Strap It On

    Helmet

Take four nice, clean-cut boys, and what do you get? Noise, and lots of it.
by Matt Diehl

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Agitated, at the moment, that's the only way to describe Helmet singer, guitarist and band leader Page Hamilton. Apparently someone forgot to tell John Stanier, the band's drummer, about the Rolling Stone interview that theoretically started half an hour ago. Hamilton frantically calls Stanier at home, but his face maintains a cool calm. As he paces the floor of his publicist's New York office, it's his movements that give his frustration away, full of the jerky rhythms that make up Helmet's discordant blare. "I'm a nervous person by nature—this is typical," Hamilton confesses as he hangs up the phone. "I get this fluttery stomach thing right before I play a show. Then I yawn a lot; people see me and say sarcastically, 'Boy, you seem really excited to play,' when I'm really just trying subconsciously to make myself less nervous."

Twenty minutes later, Stanier shows up, sweaty and exhausted, a mountain bike hanging over his shoulder—he's just pedaled furiously over the Williamsburg Bridge to get here from his Brooklyn loft. After admiring the bike, Hamilton—along with bassist Henry Bogdan and guitarist Rob Echeverria—starts dissing Stanier's bike-messenger chic. "Look at him—he's got a beeper and his baseball cap on backward, big baggy trousers, Pumas!" Hamilton says sardonically. "I don't have Pumas!" snaps Stanier, causing his band mates to burst into laughter. "Well, you should see John's 1-900 bill to the Box," Hamilton says, betraying the secret to the hidden funkiness in Stanier's thundering beats.

Such lighthearted exchanges temporarily expel Hamilton's reputation as a tightly wound control freak, a label he resents. "I'm not a control freak at all," he says as he turns to leave the office. "If I work hard for 12 hours on a song, I have the right to say how it should come out. You have more invested in it from an emotional standpoint—that's why I'm the leader of the band. I have total respect for the guys I play with, and they understand that if I didn't write songs, we wouldn't have a band." And Helmet, with their matching crew cuts, clean neutral-colored clothes, baseball caps and smootly shaved faces, come off more like an earnest ROTC unit than your typical rock group.

In fact, as the band members sit down to lunch a few minutes later in an expensive SoHo eatery—clearly standing out among the restaurant's Armani-clad artworld patrons—it becomes clear that Helmet aren't an easy band to pigeonhole. For one, Hamilton, despite the meat-cleaver riffs he pummels out of his guitar, is a vegetarian. "According to my parents, " he says, "I'm obnoxious and loud. According to early Helmet press, I'm Mr. Straightedge."

Stanier complains about a recent photo shoot during wihch the band members were asked to do push-ups at a boxing ring. "That's the thing we wanted to get away from, " he says, groaning, "that hard-guy image." This concern over image appears out of place for a group of guys usually portrayed as so relentlessly stoic that they would rather discuss their favorite guitar amps than engage in expected rock-star concerns like photo shoots. Who'd believe such ordinary guys would be responsible for the grinding intensity of Helmet's 1990 indie debut, Strap It On, and their breakthrough major-label follow-up, 1992's Meantime? On these releases, Helmet forged an aggressively innovative combination of Sonic Youth's atonal guitar exploration, Killing Joke's industrial precision and Black Sabbath's riff-heavy crunch, appealing to metalheads and art-noise aficionados alike. (Bogdan bristles at the inevitable Sabbath comparison, however: "I didn't grow up listening to Black Sabbath," he says. "I went out and bought their records only because people said we sound like them. Now I can see the connection, but it's pure coincidence.")

Still, the band has much to be happy about these days: Helmet have just released their long-anticipated third album, Betty, which holds surprises ranging from impressive expansions on the band's sonic palette to the album's humorously benign title. "When we were on tour last year, our crew kept referring to girls as Betties," Hamilton explains. "Around the time we were mixing, I was lying in bed thinking, 'Betty would be a very funny title.' It was one we could all live with." "We have a hard time making group decisions," adds Bogdan. "When we hit something we all like a little bit, we just go with it."

