From Wind-Up Toy #1 (Spring 1993):
by Liz Clayton
So it’s like two in the afternoon on a Thursday, and me and Sean are hanging out in Back Bay and record shopping and stuff, and I have to go do this interview with Brian from Helium at about two-thirty. So we hop on the “T” and get down to Brookline and arrive at Brian’s door to find him leaving me a note saying he has to go run a delivery for his boss. (Brian’s a messenger, y’see — van, not bike, it’s the classy stuff we’re dealing with here — and he (reportedly!) has these long lunches on Thursdays where he goes home and does all his record label business, etc. and so on. So of course the one day he’s counting on all this free time, his boss calls.)
Anyway, he tells us to hop in the van and Sean and I get this impromptu tour of Brian’s delivery route while he goes to drop off the company paychecks. (Not to mention we got left off on a curb a couple of blocks before the final destination — can’t have people riding around in the van while yer on the job, y’know — but luckily he did come back for us as promised. Good thing, too, as it was cold and rainy that day, and me being a ferriner to Boston would’ve had no idea how to get home. . . oh the trust I place in these rock and roll types, I tellya. . . .)
Anyway, after all that silliness we returned to Brian’s humble abode, located on one of the most steeply inclined streets in the Boston area, to do this interview thing. And away we go. . . .[pullquote]”And then, when Helium first formed, she was in Boston but she was living in D.C., and she would come up to here and we would practice for a few days and play a show and then she would go back to D.C. and that’s the way we existed up ’til February of this year.”[/pullquote]
Liz: So tell me about the new single [“Hole in the Ground”]. Bill’s putting it out?
Brian: Bill Peregoy’s putting it out on Pop Narcotic, we just recorded it in March .
Liz: When will that come out?
Brian: He said it should be out in a month or so.
Liz: Just two songs?
Brian: Yep, just two songs that are very long songs. All of our songs are very long. Even the two on our first 7″ are like five minutes long.
Liz: So what are you doing in terms of labels? Like I know spinART have said they’re like grovelling on their knees to get you to record something for them.
Brian: Yeah, they’re trying to get us to do something. We’re not going to do any more 7″s after this, at least not for the time being.
Liz: You want the record out.
Brian: Yeah, I want a full-length album. We’re talking to a bunch of different labels, spinART’s one of them. I don’t know if I should go mentioning all these names. . . but we’re negotiating with a few different labels at this point.
Liz: All small, or . . . ?
Brian: Well, the one’s we’re really seriously talking to are your kinda like big independent labels. You know, not like majors but. . . .
Liz: Like your Caroline level?
Brian: (grinning) Yeah, that kinda level. . . I didn’t hear that name. I never said anything.
Sean: Of course not.
Brian: But yeah, that’s probably, I think that’s the best course for us right now. I mean, there’s definitely some major labels interested in us, but I’ve seen too many bands die that way, put out their first record on a major label.
Liz: Good way to get yourself slaughtered at the starting gate.
Brian: Yeah, it’s like, “OK, well here’s this brand new band that nobody’s ever hear of, let’s invest $200,000 in them. . .”
Liz: “Well, it didn’t sell like we thought it might. . .”
Brian: And the record comes out so the record company says, “Well, you know, they’re not going to be as big as Michael Jackson, so let’s promote, uh, fill in the blank.”
Brian: Yeah, let’s do the new Snow record. Let’s put all the money into that instead of the Helium record.
(The mail suddenly falls through the slot in the doorway, interrupting the interview somewhat. It’s a phone bill and a tape for Brian from one of the guys in Pell Mell, if you were interested.)
Brian: So that’s our plan, is to do that.
Liz: OK, so organize your multiple bandness here.
Brian: Well, first there’s Helium.
Liz: So what’s with this Dumptruck thing then?
(The weekend I was in Boston, Dumptruck (Yes, them!) played a gig at the Middle East. They also put a self-released 7″ out earlier in the year, but if sales are any indication, you didn’t notice.)
Brian: Well, I joined Dumptruck ah, about six months after their last record came out. I don’t know if you ever heard any of their records, but after For the Country, which was their last record, after that came out I joined the band about six months later and toured with them for about three years. Unfortunately, a week after I joined the band we got sued by Big Time records, and for the whole time that I was in the band we were in a lawsuit. At that point the band was very popular, like in 1988, the last record made like number two in the lists, so we were touring all over the country, and playing really good shows, and making lots of money, but giving it all to our lawyers.
