Metal Skull: Interview with Helen Money: Heavy Cello

The band identity of Chicago-based cellist Alison Chesley, Helen Money, is set to issue its/her second album Nov. 3. In Tune will be Chesley’s first release for Radium/Table Of The Elements, and it builds on the dark atmospheres and solo cello experimental aesthetic she established with 2007’s Helen Money while also incorporating more natural sounds. Recorded at Steve Albini’s Electrical Audio studio and mixed by Sanford Parker (doesn’t get much more Chicago than that), the entirely instrumental In Tune boasts complex layers, intricate songcraft, and for the punkers in the house, a Minutemen cover done, of course, entirely with a cello.

Despite being about to kick off a tour that starts tomorrow night, Oct. 29, at the Knitting Factory in Brooklyn, Chesley took some time out for the following phoner. Enjoy.

Who is Helen Money to you? Is she an alter ego, is it a band identity? Is she your Alice Cooper?

It’s a band. I guess I want it to be able to become whatever I want it to be. I don’t really envision it being anything more than centered around what I’m doing. Maybe I’ll involve a couple other people on my next record. When I play Milwaukee, Jon Mueller from Collections Of Colonies Of Bees is playing a couple songs with me on drums. I wouldn’t want to call it Alison Chesley And Friends (laughs). I hate that. Like The Alan Parsons Project. Helen Money is a little more removed from me personally. I like that. It can be what I want it to be, not just me personally. And it’s a more rock-sounding name, I think. More than Alison Chesley. Because it’s a cello, I think it’s easy to connect that with folk music or classical, and I didn’t want people to make that association.

Do you see yourself fitting into any specific genre? On In Tune, there’s rock, there’s classical. You could lump it into a catch-all like prog, but where do you see yourself?

That’s a really good question. I have a hard time describing what I’m doing. I guess I come out of really liking music by Bob Mould. I really like rock. I like The Who, Bob Mould, Joe Strummer. I also like Mahler and Chostakovitch. I don’t think I come from an experimental place, which I kind of end up calling it. Experimental rock. I think I’m coming from more of a rock place and just a place where music is more visceral and has some melody and emotion to it, which I think a lot of rock can have. Like punk. It’s really classic rock in a way. I’m not into doing long solos or stuff that can be associated with prog rock.

There’s a lot of percussion from the cello on the new record. In terms of layering and making the songs, do you have that in mind at the start? How does that build up for you?

On the Minutemen song, for sure, their drummer was really good. The Minutemen were when I grew up. When I was in my 20s, I was living in L.A., and I grew up there, so I would go see The Minutemen play a lot. I wanted to do a cover and I thought I’d do one of their songs because they’re short—everything on the album is really long—and also I feel like that was a big part of my life and my musical life growing up. When I was listening to that song, I thought, I can’t just do this without any kind of drum beat. This is an integral part of the song. That’s when I realized I needed to incorporate that. That’s where that came from. And then, also, I just feel like I want and try to bring some kind of rhythmic element other than just the cello, the bowing and stuff. Something a little harder that doesn’t sound like a cello. I feel like on this album I wanted to get more acoustic cello, to get away from using all these effects, but I also wanted to try and get sounds that were a little different and didn’t sound like the cello at all.