Strap It On

    Heavy Mental

by Brad Tolinski

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Back in the good old days--1992, to be precise--Page Hamilton's main source of inspiration was the stripped-down, economical metal of AC/DC.

That was then.

Meet the new Page Hamilton. An experimental Page. A warped and twisted Page. A wayward headbanger whose recent unsavory obsessions with hip-hop, the banjo and, apparently, Barney Rubble's wife, have caused tongues to wag. To put it bluntly--there are those who fear that Helmet's lead guitarist/vocalist has lost his marbles. But if you find his behavior odd, don't blame him. Blame...David Bowie.

"While we were recording Betty," explains Hamilton, "I kept Bowie's Aladdin Sane by my bed. I listened to it constantly and really studied the lyrics. It's an incredibly atmospheric and experimental album. Bowie demonstrated that you could broaden your vision while staying well within the boundaries of rock music. I found it particularly useful because I wanted to accomplish something similar with Helmet on this album. The idea behind Betty was to expand our sound--without necessarily destroying our basic identity."

And damned if Hamilton didn't succeed.

Betty, the follow-up to 1992's gold-selling Meantime, demonstrates why Helmet continue to be metal's most interesting band. The album features plenty of their trademark sound--brutal unison riffs played over a highly disciplined rhythm section--but expands on that equation in significant ways. "Biscuits For Smut" swoops and stomps like a funky bulldozer; "Vaccination" is a sophisticated experiment in odd time signatures; and "Tic" drowns in wave after wave of Hendrixian feedback. Helmet even flex their disturbing sense of humor on the outlandish pseudo Delta blues fantasy, "Sam Hell." In short, Betty is a headbanging rainbow coalition where crunchy power chords freely mingle with funk, jazz and refreshingly macho-free lyrics.

Partly responsible for the band's growing confidence is the presence of new rhythm guitarist Rob Echeverria, formerly of the New York hardcore band Rest In Pieces.

"We were having problems with our original rhythm guitarist, Peter Mengede," explains Hamilton. "He wasn't coming to rehearsals and didn't give a damn about anybody. It was a huge burden. And when you are not getting along with a band member on a day-to-day basis, it stifles your creativity. I was at the point where I was actually thinking of quitting the band, which is kind of absurd. Once we fired Peter and hired Rob, everything started making sense again. It was a great relief to find someone that could play well and who understood what we were trying to achieve."

Additional assistance came in the unlikely form of hip-hop producer T-Ray, known primarily for his work with the rap group Cypress Hill. "We wanted to use someone that came from a completely different world," continues Hamilton, explaining the method behind his madness. "T-Ray didn't know anything about rock production, but he knew a lot about music. We weren't really looking for someone to tell us what to do. We just wanted someone with a different perspective. He turned out to be a perfect choice because he turned us on to a whole new world of beats and samples--stuff that was somewhat foreign to us."

Like his music, Hamilton is intellectually aggressive. He has strong opinions and is not afraid to dish them out. But Page is no bully. Despite his military regulation crew cut and boney, athletic physique he is simply a sensitive, straight-shooting Joe with a lot on his mind.

GUITAR WORLD: How is Betty different from your previous albums?

PAGE HAMILTON: I think we were just discovering who we were and what we could do on Strap It On (Amphetamine Reptile, 1990) and Meantime (Interscope, 1992). Our main goal was to create a very specific sound that we could build from, and I think we accomplished that. So, the idea with Betty was to expand on that platform without abandoning it.

GW: The hallmark of the band on your first two albums was precision. The precision is still evident on Betty, but it's less self-conscious, less stiff.

HAMILTON: That's what we hoped for. I think any musician's natural tendency is to push forward and try other things out.

The temptation is to try and repeat success. But that's not a real musical goal. When we recorded our first two albums nobody really gave a shit. After Meantime went gold, suddenly a lot of people gave a shit. But you can't let that pull you down.

GW: You tend to take a textural approach to soloing. I was wondering whether you consciously try to avoid playing the kind of blues-based solos that appear in most rock music.

HAMILTON: Not consciously. I think I sound different because I studied jazz before I discovered blues. I hear things in a very polytonal way, which is different from most rock players. I tend to look at what key a song is in and then I try to explore its harmonic tangents. I'm always amazed at what you can do by just introducing one note outside of the key.

