Latest release: Dead to the World (earMusic)Website: www.helmetmusic.com
American guitarist and singer Page Hamilton is keeping busy with an intense musical career that’s already stretched for over 30 years. His immense talent and deep dedication to music has served him well, leading him to spend months of touring for David Bowie, as well as providing an appearance in affiliation with a cameo from Ozzy Osbourne in Jerky Boys: The Movie, and offering guest musicianship on Linkin Park’s sixth album, The Hunting Party. Despite all of this, Page is still known most widely as the sole remaining original member, and founder, of alt-scene stalwarts Helmet, who began their career in New York City in 1989.
With the release of their debut album coming a year later, the resulting slab of riffs and groove defined a signature, unwavering sound for the group, and was suggestively titled Strap It On. In support of subsequent full-lengths like 1992’s Meantime and 1994’s Betty, Helmet’s early videos found their place on music television, and their influential music found a home of camaraderie with groups like Melvins and The Jesus Lizard. For fans in our country, Helmet’s first Australian shows occurred between the release of these two albums, when the band made the bill for the second Big Day Out in 1993. Three decades after the release of Strap It On, Hamilton and his more recently added band mates are still on their ambitious 30x30x30 World Tour which began last year, encompassing a near-nightly set of 30 songs across 30 cities after 30 years. In preparation for the group to head down under in May, he set some time aside to talk to me from Malibu, California.
Regarding his current perspective on the tour, which began in Europe, Hamilton was enthusiastic and descriptive.
“It’s been really fun. You really have to be prepared, mentally and emotionally, to get up on stage and play a couple of hours of music. It’s a lot, but I’m really happy. I forgot how cool some of these old songs were…”
In return for being passionately committed to the band, longtime Helmet fans have been rewarded with a peppering of special early tracks throughout the set. The four current members have also displayed a direct approach of hitting the stage to quickly plug in and play, maximising music time and minimising stage-banter.
“Knowing that we’re going to play 30 songs in a night is oddly relaxing and reassuring”, Hamilton explains. “We do take a little break, so we play the last four songs as kind of an encore. We finish with a bang. I love that.”
While remarking how festival slots rarely allow time to get warmed up onstage, he informed me on the numerous advantages of a big tour, especially one with no opening acts.
“It always seems like I’m ready to keep going.”
In terms of current recordings, Hamilton displays a fierce work ethic and drive that’s led him to be involved in a handful of musical and screen-based projects. After befriending Linkin Park in 2014, he provided some guitar for a song by Grey Daze, the first band of Chester Bennington, dearly departed singer for both bands.
As he recalls, “We were crushed by Chester taking his life, he was such a good kid”.
Overseen by Jay Baumgardner, mixing engineer for Helmet’s last two albums, two unfinished Grey Daze albums are currently being recreated, with fresh instrumentation being pieced together as backing for Bennington’s posthumous vocals. “He sings beautifully.”
Though having half a dozen sketches of ideas for Helmet’s next studio album, which will hopefully be completed next year, their first live album will drop this year. It’s an old archived recording of the group’s first performance in Melbourne from the Big Day Out in 1993, one year after Nirvana and Violent Femmes headlined for the festival’s debut. Recalling the event, Page says “it’s a hungover mess, but it’s pretty fun.”
After returning to America from Australia, Helmet will play two big May shows with System Of A Down, Faith No More, Korn, and Russian Circles. Helmet are also touring the US with Faith No More and Korn, from late August to early September, providing a sense of nostalgia for those old enough to remember. His sentiment was simple. “[Big tours] always light a fire under my ass.”
Considering that the group are touring such a career-spanning setlist, it was important to provide some time for reflection. I began the interview by asking Page about his first memories of music, from a time before he became set on playing guitar. He told me that he’d discovered broadcasted fragments of America and The Eagles on the radio, including Already Gone, a country-tinged rock hit from the latter band. However, a post-Christmas drug store swap of a spare Rod Stewart album introduced Page to the mighty Led Zeppelin, and their mystical fourth album.
