- The Party of Helicopters enjoyed 15 minutes of fame at South by Southwest.
The Party of Helicopters perk up when old Metallica and new 50 Cent come through on the jukebox, but what really gets them going is Harriet the Spy, a defunct Kent group that once found some acclaim in national indie circles.
"People won't get them for years," says bassist Ryan Brannon, sipping a beer at the Loft in Kent, the Party of Helicopters' favorite watering hole. "They were probably my favorite band of all time. They were art-noise, but also melodic and tough as balls at the same time. When I first heard them, they were exactly what I was looking for."
Harriet the Spy dissolved after a 1998 album, and the Helicopters -- then a foursome of Roosevelt High grads -- were glad to make off with the band's drummer, Jamie Stillman. They weren't concerned with transcending the obscurity of their heroes. It's just happened that way.
At home on a brief break from a national tour, the Helicopters are relaxing after the recent release of Please Believe It, their first album for Velocette Records, an independent label that rose from the ashes of Capricorn. Their previous LPs and a string of singles consistently drew positive notices. Spin called them "something wholly original: hard-rock impressionism." Alternative Press included them in its list of "100 Bands You Need to Know in 2003." The new disc's first reviews aren't exactly glowing, but they've amused the hell out of the band.
"I found two reviews for it today, both from Indiana college newspapers," says Stillman, the Helicopters' guitarist. "They really didn't talk about the music very much. They reviewed it how I probably would have reviewed it, like 'I bet these are a bunch of emo pussies. I bet their hair's all shaggy and weird, and they wear tight jeans.'"
The Helicopters definitely have the indie-rock look down: denim outerwear, T-shirts, unkempt hair (not shaggy), and the obligatory member who looks like Beck (drummer Cory Race). There's no "pussy" in the music or the players, but they're as genuinely "emo" as anything that's come along in nearly a decade. That is, they're emo in the orthodox sense of the word: inspired by the dynamic, evocative D.C. post-punk performed by aging, first-wave hardcore kids who grew up on Zeppelin and Nugent.
"That's where we're coming from, listening to lots of '70s rock," says singer Joe Dennis. "I feel like we came from the exact moment when calling a band 'emo' pretty much became calling a band a piece of shit. But then, Rites of Spring are one of my all-time favorite bands, and I can see someone comparing us to them. I almost feel embarrassed, us being lumped in with emo bands rather than with stoner rock or psychedelic metal bands. I like a lot of that stuff."
The Helicopters' sublimely focused fifth LP might represent the furthest possible step a guitar band can take before veering into post-rock. Recalling shoegazer touchstones like My Bloody Valentine, Dennis's conversational lyrics arrive in breathy near-falsetto. Angular song structures soften under Brannon's fuzzy bass lines; Race shifts styles to match the moment, defaulting to crashing punk play; Stillman's riffs add density to the band's layered blend of parallel genres. With a different mix, album-closer "Science Reason" could sound like a vintage Black Sabbath track. It's not all hard rock, but it all rocks hard.
"We follow the punk standards of playing what you want to play, when you want to play it," Stillman says of the Helicopters' wide-ranging approach.
An underground sensation since it formed in 1995, the Party of Helicopters rubbed elbows with their big-label brethren at last month's South by Southwest festival, one of the music industry's premier showcases. The band's reputation as a heated live act led to a spot on the Austin Chronicle's list of the festival's must-see bands. Then their primo performance slot was bumped, and they were forced to play after a sold-out set by the violently spastic . . . And You Will Know Us by the Trail of Dead -- the alt-rock equivalent of following Jimi Hendrix.
"All night, people had been lined up around the block," says Stillman. "It was packed. It was hot as hell. I looked at a clock, and it was 1:45 when we went on. And the place closed at two. They were actually clearing people out of the bar as we were playing. It was a little bit of a disaster, but it was fun."
If SXSW was a letdown, the same can't be said of Please Believe It. Indiana critics notwithstanding, the disc should solidify the Helicopters' position in a tight bunch of bands with loyal -- if specialized -- followings, such as the drum-guitar duo Hella and D.C. sludge soundscapists the Apes. Dan DeVriend, guitarist for the art-rock power trio Made for TV Movie, has been a friend of the Helicopters since their inception.
"Live, I'll see them really go for it, rocking out," says DeVriend. "Joe gives them that strong melodic sense. He really sings. He reminds me of Jim Morrison a little bit, the way he'll stand there and lean on the microphone stand and stare you down while he sings. In the crowds, I see a little headbanging going on, some people dancing, but mostly people moving, watching Jamie and Ryan shred. To get them, you have to appreciate Iron Maiden and the Smiths."
Stillman appreciates the sentiment, but he thinks the band works on a more basic level.
"The people who get it seem to have heard all the hype about the band," he says. "But they realize it's just good, groundbreaking melodic rock."