HELIX are the North American synth power couple of solo artist Mari Kattman and ASSEMBLAGE 23’s Tom Shear.

Releasing their debut album ‘Twin’ in 2018, their busy schedules meant that there was no more from HELIX until 2021’s ‘Bad Dream’ EP. But their new EP ‘Unimaginable Place’ is their best body of work yet, dark yet strangely romantic and hopeful collection of songs combining elements of synthpop, dub, dance, trip hop, trap and more.

In an ‘Unimaginable Place’, Mari Kattman and Tom Shear gave ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK a wonderful insight into their creative relationship as HELIX and the workings of the modern music industry…

Both of you have been making music individually and in collaboration with others for a while, so was doing a music project together always a given?

Mari: I don’t think it was always a given per se. It’s certainly how things ended up, but our collaboration had as much to do with mutual respect and admiration of one another as people as well as artists. I think our personalities work amazing in a collaborative environment. As much as we may butt heads creatively once in a while, we are both extremely passionate, dedicated and artists that hold ourselves to a high standard of output. So it works out to being a success.

Tom: It’s funny, but the way it came together was that I had heard Mari’s previous project DAY TWELVE and really liked her voice. I had a track I was working on that I needed a harmony part that was higher than I could sing, so I asked her if she could do it and she nailed it. So I asked her to do some vocals on a remix I was working on. Then I asked her to sing on a SURVEILLANCE song. By that time it was like – wait, why don’t we have our own project together?!

What have been each of your favourite tracks done by the other?

Mari: I listened to Tom’s music occasionally before we met and over the years I would come to hear his stuff in passing with friends who were listening to his music or at clubs I was playing shows at. My favorite track from Tom was always ‘Cocoon’. It’s really atmospheric with that kind of reverb-y feel that is super dreamy. I also really appreciate the vocal being so present, clear, right up front. I always find myself tiring of the EBM stuff in general, it’s just so repetitive. So to hear this track in a sea of cookie cutter EBM, was a breath of fresh air. Tom always takes risks on every album which isn’t something most artists do, he will do something unique, out of the box and that’s really something that sets him apart.

Tom: I really like ‘Swallow’. It’s the whole package. It’s got a great rhythmic feel to it, an insistent hook, a really strong vocal and although the song title on its face might suggest something sexual, it’s actually about the struggles women deal with. I love that subversiveness. Honestly, though, it’s hard to pick. Mari’s really been getting stronger with each track she does. She’s been on fire lately!

What are your shared music likes but also any things that one liked that perhaps the other wasn’t very keen on? 😉

Mari: We are very similar, like eerily so, we even shared our common interest of Missy Elliott right when we first met. We also share a common background of punk rock music being our first real affair with music as teenagers. We both also have a HUGE appreciations for 90s electronic music. It’s really nice when there is much to bond about.

Tom: I think we really bonded over 90s music, particularly the electronic stuff. PORTISHEAD and MASSIVE ATTACK… hip-hop stuff like THE FUGEES and Missy Elliot. We’re both fans of 80s stuff, too, but I think the 90s ushered in a sort of darker sound overall that’s really appealing. I can’t really think of anything Mari likes that I hate.

In terms of your music partnership, how does it differ from your own established vehicles?

Mari: HELIX is a totally different sound than the Mari Kattman project. Tom is a true wonder with the cinematic, massive, string heavy, shimmering tracks. It’s fun to apply my vocals to the arrangements he comes up with. I am a totally different composer, I really focus my weight on edgy basslines and try and keep the song structures as simple as I can handle from a mixing perspective. When it comes to Tom holding the control over most of the music and having his expertise in mixing, we can totally push the limits of the stereo field, and we do.

Tom: For me, it’s a chance to just concentrate on the music and let someone else worry about the vocals and fronting the band. It’s refreshing.

Is there any style or approach that you have experimented with in HELIX that you perhaps wouldn’t normally go with?

