Keep Your Eyes Ahead: Looking Back with Brandon Summers of The Helio Sequence

Features, Local Music
10/26/2018
KEXP
photo by Rachel White

It's hard to believe it's been ten years since the release of Keep Your Eyes Ahead, the landmark LP from Portland duo The Helio Sequence. Earlier this month, Sub Pop reissued the album with a full remaster of the original full-length, plus a second album of demos, alternate versions, and outtakes from the same era. While assembling the anniversary edition, frontman Brandon Summers began to reflect on its history, and he was gracious enough to share the story for the very first time with KEXP. Read his reflections below.


The original press release written for Keep Your Eyes Ahead in 2008 focused on me losing my voice and overcoming the fear and uncertainty of ever being able to sing again by slowly recovering and working on the new record. While this is absolutely true, there were a lot of other trials and matters of the heart that went into writing the songs for the record that I didn’t have the words or the capacity to address publicly at the time. Losing my voice wasn’t the start of the story; it was the culmination of many things.

Over the years, people have shared their stories with me of how Keep Your Eyes Ahead has helped them through hard times: divorces, breakups, the death of a loved one or family member, failure, the disappointments of life. That so many people have opened up and shared such intimate things means the world to me. They’ve often asked, “Who did you write that album about?” I’ve always protectively answered with a vague, “It’s an album about someone very close to me” or “well, I don’t want to ruin what the song means to you by making it only about me.” But with the reissue of the album and the time passed, I’d like to return the openness that so many people have shared with me.

The seeds for Keep Your Eyes Ahead were sown in 2001. On September 6th, my mother received a call that nobody ever wants to get: her husband, my stepfather, had been killed in a truck accident in Colusa, CA. Martin had been driving trucks for the last few years for a glass company making deliveries weekly from Portland to San Francisco. Heavy wildfires had clogged the air along I-5 with smoke, and with little visibility, he had collided with a truck stopped in front of him. He died instantly. It was devastating. Martin was an amazing man who was my mother’s soul mate. He was the stability in the family, a quiet but strong person. They had just bought a new house together, the first in my mother’s life. And she had gone back to school and completed her court reporting degree. Things had been looking so good after so many years of struggle and with Martin’s death, it felt like the ground had been ripped out from beneath her and our family. To complicate things, the twin towers were attacked on September 11th and all planes were indefinitely grounded, throwing the funeral plans into disarray. The service in Martin’s hometown of Lawrence, KS had to be postponed and his body couldn’t be flown back home. The shock, grief, and feeling of limbo were only magnified by the fact that the country and the world had become unhinged by 9/11. I remember watching the Twin Towers falling on repeat on the news and it felt like the world was ending on so many levels.
 
When we were finally able to travel days after 9/11 what should have been a routine flight turned into an anxious journey as security had been stepped up and people’s suspicion and nerves were at a breaking point. It was frustrating to watch the “random security checks” so quickly narrow in on my mother. She’s an Indonesian immigrant, brown, not white. We were held aside and questioned twice about our ties with terrorism, for no other reason I can assume then the fact that she may have “looked like one of them”. Absolutely surreal. 

We finally arrived in Kansas and laid Martin to rest. But the months after Martin’s death were heavy and sad. I watched as my mother tried hard to keep her life going on her own, and soldier on against her grief. When I visited, I could tell things weren’t going well. Finally, in 2002, the day came that shocked us all. My mother had disappeared. Without warning, she had just left home and not come back. Precious things like our family picture books and sentimental belongings had been left in a pile in the garage and she was just gone. My brother and my sister and I tried to make sense of where she could be. I was so shocked, I didn’t tell anybody.  

The next two years were tumultuous. My wife, Pavlina, and I were living together in a small studio apartment. We had married young and she had bravely set aside her life and come to live with me from the Czech Republic where she’s from. But she had grown too lonely and was frustrated and worn out by a lack of opportunities. She decided to go back to Prague to get her Master’s degree and we were living apart for two years, writing letters and talking on the phone when we could. I was devastatingly lonely without her and worried about our relationship. Benjamin and I were struggling to make ends meet from tour to tour, spending weeks away from home at a time and hectically recording our LP Love and Distance whenever we were home. We were still sleeping on different people’s floors every night who we would meet at each show. And although we met a lot of amazing people, it was a rootless, disorientating life. Benjamin had begun playing with Modest Mouse as well. I was happy for him, but it threw the future of Helio Sequence into question. Good News... and “Float On” were huge. And Benjamin was a big part of their success. Would he need Helio Sequence anymore? I was really nervous and was trying to stay positive, as we had just signed with Sub Pop, a lifetime dream. But the unsureness of my relationship with Pavlina, the future of our band, and not knowing where my mother was were eating away at me inside. Everything was up in the air.  I wanted so badly to try to express all of the things that were going on with Love and Distance but the emotions were so overwhelming that when I‘d approach them in songs they’d turn to two-dimensional platitudes. On one level it felt like writer's block, but I knew it was just because it was all too much.

photo by Dave Lichterman

 

Everything came to a head in the fall/winter of 2004. We had worked really hard to put out Love and Distance in the spring and the negative reviews that had rolled in hurt badly. We’d been touring like crazy to support the record since before it was even out and when fall came along we were looking at another 7-week run. This one would take us from Portland to the East Coast, then to meet up with Album Leaf in Europe for a leg and then fly back to New York to tour with Blonde Redhead back to the West Coast. The problem was, I had already lost my voice while touring with the Secret Machines just a month before.  Looking back on it, I realize I was drinking way too much to escape the stress. All the touring and whiskey every night had added up and I had pushed my voice over the limit and it was blown. It was so strained, it was painful to even swallow, let alone speak. We went into the tour having to cut lots of new songs, playing only the quietest, easiest stuff in our set. It was a letdown. I shut myself off and set to reading quietly in the corner or in the back of the van most of the time. I was pretty sure it was all over and unresolved thoughts were rolling around in my head. I struggled through the tour and when I got home I was at rock bottom. My voice and morale were shot. 

