BRIAN VOLLMER (HELIX): “It’s hard to think you’re a rock star when you’re making 150 bucks a week”
We all know the name HELIX. And if you don’t, you do know the big rock anthem from the 80’s “Rock You“.
If you don’t know that either, welcome back from your cave.
I have to admit that I fit into in the same category as many rockers out there, we know Helix from their heyday, but when they disappeared from the spotlight, I kind of lost track of what they were up to.Until recently when a Canadian online friend asked me if I would be interested in talking to Brian Vollmer, the frontman of Helix. Of course, I was curious to find out what the band had been up to since…well…”the good ol’ days”.
I spent a few days reading up on Helix and realized that they are still very much a hard working band, and definitely still loving what they do.
As always, I find that very, very inspiring.
So, I picked up the phone and called Brian. 6 p.m in Malmoe Sweden, noon in London, Canada – Friday 13th, 2011. It couldn’t be a more appropriate, rock’n’roll-date for an interview. :)
Hi Brian, it’s Daniela. Am I calling at a bad time?
No, no, it’s a good time. I’m ready to go Daniela!
Yes, that’s right. Was that really the first acoustic show you ever did?
Yes, and it was a crazy day because my uncle also died this week and he was the oldest living person in Canada with Down’s syndrome. I had to drive about two hours from here first thing in the morning, cause I had to sing at the funeral. And then, as soon as the funeral was done, jump in my car and zip back to London, Ontario and straight down to the Aeolian Hall.
I was five minutes late and everybody was already there, and it was just crazy.
But we got a standing ovation at the end of the night and it was a very good night for the band. We’re gonna tape this, as in film it, and it’s gonna go out to the agents, and we might even sell it as a video so….we’ll see what happens.
How did the acoustic thing come about…?
Well, whenever you have a new album out you go out and promote that album and in this case… You know, we’re an electric band up to this point, so it’s pretty hard to showcase the songs of Smash Hits Unplugged without doing an acoustic show and we also felt that this was a good time to try to take the show to the theaters because it’s much more suited for a small theater than it is for a bar.
We have video interview footage between the songs, that we spent a lot of time doing, and I think that in a club, that would be lost. You know – people are talking and it’s hard to get the screens up above everybody’s heads – usually clubs are low…
But in the theater we had everyone’s attention and it was pretty cool. It’s not as easy to do as you would think. It’s pretty complicated, but next time around I think it’s gonna get much better, as in presentation.It was a huge success – we got a standing ovation at the end of the night and people just loved it. I’ve getting loads of e-mails since the show and it’s all very positive. We had a record company, I won’t say who it was, but they thinking now of distributing the Smash Hits album in the United States which will be a good thing for us. It’s all gonna help to build the band. “We’re hoping that promoters and agents over there will take a look at the band and see that “the old guys” are proficient at their instruments and performance – they look good and sound good!”
I heard that you will be coming over to this part of the world soon?
Yeah, we’re thinking of doing that in October. I can’t tell you exactly where or what yet, I’m not allowed to say, but one is gonna be a boat cruise, and we’re also gonna be playing in Finland. But we’re looking very forward to coming back and we’re hoping that once promotors and agents over there take a look at the band and see that “the old guys” are back and proficient at their instruments and performance, and they look good and sound good… We’re hoping that it will lead to more festivals – primarily Sweden Rock. I’d like to get back on that bill.
(Helix played Sweden Rock Festival 2005).
Well, Sweden has been pretty good to you guys – you got your first #1 record in Sweden, right?
That’s correct, we had a #1 album in Sweden back in 1985 with A Long Way To Heaven.
Yeah, god that was ages ago..! :)
That was only YESTERDAY, come on Daniela! he laughs.
“We were classified a heavy metal band, but I always thought of us as a heavy pop band”
All those Helix songs… We were classified a heavy metal band, but I always thought of us as a heavy pop band. To have songs on the radio but yet still not be viewed as selling out or whatever you call it, I think is a lot more difficult to do actually, than be a heavy band. We always tried to concentrate on writing good songs and you know…
We grew out of the Canadian bar curcuit. When we first started out in the seventies, to survive you were essentially a travelling jukebox. We did all sorts of cover songs, everything from Bob Seger to Aerosmith, to Ted Nugent…the Bay City Rollers for god’s sakes…! And, you know… We really earned our spurs as musicians and performers by playing that circuit every night, 3-4 sets a night, 6-7 nights a week.
