Strap It On

    Dropped D-Day: Helmet Levels Metaldom

by James Rotondi

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"Rock stars suck." Page Hamilton doesn't say this angrily, but emphatic statements come easily to him, possibly because of the very paradoxes—some might call them contradictions—that make him a renegade in a rock scene littered with pretend rebels. His band, Helmet, heaves out daunting slabs of odd-time riff-metal with hardcore fury and industrial precision, but Hamilton's personal taste leans heavily toward jazz titans like John Coltrane, Bill Evans, and Art Tatum. Unlike the do-it-yourselfers in Gruntruck, Soundgarden, or Tad, Page has studied classical guitar in Europe and holds a master's degree in jazz performance from the prestigious Manhattan School of Music. Dressed in t-shirt and cardigan sweater, sports cap pulled over a fresh crew cut, he's the antipathy of the rocker-as-fashion-statement, as comfortable in his own skin as he is bashing out brutal five-chord death vamps with drummer John Stanier, bassist Henry Bogdan, and guitarist Rob Echeverria.

Already documented on 1990's Strap It On (on Amphetamine Reptile, recently reissued by their present label Interscope) and 1992's Meantime, the Helmet sound hasn't so much changed as been refined and expanded on their latest 15-song blast-fest, Betty. Page's singing is more confident and musical, and the band—with former Rest In Pieces guitarist Echeverria replacing departed member Peter Mengede—has opened up their bicep-tight ensemble playing, letting the spaces within the grooves be felt as well as heard. And Hamilton's lucid reading of the jazz standard "Beautiful Love" allows a peek into the flipside of one of modern rock's preeminent stylists. Paradoxes in tow, we rapped with Page before the start of Helmet's summer tour.

GUITAR PLAYER: Your rhythm parts are as complex as ever but your vocal melodies are stronger and the tunes are shorter and more accessible.

PAGE HAMILTON: I'm learning to write songs. Having come more from the interest in jazz and improvisation, my guitar playing is still greatly influenced by that, but I feel like I'm writing for a pop band, albeit a heavier one than most people would associate with the term. As for as the rhythm stuff, you can't intellectualize rhythm parts too much. Our stuff is deceptive. It sounds pretty straight ahead and pounding, but if you break it down, there's a lot of three-against-four and a lot of stuff that's really just a feel. One problem with Peter was that he couldn't internalize concepts like the back of the beat or the front of the beat or on the beat. So if I'd say "You're rushing this" or "This part feels a lot better on the back of the beat," that wasn't even in his comprehension because he was still counting "one-two, one-two, one-two-three." You can't do that shit. You have to feel it.

I don't count four-times, six-times, eight-times. A lot of stuff happens naturally because I had the 12-bar blues beaten into me by one of my teachers, so I naturally feel most music in four-bar phrases. But if it's in three, for instance, I don't know exactly how many bars it is or how many bars John's playing or what we're playing against it. I play where the phrase feels right.

GP: You're still using a lot of dropped d-tuning.

PH: On everything. "Speechless", "Overrated", and "I Know" are Hendrix/Vaughan-style half-step-below-standard tuning for all the strings, and then the lowest string is dropped a whole-step after that, so it's still basically dropped-D. On "Biscuits for Smut" I tuned the four low strings to A, while the second and first strings are at G and C#. It's essentially an A7 chord, but it sounds really cool. It's hard to keep in tune, though.

GP: Your tone is astonishingly heavy, but it also has a glass-like top end with a lot of transients.

PH: My signal goes through a Harry Kolbe preamp into a Marshall 2204S 50-watt head with its preamp all the way up and a Kolbe Silent speaker—essentially a dummy load—into a Drawner noise gate, then to a Mesa Boogie Simul-class 2.90 amp powering four Kolbe cabinets. It's so saturated that you get all these great harmonics. In the past, I've had problems getting the harmonic sound to come through, because Celestions get tired after a while. But the Kolbe cabinets are loaded with 200-watt EV's, so the dynamic range of my chords is significantly increased. Plus the cabinets are 3/4" thick, so they're very roadworthy. I'd recommend them to anybody.

My biggest problem with effects has been the lack of headroom, but I'm experimenting with a Kolbe mixer and some Rocktron stuff to try to fix that. I'm running so much in the front end before the effects that it seems to be too much signal even when the effects are looped. I've been using a TC-2290 rack delay, which is an amazing, state-of-the-art effect, and I was using all the loops in the back, but it heated up and crapped out. I really love the straight preamp-to-amp with gate sound for my rhythm, but when I use the TC for leads, the signal drops dramatically. I also usually use an old Digitech GSP-5 rackmount effects unit. It's noisy and hideous and hissy, and it's great.

GP: What kind of guitars are you playing?

PH: The ESP Horizon Custom solidbody archtop is still my main guitar for Helmet. Steve Blucher of DiMarzio does all my humbuckers, and he's really got it down. He actually listened to me play and asked me what I was and wasn't getting. When he finished making my pickup, he told me to let him know how it sounded. Man, he got it on the first try. Actually, I've been on a G&L kick, too. I used to use G&L's when I was in Band of Susans back in '88, and I used an SE-2 for some stuff on Strap It On. They've got a lot of crunch and bottom, as well as cutting highs. I bought one of their Classic ASAT's—a beautiful guitar. Paul Reed Smith keeps sending me really beautiful instruments. They sent me their new McCarty model. I'm anxious to try that out. I bought a Gibson J-200 acoustic from the Gibson guys, who are really swell, and I also picked up a Gibson L-00 acoustic from the '30's. For the song "Sam Hell" I plugged a Deering electric banjo into my Fender Super Champ with a touch of distortion and went straight to tape.

GP: Unlike most metal and hardcore players, you've studied music extensively and really know your stuff.

PH: If you're a dedicated musician, you're interested in learning everything you can about music, so for me it's never been a matter of some sort of "purity of punk" that you shouldn't play well. I've never believed in that shit and I never will. It's really limiting. That's why the idea of one "scene" or another doesn't really interest me—it's about music. Until you can completely realize that you're just a little speck of shit on the ass of the music world, then you're just going to be caught up in some fashion show. The important thing is the true love of music, whether you develop your own theories of music and methods of practicing and working, or whether you go to an institution and have a teacher. I'll read every book I can get my hands on and ask everyone questions. If someone is doing something that I don't know how to do, I'm going to ask them, or I'm going to try to figure it out. That's why I chose to get into music in the first place: I realized that right up until the day I die there's always going to be another question to be answered. It's never ending. With Peter, for instance, I think it wasn't a love of music so much as all the trimmings that appealed to him. It was more about being a personality, and to me that's far less interesting and much more ephemeral than being a musician.

GP: The "purity of punk" ethic is getting a little tiresome, isn't it?

PH: The punk rock ego is one of the largest on the planet right now. It's disgusting. I've been exposed to all of them. I can throw on Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutte one minute and Coltrane the next, Robert Johnson one minute and Killing Joke the next. So I can't get into being identified with the "scene". Although I appreciate that people have an ideal about the purity of a genre, particularly if that's what gets you into music in the first place. For me, it was Led Zeppelin. Zeppelin was all-ruler of the universe. I was a Led Zeppelin kid and that got me into music. But then I heard George Benson and I said, "Wow, he plays guitar too." Getting into poppy George Benson turned me on to the old George Benson with Jack McDuff, which turned me on to jazz. There's more to life than Led Zeppelin? Wow.

 

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