Interview: Page Hamilton of Helmet

(this interview originally appeared in issue #27 of Modern Fix in 2002).


“I didn’t want the band to break up; I just wanted to take a break. I would want a Helmet reunion to be about being together as a band and playing cool songs.”

– interview by pr!


Helmet, motherfucking Helmet. Chunk chunk, chunk chunk, chunk chunk. One of the best things to break out of the mid-east (not Iraq) in the 90’s was Helmet. Their first LP, “Strap It On”, was rough and riffy with a pinch of Husker Du. Their second release, “Meantime”, hit the radio (and MTV) with it’s singles “In the Meantime” and the more popular, “Unsung”. This was their premier on Interscope, and what a premiere it was. Music that didn’t sound like the grunge that was peaking at the time, but more rock then the underground hardcore churning in the scene. Then came “Betty”, their third and most ‘odd’ album, when you consider what Helmet was and how the song structures on “Betty” are. Their fourth, (well, a fifth release, “Born Annoying”, was a compilation of demo’s, B-sides and a cover), was “Aftertaste”, arguably their best piece of work. And, like what seems to be the burden of good musical acts, Helmet subsequently fell apart. Stopped. Heard rumors that Page Hamilton, vocals/guitars, left the band to go on his own. Other members left on different music paths. That was it.

Skip a few years ahead; Page is back in the saddle with a new group named Gandhi. I talked to Page at his home in Los Angeles about the new act and to dispel rumors of the Helmet breakup and possible reunion.

What happened with Helmet?
We had enough of each other. After 10 years, it just kind of stopped.

Was it a mutual band decision?
Well, in keeping with the strangeness of the band, we never really talked about it. In 1997, after we made the record, Henry, our bass player, wanted to do stuff musically and was probably sick of me. We always kind of said to each other that if we weren’t into it, we wouldn’t do it. We were really proud of that album…

Yeah, and that record didn’t sell as much as the other records had. So we just kind of got tired of it. I asked Henry to finish the tour with us, which he agreed, and then afterwards, John said that if Henry left, he would.

Was it due?
Yes and no. I wish we had stuck with it. I miss playing, and I loved Helmet. Maybe we had taken it as much as we could.

I really feel that Helmet was it’s own genre, in the same sense as Tool and Primus. There just wasn’t too much like helmet.
Totally, there was a real perception that we didn’t really fit in for whatever was popular, which was discouraging; because I didn’t know we were trying to be what was popular. Helmet was a great band, and I played with great musicians.

How frustrating was coming off “Aftertaste”, probably the strongest Helmet music ever, and then breaking up? And what went on differently during the writing of “Betty” that made it sound differently then “Aftertaste”?
Nobody cared. When we first started the band, I was into Husker Du, Big Black and Killing Joke, and those were the main influences on my writing. When we developed Helmet, we started drop tuning and created, well, Helmet. We worked really hard, practicing three times a week, and then when things started taking off when we put “Strap It On” out, we really started breaking. When “Unsung
broke out, it was huge, and this was music that we were told wasn’t going anywhere. So the people that told us, even at Interscope, that “Meantime” wasn’t anything, were now patting us on the back. And yeah, maybe I was naïve and people really started putting a wedge in the band as they made me the ‘captain’ of Helmet, which I had real problems with. I was not Helmet. We were Helmet, but I think all that really drove the band apart. I admit I let a lot of people tell me what to do, and I should have fucking just not listened.

You sound really bummed out by that.
I was. I am. We let Peter go because he let this attention go to his head, acting like a rockstar and all. This is something we’ve ironed out, by the way, although I haven’t talked to him in a while. When we had the wreck, in which everyone in the band was injured, it was a really bad time for us. I didn’t like the way Peter handled it, so I got John and Henry together and told them I wanted to let him go. I think that at the moment, their view of that gave them distress as they were more close to Peter then I was. That, and all the rockstar stuff really started to get to everyone. They thought I was going to quit the band and start a solo career, which was the last thing on my mind. Really, I tried in vain to get them more involved in the writing, because that was another thing (“oh, you get more money because you write”). So, “Betty” was a fucking mess. The engineer, the producer, nobody was involved.

What do you think of “Betty”?
There are some interesting things on there. “Rainbow”, the cover of “Beautiful Love”… “Biscuits for Smut” was an accident; I picked up an untuned guitar and played it. A lot of people tell me they like it, but I haven’t listened to it that much. “Overrated” was interesting…

Are you reading the back of the cd?
(laughs) yeah

“Overrated”, I bet, was the first step into writing music for “Aftertaste”.
Yeah, absolutely. That was the first time I was unafraid of song writing. I think it was a useful step (“Betty”) of the development of the band, but lyrically, I was going thru some weird stuff, like with my, well, soon to be wife and soon to be ex-wife. Coming home as a rockstar, the band mates, being in New York and doing a lot of drugs… I remember being at home when I got a call from our soundman, who was Nirvana’s soundman as well, and hearing about Kurt (Cobain) before it hit the news… a lot of weird stuff was happening. And with the record company telling us to “to what you did, again”…

How many bands can say Ozzy Osbourne was their manager?