Liz: So why was there a lawsuit?
Brian: Well, Big Time records was going bankrupt. . . um, they were dropping all their bands. They were basically going under and they didn’t pick [Dumptruck]’s options to put out a new record. Six months later they decided to try to sell the band to Phonogram. And they had no right to do that since the band wasn’t under contract with them. And that’s when the lawsuit started; they sued the band for $5,000,000 dollars.
Brian: Well, the deal with Phonogram was a big deal, but not that big of a deal. They were just shooting for the moon. I mean, they were suing a band for five million dollars, a band that had no money at all, and a band that had never received royalty payments from Big Time. But, you know, it took two and a half years and $35,000 in legal fees to “win” the case, but I mean, we lost in the long run. Since, I mean, when you’re putting out records and your biggest market is the college radio market and you have a three year gap between records, your death toll has just been sounded, because people come in and out of college like that.
Sean: I mean, I remember hearing about you guys because I grew up here, but when Liz told me you were playing here tomorrow night with Dumptruck I said, “Waaaaittaminute, Dumptruck doesn’t exist, they haven’t for about for years!”
Brian: Yeah, it’s kind of weird that we’re doing this show. I mean, we’re basically just doing it for Seth, who’s the leader of Dumptruck. He lives in Texas now, and he’s just coming up for a visit. . . so, “Hey, let’s do a show.” So that’s the deal with Dumptruck. We never officially “broke up.” I put out the single basically to get my label [Warped Records] started. And because it was the first release by Dumptruck in five years or whatever. . . and Dumptruck probably has two albums worth of material recorded during the time we were getting sued that we could never release then. So. . . I may put out some more stuff. There were a lot of fans out there that bought a lot of those records, so we’ll see. . . .
Liz: I know some people are looking for stuff like Positively CDs.
Brian: They’re out of print. I get letters from people occasionally, but. . . I think RCA has the masters and they’re not going to reissue it. Maybe in 15 years if Dumptruck achieves the kind of status that like Television had, Television was nothing until like 15 years later and then they were this big deal. Same with Big Star. It’s kinda funny. . . this writer in the [Boston] Phoenix compared Dumptruck to Big Star and Television.
Liz: Well, Big Star just played a gig, and you guys are about to play a gig. . . .
Brian: No. Big Star? No. They did not play a gig.
Liz: They played a gig in Columbia, Missouri.
Brian: No way! Where, at the Blue Note?
Liz: I don’t know. It was like a college show.
Brian: BIG STAR played a gig?
Liz: YES! It was like. . . they were talking to um. . . .
Brian: I guess they just did it without Chris Bell.
Sean: Well, Chris Bell wasn’t on the third album anyway.
Liz: Some people at the radio station were talking to Alex Chilton, were talking to Jody I guess, and said, “So would you ever do a Big Star reunion?” And he’s like, “Oh, sure, just call Alex, ha ha ha,” and they did and he said YES. . . .
Brian: That’s amazing. I wish I’d know about that. I probably would have gone. . . . So, OK, draw the lines. That’s Dumptruck, that’s the deal with Dumptruck. We never officially split up, but we live in different parts of the country now, so there’s no reason to tour or anything. It’s an old band. And I’ve already said Helium, and there’s Tackle Box, which is a friend’s band that I play in.
Liz: So how long has this Helium thing been going on?
Brian: We formed in July of ’92.
Liz: That’s pretty recent. Things are happening pretty quickly then, really.
Brian: Yes, it’s definitely coming together really fast. Mary’s really taken on the role of lead singer/guitar player really well.
Liz: Were you all just like friends before, or. . . ?
Brian: Well, we didn’t really know Mary even until about, uh, March of last year . We were playing in a band called Chupa. Shawn Devlin, who’s the drummer in Helium. . . he’s also the drummer in Tackle Box, he’s also the drummer in Dumptruck. . . we’re kind of like a rhythm section kinda thing. We’d been playing in a band with this guy Jason Hatfield who’s this guy from up here. And it was called Chupa, we did some recording. . . we had a female vocalist/guitar player — this woman named Mary Lou Lord who like sings in subways in Boston all the time, she’s really good. . . she’s putting out something on Kill Rock Stars I think — but we had her in the band, that didn’t work out, there was like shit going on. So she left and Mary [Timony] joined the band, and we were together for like another month, and we just kinda split with Jason, and we kept it just the three of us. We got introduced to her through another band, playing together, and then we just kinda stuck with her.
