Helicon are one of Glasgow’s (and East Kilbride’s) best-kept secrets in recent years. They make plenty of noise, but in a city with so many dominant musical styles and scenes, there’s a feeling that a traditional psych-rock band sometimes slips by without notice. With the release of their new album, God Intentions, that should change.
SNACK caught up with Helicon’s John-Paul Hughes to discuss puns, comfort zones, instruments, and the annoying feeling when someone gives you good advice.
Helicon are back with new album God Intentions. That’s a big title, and with big aims, can you give us a rundown of it?
Yeah, there are potential delusions of grandeur there with a title like that, but it’s a double-edged sword. I like things with a double meaning. We started putting this album together during lockdown, I know everyone said that and I’m sick of hearing about that, but that’s the timeline.
We have a bad habit of writing songs, recording them and taking them out playing them live, and then the songs evolve. This is the first time we did it the other way around.
When lockdown started, I began writing on piano for the first time, but also during that time, my brother [Gary Hughes, guitar and vocals] went through a life cycle. He has battled personal demons for 20 years and took time out from the band to get his head fixed. During that time he found religion and other things, and it’s changed him as a person. When I was looking for material to write about, I used that and his journey. That element led to the big title, and there’s a melancholy to this record, but it’s also our most upbeat album, so there’s that contradiction.
I’m not religious at all but if you grow up in the west of Scotland, you’re not escaping it, so there’s that undercurrent. You also look at a political and cultural landscape where you have maniacs who have delusions of grandeur and ‘God intentions’.
The God’s honest truth is I typo-ed ‘good intentions’ and I thought, ‘that’s a good album title’. I first used it as a song title, but it’s an album title, it brings everything together. I liked that the play on words can be someone who is using it for good, but through religious and political reasons, people use things for ill, and I love that juxtaposition; it gives it subtext.
I love a pun, and so do you guys – what’s your favourite song title?
I think ‘Crosby, Pills and Hash’ is the one. Everyone laughs at that, and we even got a like from David Crosby on Twitter. I’m good pals with Martin [Bulloch, from Mogwai] and he told me Aidan Moffat laughed at it, and Martin messaged me saying, ‘I’m worried about Aidan, he’s laughed twice in two days.’
I get really self-conscious about song titles. Mike [Hastings, guitar] loves puns, and when we get started, we need to stop him. You can get too anxious or uptight about song titles, putting too much weight on them or worrying about them being misrepresented, so sometimes a nonsense title takes the pressure off. That’s why I like to do it, and there’s always a sense of mischief. If you’re doing it to get likes, it’s wrong, but in other ways it’s fine. It’s alright to take your music seriously, but some bands take themselves too seriously.
How many different instruments are on the record?
Well, we’re playing the gig in Stereo, and I had to have a meeting with them just to check we’ll all fit on stage. At one point, there’ll be 13 people on stage. We’ve got the string quartet, and one good thing about this band is everyone is a multi-instrumentalist. I reckon there are 30-plus instruments on this album from recorders and kazoos to sitars. There are some African drums too. It’s a bit far out.
What sort of pedals do you use and when you’re setting up to play live, do you ever wish you had a simpler set-up?
All the time. More so when you’re lugging in and out. Billy [Docherty, bass], he’s a purist, he’s got his bass and amp. I’ve got some textures. Mike is a fuzz, delay, reverb, and a bit of wah and he’s happy. I’ve got a lot more going on but I put that down to me not being a good guitar player! I’m trying to cover up some inadequacies and I tell the lads, it’s texture! Even with Graham [Gordon, sitar and keyboards] and the synthesiser, he has his pack away and set-up time down to 11 minutes. He uses a sitar, and there’s a pedal set up with all four keyboards going through. None of it is high-end gear, which is where the pedals come in useful.
We recorded with Tony Doogan [producer, Castle of Doom studios] on the first album, and he asked us if we toured with our good guitars and then he called us mental. You buy cheap shit for going away and rely on pedals and sound engineers on the road.
Is there a general songwriting process for Helicon, and how do you get your sound?