Helmet's newly enhanced sense of humor doesn't keep Hamilton from expressing his often brutal opinions on the lack of innovation in current music. "A lot of whatever you want to call alternative rock just waters down the same shit that fucking Blue Cheer and the Byrds were doing 25 years ago," Hamilton says. "To me, it's the same boring three-chord changes, guitar sounds and melodies."

These are strong words coming from a man whose career obviously benefited from heavy MTV rotation. Indeed, Helmet were one of the first bands major labels flocked to in hopes of finding the next Nirvana and the one voted least likely to succeed because of the Spartan brutality of their sound, its only commercial element being Hamilton's unintentional vocal similarity to Ozzy Osbourne. In 1992, when Interscope Records signed Helmet to a million dollar-plus contract that promised unheard-of creative control and royalty rates, the news reverberated throughout the media. Articles appeard in such unlikely places as Newsweek, suggesting that the music industry had collectively lost its mind and was setting a dangerous precedent by gambling away such large sums on an unproven New York noise band whose only release had sold just a few thousand copies. Ultimately, though, Helmet had the last laugh: Meantime managed to go gold without artistic compromise, selling more than 500,000 albums because of impressive live shows, strong word of mouth and heavy MTV rotation of the video for the album's second single, "Unsung."

According to Hamilton, such hoopla over punk bands cashing in is a thing of the past. "Things changed," he says. "Our deal made all this noise, yet I didn't see anything about Seaweed signing to Hollywood Records for half a million dollars."

Almost immediately, Meantime's unexpected success created additional pressure for the next release. "The record company still thinks we're Guns n' Roses, and I can't get them to think otherwise," Hamilton continues. "They see Stone Temple Pilot enter at No. 1 and say, 'Why didn't you do that?' I asked them if they've listened to their album—and if they've listened to ours! We've never tried to appeal to the masses."

Such pressures weren't anywhere to be found in Helmet's unlikely beginnings. Hamilton spent his childhood growing up in a middle-class family in Medford, Ore., a "typically redneck town of 25,000," where he worked at the local logging mill and spent evenings lightning smudhe pots under trees in the Harry and David fruit orchard to keep the buds from freezing.

"I was just a really nice little small-town geek who wanted to play baseball and football," Hamilton says. "I loved Dave Wilcox and Fran Tarkenton." It was the bombastic sounds of Led Zepplin IV and excessive pot smoking ("Great pot grows around there -- we'd make bongs in shop and smoke hash oil in chemistry class"), though, that inspired Hamilton, now 34, to learn guitar in his senior year of high school.

After a disastrous first year at the University of Oregon ("I had like a 1.9 grade point average"), Hamilton sold all his rock albums and turned to jazz, sitting out the punk explosion with jazzbos like George Benson and Miles Davis. "I began to feel that rock was limited and that jazz had a real language," he says. Hamilton decided to become a jazz guitarist and applied to the university's program in jazz and classical guitar, a decision that did not sit well with his parents, who saw him as a doctor or lawyer. "They're very small-town, family and work oriented," Hamilton says, "so my dad's first word when I told him I was going to be a music major was 'Bullshit!' His eyes were like saucers!"

After graduating, Hamilton moved to New York in 1985, enrolling in the Manhattan School of Music's master's program in jazz guitar. Soon after getting his degree, however, Hamilton found himself thrown into the Lower East Side noise-rock scene, playing guitar for the avant-garde luminaries Band of Susans and the minimalist composer Glenn Branca. "I had just finished grad school, and I really wanted to do something different," Hamilton says. "I was reading through the paper and saw a Band of Susans ad and a couple of weeks later a Branca ad. I talked to them both, auditioned for them both and got into them both."

Hamilton admits that "Band of Susans and the whole distortion thing got me back into rock." Hamilton's second musical education included tours opening for art-punk pioneers Wire and extended sessions rifling through the archives of Blast First, Band of Susans' record label, where he was blown away by early recordings of Big Black, Sonic Youth and the Butthole Surfers. For Hamilton, the post-punk scene was a "whole new fun world for me," yet he also saw a link to his earliest musical influences, the combination of which would provide the basis for Helmet's heavy-metal sound.

