Featured Track: “All (La La La) Alone” by Helanovela
We’re pleased to share star contributor Ted Davis’ work with his band, Helenovela. “All (La La La) Alone” is a complex and surprising pop song drawing from a wide variety of influences, and we were lucky enough to pick it apart with the band.
Right off the top, I notice that this song is a lot more predicated on a chord structure than a lot of the music coming out from artists of a similar age (as opposed to “riffs”), and some interesting chords at that! It’s evident someone on the team has some knowledge of more traditional composing techniques, or at least knows their way around some music theory. How do you go about making a “pop” song with this kind of knowledge and experience in your back pocket?
Ted Davis: At least for me, it all comes down to writing a pop melody then pushing myself to think outside of the box and complement it with more than just major and minor chords. Seeing the same notes I like in a “pop chord” in, say, a C#min7sus4 provides a way to write a pop song while still pushing my boundaries and conventions. That’s very much how the “All Alone” progression came to life.
Colby Gustafson: The chords have always come first in my songwriting. I feel that if you can’t invoke an emotion with the chords or the rhythm alone, then it makes it harder for the listener to stay invested. When Ted brought in this progression, I was immediately hooked. From the first phrase to the vocal melody, I felt the chords really complemented each other in the best way possible, which is exactly what you need with a pop song. I’ve been studying music theory seriously with my bass teacher Anthony Pirog since I was in 8th grade. Music theory has a huge influence on everything I write, but it’s a theory, not a law. You have to know the rules, but you also have to be willing to break them. I’ve also been teaching music since I was 14, and that’s one of the most important things I try to convey to my students whether they’re nine or 19.
Any unique challenges this kind of background presents? As a classically trained pianist, I remember I always had trouble when it came to playing jazz or standards because it was hard to turn off the more analytical, technical side and kind of sink into what just sounded good.
TD: I’m a relatively new jazz musician when it comes to melodic instruments, but I picked up jazz percussion when I was 10, so feeling the music has always come naturally. Even though I’m originally a classically trained rudimental snare drummer, being a good percussionist is so dependent on feel that as a guitarist, I’ve always struggled more to understand the analytical and technical side of things. That said, Colby’s definitely both the classical and jazz guru of Helanovela.
CG: I have to constantly remind myself that simplicity is okay. Not every chord has to be a seventh and not every seventh chord has to add a ninth. Being trained in jazz opens up so many doors, but that doesn’t mean it’s the only way a song can be written. I find myself getting a bit carried away at times trying to write music with unnecessary substitutions. Luckily, these guys keep me grounded. Patrick and I still have a tendency to get into shouting matches over theory, but they usually end with the realization that we’ve been on the same page the entire time. They always end with a hug.
Patrick Ensslin: Theory has an enormous influence on me. I’m studying early renaissance polyphony at college, and I’ve studied plenty of western tonality, SATB writing, and stuff. I’m sort of the opposite of Colby in that I’m like, “Where are the cadences? What purpose is that accidental serving?” The songs I write tend to be strictly structured, which can be good or bad. I think Helanovela is good because Andrew and Ted keep things kind of loose. They can bring things out of me like that guitar riff you hear on the chorus of “All Alone, which came out of us jamming.
While I’m not as familiar with the D.C./Virginia scene, at least as far as what I’m hearing from other East Coast musical hubs like Philly, there’s a strong fuzzed-out, garage-derived revival occurring. It goes without saying this song is a fairly stark contrast to that. Is “All (La La La) Alone” indebted to a particular regional scene? Why or why not?
Andrew Pickup: Currently none of us are living in the D.C. area and we haven’t been playing shows there or anything, but it’s still the scene we’re coming out of,and I think it has a big influence on us as a band. The scene owes a lot to hardcore back in the ’80s and you can still hear that in a lot of the music. With that being said, there’s a ton of other cool stuff going on and people are doing some really interesting things with hip hop, dance, jazz, psychedelic, funk, and all kinds of other experimental music, which I think is making the scene a lot more open and accessible to different kinds of artists. If we owe anything to D.C., it’s definitely the DIY attitude that seems to be a part of all those acts, no matter the genre.
