If any one-woman band can eclipse the delightfully volatile presence of Steve Albini and his stature in the annals of Amerindie rock and scrumptious food bloggery, it’s the cerebral and dissonant classi-punk Helen Money, who’s opening for Shellac at the Bell House tonight and tomorrow night. Helen Money’s Alison Chesley perches over her beat-up cello and a selection of fuzz pedals, effects and loops at her disposal; she scrapes, bows, fingers and plucks the instrument’s strings, bathing the sounds that come out of it in punk rock goo, piercing drone and metallic atonality before fusing them with elements borne from her classical music-lineage. Chesley’s aesthetic is sinister and soaring, although she modestly and simply refers to the music she creates as “rock.”
Chesley (who played with the semi-dark powerpop outfit Verbow in the ’90s) has covered her heroes the Minutemen and Neil Young as Helen Money, palled around with Albini at his Electrical Audio studio, opened for Bob Mould with Verbow, and lent her cello talents to the former Husker Dü-de, Anthrax, MONO, Broken Social Scene and Disturbed, among others. Sound of the City caught up with Chesley from her home base in LA.
When did you start playing cello?
I was eight. So, a long time ago. I started when I was in third grade in the public schools out in Los Angeles where I grew up. They had music programs so we were able to pick an instrument and that’s how I got started.
And you moved back to LA after being in Chicago for a long time?
My boyfriend and I moved back in December, so we’ve almost been here a year. I was in Chicago for about 20 years. A long time. When I first moved [to Chicago], I was going to grad school and I thought I was gonna go on and get my doctoral degree and teach music. Then I started playing with this guy Jason Narducy and we started to play shows together [in Verbow]. We bonded because we both worked at this coffeehouse. We worked in the back and we’d be listening to this radio station—I can’t remember what it’s called—but I was in the suburbs of Chicago. They’d play a lot of rock like the Who. Jason and I were both fans of Bob Mould and all that stuff. We hit it off so well and it felt really good. We actually got to open for Bob and then he offered to do our record [1997’s Chronicles]. Right about that time, I had to decide if I was going to doctoral school or play some shows on the road. I’d never get this chance again, I thought, so ever since then, that’s just been what I’ve been doing—just playing this kind of music.
Chicago was a hotbed of musical activity in the ’90s. Were you ensconced in the scene there?
There was a lot going on there then, in 1993-94 Chicago. It was really exciting to be around. I don’t know how much I knew (compared) to other people but we were all there making music. I was fortunate enough to do a lot of recording sessions at Steve( Albini)’s Electrical Audio and also at John McEntire’s studio. By the time I left, I really felt I was a big part of the scene there.
You were on a major label with Verbow for two albums in the ’90s.
Bob [Mould] produced our first record on Epic and then I got to play on one of his records [The Last Dog & Pony Show]. There were two songs on there he hadn’t come up with parts for and I just laid them down.
It must have been a thrill to work with Mould. Were you a big Hüsker Dü fan?
Verbow had a Sugar-influenced powerpop sound. Did you get swept up in the post-Nirvana major-label splurge?
Yeah. We got a decent advance and I got enough to buy my first nice cello, actually. It was great! I probably wouldn’t have gotten that nice cello [if not for that advance]. I don’t know what I would have done. We bought a van and Jason bought a couple of guitars. [As for being on a major], we kinda got lost in the shuffle. Epic didn’t really support us so we saw that end of it, too.
But at least you were able to score big from the advance.
That was a great opportunity and we are really thankful for it. We got to play a lot of shows and to open up for a lot of cool people. We felt lucky that happened.
How did you go from Verbow’s band situation to Helen Money?
When Jason and I stopped playing together, I still wanted to play that type of music. I wanted to play music that was intense and dark. I didn’t know if anyone was going to ask me to do it with them. I thought, “Maybe I will try to write some stuff.” I had a 4-track and just came up with a couple of things. I also started working with these poets who had material about Jimi Hendrix and just kind of really dark stuff. These were a group of black women who were writing this material and I came up with music for their stuff. So that got me into developing my own thing. I did a cover of a Neil Young song [“Birds”] and just started to write some stuff. I got a gig at a club in Chicago at the Abbey Pub and then I just kinda kept doing it. Playing this type of music just feels right and it’s what I want to do and this was the only way I was going to figure out how to do it myself.
Solo performers usually use tons of pedals and effects. Are you into your gear and do you have tons to haul around?
I was using distortion and delay with Verbow and I’ve been using the same kind of effects ever since. If I need to play more than one part at a time, I’ll use the looper pedal. It’s a lot, though. If I’m driving, it’s no big deal but not if I fly. I’m kinda improvising, I don’t have great pedal board but I manage to make it work. It’s nice to be self-contained, that I could drive myself around, do shows and just do it myself. I recently got a couple of new pedals because I want to hear different sounds. I’m a little tired of the sounds I hear. I’m trying to keep it simple but I felt it’s good to have “a sound” and not have to change it all the time. Physically, I can’t stand there and step on fifty pedals—it just doesn’t work [laughs]. I kinda wish I could play a kick-ass show without any pedals. But I have yet to do that [laughs].
Are there limits to what you can get out of your cello, sound-wise?
I enjoy hearing my cello sound like something besides a cello. The stuff Bob wrote for cello on Workbook is… it’s a cello, but it’s kinda dark and he wrote it in a percussive-aggressive way and I like that.
