Interview with Page Hamilton from Helmet
Helmet guitarist Page Hamilton has every excuse to be happy. His current incarnation of the 90’s alt-metal outfit are riding high on the back of their Dead To The World album – their first studio outing since 2010 and one widely regarded as a true return to the sound and feel of the classic era of the band – and have been touring the world to enthusiastic audiences playing their iconic 1994 sophomore album Betty in its entirety.
Now, having toured Australia with The Melvins in 2013, Helmet return to Australian shores this April to perform Betty plus another set of new Helmet songs and classics. I caught up with Page to talk
Hi Page, how are you?
I’m good man, just chilling having an afternoon beer!!
So the last time you were out here was for Helmet’s tour with the Melvins. Are you looking forward to coming back?
Absolutely. We didn’t make it to Perth last time so we’re really looking forward to coming over there. Because it’s way out there it’s kind of hard for a band like us to get out there so we’re pretty stoked to be going there and seeing our friend Jimmy Thompson. We’ve got a day off in Perth so we’ll probably head over to his place and barbecue some shit up!
Australian audiences have always had a bit of a love affair with Helmet haven’t they?
I can’t complain you know? I feel pretty lucky that we get to go down there every two, three or four years. A lot of friends of ours in bands who do well in the States have never had the chance to go down there, including bands that we’ve toured with, so yeah we’re very lucky.
And this time you’re performing the Betty album from start to finish. When did you first decide to take the entire album out on the road?
We were finishing up the Meantime tour and we were in England with our booking agent, and he said “what do you want to do? So you want to do a Betty 20th anniversary tour?” and I said “no way man, I don’t wanna be like an oldies band or whatever”. But he went and scouted around anyway and he said “man, the interest is through the roof, bigger than Meantime” so we ended up learning the album and going out on tour with it, and it turned out to be one of my favourite tours to do. So when we were asked to do the Betty show down in Australia, because we didn’t do it when we were on the Melvins tour, I said I was all in. And I know that people hold the album in high esteem and have a huge emotional attachment to it, and it’s fun for us too. This will probably be the last time we do it, and as it’s now 2017 we can call it the 23rd Anniversary of Betty!
And so after that you’re doing another set of other Helmet songs right? Is it a locked down set or are you and the band changing it up from gig to gig?
That’ll be different every night, although we’ll probably lean heavily on the Dead To The World album, which we’ve been doing a lot of in Europe and the US and really having a great time playing those new songs. Some of them feel as comfortable as any of the old songs to me like I (Heart) My Guru, Red Scare, Drunk In The Afternoon, and they feel really good and people are totally digging them. All these people who I’ve known for years and even people I don’t know are saying it’s their favourite album since Helmet came back in 2004 and it’s my favourite album too, I love everything about it.
And you produced this one yourself as well didn’t you?
Yeah, I did it for Strap It On and Meantime as well but had a different band situation then where I leaned on my drummer and his opinions about things, and Henry (Bodgan, bassist) too but I spent a lot of time in the studio with just the engineer going “what do you think, does that sound cool?” so he was a co producer, but at the end of the day the ball ended up in my court. But now that I have bandmates who are fresher to the thing, I mean I didn’t form the band with them, I have a much clearer idea of what I wanna do but I rely on them to play great and that’s what they do so it’s a really great and relaxed experience. I love working with guys and they’re ridiculously talented, so I just feel really good about the whole process. And I worked with my vocal guy Mark who understands that sometimes I have to beat the shit out of my voice and that it’s not going to be something that he’d recommend, but he kind of marvels that at my age I can still sing like that. On one song Die Alone he filmed that last thirty seconds of it, going “I’ve gotta show this to these young bands!”, but yeah sometimes you’ve just gotta feel pain.
Were there songs off the album that you hadn’t played live for a while that you especially liked revisiting?
When we first did it the first show was at the Viper Room in L.A. as kind of a warm up show and doing songs like Beautiful Love I hadn’t quite figured out what I was going to do yet, playing through my regular half stack and turning the volume down and it was kind of awkward and thumpy, just that 50 second jazz guitar intro, and so I’ve become very adamant that for it I have to use a standard tuned guitar with humbuckers plugged into a Fender amp so I’ve been doing that. I’m hoping that they’ll get that going on down in Australia, and even though it’s only 50 seconds I want it to be right and feel right and feel comfortable because I can actually play jazz you know, I’m not like a faker or whatever, and I just want it to be cool. So that was tricky and the other one that was tricky was Sam Hell, because that had never been performed live and now that’s basically part of the encore. I found a Green Bullet mic and I was given an acoustic simulator pedal from a friend of mine who passed away from cancer and his brother wanted me to have all his stuff, so it’s a nice little tip of the hat to him. And it’s just really fun to play and I feel super comfortable playing it now. Queen is tricky but we had done it before, Street Crab is tricky, Vaccination is REALLY tricky; we hadn’t played that since Betty came out. We played it back then but I’m much better now, and that first riff is just so fucked up I’m like “where do I sing?” so that took a while, and also working out all the sections, like there’s that crazy breakdown where it’s just the drummer and I and then there’s a little pause and this ridiculous bass solo comes in, it’s just a crazy crazy song. Now I feel like I can play it in my sleep but if I can’t hear on stage, like if it’s a bad sound on a night, I can still lose track because there’s now way you can count that shit.