Right before the fall/winter tour, I had bought Bob Dylan’s The Times They Are A-Changin’ LP on a whim. And the song “Boots of Spanish Leather” hit me like a ton of bricks. It was one of those revelatory moments. I remember sitting in my apartment listening to it just days before we left for the tour and thinking, “this song feels like everything I can relate to, it says it all.” I could feel the sadness and the distance in every lyric, thinking about my wife overseas and my missing mother. I had listened to Bob Dylan since I was a teenager but somehow it felt like I had just discovered him, like I had broken through to a new level of understanding. I was obsessed. I listened to Times... and his other albums a ton on the tour, and in L.A., bought his memoir Chronicles, which had just come out. 

After arriving home, I went to a doctor to see about my voice, fearing the worst. With an examination, he luckily let me know that I didn’t have nodes but my voice was extremely strained. He said he had never seen someone’s vocal chords so strained and asked what the heck I had been doing.  When I told him I had sung for months on a strained voice, he shook his head and said I was lucky that I hadn’t done permanent damage. I was advised to take a month off from singing and speaking at all unless it was very important. I spent a quietly anxious month listening to Bob Dylan records, reading, writing, and trying to figure out if it was all going to work out. I stopped drinking, began running, and started taking care of myself more. When January rolled around, I started seeing a vocal therapist who helped me with exercises to get my voice in shape again. 

I remember sitting down with my guitar for the first time again and thinking, “what should I sing”. I was scared to feel and hear my own voice again. What if it still didn’t work, what if it was ruined? I decided that I’d ease into things by learning Bob Dylan songs. And I started with “Boots of Spanish Leather”. Over the next month, I pulled my voice together singing Dylan. The fact that he had never been a “pretty sounding” vocalist took the pressure off of me to “sound good” which helped my shaky confidence as I slowly got my voice back. But most importantly, with each song I played, I felt like I learned a little more about songwriting, about getting to the core of something, about lyric turns, phrasing.  And I realized even more how phenomenal of a songwriter Dylan really is. I was getting back in touch with myself. 

photo by Benjamin Mobley

 

Slowly the momentum began to build. Things were coming together on a lot of levels. Pavlina came home in early 2005 and we got a new apartment together, worn out, but relieved to be reunited. Benjamin made the concrete decision to continue Helio Sequence. We started writing songs and working together with a newfound understanding. I was learning a different way of singing and my voice was there again. Different, but I could feel more depth now. I was excited for the first time in a long while. Creativity began trickling again. I felt like the wall that had blocked me during the writing of Love and Distance had fallen. But I still didn’t know where my mother was. And the worry and grief over losing her was an unavoidable underlying tension that I held closely guarded. The only way I’d let it out was through music.

As we wrote the songs for what would be Keep Your Eyes Ahead, I realized I was writing not only a record about the hope of redemption and optimism of gaining my voice back but also a record about the search for my mother. So many positive things were happening. A sense of possibility was there. But it was tempered by the unresolved loss of my mother. The grief, the fear, the worry, the regrets. Where could she be? Why would she have left like that? Was she in danger? Was I angry with her or worried? What could I have done to prevent her leaving? Should I let her be or try to find her? What even happened? It was all so blurry and undefined.  Living with the unknown was the most difficult part. Songs aren’t written about something in order to define things, they’re written as a search, an inquiry. Keep Your Eyes Ahead was my search for my mother.

I began my literal search for her in earnest as well. It’s funny to say now, but the Internet databases in the mid-2000’s weren’t nearly as developed as they are in 2018. Nowadays you can go online and with few clicks find anybody, anywhere immediately…all their info. It wasn’t until 2007 when I finally found a web service that had a lead. It said she was in Vegas. I tried calling the number multiple times. No answer. No more info. 

We set out on another tour and it was heavy on my mind. I remember we were driving in Southern California on the way to a San Diego show near the end of the run when I got a call out of the blue from a number in Vegas. I told Benjamin we needed to pull over. I stepped out of the van and took a deep breath. We were at the top of a mountain pass. I paced around outside. The sun was shining. The dry, desert air was fragrant. Time slowed down. My heart raced. I took the call. I heard the voice of my mother on the other line. And as we spoke for the first time in years, I could feel the circle come together again.

I’m happy to say that in the years since so many positive things have happened. My wife and I had our first daughter, Malvina, in 2008. And Apolena was born in 2011. Benjamin and I are still best friends making music together. I’ve stayed in contact with my mother and just last year she moved back to Portland and she’s had a chance to meet her granddaughters and be reunited with our family. I’ve learned that there aren’t answers to everything, the search is eternal, and love is always there.


The tenth anniversary reissue of Keep Your Eyes Ahead is out now via Sub Pop Records. The Helio Sequence kick off a nationwide tour in November, concluding with a Friday, December 14th homecoming show at the Doug Fir Lounge in Portland. 

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