Interview: Chris Helme
We catch up with Chris Helme for a good old yarn about his first musical memories, his influences and how these have shaped his own songwriting style.
Interview by Sarah Lay
It’s nine months since I quite unintentionally fell in love with Chris Helme’s album, The Rookery.
A sleepless night last summer and it happened to be the album in the pile that caught my eye, then my ear, then my heart. I remember staring wide-eyed at clouds silhouetted against a big moon beyond the window as the tracks spun past. It played through once and hungrily I made it start all over again; bathing in the sound.
It’s been a regular visitor to my ears since that night, an album that grows with each listen; fascinating and evocative.
It’s one of those long players where songs are transformed when they are played live, some of them grow to be more mighty when nurtured by a full band while others simply begin to glow when held in the spotlight of a solo show.
This interview isn’t the first time I’ve spoken to Chris about his music but it gave us an opportunity to talk about his influences, the way he writes and so much more. He’s always eager to talk about music, stuff he loves as much as his own so we start way back at the very beginning with Chris’ first memories of music:
“My mum and dad had a very minimal record collection. The best of Jose Feliciano, the best of Tom Jones, Best of Shirley Bassey and a Music For You box set of classical stuff that my dad got from the Readers Digest.
“I guess they couldn’t afford records and just listened to the radio. I remember being about five and the radio being on one Sunday. My dad asked me if I liked the Beatles. I told him they were okay but wood lice were easier to catch. He then explained how they were ‘the best band in the world, until they went all weird’. Weird how he didn’t own any of their albums.
“Anyhow, my sister became a Mod in about 1979, as many did, following The Jam, Secret Affair, 9 Below Zero, and then she started seeing this guy from the estate who was into the Kinks, Small Faces, The Who and Motown. Everyone in our village was into Motown and Northern Soul. Pretty cool when I think back.”
It’s a first-sounds story that many of us can relate to; the radio providing a comforting and intriguing backdrop to everyday life, music being there but not in the palm-of-your-hand-on-demand way of today. From a few prized records and the kitchen radio most of us felt the bloom of our own musical needs coming to life and made that right of passage, pocket money in hand, to make some song our very own.
“First single I bought was I Want Candy by Bow Wow Wow and first album was Snap by The Jam (if you discount the Rupert the Bear and the Fire Dragon album my dad bought me in 1973). Then the eighties came along, which was utterly shit, apart from The Cure, The Smiths, the advent of hip hop, Prince and Lloyd Cole and The Commotions.”
That needle hitting the groove may be satisfaction for a while but music is a journey and that first purchase is just that, the first step. If you’re reading this (or reading about music generally) chances are you’re already committed, perhaps unwittingly, to a journey of musical discovery. Certainly that was a path that Chris found himself upon.
“In the late eighties I remember seeing bands like Half Man Half Biscuit on the Chart Show. They were a breath of fresh air compared to all the Stock, Aitken and Waterman shite. I am grateful to Pete Waterman though, if only for force feeding us turds instead of what me and my mates considered great music.
“We all had to look elsewhere, so we went back to the ‘60s and ‘70s and dug out our older siblings Hendrix and Bowie albums, The Beatles and the Stones, Crosby Stills and Nash, Woodstock Live, The Doors. We bought old blues cassettes by Big Bill Broonzy, John Lee Hooker and Sun House from the bargain buckets of Our Price and Track Records. All of the above were considered old fogey music, but it was a damn site better than Sonita et al.
“Then came Acid House and Baggy. People going to raves etc. I wasn’t into that scene really. Just wanted to get stoned and listen to Morrisson Hotel or Deja Vu. Madchester didn’t seem to last very long. Although I was the first person to buy The Stone Roses in Scarborough, or so the guy in the record shop told me. That made me feel pretty good.
“Then there were the crusty bands like the Osric Tentacles, then the Chilli Peppers and Jane’s Addiction, then the grunge bands, Nirvana and Mudhoney and Pearl Jam came along, weirdly interconnected with Neil Young. That’s when I got into Neil Young after seeing him on MTV unplugged.
“Then Primal Scream (again) and Blur (again) and Supergrass and the Bluetones.