Mari: We have totally done a lot of stuff that’s super 80s reminiscent. Not synthwave, but 80s 90s electronic music from a pop angle. It’s fun to be able to do whatever we feel like with this project, because it’s not meant to be a copycat of anything happening today. It’s truly a mish-mash of the music that has been inspirational to us in our lifetimes.

Tom: The thing that is the most fun for me is that I just kind of incorporate influences from different genres and squash them together to see if they gel. There’s elements of trip-hop, house, dance music, trap, hip-hop, rock, dub, synthpop in our stuff and somehow it just works.

How do you look back on the making of the debut HELIX album ‘Twin’ released in 2018?

Mari: ‘Twin’ wasn’t only a pleasure to write but it was a true bonding experience for Tom and I. I like to use the analogy of “message in a bottle” he was in Seattle and I was in Rhode Island. We were both working so hard to create things for each other that were outstanding. I would send him back vocals after he sent me a song and just pray that when he woke up in the morning to download my files that he would love what I did. It was a labor of love, for sure.

Tom: That one was a lot different from the EPs because we were living on opposite coasts at the time. So it was a different way of working and was definitely a lot less collaborative. I feel like that album was also about us figuring out what HELIX was going to be. What our sound would be. I much prefer being able to collaborate with Mari in person. We butt heads from time to time, but I think it always results in stronger songs.

Was following up ‘Twins’ with two EPs ‘Bad Dream’ and now ‘Unimaginable Place’ more a consequence of practically as you are busy with your main creative outlets or was it more to do with today’s release strategies which do not appear to favour long playing formats on streaming services?

Mari: I am a big believer in catering to the limited attention span that most people have these days. However, this one was certainly a mix of both of our lives being very busy with the mundane tasks of daily life and yes, the limited attention span idea.

Tom: A little from column A, a little column B. We do feel like the way people consume music is much different from how it used to be. People have much shorter attention spans. I think it’s rare for someone to listen to an entire album from start to finish. So we thought EPs are more “digestible” and concentrated on making those four songs really good. We also figured it would allow us to release music more frequently, and I still hope that, but the reality has been that jobs, day-to-day life, etc slowed that pace down.

Social media has changed a lot even since ‘Bad Dream’, Twitter has turned into a nightmare while there is the rise of TikTok and the emergence of Threads… is this all getting too much?

Mari: I feel like everyoneis trying to get their 15 seconds of fame these days and to be honest, I couldn’t really be bothered. I really care about what I do, but I grew up in a time where things were much different. Physical looks were less important, followers were a non-issue, and musical quality was everything. I am extremely proud of my music but it’s hard for me to post videos and selfies everyday to promote, it all seems a big frivolous compared to the music product itself.

Tom: It’s hard to avoid the feeling that social media is overall a bad thing for humanity. The idea is great on paper, but the reality is it’s exploited as a really effective means of propaganda and spreading misinformation and it really brings out the worst in people a lot of times. I think I was happier before I knew so many crazy people walked among us.

What hardware, software and effects are you using in HELEX now, has there been anything that has been a particular revelation?

Tom: Hardware-wise I mostly used the ARP Odyssey, Roland SH-01a, Arturia Minifreak, and a borrowed Oberheim OB6. Softsynths used include U-he Repro, Kilohearts Phase Plant, Spectrasonics Omnisphere, Arturia Pigments, Inphonik RX-1200, my DAW’s sampler, and a ton more. I treated Mari’s vocals with a lot of stuff from Soundtoys, Valhalla, and others.

The ‘Unimaginable Place’ title song is a mighty club anthem that you can imagine being played at dark alternative establishment, are either of you much into dancing?

Mari: Tom is going to SAY he’s not into dancing, but believe me, he is. At least around the house to annoy our 8 year old daughter. In all honesty though, Tom and I are way more sedentary than we have any business being. haha.

