Posted May 14, 2007, by The Bear.
First broadcast on KSCR on October 31, 2006
INTRODUCTION: This interview is dedicated to my friend Jay, the biggest Helmet fan I know. I taped it at the Warped Tour in San Diego on July 6, 2006, where I met Page Hamilton, the founder of Helmet, backstage in the press area. My first impression of him was that he was very tall, and he is, which is somehow appropriate for the leader of a band with the stature of Helmet. Their new album, Monochrome, was shortly to be released (it’s available now on Warcon records) and they were doing the whole Warped Tour on one of the big stages. Here is what Page Hamilton had to say:
THE BEAR: This is Barry the Bear here, backstage at the Warped Tour in San Diego with Page Hamilton of Helmet.
PAGE HAMILTON: Hey, how you doin’?
BEAR: Welcome to the show. You’re going to be playing later today?
HAMILTON: Yeah, a quarter to five this afternoon.
BEAR: And what stage are you on?
HAMILTON: We’re on the Teddy Bear Stage, the Main Stage left or right - when you’re facing the stages it’s on the left.
BEAR: It’s one of the big stages.
HAMILTON: Yeah it’s one of the main stages.
BEAR: I’m starting to lose track of how many stages there are on the tour.
HAMILTON: I know. There must be 20 I think. There are so many bands. 800 people in this three ring circus traveling around the country.
BEAR: I remember the first time I went to the Warped Tour there were four stages and 30 bands, and now it’s like ten stages and I think someone said there were 86 bands playing today.
HAMILTON: Wow, that’s crazy. That’s a music burnout.
BEAR: But one thing I’ve noticed is a lot of smaller bands get a chance to play something like this.
HAMILTON: That’s fantastic. I’ll run by the Ernie Ball Stage or the different smaller stages and check bands out, and there are some really good bands; I’m just blown away. It’s cool.
BEAR: Anyone in particular who’s struck you?
HAMILTON: I don’t know any of the names on those stages ‘cause there’s no marquee or anything like that. I know the bands that are on the two main stages names, and I’ve met guys like Over It, and I’ve met the singer from Rise Against, a couple of guys from NOFX – those are the bigger bands that are on the tour – I met Pete from Bouncing Souls. Oh, the guys from the Casualties I’ve hung out with, the guitar player anyway, Rick. I hung out with the kid a couple of times [from] From Autumn to Ashes, Brian, and Thursday, today I talked to the keyboard player and another guy in the band a couple of weeks ago. It’s crazy. So many bands.
BEAR: Had a chance to hang with Joan Jett yet?
HAMILTON: Yeah, of course. She came up to us on the second day and she’s like “hey, you guyz are fella’ Noo Yawkers. It’s great to see you out here.” We were hanging, and her band guys are my favorite guys to hang with on the tour; they’re just awesome.
BEAR: You’re from New York originally?
HAMILTON: No I was born in Portland, Oregon, and I moved to New York to go to grad. school in 1985, and ended up staying there for eighteen years. I still have a residence there.
BEAR: May I ask you what part of New York City?
HAMILTON: I live downtown in the East Village where I’ve had a place since 1990 or ‘91.
BEAR: My family raised me on the Upper West Side.
HAMILTON: That’s a nice neighborhood. I wish I could afford to live up there. I love it.
BEAR: It is nice. Not as expensive as the Upper East Side –
HAMILTON: Yeah, still very nice.
BEAR: So how much of the tour is Helmet going to be doing?
HAMILTON: We’re doing the whole tour. We start on day one in Columbia, and we end day 60-whatever it is in Montreal.
BEAR: That’s got to be a pretty grueling workout.
HAMILTON: Yeah. I kind of have to keep on my toes a little bit and watch the booze and cigarettes, and not get too carried away, and try to eat.
BEAR: Now Helmet got started exactly when?
HAMILTON: 1989 I formed the band in New York City.
BEAR: Okay, that was, I guess, right around the crest of the second wave of New York Hardcore, wasn’t it?
HAMILTON: Yeah, the bands that I remember at the time, I mean there was everyone from Agnostic Front to Sonic Youth, and it kind ran the gamut. I was in a band in ‘88 called Band of Susans; we opened for Live Skull and the Rollins band, you know the band Henry had at the time. Trying to think of what other bands – Sick of It All’s been around forever, I’m friends with those guys, we actually toured together and had a great time – there are so many bands.
BEAR: Weren’t the Gorilla Biscuits from that time too?
HAMILTON: Yeah they were about that same time and then they were done by about ‘92, and Walter did Quicksand and I was a big champion of that music; I took it to Australia and tried to get people turned on to them, their first 7 inch was amazing, and their subsequent records, and then they broke up. So many good bands of musicians in New York, it’s amazing.
