Helmet's Page Hamilton on 20 years of Betty and their studio return

Before Helmet knuckle down to a new studio album this winter, Page Hamilton gets reacquainted with an old friend named Betty

Feature by Dave Kerr | 15 Oct 2014

Two years after taking their major label breakthrough Meantime on a worldwide victory lap, this autumn New York crushers Helmet are dusting down another old acquaintance on its 20th anniversary. Forgoing the minimalism and clinical precision of its predeccesor, Betty was a progressive fusion of hard riffs, wry lyrics, free-jazz improvisation and punishing rhythms with a devil may care attitude; this was the album where Helmet literally found their groove. Founder Page Hamilton reflects on its genesis and warns Glasgow to mark a 'once in a lifetime' gig on the calendar.

This isn't the first time you've embarked on an anniversary tour of this sort. As a concept, did you have any reservations about playing an old album in full? 
For me, a lot of people have been doing this – that’s the bullshit factor, like Bon Jovi performing their Slippery When Wet album or whatever the fuck. At the end of the day, this gives us an opportunity to come over here. It’s difficult for rock bands; I guess it’s a dance music DJ world now. I don’t really follow that scene but they’re getting a hundred thousand dollars a gig and we’re getting five thousand. So we want to play. If there’s ‘a story to tell’, as they say in the music business, then our story is to play this fuckin’ album. I really like doing it, there’s a challenge here in re-learning Betty and a certain discipline that comes with it. I mean, the song Sam Hell hadn’t been played before this tour, and Silver Hawaiian hadn’t been played by this particular lineup. I didn’t realise Helmet fans held it in such high esteem, so that’s been cool.

"My feeling was ‘ach, fuck everybody – I’ve got this great idea for an album with this woman in an English garden on the cover'" – Page Hamilton

Meantime is widely regarded as a true, heavy, genre-crossing classic, but Betty took creative leaps and bounds just a few short years after it. What went right, and what if anything would you go back and do differently?
There might be a line here or there on Betty where I’ll have thought about using a particular word and I’ve backed out. The trip back then was to take this poetic, E.E. Cummings style stream-of-consciousness approach to writing lyrics – that’s just what I was going through at the time. Looking back on it, I wouldn’t have had a co-producer. We did Meantime on our own with our engineer Wharton Tiers who also worked on Strap It On. We were fine back then, we were a self-contained unit and I was essentially the producer. 

Everybody was more interested in the band after Meantime's success. It wasn't on such a massive scale as Nirvana, but we sold 600,000 plus albums, which was a lot for some heavy underground band from New York City. Our label and management all had their ideas, like ‘hey, let’s get clever and work with this hip-hop producer that you liked.’ T-Ray had done some remixes on Just Another Victim and as nice a guy as he was, he was more in the way than he was helping me. The engineers we started with were his, and they just weren’t familiar or comfortable with how to record a heavy rock band. So we ended up switching engineers a couple of times; we brought in Martin Bisi, and then Andy Wallace – thank God – was available to mix it. He dealt with some problems, like tracks that got slammed to tape a little bit and came out with distorted vocals – specifically the song Tic. 

As far as what went right: When we turned in the work, our record label said ‘well, we thought maybe you’d make Meantime II, so we’re surprised by this but we do really like the album.’ I think a rock band should get that kind of rise out of their label – I think you should push forward. The feeling was ‘ach, fuck everybody – I’ve got this great idea for an album with this woman in an English garden on the cover.' It was perfect. Today, I love playing this album live, and in hindsight I think we did the right thing with it. We didn’t want to feel like we’d sold out by simply trying to repeat the success of Meantime. If you don’t step in a few piles of shit along the way you’re probably not trying. If you don’t take risks, you don’t progress for the next time.

Your Meantime date at the Cathouse in 2012 was cancelled at the last minute. Do you have some making up to do with Glasgow, or vice versa? 
I was on the tour bus having a nap, then I woke up and did my vocal exercises, walked upstairs and the place is a pitch black. I’m like ‘what the fuck is going on?’ The bouncer tells me the power went out. I had a great night anyway and ended up dating a girl from Glasgow I met that same day. I even spent Christmas and Hogmanay there; we went to Glen Coe and had a big steak pie. In terms of the show in October, I’m pretty excited about this one. It’s going to be a once in a lifetime thing where we play both albums in one night. I want to start with Betty, play that, then do Meantime in reverse sequence. It makes a lot of sense to start with Role Model and end with In the Meantime.

The band’s crossover appeal was a phenomenon from the start, when you consider that Helmet’s earliest champions ranged from the BBC’s John Peel to Phil Anselmo from Pantera. Have you ever been stunned by a superfan?
Some of the guys I grew up listening to – that’s always shocking, like Elton John or Gene Simmons. I first met David Bowie at a festival in Germany in 1997 and he says ‘I love Helmet.’ I’m just stood there laughing, like, ‘Yeah, right.’ I ended up playing in his band. Playing with David Bowie – no one’s going to tell you that isn’t cool! It was fuckin’ amazing; he was pretty rad. As I was writing Betty, my vinyl copy of Aladdin Sane lived by my bed. I’d lay back and read lyrics before I went to sleep and that was the album for me. It’s a masterpiece. Working with Bowie was a huge high point. But I told him from the start: I’m not really a guitarist, I’m more of a shit sculptor. 

Which of Helmet's seven albums to date do you regard as the most perfect distillation of the band?
There's two. I'd say Strap It On, because it was our first album and there was just an excitement about having found these guys who were like-minded and committed to this thing. I love that album. Seeing Eye Dog came after all this shit I’d been through – all the lies that were written. I was at peace, had a bunch of guys on-board that I enjoyed working with – again. It all felt comfortable. I’m not wild about the album cover but I like the music a lot.

Is there new material on the horizon? According to the internet, you have over 70 songs ready...
Yeah, that was a miscommunication with a journalist when I told him about how many songs from the catalogue we have rehearsed. It's funny, I’ll be reading Rolling Stone and see some band saying something ludicrous like ‘we’ve written a thousand songs’ and it’s like, ‘Yeah, but do we wanna hear ‘em?’ How can you feel good about them all? I’m such a control freak that it’ll take me a long time just to get one out. I’m very slow like that – try to work very methodically. I have new songs written and after this tour I’ll be writing away in January and February. I’ve taken care of a film project I was working on so now I can focus on Helmet again – we’re shooting for next summer to get an album out. 

Helmet play Glasgow Cathouse on 29 Oct and Manchester Sound Control on 30 Oct. http://www.helmetmusic.com