Helmet were one of few prominent hard rock bands of the ’90s to elude me. Beyond their crushing cover of Björk’s Army Of Me and general awareness of their influence on subsequent divergences in the realm of chunky, riff-heavy metal, I was in the dark.
So when I was asked last minute to talk to founder Page Hamilton in advance of a new Helmet album, Seeing Eye Dog, in 2010, I didn’t expect it to go so well – or for him to talk so much. But I had a great time talking to him, and while he didn’t know who I was or even care really, he treated me like I was anyone else he’s ever met and answered every question I had without assuming I knew everything but also without playing it down or patronising me.
We must’ve spoken for almost an hour, which made the process of transcribing the conversation pretty grueling, but he gave me such great answers and was so funny and genuinely interesting that it wasn’t a total bore to rifle through it all again.
The majority of this didn’t actually make it into the final article because it was more of a feature article rather than an interview piece, so much of this has never actually been seen before. It ends abruptly because I think by that point I already had what I needed and figured it wasn’t necessary to churn it all out to the letter. However, I have since been unable to find the original recording so I kind of wish I had just stuck it out, for the sake of documenting it fully. Still, despite that, I think it’s a pretty fun read.
You can see the resulting feature article here.
(Interview – Autumn 2010)
There’s been a number of line-up changes in Helmet over the years, particularly since returning to action in 2004 – what prompted you to return then, and is it the same thing keeps you going today?
Page Hamilton: I had the Gandhi band in new york with a bunch of friends that I knew and it was hard to maintain it because I couldn’t afford to pay them what they were getting in their other groups. Matt (Flynn) ended up playing with the B52’s and he’s with Maroon 5. 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 would have some money to make a record rather than it coming out of my pocket. So it was easier to put a band together. Jon Tempesta had just left (White) Zombie and he wanted to do something and was a huge Helmet fan. The songs I was writing at the time weren’t that un–Helmet-y, but there were a lot of keyboard things and strings going on that I had never done in Helmet before so I just scrapped that and re-arranged some of the Gandhi songs for two guitars, bass and drums.
I would lose guys pretty much for economic reasons. With Tempesta, he moved onto The Cult and Frank (Bello) played in Guns ‘n’ Roses. So these guys are making billions of dollars on these other gigs, which is cool. I always tell a guy to go if you need to go. Our front of house guy is doing that Gavin Rossdale or Bush or whatever tour so he’s not going on tour with us in September. I always tell everybody, I don’t take it personally. “If you can match my $2800 a week salary I’d be happy to stay”. Nah, I won’t be doing that, so I let them go.
The fortunate thing is that a lot of musicians like Helmet. So, I usually have a lot of people that are ready to audition. I’ve been really lucky in that way. Rather than just go “well this guy’s good enough” I’ll have like, six drummers come in and I’ll play with them all and pick the best one and work it out with him. That’s how I ended up with Kyle (Stevenson). And it’s kind of been the case with every other member I’ve had. Sometimes personal differences or musical things crop up and I think it’s time to move on. That’s just totally common, I’m pretty straightforward with the guys. I mean, from day one I was like that with my Helmet guys. I just said: “just cause we’re in a band doesn’t mean I need to put your kids to college”. You know, you gotta do your work and keep up.
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? Jeff Cohen (that’s what it sounds like, it was too murky to make out. I’m not sure who that is unless he’s meaning chunk from the Goonies!) was one person that said to me “You’re Helmet. You don’t spend all these years building this thing up and then just stop doing it”, when the band broke up, the first time. I was thinking that at the time when were talking about breaking up in the late-nineties and I totally dig where he was coming from. It’s part of my musical personality so there was no reason to not do it.
Did you feel you had unfinished business?
PH: I’ll continue to do it because I was really missing it. There was that period there where I didn’t do anything. I was writing things and learning about the computer – the Nine Inch Nails guys had turned me on the idea of working with a computer. So I was learning all that stuff and messing around with a Kurzweil sampler, which was fun. Then I had the David Bowie gig, and was working on movies; I started producing little bands here and there and it was all great, I loved it, but I really started to miss Helmet. I really missed this form of musical expression, there’s nothing like it. There’s no music like it. There’s a bunch of shitty bands that have imitated it but there’s nothing like Helmet. For people that are into it, they get that. 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.
Every day you live your life, you work on your guitar, you work on your singing, you read books, you have more live 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. I know Manson, Marilyn Manson, his things are very image-driven, obviously, and my whole thing isn’t at all – I have no image. I had a record company guy ask me if I would change my image many many years ago, and I just kind of looked at him like “what are talking about?! No, I’ve never thought about changing my image, what is my image?!” It’s just about music and at this point if people don’t like what I do or what this band is, it’s their deal, I’m not going to worry about it, it’s not anything I can concern myself with.
