Interview: Sister Helen

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The first time I saw Sister Helen – a four-piece alternative/progressive rock band and one of New York’s finest group – I was transfixed. I’ve been to my fair share of shows, shows of all shapes and sizes, and having played many shows myself am intimately familiar with standing firm and bobbing my head to other bands when I might rather be shooting pool or at the bar joking around with friends. When I saw Sister Helen I forgot all about billiards and IPA. I barely even had the capacity to bob my head. Sister Helen is one of those rare, hypnotic bands that spring out like a hidden gem. They demand attention. Since catching that first set at the gutter I’ve seen and played with the fine musicians, and even better people, in Sister Helen, and that feeling has never faded.

The Brooklyn Quintet is saying fare-the-well this year. The release of their upcoming full length will be their swan song, and the opportunity to see one of those imitable sets of mesmerizing music and performance is dwindling. I had a chance to talk with vocalist Nathan J Campbell and Bassist Eva Lawitts about their band and the years they’ve spent as members, so before they go you might get to know them a bit better, or for the very first time.

When was the first time you felt attracted to music? What was your first experience with your instrument, and why did you pick it?

Eva Lawitts: It’s hard to imagine a time when I wasn’t surrounded by music.

I heard an upright bass for the first time during a school assembly; some kind of jazz quartet came in and talked about different aspects of their instruments. I fell in love with the sound immediately. Honestly, if I hadn’t been in Sister Helen, I probably would have ended up going to a conservatory to be an orchestral bass player or something else insane.

Nathan J Campbell: I had a pretty soprano as a kid. One winter I had a terrible cough for months and when I came out of it my voice had changed. It was really disorienting.

I used to play with my voice a lot in high school, using my lower register and vibrato to produce this dramatic sound. It was part of the process of realizing I had different sounds at my disposal.

I’ve always had a weird relationship to my speaking voice because I have a speech impediment. It wasn’t recognized until my junior year of high school. Up until then people just thought I had an inexplicable accent. There are some recordings of little kid Nathan where I sound like I’m from another country entirely.
Who are some of your key influences – artists that lit a fire and stuck with you through the years?

EL: The bands I loved as a little kid were The Beatles, then Weezer (Pinkerton especially), then Motörhead. My brother left for college when I was 8 and gave me his CD collection. Almost all of it 90s hip-hop, hardcore punk and ska. When I was 9 or 10 I got REALLY into System of a Down (nervous laughter). I knew everything about them, from what gear they used to the names of their siblings to the different stage banter they used on different tours. That’s where my love of heavy music really started. They turned me on to Hella and Zach Hill, eventually taking me backwards through the whole history of math rock. Then of course there was The Mars Volta and ORL, which lit the spark for my lifelong love affair with all things prog, from King Crimson up to Animals as Leaders.

Chris Krasnow (guitar) and I bonded in high school over Baroness and Mastodon. Crack the Skye was massively influential for me. I also spent years studying classical music and theory, and that from ages 19-22 I was pretty exclusively a jazzboy. Jimmy Garrison was my hero for a while. Thundercat was also my hero for a while. I’m not sure how much any of that is audible in SH’s music.

NJC: My dad writes and records songs on his own, on the piano or electronic keyboards; that was probably my first inspiration. Aside from him, my first musical influence was probably the Pokémon theme song. I think I still have some of those angsty wish-fulfillment arena-rock instincts.

I think a lot of our touchstones have been the local bands that we’ve played with over the years. I still sometimes think back to songs by Banzai (members of which are now involved in projects like The Gradients, Stringer, BLUFFING and Maxo) when I’m approaching Sister Helen material.

EL: If you grew up in NYC and were in a rock band, then you know there was a band called Fiasco. Chris and I can probably both trace a lot of influence back to that band and other stuff Jonathan Edelstein was doing.

NJC: Vocally, I’m kind of working with what I have more than with anyone else’s style in mind. But someone who has my idea of a perfect rock voice is Laura Jane Grace.

It’s pretty rare to find a band that’s made up of long time friends. What has been your experience growing as a group and adapting to each other’s evolving tastes and styles?

NJC: Eva recently unearthed a few very old recordings and I was, for some reason, surprised at how terrible they were. We were a really bad band for a while, and we thought we were great. Which is kind of okay, because if we didn’t think we were great we might not have invested as much of ourselves into this band as we did and it might never have gotten good.

EL: About a year ago, Chris told me that when he first saw Sister Helen (we used to play with a different guitar player) he thought to himself “wow, I really need to start writing more complex songs.” I thought that was hilarious because that’s exactly what I thought when I first saw his band at the time. I think a lot of our evolving has happened that way. I’ve always been very inspired by Chris’s songwriting and output, and we’ve  pushed each other to write better music.

