In the second half of 2012 I took Helta Skelta's vocalist and guitarist (Jon and Brendan, respectively) hostage in the back seat of my car. While I didn't have a gun to their heads, the doors were locked and I had a tape recorder and some questions to ask. Helta had just released their self titled LP at the time, which was and still is one of my favourite records to come out of Perth. Since then, the band have released two EPs and come a very long way in refining their sound. This conversation is a great snapshot of the band and the general state of affairs at the time.
S: Hey guys, what records have been stickying your pants recently?
J: Records I like at the moment, I really like that new Men record...
S: Open Your Heart?
J: Nah Leave Home
B: There's a new one.
J: There's another one? Is it a full length?
S: Yeah it is, came out early in March.
J: Well anyway, Leave Home is wicked, it's really diverse.
S: Yeah I thought it was better than the first one.
J: Immaculada? I reckon they're about the same, because Immaculada has got a couple songs that have some real stomp in them. I'm pretty sure Leave Home had a guest spot from the vocalist of Total Abuse, I think, because I know they moved to New York and probably would be mates. Anyway, that's good, the Total Control record is sick, um what else...
B: That Burning Sensation LP.
J: I haven't even heard that.
B: ...and that new YOB album that came out last year.
J: I still haven't heard that Royal Headache album, everyone is going on about that - did you like it?
B: Yeah it's okay.
J: I also really like that Wiccans LP Skullduggery, that's cool. Condominium, their LP is good, and their 7" as well. Diet Cokeheads are also pretty cool, they've released a few 7"s recently. Have you got anything to add to that?
B: Nah man, just that YOB album from last year and this reissue of an old folk record, guy called Michael Chapman. It's his first LP but it's being reissued, it's pretty good. Called Rain Maker.
S: What's the background behind Helta Skelta? Was there any particular impetus to form the band, or did it simply come out of a 'friends jamming' scenario?
S: What's the background behind Helta Skelta? Was there any particular impetus to form the band, or did it simply come out of a 'friends jamming' scenario?
B: When Jon moved to Perth, we were on the same page when it came to music so we decided we would start a band. It was Ash, Jon and me, really, we wanted to start something up.
J: We sort of looked at what was happening in Perth at the time and thought maybe a band like Helta Skelta might be a good fit. Originally we wanted to do just an 80s hardcore band, kind of like Black Flag or the Adoloscents, but then it changed a little bit over time. But that was the original goal. And because the line-up's changed quite a lot over the last couple of years, the sound's been allowed to run its course naturally, which is kind of good.
S: When did you form exactly, was it right before the tape, so like 2010?
B: Yeah it was right before the tape. We recorded it almost straight away.
S: What do you guys make of Perth hardcore in 2012?
J: Well we're not really part of it, Helta Skelta I mean.
B: Yeah, Perth is divided between terrible hardcore and then there's the DIY stuff, but I think the DIY side of it is pretty good.
J: Yeah the DIY scene is sick. Everyone's so jaded on hardcore because there's so many shit bands, so the DIY scene is mainly heavier stuff, like crust bands, noise bands, powerviolence bands, etc.
B: It's small enough that no one has any beef with anyone.
J: Yeah, it's definitely very cohesive, whereas the other hardcore scene has a lot more politics. We don't even need to concern ourselves with it, Helta Skelta is not even on those guys' radar. They wouldn't really be into it.
S: Then how do you think Helta Skelta fits into Perth's 'scene' (if at all), and also how it fits into international trends?
B: There's that whole garage thing which is pretty big, especially in the States, and there are heaps of labels putting out that stuff. But internationally I think it's not anything that's different. It's probably different in Perth though.
J: Yeah, we're heading into a garage-y direction. That's really the whole thing, locally it's relevant, there's not really anyone doing it in Perth. In Melbourne, it's bit of a different story.
B: I could never do a band that only plays the garage-y stuff, I'd have to have some heavier riffs or I'd just get bored.
J: We've got a pretty broad range of influences as well so we can pick and draw from a variety of things. But what I was saying before, a lot of people say that US bands all sound the same, there's the whole mysterious guy thing and then the garage thing, but I think when you look at the US geographically a lot of these bands are from different cities so in their own turf they're still relevant, but when you look at it from overseas you just regard them as 'American' bands.