That said, I do think I play a lot of blues-based lines. But I sort of hit the blues "backasswards," so some of my blues-based playing comes out sounding strange. To be honest, I didn't really discover the blues until years after I picked up the guitar. I've only recently appreciated how difficult it was to play within those restrictions.

GW: An often expressed cliche is that white musicians are incapable of authentically playing blues.

HAMILTON: I can understand that, but I think consciously limiting yourself is probably not a good thing. On the other hand, it's true that all the great blues artists are black. I mean, I love Stevie Ray Vaughan--phenomenal guitarist--but I'd rather listen to Albert King.

I once read that Eric Clapton said that if he knew then what he knows now, he probably wouldn't have covered Robert Johnson's "Crossroads," just out of respect. [laughs] That's sort of how I've always looked at the blues. It's like when I see somebody wearing a John Coltrane T-shirt or trying to play Coltrane's music, or that guy in Primal Scream writing lyrics about Coltrane--I have a really hard time with that. Musicians like Robert Johnson and John Coltrane were so completely dedicated and reached such a high place that linking their name to a rock band in 1994 is almost sacrilegious.

I mean, I'll wear a Jesus Lizard T-shirt because they're contemporaries and they're friends. That's okay. I don't hold them in the same regard that I hold Coltrane. On the other hand, I think it's cool to play and enjoy and learn Coltrane and Robert Johnson's music in the privacy of my own room.

GW: What about "Sam Hell," which touches on Delta blues in a bizarre way?

HAMILTON: Yeah, that was sort of a religious sacrilege. [laughs] I mean, look at the lyrics--I'm singing about cellulite while playing an electric Deering banjo, for God's sake. It's performed very tongue-in-cheek.

GW: One thing that is surprising is that there is a lot of humor on Betty. Aren't you suppose to be an angry young man?

HAMILTON: Actually, my biggest problem with most hard rock is that it doesn't know how to deal with humor. Either it's completely goofy or it takes itself too seriously. On the one hand you have bands like Poison singing about screwing 17-year-old girls, or you have some politically correct alternative band carping about the state of the world. Both extremes strike me as very, very self-conscious and premeditated. And not that clever.

GW: Who do you think does a good job with humor in music?

HAMILTON: The Jesus Lizard.

GW: What do you think of Primus?

HAMILTON: Some of it is really kind of funny, because Les has a very funny voice. And I admire them for that. I admire the fact that they're doing this thing that is just fucking weird--I mean, really, it's just fucking weird. But, I have to admit that you won't catch me listening to Primus all day--it would drive me crazy.

GW: What is your take on Kurt Cobain?

HAMILTON: There's no question that Kurt Cobain had a huge impact on music. Nirvana was an incredibly important band, and I was totally disturbed by his suicide. When Nirvana broke, everything in music changed.

The music industry, however, will probably never change. Their goal is to try and make as much money as they can in the shortest possible period of time. And alternative music right now is the music that they're focusing on because it is what the kids are buying. And this too will pass, just as new wave did, just as disco did or whatever. And maybe if we're lucky, grunge will make a resurgence in 20 years.

GW: Yeah, K-Tel will put out a compilation.

HAMILTON: Exactly. I can see it now! They'll have one of those commercials where the couple calls each other and says, "No, come over to my house, I have the 'Best Of The Early Nineties!'"

GW: But the success of Nirvana did shift the focus of the record companies.

HAMILTON: True. I know it helped us get a record deal. Nirvana was a heavy band, and it opened radio and the music industry up to something that was a little less homogenized than Bryan Adams and John Mellencamp.

GW: Do you ever feel trapped by people's expectations that you be hard, heavy and angry?

HAMILTON: It crosses your mind for a minute, especially when you learn to sing and you learn to do more things as a singer. On occasion you think, "Oh, somebody's gonna be bummed out by the fact that I'm not screaming." I mean, I know guys who hated "Unsung" because I was singing.

