“Oh, you were in Deep Wound?”: an FAQ for punk roots thrasher Scott Helland, whose prolific songwriting has yielded over 30 records since the ‘80s, ever since that fateful flyer fell into the hands of lo-fi heroes, J Mascis and Lou Barlow.
No stranger to DIY venues and seedy dive-bars, Helland once had a gun pulled on him and his brother Vis, who went to settle up with the owner at the venerable punk rock club Electric Banana in Pittsburgh, ca. 1984. At the time, he was in Outpatients, opening up for Battalion of Saints. The hard-luck dues paid off later for Helland, who has since opened for many great rock bands, including Hüsker Dü, Black Flag w/ Henry Rollins, Cro-Mags, COC, 7 Seconds and more.
Growing up with parents who were deeply entrenched in the world of academia, Helland was accustomed to frequent visits to jazz concerts and art museums. “I remember the first music concert I ever attended: it was The Count Basie Orchestra. I had a great relationship with my father, and my mother too. They were both very progressive,” says Helland. “I recently inherited my dad’s 400-album jazz record collection.”
Harking back to freshman year in high school, Helland’s father passed suddenly, after enduring an ongoing headache that plagued him for two days. “My brother took him to the hospital while I was in school, and about an hour later, he was in a coma. The next day he died from an aneurysm, just like that,” Helland recalls.
“It was a huge shock and we were torn apart - an empty seat at the table - and I thought, ‘wow, life is gonna be tough… maybe let’s not let people in too much.’ So punk rock pushed me through, just going crazy on stage, thrashing around with this sort of exorcism of stress and sadness and anxiety,” says Helland.
Further immersed in the open arms of like-minded, yet big-hearted thrashers, Helland kept up with Outpatients in ‘84, as Deep Wound morphed into Dinosaur Jr. Helland became obsessed with the ever-important aspect of getting lost in a space where one feels unique kinship.
From one extreme to the next, Helland jettisoned punk rock and thrash metal in the ‘90s, picking up an acoustic that he began strumming and chasing after atmospheric melodies and the songs that came with it. Helland relied on looping and self-sufficiency, which eventually led him down a path of spy-noir instrumentals, inspired by The Rockford Files, The Man from Uncle, I Spy, and others from childhood immersion.
In the tight-lipped, complex, and solitary characters celebrated in those shows, Helland finds an analog for his own go-it-alone forays into stylish post-punk guitar composition. “I like the thought of providing music for a movie inside someone’s head,” says Helland. Thus, his solo career under the moniker, Guitarmy of One, was born.
"The title ‘Overtones of Hercule and Holmes’ is a tipping of the hat to those classic detective characters. Hercule Poirot is from the Agatha Christie series and Holmes of course is from Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes series. I took my perception of those characters and wrote a soundtrack for them. This song fits with the rest of the album The Spy Detective Collective, which is inspired by spy and detective shows from the 60s and 70s. The album has an all instrumental spy noir feel, with driving acoustic-electric melodies over propulsive electro beats."
On his forthcoming LP, The Spy Detective Collective, Guitarmy of One looks to the crime and intrigue of shows of the ‘60s and ‘70s for inspiration as well as for dashes of melodic and cultural source material. In a bit of coded intrigue, Guitarmy of One’s song titles all contain the word ‘one’ buried in them. Some songs are dedicated to singular heroes of the genre: the ominous riffage of “Perry Mason Exoneration” and the moody, Eastern-Euro tinged spy rock of “Emma Bella Citronella,” an homage to Emma Peel of The Avengers. Other songs conflate multiple titles and characters, leaving a referential riddle for the listener: the shimmering, tuneful “Overtones of Hercule and Holmes,” the brash and driving album opener, “I Spy the Prisoner.”
Described by The Big Takeover as “an accomplished ex-punk who has made the striking transition to atmospheric soundtracks,” Helland weaves his mysterious and generous acoustic-electric melodies over propulsive spy riffs and electro beats, layering and building patiently toward engrossing payoffs.
Helland hasn’t ditched his punk roots altogether though, still going strong in Euro-American acoustic alternative, post-punk cabaret duo Frenchy and the Punk, with Samantha Stephenson. He’s also been keeping up with J Mascis in an all-covers band called The Growers, which also features Kurt Fedora (guitar), Mark Mulcahy (vocals) and Don McAulay (drums).
“About 70% of these songs were written over the last few months during this pandemic,” he says. “Engulfing myself in the writing process has helped me to deal with the strange reality of not being able to tour and play shows, which has been my livelihood for so long. The confusion and uncertainty of this time may very well be what birthed the whole spy theme. It gives me the chance to be serious about being silly, and vice versa.”
Guitarmy of One’s The Spy Detective Collective is due out March 26.