TD: We pull from a lot of DMV and East Coast music that isn’t punk. Animal Collective is from Baltimore and we’ve looked up to them to an almost comedic degree since we started the band. Same with Dismemberment Plan. There’s also a lot of cool stuff coming out of New York right now that we listen to. Crumb and Porches are some of our biggest role models, musically speaking. Going to school in California has helped expose me to a set of very different but equally cool artists. Inner Wave, Mild High Club, and Banes World are all huge influences on us as a band that I’m not sure we would have been exposed to as heavily if all of us were still back east. There’s a whole lot of transience in Los Angeles, too, so we get a lot of visiting artists. I saw both Dumbo Gets Mad/Foulard and King Krule when they were staying in SoCal, and both of them helped inspire what went down the studio. However, East Coast music and the artists that create it will always have my heart, since it’s where I learned what it means to be an independent musician.
CG: We have a lot of personal connections to the scene in D.C. Our high school mentor, Rick Irby, produces for and plays in Paperhaus, Wanted Man, Denmate, and many other artists in the Babe City/Paperhaus circle. He also puts out solo work as Jau Ocean, which has influenced both our musicianship and our DIY attitude. Rick became our bridge into the scene which really helped us develop our sound, find inspiration, and connect with a lot of great musicians at a young age.
The lyrics are fairly melancholy, which is a nice juxtaposition with some of the song’s more whimsical elements such as the “la la la” bit and the chimes that come in later on. What feelings were you trying to evoke with this track? Do you feel that this dichotomy makes it easier to craft an atmosphere that yields these kinds of pensive reflections?
TD: This is a very immediately frustrated song, but there’s a lot of hope behind all the lyrical gloom. Throwing in some goofier and more audience-friendly elements helps to offset a lot of the melancholy and keeps things upbeat. Even though people have been telling us we write “sadboy” music since we started playing shows, a lot of the pessimism is very tongue-in-cheek and it’s always been pretty essential to remind ourselves not to be too intense about our artistic identity or our music. That’s where the whimsical elements come in handy.
AP: We try to be aware of the fact that we’re still kind of young and dumb, so we put a real emphasis on having a sense of humor and not taking ourselves too seriously. I think that was a big part of why we wanted the sound and the lyrics to clash a little bit. It’s just another way of making sure we aren’t talking about just one thing in our music.
TD: I’ve never liked the idea of being some morose band even though we’ve always been emotionally transparent songwriters. I talk about being alone at a party, but at least I still went out on a Saturday night!
I read on Facebook that Helanovela is a sort of continuation/rebrand of an act you were all in in high school. Is this an entirely new sound for you guys or are their remnants of Helanovela to be heard in your past work?
TD: This isn’t so much a new sound for us as it is a refined sound. Our first incarnation, All Things Null and Void, was pretty indebted to a lot of kraut and noise music. We used to blow speakers at our live shows and do nine-minute covers of “Good Vibrations” and “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Helanovela has that same mentality at its core but is a more mature take on what we’ve been doing since the eighth grade, especially lyrically speaking. If you want to hear what we used to sound like, though, there’s two All Things Null and Void EPs floating around on Bandcamp somewhere.
AP: We still have a little bit of a post-punk thing going on which I think is kind of a holdover from All Things Null and Void, but the intention is totally different with Helanovela. Back when we were in high school it felt a lot more like we had something to prove. We tried really hard to be serious and aggressive because we thought it would make us seem more grown up than we were. Now I think we’re a little more comfortable with our identity as a band, and are just trying to write songs we want to play for our friends and for each other.
Is 788590 Records DK (label listed on Spotify) an actual label you all run, or just a one-off kind of deal?
TD: As much as I hope we one day run a label, or are signed to one at least, that’s just a generic tag Distrokid uses when uploading music to Spotify. That said, if anyone reading this works for a label please get in touch. It would be rad to have a cooler sounding distribution platform than 788590!
Somewhat on that note, do you plan to continue the Helanovela act or is this a super rare, very Based collectible we should grab while it’s around?
TD: There’s definitely more to come. This isn’t the only single we’re putting out in the first half of 2018, plus we all write independently with Helanovela in mind. School and distance make it hard to be as musically productive as we were growing up, but I’ve been playing with these dudes since I was, like, 13. Even though we all do a lot of work for and with other artists, Helanovela’s part of my lifeblood as a musician and I think I’ll be making music with Andrew, Colby, and Pat as long as I can hold a drumstick.
CG: What he said . . .
The photo used for the thumbnail was taken by Natalie Soler.