Who Are…Heliotropes

J. Edward Keyes

By J. Edward Keyes

on 08.08.13 in Who Is...?s

File under: The soundtracks to the kind of nightmares induced by particularly harrowing horror movies

For fans of: Smashing Pumpkins, Black Sabbath, Royal Thunder, Mazzy Star, and Pentagram

From: Brooklyn

Personae: Nya Abudu (bass), Cici Harrison (drums), Amber Myers (tambourine, vocals) and Jessica Numsuwankijkul (vocals, guitar)

A Constant Sea


It’s clear from the get-go on A Constant Sea, the debut from Brooklyn psych-sludgers Heliotropes that something ain’t right. On the album cover, a grim, skeletal visage peers out from the shadows. Thirty seconds into the first song, frontwoman Jessica Numsuwankijkul warns “red comes rushing through your skies” over the same gristle-greased guitars that occupied the better part of Smashing Pumpkins’ Gish. The record remains just as grim throughout, a turbulent meditation on loss and pain and spiritual darkness that borrows equally from early ’90s alt and late ’70s stoner metal. The grim music amplifies the record’s harrowing themes. “Don’t wanna be black or white/ don’t wanna be light or dark/ I don’t believe in good and evil anyway,” Numsuwankijkul sings on the ominously throbbing, Electric Wizard-conjuring “Good and Evil.” A Constant Sea is a bleak missive from the edge of midnight.

On the corruptive influence of her black sheep uncle:

I had this crazy uncle who was a drug addict — I didn’t realize it at the time, because I was a little kid. But sometimes he’d come over and say, “I’m gonna take you to the mall.” And I’d say, “Can you take me to the toy store?” but he’d take me to Tower Records instead, and I’d be like, “This isn’t the toy store.” I remember I wanted to buy a children’s record, and he was like, “You don’t want that,” and bought me Appetite for Destruction instead. I was eight years old.

And then I also have an older sister, and I caught a lot of bands I shouldn’t have pretty early, because she always had MTV on. The first video I remember seeing was “Lovesong” by the Cure. Disintegration was one of the first albums that I bought, but then Siamese Dream was the first record I really latched on to. I bought pretty much the entire Pumpkins catalog.

On the violent beauty of the Smashing Pumpkins:

My favorite stuff is actually on Pisces Iscariot, because it’s B-Sides from between Gish and Siamese Dream, and I feel like that’s the sweet spot for that band — totally phased out, fuzzy guitar tones. I always really liked how Billy Corgan could write songs in the early days that were loud and powerful but also in a major key without sounding wussy. That’s something I haven’t quite figured out how to do. I love a lot of early metal, too, and I feel like that comes out a lot. It’s also more fun to play really heavy music — I feel like we lean toward that.

On the sly virtue of early emo:

I bought [The Promise Ring's] 30 Degrees Everywhere on my first trip to New York when I was 14 years old. It was in the late ’90s. The boy that I was with had just gotten his license, and so we drove down to St. Marks. We went to Kim’s, and I was so excited. I was like, “Wow, I’m at a record store in New York!” And I was trying so hard to impress this boy. So I bought a Velvet Underground record and I bought that Promise Ring record, because I remembered him saying something about the Promise Ring on the phone. When I bought it, I was like, “Oh, yeah I totally know this band,” even though I totally didn’t. And I hated it at first! But at the time I was listening to Pavement — which is by no means slick, but it’s still 500 times slicker than the Promise Ring. I turned into a shitty hardcore scenester after that in High School, but I always secretly listened to the Promise Ring.

On struggling within the confines of stereotypes and critical laziness:

Music reviewers are too preoccupied with trying to find an all-girl band that we sound like at all times. “They clearly take cues from — ” and then they mention a band I’d never heard of before, so I look it up and, yup, it’s an all-girl band. They’re trying so hard to fit our band within their limited worldview.

A lot of writers seem to have shitty expectations about what we must sound like. You know, “What does it feel like being in an all-girl band?” I hear that so much. Or the implication that there’s a “girl-band sound.” I mean, I could make a piece of music that sounds like Sarah MacLachlan — which, by the way, I wouldn’t — and contrast that with, like, the chick from Boris, and you’re saying that they sound the same. I feel like that’s the implication. Or you’ll see someone write, “They’re not your typical girl band.” What is a “typical girl band”?

