Scott Helman Talks Sketchy Tattoo Excursions And Honesty In Music

Scott Helman performing for a dancing crowd at Songbyrd Music House and Record Cafe in D.C.

Scott Helman is a masterful storyteller, both through his music and his conversations. Prior to his performance at Songbyrd Music House & Record Cafe on December 2, I sat down with the incredibly friendly and animated artist to chat about sketchy tattoo excursions, honesty and morality in music, and why he didn’t study music in art school.

I noticed you have a lot of tattoos. I have a couple myself, and I’m always curious as to what inspires people to get certain pieces. Do you have a favorite one, or one that means the most to you?

I have a least favorite one…

I couldn’t help but giggle as to how quick Helman was to discuss the exact opposite of what I asked, excited to hear what was to come. 

Scott Helman performing at Songbyrd in D.C.
Scott Helman performing at Songbyrd in D.C.

When I first started getting tattoos I just wanted to [get them], but it became a way for me to remember stuff since I can’t really remember things ever.  I have a lot that I like! 

Looking down at his arms, Helman pointed to a piece on his left arm, continuing: 

I just got this one in London; I typed in #stickandpokeLondon into Instagram and found this DIY collective. They’re all working class twenty-something year olds living in this tattoo studio. You walk in and they’re sleeping on mattresses and the scaffolding; There’s drawings all over the wall.

It just got to a point where I was on tour and it felt like I was doing the same thing over and over again. I really wanted to just take some risks and do something fucking crazy. I remember walking up to the door and being like, ‘...Fuck. This is really sketchy.'

[Laughs]. Did you go by yourself?

Yeah and it was in East London, like proper working class London. I remember walking in and they all had punk haircuts. They were all the most lovely people. So that was a good memory; it’s kind of like songs that I write, the last ones are my favorite since I’m stoked on them.

Scott Helman performing at Songbyrd in D.C.
Scott Helman performing at Songbyrd in D.C.

How long ago did you get that?

Probably three weeks ago!

Oh! So it’s just finished healing up, nice!

Yep! There was also a night where I was on tour and didn’t have a show that night, so I booked a show with a performer who was a Hasidic Jew. I’m Jewish, so he opened up a book and started reading me all of this Yiddish stuff about facing your fears and breaking through spiritual boundaries.

Scott Helman lighting a menorah with a fan
Scott Helman lighting a menorah with a fan

That was weird because that’s kind of the trip I’m on right now. He taught me this word, ‘Klippah’, which basically means things that keep you from reaching your spiritual truth. So yeah, again, I don’t know, they all kind of…

They all kind of have their own special meaning?

Yeah! One that I don’t like as much is this van maybe. [Laughs]. This was the first van I toured in and I just remember that. Some of them are just meaningless too, it’s little post cards on my body.

I was watching your video for ‘Hang Ups’ and was curious as to how the concept of that came about? It's pretty unique.

I have a really good relationship with the guy who directs all of my videos, which I’m really happy about since videos are hard as fuck to make.

And time consuming right?

Oh yeah, super time consuming! When you start out as a musician you don’t think that’s something you’ll have to deal with. You think you get signed to a major label and people just make it for you. I really had to learn how to put my vision down for how I wanted it to look.

So did the concept come from you or was it more collaborative?

Initially what I wanted to do was have me hanging upside down and dancing on a ceiling. I wanted to be really simple about imagery since this song is a super simple as well. I didn’t want to overdo it and add anything, just have it be a great visual. 

Then we were like, ‘Oh maybe we can build this room’ and it ended up being a super organic process.

How did you film that? It’s so trippy that I can’t figure it out!

There’s a behind the scenes video that you can watch, but basically we built a room that rotated 360 degrees. So I’m walking as the room is rotating; The camera was moving with the room so it looks like I’m going up all over the walls.

As you’ve been alluding to, you’ve been touring quite a bit. Out of all the places you’ve been, have you had a favorite country or venue?

I really like Amsterdam. It’s super chill but people have a lot of passion there. Fans in Europe are very respectful and smart. They’re very in tune with the music, and it’s less of a spectacle.

You go some places and people really want to get a photo and say they were at a place, but in Europe they really want to be a part of the music. It’s less about the status and more about the songs and the lyrics.

Are there less instances of people recording the whole show on their phones?

It depends where you go! In Spain they’re having a crazy good time and have their phones out. Then in Germany they’re very reserved, they listen and then they clap.

Do you have a preference between the two?

No, I don’t actually! Honestly, I think people that bitch about that are a bit jaded and don’t know what it’s like to be so stoked to show your friends that you were somewhere. That’s a huge part of music, showing what you love and care about, so I don’t really mind that.

It does bug me when it’s the whole show...but I don’t really get that; I guess I don’t make music that pertains to that. People come to my shows to hear the songs and be a part of the show.

You know, who am I to decide how someone else enjoys the show?

"I’ve always loved honesty and morality in music more than ‘Check out how many words I can say in a short amount of time.'"