There’s some pretty technically demanding vocal duties on Betty too, has going back to some of those songs and singing them been a challenge?
You know I’ve pushed my vocals so far over that past ten or fifteen years, and I’m knocking on wood because I don’t wanna jinx myself or anything, but that stuff is just second nature to me now. It’s right in the meat of my range and the heavy songs I feel really comfortable with. Songs like Tic I don’t like to do every night because it’s really really demanding, the hardest song is I Know because it’s a really emotional song, and I love playing it but if I get a sore throat or something then it’s ill advised because it’s a really heavy vocal. There’s no way to sing that song half assed and it’s the second song in the set, but we’ve got eighty odd shows under our belt right now so unless I do something stupid between now and April I should be in good shape.
You achieved major success with the Meantime album, and yet when it came to recording Betty you adopted a completely different approach didn’t you?
I would be the Ray Davies or Paul Westerberg of our era. I guess I want to shoot myself in the foot, like “hey do something that everybody loves and then go the opposite direction”. I think it’s in my nature, you know “hey you like this? Fuck you!” The result is that this really cool album came out of it that everybody loves, and here we are 23 years later and we’re still getting to play every song off it. But some people don’t want that; I think we sold like 700,000 with Meantime and then with Betty sold 350,000 in the first year. It might have gone gold by now, but the proof is in the fact that we’re still out there playing the songs and that people love them. And album sales are difficult anyway these days. I mean I’m glad that I did it now; back then people were like “what are you doing?”, but I’m a musician and I’m into challenging myself and my band and I’m not into relying on something just because it worked. But for me personally being a fan of jazz I just feel like it’s a better way to work, you know.
And you would have had a lot of pressure from record company executives too wouldn’t you?
Yeah it’s funny they were like “well it’s a really good record but I don’t think we were really expecting this”. They were expecting another Unsung, and I would go crazy. I’m friends with the Linkin Park guys and I played and sang on their last record (The Hunting Party) and they’re huge Helmet fans and really great guys and they admitted that their second record was really their first record. They had that huge smash success and the record label wanted them to repeat it so they did. And I’m like “that’s cool, I’m not going to knock anyone for doing that”. That was their thing and it made sense but Helmet’s a very very different kind of band. For us having, quote unquote, “huge success” was a gold record, for them it was like 13 million, so we know we’re not doing music for the masses. It’s not what we’ve ever been about and we thought it was a fluke at the time that we got this million dollar record deal, because we had this kind of hard core edge to us, a downtown New York band that had a variety of influences to us and we’re not very commercial. I’m transcribing John Coltrane solos and listening to Bela Bartok and I talk to so many guys in bands that are huge and they’re like, “what? Maurice Ravel? Who’s that?” and I’m like “you should probably check them out, or not!”
I know you’re a trained jazz musician and that you’ve had your own jazz band, do you see thematic similarities between jazz and Helmet?
Yeah I was talking about this in an earlier interview, and obviously Helmet were not a jazz band, John Stanier didn’t play jazz. He’s a phenomenal drummer and one of the best in the world in my opinion but jazz is not his thing, but jazz informed everything we did in Helmet, because if you think about the elements of music – harmony, melody, rhythm, form and words – rhythms were relatively unorthodox in Helmet. John even though he didn’t listen to jazz or hip hop, which is absolutely influenced by jazz, he had that swing. Secondly harmonically I was always trying to push the boundaries for my own sanity and for my own enjoyment of playing something that was different and that’s when the vocabulary started to reveal itself guitar-wise, that you had to be influenced by me listening to jazz and studying jazz because it’s not rock, or rock ‘n’ roll in the sense that it doesn’t come from Chuck Berry, or the swing thing although the energy is similar. And the chords are not so much about major and minor and dominants as it is about modes and shapes that I came up with that don’t really exist in rock vocabulary. They come from me experimenting as a jazz guy, and leaning the notes that make up a chord and also randomly exploring the instrument, so that’s the influence of jazz for sure. As far as the improvisational aspect some of the solos have launch points in them, like Give It, I start the solo with a kind of lick or a repetitive funk rhythm and it goes naturally a half step up in the solo into a dissonant note within that chord. And although I didn’t know it at the time I later realised that I couldn’t have done that unless I’d studied jazz and learnt to superimpose triads over modal structures, so yeah it’s definitely played a huge part in who Helmet are.