Q&A: Page Hamilton of Helmet Talks Guitar Symphonies, Hippie Rock Bullshit and Possible Band Names
Sure enough, Helmet did find a way to combine punk's DIY spirit with the technical roar of metal, and the band was rewarded when its sophomore effort, Meantime, reached No. 68 on Billboard's top 200 in 1991.
It looked as if Helmet was on the verge of a Nirvana-like rise to stardom, but such was not to be. Four years later, Hamilton and the rest of the band were barely speaking to one another and the plug was mercifully pulled.
Then, in 2004, Hamilton decided to launch Helmet again with three new bandmates. The resulting albums, Size Matters and Monochrome, featured the same kind of propulsive, angular riffing that made the band's reputation so strong the first time around. Only now, there wasn't the buzz.
So now Hamilton has gathered a third group of players to carry on the Helmet legacy. Seeing Eye Dog, the recently issued seventh album released under the Helmet moniker, is another gloriously loud and technically impressive set of punk/metal anthems. From a tour stop in Baltimore, Page Hamilton took some time to talk about the past and future of Helmet, in advance of the band's stop at The Loft on Sunday night.
Read the full Q&A after the jump.
It's been 20 years since Helmet's debut, Strap it On, was released. How has your songwriting and guitar playing changed over the last two decades?
I think, back then, I was very determined not to have any kind of narrative in a song. I thought the singer-songwriter thing was so cheesy. I was into my little punk rock thing. I didn't want to be a pretentious singer-songwriter. Now, there are some narratives. It's not like Sinatra or anything, but it's there. I always liked just listing a collection of images. When I first broke up Helmet, I talked about not playing guitar any more, maybe doing that computer, keyboard and synth type of thing and writing orchestral compositions. Luckily, I was talked out of that. I think most musicians expand upon what they do. I was so determined early on to not sound like anyone else. That approach stayed with me. It was my approach and my guitar playing.
Back in the day when you were in, Band of Susans, did you ever play with guitar symphony composer Rhys Chatham?
Yes, I played with Rhys. I played with Glenn Branca first. Glenn and Rhys have this unfortunate, contentious, competitive relationship. I think they both admired each other but Glenn didn't like Rhys as a person. The other members of Band of Susans were in the Rhys Chatham camp and, when I auditioned for Glenn Branca, they were upset with me. I said that was bullshit. I am one of the only guitar players to play with both of them. Sonic Youth was another band in the Glenn world. It was all this East Village, New York City, hippie rock bullshit and I never wanted to participate in that. I am into the music. I was never into the political shit. Glenn was more of an influence on me than Rhys.
Helmet's music has been labeled alternative metal, noise rock, post hardcore and groove metal. Do any of those mean anything?
I don't think they mean anything. But I am happy and proud that there is no easy way to categorize Helmet. We've played big metal festivals with Slayer, Motley Crue, Kiss and Sabbath. The same year, we would end up on the Warped tour with Rise Against. I don't think we fit in with any of it. Some guy said we were like Metallica mixed with Prong. I like that. I don't concern myself with it very much. If someone asks me, I just say we play rock music.
When you decided to form a new band in 2004, was there a lot of pressure to again call it Helmet?
There was no pressure. I was kind of floundering around. I had this side project called Gandhi. Ultimately, it was a difficult decision, but I don't really care what we called it. I had a conversation with Jaz Coleman of Killing Joke, one of my heroes, and he asked me why would I work so hard to build this brand name and throw it out because some guys didn't want to play with me anymore. I thought he was right. It was my band. I formed it. I wrote the songs. I felt like I had the rug pulled out from under me the first time. I was never pressured to call it Helmet. I wanted to do it. I am comfortable calling it Helmet.
I know many people were surprised when you played on Joe Henry's Trampoline album. How did you get hooked up with him?
We had the same management at the time. Joe was trying to get away from that alt-country/folk-rock thing that he was lumped in with. He was trying to expand what he does. Playing with him was great. Joe was excited by my guitar playing, and it was a fun challenge to play in that style. I was there to serve the songs and the simplest thing could have the most weight. Some people want super chops, but I am not a super clean guitar player. With me, you get my personality. Some people don't want that. Joe was really open. I thought the album turned out great. It's my favorite album of his and not just because I played on it.
When you formed Helmet, was one of the possible names really Tuna Lorenzo?
That was one. I forgot about that one. Poly Orchids was another one. There were a lot of stupid names. It's hard to find a good name. Thank God we didn't use that. Some guy suggested we call ourselves Ah, the Smell of it. We had all kinds of bad band names.
When you broke up Helmet in 1998, you said, "Nine years, 1,600 shows, five albums, and we found it hard to look at each other anymore." If that's the case, are you going to change personnel every few years?
I am really happy with the lineup right now. We're still breaking in a young guy, Dave Case. He's kind of still learning his role. He's a really good kid. He's got a good heart and he's a great player. We're trying to create a great personal relationship. It's all about getting better. It's hard for people at first. Some players take things the wrong way. It's up to me to communicate better.