Sitting in a booth in the back of the Boulevard Cafe over cups of gumbo, the three musicians in Helen Stellar are taking stock of the past 18 months. During that time, the group traveled to Los Angeles; moved to Madison, Wis. and then back to Chicago; and sold just about everything it had to record a magnificent, life-affirming catharsis of a four-song EP called Below Radar.
“We spent our last dime recording that EP,” says bassist Steve Bishop. “That was also about the time we were in Hollywood, and there were an awful lot of things going on. This EP is what everyone wanted to hear, and we put everything we had into it.”
Below Radar is a shimmering expression of post-Verve dream pop, mystical like Van Morrison and restless like Spiritualized. It is music for seekers, heavy on delay and effects, the kind of “rock” you’d expect on the turntable of a philosophy major. Below Radar is driving on an open road, watching the scenery flash by like it does in those all-too-serious “coming-of-age” movies.
The songs attracted the attention of DJ Nic Harcourt of KCRW-FM in Santa Monica, Calif., which landed the band an on-air performance — the second in the program’s history. Response from its shows at the Knitting Factory, the Derby and Spaceland in Los Angeles helped convince the band to lay down the tracks, recorded at Butch Vig’s Smart Studio in Madison.
Loops of guitar and heavy atmospherics create texture for lyrics that talk about salvation, fiction and fables on “Temporary Solutions,” made all the more vulnerable and affecting by vocalist Jim Evens’ ethereal delivery. Similar to BRMC or the Dandy Warhols in its dreamy detachment, yet less ironic, Helen Stellar combines piano, bass, guitar and drum in an arresting formula of controlled tension and release in songs like “IO.”
“Our sound fills up a room — it occupies every corner,” Evens says. “Cliff (Clehouse) has a good touch; when he’s rockin,’ he beats the shit out of the drums. Steve’s always had a full bass sound with an incredible range. Sometimes I wish I had a third arm so I could be playing some sort of keyboard part while the song is going on. But it’s not that limiting being a three-piece.”
Limitations instead come in the form of geography, time and finances. Returning to Chicago after having toured and lived in another city remains an irritating, if necessary, fact of life.
“I think I can speak for all of us when I say we’re not a local band,” Evens says. “We really became a band in Madison. Local is so limiting, easy to pass off. We don’t think that does us justice.”