Helen Money is the musical nom de plume of cellist Alison Chesley. She plays her instrument with an unrivaled ferocity, and through her technique and an armada of effects pedals, she creates a wall of sound that’s both heavy and haunting.
She has toured extensively and collaborated with an incredible array of musicians, including Bob Mould, Shellac, Neurosis, Sleep, Russian Circles, Magma, Agalloch, and Earth.
Her latest album Become Zero, released on Thrill Jockey Records, was written after the death of both of her parents. The eight tracks that make up the album are startling in their rawness, and captivating in their grace. She called on drummer Jason Roeder (Sleep, Neurosis), Rachel Grimes (Rachel’s) and co-producer Will Thomas to help realize the vision for the record.
Pedal Fuzz spoke with her at Moogfest 2018, where she not only performed a blistering set, but also led a workshop where she shared her story, and explained the technical details of her unique stage setup. The following excerpts have been condensed and edited.
Pedal Fuzz: I read that you were classically trained, and only listened to classical music until your early 20's. So what turned on your ear and made you want to go into the rock realm with what you were doing?
Helen Money: Well, my brother and my sister were both listening to a lot of rock music. And my brother kept playing stuff for me, but I never really got it. And then one day he dragged me into his room and he had Who's Next on his record player. I remember him dropping the needle, and I heard the music for the first time, and I thought, "Oh, I get why he loves this stuff!" Then that's all I wanted to do is listen to rock music for like the next 10 years.
PF: Do you think it was the visceral impact?
HM: Yeah, it was visceral, and epic, and very 'heart on your sleeve' you know? And just big. Those big guitars, the whole sound. It just all really spoke to me.
PF: So after that what did you get into? I guess that was kind of like a gateway drug into other music.
HM: Totally. I grew up in L.A., and had a friend who was hooked into this scene around this record store out there, and we would go see a lot of punk rock shows. We saw Minutemen a lot, and Meat Puppets, and we'd see Henry Rollins do poetry readings. So I was kind of in that scene. It was still loud, visceral, guitar-driven music.
PF: So when did that affect your playing and when did you want to start manipulating the natural sound of the cello?
HM: Well I never made the connection between playing my cello and playing music that I liked until I went to grad school. And I met a friend who was covering Bob Mould's Workbook. So he wanted a cellist to play with. And he was also doing his own stuff. So Jason Narducy and I got together (ed. note - as Jason & Alison, then Verbow). I was in grad school, I was going to get a doctorate in teaching cello somewhere. And we just started to play - we had no idea what we were doing. I just had a pickup on my cello and I had a little Peavey amp that sounded awful, but it was just the two of us playing as hard as we could. I had no idea I could play the music that I really liked. So once I realized I could, then that was just what I wanted to do.
PF: When did you start incorporating pedals? Do you remember the first pedal you got?
HM: Yeah I had a Rat distortion pedal, and then I had a digital delay. Then I tried a chorus, and I didn't like it. I didn't really like envelope filters. So I pretty much decided delays and distortion is where it was at for my instrument. Because of the nature of the cello, it doesn't always sound good with certain guitar pedals. I kind of stuck to that and I've just experimented with different delays and distortions since then.
PF: Then you started looping.
HM: Right, and the way I do the looping is very structured. It's not the typical layering, and building a song horizontally. When I use the loopers it's more like "this is going to help me play this part of this song, this looper’s going to bring in this part." So that's kind of how I've always used them. They've helped me to just play solo and not have other members. Not that I don't want to, but that's just kind of how it happened.
I have three Boss RC-30 Loop Stations actually that I play with. I'll run one of them direct to the PA system with drums or piano on it. So one moment during the song I'll kick that in, or I'll have noise on it and I'll kick that in. So it's like part of the whole sound. Then I'll have two loopers, with parts that comes in during the verse or chorus. So I'm playing along with them. None of those loopers go through the same channel as my cello, so I can't even layer over them.
PF: Let's talk about your recording process, which has changed in the past couple of years. You've done lots of recording with Steve Albini at Electrical Audio - what was it like working in that studio?
HM: It was great. It's a beautiful building with great acoustics. And Steve's a great guy. The thing that's a challenge there, is that you're recording to tape. So you really have to focus on getting a performance from Point A to Point B, and not doing what Greg Norman calls 'a cloud of tracks' that you have to filter through. So that was a challenge and I really enjoyed that.
But then when I moved to L.A. briefly I met Will Thomas, a guy who's doing more kind of ambient stuff, and he was also an engineer. I decided with this record that I was just going to get the sounds that I wanted and worry about how I was going to perform it. So that was a totally different approach for me. It was all digital, but I really ended up loving how it sounded. I did record the drums in a regular studio, but otherwise it was just just me at at Will's studio on a computer.
The thing that was cool is Will does a lot of stuff with sequencers, and he's also got a modular synthesizer, so he would take sounds from my cello and treat them and then we'd make a background bed for them. It was really fun, we had like a little laboratory to experiment. It was really intimate and really fun. I still felt the pressure to perform well, but we could kind of have a little more fun and make up sounds.
PF: So when you translate those pieces live, does that present any new challenges, or do you restructure songs?
HM: I kind of just pare stuff down. There's a couple of songs where I've downloaded the drum track that my friend Jason Roeder played onto a looper. And so I kick that in at one point. I always worry it doesn't sound authentic, but I think it fits in with my overall sound ok. Also some sounds that Will created with my cello are loaded onto a looper, and I can bring those in. They kind of creep in and provide an ambience behind what I'm doing. So that's kind of how I managed translating the record to playing live.
PF: So the new record Become Zero is a deeply personal record. I'm curious in the writing of that - how do you translate emotions to your instrument? Are you thinking about something, then pick up the cello? Or is it more like you're playing, then threads start connecting?
HM: Well, when I write I look for a sound, and a sound will evoke a feeling in me. So I don't set out thinking, "I want to write a song about my dad, or my parents." I'll just start writing, and then something might remind me of them, so it's really more about looking for a sound. And for me that's often in my pedals, or maybe from the piano, and sometimes drums.
PF: What are some of the pedals that you're using now?
HM: For distortion I've got a Way Huge Swollen Pickle, which is a big fuzz pedal. I also have a Fulltone PlimSoul Overdrive, which has more of a boosty kind of deep sound. And I often use those together. I've got an Electro-Harmonix Micro POG that I like to use, and I've got two delays now - a Strymon Timeline delay and an Empress Superdelay.
PF: Do you use any extended technique when playing cello?
HM: Yeah, the one thing I started to do that I really like is playing with a guitar pick. So I can do a tremolo with the guitar pick on the cello, and then also just strumming with guitar pick is a really powerful sound.
PF: I played your music for my 14-year-old daughter, and she said, “She sounds like the Batman of the cello.”
HM: (Laughs) Batwoman!
PF: Yes, Batwoman! But it made me think - you could be doing anything with the instrument, but you’re steeped in minor, dense music. What is it about that kind of sound?
HM: Yeah I just like that dark, emotional stuff that takes you somewhere. I've always liked Shostakovich, Dvorak, Bach. I just like stuff that makes me feel something, and I just find it more interesting, the colors are more interesting than something that's happy. And the cello lends itself to that, it's kind of a dark instrument.
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