Interview: Page Hamilton (Helmet)
A funny thing happened when I listened to Seeing Eye Dog, Helmet's new album. As a passionate fan of Helmet's early records, I've been disappointed in their later ones, which sound more radio-friendly, with vocalist/guitarist Page Hamilton exploring vocal ranges beyond his ability. But Seeing Eye Dog is incredibly sophisticated, at least instrumentally. (Hamilton's voice still sounds shot.) It has some of the most gorgeous, interesting guitar playing in heavy music today. The record made me reconsider Helmet's later work not as a departure from, but as an outgrowth of what preceded it. Maybe for, say, Celtic Frost, clunkers like Cold Lake and Vanity/Nemesis were necessary in a progression starting at Morbid Tales and ending at Monotheist. And for Helmet, maybe growing pains were inevitable in the progression from the noisy grit of Strap It On, which turns 20 today according to metal-archives.com, to Seeing Eye Dog. As this interview shows, Hamilton would probably agree.
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You've been doing Helmet for over 20 years. You just finished a US tour and are about to head to Europe. How do you feel about Helmet right now?
I'm feeling pretty good about it. It's really nice to have some time at home after this last tour. It was good, but the last week I was exhausted. We last [extensively] toured a couple years ago. 48 to 50 [Hamilton's age] is a big difference, I guess.
How did you pick Intronaut for the tour?
I thought they were different. We had Bison B.C. for the first half [of the tour], and then Intronaut for the second half in direct support. And they were both so different from Helmet. I pick bands based on that, and if they are musically interesting. I don't think people want to hear the same thing for several hours at shows. I'm really happy with both choices. They really worked out great.
When I hear Intronaut, I hear a lot of Helmet, actually, in the riffing. And some of their harmonic choices probably wouldn't have come about if you hadn't laid the groundwork earlier.
Yeah. But they also have the fretless [bass] kind of thing, and the spacier [feel]. It's less tense. Helmet's so tense. From the beginning of the set to the end of the set, it requires an absolute level of intensity. There's kind of no letup. But Intronaut would have this cool [vibe] where they coast a little bit. It's kind of spacey, Pink Floyd-y.
These kids in Nashville that were in one of the opening bands were standing on the side of the stage before the encore and after the last song of the main set. We walked off the side of the stage, and I had my hands on my knees. I heard the kids talking; we were standing behind them. They said, "I can't believe how they can keep that up for an entire set". I was at that point sucking wind and trying to catch my breath and soaking wet. I'm like, "I know, man" (laughs). I thought to myself, "Geez, this is hard. It's not my imagination. It requires a lot of energy". Helmet's kind of built on that, I realize. There's this tension that it has. It's fun. I guess maybe it's part of my hyper personality.
Do you ever feel limited by Helmet?
Absolutely. But Helmet is specific. I limit it on purpose. I don't have to express all my musical personalities through Helmet. I got my master's degree in jazz guitar. I work on jazz guitar every day. And I listen to a lot of orchestral music. But Helmet - the vocabulary was established in '89 when I formed the band. It's a rock band with drums, bass, two guitars, and a guy singing. [But] I've expanded that. There are backing vocals over the last several records. And the chord vocabulary keeps growing.
If you think about any musician playing Western music, we're all limited to 12 notes in the chromatic scale. If you're writing pop songs, you're going to [do] verse-chorus-verse-chorus-bridge-chorus. There are different ways that we limit ourselves as musicians. [Helmet's limitations] are definitely by design. If I [were to be] Mr. Eclectic and do a hip-hop song, a country song, and a spacey [Pink] Floyd song, it might be kind of crappy.
On the other hand, you did do that. You had that banjo song ["Sam Hell"] on Betty, and you had the hip-hop song.
"Just Another Victim", right?
Yeah, that was kind of interesting. Basically, I wrote a Helmet song, and then House of Pain sampled the riff and rapped over it. We still do our two-minute section of the song live. There's also the jazz thing on Betty, "Beautiful Love". Those were little musical bridges. They were fun. The banjo song could be played on electric guitar. It's still kind of a cool Helmet riff. I always thought of Helmet as [being] kind of bluesy. And "Biscuits for Smut", same thing. It's a guitar tuned down to A, rather than D, C, or B, which are some of the other tunings that I've used. I think it works in the context of Helmet. We don't do those things live really much anymore, although I wouldn't object to it. There's a song on the new album called "Morphing" that's also a bit of a departure. But somebody commented that it still sounds like Helmet, oddly. I think it's [because of] the guitar feedback thing.