BEAR: And I take it you played CBGBs?
HAMILTON: Many times. We played CB’s benefit last fall in October was the last time. I’m hoping to get to play one of those last show there in the fall [of 2006]. I don’t know if it’s going to happen.
BEAR: Do you have any news on whether the place is just going to close, or is it going to move somewhere else?
HAMILTON: It’s done from what I understand, and there is some rumor that Hilly wants to take it to Las Vegas –
BEAR: I heard that too.
HAMILTON: – take the inside of the club and set it up in Las Vegas. That’d be pretty funny.
BEAR: We could probably sit here and swap CB’s stories for hours, but let’s talk instead about your band. Now who were the primary influences for you as a musician starting Helmet?
HAMILTON: Well the first one was Ledd Zeppelin, and then I went straight from that into a sort of jazz world for a couple of years, so bands like the Coltrane Quartet, and Miles’ Quintet from the ‘60s. And then I kind of got re-energized by rock when I heard Gang of Four, Wire, Killing Joke, the BuzzSTICKs – all those bands, and then I really got into Big Black, and that sort of was the beginning of Helmet, right around that time. Band of Susans who I played with had a positive influence on me, ‘cause it was a completely different kind of music. I’d just gotten out of jazz grad. school and they handed me a guitar tuned to all E’s or all B’s or something. And I was like “hmm, this doesn’t allow you to do anything that you’re familiar with on the guitar” so that was really a great experience for me.
BEAR: I’ve noticed that Helmet is not straight hardcore, or straight this, or straight anything. It’s got a certain amount of variety in it.
HAMILTON: Yeah, I would never refer to Helmet as hardcore or metal, or post-hardcore, or whatever these genres are at this point. That never really intrigued me. There was this sort of misconception that I was ashamed of metal, or I was ashamed of this or that, and it’s never been the case. I just don’t [care] what you call it; it doesn’t matter to me.
BEAR: One song that is a favorite of my guitar player’s, and of [one of] his housemate’s from a couple of years ago, that they always used to play when they would come on my show was “Wilma’s Rainbow” which is a good example of a mix of hardcore and melodic and stuff like that. What are the elements that go into making a song as varied as that?
HAMILTON: I’m pretty patient as a writer and arranger, and that riff, I just had it in my head (hums the riff), and then those turnarounds, I let the stuff just flow naturally out of one thing to the next. I think that rather than stringing a bunch of riffs together and calling it a song, to me it’s always been more interesting to kind of put something on the back burner if it doesn’t reveal itself immediately, just to let the arrangement write itself. I think if you spend time working as a guitarist, a singer, and as a writer of lyrics there’s always going to be a sort of ‘moving the gravel pit’ element to writing but once you’ve done that it frees you up to let the ideas flow out, and I’ve always relied heavily upon that. It’s not voodoo or magic, but it is sort of harmonic gravity in music and being patient. I listen to a ton of music all the time, not just heavy rock; I listen to classical music, jazz, reggae, hip-hop, and whatever. I think those influences will all sort of seep in unconciously. I’ve never been one to try to incorporate elements of other bands or music into what we do other than ‘there’s a snare on 2 and 4.'
BEAR: How long did Helmet last the first time around?
HAMILTON: ‘89 to ‘98.
BEAR: That’s a pretty good run.
HAMILTON: Yeah, not too bad.
BEAR: What made you decide to start it up again?
HAMILTON: I had been running the gauntlet with all these different labels, and I got a couple of solo deals done with different people and then – like Virgin was one company and then the company fired everybody who had signed me, so I fortunately got away from them – and there were other companies, and it was just taking forever. Then my old label, Interscope, called a couple of years ago and Jimmy Iovine said “why don’t you make a Helmet record for us?” So I said “Fine.” At that point I just had to get those songs off my chest and get the album out. I had enough songs for two albums so we ended up putting out a lot of B-sides along with the album, in 2004, the Size Matters Record.
BEAR: We saw you at the Troubadour in November of 2004, and it was sold out. Did it surprise you that so many people came out to see you after you’d been away?
HAMILTON: Yeah. We did a couple of nights there and it was great. The cities are where people are going to be most familiar with us, places like New York, LA, Minneapolis, Chicago, and places like that. When you get out in the sort of “heartland” people are, I think, a little more dependent on media for exposure so they might not be aware of us, especially some of the younger kids. We didn’t put out a record for seven years so the awareness definitely declined, but it’s great to be able to go out and – I love playing clubs; this festival environment is interesting too but I love playing clubs; it’s always been my favorite way to rock.
BEAR: Is this the first time you’ve been on a big thing like this – as big as this?
