||Canadian rockers HELIX played in Finland for the first time in 26 years this October, their previous shows taking place back in 1985 if I'm
correct. They came to Oulu from Sweden, but things didn't go as originally was planned. Our former contributor Vesa was supposed to drive Helix
vocalist Brian Vollmer, his wife Lynda and the band's sound techician Neil from Turku to Oulu and the rest of the guys were going to fly from
Stockholm, but the airline company cancelled their flight. The whole Helix entourage ended up leaving the SwedenRock cruise boat they played on
thursday in Turku, and taking a lengthy road trip up to Oulu. "No rest for the wicked..."
Even though it's been 26 years since Helix was last seen in Finland, it hasn't been that long since they were in Europe. The band played at
SwedenRock in 2005. Indeed, the band has a long history with Sweden, dating back to the early eighties. They actually had a number one album
there in 1985.
- On the 1983 tour with Kiss we had "Heavy Metal Love" out which was a big hit for us in Europe, and then "Rock You" came out and I think that the
Swedish company really pushed that song which helped the album to sell a lot of units. When "Long Way To Heaven" came out, Sweden was already very
receptive to the band... I think it had a lot to do with the company being behind the band and putting a lot of money into the promotion. We also
toured all over Sweden then, right inside the artic circle even...
Brian remembers them playing in Turku, he actually has old home movies from there, but otherwise the hectic years of the eighties aren't that
well imprinted to his memory.
- Well you know, all those years are kind of a blur because at that time of our career we were just playing excessively and sleeping wherever we
could sleep. People don't really talk about it, they talk about the drugs screwing musicians up but I think that the sleep deprivation had a lot
more to do with people kinda going screwy than drugs did. Sleeping wherever you can find a place is very hard for your body, you have to pace
Back in the eighties, Helix was on the verge of a major breakthrough but
that didn't happen. Brian has an explanation to that:
- I think the biggest reason is that whenever your signed to a major label - we were signed to Capitol US, we were never signed to a Canadian label -
the way major labels work is that you have to have the support of maybe one of the top five guys or you're doomed. At that time we were with a guy
called Bill Bartlett, who worked at EMI, I think he was the head of A&R in the states. They had another guy who worked at the company, a real "southern redneck" and an anti-drugs person, and I think he suspected Bartlett doing drugs and he had him demoted. Bartlett was a very popular
guy at the company so he couldn't outright fire him, so he had him demoted. Bartlett ended up having a nervous breakdown and suing EMI Capitol. And to hush it all up, they paid him up and fired the other guy.
Once we lost that person inside the company, our career was essentially
over with. I think also that the inability of the band at time to produce hit songs to follow up "Rock You" hurt us, even though "Deep Cuts The
Knife" was a huge song for the band, it wasn't an uptempo song and in the states for instance we got much more airplay for "DKTN" than for "Rock
You" but "Rock You" sold a lot more units of the album than the ballad "DKTN".
Maybe you were a little too early, since a couple of years later just about every other band had huge hit singles with power ballads?
- Yeah, maybe... I look back at that as it just wasn't meant to happen. If would've broke wide open at that point perhaps we'd all be dead now!
The Helix videos of the era were somewhat controversial, with some nudity, not to mention underage adult movie stars...
- We didn't think they were controversial! I'm sure that sex and rock'n roll go together hand in hand and we were... sex and rock'n roll, you
know? I don't think that the videos hurt us, I think they added to the notoriety of the band if anything. For instance in Canada with "Gimme
Gimme Good Lovin" we had Traci Lords, a lot of Solid Gold dancers, models from Playboy, Oui magazine, Hustler....there were two versions of the
video and MuchMusic they'd always show the x-rated version at night and say "oh, we made a mistake!"... but the people definitely knew about those videos.
Over the last 15 years, Brian has kept the Helix name alive with different line-ups of the band. Last year, the remaining members of the most
wellknown line-up reunited. It all happened quite accidentally.
- I wasn't looking at putting the band back together but the band I had for the last three, four years was all hired players, good players but
there were some problems. It all came to a head right at the end of the year, when my co-writer and producer Gord Prior said that he couldn't work
with them anymore. So I had to choose - either the band or the guy who got me my record deal with Sanctuary and co-wrote the songs. It was a
no-brainer really. Then I went to Sean Kelly from Crash Kelly, who now plays guitar for Nelly Furtado. Sean and I always wanted to be in a band
together, so I said to him "look, we don't need a guitar player but we need a bass player, will you play bass?". So, Sean came in as a bass
player. Then I went to Brent and asked if he could come back to the band and he said "yeah, let's see how it goes". The only guy from the last
bunch who didn't quit was (guitarist) Jim Lawson. Then I had Rob MacEachern on drums, who played on "Power Of Rock'n Roll" and a few other
albums. Then Sean got job for Nelly Nurtado for huge money, and he came to me and said "I've got to take this gig, it's just too much money to
turn down", and I said "that's okay, I'm happy for ya" and at that point I got Daryl back in the band and I thought "I've got everyone but Fritz, so
I might as well get him too". Rob didn't mind stepping aside, so the band was back together again.