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Helmet has gone through a bunch of lineups now. Do you ever wish you could return to the "four guys against the world" model as opposed to the "hired guns" one?
No, those things are out of my control. I do this music because I really enjoy it. It was kind of my brainchild. I formed the band from the ground up with an ad in The Village Voice. When it broke up, it wasn't my choice. I thought we needed to take a year off, since we'd been touring so much and recording. Familiarity breeds contempt, and we needed a break, for sure. But when I was doing the David Bowie gig or working with Elliot Goldenthal or Ben Neill or Joe Henry or all these other things I've been so fortunate do, I was still really, really missing playing the Helmet music, and playing this style of music.
I'm proud of what we did together, and I hope John [Stanier, drummer] and Henry [Bogdan, bassist] are as well, but I'm not going to sit around and grouse about something that I have no control over. They're happy musically, from what I understand. John has a band that people love called Battles. And Henry has a group called The Moonlighters that I think he still maintains, as far as I know. They're both great musicians, and I wouldn't hesitate to do something with them again. I never said I wouldn't. But I don't look back and go, "Man, I wish we could go back to those days" because you can never go back.
How does a jazz guy move into a monolithic kind of music with a drop D tuning that almost strips away tonality, at least in Helmet's early days?
I grew up on Led Zeppelin. That's the band that made me want to play the guitar. I think you can see the roots of Helmet a little bit in a song like "Kashmir", where the band is playing a different time signature from John Bonham. I unconsciously absorbed that as a kid, I guess. I always had this fascination with three against four and seven against four and five against four. "Lazy Afternoon" is a Grant Green recording with Elvin Jones on drums that one of my guitar teachers turned me on to. He said, "Now this is 5/4, and this grooves like a motherfucker". So I always kind of had that unconsciously in me. It comes out in Helmet. I've had great musicians like Danny Kortchmar, the great guitarist and producer, and T.M. Stevens from The Pretenders, and Steve Jordan, who works with Keith Richards, say to me, "Helmet's the only heavy band that swings. You guys really swing. There's a groove to it".
And also, harmonically, Helmet is essentially kind of modal. There's not a lot of chord changes, as you pointed out. It's not about the V to I resolution. It's building tension with the repetitive riff, and then you resolve it with maybe some open chords. And a lot of the chords, especially early on, don't have thirds in them, so the chords sort of become modal open harmonies that are really beautiful. To me, it feels natural. I go between jazz and the Helmet thing pretty comfortably.
It's funny. Some musician friends of mine absolutely get Helmet - most of them, I would say. And there are other friends of mine that are musicians that are kind of confused by the external [trappings]. T.M. Stevens said to me, "Helmet's like a big ball of ice cream, and you bite into it, and there's spinach in the middle". There's a lot of musical meat on the bones, in other words. I never really tried to explain it to people. So many musicians like the band - and I'm talking guys from Gene Simmons, who told me I was the future of music, to Tommy [Lee] and Nikki [Sixx] from Mötley Crüe, and David Bowie and Elton John. A wide variety of people have told me they like the band. I think that they get that there's this other musical mind at work in there. It's not just hardcore, it's not just metal. It's got all these elements in it, but harmonically and feel-wise, it's interesting. I also was friends with the Pantera guys, and Dimebag Darrell said, "I told you you were going to influence me". To me, it's flattering that musicians get turned on by us. I love that.
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"Welcome to Algiers"
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The solo in "Welcome to Algiers" is the most pop-like solo that you've done. How did that come about?
The structure of the song, with the solo at the end, is something I've kind of explored in the past. I had these chord changes at the end, and I had this melody. But I had said what I needed to say [vocally]. And I thought, "Why not have an instrumental kind of thing where I play this melodic part?" But it was kind of boring. And Chris Traynor [ex-Helmet guitarist], who happened to be there that day, said, "Why don't you do that thing where you intersperse the melody that you like so much with some of your noisy, feedback, weird shit?" And a lightbulb went off. It had this Bowie Lodger-era vibe, which is one of my favorite Bowie records. It has this thing where there's a melodic theme and then these noisy things that are part of my style. That's how it evolved.
The title I got from my guitar tech Brandon. We were on the road. He saw these fireworks in Wisconsin. Welcome to Algiers, it was called, this fireworks [store]. So I put it in my little notepad as a potential title or something to explore as a song. A recurring theme with me and with Helmet is American complacency and the fact that we're so isolated from the rest of the world and kind of oblivious.
