Q&A: Helen Money's Alison Chesley On Her One-Woman Cello Band, Covering The Minutemen And Touring with Shellac
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 stationI can't remember what it's calledbut 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 doingjust 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 pedalsit 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.