And just constantly, constantly, constantly playing. And we spread out to the United States, and eventually in 1983 to Europe with the Kiss tour.
For people over here, you’re still the band that got the hit with “Rock You”….
But you have a long history with the band, and some of the stuff you’ve been through reminds me a bit of your fellow Canadian colleagues Anvil, have you seen their documentary…?
Yeah, I’ve seen it (he says with a laugh)
Do you see any similarities there between you guys and them? Cause your careers have been like a rollercoasters?
Yeah, for sure. But I think it’s been a lot more dramatic for those guys cause they didn’t really have the radio-hits. Anvil is a great band in the sense that they pursevered all these years, and they’ve done it because they love the music. And I really believe in my heart that no matter which band you’re in, if you believe in just writing good music and doing it for the right reasons and you stick with it – eventually you’ll be successful. In some shape or form.
In regards of Helix, I think the lowest part in my career came around the mid-nineties when days really dried out, but you know… You constantly gotta be out there working and just try to get your foot in the door with every little thing you can.Right now – we’re in a comic book for instance (laughs) it was just released. We’re also trying to do a reality show/documentary. We’ve got some interest in that and… We have “Rock You” coming out on a Tellus commercial. Tellus is a big phone company over here in Canada. That starts in July. It’s just things like that, you know. We just keep pushing forward.
No matter how old you are as a band, you can’t sit back, unless you’re doing the “Milk run”, going out there doing, what you were originally talking about. People know us primarily for one song. That’s okay as long as they’re there. And then once they’re there, we can educate them on the rest of the Helix catalog. I really think Helix did have a lot of great songs.
We’ve always been a kind of underground band with the fans, but being in a band and continuing is like baseball – you get three strikes. “We were educated by our manager how to run a good business” With the Anvil guys for instance, they were slugging away in anonymity for….ever!
I remember they were going down to play in South America, a place Helix have never played, but going down there and doing tours…. I think the biggest difference between Anvil and us quite truthfully, is the fact that we had a great manager Bill Seip and he taught us a lot of good basic business things that helped the band survive.
” I really believe in my heart that no matter which band you’re in, if you believe in just writing good music and doing it for the right reasons and you stick with it – eventually you’ll be successful.
In some shape or form”
“We were sleep deprived, drinking too much, doing drugs…”
When you got the hit with “Rock You” did you ever stop and think “Yeah, I’m a rock star now, this is the big time”?
No, because none of us had any money! It’s hard to think you’re a rock star when you’re only making like 150 bucks a week. You can’t pay your bills.
So you never got big headed, even during that time?
Nah, if there was ever a case of that with anyone in the band, it was more a case of that we were sleep deprived, drinking too much, doing drugs… you know what I mean? Crazy schedules, it was just… Especially sleep depravation which is never really talked about anywhere.
But I know lots of bands that keep really weird hours and if it screws up factory workers, why wouldn’t it screw up a rock musician just as much?
But we did it. For years.
I hear Judas Priest are quitting now for that same reason, apparently…
Actually, I think that nowadays we’re holding up better than ever because we were so used to the lowest of low conditions…Like, our “tour bus” consisted of a renovated school bus with a Porta Potti in the back and no air conditioning. At least those guys travel in nice buses and flew to gigs and stuff. That didn’t happen too often with us.
Eventhough we are doing crazy dates.
“Every time I went to quit the band, something would come up, and it would keep me in”
You went through a lot of tough times …. got disillusioned, felt like you didn’t want to do this anymore?
What made you go back to a business that you knew wouldn’t change?
I actually intended to quit at the end of the Ian Gillan tour in 1989. We got to the end of the tour and I was staying at my wife’s place in London, England…or, well, we weren’t married at that time, we were “living in sin” Anyway, my manager phoned me from Canada and said that “Good To The Last Drop” was becoming a great radio hit in Canada, and “the record company wants you to come back, shoot a video and tour on that song”.