“All of the above, barring Sonita, have had a positive influence on me at one point or another. Over time those influences haven’t changed, I’ve just gathered more.”
And at various times, in various ways the ghosts of those influences do float across Chris’ songs.
“I don’t want to copy anyone. Im happier now than ever with who I’ve turned out to be and besides, everyone else is taken, according to Oscar Wilde. But there is a gold mine of knowledge to be had by listening to other stuff.
“Some people, myself included, make the mistake of trying to measure music, in all its parts and then, when they try to recreate or regurgitate, it just doesn’t cut it. The human spirit is still alive and well and ever present and people can smell a faker a mile off.
“But just having a bit more faith in myself seems to do it these days. I always want to get better. And weirdly that might mean getting sloppier. I hate crystal clear shiny hi-fi music. I like imperfections, little mutations. It’s what separates us for each other and attracts us back again.
“I’m sounding like a right wanker now, but let’s face it, music is all about ‘look at me, look what I’ve made, look at what I can do, we did this and it’s different to what you thought it was going to be’ but as I’ve got older I’ve realised it’s maybe more about cracking on and creating something….anything.
“Like an old guy who just makes stuff in his shed for his own personal amusement. It makes me feel good that I can make, at the very least …..something.”
The process of actually creating a song, and then another, and then at some point a collection differs from musician to musician. What works for one won’t work for another. Is there a formula that Chris has found works for him?
“It used to be the whole thing together at once, chords, melody and lyrics, but now it seems to be music first. The music dictates the mood and it seems a more natural way of doing things.
“I have less to whinge about these days, so my scribblings tend to be more truthful and balanced, rather than just pure adolescent angst.
“I get inspired by all sorts of things, always people and relationships – it’s a broad canvass. If I kept a diary I don’t think I’d write songs.”
And has it always been there, this need to create? This desire to write music, right from that awakening listening to the radio as a child, or hearing your older sisters’ records?
“I’ve always sung along to stuff. Never really thought much of it.
“Then I joined a band pretty late on when I was 19. I did it to impress a girl who’d already blown me out to go out with some geezer who was in a band.
“I was into The Doors, Bob Marley and Pink Floyd at that point. Stereo typical hot knife head. Didn’t start playing guitar ’til then really. All the guitarists I knew were really aloof, making out they were wizards of some dark art only they were privy to. Then I learned how to play No Expectations by The Stones and went on from there really.
“I’ve murdered a lot of Van Morrison songs in my time. But overall I’ve been lucky enough to have played with some truly awesome musicians, and I’ve learned bits and bobs from everyone.”
And Chris is rarely not out playing somewhere, criss-crossing the country as playing live is a staple part of his living rather than it being a short tour of promotional duty. The Rookery, songs from previous album Ashes and the occasional number from his previous bands The Yards and Seahorses get played either solo and acoustic or with a full band. What gets played is partly dictated by which set up a gig is played under.
“You can only break a song down so much, some band songs work really well solo, others don’t. And equally some work solo and don’t work with a band.
“I like playing with the band at the moment. Chris, Sam and Geth are great to play with. Very little stress. I’m doing both, solo and full band gigs at he moment and it’s all fun one way or another.”
What about new music? Are all these influences inspiring another album? Will it follow on from The Rookery or be a different direction?
“I’m writing it and seeing what path it’s going to drag me down. I love all kinds of music so I guess you’re just going to have to wait and see.”
Catch Chris playing live –
- 18 May Maggie May’s Glasgow
- 24 May Pelton Arms, Greenwich London
- 25 May Soundhouse, Leicester
- 28 May Bar Solo, Soho London
- 31 May Brooklands Tap, Sale
- 1 June The Granary, Kilmarnock
- 14 June The Hairy Dog, Derby
- 15 June Warehouse 23 (with John Power of Cast and Mark Morris of The Bluetones), Wakefield
- 7 July Cart Shed, Acklington Northumberland
- 27 July Waves, Cleethorpes
- 9 August Colleseum Club, Vauxhall London (part of Streets of Peace festival)
- 15 October City Screen Basement Bar (with Roddy Woomble of Idlewild), York
Download Chris’ cover of Irma Thomas’ Anyone Who Knows What Love Is (Will Understand) for free from his website.