The band has just released a new 5-track album "Skin In The Game". Why not a full album?
- The reason I did a 5 track EP is because it's cheaper to record five tracks than, say, 10 or 12 tracks and because I found out with our last
album "Vagabond Bones" that after you get a couple of songs deep, it's hard to go to radio in Canada and keep working it, they want something
new. So, instead of having 12 tracks out there, because everyone's downloading nowadays anyway and you don't sell as much hard copy, I'll
just release 5 track EPs cos' that way I'll do one and in a year I'll do another 5 track EP.
The music business is changing and it has changed the way how Brian sees things too:
- I almost think that the music is becoming like a commercial. If I can break even I consider myself lucky. I try to keep the costs of my albums
down. With digital recordings I can do an EP like the new one for about ten thousand dollars. So, I put the EP together and hopefully make my
money back, and then I can sell the songs for commercials, for movies... For me, being in the business has always had to do writing. If I was just
going out and playing the same songs I did in the eighties... it's too hard a business to do that, to run around the circuit. I have
to be writing, recording and releasing new material. The music I release nowadays is more of a commercial for the band, and message to the fans and
the public that Helix is still a going concern. I think that the fans and the people see you in a different light when you're still writing new
Brian is one of the few lucky rockers who can make a living out of playing and recording, but he also has a back-up "job" to supplement the income.
- Very early in my career I totally destroyed my voice and had nodes to my vocal chords. My manager at that time sent me to a guy called Ed Johnson,
who was the youngest member of the New York Metropolitan Opera. He taught everyone in southern Ontario to back then, because back in the seventies
every singer was playing 5-6 nights a week, 3-4 sets a night and everyone was losing their voice. Ed knew the old italian method of singing called
Bel canto, and he took me aside and said "do what I tell you to do and you'll eventually your nodes will go away". I did and it took me about a
year to lose the nodes and it took me many years to get my confidence back and regain my voice.
In 1987 I went back to Ed because the band wasn't
playing that much and I was off the road and nobody would hire me - I couldn't get a job even doing construction! So, I asked Ed whether he
could teach me to be a teacher. He said yes, and I went down to New York, took all my money and went into debt too because I had to drive there for
the lessons. I started teaching around 1988, and at first it was very, very difficult. it's harder to teach singing than guitar for instance,
where your hands are on the strings or they are not on the strings. A voice is something invisible, internal. It was hard to learn the method,
but ten times harder to learn to teach it. After a while I learned how to do it, and now I'm probably one of the last few people who can teach the true Bel canto and I make very good money teaching it. I have a lot of
students, I don't even advertise, they come to me through the word of mouth.
- The biggest killer of singers is a sore throat or polyps in the vocal chords. Bel canto is the only singing method that I know of where you sing
effortlessly, because instead of pushing your voice you're inhaling your voice. As I'm singing, I'm drawing breath into my skull, and I'm drawing
breath up across my vocal chords by the low pressure, the vacuum that I'm creating in my skull, believe it or not. 99,9 per cent of the singers in
the world who push their voice use the muscles in their throat and that muscular tension goes straight to the vocal chords. They are the most
delicate string instrument in the world, they are just little pieces of human tissue. So what happens is when you get that tension there, it's
transferred to the vocal chords and instead of tapping together gently, they slam into each other and they swell up and you'll lose the top part
of your voice first up. Eventually you'll get nodes, which are like a callus that you might get to your hands from using a screwdriver. When
that happens, it prevents your vocal chords from vibrating correctly, and you'll lose the top part of your range.
Do you ever hear a singer and think " I could help that guy"?
- A lot.
Do you ever offer your help?
- Well, people got to be in a mental state where they want to be helped first off. A lot of singers aren't. It takes a lot of time, learning how
to do this technique is not a crash course, you're looking at one year to get the basics. Takes many years to master. I've done it for 25 years and
I haven't mastered everything. I used to be able to do high crescendo in a high C, which is the most difficult thing for a singer to do. Some opera
singers spend their entire careers learning to do it, and I could do it perfectly. I can't do it anymore, I can't sing a high C and go from here
to there... but I can still sing pretty good.
Interview by Kimmo Toivonen
Photos by Mira Suutari-Toivonen
Many famous addicts
in history are from the music industry, rock stars in particular. A number
of rockers have survived their addictions, but some, unfortunately, did