We don’t write together very often. Generally, someone comes up with an idea and we finish the song together. What we’re very good at is knowing what a song needs, and we can be brutal with each other if something is crap, and we don’t take it personally. It’s very collaborative, but we’re never in a room together at the genesis of songs.
‘Heliconia’ sounds like an early favourite on the new album. How did that song come about?
Having just spoken about that, that was collaborative! Mark [McLure, bass] had a strings arrangement with a pizzicato piece and a piano part. It had a nice vibe, but it didn’t go anywhere at that point. You could feel it build but it needed to shift into something. We brought proper string players in and Mike got a lovely guitar solo, and Seb [Jonsen, drums] got a great drum groove, and I transposed a chord progression in, and it fit nicely.
That’s become a trademark for us; the first and second halves of the song being very different. The demo is groovier, the finished version is heavier and pounding. We submitted it to Fuzz Club, Casper Dee [the label’s founder] said that it needed a vocal. I thought ‘Naw it doesnae’, and we went back and forth. We had no studio time or budget left. The first half is all orchestral; that doesn’t need a vocal.
However, Mike used to be In Trembling Bells with Lavinia Blackwell and Seb drums with her band now, and we thought, why don’t we get Vinny to sing on it? What if we let her go for it, go mental? So we sent her stuff over and she had a go. She sent back four or five mental vocal takes, I sat with Jason [Shaw, producer] and we chopped it up and looked to see where things sit.
Casper was fucking right, it needed that. That was important, it takes the second half into a new stratosphere.
I never write lyrics first; I only add them if I feel it’s missing. I don’t get hung up on lyrics. I am more fixated on the feel and emotion of a song, not the meaning. Writing melody is a tricky thing to do. It helps that on guitar, but adding vocals is a piece of advice I’m glad I took.
And how did ‘Zen Roller’ come about?
‘Zen Roller’ is the first tune we’ve done written by Billy. Billy came in with the riff, two verses, and lyrics, but there was a part missing. So, I did the same thing again and I put in the pre-chorus with the swoopy and swirly guitars. I must have been listening to a lot of My Bloody Valentine that week, and the whammy bars take an absolute doing. He and I wrote the final two verses so that’s another good example of someone in the band bringing in a feel to the tune that wasn’t initially there. He does lead vocals on it too, and it’s helped Billy. He’s churning out songs now!
As we started a band in our 30s, we knew it wasn’t going to escalate to anything unrealistic, so we were less precious about control. There are six guys with six opinions, so they won’t be slow in telling you if it’s shite!
Album tracks like ‘Disobey’, ‘Flume’ and ‘Tae The Moon’ have been out before the album, how has the initial feedback from people been for you?
Amazing, I’m so pleased. ‘Tae The Moon’ first appeared in 2015, the riff is the same, there are changes, and it never got any attention. Now it’s played on Radio 6 Music, but it’s the same song. To see it get mainstream radio play is huge for us, and everyone who hears that and ‘Flume’ is mentioning a positive and upbeat vibe. No one needed another record that carried more melancholy, sadness, and introspection. When I was writing it, people needed something. With the story, there’s sadness and regret, but there’s redemption, and there’s always something positive at the end of it. The feedback has been amazing. Nobody needs anybody else singing about being dumped or how lonely they felt when isolating!
With that style of playing, and bringing in big Mike with his virtuoso and insane guitar solos, you can’t help but move in a positive direction.
The album is mastered by Mark Gardener from Ride: how did that come about, and what do you think, if anything, he has brought to the project?
He certainly gets you noticed more. Jason and Luigi Pasquini [producer], mentioned him because they were working on other projects with him. Jason said ‘he’s a wee bit more expensive’, and by the way, it was just a wee bit more expensive, but he’ll bring something to this because of the swirling and swooping guitars and upbeat music. That’s Ride. I love them, I still remember the excitement when I first heard ‘Leave Them All Behind’. That intro!
So, Mark brings that and we knew with our complex guitar arrangements, Mark would understand them. We put a lot of work in and he said, ‘This doesn’t need much work, it just needs me to lift it and give it a boost’. He’s also a lovely guy.
