Covering lead and backing vocals while playing over rapidly shifting arrangements—with a refreshing open-handed approach—she can’t help but make Helms Alee stand out on today’s indie-rock scene.
Over the course of three full-length albums, Helms Alee, from Seattle, has developed an appealing sound that references a number of heavy styles from the past twenty years. The distillation of sludge metal, post-hardcore, and melodic rock continues to progress on the group’s latest album, Sleepwalking Sailors.
All three members of Helms Alee—singer/vocalist Hozoji Matheson-Margullis, guitarist/vocalist Ben Verellen, and bassist/vocalist Dana James— contribute to the writing process, and the trio took the better part of three years to create Sleepwalking Sailors, whose broad range of moods and dynamics is bolstered by a huge drum sound emanating from a late-’60s script-badge Rogers kit. “My dad bought me my _ rst drumset when I was fifteen,” Matheson-Margullis says, “and I play that to this day. I’ve been through a couple of other kits, but the Rogers is still my favorite.”
Matheson-Margullis took drum lessons for about a year after getting that Rogers set, and her parents were supportive of her taking up stringed instruments as well. But it’s clear when talking to her that simply being a music fan during a particularly fertile period in Washington State rock ’n’ roll provided much of her education. Aside from classic groups like Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin, artfully raging bands like the Melvins, Big Business, Karp, and Murder City Devils loomed large on the ’90s Northwest scene, and drummers like Sara Lund from Unwound made for serious inspiration. “I saw her play for the _ rst time a month after I got my first drumset,” Matheson-Margullis recalls, “and that was a really big deal to me. I wanted to be just like her.”
In addition to being the drummer in Helms Alee, Matheson-Margullis plays guitar and sings alongside her high school friend and fellow drummer Justine Maria Valdez in Lozen, a band that predates Helms. A quick listen to the distinct but equally intense two piece suggests that a youthful catharsis fuels whatever project Matheson-Margullis undertakes. “As soon as I started playing, I would just bash and scream,” Hozoji says. “I’ve always been naturally drawn to that. It feels really good to beat the shit out of the drums, but it’s really next level for me to play the drums
We’ll get more into that subject presently, but let’s go back to the mammoth drum sound on Sleepwalking Sailors for a moment. It seems not to have hurt having former These Arms Are Snakes drummer Chris Common at the controls. Common, who has also worked behind the board for the progressive metal bands Pelican and Mouth of the Architect, tracked to tape in a high-ceiling room at Studio Litho in Seattle, furthering a deep, drum-forward mix. “Working with Chris was fun and rewarding,” Matheson-Margullis says. “He’s a real hyper guy, and he used that energy to focus his ear deep on sound quality and the creative flow of ideas. He had that perfect combination of being super-hardworking and devoted but fun to be around for twelve intense hours at a time.”
Of course, a great drum sound is nothing without a commanding, creative player, and Matheson-Margullis keeps the intensity and ambition at a high level by continually pushing herself, especially in the studio. “I have the same challenge with every recording session,” she explains, “in that I write beats that are slightly outside my comfort zone and then I have to face them under the studio microscope, where I’m [forced to deal with the fact that I’m] not quite as good at playing them as I thought I was. This can send me into a mental spiral that sucks me so deep into my mind that I become almost completely disconnected from my body and lose all ability to control my motor functions for a bit. I inevitably work my way back until I reach the point of being able to play the beat in question better than I ever have before.”
Matheson-Margullis confirms that her thundering tom-tom work is influenced by the Melvins’ Dale Crover but adds that it’s also inspired by her Native American heritage. Hozoji, who is Puyallup—when not on tour, she works as a commercial clam diver for the western Washington State tribe—says, “I’ve always been drawn to native-style drumming. I went to powwows a lot as a kid, and still do.” Consult YouTube for a Puyallup powwow, then follow it with a live clip of Helms Alee performing “Lefty Handy Man Handle” from its 2008 debut album, Night Terror, and it’s not hard to see the connection.
Among Matheson-Margullis’s drumming approaches is playing open-handed ride patterns, which she was inspired to try in 2007 by Clint Baechle, the drummer with OVVL and Hazzard’s Cure. “I wasn’t playing drums with anyone then,” Hozoji recalls. “I was in a lull, and when Ben and Dana asked me to play with them, I figured I had nothing to lose. I’d seen Clint play open-handed, and he was just shredding. I was enchanted by that and decided I was going to try playing that way. I fell in love with it, and it totally changed the way that I write. It makes you play different beats and it’s really efficient, so I highly recommend it for everyone.”
In Matheson-Margullis’s role as a lead singer, she might have to sing in one time signature while playing a drumbeat in another, upping the ante. “Playing drums and singing is something that I’ve worked hard on since I first started playing drums,” Hozoji says, “because it feels so good. It’s always challenging at first when we’re writing a new song, but that’s true of all aspects of writing and playing music. It’s just a matter of having patience for the repetition. Do it enough times and your body and mind will sync up and allow you to accomplish what you’ve set out to do.”
Still, singing over math-rock workouts like the five-beat triplet pattern under Sleepwalking Sailors’ “Dangling Modifiers” must take some serious calculating. But Matheson-Margullis tries not to get hung up on the math. “More often than not I write entirely around feeling the riff,” she says. “Occasionally I will have a specific skill or style in mind that I want to build up or include in a song, and I will purposely write it in. But most of the time I just listen and reply.”
Helms Alee’s countering of moody melodic passages with brutally loud sections is powered in part by guitarist Ben Verellen’s company, Verellen Amplifiers, which builds 300-watt guitar heads. That’s more than double the output of your average Marshall, kids. Matheson-Margullis seems unfazed by the epic volume, though. “I’ve never been in a band that didn’t have really loud guitars,” she says, “so I was trained from the beginning to beat the hell out of my drums. It was never even a thought process for me. I just started as a frustrated teenager playing with other frustrated teenagers, and we all wanted to thrash, so we did, and it was loud. Now I’m a grown woman—not quite so thrashy, but still beating the hell out of my drums.”
Tools of The Trade
Matheson-Margullis’s late-’60s black Rogers kit includes 12″ and 13″ rack toms, a 16″ floor tom, and a 22″ bass drum. Hozoji plays a 14″ Yamaha snare, and her cymbals include 14″ Zildjian hi-hats, a 16″ Zildjian A Custom Projection crash, and an 18″ crash and 20″ ride from Sabian’s Paragon line. Her Yamaha hardware includes a single bass drum pedal, and she plays Regal Tip Quantum 3000 nylon-tip sticks.