Strap It On

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by Daniel B. Levine

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If death metalheads must be wild-and-woolly Neanderthals from the tar pits of Tampa, nobody's told Helmet's Page Hamilton. He and his bandmates look like they clean their rooms, wash behind their ears and call their mothers after every rehearsal. But if you don't think music from the jai alai courts can be just as brutal as music from the steel mills, just listen to Meantime, Helmet's first major-label release. The mesmerizing rhythms, crushing chords and glove-tight guitar interplay might have you calling your mother--in fear.

The face behind Helmet is singer/songwriter/lead guitarist Page Hamilton, an Oregon native who came to New York to attend the Masters in Jazz program at the Manhattan School of Music. After playing with Glenn Branca's Guitar Symphony and Band Of Susans, Page formed Helmet with Australian-born guitarist Peter Mengede, classically trained bassist Henry Bogdan and Florida death-metal veteran John Stanier. After just one full-length independent release, Strap It On (Amphetamine Reptile, 1990), the band signed with Interscope (for a staggering sum) to record Meantime--12 tracks of self-proclaimed "thinking-man's metal."

Though some hail Hamilton's music as the future of death metal, he makes the most of his past, wallowing in the jazz masters of his school days. The leap from bebop to Black Flag, however, is quite a feat--and one that should not be attempted without a Helmet.

PAGE HAMILTON: I started playing guitar after listening to Led Zeppelin IV--I'd never heard anything like "Black Dog" before. I ran out and bought a 40-dollar acoustic and learned "Stairway To Heaven." I was 17. A year later I went to college and flunked out of pre-med, so I started studying music in my second year. All I could think about was playing guitar. I wanted to be Jimmy Page--but that only lasted about a year. Then I wanted to be John Coltrane.

GUITAR WORLD: You discovered jazz?

HAMILTON: Right off the bat. I got into George Benson first because he plays all these cool notes. I did the whole jazz thing. I played in all the school big bands and combo groups.

GW: Does your jazz background influence the music you write for Helmet?

HAMILTON: I don't know. Nothing is consciously introduced--and I hope it never will be. I don't sit there and say, "Let's incorporate this cool jazz chord change into this song." The influences of the four of us are so diverse--they range from death metal to Hall and Oates--that I think that they get lost. Whatever we do, it's going to sound like Helmet.

GW: What about the music theory you've learned?

HAMILTON: The best way to deal with theory is to learn it and forget it. People who learn theory think they have to incorporate it into their playing. The woodshed is the time for that. When you go play, you should just go play. I've never heard a Miles Davis solo that sounded like he studied at Juilliard--even though he did.

GW: Compared to the other bands in you genre, Helmet's music is almost minimalistic.

HAMILTON: I had this one jazz teacher who was a real music purist. He'd play me B.B. King solos and say, "Go learn this." And, of course, B.B. King solos are the epitome of sparseness. I'm always inspired by the weight music achieves when there's a lot of space. A saxophone player breathes, and that space is critical to the music. I believe in an economical sort of writing that develops ideas. It's not songwriting, per se; it's more like composition. One idea carries the song. The perfect example of this is Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. One motif created an entire masterpiece symphony.

For me, a lot of metal gets tedious because it lacks this concept. Four guys will have four ideas and try to cram them all into one soup. It makes for uninteresting music. That's not to say I can't get into listening to something like that--but for no longer than a half-hour.

GW: There's a lot of repetition in your songs too.

HAMILTON: Repetition is a way to build tension. If the whole song is one riff and nothing happens dynamically, it's not exciting. But if something does happen dynamically, it's music. You don't need a lot of chord changes.

GW: Do you listen to rock anymore?

HAMILTON: I probably have the worst taste in rock, because I don't really listen to it all that much. I love to watch Aerosmith dressed in leotards and blouses. As far as new stuff, I think there's a lot being made of whatever the hell "alternative" is supposed to be. It's a lot of really bad music being passed off as the "new" thing.

We're not the most punk-rock, for-the-moment, hip band you're going to find. We're completely comfortable not knowing the lastest band to come out of Seattle.

GW: When you formed Helmet, did you know what the music would sound like?

HAMILTON: I had some very specific ideas; I didn't know what form the songs were going to take, but I knew what I wanted from the people I'd play with. I wanted four people who were there 100-percent of the time, aggressive, on top of it and with it--not standing there worrying about their jeans or whatever. I wanted four totally passionate people, for whom the music came first.

GW: Are there just as many "self-conscious" musicians on the jazz scene?

HAMILTON: Hell, yeah. I felt like the odd man out in music school because everybody was so concerned with sounding like [bebop pianist] Bud Powell or Charlie Parker that they weren't into developing their own thing. They had this whole goatee/beret thing happening--you know, Dizzy Gillespie, circa 1948.

I feel like there's no way I or anyone else can match what Wes Montgomery did, and no sax player will ever match what Coltrane did. That doesn't mean I'm going to stop playing. I just try to scratch out my own territory with those influences, without consciously incorporating them. As far as I'm concerned, I don't listen to anything more recent than Weather Report or Miles.

GW: Do you write all of Helmet's material?

HAMILTON: Yes. We've been working pretty steadily from the get-go, and it just kind of worked out that I was the one motivated to write material. I think everyone has accepted it; they support what I've been doing. I sit at my four-track with a drum machine, a bass, a guitar and a microphone. My ideas usually don't relate to the guitar. That's the beauty of the dropped-D tuning . It freed me from all the conventional guitar techniques that we all fall into. It made me listen to the things that were in my head before sitting down with the guitar, so writing is a music thing instead of a guitar thing.