“Black Dog was the first song, and it just kind of sent me off, up to the moon. I started fantasising about being a guitar player.”
My mind boggles at the thought of how many American kids wanted to create their own power on the six-string after first hearing Jimmy Page. The difference is that Page Hamilton was one of the masses who really put in the work.
“I needed to get a guitar and start taking lessons, [but] then I just got obsessed and practiced [for] twelve hours a day.”
After relocating from Portland, Oregon to New York City in the late 80s in his late 20s, Hamilton finished studying jazz guitar at the Manhattan School Of Music, inspired by the controversial works of Coltrane and Monk, and joined the alternative rock group Band of Susans. With the group now a five piece, Page made his recording debut in 1988, on their second album, Love Agenda. That same year, Band Of Susans also recorded a collection of session tracks for John Peel, the esteemed UK radio DJ.
Helmet was formed a year later, their name coming from a variation on the Germanic name, ‘Helmuth’. Though later disbanding in 1996, Band of Susan’s later works led critics to liken them to UK shoegaze groups like My Bloody Valentine and Slowdive. Before forming Helmet, Hamilton discovered revolutionary acts like Gang Of Four, Wire, and Buzzcocks, and auditioned for Glenn Branca, an avant-garde composer and guitarist known for his use of volume, drone, and unusual guitar tunings.
Page would go on to spark up a friendship with the members of Wire, leading him to be featured on their track All Fours, from their eleventh album in 2008. Eight years later, Helmet displayed their love of post-punk by featuring their cover of Elvis Costello’s Green Shirt on their latest album, Dead to the World. Back in their retro golden era, Helmet’s uncompromising sound had kept them on the fringes of their native NYC rock scene, though they ended up playing gigs at CBGB’s from 1990 onwards. While later finding international success, Page remained true to his beloved Led Zeppelin, citing his love for them as the catalyst of his life-long love of heavy riffs and odd-time signatures. Influences came from songs like Kashmir, and the work of Glenn Branca, too. As time progressed, Helmet grew to be influential themselves, admired by the likes of Pantera, Tool and Mastodon.
Hamilton sums it up best. “I’m not saying I don’t like beautiful music, I do, but I also love a lot of stuff that’s really rhythmically intense, and in-your-face, so it’s part of my obnoxious personality.”
Coming back to the present day, Hamilton is enjoying his sixteenth year back in Helmet. The band are technically only still in their 25th year of activity, as a six year hiatus occurred from 1998 to 2004. A multitude of projects happened in this time, with Page performing eight shows with David Bowie’s Hours tour in 1999, helping to score Heat, In Dreams, and Titus with film soundtrack composer Elliot Goldenthal, providing one track for the soundtrack of Underworld, and working with his new band Gandhi. Gandhi wouldn’t make any formal releases, but their drummer Matt Flynn would go on to play with Maroon 5. As for Helmet’s other members at the time of hiatus, drummer John Stainer went on to play with groups such as Tomahawk and The Mark Of Cain, with bassist Henry Bogdan forming Moonlighters. Although it’s interesting to note that Helmet have featured former members of Anthrax and White Zombie, Page currently fills out the band with drummer Kyle Stevenson, guitarist Dan Beeman, and bassist Dave Case, who all provide backing vocals.
Helmet will be playing around Australia from the 3rd to the 17th of May this year, in a month that’s already jam-packed with national tours. Along with past contemporaries Faith No More and L7, the group will grace our shores as part of a horde of international touring artists, including the one and only Iron Maiden. Considering the future release of their ninth album, don’t write Helmet off as a nostalgia act. They’re still firmly rooted in the now. Retrospectively, songs like Unsung, Wilma’s Rainbow and In the Meantime still hit as hard as the day they were written. Proceedings will kick off at The Zoo in Brisbane on the first day of May. Just like the venue’s namesake, it’s going to be wild.