Getting the sound right was instrumental to working with him, and getting extra eyeballs was good, but knowing Mark would get all the guitar sound and the layers, that helped.
You work with plenty of other people on the record, like Lavinia Blackwall, [French violinist] Sotho Houle, and a string quartet. How easy is it to work with people outside the group?
For me, very. My day job is in advertising and my job is to get other people to do really good work. In my previous life, I played for Dundee United; I was a footballer when I left school. I spent my young adult life in teams, and you know your role in it.
I mean, I’ll call the shots as I’m the only one who’s been in the band since day one, but it’s not a dictatorship. I’m not a good guitar player, I will never be as good a guitar player as Mike, so I let him play. It’s the same with Sotho. With Lavinia, you deal with specialists in what they do. Even people who make videos with us, we don’t super control that, they’re artists too. We give them a lot of instructions and guidance, but they do what they do.
Bizarrely, with Sotho, if we gave him a darker song, he’d be in his comfort zone, so we took one of the more upbeat and 90s dance feel songs, and he sent it back and said, you might hate this, but I fell in love with it. For me, it’s easy to work with people outside the band because we aren’t obsessive about controlling it, and we let people do their thing.
It’s a very danceable record with a lot of big grooves. Are you looking forward to the challenge of playing it live?
I am, 100 percent, I cannot wait. This is our third studio album, we’ve got a live album and 9 EPs, so we have a lot of material to play, and we learned early on to keep it upbeat for the live shows. The quieter moments leave yourself open to heckling!
There was a real moment for us on our last tour: we played Supersonic in Paris [music venue], and a bunch of heavy metal guys came to the gig. We had a heavy set lined up for that tour, it was all about giving people energy. So, all these metal fans came along and they went fucking nuts, they were bouncing. We never had it to that degree before, and we thought, we need to do this more. You know, with many psych gigs a lot of guys can stand there and stroke their chin all night, they’ll really enjoy it, but they don’t move.
You launch the album with a show in Stereo at the end of May – preparations underway for that?
They have been for about two months! It’s an ambitious thing, we’re playing the album from start to finish, note for note, we’ve never done that before. I thought, what’s the point in doing another gig that everyone has seen? We were lucky that Creative Scotland helped us with funding, and that was a game changer, especially with the string section coming in.
Now, we’re bringing in the collaborators, Mark O’Donnell from The Dream Syndicate is coming in to play Moog. Sadly, Lavinia can’t make the gig, so Sophie [Sexon], the flautist from Big Hogg is coming in and she’ll do some Jethro Tull-style parts, in case it wasn’t psychedelic enough! It’s building. Ideally, I’d like to have two or three warm-up gigs before it, but we’re going for it.
You’ve a couple of well-known local DJs on the bill with you too?
Holly Calder is brilliant: she cancelled a few things to do this for us, and Chris Geddes from Belle and Sebastian too, he’s great. It would have been good to get a band supporting but with so much stuff set up, it’s easier to get DJs in. It’s going to make for such a great and complete night.
What’s next for the band?
Next up, after the gig in May, is a short run in July of places we’ve never played. If you keep playing the same places and the same crowd, it diminishes, so we’re playing new cities and setting ourselves a challenge to get new audiences and play on new stages. We’re playing in Devon, Northampton, and a few other places. We’re also doing an October European tour with Acid Rooster from Leipzig, with loads of gigs in Holland and Germany. And before that, hopefully, we’ll make a start on the next record. We’ve started on that a little bit, but we’ll do more.
What do you want Helicons’ legacy to be?
In his book [Spaceships Over Glasgow], Stuart Braithwaite talks about ‘music with permanency’. That’s what I’ve always wanted to try and achieve, without thinking about it or summing it up so perfectly.
It’s not of a time, not of an era, not a fad; it’s for no one else’s good but your own. It has a permanent quality and in 25 years’ time, you could imagine someone making that music now. That is the ultimate achievement for me, to make music that credibly outlives you. If it swims against the tide of populist, middle-of-the-road shite, you’ve paid your tuppence worth to the meter. If you achieve that, you’ve done alright.