The Helltones’ bright, lively sound combines jazz, R&B, doo-wop, surf music and other diverse elements with the deeply felt lyrics of main songwriter, singer and band leader Darwin Siegaldoud. The band’s uplifting music contradicts their foreboding name.
“I like bands with ‘tones’ in their name,” Siegaldoud said. “It tells you the music’s going to be retro sounding. I also wanted something darker, that reflected the kind of pain that was happening to me as the band was forming. The music isn’t always hellish; it can be pretty soft sometimes. It’s more like we were in hell, trying to escape through the power of doo-wop.”
The band’s new album, Medusa, will be released online this Friday. The title doesn’t directly relate to the music, but has a broader context.
“Medusa’s story has a TV reality-show quality,” Siegaldoud said. “Poseidon seduces a mortal woman in the temple of Athena, who takes offense and punishes the woman by turning her into a Gorgon. It’s a cool-sounding name, with a lot of powerful, feminine connotations.”
He continued, “These songs have a more positive, romantic vibe than the songs on our last album, Lazarus. That one was written after some catastrophe life shit. I had a terrible breakup, got kicked out of my partner’s house and was living in my rehearsal studio, a windowless box in West Oakland. It sounds darker, ’cause I was feeling like an unlovable nightcrawler. I’m in a good relationship now, so there are a lot of love songs.”
The band members work together in various capacities to produce their music.
“I’m also co-writing with other band members, with world-music rhythms coming into the arrangements,” Siegaldoud said. “When we’re getting ready to record, I usually have a demo that’s about halfway done. There are sections missing and we’ll finish them cooperatively, adding and subtracting parts, working out the arrangements.”
He added, “We cut the basic tracks live, with Cairo [McCockran] on drums, Shane [Lawton] on bass, two rhythm guitars—me and Nathan [Moody]—and Victoria [Sepe] on organ. We’re in one room, looking at each other, getting that communal, rhythmic feel you only get live. The vocals, guitar solos and overdubs were done at my home studio, with harmonies by Victoria and Kristin McReddie.”
Medusa draws heavily on themes from the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s, with the band adding their own timeless feel. “When We’re Moving” has the sound of an R&B oldie from Memphis. Siegaldoud’s vocal suggests Al Green and Sam Cooke, as he woos a lover with the support of Sepe’s gospel-flavored organ. The band dips into folk with “Don’t You Worry,” a quiet love song with fingerpicked acoustic guitars, a mellow bass line and McCockran’s subtle snare accents.
Sepe’s merry-go-round organ and Siegaldoud’s surf/blues guitar open “You Oughta Know.” It’s a Nathan Moody tune that he sings in a high tenor, describing the comfort of a long-lasting relationship. The lyrics are a list of clichés, turned inside out and given a new warmth.
“Our songs have a sincerity that’s difficult to find in a lot of modern music,” Siegaldoud said. “A lot of bands are drenched in irony, which is cool, but I prefer sincerity, with a sense of humor.”
Siegaldoud grew up in Los Olivos, California, hoping to follow his father into the field of graphic arts.
“My dad was a painter, a fine artist,” Siegaldoud said. “He taught me how to draw at a young age. I aspired to be just like him. I took guitar lessons and learned ‘The Peter Gunn Theme’ and ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ but didn’t understand the connection between music and emotion. Then, I heard Nirvana’s Nevermind and was moved to tears. Neil Young’s Harvest inspired me to write songs. I started a garage band, Baby at Sea, in our actual garage, but the neighbors kept getting mad at the noise. We played one gig and broke up.”
“Around that time, my cousin Charlie convinced me to buy Experience Hendrix, a Jimi Hendrix compilation,” he continued. “I played it once and didn’t get it. The next morning, I played it again and it completely blew my mind. His guitar sounded like liquid. I wanted to be able to make that kind of sound.”
After graduating from high school, Siegaldoud set out to explore the world.
“My mom is Ashkenazi and suggested life on a kibbutz,” he said. “I had no idea what that meant, but I liked that it was far from my home. I lived in a communal house in Kiryat Ata [a city in Israel], with Josh Goldenberg and Lee Ganceman, from Calgary and Toronto. Josh is a finger-style guitar player and taught me a lot of Johnny Cash and John Prine songs. Lee played jazz and taught me the basics of recording. Jamming with them, I learned more than I ever did taking lessons.”
When Siegaldoud left the kibbutz, he moved to Oakland.
“I had buddies that moved here,” he said. “I wanted to study recording at SAE Expression in Emeryville, but only stayed about a year. They had a gear fetish, as if having a good mic and compressor was all you needed to make good music. I wanted to play with feeling, so I started playing in a punk band called Youth In Asia, with guys from Baby at Sea that were now living up here.”
The band changed members and became Butch Nasty & the Blackout Kids.
“That band lasted about three years,” Siegaldoud said. “We made an album and two EPs before two of the guys became heroin addicts. One of the songs on Medusa, ‘Mike and Laura,’ is about that downward spiral. I could see the end of the band coming, so I started a new group that morphed into the Helltones. The current lineup has men and women who play everything: jazz, folk, Latin music, blues, funk, you name it. If it feels good, we’ll play it.”
The Helltones’ albums can be found on their Bandcamp page: thehelltones.bandcamp.com. Catch them live at 8pm this Friday at the Ivy Room, 860 San Pablo Ave., Albany, 510.526.5888. Also at The Winter Formal, a benefit for the Alameda Food Bank, at 7pm on Friday, Dec. 15, at The Stork Club, 2330 Telegraph Ave., Oakland, 510.859.8709; and at a New Year’s Eve Party at the Starry Plough, 3101 Shattuck Ave. Berkeley, 510.997.5819.