And at what point was the decision made to do the Jerky Boys movie, with Ozzy Osborne as (in the movie) your manager?
Well, I read the Jerky Boys script, and, as I was heavily quote in Rolling Stone, thought it was crappy, but it was a lot of money and Ozzy was in it. They got mad at me after the movie was shot but before it was in the theaters. I don’t think it was a bad idea; it wasn’t a good movie, but Ozzy was cool and we got paid. I don’t think it helped or hurt our career.

I’m sure a lot of people don’t even realize you were a real band in the movie.
Yeah, that’s true. I feel bad that the Jerky Boys got some bad press from me about the movie, but their CD was funny as fuck.

I heard talk of a Helmet reunion.
Never been discussed with us, actually. People around us talk about it, though. Chris Trainer plays with Bush now, and keeps in touch with Henry, our bass player, who hasn’t touched a bass since we broke up. I mentioned it to John, who plays drums for Tomahawk with Mike Patton, and he didn’t really say one way or the other. I guess, I don’t know, I’m a bit pissed I got vilified as the bad guy from Helmet, but I’m over it. Working with Gandhi is fun for me.

Well, you could have gone the Axl Rose way, and kept the name but got new band members.
Right. Some record company wanted me to do that, and it just didn’t seem right. It would be nice to have the name, but it’s not just about me, so I couldn’t have done it. I would need John and Henry. Chris would do it in a second, though. I wouldn’t want it to be a desperation move, though. I didn’t want the band to break up; I just wanted to take a break. I would want a Helmet reunion to be about being together as a band and playing cool songs.

Enough about Helmet; you’ve got Gandhi. I heard you played a few shows recently…
We’ve played about 10 shows; some were unannounced, some were setup. I just wanted to play really bad. It was okay; we had our moments, and I really think we have good songs written.

How’d that feel, playing in front of an audience?
Great. We did some Helmet songs, which was cool for me and I’m sure, for the people who haven’t heard those songs in a while. We played in Boston, which is great, because people love to hear us there. The whole mini tour was fun, although I felt it was a little half assed.

It could have been tighter.
Exactly, I mean, it was tight. It sounded pretty good, but it’s the attention to detail that I liked with Helmet that hasn’t been established yet in Gandhi.

What’s the influence for Gandhi? Where are you going that’s different then Helmet?
Gandhi is still a work in progress, really. I’ve been working with Charlie from NIN fame, and we’ve just been really experimenting. I’ve been working on my vocals… I realized after Helmet that D minor is not a great area for my voice. Helmet became a bit routine; I want everyone to participate. Obviously, I write songs and lyrics, and coming up with an AC/DC riff isn’t enough, but I want ideas to flow. So many bands out there keep cranking out sound that just is so similar with a dozen other bands. Puddle of Mudd, for example, not to pick on them, but that just goes nowhere. But what do I know. I’m not that great of a player to mimic other people’s style.

How annoying is that to listen to the KROQ’s out there, and hear the same tired material from different bands?
Sure, it’s bad. That sort of thing never interested me. Shit, when I started playing music, the goal was to not sound like anyone else.

“Born Annoying” (demo’s/b-sides album with early material by Helmet)?
(laughs) yeah

Track seven off of “Born Annoying”.. Man, that’s a wacky song.
(looks for the CD) Oh yeah, that was a Melvin’s cover (makes the guitar chorus with his mouth)

Obviously I don’t read the liner notes.
(laughs) That was an interesting compilation of material.

Is Gandhi signed?
Not yet. There have been talks… I did a deal with Virgin that fell apart when they fell apart and fired everybody. Airtimes offered me a deal but wanted me to call it Helmet. We spoke to Columbia but that fell apart with a conflict between the A&R and us. We’re working on it; we just don’t want to pour our heart into something, only to have it misrepresented in an awkward atmosphere. We’re talking to people; unfortunately in the label’s viewpoints, we’re not mainstream.

Not as cool as Creed.
Exactly. We’ve recorded a few songs, but really don’t have much totally in stone. Man, that reminds me, I need to get the bio on our website straightened out. Something about me and Nine Inch Nails, or something.

Hold on, lemmie go to the website. Ah, here it is: “recently contributed guitar on one song from the forthcoming Nine Inch Nails record” is totally not true. I’ve played with them, but I’m not aware of any material coming out, unless they, like, recorded it live or something.

You also almost were in Silverchair, temporarily that is.
They called me to play guitar for Daniel. He has an arthritic condition, and they wanted me to cover for them. I’d met them a few years back, and they were pretty vocal about their admiration for Helmet. It fell thru after they cancelled it; probably felt funny singing without playing.

Final question: why Gandhi?
We spent hours in bars over many beers trying to come up with a name. Christian mentioned Gandhi at first, and we just came back to it. I like the way it sounded, and I was surprised nobody used the name. Nothing too deep, just a cool band name.