That’s a really good point! It is a bit frustrating when you’re in the audience and someone is recording a Facebook Live the whole show. Outside of that, I don’t think it’s a huge deal.

Yeah, that is frustrating...I’ve had some bad stories of people literally handing me Facebook Live’s and being like ‘Duuude!’ which I actually think is pretty hilarious, so I usually engage and play along with it.

[Laughs]. I think it depends on how much of the show it takes up. 

Part of your tour schedule was the Vance Joy run in Canada and Europe, which was a bit of a new experience for you. Was there anything you learned on that tour that you’ll carry through to other tours?

Well, I’ve been touring for about five or six years. Every tour is different, and what I’ve learned is that it can start to feel like a routine. Wake up, go to the venue, get lunch, soundcheck, play the show...and I don’t want to live like that.

I have to kick myself in the ass sometimes and take know, go to some dingy flat in East London and get a stick and poke. There’s a fine line between that and taking care of yourself. I’m still navigating that.

I was actually just going to ask about that! Self care is one of my favorite topics to chat with artists about. Touring is a lot of airports, buses, long drives, which I imagine is exhausting on your body and your mind. How do you revitalize? games! [Laughs]. I used to get home and drink with my friends until I couldn’t see anymore or do a bunch of drugs. I know that’s my tendency, so I lock myself inside and play video games until I don’t want to play anymore. It’s my substitute for substances I guess.

The hard thing is that it’s usually six or seven of us in a bus or van, with everything else in the world constantly changing. The city you’re in, the venue, the cuisine you’re eating. The only thing that stays the same is the people you’re with.

It’s hard to reinsert yourself into old routines, like talking to your mom after you’ve gone and seen 30 countries in 30 days. That’s a hard thing to navigate and I still don’t really know the answer.

I write a monthly column for DC Music Review about artists who are under the radar a little but who should be on our radar. Who is on your radar right now?

I used to consume a lot of more underground culture because I think popular culture was gross five or ten years ago. I still haven’t quite figured out why I think that but right now what’s really cool is that mainstream music is the best that it’s been for twenty years maybe.

The 1975 is one of my favorite bands right now, and they’re one of the biggest bands in the world. Which I think is so fucking cool because they’re saying things that are really powerful.

They’re been on the radar for awhile though! They got big in 2013 or so.

That’s what I mean though! I don’t feel that I have to look as hard as I used to for bands that I love.

I grew up listening to this guy Pat the Bunny who’s a singer songwriter. He used to write super sad songs about addiction and politics. Then he went through this transformation in the desert with some Republicans or something. He made a record about getting better and healing, called Live The Dream, which I love and I think is a good find.

I’m sad that I just said that because I feel like it was mine. [Laughs]

Laughing, I assured Helman that I wouldn’t write an article about them if he didn’t want that. 

No, no do! I want people to know about them, they’re really cool!

Do you have a musical genre that you tend to gravitate to?

Scott Helman performing at Songbyrd in D.C.
Scott Helman performing at Songbyrd in D.C.

Not really, at least not anymore. I went through all of the phases...I guess I do still go through phases.

I just went through a big 90’s hip hop phase. I was into country for awhile—there’s a really cool thing happening in country right now, where women are on the rise, which I’m super down with. It adds something new to the genre and is making country better.

I just like really good songs, and honest shit. What I like about The 1975 right now is that they’re picking apart how everything people have to do needs to be a little bit ironic, and yeah...sincerity is scary; that’s such a great message.

I’ve always loved honesty and morality in music more than ‘Check out how many words I can say in a short amount of time.'

It’s pretty interesting how The 1975 is doing that now because their first record was poking fun at pop music and was pretty ironic itself. It's been riveting to see how they've grown. 

The cool thing about that is you get to watch an artist grow in such a vulnerable way. To say ‘Wow, I’m full of shit! I’m going to write a record about not being full of shit anymore”. That’s a really hard thing to confront, and I’m much more interested in that.

I was poking around on your Instagram and noticed that you have a film camera. What do you get from that release of creativity? Is it different from writing music?

Scott Helman performing in Washington, D.C.

Well, I had a film camera, I actually lost it. Unfortunately it was a really special one...I don’t even know if I should say this in an interview but my girlfriend's dad gave me this awesome camera and someone stole it.

But I have a bunch of cameras at home—I took visual arts in high school because I didn’t want to study music.

I didn’t like the idea of playing someone else’s songs; I figured if I’m going to go to art school I want to be able to make my own art, not just relay something someone else has already created.

Whenever younger artists ask me for advice, which...they shouldn’t, I always say that it’s important to make sure you have something else that you do artistically that you’re not capitalizing on.

As much as everyone wants to pretend that this other outlet is just for them, they’re still selling their art, which changes your art. I think it’s important to have something that’s just for you.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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About the author

Ana Medvedeva

Fueled by iced coffee, Ana is a web developer by day, and avid concert goer by night. With a music taste as varied as her hair color, she loves bringing a performance to life through the power of words. In her spare time, Ana loves to snowboard, hang out with her cat Mimosa, and nerd out about true crime.