Tom: I prefer to make other people dance than to dance myself. If you’ve ever seen me perform live you know why! I can’t dance to save my life. Which, as Mari mentioned, I have learned I can use to really bum out the kiddo to hilarious effect.

‘Lie To Herself’ ventures into some ominous tones, what is important to get the atmospheric of these types of downtempo songs right?

Mari: ‘Lie To Herself’ is truly a conversational piece, an outward thought. I think the main thing of importance with this track was to get the vocals situated to the front. The vocals truly took center stage when this one came together.

Tom: Atmosphere and texture are two important components of HELIX tracks. The song always comes first, but making it sound interesting and as if it inhabits a physical space of some sort really goes a long way towards creating a mood.

Was ‘Grey’ inspired by anything in particular, lyrically and musically?

Mari: I like to leave these lyrics up to fit whatever situation you are in and leave them there. I am trying to write about things that affect me these days. Feeling the weight of aging is something that a lot of us are dealing with right now. Where is the person I used to be? Am I still acceptable now that I’m not looking or feeling as youthful as I was? Is there still someone who will accept me when I’m not at my best?

Tom: Musically, I had been listening to a lot of old TANGERINE DREAM and was messing around with that sort of “Berlin School” type of sequenced synth line. I set it up to modulate a bunch of different parameters on the synth and set the modulation out of sync with one another so the sound is constantly shifting and evolving against itself. The rest of the song got built around that.

‘Hurt Like Me’ has this powerful but distressing backdrop, do either of you find catharsis in music or can these emotions take you back to difficult paces that are a challenge to deal with?

Mari: I have definitely used this project and my own to sort out a lot of the feelings I was having internally. The coolest part about being a musician is that you are sort of an alchemist of sorts. You can take something really crappy and turn it into something people can dance to! How many people can do that? Musicians also have the last word, always.

Tom: I find the process of making music really cathartic, regardless of the mood or subject matter. Just the process itself is such a satisfying way of working through difficult times or feelings. I guess there’s always the risk of “wallowing in it” a bit, but for me, just going through the process has always been really helpful for getting past tough times.

What do you get from doing HELIX that you perhaps might not doing music with your main vehicle?

Mari: Collaboration is a whole other animal than when you are writing alone. You must be open, willing to bend, willing to settle and you also get the pleasure of the other person’s point of view. You get to combine both of your skills that you have honed over the years. Tom brings so much to the table, he has had decades of experience composing, mixing and producing. It’s so beautiful to hear how HE interprets my voice, instead of just how I do it when I’m alone. It’s a privilege for me to work with him.

Tom: For me, I find it really refreshing to do something different from ASSEMBLAGE 23. I enjoy that too, of course, but to be able to step into a different musical world with different rules and processes helps keep things fresh and also keeps me learning new stuff all the time. I think it’s important that you keep trying to learn new stuff no matter how long you’ve been making music. Stepping outside your usual comfort zone is a really good way to do that. Plus, getting to work with the love of my life ain’t bad either.

What is next for you both, either together or alone or with others?

Mari: I am now working on my first full length solo album and I will finish it this year. I also have some collaborations coming out this year with the FiXT record label, another few tracks with Julian Beeston (FEATURED, CUBANATE, NITZER EBB). I also have another collab with Markus Renard (WOLFSHEIM). You will also be able to catch me on the next MESH album, a much anticipated release that I hope comes out this year as well. So stay tuned!

Tom: We’ve got a bunch of live shows coming up this year for ASSEMBLAGE 23, HELIX and Mari’s solo stuff. Other than that, I’m working on new A23 material, although I have no idea when it will eventually come out. It’s in the works, though!

ELECTRICITYCLUB.CO.UK gives its warmest thanks to Mari Kattman and Tom Shear

‘Unimaginable Place’ is available as a digital EP from https://helix.bandcamp.com/







Text and Interview by Chi Ming Lai
2 March 2024