Strap It On

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Helmet's Page Hamilton is a man of many guitars. To him, music is a form of intellectual stimulation. To fans, it's a reason for monster earplugs. Jonathan Gold pays witness to Hamilton's love supreme and Helmet's pillar of sound.

"It's Pa-age," says the doorman, sounding uncomfortably close to some hideous character played by Pauly Shore. "Page Ha-milton."

The doorguy comes out from behind his desk and starts to follow us out. "Rock'n'roll tonight, dude?" he asks. Hamilton, the impossibly tall singer, lead guitarist, and architect of Helmet, smiles and shrugs, and we duck out into the rain. For the next half-block we are pursued by the sound of this guy humming the chorus to Faith No More's "Epic," the 1989 MTV chestnut with those fish swimming around the room.

"You'd think he'd at least sing the riff for 'Unsung' or something," I say. "Even Beavis and Butt head do that one."

"Nah," Hamilton says. "l think he just knows that we toured with Faith No More."

Hamilton lives in one of those East Village apartments that is modest by Portland, Oregon, or Chicago standards, but luxurious by New York bohemian ones; a tidy place with jazz posters on the wall, a collection of San Francisco 49ers caps hanging neatly on the door, and a friendly cat who seems to enjoy nuzzling the guitars that lean here and there. A music stand holds Bartok and a thick folio of jazz standards. There is a gold record for Meantime, Helmet's last one.Bookshelves sag under the weight of worn-spined Lps—yards and yards of Ornette Coleman, Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, all alphabetized, maybe arranged by year. Sports equipment litters the floor.

The first thing a lot of people seem to know about Helmet is that the band signed to Interscope for, like, $23 billion or something, and the second thing is that Hamilton owns many, many John Coltrane records and is not shy about talking about them. If all you've done is read about the band, you might expect Helmet to roll around Manhattan's Lower East Side in color-coordinated Lamborghini Countaches, occasionally dismounting to blow hoary old jazz licks like John Zorn on a bad day. Of course, Helmet is neither a jazz band nor wealthy, just yet.

To understand Helmet, you first have to picture a rock club on the hottest day of summer, crowded and steaming, and louder than anything you've ever heard—so loud that the sound seems almost solid, like a concrete pillar in the middle of the room. Earplugs are useless. Your fillings ache. If you peer into the longneck of a Budweiser, you'd see little whitecaps skitter across the surface of the beer. Headbangers in the slam pit have that look of awe you might see on the face of a young surfer first witnessing a 30-foot break at Pipeline. Yet blank spaces gape between notes, and spare, wildly syncopated blues riffs unfold with the binary, on-off precision and relentless minimal repetitiveness you might expect more from Philip Glass than a rock band. Helmet is cerebral, but also physical as hell.

Hamllton catches me sort of snooplng through his records, and he shows me a few of his favorite out-of-print Coltrane albums. Then he leads me into the bed room, where he demonstrates a few of the guitars he keeps in the closet: a sweet old Gibson electric, a delicate classical guitar, a newish GNL that seems to have the hopped-up personality of the chopped and channeled mini trucks that cruise Hollywood Boulevard on Saturday nights. Each guitar seems to have its own personality—Bach suites to jangly 1930s Charlie Christian licks. He especially enjoys stroking a small, ancient Gibson acoustic that looks and sounds like the one bluesman Robert Johnson played. I ask him which guitar sounds the most like Helmet. He smiles coyly and buckles the GNL up in its case.

"Check this out," he says, reaching into a file cabinet near the door, "a paper from graduate school."

I flip through a sheaf of paper titled, "Wes Montgomery's So Do It: A Musical Analysis," a transcription and densely detailed harmonic synopsis of the late be-bop guitarist's solo. There is a grade on the title page: A. One suspects Hamilton has drawerfuls of these.

"You know," he says, "I love every aspect of music, and I find music itself is a form of intellectual stimulation. I like to listen to, like, the Jesus Lizard, and go, 'Wow, you know that's an interesting inversion of a Db7 flat-5 chord.' That's interesting to me. Most people are like 'So fucking what,' and I can't blame them."

This is not how Motley Crue learned to play guitar.