S: Helta Skelta reminds me of 80s bands like Koro but with an almost 'surf-punk' vibe, something I think fits perfectly with Perth in an atmospheric sense.
B: I think the whole 'surf-punk' thing wouldn't exist if Ash wasn't in the band, it'd be much more hardcore. Ash's guitar tone is really bright and reverb-y and I think that's what gives it that 'surf-punk' vibe.
S: When you guys played live I remember you had quite a heavy sound, which wasn't there so much on the LP.
B: Live is different to recordings, definitely, in terms of the sound we get.
J: Yeah you're right, Ash does bring a surf-y kind of vibe. Originally we had that balance, because we liked the contrast between the guitar tones, like on the first couple of 86 Mentality 7"s, how one was kind of fuzzy and the other was clean. Which they actually changed in the end, it didn't sound as good though, on that Final Exit record.
B: But lots of bands do that though, a band like Night Birds, who, at least for me, are the classic mix betwen 80s hardcore and surf guitar.
J: They remind of the Dead Kennedys actually. They're a good band.
B: What was the question again?
S: Yeah I never even finished it. That was my interpretation of the sound, but the question was where do you think it fits in Perth (I think it fits perfectly), in terms of the city's atmosphere. Would you agree, and where else do you derive your influences from?
B: So do you think it fits in Perth because we live near a beach?
S: Pretty much!
J: Ha because we're all avid surfers.
B: Summer is definitely a big thing, but I don't think our music is very positive.
J: Yeah, and that makes those surf riffs kind of ironic, which is good though. It's a pretty weird band really, because the influences are diverse and the vibe's pretty negative, and then there's quite poppy bits.
B: I think there's a lot of accidental irony.
S: Do you all share similar musical tastes?
J: There's definitely common ground.
S: Is there much variation?
B: I think there definitely is. Ash listens to heaps of 60s music, soul and twee-pop and shit like that, and I listen to a lot of experimental, drone, noise.
J: We probably have a fair amount of common ground, but a lot of different tastes come into the mix. And we've got two new members as well. It all comes together though - the common ground is probably 80s hardcore and garage punk/garage rock, that's where we come together.
S: How collaborative is the song-writing process? Having 5 members probably adds a different dynamic to the band, at least in terms of constructing songs - do you all sit and write together or does one or two people do the majority of it while the others shape their contributions around the already written structures?
B: Usually the songs are written by Ash or myself, it's normally about a 50/50 split. We'll have a rough idea of how the song will go, in terms of structure, then we'll bring it to practise and then tweak it, basically.
S: What's your process Jon, when you get the music, how do you work the lyrics into it?
J: It's usually at home. I'll either write the lyrics to the song, or sometimes I'll just write a load of stuff if I have a good theme or a concept and then work it into it, but yeah I write all the lyrics. It all comes together pretty well.
B: Every band I've ever been in has always been the same - the guitar player writes the song, it gets tweaked at practice.
J: And also for vocals, I don't know if you ever find this for Warthreat, if the bass player or drummer is writing lyrics for the song sometimes they don't bear in mind what it's like to actually sing it, and they'll make the phrasing really hard to sing.
B: For Warthreat, I do the phrasing months in advance. I get the phrasing right then I write the lyrics to the phrasings. That's why there's fuck-all lyrics in Warthreat songs.
J: I do it at the same time, but I definitely cut stuff out, because you always favour how easy it is to sing rather than what the actual lyrics are. It's not fucking literature is it, it's just punk.
S: As far as I know you've only released the Parasite demo in 2010 and then your s/t LP late last year - why the large gap between releases?
B: Well the record was recorded in March last year, so there was 9 months before it was released, mainly because we didn't have any money and it took fucking ages to finish recording because we did it all ourselves. I was studying, trying to pay rent etc.
J: And we've all got heaps of other committments. It's not really like it's a side project or anything, it's just hard to focus on one thing. We lost our drummer just before we were gonna record...
B: Oh that's why it took fucking ages! Like a week before we were about to record, he quit.
S: What was his reason for quitting?
J: He just wasn't feeling it, I don't know.
B: We knew he was going, but we tried to make him want to do the record. We were supposed to record it in November 2010, before I went away. It ended up happening in March last year.
