Looking at a second album release on August 8, Discovery Bay’s own Helium3 props its feet on the Marshall and makes a case for the resort as a rock ’n’ roll haven. Elizabeth Kerr reports.
The first record Nick Flavell recalls buying with his own money was Dire Straits’ 1985 juggernaut Brothers in Arms, and his first concert was The Choirboys. Buddy David Belcastro reckons his rock ’n’ roll firsts were Unmasked by Kiss and INXS. Despite that, neither is posing as a shaggy-haired, aloof, leather-clad rake on this warm afternoon in DB. Both are casual but clearly polished. They’d look good in suits.
Make that uniforms. When 20-year Hong Kong residents Nick and David aren’t shredding as Helium3 on the SAR’s stages they’re doing their best imitations of Iron Maiden vocalist-pilot Bruce Dickinson, flying for Cathay Pacific. UK-native Nick has lived in DB for 15 years, while Melbourne-born David has made it his home since 1996. Like so many, both intended staying in Hong Kong for just a “three-year stint”.
For them, playing music is a way to unwind from an undeniably stressful job. “That’s why lots of pilots have successful second businesses,” cracks Nick. Though there is bleed: “My brain is working double time at the moment because we’re finishing the record,” he says of balancing two opposing disciplines. “Not to a distracting level but I do catch myself thinking about melody at work.”
The longer you sit with Nick and David, the easier it is to see the dual personalities in each. Nick is the classic frontman, all rhythmic energy and be-shaded cool (the sunglasses never come off, though in his defence it was bright out). Bassist David is the quiet Bill Wyman-type. They’re gracious over comments from this writer about how loathsome Coldplay is, their touchstone for Helium3’s sound, and are even more gracious about my clumsy explanations of the Hong Kong music scene. In other words, they look like they should have rock-star attitude, but don’t.
Roots and influences
Helium3 was born around 12 years ago, chiefly as a relaxation tool. Vocalist, guitarist and songwriter Nick and bassist David make up one half of the band, along with drummer Brendan Delfino and guitarist Steve Jones. Brendan, a journalist, has lived in DB for 27 years, Steve, an outlier pilot with Cathay Dragon, for 15. The four make up Discovery Bay’s, nay Hong Kong’s, own rock gods.
“I think all of us wanted to be musicians before we wanted to fly airplanes [or in Brendan’s case write] for a living. We were all reasonably accomplished musicians before starting other careers, and that stays with you forever,” theorises Nick on the quartet’s origins. “We all, also, have very similar taste in music. We just clicked.” David went looking for collaborators when he got the itch to play music again, something he’s done since his early teens. “Hong Kong is small enough not to have to put ads in the paper looking for a bass player or whatever,” he says. “It was easy enough to seek them out one night and give them my details. They seemed cool.”
After a few years playing covers and a smattering of originals, Underground’s Chris B, widely referred to as the tattooed fairy godmother of the Hong Kong music scene, talked them into a Battle of the Bands appearance. “We expected to get booed off the stage but every two weeks we’d get through to the next show and the next show,” recalls Nick. “Long story short, we ended up runners-up at the 2008 final in Hong Kong. MTV was there, Channel V was there. We had no idea it would be so huge.” This led to major label interest that Helium3 was unable to commit to. However, the band did manage a DIY release: the 2009 HMV Top 20 title Skindeep.
It’s possible Helium3’s time has come. Though Nick will also cop to respect for Oasis and Prince, the influences he talks about fall on the classic rock spectrum: Pink Floyd, the Eagles and Eric Clapton. For David, it’s “a lot of old Australian rock ’n’ roll… Paul Kelly – he tells really good stories”. This jives with the way modern listeners are turning to the familiar, like the killer pop song-killer pipes combo of Adele, noisy retro blues-rock like The Black Keys and the eternal Coldplay. Even rap (“rubbish that [David doesn’t] have any time for”) is looking towards its incendiary roots à la Kendrick Lamar.
