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Helen Money

Helen Money

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.

Helen Money. Credit: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Helen Money. Credit: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

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.

Helen Money live at Motorco in Durham, NC. Credit: Stephanie Leathers/Moogfest

Helen Money live at Motorco in Durham, NC. Credit: Stephanie Leathers/Moogfest

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.

Helen Money's pedalboard. CREDIT: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

Helen Money's pedalboard. CREDIT: Eddie Garcia/Pedal Fuzz

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. 

EDDIE GARCIA PLAYS GUITAR AND ALL THE PEDALS AS 1970S FILM STOCK. YOU CAN ALSO HEAR HIM REPORTING ON NPR AFFILIATE 88.5 WFDD IN WINSTON-SALEM, NC. IN THE WEE HOURS HE RUNS PEDAL FUZZ, WHICH IS A PROUD RECIPIENT OF A GRANT FROM THE ARTS ENTERPRISE LAB / KENAN INSTITUTE FOR THE ARTS. 

Wes Borland

Wes Borland

A world away from the burlesque costumes, jet-black contact lenses, and jagged riffs that defined his role in the multi-platinum-selling rap-rock band Limp Bizkit, Wes Borland spent last Friday afternoon tucked into a small, dark room in downtown Durham, N.C., surrounded by a wild collection of instruments. As part of Moogfest 2018’s programming, Borland was tasked with filling four hours of semi-improvised music (with the drummer Alex Rosson), and he brought a small studio’s worth of gear: loopers, lap steel, a tape deck, an armada of effects pedals, e-bows, and a real bow, which he drew across his guitar to produce deep, reverberating groans.

As festivalgoers trickled in and out — a few spent all four hours immersed in the experience — Borland and Rosson shuffled through multiple elements of chance: drone, noise, found sounds, beats, sparkling arpeggios. It was a challenge Borland seemed excited to accept, a step outside the comfort zone that his career has come to be known for. We caught up with him after the set to get a sense of how it came together. The following excerpts have been condensed and edited.

 

Pedal Fuzz: When you were told you needed to fill four hours, did you already have material that you were working on that you thought would fit it, or did you have to start from scratch?

Wes Borland: Since I was very young, probably around the age of 15 or 16, my brother and one of my best friends have had a project called Goatslayer, where we would spend a night making a record that was totally improvised. We made, like over the years, probably from the age of 16 to when I was 30, we made like 22 records. It was all similar to what I did tonight, but probably less politically correct and a little wilder. But we had rules, like there couldn’t be any planning. More than anything, I think that prepared me for doing what I did today: These years of doing this joke band that we just sort of did in our bedrooms, and then in our houses, and then at each other’s houses when we got older. When we were younger, we were fermenting our own alcohol in the closet in milk jugs, and we were drinking it and smoking terrible weed, and in the middle we were taking acid and doing it, and towards the end of when we were doing it, we were just having a couple of beers, and owning our equipment and doing it really well. But we were able to do it better, we added a fourth element to the band, an obstacle course that we didn’t see coming, where we would just drop beats and things that would come in that we couldn’t see in the timeline. We would make a session in Pro Tools or Logic, for a program that was like two hours long, and just drop things that would just come in at times we didn’t know. We couldn’t see where they were — we would just turn the screen off and hit record. So we were playing something, and then all of a sudden some horrible thing would come in — it was like an obstacle course that we would have to adjust to.

PF: For this performance, did you create an obstacle?

WB: I always like to have an obstacle, and the four-hour marathon of time is the obstacle. Right off the bat I was like, “no way, man, there’s no obstacles in this because the obstacle is already presented: get from here to here.” For me, preparing for this was just stockpiling stuff, like samples and loops and tapes, and keeping notes. And I’m happy to say that I used only about half of what I planned tonight. A lot of what I planned I just threw away and didn’t use at all. I was just reading where we were and just going “no, not gonna do that.”

