Hidden beauty

The secret world of Helms
By WILL SPITZ  |  August 28, 2006

THE COLD TRUTH: Not everyone’s going to warm up to what we do, and I think we know that,” says Sean McCarthy.

A 20-second passage in “Fatbird,” the seventh song on Helms’s third album, comes as close as anything to defining the Jamaica Plain-based band’s æsthetic. Underneath a thick blanket of guitar feedback, a cyclical, hypnotic drum pattern, a simple yet effective bass line, and some sort of indeterminate creaking and squeaking in the left channel, guitarist/vocalist and de facto leader Sean McCarthy can be heard speaking faintly: “So I took my mouth, clattering like a trap, into the backyard and buried it out behind the trees. And you could hear it flapping, like a broken bird in the dark, as I dropped it down about four feet, and then the taste of dirt, and the beautiful quiet.”

Throughout the self-released Secret Doors, McCarthy’s voice is hidden in the sonic backyard of the music, like an artifact that can be exhumed only by digging through layers of guitars, bass, and drums. Furtiveness runs throughout, in both the music and the lyrics; melodic motifs and rhythmic patterns reveal themselves slowly as McCarthy sings and speaks about “the deepest of woods,” “the ocean floor,” “secret handshakes,” and “secret doors.”

“I did kind of obsess about secret little hidden rooms and places,” he explains when I sit down with him, Helms bassist Tina (his wife), and Helms drummer Dan (his brother) for lunch at Picante in Central Square. “When I play music or see music, I feel it’s an escape in a way. It’s sometimes the only time I feel at peace, where I know what my mission is and I know what I’m supposed to be doing. There’s something about going to shows and practicing and playing shows — it’s like this other world, this place to go.”

The life of a typical Helms song begins with “some little part, just an idea,” according to Sean. “I have this idea in my head of what it is and what it sounds like. And then I bring it in and hear them play over it, and it’s always totally different from what I thought it was, whether it’s Dan playing six when I was hearing three or Tina, rather than playing my pattern, playing this larger pattern behind it making mine smaller than everything. The groove or whatever they put behind what I think I’m playing is always accented completely differently from what I thought it would be.”

Indeed, the three instruments in Helms operate in seemingly different rhythmic worlds, coming together intermittently and then spiraling apart. Sean points to the abstract, often complex riffs and rhythms of indie bands like Slint, June of 44, and Rodan as influences. “I like experimenting with different time signatures, breaking songs up rhythmically in unexpected ways. I think that’s a quality associated with post-rock. I like songs that do that, and I like making songs that do that.” He cites the same bands when I bring up his vocal style. “I’m not so much of a singer. I talk a lot. I like the way those bands draw your attention to what’s going on in the music first. The vocals in all of those [bands] are sort of sitting on top, and that’s how I think of our songs as well — almost turned inside out. With a normal rock song you want the vocals up front and you want the melody to be the hook. We’re kind of the opposite of that: ‘Listen to that drum pattern!’ ”

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