In your head do you separate the two main periods of Helmet or, considering you’ve been the only constant, do you count it all as just one prolonged run of the same band, I mean, is it still a band?
PH: Absolutely, yeah. If you see a show, there are people, say someone that’s 25 years old; unless they were a superfan, they wouldn’t be able to tell you that ‘Sea You Dead’ was written in 2003 or 1992 I bet. The essential elements are there. I’m the singer, there’s two guitars, and bass and drop-tuning with voicings I’ve worked out over the years and that’s the kind of vocabulary, it’s thematic. I start with a riff, a theme, something I hear and apply to guitar – and would sound great with an orchestra too, these riffs. I’m really just interested in writing great music and words and trying to do something that turns me on, and it’s not for everybody because a lot of music fans, they want to be like that person in that band, and I’m not a fashion maven, unless you wanna wear jeans or sneakers or whatever, y’know?
Do you think much about your influence on people, or perhaps even your relevance today?
PH: I don’t think about it, I mean, I know about it, I hear it all over the place. Kids today have no idea at this point because they got into, say, Korn, Limp Bizkit, System of a Down. I’ve heard Helmet riffs in Evanescence. Because it’s thematically strong (starts impersonating some typical chunky riffs). 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; a lot of people tell me, oh, we ripped you guys off with this, or we got turned on by this and we tried to rip off Helmet and do this thing with it. Some bands do cool things with it and other bands don’t, it’s like anything.
Amongst all these bands who are sort of Helmet disciples, do you think there’s still a draw, for kids these days, to seek out the source material?
PH: I think a lot of kids might be used to autotune, beat detective shitty rock radio music. They’re gonna hear my voice and I don’t do screamo, I don’t do big dog little dog (does a humourous nu-metal impression). It’s not that style of shit, it’s just this guy singing honestly from the heart or whatever. I don’t have a really beautiful sounding voice but there’s dudes with beautiful voices on American Idol that suck shit! What is that whole vocoder autotune thing? That doesn’t move me at all. God bless them it’s great, American Idol’s a huge phenomenon, Americas Got Talent, Britain’s Got Talent, yeah we know, but are they doing anything interesting and unique with it? I would rather hear Iggy Pop or Jim Morrison or The Stones or ACDC or bands that took something… I mean, we all had influences. Jimi Hendrix was influenced by the blues but he’s not a blues guitar player, he’s Jimi Hendrix. Zep’s obviously influenced by the blues but they did their own thing with it and that’s way more interesting to me than everybody doing these white soul histrionic pop songs that are obviously about selling as many fucking rolls of toilet paper as possible. It’s just not my thing.
Do you not think that means there’s a lot more shit to wade through now, so to speak, and perhaps makes it difficult for people to stumble upon Helmet?
PH: I dunno how they’ll discover us, I hope they do, I always do. Obviously I’m not trying to make music for people to not hear, it’s never been about that. But we have a kid working on our website now, an intern guy that was at my manager’s office in New York, and he’s a really good guy. He’s like ‘would you be into other widgets on other bands (sites) that say ‘we’re friends’? No. ‘Would you be into affiliating yourself with the Peta thing?’ No. ‘Would you be into…’ No! He’s like, ‘You really stick to your guns, don’t you?!’ I said ‘I’ve gotta believe in my heart that somehow, people will find the music.’ He told me he’s 21 years old and he knows all these bands like Mastodon and Norma Jean but until he started working for the management company he didn’t know of Helmet and he started reading about bands talking about it, from Pantera to whoever saying nice things about us and he realised the band has this musical legacy and I’ve gotta think curious-minded kids will discover it, and they do.
I lived in a hick town in Oregon so I never heard the Gang Of Four until I got to New York city. But I would seek out jazz records, that was kind of my thing. From 17/18/19 years old, I discovered Miles Davis and Grant Green and through them just sort of extrapolated from it: OK, who’s on Kind Of Blue? Who’s this Coltrane guy, who’s this Cannonball guy, and you just expand. And those are the kids that are gonna get into Helmet. The kid that just wants to have his brain mushed listening to Linkin Park records, that’s fine, that’s awesome man. That’s most of my family. My brother’s boyfriend listens to the shittiest pop radio music and I beg him to turn it off, I’m like ‘Dude this is literally turning my brain into oatmeal, just listening this shit; it’s so bad.’ he’s like “you’re such a music snob!” He, of course has all of Carrie Underwood’s records, and Kelly Clarkston and Clay Aitken, cause he’s like the gay king, for the gay community, they’re very proud of him.