PF: I imagine that because of the process, there’s certain unknown variables that can create a third presence — effects, and feedback, and loops. When you have those things, they are unpredictable, and you build in that time to respond or listen to that.

WB: They’re unpredictable, but it’s sort of like the clutch on a car: I know how to tame them if they start to get too crazy. Most of the time, I’m using three loopers that don’t line up, so it’s sort of like when you’re sitting at a stoplight and you’re listening to your blinker to turn, going ‘click-click-click-click,’ and you start zoning out to the car in front of you, and you see how they get off time and they start syncing and they get off time again. That’s how I think about loopers, and that’s why I chose to use three that weren’t synced together in any way. I knew I would try to sync them, but they would naturally get off and create new things that were sort of chaotic, that would inspire where things were going to go next.

PF: And those types of accidents, for a 4-hour set, are sometimes gifts.

WB: They’re welcome, I think, and part of the process. Reading the terrain, and following the accidents — that’s part of improvisation and just trying to be clear and present.

PF: Did you have any moments that were particularly shocking in a good way?

WB: I think we did, probably from 45 minutes in to an hour and 30, we went along a track that was completely unplanned. I was like, “great, we had something hit early, where we don’t have to go to the next thing that we are sure of yet.” I was looking for things that we could spend a long time on so we wouldn’t have go on to something that was planned. I had a list of things, like “do this, then this then this,” and little notes made to myself. And if something happened that kept me from going to that note, I was like “great.”

PF: Did you get stuck at any point?

WB: I practiced getting stuck the whole time I was preparing for this. I was always setting myself up with things on the samplers, like “if I run out of ideas, or I run out of things to do, what can I go to?” There was a bunch of stuff that I brought that I never used. I learned a lot – I learned what I don’t need and more of what I do need, if I’m going to do this again.

PF: Do you want to do it again?

WB: I would do it again tomorrow.

PF: How long have you been working on it?

WB: I’ve known about it for almost a year, but I’ve only been working on it for a few months. And I worked really hard on it for the last three weeks. I’d been getting ideas and themes, and the last three weeks, I really pulled the rig together.

PF:When you’re working on things and you make demos, you can listen to them critically, but the context of a song, something 4 or 5 minutes, the commitment to re-listening is pretty small compared to a 4-hour set. Were you recording yourself through the process of preparing for this?

WB: I was, and I listened back to some of the things, and I was like, “no, that’s not gonna work.” And there were some things that I had planned for today that I was totally committed to do, that I just went, “nope — gone.” Reading the terrain, and listening the pulse of what’s going on, you all of a sudden go, “I don’t know why I was thinking that. That’s gone.” It’s hard to express what improvisation is like, and what being in the flow of things was like. I think in order to do it, I had to look at no one. I think I looked out three times at what people were doing, and then I had to get right back into what I was doing to stay on track. The second time I looked up, I made eye contact with my wife, and she wanted to tell me something, and I just totally shut her down, like, “Whatever she wants to tell me, it can wait.” After the show, she was like, “I was trying to tell you that the stuff you were doing at the beginning, you should do now, in the middle of the set, because there’s more people in here and they should hear that again. When a bunch of people were in, you were just making noise and doing crazy shit.” I’m glad that I didn’t hear that, because I would have gotten all self-conscious. I needed to be in a wormhole

PF: Being asked to do a 4-hour set is certainly a challenge to an audience, but as an artist I would imagine that it’s a gift to you — you get to do something you like for 4 hours.

WB: Yeah, I feel that way at the end of this. I feel like I’ve really grown a lot today, as an artist and a performer. I think there are things that for a long time will sink in, that haven’t yet, about today. I’m still processing all the data from what happened and what I felt during the set today.

Wes Borland bowing his bass during a 4-hour performance. Credit: Carlos Gonzalez/Moogfest

Wes Borland bowing his bass during a 4-hour performance. Credit: Carlos Gonzalez/Moogfest

PF: Do you think this will change at all the way you compose?

