Inspiration can come from anywhere. For Jessica Numsuwankijkul, 33, of Bushwick’s Heliotropes, it came in the form of the WWI and WWII documentaries she found herself watching during the winter of 2014, a time when she felt too depressed to do much else. This resulted in a softer, gentler Heliotropes than we’ve maybe seen before on their last album, 2013’s A Constant Sea. The record is really rad, and features some snippets of bizarre, forgotten history, plucked from those documentaries and hidden in the guise of a sweet duet.
“I took inspiration from pieces that are not musical,”Numsuwankijkul said. “I think that’s really important, because it means you’re not rehashing all these tropes that are used in songs all the time.”
Plus, I know from personal experience that Heliotropes also does a mean Weezer cover set, and they’re preparing to take their music on the road (quite literally) as the travelling band for a Record Store Crawl, a bus tour of NYC record shops. So basically, Heliotropes is very Brooklyn, and their new album Over There That Way drops today.
Heliotropes has gone through some lineup changes over the years. In fact, front woman Numsuwankijkul says that the lineup has been kind of fluid. They went through three different drummers over the course of a few years, and now, according to the picture above, there’s a lizard (is that a chameleon? That’s still a lizard, right?) involved. But Numsuwankijkul has always been the primary songwriter for the band’s material. She wrote the last album, Over There That Way, during a winter when she was pretty depressed. She says that writing the album was a way for her to process that time, and made for a different Heliotropes record than what we’ve heard before:
“If anything, writing this record gave me something to do that didn’t involve leaving my house,” she said. “I didn’t really go outside for most of that winter. The sort of solitude that was imposed by the writing process made the album different. The first album was very bombastic and energetic; this one was a product of sitting around by yourself and not talking to anybody. It’s not a quiet album, but I think compared to our other stuff, it’s pretty gentle.”
Numsuwankijkul was watching a lot of WWI and WWII documentaries that winter; that ended up being what a large part of the album is based on. One song in particular, title track “Over There That Way,” sounds like a love song at first listen. But upon further investigation, it’s actually about The White Death, an infamous Finnish marksman who killed over 500 Soviets during the Winter War. A song that sounds like a sweet little Nancy Sinatra/Lee Hazlewood duet about two people in love is actually, well, not.
“If the listener weren’t paying attention, they might think it was just about a love song, but it’s really an account of The White Death,” she said. “The Soviets sent killers after him, and they chased each other around for a while. I think the whole album may have come from that, really. It’s a really interesting story and it was nice for me to write an album by myself.”
I was really excited to cover Heliotropes this week, because I’ve seen them before. Rather, I saw them, but they weren’t playing their own music. I told Numsuwankijkul over the phone that I actually saw them at a 90s cover show at Pet Rescue, doing a Weezer cover set.
“OH MY GOD,” she laughed, “You were there?! That was so much fun.”
I still have the scar on my shin from when I busted my leg climbing out of the weird loft space where the show was. I didn’t notice at the time, though ($2 beers will do that to you). Anyway. It was really fun, I obviously made it home without bleeding out on the sidewalk, and I asked Numsuwankijkul if Weezer was their first choice to cover.
“We were considering doing an REM cover set, but we figured Weezer would be more fun for the audience,” she said. “Ideally we would do Smashing Pumpkins, but someone was already doing that.”
She’s referring there, of course, to The Dashing Blumpkins, who are a Smashing Pumpkins cover band specializing in Smashing Pumpkins karaoke. Yes, really. They have a really great Billy Corgan lookalike involved, but I do think Numsuwankijkul would look pretty cool in a bald cap, which is obviously required if you’re doing Smashing Pumpkins. But since they did Weezer, I asked Numsuwankijkul if Heliotropes would ever play a cruise, as Weezer has done.
“Uh, yeah. I mean, I’d do anything for money,” she said. “That’d be fun. Who doesn’t want to play on a boat, right?”
“People who are afraid of water,” I suggested. “And sharks.”
“Oh, yeah,” she laughed. “I guess there’s that. But I’d do it.”
But playing on a moving vehicle is apparently something that is not foreign to Heliotropes. They’ll be serving as the traveling soundtrack to this record store crawl on July 30.
“It starts at Baby’s All Right where there’s an open bar, then you get on the bus and it drives you around to all these record stores around the city,” she said. “I’m not sure what exactly that entails, but I do know that we have to play on the bus. I think it’s a yellow school bus. I just kind of expect it to be kind of a shit show, but it’ll be fun. It’s this really unique thing.”
And on doing things for money, Numsuwankijkul has a really interesting day job for a musician to have: though she came to the city for a job with DC Comics, she now works as a staffer for state senators. She says it’s definitely a weird job to juggle with being in a band.
“The weird thing is that the world of music and politics have really intersected in the last season,” she said. “I know people are having rock benefits for some of the candidates; I know some Brooklyn politicians are doing benefits with local bands. I don’t know if this is a symptom of Bernie Sanders being popular, but I feel like the two worlds are intersecting.”
And in line with working a day job, Numsuwankijkul notes that more and more bands are being expected to play for free. Which means you need to have one of those.
“There’s been kind of, I’ve noticed, more of a push toward a ‘you’re not getting paid’ thing,” she said. “Maybe it’s because the DIY scene here is getting oversaturated, but bands are getting paid less and less or not at all, and they’re expected to do things for exposure.”
But, our DIY scene is oversaturated because we have rad venues drawing rad bands. It’s kind of a double-edged sword.
Anyway, Heliotropes is rad. You should get their album Over There That Way today, check them out on the Record Store Crawl, and follow them on Facebook to see when they’re playing next — The next local show is Aug. 13 at Trans-Pecos. You should also probably check out SoFar Sounds, which is a series of secret shows where people don’t know who they’re going to see. Obviously we can’t say when Heliotropes is playing, but they might be. And SoFar Sounds clearly has great taste in who they book.
As for me, I’m going to see if I can write a love song about something else obscure from history. Like the woman who, as a means of fulfilling her dead husband’s life dream, brought the first panda from China to the Bronx zoo
Lilly Vanek is the music editor for Brokelyn. For more on local music, obscure stories about pandas, and adventures in 90’s cover shows, follow her on Twitter. And to pitch Lilly for New Music Friday, email her at lilly [at] brokelyn [dot] com.