Courtesy of Chris Campbell
Though Columbus has become an oasis in which amateur musicians can grow, the density and diversity of underground acts can make it difficult for any one band to get the exposure it needs to thrive.
But in a veritable jungle rife with hundreds of other bands competing for attention, The Helionauts — so named for the ill-fated flight of Icarus in Greek mythology — have set their sights for the sun.
The Helionauts are scheduled to play at Bernie’s Bagels & Deli at 9 p.m. Friday.
With bright guitar riffs and unhinged vocals from frontman Adam Brandt overlaying an energetic, complex bass line from Chris Moebius and upbeat, resonating drums from Jeff Earl, The Helionauts have crafted a sound that is as buoyant as it is bluesy.
“We try to keep our goofy character about ourselves, not try to be too serious about the music and be more lighthearted with the shows,” said Brandt, a 2010 Ohio State alumnus.
Earl said the band’s ease on stage is a direct reflection of the members’ close friendship, which had not always been the case for him in previous bands.
“When we started to do music it was like hanging out … not like a job,” Earl said. “There’s no human aspect to (some other bands’) lives.”
Their stage presence is infectiously amicable, and the band members’ jovial attitude persists through evocatively intimate lyrics carried by Brandt’s eccentric voice, which is reminiscent of Adam Duritz of the Counting Crows.
“We’re becoming really good storytellers,” Brandt said. “I write a lot of songs about … people I know and people I met telling me their stories and their conflicts in an upbeat way.”
Though The Helionauts have seemingly rooted themselves in a sound heavily informed by alternative rock bands such as The Kooks and Red Hot Chili Peppers, the members said their style is constantly growing.
“Anyone can learn a riff and play a song how it’s written, but it’s so sterile sounding usually,” Earl said.
“Every time we play our songs, they always progress,” Moebius said.
“We’re very fertile here,” Brandt joked.
Moebius cited bassist Jaco Pastorius for his notion of the ethereal and dynamic nature of music.
“He had a quote that said, ‘There’s nothing human about music, it’s pulled from the air,'” Moebius said. “There’s really nothing human about music.”
But even as the band strives to perfect its budding sound, that is only half the battle. For The Helionauts, there is work to be done beyond the stage if they want their dreams to take flight.
Though sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll is the cliché mantra for the classic musician lifestyle, life outside the spotlight for The Helionauts requires a delicate balance of school, work and sleep — all while chasing stardom.
“We just cut out sleep,” said Earl, who works as a billing representative at American Electric Power and attends classes full time as a business management major at Ohio Dominican University.
“It does take a lot of time management. Juggling class work and work-work and band work — it takes some thinking about it,” Earl said.
Moebius, who works as a custodian at Our Lady of Peace Catholic School in Clintonville and attends Columbus State Community College part time as an automotive technology major, said the busy schedule easily becomes overwhelming.
“I have to put a lot more effort into making myself do things,” he said.
Receiving pay for the shows the band plays is not a sure thing, forcing members to hold down side jobs while they work toward bigger shows and bigger crowds that come with bigger paychecks.
At venues such as Skully’s Music-Diner and Scarlet and Grey Cafe, the fee for the sound technician working the show is taken out of the money made off cover charges before the band members get a cut.
While the fee is often about $50, slow nights and sparse crowds can leave the band without a dime.
Earl said it can be disheartening “when you get up on stage and there’s one guy in the back clapping, but he’s really just watching TV.”
“Every band is going to have sparse shows, it’s just a given,” Moebius said. “We’re just in that stage right now.”
Building a consistent audience often requires even more investment. While the band uses merchandise such as T-shirts to build a name, getting its music onto a CD and into fans’ hands requires studio time.
Though crowds can range from less than a dozen to 40 or 50 people, thin crowds do little to dampen The Helionauts’ determination.
Brandt, who works as a brewing manager at Anheuser-Busch, said the band members draw much of their support from the people around them.
“We definitely have strong support all around us,” Brandt said. “Our family and our friends are pretty freakin’ sweet … I’m pretty grateful,” he said.
Moebius said his greatest boost comes from the crowd.
“It’s almost like the applause and cheering and dancing is satisfaction enough for all the hard work we put in. Everything else is a bonus,” he said.
Even while they send their hopes soaring toward the sun, the band members know that their dreams are dangerously suspended on wings made of wax.
“To be successful, you’re going to have to give up everything,” Brandt said. “You get f—ed over for chasing this hopeless dream.”
But all the risk becomes worth it, when the reward — however unlikely — is so great.
“At the end of the song when the crowd is going crazy and you realize that they’re clapping at something you created … there’s nothing better than that,” Earl said.