J: We got Pat O'Brian in the end, he plays drums in Golden Staph, he played on the record and a couple of shows with us until recently, and it all worked out for the best really. His drumming is really good and I liked having him in the band. So anyway, we weren't really in a hurry or anything, it's not like we had a label, we haven't been touring extensively, we just took it at our own pace. I think it was amazing that people are still interested in hearing this stuff, considering how much we don't like promoting it.
S: If my memory serves me well, the demo tape was more 'subdued' (if that's even the right word), than the LP. Obviously a year or more will change the way a band sounds - in what ways did Helta Skelta evolve or mature between the releases, in terms of the sound?
B: I just think the songs were a bit more dynamic. But the demo tape is a really good example of the LP, there's a mixture of the garage sound and the Black Flag-inspired stuff.
J: Yeah we sort of carried on with that trajectory. The tape was a studio recording, whereas the LP was more of a lo-fi recording. I don't think we really changed drastically from that point though, we just had an opportunity to write more songs that experimented with that dynamic.
B: I think the biggest difference between the tape and the record is the feel of the recording.
J: Yeah I agree, I don't think the songs are necessarily any better written.
B: They're probably a little more interesting, there's a bit more going on.
S: What was the recording process like?
B: We just borrowed a bunch of gear from a friend of ours, and he showed us how to use it. We could only record at certain times because of the shop [next to 208].
J: When I was doing the vocals it was pretty chilled out, but when we were doing the live tracks with everyone it was pretty stressful.
B: We just basically set up as we would play in there but just put couches to isolate the amps. When Jon did the vocals we built a booth in the corner. I think the recording was pretty bad, now that I thought about it. It was pretty arduous and it took a while, an hour here an hour there.
J: We're all pretty disparate personalities in this band, trying to work together is sometimes testing. But that's true of a lot of bands. When you're trying to record, some of the stuff can be pretty technical and you are going to get pissed off with each other. Our friend did us a massive favour by lending all of his gear, but he didn't have the time to literally record everything for us, so he showed us how to use it and we did it ourselves. Brendan mixed it, and because I was doing vocals I was working the desk and it was pretty much learning how to use it at the same time as recording with it. We lost takes and stuff, there was a lot of experimentation. Considering all that, the end product was actually pretty good. If we were talking about recording again I'm not sure how we would go about it.
B: Less mics. Definitely less mics.
J: Oh yeah for sure. We learnt some lessons though, it was an experience.
S: How was the LP received? Has it sold out yet?
B: The pressing was of 270, we got 250 pressed but they sent us another 20 for some reason, and there's 100 copies left. It's gotten pretty positive reviews but we haven't really pushed it, we just sort of put it out there. I hate bands that push shit.
J: It just leaves a sour taste, it's just like self-promotion. It's available if people want it but we're not forcing it down anybody's throat.
B: We've got some in distros overseas, in the States and in Europe, but we're definitely not going to flog the shit out of it. Fuck that.
S: So it has been received well overseas?
B: Yeah I think so.
J: People who have heard it from overseas seem to like it. I know that our bass player contacted a couple of labels in the US.
B: There's a bunch going to Grave Mistake and Sorry State, and also that Spanish label La Vida Es Un Mus. I guess if we've sold copies people must like it. But yeah, I'm so against pushing it. If you want it, it's there.
S: While poring over the LP, I've found the lyrics to be remarkably negative, which I think is somewhat unsettling in comparison to the music - was this intentional?
J: Yeah, I like the juxtaposition between the happy/poppy riffs and the negative lyrics. A lot of our songs are about weird and abstract topics, that kind of stuff, it's been a while since I wrote it but one of the things I was trying to do quite a bit is to contrast political issues in the 60s with modern stuff. That's in a couple of songs. I was just trying to be abstract in a lot of the tracks, as opposed to the same old issues we hear in hardcore. With this band I felt like the lyrics should be more 'out there' or whatever.
S: A lot of the lyrics seem to be metaphorical, but I can make out religious imagery ('Son of Man', 'Helta Skelta'), contemptuous rhetoric on war, specifically relating to Britain ( 'Slave I', Ascension of the Crucified Skins', 'I Am Shiva') and general disdain for idealism, with lines like 'times are-a-changin', LSD naivety). Can you give any commentary on the lyrics as a whole, or specific songs that are meaningful to you?
J: That 'times are-a-changin' line is just a Bob Dylan rip, the song it's from is just about Cold War tensions.
