INTERVIEW AND LIVE PICTURES BY MARKO SYRJALA
Helix are a Canadian hard rock/heavy metal band formed in Ontario in 1974. The band are best known for their early 80’s albums NO REST FOR THE WICKED, WALKIN’ THE RAZOR’S EDGE and LONG WAY TO HEAVEN which was a chart topping album in Sweden in 1985. Their most known lineup was the 80s version of the band: Vollmer on vocals, accompanied by guitarists Brent Doerner and Paul Hackman, bassist Daryl Gray, and drummer Greg “Fritz” Hinz. The history of the band has been marked by many lineup changes, with Vollmer being the sole constant member and only remaining member of the original lineup. Although guitarist Paul Hackman was tragically killed in a tour van accident in 1992, the surviving members of the 80’s lineup reunited in 2009 for the album VAGABOND BONES. The line-up is now completed by young guitarist Kaleb Duck and the band released its latest EP SKIN IN THE GAME in the fall of 2011. In October 2011 Helix finally returned to Finland after a near 26 year absence and played a show at the Legends of Rock festival in Oulu. There we had the honor to sit down with Mr. Vollmer himself and hear some of the latest news as well as some blasts from the past… Read on!
THE RETURN OF CLASSIC LINE-UP
First of all, welcome back to Finland! It’s been something like 25 years since your last visit in here?
That’s right. Didn’t we do a tour of our own back then?
Yes and I do remember that at the time you had a number one album in Sweden so it was a good time for Helix for sure.
Right and it was the album A LONG WAY TO HEAVEN, wasn’t it?
Correct. It’s been a really long time since you’ve been here and since then the band has gone through several changes but now you’re back with the most classic line-up of Helix. How did you actually end up back together with these guys?
We’re back with the classic line up and it’s been going great. I don’t know if Brent will come over here again though because he’s used to smoking his cigarettes wherever he wants and do whatever he wants but the other guys they have a great time. “Laughs”
How is it different to play with guys you have been playing with like forever instead of having constantly new members in the band, I mean, if I did count right there’s been over 40 people in the band since its birth?
It’s a lot more comfortable and I’m not really – I don’t know an instrument so I needed a musical person – the problem with bringing extra guys and they can be playing the – the parts but there’s nothing like the original players. They brought the parts and they know how to play the parts. They have a certain feel for the parts so having the original guys back together I think it transcends in overall sound when we play live. These guys are doing very well with each other. We have faced all the hard times, we’re not making any money and – for many, many years so there’s that bond that we had. We used to joke with people that we largely spent more time together than we have with our own brothers and sisters. And it’s very true. The band formed in 1974, Brent and I have been together with most of that time. Daryl came in the band in 1983, I think – around there and the same with Fritz, so long it’s been a time together. And the problem with a lot of younger players when you get them they don’t appreciate things. And the risk of sounding like an old guy, when you take many years to build up to point where you actually making money and you’re staying in a nice hotels and – you tend to appreciate everything you got. You don’t take anything for granted and people have just walked in to that situation. They tend to not appreciate it. We’ve been very lucky with our young guy Kaleb, he’s only 23 years old he’s got a great attitude and we are lucky getting him. He never complains about anything and he always does his parts and so – but you know, once again we got four guys who have been there for a long time and there’s one guy who’s new. It’s a lot different situation when you got situation where… there are four guys that are new. You know they’re just doing whatever they want to do it right so that’s the difference.
I remember when you were playing at the Sweden Rock festival in 2005 with completely different line up then?
Right, that’s correct. We had Cindy and Rainer Wiechmann in the band then. I had actually decided before we left Canada that this line up isn’t working and that I got to get different players but I had already told them previously that they’re going to do the festival so I didn’t… I felt it would’ve been unkind or whatever word you want to use to just ask them to leave before that tour. They were really looking forward to it. They told everybody that they’re going to play on that festival so we decided that after the tour they were going to leave the band but we’re still very good friends. Cindy’s got a great voice they have their own band called Nail. And that whole period I was just trying to keep the band going. The band is actually my life and I think we’re going into 38 years now. So there were many, many lean years – I went through all the sorts of players and players like you know, I didn’t like. They were really difficult to work with. But we survived and eventually quite by accident the classic band came back together.
Do you have plans to carry on with this current line-up in the future?
