Helmet: Ice Cream and Spinach
Words: Brian Fischer-Giffin
Latest release: Seeing Eye Dog (Work Song)
When you’ve been around as long as Helmet’s Page Hamilton, you can usually tell when things aren’t kosher. Towards the end of a US excursion earlier this year with St. Vitus and Crowbar, it became apparent that something wasn’t right with the way the tour was being handled.
“You don't tour the world for twenty five years and not know when someone's trying to fuck you over,” the Helmet mainman says. “The tour was mismanaged and I think by the end there we were hanging on by our teeth. The band vibe was great. We really enjoyed all the bands and we had a good time, but there was a lot of unnecessary stuff on the business side of things that we've never experienced before.”
Hamilton has never been a fan of the business side of the music industry. He has a reputation for criticism of record companies and their minions and machinations going back to the time of Helmet’s major label debut.
“No offence,” he says, “there are many competent people at record labels around the world. But there are an equal number of imbeciles who are just annoying and you have to humour them. Not to get my butt kissed or anything, but half the people… I don’t know how they qualified to work at record labels.”
Seeing Eye Dog, released last September and Helmet’s first album in four years, is a completely independent release, issued through a label owned by Hamilton’s manager. This gave him the total artistic freedom that he has yearned for, and allowed him to work at his own pace. Without label pressure, the next Helmet album can now begin whenever Hamilton wants it to.
“There’s no time limit on the next one. So that when I feel like writing more Helmet songs, I’ll sit down and start, which is nice,” he says. “It’s not easy financially, obviously, because I still like going into a studio and recording with an engineer and it’s not cheap. It’s cheaper than it used to be, but with any luck we’ll be able to keep this train rollin’ for a few more years.”
Hamilton’s alternative career in jazz was part of the reason for the long gap between Helmet releases. He also did some producing and wrote music for film. But the stress he was put under during the problematic recording process for 2006’s Monochrome probably played a more significant role. He loves the songs, he says, but the production period itself was “rough”.
“The situation got into something that I didn't see coming,” Hamilton admits. “The business partnership... they were criminals. I didn't know it. I knew this one guy for years and years and I thought he was straight, but he wasn't. They really fucked me over. And that changes the recording process. There was a lot of stuff going on.”
He goes on to say that he and on-and-off colloborator Chris Traynor have considered re-recording the album, but offers nothing more than the suggestion it’s been thought about. Instead, he waxes amiably about the musical path Helmet has carved over the past two decades and how the band and albums like Meantime and Betty have been misrepresented and often criticised for influencing the late-90s explosion of genre-bending metal acts.
“I don’t dwell on it,” he begins, “but it’s frustrating that people write [us] off because we’re affliated with or credited with or discredited with creating nu-metal and rap metal or whatever the fuck it is, which we sound nothing like. I don’t sit around worrying about that stuff. Is it frustrating, yes, but do I think that we’re better than 99.9% of the other bands out there? Absolutely. Rock or any other genre.”
He also finds it amusing that many of the people who are closest to him consider him a jazz musician ahead of the frontman of an alternative rock band.
“People that I know and love for years and years feel compelled to tell people that I play jazz, as if it’s more valid than Helmet,” he says. “I love jazz music because it’s extremely difficult and I have to work at it every day. But Helmet music has got a lot of meat on the bones. TM Stevens, the great bass player from the Pretenders and James Brown and everyone, said that Helmet is like a big bowl of ice cream, then when you bite into it there’s spinach inside. There’s a lot going on and it’s great music to play.”
Hamilton makes a comparison between his music and AC/DC. On the surface, it all sounds easy enough, but on a deeper level there’s something there that is difficult to replicate.
“That’s why I think I love AC/DC so much,” he says. “Everyone thinks it so easy and so simple, but no one can do AC/DC like AC/DC. No one can play that music. You just can’t! You start to play an AC/DC song and it just sounds like a wet noodle. It’s just impossible to do it the way they do it: they’re just so fuckin’ good. I love that about Helmet.”
Despite the turbulent and sporadic career of his band, Page Hamilton doesn’t sound the least bit jaded. He plays the hands as they are dealt him and moves on. For him, the real challenge is his art. Refining his skills and making music is what really matters to him.
“My job is to become better on the guitar and better with my voice and better constructing songs,” he explains, “and that’s what motivates me: the craft. You take inspiration and you mould it and shape it into something. And that’s why I chose music over some other existing form … It’s a great way to spend your days. I just sat with Jerry Donohue, the great guitarist from Fotheringay. He played with Sandy Denny in Fairport Convention and is just a legend of the Telecaster, and we were just saying how music never dries up. It’s a challenge every day.”
While his body of work is now extensive and also includes albums by Joe Henry, P.O.D., Therapy?, Nine Inch Nails, Norma Jean and his first major group, Band of Susans, Hamilton claims Seeing Eye Dog is "by far my favourite album that I've ever done".
“It's really challenging but it's fun and it grooves and I can really connect with it,” he says. “It's not prog rock or whatever, which I liked when I was 18. It's a challenging record and I love where it goes and I think there's a lot of variety on there. It goes from a song like 'LA Water' to something like 'Seeing Eye Dog' or 'Miserable' or 'She's Lost'... an experimental kind of pop form, we've got a verse, this big wall of drone and kind of a chorus but the real chorus is a guitar solo.”
Even though it still hasn’t seen release locally almost a year after it appeared elsewhere, Australian audiences are going to cop a good serve of it on the tour, which begins on June 22 on the Gold Coast.
"We'll play everything on the album except 'Morphing', which would require ten guitar players and a female singer, and 'LA Water' which requires a baritone guitar that's tuned down to B. We might even pull the Beatles cover ['And Your Bird Will Sing'] out once in a while. That's always fun. Although," he says with a laugh, "we learned a lesson to not do it late in the show when we're drunk. All of a sudden those beautiful thirds and fourths and sixths, all those harmonies in the guitars, just become a big wall of avantgarde like [makes distortion noise] and 'Whoa, what's that?' So Dan and I, if we've had too much to drink, we'll probably play the wrong notes in the wrong key. That's a little bit tricky when you've had a few drinks."
With five previous Australian tours behind them Helmet has developed a close relationship with audiences here. Page Hamilton admits that he is somewhat enamoured with the place.
“I think there's a purity in music appreciation there that's just lost in a lot of places. You're not judged on your youthful fashion sense, you're judged on your music. And that's what we have.”
Check out the competitions page to find out how you could win a double pass to see Helmet at Wollongong Uni.