"On the whole, it probably is a bit darker than Sleepwalking Sailors, but that certainly wasn't an intentional thing," says Ben Verellen, guitarist and co-vocalist of Helms Alee, when asked about the tone of their new album, Stillicide.
"That's kind of a trip, that it comes across so clearly to you as a darker thing."
Without prying into specifics, the Verellen amps founder confides, "There were definitely some heavy personal things going on - I don't have the right to disclose, but it was a tough time, for sure.
We had about 10 days to do it, which is stressful as it is, knowing that you're on the clock and you have to bang this thing out
“We got to Salem to record the record; we had about 10 days to do it, which is stressful as it is, knowing that you're on the clock and you have to bang this thing out - these songs we've been mulling over the last two, three years and try and document them in a short span of time.
“Then to have some real heavy life stuff land, and have to deal with that simultaneously - it was a stressful, but also kind of therapeutic, 10 days."
The album is also more confidently pop - or, at least, as close to pop as a band steeped in stoner rock, hardcore, math and post-rock vibes can get.
Completed by Dana James on bass and Hozoji Margullis on drums, over a series of critically-acclaimed albums, Helms Alee have gradually built themselves an enviable underground US following, and are gradually finding themselves called further afield.
"We had a really incredible show in Paris when we were in Europe last spring with [Russian] Circles," Ben recalls.
"There were a lot of shows on that tour that were just mind-blowing. It was our first time in Europe, and it didn't seem like people knew us necessarily, but there were a couple of shows where there was an overwhelming reaction."
Though Ben laughs at the suggestion of a Beach Boys influence on Stillicide ("We're not a band that sits down and hashes out real intense harmonies regularly, but the ideas just happened to present themselves... before you know it, you end up with a grandiose three-part harmony"), he does describe Helms Alee's influences and process while writing as broad and reflective.
"We always talk about this stuff and joke about how 'Oh, this record is all too mellow' or 'all these songs are too heavy' or 'all these songs are too dark', or whatever - but when we get to listen to the entire thing, we all agree that actually there's a big mish-mash of melodic stuff, and heavy stuff, and dark stuff and whatnot."
Accordingly, Verellen also observes that the genre tags they're often saddled with don't really encompass what they do.
We want to come to practice to complain about work, you know? We don't want to get to practice to do work
"I wouldn't say we're one of many math-rock bands or one of many post-rock bands. There's elements of all that stuff in Helms Alee, but to my ears, anyway, it doesn't seem like it that clearly fits the mould."
Success, as defined by Helms Alee, is nothing like most bands; there's not a sports car in sight, or even the notion of it being a day job.
"My idea of it would be to have it be a job only as much as it absolutely has to be," Ben explains.
"We want to come to practice to complain about work, you know? We don't want to get to practice to do work. Music is the therapy, music is the escape."
He shrugs, continuing, "What we're doing right now feels incredible. It's so exciting that we get to put out a record and that people are going to find out about it... people are going to hear about us on the other side of the world and we get to travel around and play shows and then come back home and go to work and have a life back here, too."
All of which brings us neatly to the other reason you might have heard Verellen's name: Verellen Amplifiers.
Verellen got into building amplifiers in less of a roundabout way than you might imagine.
Having played in bands in his teens, his interest in gear led him to an electronic engineering course at university, and here he found a way to explore his passion.
"I reached out to every professor in the department asking if anybody would teach me tubes, and there was only one professor who was interested,” Ben recalls.
“He walked me through a project where we basically designed an amp from the ground up and did a real in-depth analysis of everything that's happening, from an academic perspective. He ended up getting it published."
I've surrounded myself with really talented people, and it gets a little easier all the time
After that success, several more papers were published.
"We did an in-depth analysis of a couple of other circuits,” Ben expands, “and then some design to change those circuits and describe what is happening via distortion and frequency response, and all the different things that make these failing circuits sound they way they do."
Having completed these explorations, his mentor offered to invest in Ben's new amp company. A whip-round of friends and family followed, and having paid off the initial investment several years later, Ben is now going from strength to strength.
"Everything's always getting a little busier and a little bit smoother. I've surrounded myself with really talented people, and it gets a little easier all the time."
When designing amps, there's a different process for every client. Although there are off-the-shelf products like the Skyhammer, Kalaloch, Loucs and Meatsmoke in the Verellen line-up, the reality is that most people are coming to Ben with an idea in mind.
"Somebody will say, 'I want it to sound like a waterfall raining volcanic lava on the entire world, you know what I mean?'" describes Ben.
Somebody will say, 'I want it to sound like a waterfall raining volcanic lava on the entire world, you know what I mean?'
"And then I have to go, 'Okay, you're wearing a Slayer t-shirt, so I bet you like something like a Marshall JCM800 classic metal sound, but maybe a little more gain... somebody will tell you what they think they want, and you put together, 'Well, I know that wouldn't work, but I think that this would make them happy; this is what they need.'"
"We've always tried to get away from the custom thing," Ben continues, "because it is such a better business model and so much more efficient to just jam out some quantity of a proven circuit, [but] people always come back to us and tell us the crazy idea they have for the perfect amp - that's what they want, and we're always willing to do it."
Though this might frustrate some, Verellen sees the situation in a somewhat different light, realising that he wouldn't like the custom orders to fall by the wayside, anyway.
"I think we're just accepting the role that we've created for ourselves, and so custom amps is the deal for sure. I'd say 90 per cent of the amps we've done are unique, one-of-a-kind builds, and we've done over 700 amps over the last nine or 10 years."
People always come back to us and tell us the crazy idea they have for the perfect amp
This has led to a lot of Verellen's innovations evolving over time, from discrete products to options for custom builds - perhaps not the direction originally intended, but at least validating the core of the ideas.
Case in point is the new two-amps-in-one Kalaloch, which boasts two valve preamps, which can be used independently of one another or as a regular mono amp or stereo rig, backed by a solid-state power amp.
"I had the idea for doing that, and thought that we'd bang them out and it would be the one product that we would sell lots of, but in typical Verellen Amps fashion, I did a sale for them and sold, like, 20 right out of the gate, which was incredible, and then immediately after that come all the custom ideas, so everything we've been doing since then, the solid-state power amp has been folded into the brew of custom options."
The interesting thing about the customs versus off-the-shelf debate is that customs and Verellen designs seem equally popular among his more well-known clientele.
Though Pete Koller from Sick Of It All and Andrew Seward, formerly of Against Me! boast customs, Nate Mendel from Foo Fighters and Scott Shriner from Weezer use Meatsmokes, Amedeo Pace from Blonde Redhead uses a Skyhammer, and Mike Sullivan from Russian Circles has a Meatsmoke and Loucs.
And Ben? Well, unsurprisingly for a serial tinkerer, he has his own set of bespoke amplifiers.
The amps I have are just kind of oddball. It's like the car mechanic thing, y'know?
"The amps I have are just kind of oddball. It's like the car mechanic thing, y'know? I use two amps that I stuck together really early on when I started doing amps.
“I, of course, have all these ideas of things I'd like to do for myself down the road, but there's so many things I have to do for other people that I just can never set aside the time."
But whether it's amps or Helms Alee, it all comes back to music, and that's what keeps Ben motivated.
"There's so much you can get out of music. There's just enjoying it, but also playing it, performing it, writing it, all that stuff - I feel like I'd be a crazy person if I didn't get to do all those things."
For a craftsman who has orientated his life around building tools to help other musicians create, that makes perfect sense.
Stillicide is out on 2 September via Sargent House.