Yes, but I don’t think Brent’s going to come back to Europe though. He doesn’t like not being able to smoke wherever he wants to smoke and I think that the traveling over here it’s been like we can’t sleep when we want to and… he’s not a fan of that– it’s just not that but that’s originally why he quit, one of the reasons anyway. Aside from lack of money, you know. Back in Canada he’ll definitely still play with us.
Greg Hinz, Brent Doerner, Daryl Gray, Kaleb Duck and Brian Vollmer
THE DIFFICULT TIMES AND SOLO ALBUM
You’ve gone through many difficult times with Helix during the past decades. Was there any period in Helix history when you were thinking about giving up? Something like: “This is it. I’m going to have a new band or do something else with my life”?
I think that during the BACK FOR ANOTHER TASTE album when we came to Europe with – we had Denny Balicki playing guitar for us, I think that was as close I came to quitting and I was just very tired and burnt out, I wasn’t making any money. After many, many years I think at that time band had been together like 16 years or something. Yeah, about 16 years and… so I had fully intended to quit the band in after the Ian Gillan -tour in 1990. And then we got to England at the end of the tour and then single “Good To The Last Drop” from BACK FOR ANOTHER TASTE album became a huge hit Canada and my manager at that time said for me “Look – why quit now?” He says “You might as well come back to Canada at least tour Canada on the song and make some money rather saying you never make any money, you make good money you had to hit song right?” So we came back to Canada and I just never quit.
You also did one solo album in the 90’s?
Yes I did solo album called WHEN PIGS FLY and that was – and that came out quite by accident too. I had to – I did – hardly had 10 cents to rub together and I had just been married to my second wife and to make money I used to go up and play a little cover band on a weekend. And the guy who started – the guys I was playing with at that time, Tony Palleschi and Bill Gadd, they wanted to produce some music and create some songs for – it was based on the joke but we started writing and then they want to record and then one thing led to another and I put out that album.
VAGABOND BONES AND SKIN IN THE GAME
Ok, the latest Helix album is called VAGABOND BONES. Do you want to tell something more about it?
Yes I’m very proud of that album. After I split with Gord Prior as my writing partner in THE POWER OF ROCK’N ROLL album, now Sean Kelly joined the band as a bass player. Although he’s really a guitar player, probably he’s one of the best guitarist’s in Canada but he wanted to be in Helix so bad he said he would come play bass for me. And Sean and I started writing and wrote the VAGABOND BONES album. Sean now plays guitar for Nelly Furtado. He plays for Gilby Clarke and for other Canadian bands like Carl Dixon but Sean and I are still writing together. We just wrote the new Helix EP SKIN IN THE GAME together. Sean’s a busy guy and he’s in demand but like I did say he’s a great guitar player and he likes Helix a lot. “laughs”
He does sound like a guy that everyone knows in Canada?
Yeah and he’s got one of those personalities that attracts people to him. He’s very easy going. He’s not full of himself, he’s very humble person and if anybody that could come off and be an egotistical it could be him because he’s such a great guitar player. But when you meet him he’s very like that and he attracts people – I’ll tell you a little story. We went down to play Rocklahoma couple years ago and we were waiting for the shuttle from the hotel to the concert grounds. And there was a guy standing to the front. He just asked “Can I get a ride with you to the area?” and so it’s really only for the band, I said “Are you on a band? Who are you?” He goes “I’m Kip Winger” I said “Oh you get in the bus” So we got into the bus with Kip Winger and it was like five minutes later him and Sean are like this and Kip Winger saying “Well, listen I want you to play in my album. I’m writing a guitar symphony, I want you to play on it”. That illustrates how he’s such a – he just attracts people. He’s one of those guys it’s like a people magnet. He’s got a very good personality.
Like you mentioned earlier you are not handling instruments yourself, so you need a strong writing partner. In the past you did most of the writing with Paul Hackman and Brian Doerner but on VAGABOND BONES and the latest EP it’s all written by you and Sean Kelly. What does Brent think about that?
Well Brent’s more in the film nowadays. It’s not that we didn’t offer for him to come up and write with us, it not anything like that, he just – he’s more content to work on films and then..
Okay, I didn’t know that. By the way, what Brent’s twin brother and your former drummer Brian Doerner doing these days?
Yes, I still see Brian all the time and we’re still very good friends. Brian plays drums now for Saga.