"I sold all my rock records at one time," Hamilton says, shutting the closet door, "because I hadn't listened to rock for years. But there came a point—I had to hear 'Back in the Saddle.' I had to hear Aerosmith. So I went around and got a used copy, and I put it on and listened to it with, you know, ears that weren't the ears of a 16-year-old anymore. And man, it still sounded great. Because back then I wanted to be Steven Tyler so bad."

Nine years ago, Hamilton was a graduate jazz-guitar student at the Manhattan School of Music, working as a stagehand and a limo driver, living in a rented room in Harlem slightly smaller than a tollbooth. He had never heard of the Mudd Club or CBGB, but he pined for the Village Vanguard where his hero Coltrane had played. After he graduated, he hooked up with composer Glenn Branca's famous guitar orchestra, from which Thurston Moore and Lee Ranaldo had recently graduated (he'd never heard of Sonic Youth, either), and he went on to play on an album and a couple of tours with wall-of-sound Branca affiliate Band of Susans.

In 1989, Hamilton formed Helmet with (now ex-guitarist) Peter Mengede, and found drummer John Stanier and bassist Henry Bogdan through the classifieds. "It was kind of a dumb ad," Stanier tells me later, "that mentioned, I think, Wire and Ornette Coleman, neither of which I am into at all. But I was in this really stupid band, and when I talked to Page over the phone he sounded cool."

Helmet recorded a well-regarded album for the Amphetamine Reptile label, toured in a stinky van, and played with Nirvana on that band's first visit to New York. A year later, when "Smells Like Teen Spirit" broke, Helmet was the first band caught up in Nirvanamania.

"We were driving through Canada," Hamilton says, "and all of the sudden Nirvana was on the radio in between Paula Abdul and Bryan Adams, and it felt as if there was hope in the world. I'll always associate that song with that time. It was so awesome—they were selling more albums than Guns N' Roses, and I hate Guns N' Roses. Helmet was tagged with the whole 'next Nirvana' thing, which was always insane, and though we had already talked to all these major labels, our price tag went boom. Nirvana just changed the climate. We signed to Interscope, home of Marky Mark and Gerardo."

At practice the next day, deep beneath the Lower East Side in the sub-sub-basement rehearsal space Helmet shares with Sonic Youth, Hamilton pulls a howling, mildly dissonant sound from his guitar, not unlike something from one of those Glenn Branca symphonies. He wrinkles his face and stops for a second.

"Remember that sharp 11 we used to play in the intro?" he says.

Bogdan looks at him kind of blankly. Hamilton whangs a series of chords—if something the Guarneri String Quartet might do could be called whanging—and suddenly Bogdan brightens, starts to plink out a countermelody, and turns the drone into a Helmet riff: "Wilma's Rainbow," from the new album, Betty, which Hamilton works out with the band measure by measure, until it is tight.

Suddenly the practice is over, and Hamilton heads uptown to a Yankees game. Bogdan, Stanier, and Rob Echeverria, Mengede's replacement, decide to walk a few blocks down to Umberto's Clam House in Little Italy, the place where Joe "Crazy Joey" Gallo was rubbed out. I tag along. We eat scungilli and drink thin red wine and talk about why New Yorkers are so jaded.

"Everybody is in a band here," Bogdan says. "Everybody is either an actor or is in a band. Or no, that's more L.A. Everyone here is either in a band or a model-photographer."

"A photographer or a junkie," Stanier says.

"Some kind of, like, arty kind of thing," Bogdan says. "God, I know so many painters."

Much later, at 3:00 AM., it's time for last call at a popular musicians' hangout south of Houston Street, and the crowd is just beginning to thin out for the night The second Hamilton walks in the bar, happy and relaxed after a Thurston Moore solo show in the meatpacking district, some goofball slips a quarter into the jukebox and punches in the Helmet anthem "Unsung." Hamilton winces as the first chords pound from the speakers, then watches in disbelief as the two guys start to play air guitar not two feet from him, oblivious to his presence, whipping their long hair over their heads in time with the riffs. He looks over at me and shrugs, then signals the bartender for a beer.

Spin, September 1994

 

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