Interview: Alison Chesley (Helen Money)
Alison Chesley plays extreme rock music under the moniker Helen Money. She does so with a cello.
That it is difficult to parse out exactly what Chesley does beyond the term “extreme rock music” stems from the fact that she does so without a traditional rock instrument. There just isn’t much precedent for her music.
There have been other metal cellists. Apocalyptica comes to mind, but they began as a cover act, and now compose original songs with drummers and singers that emphasis the metal parts of their DNA over the chamber music part. Jackie Perez Gratz played cello on Agalloch and Giant Squid records, as well as in Grayceon, but still did so in the context of a band. Chesley employs Jason Roeder of Neurosis and Sleep on some of her records, but does not sing.
Chesley further muddies the waters by playing with a wide variety of different artists. She’s played on albums by Russian Circles, Anthrax and, um, Disturbed. She’s also opened for Agalloch, but also for french prog and fusion legend Magma, as well as Shellac.
We spoke with Chesley while she prepares to release her new record, Become Zero, to talk about her past, and the expanding range of influences that are creeping into her music.
I’ve seen you live twice. The first time it was with Agalloch on their, as it turns out to be, last tour. What was more exciting to me was that I’d seen you open for Magma. I was hoping you could tell me how you got on that tour?
There’s not much of a story I’m afraid. My booking agent also books [Christian Vander] and he approached him about me and that’s how I got on the tour. I like to think all of the bands I open for like my music, but also there’s the fact that it’s just me on stage so there isn’t a full band, a full band isn’t breaking down in their equipment before they go on stage and that makes it easier for [headlining acts to tour with me]. But I think they felt like I was kind of interesting in the same way that they’re interesting. The kind of music I play, I don’t like to call it experimental because it doesn’t seem like experimental music, but it’s kind of a little bit challenging in the same way that I think theirs is. So I think that’s probably what attracted them to me. I personally didn’t know their music before I went on the tour, and then when I found out about the tour I listened to them…so yeah it was a super interesting tour and it was really amazing to see them play every night.
You’ve had this eclectic career arc beginning working with Verbow and working with people like Bob Mould, but in the past few years you’ve done so much work with this sort of esoteric heavy scene that I document. I’m sure you’ve answered this question elsewhere but I’m not confident that my readers have read all of your interviews so I’d like to know…How did you get to running with my particular pack of wolves?
It started with a publicity person I hired when I put my first record out, Ilka Erren Pardinas. She felt like the metal audience would like me and so she started sending out my material for those writers. I started playing for those audiences and they just adopted me. I’m so grateful because I feel like that audience has been so wonderful to play for and they totally get what I’m doing. The music I write is kind of visceral and it has melody and it’s not intentionally obscure and it’s not meant to be hard to get–it’s not arty–and I feel like that audience wants to feel something. They want to be moved and that’s what I want. So, I feel like I’m really lucky to have connected with that audience. I feel like that woman Elca Pardinesca (unsure about that spelling) brought me, put me in front of the right people and from there it’s just kind of continued and it’s been great.
So, am I correct in assuming that prior to that insight of Ilka’s, you did feel as though you were in need of adoption?
I didn’t really have an audience in mind when I started writing my own material, I was kind of finding my own voice I think. Even though I knew where I came from, I wasn’t setting out to play for a particular audience. I just was writing what I wanted to hear, and so I didn’t know who would want to hear it. I kind of knew the hooks I liked. I grew up in Los Angeles, and then I left for Chicago in the early ’90s, but before then in the ’80s I had been going out and seeing a lot of punk rock, the SST bands, the Minutemen, and the Meat Puppets. Then I got into Bob Mould. And before that, before I got into rock, I was into classical. So all of those sounds had been stuck in my gut.
Then I started playing with my friend Jason [Narducy – Verbow] and we were doing […] I guess you could call it alternative rock. Jason, who wrote songs, was a big fan of Bob Mould and Workbook and Sugar. After I left that band I still wanted to play really intense music like what Bob Mould does. I was a fan of the Who. They’re trying to connect with people. They’re writing this intense kind of emotional music, it’s loud, and I wanted to keep playing that. And so I was searching [for] how to write that for myself. But I don’t think I set out to play for an audience. I was fortunate in Chicago to have connected with a scene.