But I don't give a fuck. It's not my problem; it's their limitation. Let them find their own identity. I have mine. I love music too much to let worries like that get in the way. If someone's into music for music, that interests me. But I don't care about people that are offended because they think we abandoned some "scene." As far as I know, we were never a part of a "scene." We weren't accepted in the alternative world at first because we were to metal and not sloppy enough and our hair was too short. But then we became accepted because we were a little bit different and because we continued to grow.

GW: What was the significance of taking a jazz standard like "Beautiful Love" and...

HAMILTON: Trashing it? None, really. I love the song. There's no sacrilege in that, whatsoever. The great thing about jazz is that you can take a standard and play it one way today, and another way tomorrow. We just had some fun with it.

GW: You obviously have a pretty solid technical background, yet your solos tend to be minimal and to the point.

HAMILTON: I tend to feel that the groove is more important than the solo, and that solos tend to disturb and the groove. I'm at my best when I can integrate both.

GW: What is a good example of that ideal?

HAMILTON: "Speechless" does a good job. The goove is my favorite part of the song, so I created a solo that just rings over the top while the band continues to power away. I think the solo creates tension, kinda like what Blue Oyster Cult's Buck Dharma would do on one of his goofy, wild excursions. I love that.

GW: Speaking of grooves, "Vaccination" features several peculiar shifts in time.

HAMILTON: It took me five years to write. I had this riff in 7/8 that I like a lot, but could never figure out where to take it. So I shelved it. Then one day I was in Oregon, relaxing at my parents' house, and the rest just completely popped in my head.

I think one thing that I'm good at is being patient with ideas and not trying to force them into something that they don't want to be. And that's one of the problems I have with metal--a lot of things seem to be forced together. And "Vaccination" is an example of a riff that I had around for a long time that just never set anything else off, and finally it did. I wasn't going to do anything with it until it did. It wasn't like I had to finally finish this song or forget it. I have ideas that have been on tape for five or six years. Sometimes ideas don't lead you anywhere until you advance musically.

GW: Helmet plays very disciplined music and you sound like a disciplined person.

HAMILTON: Yes, but discipline by itself is nothing. You have to have had some sort of life experience. I think the greatest music has been developed by those that are able to combine discipline with some culturing.

GW: Betty has one of the best crunch sounds that I've ever heard. It's really beautiful in a certain way. What did you use?

HAMILTON: For all the rhythm tracks, I played my ESP Horizon Custom, and I combined a custom-made Harry Kolbe preamp with a 50-watt Marshall 22045 amp, both of which feed into a Harry Kolbe Silent Speaker. After the Silent Speaker comes a Boogie power amp which runs through one of Harry's 4x12's. I'm really happy with that setup--it's bottomy, but the clarity's there. One of my goals was to get more of the chordal things to come out and to actually hear more overtones than you could on the last album.

Rob's whole viewpoint is keep it simple. Basically he plugs his Les Paul into a Marshall head with Boogie power amps and that's it.

GW: Do you detune?

HAMILTON: Yeah, we use a dropped-D tuning. There are three songs on the album where all the strings are lowered a half-step and the the low Eb is dropped to Db.

GW: Everybody thinks Helmet is an angry band. What pisses you off?

HAMILTON: People not taking responsiblity for their own actions. The problems of the world can always be attibuted to some larger being--the government, a teacher, the police, whoever. And yeah, there's a lot of fucked-up shit done in the name of government and the police. But it's just really tiresome that no one wants to be accountable for their actions. These days, if you kill someone, it's because of some "uncontrollable impulse" or "temporary insanity." If someone rapes, beats and mutilates 33 little boys, fucking kill him. I'm sorry. The fact that a human being could rape one woman, let alone 10, 20, or 30 women, and get paroled after eight or 10 years and get out again is unbelievable to me.

More freedom for criminals is creating less freedom for the rest of us. We're getting to the point where there's going to be an all-out war in the United States. I'm not going to tolerate someone breaking into my house, raping my wife and killing my kids or whatever. I'm not going to tolerate it. I'm going to kill them. They have to be held accountable.

GW: Ironically, you would get busted for killing someone who broke into your house.

HAMILTON: You're right, I'm not allowed to shoot him. But if someone does [break into my house], he'll get a face full of lead, you know? I'll go to prison if that is the only way to protect my family.

 

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