Strap It On

    Helmet Cranks Up The Volume

by Murray Engleheart

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"Hey!" a delighted Page Hamilton exclaims, pointing deep into the 6,000-strong crowd in Sydney, Australia. "That's an African death mask, right?" he says, gesturing at a particular T-shirt.

"Louder?" he laughs with disbelief as the crowd responds to Page's audience interaction. "Turn it up!" he calls to Prong's former soundman. "They wanna bleed!"

There's a million Helmet volume stories. One of the best is the time the band played an outdoor festival and had nothing but drums and vocals running through the PA, because their onstage sound--which, reportedly, is regularly around 130 to 150 decibel mark--was so loud. "We always have problems with the places we play."

Page, who is perplexed by the bad blood that seems to have surfaced between Prong and Helmet after the release of Prong's Cleansing album, sighs. "We just did some shows in little 400-to-500 capacity clubs in France, and we had to really cut our volume back. That's not as fun for us because you sacrifice tone and that's a big part of good guitar sound. There's no question that if you drive the shit out of speakers they sound better, and that's what it's about. It starts with the drums. John [Stanier] is a very loud player. He has these cymbals that are the size of...the moon or something, and they're so loud that they kind of drown everything else out. It forces you to attack your instrument. Our right hands are heavy, we play with heavy picks and heavy strings and hit the strings."

In Sydney, those collective hits were so clinically exacting it was staggering. From an almost X-rated-paced version of "In The Meantime," complete with that killer Deep Purple-Speed King-on-crack intro, to cuts like "Wilma's Rainbow," to the bowelling, churning, "Born Annoying," they were jaw-droppingly impressive, selling solid metallic hell wholesale to masses who lapped it up as good groove music. Led Zeppelin were appreciated on the same level before they were crowned heavy metal. The set closed with drummer Stanier kicking over his kit, and Page scraping his screeching guitar across every surface within reach before ceremoniously throwing it to the floor and kicking it about as the instrument screamed with feedback. As he stepped through the humming wreckage, he tripped slightly, reminding us that you can't be too careful at a demolition site.

The week previous, when the band were in Auckland, New Zealand, Page picked up a stack of old T. Rex records that he stashed amongst his luggage. Usually, though, when he starts out on a tour, he can never be exactly sure what's in his bags. "Every time I leave there's always some surprise in my bag that my girlfriend sneaks in when I'm not looking," he chuckles. "I said, 'please don't put anything in my bag, it's just this extra crap that I have to carry around. It's a very funny gag, and you got me last time with this giant rubber cockroach. It was great.' Sure enough, I fucking stick my hand in my bag on the first day and there's a huge rubber chicken in there! One time she stuck a yellow high-heeled shoe in there that I'd found on the street years earlier. Then I feel bad throwing it away because it's a sentimental thing."

It seems Helmet's powerage is everywhere at the moment with the latest Betty album, their contribution to The Crow soundtrack, and now their appearance--both visually and aurally--in the Jerky Boys movie with Ozzy Osbourne as their manager. The band recorded Black Sabbath's "Symptom of the Universe" and "Lord of This World" for the flick, though only "Symptom" got the nod. "Lord of This World" will appear with an English mag called Volume. So did the Ozman make any remarks about Page's voice sounding familiar?

"He sure did! He said to me, 'I was fucking driving down the road in L.A.,'" Page begins in his best Ozzy voice. "'And I thought, I don't remember recording that!'" Page got into Sabbath through the Melvins, but he was a Zeppelin boy at heart, and so was delighted to find that former Zeppelin and Sabbath tour manager Wilf Wright was actually on Helmet's Australian trek as tour manager for joint headliners the Beastie Boys. Got that?

"I think I'll offer to blow him tomorrow," Page laughs, before madly yelling, "tell me some stories man! C'mon, tell me about Zep!"

Much to Page's delight, Helmet have cut their own piece of Zeppelin history with a version of "Custard Pie" for the Zeppelin tribute album.