Are they talented? Course they’re talented, yeah. Does what they do move me? Absolutely not. Christina Aguilera on the other hand, she moves me cause she’s got Linda Perry, a great songwriter, writing her stuff. Linda’s got something to say, it’s a whole different thing. I haven’t heard anything in five or six years from her but I own ‘Genie In A Bottle’ and ‘Beautiful’ and ‘What A Girl Wants’, I think those are great pop songs. I’d even rather hear The Backstreet Boys than a lot of this stuff. I think it’s a fine line, that whole world exploded and has gotten so out of control and I think that’s why I thought it was refreshing when Susan Boyle came along. I mean, she’s not hot, in fact, she’s pretty dumpy lookin’ or whatever, but she was confident and humble. Even though she was singing these cheesy songs from Cats, she’s got a great voice. It was kinda like, yeah this is cool, this ain’t the same old shit.
What made you feel compelled to make Seeing Eye Dog?
PH: I knew I was going to make a record, I mean I wanted to make a record. I love making records and I love making helmet records, and when I wasn’t doing it I was missing it. So… this is the third record since I started making records again under the name Helmet. I 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 because my relationships with Amphetamine Reptile and Interscope were both excellent and respectful and they were men of their word. After that I kind of entertained all the offers and talk or whatever. There were several labels or people with money that wanted to give me money and have a piece so I just kinda listened to everything, and I took a couple of years to do some shows with the band and break in the lineup. So let’s just play and I’ll work on this jazz thing, I did a guitar instructional DVD and I did a couple of movies, one with Elliot Goldenthall called Across The Universe and another one called Swat. I just kinda took some time away and was doing some clinics and things and producing a couple of bands, then I kinda felt motivated again to write Helmet songs. We did those two albums in a short period of time, close together, around two years, one came out in ‘04 and one in ‘06.
My manager and I discussed it, he has a little imprint label and we started talking to people about distributing it and then I was like ok, I’m comfortable with this, I can write songs and they won’t be taken from me like Warcon did. They wanted to steal my creative property and make money off it and then not pay me what they’re supposed to pay me. It’s a really bad feeling, I don’t know if you’ve been through anything like that but 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 they 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, so it’s a been a pretty lean couple of years for me and I’m in debt right now because Ii paid for this album with my credit card and my manager’s good faith. So once I was kinda clear last summer I sat down for a couple of months and just started writing songs, and it came together. We tracked it in two chunks, which is kind of another advantage of doing it on your own. We found an engineer here that we liked at the studio so just went to it and did half the songs, then I knew what I needed after I’d written the first chunk. I pulled ‘LA Water’ together which was an old thing that I wrote around the time that I was doing Gandhi and I wrote ‘In Person’ and ‘White City’, and uh….. what else? I can’t remember the exact order, but it was fun. I felt very comfortable and confident. I think you just reach that point where just, do your thing, y’know?
Is your relationship to the music you’re creating today stronger than that of your earlier work?
PH: Well, I’m not embarrassed by anything I’ve done, I mean the Gigantor cover… people come up to me like ‘I love that Gigantor cover’. I mean yeah it was fine and people still tell me how much they love the Bjork cover we did, and I’ve heard a bunch of covers of that song since then. But I mean, every time I go in to record or sit down to write, I’m trying to do something great, I’m not trying to write something I think people will like, or that’ll sell, I just don’t do that. I mean, there are songs I don’t like playing as much live because some of them have too many words or some of them are hard as fuck to sing.
I’m really into this album, it’s fun. We’re gonna be playing everything live off it with the exception of ‘Morphine’. I would have to be rich like Metallica to pull that one off – ten guitar players and an orchestra and guitar leads to do the vocals and a piano player, and the weird synth feedbacks I do with a Moog, this little tone generator kind of thing. It was really fun and it’s something I kinda do on movies. Elliot Goldenthal had talked to me about doing a guitar concerto thing but he’s always so busy making millions of dollars scoring movies and winning academy awards that we’ve never gotten around to it, so I thought “fuck it I’m gonna do a piece on the record that’s kind of representative of that work that I’ve been doing for 15, 18 years or whatever.” The first movie I did with those guys was Heat; I think that was in 94 and I did Titus, In dreams, Final Fantasy; we also did some work on Elliot’s opera and we did The Tempest this last fall.