Helen Money, “Mondo”
How did you come up with the name Helen Money?
It’s something I made up because I thought it sounded more “rock” than Alison Chesley. I also thought that if I wanted to add people to what I’m doing, I could do it and it would still be Helen Money; it could be a band name instead of just my name.
It sounds like you are planning to expand the band at some point.
I actually have a new song I’m going to be playing that has drums on it. And I really like it! It’s really fun!
Do you play with a live drummer?
No, I recorded it. I feel like at this point I am not ready to build a band. I have to write material first. I got the drums pre-recorded and hopefully it doesn’t sound weird. I think on the next record, I want to write a few pieces with drums.
Your last record, In Tune, came out in 2009. Is a new LP on the horizon?
I’ve been working on new material. I have two songs I feel good about playing. We moved here (to LA) and it was a big transition. I want this next record to sound like I am moving forward and I am pretty hard on myself. I want to feel happy with it, so I am taking my time. I am hoping to record it next year.
Are there places in LA that entertain your aesthetic like there was in Chicago?
I don’t know; I am sure there are. But actually these Shellac shows are gonna be the first time I play in LA, and that’s fine with me. I don’t know what scene feel s like out here and I’m not ready to insert myself in it. I just want to work on a new record and when a show feels right, I’ll do it.
So you don’t play regularly.
I’ve been lucky. I’ve done a few tours with Shellac and gone to Europe a couple of times. I don’t do regular touring, though.
And you’re going on tour with Joe Lally of Fugazi in November.
I’m going to be in Joe’s band and going to open shows. He’s such a great guy and his music is interesting. It’ll be a challenge to me because I don’t play in other people’s bands. It’ll be good for me.
What’s the response like to your music when you open for Shellac?
They are awesome and their audience is great. People who are into Shellac are open-minded and they enjoy hearing something interesting and different. So that is good for me because I think when Shellac has someone opening, it’s probably someone they want opening for them. They give me a chance, you know? I’ve had a great experience with it. They are definitely hardcore Shellac fans and I can see why [laughs]. They’re pretty great and Shellac are really good to their fans. They hang out afterwards and talk to the fans and it’s really great to see that.
You’ve also spent some time at Albini’s Electrical Audio studio.
I recorded my record In Tune there with Greg Norman. I’m planning on going back there to record the next one because I was happy with how it sounds.
Were you into Big Black and Rapeman?
I listened to all the SST bands, but there’s a lot of music I feel I missed out on. I loved [Big Black)] and I love what Shellac does. I like the way they use rhythm, I like their sound and their songs are interesting.
You covered the MInutemen’s “Political Song for Michael Jackson to Sing” on In Tune.
I thought, “All my songs are so serious and long so I should do something short!” [laughing] When I was growing up in LA, I used to go see the Minutemen a lot and I’ve always been a fan. I first saw them in my early twenties. I saw them a bunch because they were local, which was awesome. Unfortunately, I did not see Black Flag. I wish I had. I came to the scene a bit late—I missed out on X, Circle Jerks and Germs too. Probably the thing that really got me into rock was my brother and him turning me onto the Who. That changed my life. He then introduced me to a scene near where we grew up in Reseda—Bebop Records, where I got to see some local punk bands, a la Zoogz Rift. Also saw Henry Rollins read his poetry live there. It was a very cool scene. They had art up on the walls [Raymond Pettibon exhibited there], live music and readings. It really shaped my sensibilities. The other SST band that I was really into were the Meat Puppets. I saw them a bunch—crazy, weird and awesome stuff.
For In Tune, I went through Double Nickels on the Dime and thought, “Maybe I can pull that song off there,” and that’s how it happened. They were another band where their work ethic and the way they approached everything was really cool. Mike Watt has heard my cover of the song and he was really nice about it. I have a lot of respect for those guys.
Besides from your own stuff, you’ve contributed cello to songs by Anthrax and Disturbed. How’d that happen?
I think it was because I was part of the scene in Chicago. I got on the Disturbed record because the guy that engineered one of the Verbow demos was assisting with that record. The Anthrax record was a similar thing. The assistant engineer got me on there because just being in Chicago and playing at Steve Albini’s studio got me on a bunch of stuff. A friend of mine—Susan Voelz, who’s in Poi Dog Pondering—knew Steve and that’s also how I started to do sessions like for MONO and The For Carnation. John [McEntire] knows me, and that’s how I got on a Broken Social Scene record. It’s nice to be a cello player [in Chicago]. I really miss those studios being out there. You can’t always have life being the same, though. I could have stayed in Chicago my whole life and it would have been fine but it’s nice to challenge myself and get out of what I’m used to. We’ll see what happens [laughs].
Is there a genre where you would place your music?
I’ve heard people call it extreme music, but I don’t know. I usually say rock.
What role does classical music play in Helen Money?
One thing I learned is really good technique because I was a classical player and I think that helps my sound. It basically helps me with how I approach just the technique of playing my cello. I can play in tune, which is no small thing when you’re playing an instrument that doesn’t have any frets, and I feel I know how to pull a good sound out of it. I love classical music, but I would never get into that scene again; I don’t have the chops anymore. I don’t enjoy it like I enjoy doing this. I love the people I see at clubs; I don’t get that with classical music.
Helen Money plays at The Bell House with Shellac on Monday and Tuesday.