It’s a rare pleasure to encounter a musician who’s music left a significant impact on your youthful, impressionable self. Rarer still for their music to sound as deeply melodic and punchy as any great pop/rock band you’ll hear today, but alas, if only I could show you. It’s a fate that has befallen many a small band in the days before the internet, before YouTube, before any kind of shared archive or means of documenting information that would prove, beyond scratchy pieces of vinyl and faded memories, that they even existed. The music does remain, but so too unanswered questions about the band itself — where it all started, why it all ended and what happened in-between.
The band in question were called Helvelln. It’s ok for you to think “who? never heard of ’em”. Honestly, you’d have to be aged 35+, Australian, and a regular listener of Triple J or Triple R. Maybe you watched Neighbours. In the finicky annals of Australian music history, and with no disrespect to Helvelln, they barely warrant a mention. To briefly summarise, Helvelln were an inspired pop/rock 3-piece formed in Melbourne in the late 80’s, released two singles and one album and then broke up in the early 90’s. Google them and you’ll get pictures of mountains. Impressive and rocky, but hardly rock n’ roll.
It was a great pleasure to track down Jeremy Gronow, Helvelln’s vocalist/guitarist and songwriter who gave up considerable time and effort (in one of the longest interviews we’ve ever done), to help shape another chapter in our series on the Secret History of Australian Music.
How did Helvelln get started?
The bass player Andrew Papadopoulos and I met at school and began playing in a couple of bands. After school we kept going but lost a singer to NIDA (an acting school) in Sydney and a drummer (I forget why).
We met Nick, Helvelln’s drummer about 1988/89 after I called 3RRR in desperation to ask if they would mention we were looking for a drummer on air. By chance the girl who answered the phone knew Nick and hooked him up with us. At that time we had a new singer as well who left after a couple of months.
Rather than look for a new singer (we were sick of auditioning people), we decided I would sing until someone better came along. At the time I was a bit disappointed to be the singer as I really wanted to be a cool guitarist and singing made it hard to show off on guitar.
What was the decision behind giving the band such an obscure and prone-to-misspelling name? If I recall correctly, you chose one spelling on your first single and then subsequently dropped it!
The band name was Nick’s idea – it was originally Helvyvelln, which he liked because it had a kind of symmetry around the ‘V’ (Nick’s next band was called ‘dollop’ for similar reasons). It was the name of a mountain in Wales that he had heard about while travelling. We later found out that it is the highest mountain that you can legally cycle across in the UK.
As you mention unfortunately no-one could pronounce it (the first in a series of pretty stupid marketing ideas we had) and eventually we shortened it to Helvelln. That didn’t clear things up though and we kept getting mistaken for a Melbourne Van Halen cover band called Hans Valen. I recall turning up a gig once and the bar manager saying “I’m pumped you’re playing here tonight, do you do “Hot for Teacher”?”.
What were your influences starting out?
I was really into The Jam (Style Council also, I’m a longtime Paul Weller fan), the Clash and the Who. Hoodoo Gurus, Violent Femmes, Paul Kelly, Steven Cummings, Wedding Parties Anything. Harem Scarem, Blue Ruin, TISM, the Fish John West Reject and Paul Kelly. I remember we all liked Midnight Oil as well (hell, who didn’t at that time?). Nick brought in some different influences like Hendrix and Peter Gabriel (we loved his movie soundtrack to Passion of Christ).
As the band went on we turned each other on to a lot of bands. Some of my favourite memories of the band are the way we would play each other new stuff, usually in the van on the way to gigs – we got into the Stone Roses, Happy Mondays, Ride, Pixies, the Breeders, Jane’s Addiction and Nirvana.
I recall some early hype being that you won nationwide campus band competition? How long had the band been playing at this point?
We won the National Campus battle of the Bands in 1990 and would have been together 2 years at that stage.
Andy and I were both at Melbourne University which had a bit of music scene going on at the time. I think we entered the year before and didn’t do very well but then in 1990 we hit our straps and won our heat, then the Melbourne Uni final then the state final and the nationals. We already had the “Subway/Elvis” single out at the time and had toured Sydney as well so I think that helped because the judges knew us a bit.
It was kind of a weird thing to compete playing music and it all felt a bit arbitrary to say one band was better than another (although some were pretty awful). Anyway I think we managed to stay relaxed about the whole thing and that helped too.
Apart from having this tag possibly dog you throughout the band’s career, were there any benefits – girls/money/studio time etc.?
Winning the national final was a huge help – at the time it was the biggest competition of its kind in the Southern hemisphere. The prize was a tour of universities all over Australia, so we were able to go everywhere and offset the pub gigs with lunchtimes at Unis and colleges. It also got us noticed by JJJ which had just gone national at that stage and were very keen to play bands from other states, so we became their ‘Victorian’ band. It also got us noticed by Mushroom who eventually offered us a deal although we had already self financed the record that became our debut release for them. As I recall it didn’t really help with the girls though….
Did this win dovetail into the band recording the “Subway”/”Elvis” 7″?
