go along with that, which is songs by the original artists, redone with the original singers being brought in so it's pretty cool. And they've got a new song Sean wrote with Nick called "Metal on Ice" and I think everybody's going to sing a couple lines on the song and that's going to be the single to radio.
antiMusic: Excellent. Also, you've mentioned recently online that you're starting off a solo career alongside Helix.
Brian: Well yeah well the solo career is more out of necessity than anything else. In Ontario, the bar scene has deteriorated to such an extent that you don't really see any recording acts, like classic rocks acts in bars anymore because there's no way for the poor guy in the bar (the bar owner) to make any money. If you do the math on a 150 seat club, at 15 bucks a head, you almost have to sell out to break even on the bloody band. And that's not taking into consideration the advertising, the rider, this and that and everything else.
So, what was even worse than that, was that to play those bars and to go in at a price that makes sense for the guy to hire us, he had to drop the price of the band to such an extent that it screwed up our festival casino prices. In other words, we go to festivals and casinos, they're always more money and they start to low ball us because we were playing for less money in the clubs. So we had to just quit playing clubs in Ontario anyway. And once we did that, I still wanted to play, so I decided to go out and do a solo thing where I play Helix stuff, stuff from my solo album, couple of cover songs and keep my self busy.
antiMusic: When do you anticipate releasing the solo record?
Brian: Ah, it'll probably be sometime in the spring of next year. It's a long process and I've got about 5 things on the go right now. But I want to get it out as soon as possible because you know I want to get on top of this and just get product out there. Give us more of a foundation to work this solo thing.
antiMusic: What's on the schedule for Helix the foreseeable future?
Brian: Ah, that'll probably be at the end of next year. We'll just continue writing. I've got tons of songs in the can with Sean. Right now it's just a matter of getting together and getting it all worked out. Time is the thing we don't have.
antiMusic: And I assume you'll be back on the circuit next summer with the band.
Brian: Well, you know, playing nowadays, it's a different cat. People say all the time, are you touring? But even the big bands don't tour as much anymore. We used to go out and be gone for six months and then come home. But those days are kind of gone. Even bigger bands, like, I don't know, The Sheepdogs, for instance, they might get a weekend date and they'll get a couple more dates around it but because flights are so expensive and now everybody runs Monday to Wednesday, I'll have to go back and play bars or something if forced to, you know, they basically fly in for the weekend, do the gig and fly home. They're called fly-ins. So you get an anchor date and then you get two smaller dates around it and bob's your uncle.
antiMusic: It's too bad the way things are.
Brian: Ah well, too bad the way things are but you gotta adjust to the changing conditions. You know, John Lennon said either you grow with music or music outgrows you. And you can really apply it just to the business end of music business. It's constantly evolving right now and you have to be on top of it all the time to keep up with the technology and just the changing way bands are getting their music out there, how they're playing, how they're touring. Everything.
Morley and antiMusic thank Brian for taking the time to do this interview.
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