GW: How much input does the rest of the band have?

HAMILTON: Generally, it's up to the guys to come up with the articulation. Duke Ellington's orchestra is the perfect example. It's Duke Ellington's orchestra--Duke Ellington writes the music. But how important were Harry Carny and Jimmy Blanton? They were the personalities that defined the different periods of Ellington.

GW: How did you begin using the dropped-D tuning?

HAMILTON: By accident. One night I was walking home from the Pyramid [a club in New York's seedy Lower East Side] with a riff in my head. When I sat down to play it, the third note wasn't on the guitar. So I tuned down and said, "Here it is."

GW: What kind of guitars do you use?

HAMILTON: I play ESP, which have a real high output from the distorted pickup. And the guitars play really well. The Horizon has a through-the-body neck, so it has very distinctive harmonics and overtones. It also has a locking system, which is a pain in the ass since I only use the bar once a set. Peter uses Gibsons and ukelele strings--very thin, very feminine. I use very heavy, masculine D'Addario strings.

GW: How do you get your "crunch"?

HAMILTON: Peter and I both use Yamaha GEP-50's. They're just digital distortion and tube amp units, and we pretty much use its stock "Heavy Metal" setting for our rhythm sound. I don't spend much time with my lead sounds. I think it's more critical for Peter and I to get a good rhythm blend--a lot of crunch, but still some top end.

GW: Now that you have the major label deal, are you thinking about experimenting with gear?

HAMILTON: I'm not an equipment buff. I like having a couple of guitars and nice amps, but I never sit there going, "There's a bit of ring at 8K." I don't give a shit. I suppose if we were Def Leppard, and we wanted to make perfect, sterile albums.... But the band is noisy, though it's tighter than most noise bands.

You can spend a lot of time worrying about gear, and guys who do so should be equipment repairmen or sound engineers. Charlie Parker played some of the greatest solos of his career on a plastic, piece-of-crap horn that he borrowed after hocking his horn for the tenth time to buy heroin. It's not the instrument and the equipment, it's what you do with the music. I know a band in which both guitar players have the exact same setup as me and Peter--and they sound like sloppy folk singers.

I also hate going to [Manhattan's] 48th Street. It's like the "Brotherhood of Big Hair" or something. Like, "Hey man, you got a handle on your guitar?"

GW: Is your amp setup simple too?

HAMILTON: Yeah. In the past six months I've bought two Orange heads and two Orange 4x14 cabinets. I tried an Orange once, and discovered that their cabinets are very deep and sound better than Marshalls. So I searched around, found two setups, and paid much too much for them. Now I'm learning to do the stereo thing.

I use two half-stacks, because a full stack cuts into the vocals too much. I can hear myself and still get feedback from all over the place. I used to play a 4x10 and 2x12 mini-Marshall thing, but the sound was so distorted I couldn't hear myself. And if you travel a foot to the right or left of a Marshall, you're screwed. I've never had a problem with my new setup.

GW: Do you record live?

HAMILTON: Yes, I don't believe in doing separate tracks. I've been in bands like that, and you lose a lot of the sound that way.

GW: Was there anything you got to do this time that you were unable to when you recorded your independent release?

HAMILTON: We spent more time getting things right, but we recorded the album the same way as our other--very quickly. The whole album took a couple of weeks.

GW: How do you come up with your solos? Do you plan them?

HAMILTON: I just go by the sound. I think of a beginning, a middle and an end. But I can't get off with the same couple of ideas--I get bored with them. Listen to Steve Howe play a solo, and it's always the same thing, note-for-note and with the exact same feel. I can't do that. I'll utilize the same ideas--until I get sick of them. We usually play a song live for a long time before recording it. I don't think in keys--soloing is more of a modal thing for me. With the distortion, you get all these interesting sonic effects, with feedback and clusters of notes.

GW: Do you have an understanding of feedback and the different overtones?

HAMILTON: Yeah, but I don't sit there going, "Oh, I'm getting the sharp 11 in the chord there." I throw all the theory out the window and use trial and error. Of course, what you play on the fingerboard influences the feedback--and it's pretty consistent, because I always use the same setup.

GW: Do you ever change arrangements for your live show?

HAMILTON: Not intentionally. [laughs] I sometimes get into my own world--I probably make more mistakes than anybody. I'll go to the bridge at the wrong time, or cut the solo short, or play too long. But we recover pretty well.

I think if you give an audience a full hour of music, you can jam and screw around for a few minutes. That kind of stuff can develop things for the future. Great ideas happen that way.

GW: How have your hard-core fans reacted to your major label deal?

HAMILTON: We've caught a lot of crap, but that's just punk-rock snobbery. You should listen to a record no matter what it says on the jacket. If you drop the needle and it's good, okay. Unfortunately, people's whole identities are tied up with music, and it's such an ego-oriented business that if a band signs to a major label, and there's a lot of hype around them, everyone says they sold out. I just say, "Listen ot the record."

As for my influences, I think it's really destructive to draw lines of snobbery between jazz, classical and rock. People get too worried about categorizing things. Guitar players should get information from every source possible, whether it's a George Russel or Charlie Parker book, a Bartok string quartet, or a Motley Crue album.

 

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