» Brian Vollmer - Helix
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Interview conducted August 3 2019
Interview published August 9 2019

"I've always considered myself a writer first and foremost, probably a singer second, a performer third."

As Canadian hard rock veterans Helix recently made a stop at Skogsröjet festival in Sweden, Metal Covenant talked a little while to the band's frontman Brian Vollmer.

Tobbe: You recently put out a new album [Old School, June 21st]. Tell me about it!

Brian: All songs were written in the '80s and they never made the albums during that time period, for whatever reason. But I found them in my basement, in a closet basically, on 2-inch tapes, cassette tapes, and I thought these songs were pretty good and then a friend of mine said "You should release these.".

So I went to Daryl [Gray, bass] and I said "Could you re-record these, the ones on cassette?" and the ones on 2-inch tape I took to Siegfried Meier up in Goderich [Ontario, Canada]. He's worked with Kittie before. Sig baked the tapes for me. So we got 3 off the 2-inch tapes, one was straight off a cassette and the rest were re-recorded.

Tobbe: And sound-wise, how does it sound in comparison to the '80s?

Brian: Well, I think it's your classic Helix album, really. I love listening to it. You know, I didn't listen to it for a couple of months and just the last week I put it on again and I thought "This is pretty damn good!". [Laughs] It's doing really well; it's selling well. I'm doing a lot of interviews on it and I've been getting nothing but positive feedback from fans and from reviewers, so, there you go.

Tobbe: So what might Helix gain from putting out a new record? Or is it just something to show us that you're still active, if you know what I mean?

Brian: Well, we always put music out, because that's why I got into music in the first place. So for me it's just a given that we're gonna keep doing music. Nowadays it's pretty much a vanity project. There's not really money in it and a lot of bands have quit doing it. But that's where I get my biggest kicks still; putting out music, writing music, performing music. Even these songs, on the new album, a lot of them, I did some little tweaks in the lyrics.

Coming Back With Bigger Guns: I wrote the middle eight section there. It wasn't in there before. And brought the songs up to where I felt that they were completed. We're already starting to work on the next album with the guys in the band here. But yeah, we put out music because we love making music and that's why we're in it. It's not a hell of a lot of money in putting out new music nowadays, so what other reason could there be?

Tobbe: Your last record, Bastard Of The Blues, was out 5 years ago, so we don't have to wait for another 5 years 'til a new record is out, right?

Brian: There's been lots of other projects out after that. We put out Rock It Science [Compilation album, 2016] that has (Gene Simmons Says) Rock Is Dead on it. We also did the single The Devil Is Having A Party Tonight / The Tequila Song [2017], which came out on vinyl.

So every then we do a project like that. It's takes a bit of time. I spend winters in Florida now, so when I come home a lot of my time is taken up just playing. And then in between them I teach Bel Canto, which is the old Italian method of singing. So, my days are pretty full.

Tobbe: So what you're saying is that haven't lost one single bit of creativity and energy since the middle of the '70s when you first started out with this?

Brian: Well, I would like to think we're getting better, hopefully. You know, writing is like anything else. It's a muscle you have to continue to exercise. Some of these bands that don't put out an album for 20 years and then try to jump back into it… I don't think that works. I've always considered myself a writer first and foremost, probably a singer second, a performer third.

So I just keep going forward. I try to keep getting better as a writer. I try not to get into too many formula type of things, and I take great pride in my lyrics, and I work very hard at them. They have to be just right.

Tobbe: Unfortunately, whatever Helix might do it will always be compared to what you did in the '80s and are you worried that you can't live up to your own old reputation when you're writing new songs?

Brian: No, not really, because once again, what does it matter? Because even if fans hated a new album, and, you know, sometimes that happens because you're not always in sync with what people think they wanna hear. You know, you have to follow your own star. You can't follow what the fans want, because if you did that you'd be constantly chasing your tail. You have to do what you wanna do first and then hopefully the fans will like it and appreciate what you do.

But, you know, occasionally fans might hate what you do and, you know, you just go on. I don't know what to say about that, you know. Like, I understand. But it doesn't bother me, no.

Tobbe: Are you always personally the judge of what is good enough to land on a Helix record?

