Brian Vollmer doesn’t quite buy the observation that there’s a retro rock ‘n roll renaissance currently taking place in Canada.
Yes there’s lots of classic 70’s and 80’s rock bands currently back on the circuit but as lead vocalist and sole surviving original member of hard rock band, Helix, Vollmer notes that it’s still a struggle keeping his band operational.
“If anything, I’ve found it harder this year than it was four or five years ago,” Vollmer notes. “We are pretty well a Summer-Fall festival/casino operation. Matter of fact, I have taken my band out of the clubs – it’s just not worth it. I found playing clubs just played havoc with our festival pricing. You can’t go into a club and demand anything like what we get for festivals. You’ve got, what 150 seats in your average club charging $15 at the door, that’s what $2,000 for the band? I’d rather play fewer gigs but make more money per gig.”
“Compare that to us playing festivals,” continues Vollmer. “You’ve got older people with discretionary income. What would they rather do, pay 15 bucks to be in a dingy bar or pay $150 to stand in the sunshine and catch several bands at once. It’s just common sense to play festivals.”
“And then with Casinos, they’ll pay you four figures to play because they’re not worried about bar sales or tickets sold at the door, “explains Vollmer. “They are more concerned with getting people through the door to gamble.”
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Vollmer is one person who misses the presence of major record companies. “People say that major record companies aren’t needed to distribute product but the one big thing they did was advance monies so bands like us could tour. At one point a band could tour across the country, and play concerts and clubs on off nights like Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesday’s because their labels were supporting them. You got the radio and press exposure because the labels were creating that for you.
“How is a young band in Ontario supposed to tour out west when they can only get gigs on the weekend,” asks Vollmer. “And what about product distribution, yes they can sell CD’s at their show – but really how many are they going to sell. And yes they can go on-line but there’s so much competition to get your music heard. Again, love them or hate them, this was the function record companies performed!”
Vollmer is facetious when he says the current public interest in watching classic rock bands is because “People think we’re all going to die soon so they’d better see us while they can.”
What Vollmer doesn’t understand is why established, great songwriters have stopped being creative and stopped trying to record new music. “I never understand why these great writers who wrote such great songs in the past, have given up writing,” mused Vollmer. “We’ve never stopped writing, recording or performing. You can say there has been a rebirth in Canadian music – I couldn’t care less because Helix has never gone away, we’ve always been performing.”
[quote]“I want to rock to my grave, I love this lifestyle, you have to love this lifestyle to survive,”[/quote]Vollmer does acknowledge the recording process is a lot easier and less costly these days, with the ability to avoid costly studios and download the resulting product directly on line through social media.
“It used to cost about $250,000 to record a major album, now you can do it for about $15,000,” calculates Vollmer. “It’s important that your audience sees you as a recording act that produces new material rather than just living off past hits. Personally, I could never stop writing or being creative.”
You could excuse Vollmer for being nostalgic. Emerging as an indie hard rock band in the early 70’s with two self-produced albums (“Breaking Loose and “White Lace Black Leather”, Helix created an enthusiastic underground movement in Ontario. Finally signed by EMI VP of Marketing David Munns, a Brit who had just arrived in Canada having signed Iron Maiden, Helix were given their shot at the big time, releasing their first major record “No Rest For The Wicked” in 1983 which was supported by a major European tour later that year, opening for Kiss.
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With Vollmer, guitarist Brent “The Doctor” Doerner, guitarist Paul Hackman, bassist Daryl Gray and drummer Greg (Fritz) Hinz, made further headway when their 1984 “Walkin The Razor’s Edge” release achieved international acclaim, spawning hit’s such as `Rock You’, Crazy Elephant’s`Gimme Gimme Good Lovin” and A Foot In Cold Water’s “(Make Me Do) Anything You Want”. The band achieved further notoriety by shooting racy versions of their `Rock You’ and `Gimme Gimme Good Lovin’ videos that were used as filler on the newly formed porno cable channels.
Yet even as the band started to enjoy international exposure, they began to run into problems at radio. Despite being positioned as a hard rock band, rubbing shoulders with the likes of The Scorpions, Motorhead, Ian Gillan and Motley Crue, their label EMI was insistent on Helix recording radio-friendly pop songs. “We’re trying to sell “Rock You” but EMI wanted pop songs like “(Make Me Do) Anything You Want) and Gimme Gimme Good Lovin .
“It was a constant battle with the labels,” noted Vollmer. “Billy (manager Bill Seip) would listen to our demos and go, `I don’t know if EMI’s going to like that?” “Paul (Hackman) and I would be writing songs we thought were right for the band but we weren’t on the same page as them.”
As a result, Helix lost their international momentum and when Paul Hackman was killed in an accident near Merritt BC in 1992 it looked as though they were in serious trouble. Yet Vollmer has soldiered on, enduring constant lineup changes as he has battled to keep the band alive, still writing songs, still recording and still performing.
“I want to rock to my grave, I love this lifestyle, you have to love this lifestyle to survive,” states Vollmer. “It’s more than just picking up a paycheque but it is tough if you don’t like it.”
In order to survive, Vollmer kept the band in the spotlight, appearing in a The Trailer Park Boys’ movie where they also mention the band, recording new records (“Vagabond Bones”) and compilation CD’s (“Greatest Hits Unplugged’). Vollmer also supplemented his income by teaching the Bel canto vocal method to a number of high profile students.
He even got most of the established band together again with Vollmer reuniting with Doerner, Gray, Hinz and new guitarist John Claus over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, Doerner decided he couldn’t handle the rock n’ roll lifestyle anymore and left the band after a farewell tour earlier this year but still works with the band on their videos. “Brent hated the road and he loves to smoke but travelling on airplanes and going through airport lounges, he couldn’t smoke and that affected him,” explained Vollmer, who found a replacement guitarist in Kaleb Duck. “If we could teleport him from one destination to another like they do in Star Trek, Brent would still be in the band.”
With a new Helix record (co-written with former member Sean Kelly) and a Brian Vollmer solo record in the works, Helix, according to Vollmer, are still rocking. They performed in a number of major festivals this year including London Ontario’s Concert In the Park with Whitesnake and Journey and have been invited to execute a European tour early next year.
Photography by: Ted Van Boort