While both Nick and David have strong ideas about what constitutes good rock music, they agree on the end game. “People don’t buy albums anymore. Well maybe you and I do,” says Nick. “The stuff we grew up on was complex. Twelve-minute songs? You can’t do that anymore. And you can’t switch up songs on Dark Side of the Moon,” he argues. The more cynical David rues the omnipresence of pop stars who can’t play an instrument and industry litigiousness. “I think every melody and every chord progression has already been written,” he says, citing the 2015 Tom Petty/ Sam Smith dispute. “There’s nothing new anymore. It’s impossible. You just have to make it your own to stand out.”
Welcome to the New World
Ahead of the August 8 release of the band’s sophomore effort, Welcome to the New World (reviewed overleaf), Googling the band still results in the precious gas, but if Helium3 can harness the power of social media and Spotify that could change. Nick admits getting the word out and wrangling support is hard. No one thinks Hong Kong can rock. “We have to prove that,” he says. “It’s certainly hard. There are some great bands here and to stand out in Hong Kong you need a little of that international, commercial rock aspect, but you have to prove to naysayers that this is a Hong Kong band. Hopefully people will listen to Welcome and be surprised they’re listening to a DB band.”
Welcome was recorded in Nick’s home studio in DB in between Hong Kong gigs and long-haul flights. Nick and David would be happy with a repeat of Skindeep’s success – and would both ground themselves for a while for a chance at a club tour in support of the record – but they’d be just as happy entertaining the home crowds (at events like, fingers crossed, Clockenflap). Holding them back is Hong Kong’s dearth of 300-seat venues.
“Right now we’ve got The Wanch, which is a great little place and it’s really happening. But it’s really small, and there’s nothing at the next level up,” laments Nick, who incidentally has taken over organising duties for Picnic in the Park. Slated to rock DB on November 5, it’s going to be performed on Tai Pak Wan and in DB Plaza, and there’s a slight name change…The Big Picnic.
I have one parting query for Nick. If he could have written any song in the world, what would it be? “That’s very difficult,” he says after pondering the question. Though it didn’t grab him at first, it’s a song whose lyrics resonated at an unhappy time. “You’re going to hate it,” he says with a laugh. “Fix You by Coldplay.” What, not Run to the Hills?
WELCOME TO THE NEW WORLD
New album release by Helium3 (Hazard Records)
Review by Elizabeth Kerr
Discovery Bay’s own Helium3 does not sound like Coldplay. Personal feelings about ‘the world’s blandest band’ will determine whether or not that’s a slur or a compliment, but ‘Coldplay-ish’ has become a catchall to describe most millennial pop-rock. Helium3’s sophomore effort, Welcome to the New World, is more reminiscent of late-’70s and early-’80s post-punk laced with a little new wave, a little classic rock, a little Prince. Released on August 8, it’s jangly, familiar four-chord pop-rock that often flirts with that loud-quiet-loud Mumford & Sons construction, frequently to earworm effect.
The most radical thing primary songwriter Nick Flavell and producer Brendan McReynolds have done is create an holistic album rather than a compendium of singles. (Quick, name another song on Lorde’s first album. Check that, name the album.) New World starts strong, with the title track showing barnburner potential, followed shortly by a Metallica-lite riff on Let Me Invite U 2 Leave and the infectious rolling drum line and plucking guitar on Best Bad Plan (both co-written with Maitreya Jani). Helium3 comes closest to Coldplay on Satellite, ironically one of the stronger entries, with its piano intro and Nick’s Greg Kihn-ish vocals in a flighty (no insult, turn to the band profile on page 20) reflection on fleetingness.
The second half of Welcome to the New World slows down, becoming more ballad-heavy and less defined. But the hometown crowd gets a shout-out on the wistful, country-infused City of a Million Lights, and on South Stand, which is pretty much what you’d expect from an ode to the Hong Kong Sevens. This is an album best experienced live, in a crowded, smoky club – or at a festival. Helium3 will be headlining at The Big Picnic in DB on November 5 and, in the meantime, you can buy your copy from August 8 on iTunes and Spotify, and at Uncle Russ in DB Plaza.