How Helen Money Went From Power-Pop to Doom Metal
The path that free-thinking virtuosic cellist Alison Chesley took to arrive at the noise pedal-hopping, effects-looping, classical music-influenced doom metal she’s aced as Helen Money is one arguably never traveled.
In the 1980s, Chesley cut her teeth in the American independent punk underground, falling hard for DIY trailblazers on SST Records like the Minutemen and Meat Puppets. That hero worship ultimately led to Chesley forming alt-rock band Verbow with guitarist / singer Jason Narducy, using the melodious power-pop template that Bob Mould so expertly crafted in Hüsker Dü, Sugar and his solo endeavors. Mould even wound up producing 1997’s Chronicles before Verbow were swallowed up and spit out in the major label purge of the ’00s.
Then Chesley reinvented herself as Helen Money, realizing her outsider one-cello-band vision. On minimalist efforts like 2007’s self-titled debut and 2009’s In Tune, Chesley covered Neil Young and her beloved Minutemen, reinterpreting classical music with the ferocity of punk rock and the DIY ethos.
Along the way, her explorations into left-field sonics, first embraced by defunct experimental label Table of the Elements, found its bedrock in the vast metal bastion. In 2013, Profound Lore released the Steve Albini-recorded Arriving Angels, a crusher of a record that found Chesley joining forces with Neurosis drummer Jason Roeder on an handful of songs while touring with luminaries such as Sleep, Shellac, Earth, Mono, Neurosis, Magma and Jarboe.
Now on Thrill Jockey, Chesley has followed up Arriving Angels with her noisiest, drone-iest, and sonically and emotionally heaviest set to date. Titled Become Zero and conceived in the wake of her parents' passing, its eight death-obsessed compositions take her sound-manipulated cello-wielding bludgeon to the most melancholy — yet ecstatic — of heights, where her doom metal is a string-scraping anomaly.
Did Become Zero end up being a reaction to your parents passing away?
It wasn’t a reaction to it because that’s kind of just what I do: I write. That’s what I’ve committed to, writing music, so I was committed to writing a fourth record. Then this stuff was happening around that. It was in the air I was breathing. I didn’t set out to write about them, but it was on my mind.
Do you think this new record is more of an inflection of that sadness?
I feel like all my records are kind of dark. I like dark music, so I don’t know if I hadn’t gone through that if it wouldn’t have been any less dark. Maybe it was infused with a little more feeling. I know they were on my mind a lot. When you go through that, it just changes you in [a] way you can’t really anticipate. I have always thought about death. We’re all going to have to deal with it, and I’m weirdly obsessed with it.
Does that death obsession seep into your music?
Yeah, just the temporary nature of things. After I’d written the material for the record and I was thinking up titles for the songs, I started to think about the songs and what I was saying. I think “Become Zero,” that song, to me, was kind of about how my mom died, how suddenly. Where does this person go? You kind of feel them after they’re gone, so it feels like they aren’t gone, but you can’t see them anymore. You can’t have a talk with them anymore.
Are all of the songs and titles on Become Zero related to your parents in some way?
No, but there’s definitely a few, like “Vanished Star.” That was one song where I thought a lot about my parents when I was writing it, because they met at a Lawrence Welk concert, out in California. After my mom died, my dad died about a year later. He was pretty healthy right up until the end. Maybe a few months before he passed away, when he started to slip away, he would see things and he would see my mom. I had read about how some people believe that when you’re in that state, when you get close to the end, you’ve got a foot in each world. You’ve got a foot in whatever’s next and you’ve got a foot here, so your grasp is kind of tenuous — you can see both. I thought about him and my mom dancing together and how he couldn’t really dance with her, but he would, he would be able to dance with her again.
Let’s talk about the recording. You didn’t do this one with Steve Albini.
The first one I did on my own with a friend of mine, the second one I did with Greg Norman at Electrical [Audio] and then the third one I did with Steve at Electrical. This one I did with Will Thomas in Los Angeles at his studio.
What do you think is the difference, recording-wise? The other records are minimalist, while Become Zero is filled out with dissonance and drone. What did Will bring that Greg and Steve didn’t?
Will is very well-versed. He’s a composer, and he does a lot of ambient stuff and uses a lot of sampling, so he gets really neat sounds. He generates them on his own digitally, and he also processes a lot of sounds. I thought it would be interesting to manipulate that kind of thing. There are different points on the record where I would play something and Will would manipulate the sound and use it for a backdrop for a song, like “Every Confidence” or “Vanished Star.” I feel like I did the barebones stuff already and I wanted to do something a little more produced.
Is it difficult to replicate those sounds in the live setting?