Sometimes that means: “Who can write the craziest riff?” Or: “Who can write the most unconventional form?” But in recent years it’s been more: “Who can pen a really beautiful melody or make a song that feels natural and engaging from start to finish?”

NJC: One thing that changed for me is that Sister Helen used to be all about performance and energy and not really about my emotions or vulnerability. I was learning how to write more personal songs by recording piano-based solo material. So I’d write these over-the top or ridiculous storytelling lyrics for Sister Helen. And later, when I went to college and wasn’t writing as much, Sister Helen became my outlet.

EL: We’ve been together so long and we’ve spent so much time talking about our favorite albums, that we have a common language that makes creating, performing and recording music pretty efficient and effective (usually…) and we all have pretty broad, yet intimately common tastes.

You’ve stated that this new album will mark the end of Sister Helen. Now that you’ll be referring to this project in the past tense, what is your most cherished memory from your time in the group? Any regrets?

NJC: These past two and a half years–the last years of Sister Helen–have been so full of memories that they kind of eclipse the other 8 that I’ve been in the band.

But I’d have to say a favorite memory from pre-tour days is recording at Chris’s studio. Chris recorded and mixed all of our albums, mostly in his own studio in the basement of a house in Greenport, Long Island. Our second and third albums were recorded over the course of what were essentially weekend sleepovers. I think being close together for extended periods of time, feeling really powerful because we were creating stuff, making the best possible versions of these songs we’d played so many times, was huge for our level of attachment to the band. Now we listen to those recordings and we hear all the things that could be better, but when we were recording them we thought “this is the best shit ever!”

EL: They don’t call me “Regretowitz” for nothing. I was the one who managed this band. I booked all the shows, all the tours, planned all the routes, made all the merch, and worked out all the budgets. We spent a solid two years on tour and I learned a lot about how all that stuff works, but I think a lot of the blind ambition I had was wrapped up in this sinking feeling that I hadn’t accomplished enough yet, and maybe that I didn’t feel like I could prove that my life as a musician was valid. I wanted to do something that I could show to other people, which I now believe is a pretty hollow pursuit.

I’m very proud of what we’ve done in the last few years and I wouldn’t trade the memories or the experience for anything, but I often pushed for a very rigorous tour schedule at a time when it put the comfort and mental health of myself and the other guys in Sister Helen at risk. When we came back from our first month-long tour I started to become very withdrawn and depressed, but I just distracted myself from those feelings by booking more tours and working on this band (that was also the tour where I passed the time by reading The Karamazov Brothers, which was a predictably horrible mistake). When I saw that Nathan or Chris or Clint were unhappy on tour I felt like they should also just push all their feelings down because that’s what I was doing and I very much regret creating that environment.

I started to become fascinated by the characters Nathan and I play and sing as in Sister Helen. I felt like we were making music that was more vulnerable and honest, but we were performing more anger and hopelessness. It was disorienting to know that this impotent, raving version of ourselves was bringing us success as a band. I began to feel like the more I performed my rage and impotence, the more success I might get. Then I started re-evaluating the value of the themes in our music.

There are a lot of things I’ll miss about this band. One of the reasons I prioritized this band for so long above other projects I was involved with was because I think this band has something special when we’re on stage. We were always able to cultivate a very intense energy, and connect in a way that I think is pretty rare. There were a lot of times with Sister Helen where I really felt like I was living in the moment, and really experiencing each fraction of a second that we played. This feeling is what originally attracted me to music, and I hope I can find it on a level this satisfying again.

What do you have to say about the changing landscape of New York City’s music scene? Has it affected your artistic output or shaped your collective voice in this crowded sea of creative voices? 

EL: The all-ages music scene that was around when we were coming of age was an incalculably formative institution, and unfortunately I don’t think there are many all-ages venues around anymore. Being at shows from such an early age really gave us all a head start on learning show etiquette and so forth.

NJC: To me the most amazing thing is how many of the people we played with when we were just starting out are still at it.

Jonathan Edelstein from The Gradients and Stringer, Sammy and Charlie and Luca from Gradients, Mark Fletcher from Stringer, Jack Greenleaf and Henry Crawford from the Epoch Collective, Lily Konigsberg of Palberta, Lilah Larson of Sons of an Illustrious Father and Sofia Albam of, and people who’ve moved to the West Coast like Kabir Kumar of Sun Kin and Gabriel Stranahan of Fruit Juice, and a few members of Phony Ppl. These are just people, off the top of my head, who we played shows with in the first year i was in the band, and who are still playing in bands now. That’s pretty remarkable.

