Heliotropes have only been around for four short years, but in that time they’ve developed an impressively distinct sound. Founded by Jessica Numsuwankijkul (vocals, guitar) and Amber Myers (tambourine, vocals) through a Craigslist posting, in the last year they have released two versions of their critically acclaimed A Constant Sea, including the vinyl release this month (a review of which you can check out here). Recently, I was lucky enough to sit down and talk to Jessica about the music she grew up with, the new songs she and the band are working on, and of course, Satan himself.
ThrdCoast: Here at ThrdCoast we like to start off most of our interviews with the same question: what inspired you to form Heliotropes and why did you decide to start making music?
Jessica Numsuwankijkul: Amber and I both had desk jobs around that time and were pretty bored, so we started playing music together. I was playing with a few others at the time and was just sort of hanging out, playing keys really badly.
TC: I guess it makes sense that you are a keyboardist, based on the piano melody in "A Constant Sea," but from the overall sound of the album, I assumed you were a life-long guitarist.
JN: I couldn't ever really play keys before this year, actually. I have a piano in my apartment and I've taught myself how to play in a very basic way, so I learned a couple of Beatles songs off YouTube. Guitar is still my first instrument.
TC: Which Beatles songs are your go-to piano numbers? Also, as a fellow guitarist I have to ask, what was the first song you remember learning to play on guitar?
JN: The only [Beatles’ song] I can play from memory is “Golden Slumbers,” so that'd be the one. The first song I learned how to play was “Doll Parts,” by Hole. That's kind of embarrassing. I found the tab out of this issue of Guitar World that my mom got me at Safeway. I also learned the opening riff to “Today” by the Pumpkins out of that issue and was so stoked out of my 12-year-old mind.
TC: Awesome, I myself was psyched when I learned to play “Crazy Train” at 13. I'm pretty sure I learned it from a Guitar World tab too. So since we're on the subject of music at different ages, I have another question I like to ask our interviews: was there a song, album or artist that made you realize you wanted to make music? Was there a "this-is-it" moment, or was it a gradual realization?
JN: Oh, Christ. I totally know the moment and it's even more humiliating. When I was a really little kid, I'm not sure exactly how old, but young enough to have an American Girl doll, my older sister had MTV on constantly, and I'd end up seeing videos incidentally. And I think it was the first time I saw the video for "November Rain." There's this really outrageous scene where Slash is playing a really long guitar solo in front of an abandoned church and then it blows up. I think that really struck a chord with me, pardon the pun. That's the day I knew I wanted to play music. I wish I could say something else, like that I once heard the beauty of music through a Sibelius record or something, but I can't, it was totally the video for “November Rain.”
TC: Have you gotten the chance to reenact that moment? It's got to be easy enough to get a stove top hat right? I think it's interesting that you mention your older sister and MTV because I think, for so many of us, music is often the interest we adopt from the “cool” older people in our adolescent years. Music is this mystical thing that we perceive as coming from the land of adults.
JN: I would love for our next video to have some really thinly-veiled references to the “November Rain” video. What a ridiculous, Babylonian work of megalomania! I love it! For the record, my sister is totally uncool.
TC: I just looked up the video, because I couldn't remember it exactly, and I was mistaken. Slash is not wearing his hat. But you’re definitely right, that sort of bombast and megalomania is not as much a part of rock ‘n’ roll as it once was. I miss the pageantry.
And for the record, my older brother is pretty uncool too.
Speaking of videos, I just watched the video for "The Dove" this morning, and I was wondering if you could offer any insight into it? What was the idea behind it? Because while it's a performance video, it’s definitely framed the band in an interesting way, and I was wondering what the intention there was.
JN: “The Dove” video was all the director, Matt Mendelson, pretty much. We threw around a bunch of ideas and then just did a performance video. We bought a lot of cloth.
The video for “Everyone Else” was way more involved. I pretty much storyboarded it out before I even approached Steph and Jordan, who made the video. It was our second video, so we knew how tedious it was to shoot one, and just decided to have an actual party with our friends so that it would be fun between takes. I really love that video...CMJ actually took a bit of the video and soundtracked it with “Quatto” instead and it's hilarious. It kind of makes me want to do another party video, but to a terribly sinister sounding song.
TC: Your comment about “Quatto” played over “Everyone Else” actually brings up something else I wanted to discuss. A Constant Sea, especially the augmented vinyl release, seems to have two kinds of songs, you have your “Psalms,” “Ribbons,” etc. which seem to come from a darker, more tumultuous place, both emotionally and musically, and then you have these really melodious ballads, like “Everyone Else” and “Christine,” that are not only less heavy, but in fact seem to be written and sung from a place of greater inner solace. Was there an intention in writing the album to pair different emotions with different sounds, or did that sort of just emerge when you were writing the songs?
JN: I guess to a certain extent, having two really distinct types of songs is intentional, but only intentional in the sense that we've questioned how appropriate it was to include tracks like “Christine” and “Everyone Else,” and ultimately decided we didn't care if they seemed mismatched or inconsistent with the rest of the songs.
The next record is probably going to be more extreme in this sort of musical dichotomy of light and dark. Some of the songs we've been working on would seem really weird on the first record.
TC: I think especially with “A Constant Sea” at the end of the album, the record definitely feels like it has a distinct flow between emotion poles.
Any sort of hints you feel comfortable offering up about the sound of the next album? What do you think will shock or surprise your fans about it?
JN: Hm, hints…
TC: I know it's early in the process to offer up anything definitive, but I would feel like a terrible interviewer if I didn't push for the inside scoop.
JN: Cici's been playing some outrageous Phil Collins drum fills. She also loves shrimp, like, a lot.
And I'm starting to use jazz chords, finally.
TC: By Phil Collins drum fills, I assume you mean that tom-fill from “In The Air Tonight” we all love?
JN: Haha, yeah.
TC: Since we're discussing albums, I have another question I wanted to ask you. Whenever I listen to an album, there are always stand-out moments that really pull me into it. For A Constant Sea, it was the line from “Quatto,” "One of these days I'm going right out my skin / And one of these days I'm going to jump right back in." I was wondering, from the creative side of things, were there moments when you were making this album that you and the band knew something cool was happening? Like a riff, groove, or lyric that you felt extremely proud of?
JN: Yeah, sure. I really liked working on the title track. It was really relieving in a way, to finally record it. I wrote it while my dad was very ill. That song was a big emotional purge, and I think it's one of the few tracks that isn't oblique in any way. The others are more veiled, lyrically.
TC: It's a really beautiful way to close the album, so quiet and contemplative, and so nakedly emotional. The notion of being "a wave in a constant sea" is an idea to which I think we can definitely all relate.
JN: I also sort of had that lightbulb moment while recording that song, where I realized that I'd like to work with other musicians more. John and Julia from Friend Roulette play on it and add this sort of orchestral sounding swell to it that I want to mess around with more. More next-record stuff, I suppose.
TC: The orchestral stuff on that song definitely opens it up in a surprising way, especially in conjunction with its very stark lyrical center.
I feel like I should probably finish up before my bosses get miffed over me printing such a long article, but before we close I wanted to ask, since this is your interview, is there anything you'd really like to say about the band or music in general we haven't talked about?
JN: Hail Satan.
TC: Praise be to our Dark Lord.