Helen’s Closet forges identity

SALEM – There’s a new name and a harder edge to the music, but the four-man band now known as Helen’s Closet experienced the same feelings of brotherhood they had as the original Sector 7, right from the first note.

“The chemistry of this quartet is something that instantly came back when we had one practice,” guitarist Scott Erskine said. “We had a lot of hours together.”

Erskine, bassist/background vocalist Tom Hlavcak, lead singer Kurt Conkle and drummer/percussionist/vocalist Brian Whitehill return to the local stage at 9:30 p.m. Nov. 27 at the Heritage Inn on Fourth Street.

That’s where they’ll debut Helen’s Closet and their unplugged alter ego Deniable Me, eight years since the four of them last performed together.

Whitehill, who recently started his own business consulting firm and serves as a Salem City Councilman, used to play in the band Night Moves with Hlavcak. Wanting to play more modern rock, they left to form Sector 7 with Conkle and Erskine. The focus was going to be modern rock and new releases, then they started reaching back and playing more classic rock.

Whitehill left the band at the end of 2005. Three years ago, he and Hlavcak starting talking about doing something new.

“I wanted to play a harder rock type show, try some songs we had not done before that we liked,” he said, from bands like Creed, Tesla, Motley Crue and Daughtry. “Some different songs, some challenging songs and not songs that every bar band is playing.”

He had a lot of ideas in his head and a vision for the new group. He talked it over with Hlavcak and then they got Erskine and Conkle on board.

“When we play, I want it to be more like a concert,” Whitehill said, with Erskine adding he agrees with that concept.

To that end, they plan to open for themselves with an acoustic set as a different identity called Deniable Me, sort of a play on words to be the opposite of Conkle’s previous band, Inflatable You, plus they’re denying the power of the plug by going acoustic.

“It’s a chance for us to get artistic with the music,” Whitehill explained.

During the acoustic set, they’ll play a wide variety of music with everything from Seger, Mellencamp and Kansas to Green Day and Goo Goo Dolls.

Then they’ll change their wardrobe and return as Helen’s Closet for two sets of hard rock’n music which will include the bands mentioned previously, like Daughtry and Motley Crue. The concert will include a light show and big production sound system.

As for the name Helen’s Closet, there’s an interesting story on the origin. Whitehill came up with the idea after a ghost hunt tour at the old Ohio State Reformatory in Mansfield. The prison closed several years ago, but remains a historical destination and museum where movies like Shawshank Redemption and Air Force One filmed scenes.

The prison had been the site of the state’s death chamber but had its share of suspicious deaths, including the wife of the prison’s superintendent. Her name was Helen and she died in 1950 after reaching for a box in a closet. A loaded gun fell off the shelf and discharged, critically injuring Helen, who then died. The rumor was that the superintendent shot her himself. Part of the legend is that visitors have smelled perfume in her area during ghost hunts.

All four members of Helen’s Closet have played in other bands and also have experience as musicians with some national acts when they performed in the area, such as Donnie Iris, Michael Stanley and the Resonators, Bret Michaels, The Fixx and Warrant.

Erskine previously played with Catch 22 and Misc. Debris and Hlavcak played with General Forces, the former house band for the Tap Room, a former Salem night spot. All four have wives and children and Conkle even has grandchildren. A graduate of Crestview High School, he lives in New Waterford and works in the parts department of R & R Mack in Austintown.

Hlavcak, Erskine and Whitehill all live in Salem and graduated from Salem High School. Hlavcak is a machinist at Grayfin Mfg. in Leetonia. Erskine works as a graphic artist at MPI Labels in Sebring and also teaches guitar at Price 2 Sell Music in Salem. Hlavcak left Sector 7 for a previous job which required him to be on call 24/7. He had gone over two years since playing in a band.

“I missed it. I missed playing with these guys,” he said.

He described what they had as a brotherhood. Whitehill said they had a comfort zone while playing and now they’ve recaptured that and they’re hoping to recapture their former fan base and get people talking.

Since coming back together, they’ve been practicing their music and working on the business side of having a band, such as photos, graphics, T-shirts, a back drop for the stage and social media.

T-shirts and window stickers will be available at the debut show and they have a Facebook page at Helen’s Closet Band. They have a lot of shows in the works.

“We’re putting a lot of time and effort and energy into this,” Whitehill said.

Both Hlavcak and Erskine said they’ve never worked this hard for a band. A lot of family and friends are geared up for the show and members of the band are excited. They’re going to have some fun and offer people something a little different, Whitehill said. “We want to give people a reason to come to see us.”