EL: There really is no “music scene” in New York. I think there are lots of little factions of bands that like each other and hang out and share bills, but there’s definitely no unified scene for any one genre. That’s been a liberating experience in a way, because it removes any pressure to write music or perform in a way that will win over one group of peers that “dominates” the “scene.” It seems to me that everyone is just kind of doing their own thing and naturally gravitating towards other bands that they like. That can make it harder to get people out to shows when you’re just starting out, or even to find other bands that you might like. But I think it ultimately makes for more diversity among bands, and it makes everyone scrappier and hungrier.

As anyone that has caught your live show knows, theatricality, both musically and in performance, is part of what sets Sister Helen apart. It almost harkens back to the halcyon days of Yes and Peter Gabriel, albeit with less costume changes. How did this facet of the group take shape? Is it a direct response to other bands?

NJC: I write songs with my teeth, so that’s how I sing them. It’s my job to liaise between the music and the audience. There’s so much going on in the music Eva and Chris and Clint play. It would be weird if I weren’t visibly overtaken with it. I sing not just because I want to make something beautiful, but because I want to be beautiful.

EL: That’s something I value in a show both as a performer and an audience member – that everyone involved is able to lose themselves and have a cathartic experience. I think it’s very difficult to find outside of music, and I think music is probably the only outlet I have to truly express myself so I value every second that I’m given to perform it.

Part of why I feel so comfortable getting to that ridiculous, sweaty, crazy place with Sister Helen as compared to some of my other projects, is just because we’ve been together since childhood and we understand each other’s expectations about shows and we’re not afraid to make asses out of ourselves in front of each other. See the van we live in for more proof of this.

NJC: When I go to a show, I want my attention to be monopolized so that I can stop thinking the same four or five shitty anxious thoughts that cycle through my brain on a regular loop. I think there a lot of different bands and solo performers in New York that accomplish that in different ways. When you can see a band performing in a state of pure joy, that’s a really powerful thing to see. Our music isn’t very joyful but it’s certainly not detached.
If I were not completely engaged with our performance, why would I expect the audience to be?
You’ve referred to this new album as having a loose concept; less a strict narrative and more of a pervading theme that is addressed from different angles. Tell us about the inception of this concept and how it manifests and changes when put to music?

EL: Yes, that’s a good description of what this album is. Two songs on this album, “Sense of Self” and “Forest Fire,” go all the way back to 2012, when I had this vague idea that I wanted them to be bookends to a concept-ish album. So that idea has been in the back of my mind for a while.

NJC: Lyrically, there are basically two kinds of songs on this album–songs that are a cry for help or companionship, and songs about feeling helpless to help someone else. I sometimes think of it as there being two characters, singing back and forth to and about each other.

I think it’s a pretty universal experience, especially around our age, to know people who are struggling with something that you can’t directly help them with, and to not know what to do in that situation. It’s definitely something that Eva and I have talked about a lot in our own lives.

That applies to a lot of systematic oppressions that I, being privileged along every important axis I can think of, don’t know from the inside–mental illness and depression, addiction, but also just the ambient shittiness the world puts in the face of anyone who’s not a straight cis neurotypical white man. Most of these songs are more focused on the internal world than the external world–there’s one political song, “Commonplace”; the rest are pretty purely emotive.

EL: From 2012 up to now, there were a lot of things happening within my group of friends and in my own life that circled around addiction and mental illness and death and survivor’s guilt and, without really trying, a lot of the stuff I was writing ended up being influenced by and about those things. Two of my songs on this record, “Fictive Kin” and “Draw Near,” were about my own rapidly deteriorating mental health on tour when I wrote them, and took another shape entirely once Nathan had penned all his lyrics.

NJC: I think in general that I write a lot of songs of love and resentment not just because they reflect my own feelings and relationships with people, but also because it gives you access to the two most heightened emotional vocabularies in language–love and violence. Those are the only pools of words that feel the way the music feels, to me, so I return to that blend of love and violence again and again to get on that heightened expressive level. And my job is to be honest and responsible in the way I use that language, because ideas of love and violence can mix in really nasty, unproductive, distorted ways. I think that’s a big part of why there are so many songs that amount to verbally abusing a loved one.

You’ve just returned from what will be your final tour as a band. What are your favorite and least favorite things about touring?

EL: Touring has been a dream of mine since I was a little kid, so in a lot of ways the last two years have felt like a dream come true, and that feeling of speeding through the night and screaming and sweating and playing the songs we poured over for so long will definitely be something I miss. Not that I won’t be touring with other bands after this, but there was definitely something extra special about being 10 years old and in Sister Helen dreaming of being on tour and then being 23 in Sister Helen and actually doing it.