I went… “Naaah… I’ve had enough”.
So I came back and said “okay“. We did the video and sure enough, it became a big hit.
In the back of my mind I thought to myself… Every time I went to quit the band, something would come up, and it would keep me in, right? I thought, maybe it’s an omen that I should stay in this, there’s something, somewhere down the line for me – or maybe it’s just living this great life.
That’s what kept me in. And I’ve never thought of quitting since then.
Someone once said that a musician can’t ever really retire…. Would you say that’s true?
(laughs) Id’ say yeah. You’re driven to it. That’s why you’re either suited for this life or you’re not. But people that aren’t suited for it, they don’t last too long. You really have to enjoy the life…
A lot of those inbetween days are Mondays – crap like answering the phone, paying your bills, arguing with freaking agents, the dull shit that nobody wants to do. So you’ve got to keep it even keel,so to speak,
“We’re toying with the idea right now of actually doing an album with a brass band…!”
You’ve done so much over the years… what’s left to do? Do you have any more goals and dreams…? Things you haven’t achieved?
I’ve lots of goals. I’d like to go to Japan. I’d like to go to South America, Asia… Anywhere we haven’t been before. We’re toying with the idea right now of actually doing an album with a brass band…! Which is interesting….And the reality show. That’s our focus right now. Helix actually sold more albums in the US than we did in Canada, although we had gold and platinum albums over here, it was a different standard quantity-wise, for what range you’d get a gold or platinum album. In the States it was about ten times of what it was in Canada!
We did a lot of touring in the US…. uh.. I forgot what the question was!
I was asking you about where the reality show would be shown?
It will probably go to VH1, but it’s not as simple as “okay, it’s gonna be on VH1“…
Usually there are brokers and agents that are involved in it because you gotta raise money for each of the episodes. What we do is we’re spending our own money for a pilot show. If things don’t work out, it’s bye bye money, but…. You gotta believe in yourself. At the very least, we’ll release our own DVD and we already have interest in that. It’s a good time for us right now.
We feel confident that it’s gonna happen. We’re ready for it. This is an incredibly hard job. You have to be focused.
“I’m probably one of the last people in the world to teach Bel Canto”
I hear that you’re giving vocal lessons as well?
Well, I got into in the early 90s, when things really slacked down for us. Now I have about 40 students. I’m probably one of the last people in the world to teach Bel Canto. I feel very privileged that I learned how to do it, But it took me a good 20-25 years to learn how to teach it.
How would you explain what that actually is?
Haha, got two hours? :)
Howcome so few people teach this vocal technique if it’s the only “right” way to sing?
What makes it so unique is the fact that when you learn it, it takes so long to learn how to master the actual technique that most people that learn it, they don’t teach it. They do it.
The difference is right there, the inhalation. To master it takes at least a couple of years. It’s a secret, the whole technique…
“… there’s this big roadie pissing in one of the plant pots in the lobby. He destroyed that place!”
So – as far as you know youll be over to this part of the world in the fall?
Well, I’m not allowed to announce any details yet, but yeah we’ll be over there.
It’s gonna be fun though, and all the guys are looking forward to it. Especially my youngest member of the band, Kaleb Duck he’s only 23 and fits right in with us! He’s got a great attitude, he’s always smiling and it brings a smile to my face working with somebody like that. Everybody’s pumped to come over.
That’s correct, 2005. That was something else, the hotel there…I got up in the morning to leave on the bus and I was on the bus with Sebastian Bach all the way.
But anyway, I got downstairs in the morning, and there’s this big roadie pissing in one of the plant pots in the lobby. With an old lady behind the desk…! There was piss everywhere on the floor, he destroyed that place. See, I don’t understand that kind of behavior. We were never into wrecking things. How intelligent is that, really?! I think it’s stupid. I just think that nothing good comes ouf destroying a hotel room where you’re staying.
Nobody does that except people in the music business!
I think Sweden Rock was very well run. We would like nothing better than to come back!
Cool interview!!! He sounds like a really cool guy!