Cello-driven rock isn't exactly mainstream, but it's also not unprecedented: On a national level, Rasputina is well-known, and locally, Cellofourte (lately reformed in part as Cello Fury, after a schism) has made something of a name for itself. Unlike those bands, though, Chicago's Helen Money is a solo artist -- a one-woman cello-rock band whose music hits ecstatic highs and perseveres through droning builds.
The music of Helen Money (the stage name of Alison Chesley) possesses a nearly split personality, more avant-garde than the baroque rock of the aforementioned cello bands, but not quite as spacey as Arthur Russell (perhaps the benchmark for avant-garde cello). Earlier this year, the second Helen Money album, In Tune, was released on the Radium imprint of the Table of the Elements label, home to Rhys Chatham, Tony Conrad and other rock/drone innovators.
With a full array of effects pedals usually set aside for guitarists -- including distortion, delay, looping pedals -- it's a wonder why Chesley prefers cello over simply crossing over to electric guitar.
"I think it's just because it's all I know how to play," explains Chesley. "I want to be a rock musician, and all I know how to play is the cello. I thought [in the past], 'I could try to play the guitar,' but it seems so silly. I play cello."
Chesley started playing at 8 years old, through the Los Angeles public schools. "At 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," she recalls. At the time, of course, she wasn't playing rock music on it.
"My brother turned me on to The Who when I was in my early 20s, then I dropped out of school and started to go to clubs all the time," Chesley says. "For the next 10 years, I went to shows, I had a part-time job but I didn't play much cello. I saw the Minutemen a lot, all those SST bands, and kind of formed my musical taste."
Eventually she applied to grad schools and was accepted to Northwestern -- "I decided I need to actually do something with my life" -- where she met Jason Narducy, who would become her bandmate, first in a duo called Jason & Alison, and then in a four-piece called Verbow, which released two albums on Epic Records. ("But we sold hardly any records," she says.)
Working with Narducy and recording with Bob Mould helped Chesley to form the cello aesthetic she's solidified as Helen Money. Narducy first advised her to work with distortion and delay pedals. She added looping devices later when she began working on her own.
She doesn't loop in the conventional manner you might have seen others employ, though: "What I do is I end up storing phrases that I'll use at 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 try to interact with [the looping stations] -- I don't want people to perceive them as a backing track. I don't think that's very interesting, as an audience member."
On In Tune (recorded with Greg Norman at Steve Albini's Electrical Audio), Money develops the atmospheric ("Everything I Am Thinking"), the baroque-cum-sludgy (on the title track). There's even a punk cover: She does a rock-out instrumental version of "Political Song (For Michael Jackson to Sing)" by The Minutemen. (She recorded it months before Jackson's death.)
"I think the album's kind of dark, and I don't know if it's entirely approachable," she says. "I thought it would be nice to have something on there that people would know." It nicely sums up the way Helen Money works: A punk song, originally played on a distorted electric guitar, honed on a cello, then distorted again with a set of effects pedals.
"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," Chesley says. "Like Bob Mould, and any number of bands that seem like life-or-death kind of music."
Helen Money with Mike Tamburo and Technical Drawings 9 p.m. Wed., Nov. 4. Brillobox, 4104 Penn Ave., Bloomfield. $6. 412-621-4900 or www.brillobox.net
Read more of our interview with Helen Money here!