Liz: Did you meet her when Autoclave were still together?
Brian: No, I think they had just stopped playing any shows a few months before, they had just said “fuckit.”
Sean: Yeah, I heard that they broke up because basically somebody went away to school or whatever and everybody else was in D.C.
Brian: Well, Mary went away to school in Boston. I know that pretty much the whole time Mary was in Autoclave, she was going to school in Boston. And then, when Helium first formed, she was in Boston but she was living in D.C., and she would come up to here and we would practice for a few days and play a show and then she would go back to D.C. and that’s the way we existed up ’til February of this year. We would book a show and then she would drive up and play it. The same way she existed in Autoclave. . . and then she finally moved up here.
Liz: That’s. . . interesting.
Brian: It is kind of funny. But we’ve been playing a lot recently. We’ve been getting a lot of college shows, which are kind of essential to pay the practice space rent and put some money in your pocket.
Liz: Have you got like a tour planned or anything?
Brian: We don’t have a tour planned; there’s not a lot of sense in touring because all we’ve got is the seven inch. You know, I’m not promoting the hell out of it, I didn’t run any ads at all. I can’t, I’m not rich, I don’t have any money, I can’t afford to run ads. It’s just not a big enough deal to tour. If we got a city, maybe ten people have heard of us. What we’ve been doing now is college shows or opening up for bigger acts. Like tomorrow we’re opening up for Velocity Girl, and last week we opened two nights for Belly. But once we put out a full-length record, if we can put out a full-length record with a label that can get behind it in the right way — I mean that’s my biggest point of any deal, is that if we’re going to put out a record with you, you’d better not slack on it.
Liz: So does Helium have any wacky ambitions other than just getting the record out?
Brian: We want to get the record out, with a label that will get behind it. We want to visit Europe, England. . .
Liz: Chicago. . .
Brian: Chicago. . . we’ll come visit Sue Miller. Hello, Sue, I love you. . . tell her that if you see her, tell her “Young Thing” said hi. . . she’ll know exactly what you’re talking about, ’cause when I was in Dumptruck I was like 18, and everybody else in the band was like 30. . . . (laughs)
Liz: That was when she was booking the Cubby Bear?
Brian: Right, before she started booking Lounge Ax. Do you know the sound many, Gary?
Liz: (laughs) He’s hard to miss.
Brian: Yeah, I met him in Amsterdam, like four years ago. He was in this band Uncle Betty? Or Friends of Betty or something?
Liz: Friends of Betty, now Red Red Meat.
Brian: And I was like, “Wow, a band from America!” and I started talking to them.
Liz: (noting the waning amount of time I had left) You don’t have any photos of Helium for the magazine, do you?
Brian: Yep! Our press photo thing.
Brian: This is our cheaply done press photo.
Liz: How cheaply?
Brian: Well, it was taken on a really shitty camera in Mary’s kitchen.
Liz: A little grainy there, yeah.
Brian: Well, what else is there to talk about?
Liz: Well, I’ve got to be going really soon.
Brian: Well, I can give you a lift to the Red Line if you like.
Liz: That’d be great, thanks. Oh yeah, are you guys going to be on the Pop Narcotic compilation?
Brian: Yeah, the third song on the tape I just gave you is going to be on the compilation [Why Do You Think They Call It Pop?]. And “The American Jean” is going to be on a UK compilation.
Liz: Oh really? What for?
Brian: It’s called Unnecessary Niceness and it’s being put out by Beechwood Music, and it’s going to be all American bands. Like Madder Rose, the Spinanes, Lois, this band the Lotus Eaters.
Liz: Yeah, every time I hear “The American Jean” I think to myself I swear somebody’s going to put this in a commercial, I’ll turn on my T.V., and. . . .
Brian: Yeah, and we’ll sue ’em in a second. It’s just such an obvious thing, you know? Somebody made a joke to me once, somebody from a record company made a joke to me like, “Yeah, so we’d love to do a deal, and hey, you know, and we can sell that song to Levi’s in a heartbeat!” and “Say that to Mary and she will personally cut your balls off.” I said something really ridiculous like that to the guy. . . “It’s been nice talkin’ to ya.”