HAMILTON: We’ve done festivals since 1990 in Europe and Australia; we did a “Big Day Out” in ‘93 in Australia, and we’ve played in Brazil in front of 80,000 people; we’ve done Redding, and Phoenix Fest, Donnington and stuff, so it’s a different kind of vibe. This is obviously – a 30 minute set, “wham, bam, thank you Ma’am” get up and rock, it’s a different vibe but it is a festival environment. Some people stick around, and some people are like “Mmm, I’m not familiar with these guys. I’m gonna walk over to the Emo stage” or whatever.
BEAR: Well with so many stages you’re going to find something for everybody somehow.
HAMILTON: You would hope.
BEAR: So 20 years down the line since you moved to New York, how has, just in general, the Punk scene changed?
HAMILTON: Maintaining a band [in New York] is a little bit cost prohibitive; it’s tough there. The standard of living has supposedly improved there and rents are exorbitant. When I moved from Harlem to 2nd Street nobody wanted to live there – I moved downtown in the late 80s – it’s changed now. Our old band rehearsal space on Mott Street is like a Betsy Johnson Dress Shop and a café or something in a co-op building and they kicked all the bands out. We used to share a space with Sonic Youth like three sub-basements down. That, I think, economically makes it a little difficult for bands to survive, so I find the musicians to be a little more mercenary now. It’s like “yeah, I can play in your band, but I do have seven other bands that I’m playing with.” That wasn’t the case when we started; we were all for one and one for all, and it was all about Helmet; anybody could do anything they wanted outside of the band as long as it didn’t conflict with the Helmet touring schedule. We toured very intensively back then so it was easier. I’ve found for myself it’s easier to have the home band base be in Los Angeles so I store all of my gear there, and I have a rehearsal space, and even though we rehearsed for this tour and made the album in New York City it’s good to have a work space somewhere that’s accessible.
BEAR: Is the album out now?
HAMILTON: It comes out July 18th.
BEAR: And what’s it going to be called?
HAMILTON: It’s called Monochrome.
BEAR: Monochrome, cool. Can you tell us anything about it?
HAMILTON: It’s not some eclectic mish-mash of musical styles, it’s sort of the vocabulary I started developing in ‘88, ‘89. Harmonically it’s a little more advanced; you tend to stumble upon different chord voicings over the years melodically and lyrically, and hopefully after doing it 17 or 18 years you’ve developed what you do. We recorded it in a couple of weeks in April/May – recorded, mixed, and mastered it in like 18 half-days because it was a much smaller budget than the last record; we recorded it for Warcon, and we did it in the same studio where we did Strap It On and Meantime, and the “Judgment Night” song at Wharton Tear’s Fun City on 22nd Street in New York. It was great; all the albums have been done to tape except the last one; we tried the Pro-Tools thing and it’s just not for us. I produce records and it’s a good way to work with younger bands because you get impatient trying to get them to sing in tune and play in time; I’ll just whip the computer stuff on it. But with us we can sing and play so we just go in and do it as a band.
BEAR: I hate to cut this short but I do have to run pretty soon. So what is next for Helmet after the tour?
HAMILTON: I have a movie and a record to make.
BEAR: A solo record?
HAMILTON: No, it’s a record with this piano player that I’m going to produce in New York, and I do session work too so I’m going play on this Beatles movie thing that I worked on last year with Julie Taymor and Elliot Goldenthal. And then I hope we’ll be back on the road probably in October; we’re talking about a couple of things; [Dave] Mustaine has been trying to get Helmet to go out with Megadeth for like fifteen years.
BEAR: That’d be an interesting combination.
HAMILTON: It’d be fun. He has that “Gigantour” thing, and then we have to figure out Europe, and we have to figure out this Canadian thing.
BEAR: Speaking of Gigantor, you covered the theme song to that show once.
HAMILTON: Yeah, for that Saturday morning cartoon program years and years ago.
BEAR: Was that fun?
HAMILTON: It was a blast. We did it at the studio that John Lennon made Double Fantasy at in New York, so it was a really fun place to record. I’ve gotten to record there and Abbey Road, and all these cool studios. It was great.
BEAR: Did you ever watch that cartoon when you were younger?
BEAR: It was a strange cartoon.
HAMILTON: Yeah, I can imagine. It’s a cool song.
BEAR: It’s like the first TV show I remember watching as a kid a long time ago. Well anyway, thank you for talking with us.
HAMILTON: Thank you very much.
BEAR: This is the Bear, I’ve been talking with Page Hamilton of Helmet, and the new album, Monochrome, will be out on –
HAMILTON: – July 18th, on Warcon.
BEAR: Thank you. And we look forward to seeing you later.
HAMILTON: Awesome, thanks man.
BEAR: This is the Bear, sending you back to the studio.