B: If there's one theme that Helta Skelta has, it's 60s and 70s Cold War paranoia. A lot of the songs and the names refer to that period. I think that time was just fucked, people were seriously fucking insane. So paranoid about communism that they did all these fucked up things.
J: Then you had people that were part of the counter-culture, and they were fucking out there as well. It's such an interesting period, when I was writing a lot of the songs it just seemed cool to write punk songs about that period even though it predates punk and hardcore.
B: It's also interesting for us, since we never really lived through the Cold War, it's a good way of discovering and learning about the period.
J: That time was just really gnarly, basically.
S: I found the cover art to be an accurate depiction of the music, lighthearted and eye/ear catching from the outset, but actually quite negative and acerbic at its core - is there any correlation? And who designed it?
B: Jamie Doohan designed it, he plays drums in Mental Powers.
J: I think we gave him the songs, maybe the lyrics as well.
B: We didn't really have any idea though, we just really liked his flyers. The only thing we said was to not have Helta Skelta on the front.
J: Yeah the flyers he had done were really good, and some of his other stuff is too. Ash knows him quite well. It took us a while to get there with the art but it's really good, I think. It does capture the record pretty well.
S: Is there a conceptual element/overarching theme to the record as a whole?
B: Yeah the Cold War paranoia theme for sure, but that's just as much for the record as it is for the band overall.
J: Yeah. 1960s 'fuckedness' is kind of the main vibe. Then trying to relate that to some modern stuff.
S: So like the idea that nothing has really changed, that people still are doing fucked up shit all the time?
B: Maybe not doing fucked up shit but just doing things out of fear, fear that doesn't exist. It still happens today, people are fucking scared of boat people or whatever.
J: It's the way people are, and we repeat these patterns.
S: Is there a political theme to the band?
J: Vaguely. It's very tenuous, we don't really support any causes or anything. It's a real half-arsed nihilistic political message.
B: There's a message, but we're not trying to force it on people, just draw their attention to it.
S: What's next for Helta Skelta? Will there be more records or shows in the near future?
B: Nothing booked. But we really want to do a 7" soon.
J: It would be nice to do another recording with the current lineup. I dare say we'll be in a position where we'll start playing show again. It's looking positive though, the new lineup is good. We had our first practice with the new drummer the other day, he's pretty good.
S: How did you guys find him?
J: Ash found him. He was buying a scooter off Ash, because Helta Skelta is a band comprised of both mods and skinheads, they're both the same person as well.
B: Mods, skinheads and punks.
J: Haha, but all the same guy.
S: So are there any particular records that are coming out soon that you're looking forward to?
B: Oh yeah, DIAT. It's the bass player from Golden Staph and the drummer from Hard Luck, they both live in Berlin. I think he's from Hard Luck. They've got a 7" coming out on Iron Lung and it's fucking sick.
J: What, on Iron Lung? Is it really good?
B: Yeah it's awesome.
S: What do they sound like?
B: They're not dissimilar from Golden Staph, maybe a little darker. I check the Iron Lung page almost weekly to see if it's out yet.
J: How did they get onto Iron Lung?
B: Just emailed them. They've got a demo tape out that's awesome too.
J: I'm looking forward to the new Slices LP.
S+B: It's out.
J: So, I was looking forward to it, but now it's out. So I'll be going onto mediafire later. Also keen on this new Men record that's out as well. Other than that, I don't really have much time to keep my ear to the ground with that kind of stuff. Things pass by me.
S: Is there anything coming out in Perth that either of you are looking forward to?
B: There's a band Boab in Perth that have had a tape in the works for 12 months or something like that.
J: Are they good?
B: Yeah they're fucking amazing. They just jam though, don't play gigs. They have the best gear and do some amazing drone stuff.
S: You're all alone on a cold and dreary evening with nothing better to do but lie on the floor and listen to records - what would you put on?
B: Since I already read this question a few days ago, I prepared my answer and my answer is Neil Young - Live Rust.
J: Do you just get one?
S: You can have as many as you want.
B: You've changed it now, I'll have to change my answer.
J: I'd probably listen to the Lush record, Scar. For that scenario. I'll only give one because Brendan only chose one. Then I'd borrow his Neil Diamond record.
B: Fuck off.
S: Thanks for your time guys, any final comments?