When Helmet started, its sound was logical for a band coming out of New York at that time. Now that you're based in Los Angeles, has your conception of Helmet changed?
No. When I was younger, I think I needed all the cultural influences that New York forces on you. I lived in a SRO welfare hotel for my first two years there. It was all I could afford. I was in grad school, and New York is a very expensive city. I had a $180/month room at this hotel. So I would hear six or seven languages every day, and the music that goes with it. I was walking to school and studying jazz and hearing music in clubs. I was young and influenceable and soaking up a lot of stuff. I joined Band of Susans and got turned onto a whole another world.
Writing comes down to having something to write about. Your life experiences continue. It's not like I'm sitting around by my guitar-shaped pool with Hustler honeys in lounge chairs and living some life that's going to put me out of touch with things.
I find Los Angeles to be at this point for me a much more artist-friendly city than New York. The rehearsal space we shared with Sonic Youth [in New York] was turned into a Betsey Johnson dress shop and a co-op building. They forced all the musicians out of these buildings. I always said that I wouldn't be a slave to the lifestyle of the city [where] I live. As much as I love New York and I love the pizza, I'm not going to live there if I can't continue my pursuit of music. LA allows me to do that.
Is there any question you wish people would ask you?
There's no question that I wished people would ask me. I never expect to get a free pass. They didn't give David Bowie, Elvis Costello, and John Coltrane a free pass. There are people will criticize what you do and question it. And there are people that are going to take the time and figure it out and give you the benefit of the doubt. You and the last two interviews that I've done - you guys are prepared, and I really appreciate that. I appreciate that you have a knowledge of the music. That's a big thing with me. Some people have no understanding of the music whatsoever. I never set out to be a heavy metal guy or a singer-songwriter or an indie rocker or anything else. I like having the music be judged on its own merits.
Critics and writers that listen to all kinds of music every day won't just say, "You got a million dollar record deal in 1991 and invented nu-metal". I listen to nu-metal, and I see no musical soul whatsoever, that resembles what Helmet is. In fact, a dear friend of mine, Jason Pettigrew from Alternative Press, said, "Didn't Faith No More really invent nu-metal?" I'm, like, "Yes! It's Faith No More. It's not me". Trent Reznor gave me a hard time once. He was like, "You need to fix this. You invented it!" And I'm like, "I did not. They just figured out that it was easier to play in drop tuning, but still none of them can play like us".
To be honest with you, I stopped reading reviews because I don't want to let it come into what I do. I'm genuinely enthused and honest about what I'm trying to do. I never said it was for everybody. It's not. And that's why I think it's has managed to survive 21 years. People that dig it appreciate that it's stayed pretty true to itself. In fact, I was talking to Tommy Victor from Prong the other night. He was playing with Danzig in Dallas. And he said, "You've always stayed so true to your thing. You never wavered. You make progress, but it's natural. We got influenced by the major labels, and we did some shit". It meant a lot to me because I love Prong. We're talking about doing some shows together.
You guys both started in New York around the same time and ended up in LA.
I know, yeah, yeah. He's fucking awesome, man. I love Prong. I was a smart-ass back then, and somebody was talking about Prong when we were on the cover of Flipside or whatever, and I was a little punk rock smart-ass, and I said, "I don't know, whatever, it doesn't do anything for me", and I hadn't even really listened to it. Our drummer liked it, so I was trying to ruffle his feathers. And when I finally checked it out, I was like, "This shit is fucking amazing". Their stuff really holds up. That's the beautiful thing.
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On a personal level, I want to thank you, because your work is profoundly influential on the way I play guitar.
There was a watershed moment - it's your solo in "Milquetoast". It got transcribed in a magazine. I saw it on the page, and you had riffing on the low strings but this solo that was just chords on the upper strings, and I had never seen that before. It was bitonality.
That was a lightbulb moment that still influences the way I play today.
Aw, man. My pleasure - that means a lot, if you turn on fellow musicians. Billy Gibbons said this to me... We had played already, and he came up to me at the side of the stage while they were playing in front of 60,000 people, and he [said], "You know, it's one thing to be playing in front of this big audience. But to have a fellow guitarist on the side of the stage, it really gets me excited and makes me want to play well". This was Billy Gibbons, Jimi Hendrix' favorite guitar player! If we turn on you and other musicians, it really means a lot. You know how much goes into playing and how much discipline is required. I appreciate it.
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Hamilton plays jazz
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