Actually we did the 7″ before the Campus battle of the bands. In 1989 we won a battle of the bands run by the City of Malvern (Stonnington these days). The prize was a couple of days recording at Bakehouse in Fitzroy and we recorded “Subway” and “Elvis”. I remember finishing mastering the single and walking down Brunswick St to Polyester Records. We walked in and played it to Paul Elliot who ran the shop and label and he agreed to put it out if we paid for the pressing. In retrospect I can’t believe it happened like that, it was so easy. All of a sudden we had a single and a cool indie label was putting it out for us. I remember making the record cover at a friends place, I don’t think Photoshop was around then so we just cut out bits of paper and stuck them together in a collage. It was all very naïve and DIY.
What can you tell me about the decision behind recording those two tracks? Did you feel they were the most band representative and radio-friendly songs in your set at the time?
“Subway” was just the best song we had at the time and we did “Elvis” because it was favourite to play live. “Elvis” originally had a totally different arrangement (kind of average white boy funk, dear god!) but a friend of ours, Ben, had been playing it solo and worked out the new arrangement so we borrowed that and the song became much better.
Lyrically both songs came from the same place, teenage angst about girls. Subway was about a real railway underpass in Melbourne (its called the Degraves St Underpass) that I used to walk through and thought was really cool. Since then its become even cooler with some great left of centre shops there including one called Sticky that only sells fanzines. I used to see girls down there that I thought were awesome and lust after them. “Elvis” was about me jokingly accepting that my girlfriend of the time loved him more than me.
I guess they’re more or less a thing of the past, now that most bands tend to duke it out over the internet, but it seems the moral of the Helvelln story is never underestimate the power of a battle of the bands?
Hell yeah, even though the idea of bands fighting it out and being judged kind of appalls me, band competitions really worked out well for us. At the time it was one of the only ways for bands with no profile to get noticed.
So a quick timeline of the band would be formed in 1988, released “Subway” 7″ in 1989, won National Campus Band Competition in 1990, and then released your self-titled debut in 1992 (with many a trip up and down the Hume in-between). You mentioned that you self-financed the recording of your debut prior to Mushroom’s involvement. From the DIY beginnings of the 7″, did you have aspirations to avoid major label trappings?
No, we weren’t trying to avoid them, we just didn’t believe major labels would ever be interested in us. Our aspirations were very low, I think we really just enjoyed making noise.
Also at the time the indie stations PBS and RRR were huge in Melbourne and if you made a record you could get enough the airplay to keep a band going. The DIY thing was just what everyone we knew was doing so that’s what we did as well.
With the amount of radio play that “Subway” got, what made you go with Mushroom, and what were the terms of Mushroom’s involvement with the band? The album was released on their alternative “White Label” imprint and had some marketing campaign around it that reduced the price of the album as in incentive to purchase.
At the time Mushroom had a really good A and R guy called Bill Page and we got on well with him and he seemed to get where we were coming from.
Beyond that, they were the only label interested in us. To their credit Mushroom had a policy of signing lots of local bands back then. Some of them would work and they’d write the others off on tax. The year we got signed they also picked up Frente and Have a Nice Day. They didn’t spend a lot of money on the bands but just took a small punt in the hope that one might take off.
Given the album was already made they really didn’t have much involvement in the music part. They did get a ‘name’ photographer Polly Borland for the cover, she’d had stuff in The Face which was super cool back then.
They also found a great video director called Clayton Jacobson who went on to have a hit film called Kenny (its about a guy who hires out portaloos, apparently its fun) who did us a low budget clip to show off his stuff to Mushroom.
Most bands tend to get their live set down on record when it comes to recording their first album. Given that it was paid for on your dime and you weren’t there to muck around, was this the case with Helvelln?
Yeah just did the stuff we had been playing. No writing in the studio or experimentation. The place we were recording at (Sing Sing) in Melbourne was pretty expensive anyway so there wasn’t much time to fool around.
As debut albums go, for Australian bands in the early 90’s (god, there was a lot of innocuous shit about — The Sharp, Things Of Stone And Wood, etc.), it had at least one thing going for it — a solid side 1. The first half dozen tracks are some classic 3-piece rock/pop — strong hooks, great melodies, just perfect, catchy radio tunes.
Although we didn’t plan on being a three piece (people just kept leaving the band until that’s all that was left) the three piece line up has a lot of advantages sonically. No one has to compete for space in the mix and you can overplay all you want. Once you bring in a second guitar or a keyboard suddenly there’s competition for space and you have to think a lot more about everything, the sounds, parts, arrangements, etc.
Given your perchance for other classic 3-piece acts like Violent Femmes and The Jam who made equally memorable debut albums (hmm, less so The Jam…), did the album live up to your youthful aspirations? What were some of your memories of making the record?
It was great to wake up in the morning and think, ‘Wow, I’m going to the studio to record’. We were in our early 20’s and really living the rock dream. There was no pressure on us either ‘cos we didn’t have a deal and really only wanted to get our stuff played on RRR. So my memories are that it was really fun and great to be in a studio with a decent recording room and gear.
A lot of the songs seem to be about, or involve, girls…. (“Subway”, “T-Shirt”, “Cigarettes & Beer”, “Elvis”, “Cruelest Plague”). They always make for great subject material or inspiration, no?
Yeah, like I said, I was in my early 20s and didn’t have a lot else on my mind. I don’t think you could call me a deep thinking kind of songwriter at that time. I was involved in a fairly tumultuous relationship as well and every time we’d have an argument I’d write a new song.