"I obviously started playing the guitar because of rock music," Hamilton says. "Aerosmith, Ted Nugent, Led Zeppelin -- that's all I listened to. I don't see it as that far removed from Sonic Youth or Big Black."

Hamilton soon tired of his secondary role in Band of Susans. "I wanted to write songs and be a part of the group, but they didn't want it," Hamilton says. "I brought in some four-track demos of my stuff, and they said they liked the songs, but they weren't right for the band, so I decided to leave."

One person who did like the tapes was Reyne Cuccuro, a friend of Hamilton's who worked at the now defunct music-trade magazine Rockpool. Cuccuro offered to pay for the musician's classified ads in The Village Voice and introduced Hamilton to her then-husband, Helmet's original second guitarist, Peter Mengede. Through these ads, Hamilton found the like-minded Stanier, 26, a veteran of numerous undistinguished Florida hardcore bands, and Bogdan, another Oregon expatriate. Lured by interest in Branca, the Cramps and the early No Wave post-punk scene, Bogdan, 33, had moved to Manhattan in the early '80s after a stint with the Portland punk pioneers Poison Idea. Like Hamilton, Bogdan become disillusioned with rock, preferring to concentrate on his career as a scenic artist and studio assistant to the minimalist painter Frank Stella. "I missed the whole Husker Du era," Bogdan says. "I was listening more to new jazz and your sort of high-art elevator-soundtrack stuff."

Still, Bogdan and the other memebers were soon drawn in by the first rehearsal's chemistry and Hamilton's obsession with "musical economy." Also taken in was indie-label owner Tom Hazelmyer. Impressed by an early demo tape, he released Helmet's single "Born Annoying" on his Amphetamine Reptile label in 1989, six months after the band formed, with Strap It On following soon after. Even then, Hamilton felt he was on to something new. "The minimalism was by choice," he says. "Rather than being a funk-rock-fusion-disco-jazz-hardcore band like so many out there, we found something that didn't sound like musical jerking off. With Betty we've added to it in a way that feels natural for us."

One factor affecting Betty's expanded approach was the ouster, due to personal and musical clashes, of guitarist and founding member Mengede. Echeverria, 26, a mosh-pit veteran of the New York hardcore bands Rest in Pieces and Straight Ahead, replaced Mengede weeks before a tour in early 1993. "The relationship with Peter got increasingly strained," says Hamilton. "My take on it is that he became resentful of the fact that I was writing songs that three of us were capable of playing, and he wasn't as capable. A good musical thing can't survive in that kind of vibe."

"Until Feb. 17, 1993 [the date of his dismissal]," says Mengede, "it was four individuals contributing musically and in other ways. You're in a partnership based on trust. Now Page is claiming he created the name Helmet, owns it and granted us permission to perform under that name under his leadership, which to me all seems very bizarre. I have a huge problem resolving that affable, music-loving public persona with his actions."

Since his dismissal, Mengede has filed suit in Manhattan Federal Court, alleging, among other things, failure to supply accountings and withholding royalties. "Page said my dismissal was due to our worsening personal relationship, which he said was largely his fault," Mengede says. "I think that's legitimate." Mengede also claims Echeverria is playing his eqipment, bought with his royalites from the sale of Strap It On. "When they informed me I was leaving the band, they offered me 6,000 bucks and six months of health insurance," says Mengede, who's since formed another band. "They are making it difficult for us [the new band] to go on." Hamilton did not comment on the financial issues.

Ironically, Hamilton now encourages the band's increased creative participation, another aspect that distinguishes Betty from its predecessors. While Hamilton remains the principal songwriter, Bogdan wrote the music for two songs, "Rollo" and "The Silver Hawaiian." "I sort of got off my butt and tried my hand at songwriting," Bogdan says. "I just got bored with not having as much involvement in the music as I wanted."