WB: I think so. I’m a huge fan of the band Swans, and they’re notorious for holding things for a long time. So a lot of my preparation for this was analyzing the last few Swans albums. And I’ve also seen Swans three times in the last five years. They hold things for so long live — the second time I saw them, there wasn’t a vocal until 25 minutes into the show. I’m really trying to adapt that into my DNA, to be able to hold. And I think that I failed holding as long as I wanted to today. I had that thing, because I’ve got that pop sensibility in me, where I’m just like “I want to go to the next thing; I want to go to the hook, or have this pay off now, because it’s been this many bars.” I feel like doing this today is sort of reconfiguring and expanding the prism of how I look at things.

PF: I noticed there was a tape deck: Were you using tapes that you found, or tapes that you made?

WB: Tapes that I acquired in lots on eBay. Most of the tapes, I would say 80 percent of the tapes are sermons from the 1980s that are just like random, and some of the tapes I put in tonight I’d never heard before. I’d never previewed, I just threw ‘em in. And then 20 percent of the tapes are nature sounds, self-help tapes — mostly from Zig Ziglar, the self-help guru — and then I have some African drumbeats. I like the chaos of that, and I like how you can put a tape in and instantly get excited about whatever’s happening, or be bummed-out, like “this tape sucks.” It’s all low-quality, it’s all wub-wub-wub, the guy’s boring, but then all of a sudden you put in this pastor with this really amazing sermon — I don’t even care what he’s saying — then I start running that through my tape delay, and it gets all exciting. It’s like inviting someone to the party. I think religion is the most dangerous thing in the world, and to use it as an element of chaos in what I’m doing is correct to me.

PF: Well, using a tape can add this texture. With volume and effects, that doesn’t sound like anything else.

WB: It becomes the lead singer, or the presence, the thing that you’re like, “oh, I’m supporting this now,” trying to keep that character up. I really like that. I had a little section of tapes, where I was like “these are all great, I’ve listened to these, they’re all amazing.” And then I had all these variables, like, “these could all be bad, I’m not sure, but I want to have them and be ready to put them in and react to them for the first time live, with that feeling of being in the moment.”

PF: You’re setting a lot of variables and roadblocks; it’s sort of like the rules in Brian Eno’s “Oblique Strategies,” where performers pull from a stack of cards and have to follow what is written there, like “Do it backwards,” or “What’s the loudest element? Now remove that.” Rules for mixing and recording and composing that are really similar to the elements you are talking about. An oblique strategy could be, “you have to play it for four hours.” And especially with the effects you are using, the potential to manipulate sound is endless, but when you put limits on things, that reins it in.

WB: Well, it brings you back home. You go, “Why am I here, why am I doing this?” When you put constraints on yourself, it makes the other areas where there are no constraints bloom – you put all your effort into this one place. I put out a record under my own name in 2016 called “Crystal Machete,” and just put out two of the songs from my new record as a single about a week ago, and the rules for that are, no one can help me, I can’t have any vocals that aren’t treated, and I can’t have any distorted guitar every. Those rules limit what I’m good at: Collaboration with other people? That’s gone, so if I’ve got to figure something out, I have to learn it myself. No distorted guitar? That’s what I’m known for, so I wanted to take my ability to create a riff completely away. You have to get a song big some other way. And with the vocal thing I just really wanted to have no way to do real vocals; I wanted to have really androgynous vocals. I really like the chain I have now, it’s very feminine sounding but sort of wild and delayed. I feel comfortable doing vocals through that over the stuff that I’m doing now.

Finn Cohen is a writer and musician based in Raleigh, NC. His work has appeared in The New York TimesThe Moscow TimesPitchforkVice SportsComplexPigeons & Planes, and The Independent Weekly. His music can be found here and here

 

Credit:Justin Eisner

Credit:Justin Eisner