Today's CP features my article on Chicago cellist Alison Chesley, a.k.a. Helen Money. Sometimes it's tough to fit everything you'd like into the space you have to work with in the paper – but, thank heaven, the Internet is boundless. So here's a mostly uncut version of the interview I did with Chesley last week via the phone.
How long have you been playing cello?
I've been playing since I was eight. I grew up in L.A., and in the valley, where I grew up, they had music in the public schools, so when you were a certain age, you could pick an instrument to play, and I picked the cello. I don't really remember why; I think it looked cool.
When did you start playing rock-oriented cello? I assume that wasn't what you were playing in grade school.
No ... my brother turned me onto The Who when I was in my early 20s, then I dropped out of school and started to go to clubs all the time. Then for the next 10 years -- I had a part time job, I didn't play much cello, but I went to shows. I saw the Minutemen a lot, all those SST bands, and kind of formed my musical taste, I guess. Then at some point I decided I needed to actually do something with my life.
All I knew how to do was play cello, so I thought, maybe I'll go to grad school, might get a job at a university, teaching. I got accepted at Northwestern and came [to Chicago], and met someone, Jason Narducy, who wanted me to play some songs with him. He was really influenced by Bob Mould, and the Workbook album, so he had a strong idea about how he wanted the cello to sound. I, from listening to all that music all those years, I knew I didn't want to play pretty string parts in a rock band. So the two of us started playing together, we hit it off, then somehow we got an opening slot for Bob Mould and he heard us and offered to record our album, and that's when I decided, I just have to do this, it's too good an opportunity.
Playing with Jason really shaped how I played cello in that kind of music. He told me, "You've got to get a distortion pedal, you have to get a delay." Playing with him, and that kind of music, helped shape how I played my cello.
At first the we called ourselves Jason and Alison, and it was just the two of us, then when we recorded the first record with Bob, we got a bass player and drummer and called ourselves Verbow. We actually got signed to Epic, but we sold hardly any records. We put out two records for them but not much happened.
When did you decide to go solo?
After Jason and I called it quits, I'd been toying around with creating stuff on my own, writing stuff, but I'd never really done it, then I had an opportunity to work with these poets who wanted music for some stuff they'd written, and I realized the only way I could play along with myself was to get a looping pedal. And I don't think they even had the same pedals they do now. I had a four-track and I thought, okay, I'm going come up with an idea, and I think that was the start of trying to create pieces by myself. I wanted to still write the kind of stuff I was playing with Jason and Verbow, harder stuff, and that's kind of how it got started.
You've also done session work with other bands as well, right?
Yeah, I've been really lucky. There are two great studios [in Chicago] – well, more than that – but at Steve Albini's [Electical Audio] studio and John McEntire's Soma Studio, I've been lucky to start doing sessions, and I feel like I've been one of the string players they'll call when they need somebody. And I'm in touch with the bands here that they record. That's been great.
You recorded the new album at Electrical ...
Yeah. I feel really comfortable there, I really trust them, I know that they really are into the sound. [One album recently recorded there] had I think 20 string players; Steve set the mics up, he just knows how to set them up and got this amazing sound. And Greg [Norman] works with him closely, he's the same, just good at getting sound. I also felt like for this record, I wanted to get not only my amp sound but also a good cello acoustic sound and I felt like they could do that there. And they do tape. And I was curious to see what it would sound like on tape.
Tell me about what your effects setup is. What all do you have working on this particular album?
It's the setup I've used for a while – I've got a couple of distortion pedals and a delay pedal, those are the most important, then I have a couple of loop stations, and what I do is I end up storing phrases that I'll use in different parts of the song. I do looping but, especially for this record, I wanted to see if I could get away from something kind of static, and just layering. I'd like to do something a little more interesting than that. Sometimes what I'll do is step on a pedal and part of the phrase will come in and then I'll bring it out. I try to interact with them – I don't want people to perceive them as a backing track. I don't think that's very interesting, as an audience member.
It's really interesting to see – you'd think people using loop pedals, it would all sound the same, but if it's done well, you can get a sense of their personality. Like David Daniel, he's on the same label as me, he does a lot of interesting stuff – you almost don't notice that he's doing it.
Speaking of your label -- how did you end up with Table of the Elements and Radium?
I wanted more people to hear this record than the last one, and I contacted Jeremy Devine, who's Mono's manager, and he was super nice and took the time to listen to the record, and suggested Jeff [Hunt, of Radium]. And in the meantime I'd been checking out their label and I remember thinking, before he got back to me, "I should be on this label!" It's experimental, I guess, but it's rock. And I thought, these guys should have me on their label! And he eventually got back to me. It's a tiny label, but I feel like the artists he's got on there – I'm in really good company.
Where did the name Helen Money come from?
I just decided I didn't want to be Alison Chesley. It felt too ordinary, I guess. And there's something about "Helen Money" that's kind of more rock. Also, if it was not my name, I could make it something else – if I wanted I could have other people in it. It's confusing, though, because people don't know if I'm Helen or Alison.
On this record, you cover a Minutemen song, "Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing." I assume this was recorded before Michael Jackson died? Is it a weird serendipitous thing or are you cashing in on the death hoopla?
Yeah, I want some of that money [laughs]. No, I think the reason I did that because I wanted to do a cover – I think the album's kind of dark, and I don't know if it's entirely approachable. I thought it would be nice to have something on there that people would know. I feel like when people do covers you get more of a sense of them in a way. And The Minutemen, I used to go see them a lot in LA during the '80s, so they were a big part of that part of my life. And I love that song. That's why I decided to do that. It didn't have anything to do with the Michael Jackson thing.
And actually a friend of mine did a video of it, and he had a totally different take on it. He's a younger guy, a different generation, and it's interesting to see what he did with it. It wasn't where, I think, Mike Watt was coming from or what I took from the song at all.
You play with a lot of techniques that are more common amongst guitarists. Why is cello your instrument?
I think it's just because it's all I know how to play. I want to be a rock musician, and all I know how to play is the cello. I thought, I could try to play the guitar, but it seems so silly. I play cello. So that's why I'm doing it. I guess I just want to play – I don't know why, but I want to make music that's intense and dark and makes me feel the way the music I like to listen to makes me feel. Like Bob Mould, and any number of bands that seem like life-or-death kind of music.