I played at the Empty Bottle, met some of the metal guys there. I was fortunate enough to work with Steve Albini at Electrical and play with bands like Mono and Russian Circles. I was in a really good environment to come out of. I’m still in touch with [those people] today. I’m touring and opening with Steve’s band Shellac. That was a huge part of my life and I kind of grew out of that time, you know the ’90s in Chicago.
Were there challenges involved with getting gigs as a solo instrumental act with a non-traditional rock instrument?
I don’t know. It’s been so organic. There’s definitely been lucky moments, bands I’ve opened for and been exposed to their audiences, but I don’t remember banging my head against the wall or anything. First of all the cello is such a wonderful instrument. When people see it on stage it’s automatically engaging, it looks beautiful, and the sound itself is amazing so they’re automatically wondering what you’re gonna do up there. And then I think I’m able to get a sound with pedals and my amplifier that people like. It’s pretty broad and I can play in lots of different settings and different people will like it. So I feel that I’ve been fortunate in that way. I don’t feel like I’ve found one audience and that’s been it, I feel like I’ve had a number of audiences I can play for. Even though I feel like the metal audience has really just zeroed in on what I’m doing. It feels like it’s grown in a really nice way actually.
In order to prepare for this interview, I took the time to read your entire history on Twitter.
No it was great actually! It was very stimulating and I learned some things about you that weren’t on press sheets and that I didn’t know. For example, you have played with this wide variety of artists and a lot of them tend to be artists which I like but exist out of the metal spectrum. For example you were on the All Tomorrow’s Parties that Portishead curated. How did that happen?
That was a Shellac thing. I will say before I tell you about that, the nice thing about the metal crowd is they are very open minded. I mean they like classical music, they like jazz, whereas I feel like arty music audiences can be a little more narrow. But the ATP thing happened because I went over there with Shellac, at one point they were playing, I wasn’t on the one that they were playing, but then he [Albini] introduced me to the guy that was organizing it. And then I guess Jeff Barrow, the Portishead drummer, asked me to be on the one that they curated.
Do you think there’s any particular difference in emotion or ambiance between playing for an audience full of Jeff Barrow fans or an audience full of Agalloch fans? You said you feel like there’s a difference between the taste but for you on stage performing is there a difference?
Well for that particular one, they loved what I did. It was great. I mean, it was in a smaller room, but they loved it. The Agalloch tour was great too, that was one of my best tours as far as people who wanted to buy my record and really liked what I was doing. So I feel like I’m all over the map in a way with my appeal, which I’m happy with because I think I’m all over the map in a way with music I like.
In reading through that Twitter feed I made mention of, your first tweet that I saw was about seeing Ella Fitzgerald and then later you talked about appreciation for Lou Reed after his passing and then David Bowie on his passing. Do you think there’s any sort of common denominator for this music in your life?
I would say maybe, the stuff I like is kind of introverted, a lot of it is maybe on the darker side, but not without hope. It usually has to have some structure, some melody. I don’t feel like I understand totally experimental music as much as I understand structure that’s apparent. Probably the biggest characteristics are probably dark and introspective stuff. Personal. That’s why I like Bob Mould songs, it’s just right out there on his sleeve, his feelings. I really admired him for that. But, I also like my friends in Shellac. The stuff they write, it’s just a very dark sense of humor. The classical music I like, Shostakovich can be very dark, and you know…punk rock. But it can’t just be totally dark, it has to have some hope, some beauty in it.
You’re actually the second interview in a row that I’ve done where people have mentioned Shostakovich. Before this it was Luc LeMay from Gorguts. I sense that maybe someone is trying to tell me something.
Maybe! Have you listened to Shostakovich?
No, never, where should I begin?
Oh, if you like dark music which it sounds like you do…
His string quartets are beautiful. He was amazing.