I stopped reading reviews recently because you can get a really negative review and get really upset about it. I mean, I don’t care if people pan my music, but I haven’t read a single negative review that doesn’t extend past the music to talk about who we are. Like, sexist, racist shit. There’s this one guy who actually wrote two negative reviews, that’s how much he hates us. This guy immediately starts off his review with [something like], “As a red-blooded American male, I find it really sexy when a woman can hold her own in the boys club of rock.” He then goes on to list all of our ethnicities, and then says that our image is the best thing about us, and that we actually suck. He says he thinks that Amber should front the band. He wrote, “I don’t really know what her voice sounds like, but she should be fronting the band.” By the way, Amber is the only Caucasian in the band. The thing that really bothered me was that he kept writing as if having a multi-ethnic band was some planned thing, or a gimmick. The implication being that if we were coming from a genuine place, we would be four white guys.

On her one-time day gig as an editor at DC Comics:

I got into comics when I was like 13 or 14 because Tori Amos was always talking about Sandman. I think working there is maybe the best 9-to-5 job you can have — it’s like being at Adult Day Care. But it kind of destroyed my interest in comics a little bit because, as with anything, there’s stupid corporate politics. It’s also super sexist — much worse than music. I mean, think about it: You’ve got all these guys working there — it’s like 75 percent male in that office — but not only is it a severe Boys’ Club, it’s a severe nerdy Boys’ Club. People would say things to me all the time, like, “It really sucks that sexual harassment occurs but, you know, that’s just how it is.” And then it’s worse in that environment, because you have all these guys who are so far removed from having female friends, so they’re not used to having women who are just, you know, doing the everyday thing. I mean, a lot of the women who get hired are the ones who are really playing up that sexualized aspect. It has nothing to do with their work. They’re like, “I’m a burlesque star!” Either that or they’re trying to be “one of the boys,” and there’s just no room for in between. You have to be seen either as a man or as this hyper-sexualized person for anyone to give you a chance in comics. I talk about this all the time with my friend Becky, who has the distinction of being the first woman to draw Batman — and it’s 2013 — we talk about this all the time, because she’s trying to find a way to straddle that line.

On the dark circumstances that informed A Constant Sea:

It was a really chaotic time. That’s probably why the album sounds a little darker — it was largely a reflection of the summer of last year. Around that time, I was dealing with my father’s long-term illness, I was dealing with being between jobs, and I was dealing with a really traumatic experience with my ex-boyfriend who was stalking me. I had a restraining order against him, and at one point I had to defend myself against him, and I actually almost got in trouble for defending myself against him. It was just an awful time.

On the afterlife:

Some people call [the afterlife] a liberating though. I think it’s mostly terrifying. I remember when my dad died — I remember how afraid he was. He was really scared. And I was like — they were giving him Ativan as he was about to pass away. Which I guess is a standard practice — they give people anti-anxiety medication as they’re slipping away so they don’t panic. I think mostly people are afraid that there isn’t going to be anything. And around that time I was listening to that 17th-century hymn “Idumæa.” Current 93 created a whole album where they just had different people singing different versions of that song [Black Ships Ate the Sky] — Marc Almond sings one and Will Oldham sings one and then Shirley Collins sings a version. And by that point in her life she had completely lost her voice. She was in her 50s, and to hear it — it’s the most graphically unsettling thing.

…and the myth of good and evil:

I was reading a lot of St. Francis of Assisi at the time, and in a lot of his writing he’s talking about [God being] this wholly good thing. And to think that something is wholly good is something that I haven’t been able to do as an adult. And I really would like to. I mean, the George Harrison song, “My Sweet Lord,” it’s about God, but to listen to him sing it, it sounds like he’s singing to someone he’s really in love with. And it’s so gorgeous. [Sings] “I really wanna know you. I really wanna be with you.” And I really wish I had that same capacity for devotional love. I don’t think I do, and I really envy that in other people.

I mean, you look down on people who have these perfect fundamentalist ideas, because you think they’re stupid. But in a way, you envy that, too. Because think how much nicer things would be if you really put all of your heart into this one thing and really feel like it’s the right thing and that it’s all good. That would be so nice, and I feel like I’ll never have that. And things aren’t defined in your heart and mind as wholly good or bad, what do you put your energy into? How do you live your life? If you’re the kind of person who reacts to trauma by trying to latch on to something — like, after a car accident, what’s your reaction? Do you become born again, or do you believe that life is chaos? Bad things happen to good people and events are arbitrary — it depends on what kind of person you are.