I was really worried about it, but then Will was like, “You’ll figure it out. You just gotta do the songs a different way.” And he was right. It was fun to just think, “This is a record. I’m making a record; I’m not documenting a live performance.” That’s what I want people to listen to, and then when I play live, I’ll play the live version of it. As it turns out, I’m pretty able to present the songs like they are on the record — not exactly, but pretty close. I have started playing shows with Will, actually. He’s got a sampler on stage and he’s playing some drums and piano. We’re just starting to do that, but with him especially on stage, it’s really cool.
That said, do you see Helen Money expanding to include Will and Rachel Grimes, who plays on the record?
I always wanted to play with a pianist. I wasn’t sure how it was gonna happen, and now I’m playing with someone who’s doing piano. I’m really happy working with Will because he plays this kick drum he plays like a tom, and he stands while he plays it. He plays piano and he’s got a sampler, so he’s got a perfect array of stuff to play with for me. I’m happy with that right now, but I’ll see how it goes.
I don’t want to get all tech-nerdy, but what’s your gear setup?
I have a couple of delays, three distortion pedals and a tuner. It’s mostly delays and distortion, and then I use a couple of loopers. I’m not going to be adding any pedals to that. Kind of maxed out. [Laughs]
Is it old hat to you that you can program the effects and loops and hit the pedals without things going awry?
No, it’s still a challenge, but it’s what I decided I wanted to do. I like all the pedals. I like the big sounds.
It’s cool with the heavy drums. Your sound seems to be getting more metal with every record.
I love that feeling. It’s so visceral. It’s great.
And it seems like you’ve been embraced by the metal world moreso than when you first started the band. For whatever reason, your music wasn't deemed metal yet.
Oh yeah. I know. The metal crowd is so open-minded. They're listeners, and they're not too concerned about how you’re doing what you're doing. They want to feel something. That’s how I feel when I go to a show. I want somebody to say something. I want to feel something. I don’t want it to be too clever. I like to feel emotion. I didn’t set out to play for that crowd; it just kind of happened. I feel super lucky.
You came from an alternative rock thing with Verbow. Do you look back and think, “Wow, how did I get into this metal thing?”
Oh yeah, yeah. When people ask me to describe my music, sometimes I go, “Well, I guess it’s kinda metal.” Then I think, "What am I saying?" But I think the thing that relates about metal to the music I like is I like the Who and Jimi Hendrix and Bob Mould and some of the punk bands like the Minutemen. All that music was pretty loud, and the sound of it was really important to me and it all had stuff to say. It was pretty aggressive. So, I feel like those two worlds really have a lot in common. I was coming from that world. In that sense, it kinda makes sense.
You’ve toured with a bunch of metal bands. Which ones have resonated with you?
I love Russian Circles, and of course I’m a big Neurosis fan. I like a lot of their stuff, but especially the record they did with Jarboe. I love that record. One record I was really excited about for a while was Aesthetica by Liturgy. Then I like High on Fire. I’ve noticed that metal fans are kind of like jazz fans in a way, [in] that they really know their shit.
Is there someone you can point to who spearheaded your entrance into the metal world?
I hired a publicist for my very first record because I wasn’t on a label. I just felt like I needed some help getting the word out. Her name is Ilka Erren Pardiñas. She is the one who put in me in touch with that community. She’s really the reason I got in that world.
When you were first doing Verbow, did you ever see yourself doing what you’re doing now?
No, I didn’t. I wasn’t sure what was going to happen because when I moved to Chicago, I was going to grad school. I thought I was going to teach at some college somewhere. I met Jason, and we both worked at this coffee house. He asked me to play with him and I decided then that I really love playing this kind of music. It was kind of inspired by Workbook [by] Bob Mould. I did that really exclusively from ’93 'til the early 2000s. I didn’t have any idea what I was going to do after that fell apart. We got signed during that frenzy during the '90s and that label dropped us. I didn’t handle it as well as I wish I had. After the band ended, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, but I did know I wanted to keep playing. I thought, “Well, maybe I’ll try and write some for myself.” Then I just started to make these songs and I thought, “Maybe I’ll make a record.”
With only cello?
Yeah. There was no band that I wanted to play in that will use a cello like a lead guitar player. I wanted to play like I played in Verbow, where I was playing in front of a half stack and it was loud and aggressive. There was no way that was going to happen again, so I was going to have to do it myself.
You’ve done lots of touring over the years with Neurosis and Sleep, and currently with Russian Circles. You must have some good tour stories.
My favorite band to tour with is Shellac. Those guys, Todd Trainer, Steve Albini and Bob Weston — talk about what nice, just beautiful people. They’re at the top of my list. They are so supportive, and I’ve probably toured with them eight times now. I love their music and they just kill at every show. I’ve been lucky. I’ve toured with some very nice people like Mono and Shellac, and I’ve done some shows with Jarboe. It’s not that exciting.
It seems exciting to an outsider looking in.
Well, the best part is playing for people and meeting people. I love that. That’s really fun. But the rest is kind of boring. [Laughs]