Helmet: An Interview with Page Hamilton

I liked interviewing Page. For all the sort of jockular dick swinging his band seems to inspire, the man can play some amazing guitar. He’s also well spoken and articulate, a trait that doesn’t normally extend to many of his contemporaries.  I OD’d on Helmet when they got back together. Slowly realizing that Meantime was sort of their best and that all subsequent (Betty excluded) had that same militaristic marching chug chug thing going on. Not to discredit his contributions to popular hardcore, I think he’s a great writer and musician–fuck it, maybe I’m just old. That and I saw them like five times in a row at SXSW in 06 and a dozen times on Warped when they reformed and put out that record on Lyman’s label. He is really nice and I did get drunk near him and James from Against Me! during an after party during Warped Tour one year. There is my famous person story.

The famous person stories are all the same by the way, it involves drinking heavily and turning around, shaking some dudes hand and thanking them for making music. I’ve been known to nod during conversations that I’m not involved in also. Yes. I’m announcing my uncoolness on my blog, not sure if that makes me uncool-er or maybe I’ve just never been. Nah, I’m definitely not cool.

Enjoy!

 

Helmet is Cool

Helmet is Cool

Like all decades, the ’90s has its importance in the annals of rock history. Aside from the botched corporate-sponsored Woodstock (AKA ‘mud fest’), death of Kurt Cobain and birth of the boy band phenomenon (to name some quick ones), the ’90s had some shining musical moments-and most of them took place somewhere on the fringe of the mainstream. The post-hard-core movement began in New York City with bands like Quicksand, Orange 9mm, Into Another and, at the helm-at least the visible one-was Helmet.

 

 

Helmet released their Amphetamine Reptile debut Strap It On in 1991 and inspired a million bedroom guitarists with their Interscope follow-up, Meantime. Meantime was the band’s first commercial success and garnered them plenty of critical praise and a wider fan base. The marriage of hard-driving guitars, drop tuned with vocalist/guitarist Page Hamilton’s deadpan delivery and smart lyrics, made Helmet stand out from the rest of the dying hair bands and solidified the band’s place in history as a trendsetter. So much so, in fact, that this past year Page decided it was time to reevaluate Helmet and bring it back for the next generation of heavy music lovers.

 

Helmet officially disbanded in 1998. After four full-length albums and thousands of miles covered in touring, it was time to move on. Page went on to become a session musician, working with film composer Elliot Goldenthal doing scores for films like Julie Taymore’s screen adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus, Neil Jordan’s The Good Thief and In Dreams (Annette Bening) and, most recently, S.W.A.T. Page also toured with David Bowie as a guitarist for Bowie’s album, Hours. During this time, Page was playing with a band of friends under the name of Gandhi, but due to the stress of having a band made up of bicoastal members, Gandhi broke up in 2002.

 

Page met drummer John Tempesta in 2002, and started jamming with him and guitarist Chris Traynor (Orange 9MM) who toured with Helmet during the Aftertaste tour. The three of them demoed the track, “Throwing Punches,” which eventually made it into the hands of Nine Inch Nails bassist Danny Lohner, music supervisor for the film Underworld. The track made it onto the soundtrack of the film, and the fire for Helmet was sparked again. Jimmy Iovine, chairman for Interscope, contacted Page earlier this year to ask him to produce music for his label and also asked him to return to Interscope with Helmet. Page started by producing Bush front man Gavin Rossdale’s solo project and then made the comeback album of the year with Helmet called Size Matters.

 

Themusicedge.com recently caught up with Page after a wild night in Vegas playing a date on the SnoCore Tour with Chevelle, Future Leaders of America and Strata. His tour mates owe a debt of gratitude to Page and the sound Helmet helped grow and cultivate.

 

Page got his start playing music by actively listening to music and says of his early experience, “I went to a school where they didn’t have much that would get you interested at 15 or 16. They’ve got you listening to classical, and all you want to play is Led Zeppelin. They have you singing, “Nothing could be finer than bein’ in Carolina,” and wearing a blue bowtie,. You’re thinking, ‘music sucks!’ Then you hear Zeppelin and you think, ‘music rules!'”

 

Yet, regardless of taste, Page comes from a strong background where he got his chops going to Manhattan School of Music for jazz guitar. With the current state of things as they are, Page says, “Of all the things they could cut (from budgets), they cut something like music. They don’t even realize the value of it, even if a kid doesn’t want to be a professional musician, they don’t realize that the value of studying an instrument stays with you the rest of your life. ”

 

Page started obsessing about the guitar when he was about 15. He was introduced to the guitar wizardry of Jimmy Page and his stellar work with Led Zeppelin, and by 16, Page had almost every Zeppelin album except In Through the Out Door. By 17, Page had bought his first guitar, a $40 acoustic, and his goal, like many new guitarists of the time was to learn “Stairway to Heaven.”

