Helms Alee, a Conveyor Belt and a Nasty Severance Package
Work sucks / we know. We prefer / your show. That's why we ask hard-working bands to recount their worst day-job experiences in Trials of Job. Today, we talk about the dark side — that is the appendage-crushing side — of ghetto furniture manufacturing with Ben Verellen of Helms Alee. Warning: The motion sickness inherent in new album Stillcide will only augment the discomfort of this interview. So, obviously, queue that bad boy up ASAP!
Where was this nightmare job? What kind of business was it?
Pickering Manufacturing on the industrial tide flats near downtown Tacoma, Washington. They manufactured cheap IKEA-style furniture. Cheap particle board sheets pressed with a thin paper veneer painted to look like wood grain. Hideous stuff.
How did you get the job?
After high school, I tagged along with my big brother's band, Botch, for a six-month world tour. After that inspiring adventure, I was convinced I was just going to do that for the rest of my life, and needed to fill the time between with temp work that I could come and go from. Tim Latona, who played drums in Botch, had been working at Pickering for a year or something, and got me the job through a temp agency.
How old were you when you started and how long did you last?
I must have been 19 and made it about four months.
What were your primary responsibilities?
Day shift clocked in at 5 a.m. and out at 2 p.m. I spent that entire time (30-minute lunch break aside) standing by a conveyor belt where I'd set up a 4' x 8' sheet of 1/2" particle board with its appropriate sheet of shitty veneer paper, and guide it into a huge hydraulic press.
What made it so shitty?
Tedious, dangerous, minimum wage — all the usual things, I guess.
Describe your worst moment at the job.
Every so often, the belts would get dirty, so we'd stop production for 20 minutes to wipe them down. They'd keep rolling, and my job was to move a wet rag along the 5' wide belt to try and make it clean again. I showed up to work one morning, and the guy who worked my station during the graveyard shift had been involved in an accident while wiping the belts. His rag caught a roller and it took his whole right arm down into the bank of rollers, breaking it in several places before someone finally hit the emergency button. I showed up to work to [see] the janitor mopping up a pool of blood in the spot where I was to spend the next eight hours working.
What were your co-workers and supervisors like?
All but a handful of the warehouse floor workers had come from a penitentiary rehabilitation program through the same temp agency that got me the job. A lot of ex-junkies, functional alcoholics and people with mental health issues. Some of them super nice and full of stories; others you didn't want to make eye contact with.
The supervisors were motivated by productivity. I'm sure they got some kind of bonus if the numbers were up, so they kept coming by each station to try and motivate you to work faster. You know, like, "This is how you bust ass!" while making eye contact and completely screwing up the board they were trying to feed into the press, but not acknowledging it at all. Just, "OK, you got it?! Now let's bust ass!!! Woo-hoo!!!"
Were you playing music at the time? Did your co-workers ever discover your music?
I was playing in a band called Harkonen. Aside from a handful of musician types working on the floor, we kept what few conversations we had pretty light.
Do you think your skills in the workplace have translated to your music?
Nope! [Laughs] I don't know, I'm sure some part of that experience is in there somewhere
Did you get fired or did you quit?
The pool of blood was the last straw. I walked off and enrolled in the pre-engineering program at Tacoma Community College the next day.