As far as coping and controlling, there were a lot of things I struggled with during our time on tour. When we first started out there was a lot of sexist bullshit that would really bug me. Sometimes promoters and sound guys wouldn’t believe that I was the person who booked the show and would just be condescending or try to rip me off or ask me to call whoever had “really” booked the show. Other times I’d spend long nights sitting behind the merch table before and after our set and have dudes come over just to hit on me, or try to touch me from the other side of the table. Booking a tour takes months and months of tedious, thankless labor and so every time I would get undermined in some way it would come as a really crushing blow. When we first started touring, I mostly attributed my bouts of near-catatonic depression and completely destructive anxiety to those sorts of things, although over time as we started becoming more popular and I had to face less overt bullshit all the time, those states of mind still pervaded every tour and now, finally that we’re wrapping this up, I’m learning how to deal with it a little better. Same thing when coming home from tour – I get very, very depressed in the days and weeks after a tour. I think it’s a pretty well-documented phenomenon. One that I struggle with nonetheless. Tour is a lot of very high highs and very low lows and it’s difficult to go back to working and doing laundry after living that way.

Another thing about tour that took me a really long time to learn how to process is just being around my band mates. You wake up together, spend 8 hours a day in a car together, you hear each other complain and get sad and argue with your loved ones on the phone, you eat every meal together, you play a show, you often sleep in the same room. The little things that may have bugged you about someone become amplified exponentially every day and there’s literally no way to escape them. Nathan is eating next to me right now and smacking his lips together. God I just want to put hands on him but he probably won’t even know until this interview comes out. That’s coping. Having said that, I love these men and they are my brothers forever.

NJC: I really like travel for its own sake – just being out of the city where I’ve spent, let’s say, 95% of the hours of my life feels like a kind of release, even if that time is mostly spent sitting uselessly in a van. So simply traveling America is my third-favorite thing.

My second-favorite thing about touring is meeting people who are incredibly generous of spirit. On our farewell tour we had at least one BFFL in every town. It makes sense that people who put effort into helping touring bands would be kind people with stories to tell. It’s also a relief coming from New York, where there’s so much stimulation that trying to get someone’s attention feels like begging, to places where you actually feel like you’re improving someone’s day by entertaining them.

My favorite thing about touring is that it puts you into situations that are completely absurd every single day.

Many of you are involved in other projects, so while breaking up is hard to do and so on, tell me what excites you about moving on from Sister Helen. What’s in store for the future?

EL: Chris and I are in other band called Caretaker. Chris and Clint are in another band called Citris. I also have my band Fuck Squad, which I’m very excited to get back to. I’m involved in a lot of projects right now but I’m mostly looking forward to getting back to practicing and writing music! Sister Helen has been my main outlet for so long, I really want to spend some time trying to put out some solo stuff and also just collaborating with a lot of other people and stretching the limits of what I can do creatively.

NJC: I’m moving to Istanbul, Turkey to teach English and practice Turkish. So I’m excited, but you might not be hearing much from me for the next year or so.

On the other hand, now that I’m not part of this mighty morphin musical Megazord, I’ll be forced to develop my own musical skills if I want to keep writing and singing songs. I used to write a lot of my own songs before Sister Helen became my main outlet about four years ago, so I might get back to that.

For people who you haven’t met, who don’t know Sister Helen well, have never seen your shows, or are just now seeing your names for the first time… what do you have to say for yourselves?

EL: I hope our final album will continue to be interesting to new people long after we’ve stopped performing. HEY GO LISTEN TO THE ALBUM WHEN IT COMES OUT!

I guess for people who are musicians: make the music that you wanna hear and do everything in your power to play it and get it out into the world. Tour and be okay with it kind of sucking at first. No one is coming around anymore handing out money and record contracts and fame and fortune, and even if they were audiences are fractured and specific now, so don’t waste your time trying to please anyone. You won’t. If there was an audience for Sister Helen, dammit there’s an audience for anything!

Go to shows by yourself, and tell people when you like their stuff, and tell people you love them (I know that’s corny, but it’s important)

Show up for your friends.

NJC: You’ll probably never see us live, but we are putting out an album that we hope people hear. So if any of that junk we said about the idea behind this album interests you, check it out. Can’t speak for anyone else in the band, but I hope listening to it makes some amount of time in some amount of people’s lives better.

Go to shows. You may feel awkward, but if you like the band, go tell them that. Tell them what you liked about their music. Maybe tell them after the show, but necessarily at it. Go to their next show and listen to their shit online. Playing shows and going to shows are two lonely things, and you’d think the lonely people on either side of that experience would help each other feel less alone, and sometimes that happens and sometimes it doesn’t.

EL: This band never got super famous but I learned almost everything I know by trying my damndest to make something for us. I would advise people to try and care especially if there’s no guarantee that anything will happen. That’s all I got.

Sister Helen will be playing quite possibly their last show in Brooklyn on Friday, November 11th, at C’mon Everybody. Do yourself a favor, come by and see what this is all about before it’s gone for good.

 – Nick Otte –