Alright, I think I’m gonna hop on the internet and do that when I get off the phone. One of the things that really struck me that time when I saw you at the Crocodile was: It’s always interesting to hear one person fill a room that size so completely with sound. There’s layers and dynamics, not just in terms of decibels but in terms of detail. You opened for Magma, Magma is many people, you’re one person but you managed to get an almost equivalent amount of sound. How do you do that?
I have to tell the sound person it’s meant to be loud, and I play through a guitar amplifier, a Fender twin. There’s a lot of distortion. I know the cello is big, it has a lot of overtones, and that probably has a lot to do with it. The cello has the range of a human voice, and I’ve heard a lot of people say it hits you in the chest. So that probably takes up a lot of sound space. That’s probably why.
Is there any sort of difference in character between this one coming out on Thrill Jockey and your last on Profound Lore?
I think that’s a good question, Joseph. There’s definitely a difference because I try to push myself when I’m writing to keep growing as a writer. So I think that hopefully I’ve grown on this record. One of the things I’ve tried to do was write a piece where it wasn’t effected. So that to me was kind of an achievement, it was hard but I think that made a big difference. I wanted it to be sort of raw. And then I did one where I used a choir. I’ve never done that before.
What Will and I did, Will produced it with me, was we sampled my voice. When I wrote it I just wrote it on a program on a computer with sampling software, but when we recorded it we re-sampled my voice and we used it. I’ve never done anything like that before and I was trying to stretch myself. One of the things I really like is the [combination of] piano and cello and I really wanted to write more with the piano, but I was worried about how I’d pull it off on stage and then I realized ‘just do it, just write it’ so I just went for it and one of the songs has piano on it. It’s all parts I can play, it’s very simple but it was nice to let myself use that instrument a little more. On this record I let myself write what I wanted to hear and not worry so much about pulling it off on stage. It turns out most of the songs aren’t that hard to play live and still get the same feeling. I’m really happy I let myself do that.
Would you ever see yourself doing a record that has no cello at all, like switch to piano primarily or no?
No. I feel like my cello is too big a part of me. It’s really how I express myself. And I feel like if I write something with no cello…I guess I’d be happy to try it but…the cello would need to be there in some way. I respect people who have worked a long time with one instrument and if I was gonna try and write an entire piano piece, at a certain point I know the cello, it’d have to probably involve that in some way.
I assume most of my readers at least know your name and have probably heard you on a few records. They probably heard some of the songs you did with the drummer from Neurosis they’ve probably heard you with Russian Circles etc, but I am gonna go ahead and bet that most of them are not intimately familiar with your discography. So, is there a particular song that you think is a great summation or introduction to your music and why do you think that is?
Maybe “Every Confidence” from the new record because that involves some lyrical cello and it’s also some very distorted aggressive cello, some extended techniques, me pushing myself a little. Or “Facing the Sun” maybe. It’s a mix of gritty and awesome power and aggression. I love “Become Zero,” but that one is not a typical Helen Money song.
We’ve talked a lot about you opening up for these other interesting artists. But you’ve gotta do a headlining tour at some point. Who is the ideal artist to open up for you?
Well somebody that the audience would be interested in seeing and that I would be interested in seeing. I don’t know who that person would be, if it would be a band. I’d want it to be someone who would want to come see me as well.
I think Shellac does that really well. They wanna expose their audience to other artists…so they’re pretty thoughtful about who they ask to open for them. They’ll tell me whenever I’m on the road with them that they enjoy listening to me and everyone that they’ve asked to be the opener, and that they usually pick really interesting people. So that’s always nice to hear. When I go to a show and it’s somewhat cohesive and interesting, you come away from the whole evening feeling like you really heard something interesting and exciting.
I think my favorite show lineups tend to be bands that all resonate similarly on an emotive level in evoking the same feeling in me, but beyond that have a lot of diversity. The tough thing about covering metal is that you get doses of four hours of death metal in one night. Sometimes it’s a bit much.
Yeah, that’s a lot. I actually feel like our brains need to process sound and we need a break from it. We can’t just hear constant sound. We need variety and time for there not to be sound. So I always appreciate when it’s not a four band evening.