"The Silver Hawaiian" especially pushes Helmet toward new ground, with the band exploring the missing link between the Meters' syncopated funk and the Butthole Surfers' gurgling dissonance. "'The Silver Hawaiian' is something we would have never tried two, three years ago," Hamilton says. "Rhythmically it's not how I would have written, so it made me think differently -- it opened up a whole other world for me to try things out on vocals. Next time, we'll probably have to do a double album 'cause everybody will write 10 songs, but that's all right."

Bogdan's obsession with country music (he wears a George Jones-style hat in nearly all recent publicity photos) and odd traditional instruments resulted in another of Betty's stylistic departures. "Sam Hell" finds Hamilton singing about a woman "known for making good gravy and cat" in a hillbilly caterwaul over twangy gutbucket country honk. "I had this dumb, bluesy-sounding riff, and I thought, 'Everybody's going to hate this,'" Hamilton explains. "And Henry had this totally awesome electric six-string banjo; it sounded so fuckin' good, like nothing you'd ever heard."

The band also expands it repertoire to include a radical deconstruction of the jazz standard "Beautiful Love," which Hamilton first learned off of a Bill Evans album during his jazz studies. Such artistic choices, however, should be taken with a grain of salt. "The thing that scares me the most about having something like 'Beautiful Love' on our record is that people are going to think it's a serious interpretation," Stanier says, "when it's really a big joke."

Overall, Betty's immediate sound sets Helmet apart from both the current wave of alterna-rock and the band's earlier albums. "I personally think this album represents what we will be able to do in the life of the band, whereas before we were just trying things out," says Hamilton. "Strap It On was kind of an accident -- we'd stumbled upon this thing we could all do well together. The next album was a little more metal. On this album we were all aware we liked the groove aspect of things."

To help further the groove aspect, Helmet enlisted producer Todd "T" Ray (who first worked with them on their collaboration with House of Pain for the Judgement Night soundtrack) in lieu of noise impresarious like Wharton Tiers and Steve Albini, who'd recorded the band previously. The presence of T-Ray (Cypress Hill, Funkdoobiest) added to Betty's pronounced hip-hop influence. "Great hip-hop is some of the most exciting music you can find -- it's certainly more entertaining per pound than alternative rock," Hamilton says. "The KRS-One/Boogie Down stuff, to me that's the best shit on the planet; stripped down, bare, rhythmic, with a great voice. That's what music's about -- bringing all this stuff together."

The waitress circles the table handing out dessert menus. After much concentration, Hamilton recommends the carmelized fruit over rice pudding. As the waitress leaves with the order, the conversation moves to a casual discussion about groups like the Jesus Lizard, Morphine, Jon Spencer Blues Explosion and Wider, who all received the highest praise. All of a sudden, Hamilton, afraid that the talk may be devolving into elitist indie-rock hipsterism, tries to break it up with a potentially embarrassing admission. He comes clean about his affinity for blue-eyed soul.

"The guys used to tease me because I have that Hall and Oates album Big Bam Boom," Hamilton confesses. "I love that song 'Out of Touch' -- I'm not ashamed of it. I like that song by Ace, too, you know...." He pauses, then excitedly breaks into the familiar refrain of Ace's signature 70s schmaltz hit "How Long" -- "How long has this been going on?" -- causing his band mates to burst into laughter.

Hamilton sobers up soon enough, though, to discuss Helmet's immediate future, which includes a U.S. tour with the Rollins Band and Les Claypool's Sausage this summer, with additional jaunts to Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Japan later in the year. Other recent projects have included dabbling in film: The band contributed a song to the hugely successful soundtrack for The Crow and makes a cameo as -- what else? -- a rock band in the upcoming Jerky Boys movie (in an ironic twist, the band performs a Black Sabbath song, and Ozzy Osbourne plays its manager).

"We though it would be a hoot, and we wanted to meet Ozzy real bad," Hamilton says. "It'll probably be totally humiliating, but it was fun."

"I'm just curious to see what we come up with for the next couple albums," Hamilton continues. "Musically, we're really solid, and we're getting along better than we ever did. I hope we can just fucking develop to where we're all happy with what we're doing without throwing everything out the window and trying to reinvent ourselves -- like U2 or something."

 

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