 

“I started fantasizing about being Jimmy Page. I would listen to two Zep records a day from beginning to end. I bought a $40 acoustic and started taking lessons from this guy. He was a good guy, but he said “Stairway to Heaven” would be too difficult for me to learn, so I left and found a teacher who would help me learn it. I believed I could learn to play anything if I wanted.

 

“I went to college as a pre-med major ’cause I was in advanced math and science in high school, and they basically said I’d be a doctor or lawyer, but soon realized that seeing the sight of someone injured and the sight of blood makes me pass out so I wouldn’t be a very good doctor. I was still really into music, and in the spring semester I got a music teacher and started studying and playing a lot and decided to continue after one semester. I asked my teacher if he thought I could be a career musician and he said I could if I wanted it bad enough. So I started working really hard-12 hours a day. I did a year at the community college ’cause I wasn’t quite good enough to get into the university yet. I took a ton of music classes and some philosophy and English lit and kind of got myself together. Then I auditioned for jazz guitar and classical guitar and got in.

 

“I got my degree and moved to Seattle and auditioned at the Cornish Institute, but they said, ‘You already have your degree but we’d love to have you here. We could give you another bachelor’s degree.’ But I decided to go to New York instead and give it a go and went to grad school, auditioned for jazz guitar and got my master’s degree two years later. I was obsessed. I literally didn’t go out, and for me it was a wise thing to move to New York without any money ’cause you can literally get swallowed up by the city. I lived in a welfare hotel and worked the graveyard shift from midnight to 8 in the morning. I had a little Fender amp and a Charlie Parker Omni book, and unless something was going wrong, I just had to buzz people in. I worked my way through grad school doing that.

 

“When I was done, I picked up a copy of the Village Voice and started looking for bands that were auditioning people and that’s how I met the Band of Susan’s. I got into that band and then got into Glen Franken’s guitar orchestra and did that for about a year when I said, ‘Hey, I can write, I can sing,’ and started working on Helmet stuff from there and put my band together.”

 

As an album, Size Matters is a great way for Page to be reintroduced into the wild, so-to-speak, and the guitar work on the album is earthquake-inducing heavy, yet the mild, melodic delivery and un-obligatory throaty yells from Page keep the spirit of Helmet alive without repeating old techniques. His work in jazz (he’s also taught himself to play trumpet), film and as a session musician have helped expand his musical vocabulary and in turn expanded his creativity when it comes to writing for Helmet. Page paints the picture of the consummate musician, continuously learning and honing his craft, and taking bits of the jazz and classical world and sprinkling them into the sound of Helmet.

 

When working with film, Page says, “I was just hired as a guitar player to play on the orchestral score by Elliot Goldenthal, who had heard about me through Warner Brothers. He needed some weird guitar stuff, and they called and said, ‘We’re going to hire you to get some other guitar stuff and do this orchestra thing,’ and I thought it was cool. They ended up hiring me and this guy Mark Stewart, who is this amazing guitar virtuoso from New York who played with Paul Simon and can do all the really slick reading and everything like that. I can read but it’s not something you really do in rock. I’ll read a big, slow passage and do it with my sound and build pads under the orchestra, and then work with the composer-mostly just color stuff. So I’ll do anywhere from six to 20 guitars on a queue and let them do what they want with it. It’s really fun.

 

“This last year with Elliot, I worked on this opera he’s doing called Transposed Heads and worked on S.W.A.T., and those guys recommended me to this other group of guys who did the sound for the movie HEAT, and so I ended up helping them with Catwoman. And worked with Elliot on Collateral.

 

He adds, “I’ve been really lucky to be able to do a film a year.”

 

One key aspect for Page as a growing and learning musician was the purchase of a recording device. He says, with regards to self-improvement, “One major key for me was getting a four-track and a drum machine. You spend time listening, putting structures together. It helps when coming up with ideas. You can have two guitars, three guitars-anything goes. You’re in your room working and having that expands your knowledge. Hear different things and become a better musician. For me, working on movies helps me in my writing for my band, playing in my band helps my jazz playing. It has provided a springboard for me to help develop these sonic soundscapes, and I’m a good arranger because of the time I spent with the four-track writing and arranging, which helped me on the Gavin Rossdale solo project. I produced this band Toti Moshi from Oakland who we took on the road with Helmet. All these things are part of being a musician. It’s not just a one-dimensional world, and I would encourage people to not just listen to rock exclusively.”

 

Helmet hit the road for the SnoCore tour in mid-January and will be traveling with the tour until March 13, where the final stop in is in a very ‘un’ snow-like place: Orlando, FL. Former Anthrax bassist Frank Bello stepped in on bass for Chris Traynor so Traynor could focus on guitar, and with former White Zombie/Testament drummer John Tempesta manning the skins, Helmet is once again a force to be feared. For tour dates and general info on Helmet, please visit http://www.helmetmusic.com.

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