Brian: Yes, because it's my money. [Laughs] But usually we're pretty much in sync. When you write a part that is the best part, usually everybody's in agreement. You don't get some people going "Well, I don't know…", like everybody having a big argument. Usually we all feel the same thing; we're in sync. I can't even remember, with this bunch of guys, having a big disagreement over writing stuff.

Tobbe: What type of song is the simplest or the most complicated for you personally to write?

Brian: It's not really hard for me writing nowadays. I write songs and, you know, some of them are okay, some of them are good, some of them are great. But it's not really hard writing anymore. When Sean Kelly and I write, we always come out of the writing session with 3 or 4 songs, so. It's not like we ever get writer's block. I used to get writer's block all the time back in the '90s, especially. It was a lot of pressure on us.

But I think that experienced writers find a way to write no matter how they feel when they get up out of bed. When I go into a writing session I usually have choruses, you know, in my book, written down or something. Even with these guys, I tell them "Look. Don't have any expectations when you go into practice. Go into practice to write, and have fun with writing, and if we don't get anything we don't get anything.".

But we've never got into a practice yet where we didn't come out with something we felt "Yeah, that's pretty good.". And then we work on that, so we've never had that situation.

Tobbe: It's 45 years of Helix now and do you look forward to the 50-year anniversary for the band?

Brian: I've never even thought of it. But, you know, my voice feels pretty good. And, you know, I saw people like Glenn Hughes last night. He was singing like a bird. Fuck, he's got to be 70 years old, or near. Somewhere around there. [Glenn is about to turn 68. Brian is 64.] And if he can do it I guess I, hopefully, can do it.

Tobbe: Your career has definitely had its high and lows, and how do you handle those situations on a personal level?

Brian: It was very difficult during the low periods of times. There was a point where I was homeless, and I had gold and platinum albums, and I had all my possessions in a suitcase, and I was couchsurfing at different friends' houses.

So it was pretty hard. I was lucky my second wife really pulled me out of that. She's a rock 'n' roll person like me. You know, I think any artist with longevity go through periods like that. You know, even Sonny & Cher. At one point I read a book by Cher, they were playing bowling alleys for Christ's sake.

You know, there's an old German saying "A hammer shatters glass and forges steel.". Some people fold under adversity; other people, it makes them stronger. Truly great artists, I think, have had adversity in their careers and they've overcome that and it's made them stronger. Other ones pack it in, go home and disappear.

Tobbe: The band has gone through quite a lot of lineup changes over the years and how do you always manage to recoup from those lineup changes?

Brian: Well, the main lineup of the band that people know from the '80s was together for quite a long time. Before that, you know, we went through a lot of members when we first got together. So we went through a lot of people when we went out on the road, because in Canada you go out and they put you on the Northern Ontario circuit and it's, like, brutal. Especially back in the '70s.

And then during the '90s I went through a lot of rental players, when, you know, music changed, grunge came in, we lost our record label, and Paul [Hackman, guitar] was killed in a car accident. He was the main writer in the band along with myself. I saw a blues singer on TV one time and she said "A lot of people come in and out of your life and they're really steppingstones to the next place you wanna be in life.".

And it's been like that with me too. There's been people coming and going, and I just struggled on, you know what I mean? I just kept going and now I got a great lineup of guys. They all got good attitudes. There's nobody that has an ego in the band. We all just have a laugh and they're a joy to be with. I just keep going forward. I've been very lucky, the band's been very lucky, we've been blessed, and rock 'n' roll has been good to us.

Tobbe: If you look back at what you've accomplished over the years, are you for the most part happy with what you've accomplished, or do you wish that things had turned out a little bit different?

Brian: I probably wish on a personal level that I would have been more disciplined myself. Maybe that I'd have learnt to play guitar or something like that. But not really. I don't really have any regrets. Everything good or bad in life always contributes to what you are as a person and to what the band is and where we ended up. Even the bad things.

Tobbe: A hypothetical question: Would there have been a significant difference for the band's career if Helix would have been from the United States or from somewhere in Europe instead of from Canada?

Brian: I don't know. I really don't know. I think that, perhaps if we were an American band, it might have been a difference, because I don't think that Capitol Records ever took us seriously down at the tower. And I think a lot of American bands actually stole a lot of ideas from us. I won't mention names, but back in 1983 when we got signed to Capitol Records I remember playing down in L.A. and all the L.A. bands coming out and taking notes.

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