THE STATE OF MUSIC BUSINESS AND THE KISS TOUR IN 1983
Now after you’ve been in a business more than 30 years already, what’s the biggest difference between the early days and current state of music scene?
Well I think the biggest difference is that with illegal downloading bands don’t sell near as many units or records. I think that whole thing has changed. From the perspective of playing back in Canada, we developed our craft, and I call it a craft, being a good musician and a good performer, we had a good training ground with a very healthy bar circuit in Canada back in the 70’s. You could play 6 or 7 nights a week. You played 3 to 5 sets a night. You could play from one end of the country and go back and forth and never stop playing. Nowadays there is no place to play Sunday to Thursday in a lot of places. So those bands can’t really get that worldwide outlook. They are stuck in town, and like what are you going to do for 4 days if you are out and 1000 miles away from home? You suddenly have to pay for rooms, for food, your wages and bands can’t afford it so they don’t do it. For us, we’ve been lucky. We developed our markets back in the 80’s and continued on and especially in Canada in the summer where we get hired to play right across the country…people know the band, even in Europe we still have a name. The biggest difference for us is that back in the 80’s it was very hard, we didn’t make any money. In the heyday of the band we never made more than 200 bucks a week. Try to live on that, to pay your bills. Everybody’s marriages broke-up and there were all sorts of problems with our family because we were never there. We traveled in very uncomfortable conditions. The first tour we did with Kiss we had an English van and we had our gear in it a sheet of plywood…and that’s where we slept, on top of the gear with just a small amount of room between us and the roof.
And that tour was in winter time, right?
Yes. It was freezing frigging cold. With all those things, it was just craziness. It was very, very hard on you. The thing people discount or that is never mentioned when I read the books or magazines is that we were sleep deprived. We had very little sleep and I think that makes you a little crazy at times, more so than drugs. Not getting your sleep and sleeping at irregular hours, we stayed in shitty hotels, ate shitty food, and all that stuff. But nowadays, especially in Canada, we travel by plane, when we do have to drive it’s usually short distances and we travel very comfortably, get into a nice hotel rooms, we are paid well so it’s a totally different scene in that respect.
Any funny memories from that Kiss tour, any positive memories?
From the Kiss tour, there are many… I remember we always gave Kiss their space. We didn’t want to get into trouble for just walking into their dressing room and stuff like that. At the end of the tour they go, “How come you guys never came to party with us?” And we figured, well, we didn’t know we could right?! (Laughs) Just things like that. I remember one time, I can’t remember what the country was, but the guy from Capitol (Records) came out and he brought out these great big Helix posters. He had like 200 of them and we spent the whole day putting these posters up around the arena. Then Kiss comes in for their sound check and Gene Simmons was up there and he says to our road manager, Kenny, “Hey, Kenny come here…” So Kenny goes up to him and Gene says “Whose show is this?” and Kenny says “Well it’s yours.” and Gene says “That’s right, and I want you to take down every one of those posters that you got up.”. We had spent the whole day putting them up, so now Kenny had to go around and take down ALLLL the posters.
Right, “Laughs”, one more thing about that tour, you did play with Kiss in Helsinki but for reason or another you cancelled your show here in Oulu. Do you remember what did happen back then?
I think the problem was we thought the band was going to break down. And it was – wasn’t it November the tour… and so we did cancel that date because we didn’t want to break down and not make our flights back to Canada. Yeah, that was the reason we did cancel that show.
So, as just mentioned you’ve just released new EP SKIN IN THE GAME. So, what’s next on the map?
Well we got lots of dates coming up. We’ll continue to keep writing and we’re trying to work on getting a reality show or put “a rockumentary” together. We have actually worked on that for a couple of years and we already have 40 hours of film in can. I’m still teaching Bel Canto which is the classical vocal technique. I’m one of the last people teaching that and… that’s about it. That all consumes most of my time.
Right, but with or without Brent, have you already booked any shows for the next year in Europe, festivals and stuff like that?
No but, actually, I just talked to my good friend Danny and he said that he’s doing a – how do you say it, Belarus? Right, and he said that he might have some gigs for us over there but you know what I was going to keep on going but we probably won’t do those gigs. In fact you know we won’t do those gigs. It’s too tough.
Alright, I think that’s enough…It was nice to meet you!
Nice to meet you too.
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PICTURES FROM HELIX SHOW IN OULU!!