In Interview: Helmet's Page Hamilton
Resurrected by the Zeitgeist, burned by label politics and abandoned by a dozen band members – a battle-hardened <b>Page Hamilton</b> is determined to keep <b>Helmet</b> alive
Formed in New York as the 80s bled into the 90s and grunge began to percolate, Helmet made music that bridged the gap between the simultaneous waves of punk, hardcore and metal that crashed against the mainstream floodgates. Eschewing instrumental intricacies and melodic focus for a considerably more primitive, no bullshit approach to their riffs and rhythms, the band were more streamlined and direct than Nirvana and their Seattle brethren.
By the time their second album – and major label debut – Meantime dropped in '92, a burgeoning fanbase turned on by this influx of all that is hard 'n' heavy had coalesced around the band and their ironically titled MTV hit (Unsung), granting modest success to say the least. People began to take notice of their punishing, mechanical breakdowns, and many took notes.
"I hear it all over the place," says vocalist/guitarist Page Hamilton of his group's prevailing influence today. "Kids today have no idea at this point, because they got into, say, Korn, System Of A Down... I've heard Helmet riffs in Evanescence."
But it's not like he doesn't understand why. "Because it's thematically strong," he asserts, before impersonating an atypically chunky riff. "It's just a musical thing; anybody can use it in any context. It would sound great orchestrated; it would sound good in a pop song, so it's just a kind of vocabulary.
"Bands like Mastodon and Norma Jean tell me ‘oh, we ripped you guys off with this,’ or ‘we got turned on by that.’ Some bands do cool things with it, and there's a bunch of shitty bands that have imitated us too. But there's nothing quite like Helmet."
As interpersonal tensions and line-up changes began to take their toll on the chemistry (drummer John Stanier would bitterly summarise his time with the band as "four years and a bunch of crap"), just as general mainstream attention was beginning to quieten down; the band eventually met their somewhat untimely end in 1998, shortly after touring fourth album Aftertaste.
The remaining members went their separate ways – Stanier moonlighting as a hip-hop DJ before founding Tomahawk and Battles, whilst bassist Henry Bogdan became lap steel guitarist for hire – as Hamilton himself kept busy, performing in film scores (Heat being the most notable), playing sessions for David Bowie and picking up a side-project dubbed Ghandi in the intervening years. But, after nearly five years, he was spurred on to salvage the wreckage and start again, culminating in two albums – the hefty Size Matters and relatively sparse Monochrome – released in fairly quick succession in 2004 and 2006 respectively.
"I had the Ghandi band in New York with a bunch of friends and it was hard to maintain it because I couldn't afford to pay them what they were getting in their other groups," reasons Hamilton. "So when I got back out to the west coast, Jimmy Iovine at Interscope asked me to make a Helmet record, which was nice because it meant I’d have money to make a record rather than it coming out of my pocket. So it was easier to put a band together.”
Enlisting former Helmet touring guitarist Chris Traynor, Anthrax bassist Frank Bello and White Zombie’s John Tempesta on drums for the project, Hamilton went about reconstructing the music he had. "The songs I was writing at the time weren't that un-Helmety,' he elaborates, "but there were a lot of keyboards and strings going on that I had never done in Helmet before, so I just scrapped that and rearranged some of the Ghandi songs for two guitars, bass and drums."
As Helmet v.2 embarked on a world tour, more lucrative commitments began to lure members away on a fairly regular basis, rendering the band a revolving door business. Fast-forward to the present day, and after surviving some grisly business with short-term label Warcon surrounding their last full-length release, a battle-hardened Hamilton remarkably finds himself on album number seven, Seeing Eye Dog.
"I knew I was going to make a record," he says with confidence. "I mean, I wanted to make a record, but it took some time because we got burned by the last record company – so I was a little bit gun-shy. That had never happened to me before, my relationships with [previous labels] Amphetamine Reptile and Interscope were both excellent, respectful and they were men of their word.
"It's a really bad feeling,” he confesses. “You write your songs and they go out there to the world, you fulfil your end of the bargain or the contract or whatever and [the label] just go 'Hey, we're going bankrupt. Sorry, but we can't pay you, and we're going to hold onto this for a while cause we're making some money off it.’ And that's what happened." Hamilton adds, almost nonchalantly: "So it's been a pretty lean couple of years for me and I’m in debt right now because I paid for this album with my credit card and my manager’s good faith.
"Once I was clear last summer I sat down for a couple of months and just started writing songs, and it came together. I felt very comfortable and confident. I think you reach that point where you just do your thing."
A trained jazz guitarist, producer, composer and session player, Hamilton still has his fair share of extracurricular activities to divvy up his time between. In the face of so many changes, particularly the personnel department, it’s a curious thought that Hamilton stands so firm in his resolve to battle on with a band that has already tasted the peak of its success. The answer to any possible questions on his motivation appears to be pretty straightforward.
"I'll continue to do it, because I was really missing it,” says Hamilton. “There was that period there where I didn't do anything. I really missed this form of musical expression, there's nothing like it. There's no music like it. It's very true to itself. I've stayed true to the vocabulary and have tried to expand upon it, I guess, in a natural way."
Seeing Eye Dog certainly continues in the same vein, if not entirely as brawny, with Hamilton flexing his compositional muscle throughout. Though those riffs, the Helmet patent, are present and correct, there's been something of a maturing period over this last stretch. But Hamilton suggests it's more an evolution than a reinvention.
"Every day you live your life, you work on your guitar, you work on your singing, you read books – you have more life experiences. So theoretically, as a musician, you should grow and things are going to progress. But to take a complete left turn and try to reinvent yourself is more of a self-conscious approach, and that works for some people."
Overall, despite the band's influence on the contemporary metal landscape, and very little of the original group remaining intact today, it seems Hamilton is in no hurry to shut it down just yet.
"I don't feel the need to disband or discontinue Helmet, cause everybody knows that I formed the band from scratch with an ad in Village Voice or, if they don't know that, they know I write the songs and play the guitar and do the arrangements. It's my band, y'know?"
Helmet play The Cathouse, Glasgow on 17 Dechttp://www.helmetmusic.com