"We recorded it with Butch Vig [Nirvana] and we had David Yow from The Jesus Lizard singing with us. There's no fucking way anybody's track on that album is going to top ours! You got Helmet, the great band with the mediocre singer--namely me--and you take out me and you put in David Yow--who is a fucking great vocalist, incredibly unique and powerful--and like myself, a huge Zep-head. It just turned out amazing! There's no way that Robert Plant and Jimmy Page with Slash and Axl Rose doing 'Stairway To Heaven' are going to top our version of 'Custard Pie.'"

"The people who are in charge of that thing were like, 'I don't know, could you redo the vocals? Can Page do the vocals? It's like comedy, he's doing all these Elvis things or whatever,'" he spits out. "It's not done in any mocking way whatsoever. We were very nervous about doing it, and we wanted to do the best possible version of the song we could do but still have it be us. If they don't want it, then fuck it, we'll take it and use it for something else. We'll pay them their money back."

In an interesting stroke of fate, when Helmet were in the U.K. they had two days to write and record a song for the Johnny Mnemonic movie which features both Henry Rollins and Ice-T. A guy that was working with them knew Robert Plant, and gave Page the breathtaking details of the two shows that Plant and Page did for MTV. While Page agrees that the Zep myth shouldn't be tampered with too much, he also rightly feels that music--particularly great music--shouldn't be given a set shelf life.

"To me, those recordings are timeless," he declares. "The beauty of Zep is that they captured a vibe on every record. Like 'Black Dog.' I don't want to hear 'Black Dog' live, because that version on that album is so dark and so intense."

Another of Page's great loves is Aerosmith, and while it's hard to imagine him in scarves and black nail polish, when he was younger, Page admits to having a major Steve Tyler fixation.

"I wanted to be a cross between Jimmy Page and Steve Tyler," he corrects with a laugh. "I still marvel at what that guy can do with his voice. It's kind of inhuman. I've never heard anybody sing like that, still, to this day. They put out five great albums, and that's a lot of albums for a rock band. It's not like a jazz artist who can make an album every week."

The Rolling Stones' Keith Richards once said that blues elder statesman John Lee Hooker was the real heavy metal. Given Page's love for jazz, are there any jazz figures he'd deign to put in the same catagory?

"To me, Robert Johnson is heavy, that's some of the heaviest stuff," he says of the 1930's Delta blues legend. "I always looked at jazz as groove music, like I look at music in general. I would never want to use the words 'heavy metal' and any of my jazz heroes names' in the same sentence, but (Thelonious) Monk is heavy to me, Monk is extremely heavy. So is [John] Coltrane, but it's not obvious heaviness like heavy metal. I think a lot of these bands are so obsessed with being heavy that they've completely lost it, they're not heavy at all."

In keeping with that blues train of thought is Betty's closing cut, "Sam Hell," with its distorted ultra-metallic dobro-like work and Captain Beefheart feel.

"Beefheart is obviously very Howlin' Wolf-inspired too. Henry [Bogdan] came in with this sound and I immediately heard this Beefheart-Howlin' Wolf vocal thing. I wanted the lyrics to be a little bit disjointed and nonsenical and fun, so we just went in and laid it down in one take."

Was there anything on Betty that had such a strong groove that it could have gone on for half an hour?

"Certain things, when I was writing them, they would be longer, longer grooves like 'Street Crab.' John wanted to go on with the progression like, I want to this to go on forever, but when I was playing it at home I kept stopping in the same place. The last song on side one of a vinyl album would be 'Street Crab,' and it kind of leaves the listener's ear going, because the progression cycles in such a way that it sounds like it's just going to go on forever."

"I think songs should be this finite listening experience while creating the mood of something infinite, like [Pink Floyd's] 'Comfortably Numb.' I could listen to that guitar solo a million times, and when the record ends and you're walking down the street it's still playing," he reminisces enthusiastically. "David Gilmour is still up in your room fucking going off."

 

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