During the label feeding frenzy that followed Nirvana’s success in the early ’90s, most bands were devoured by hype and commercial expectations. One band that stormed the palace gates with big boots was the NYC-bred bombastic force known simply as Helmet. Forged in the same Lower East Side furnace that gave birth to killer post-NYHC killers like Prong and the still-underrated Unsane, Helmet first drew the attention of savvy rock fans with 1989’s “Born Annoying” 45 and the following year’s full-length release, “Strap It On,” both released on Minneapolis’ Amphetamine Reptile Records. The band moved as one with pummeling, repetitive rhythms delivered in odd-time signatures. Frontman Page Hamilton barked out his lyrics in a vocal style straight out of a CBGB’s hardcore matinee. After signing with Interscope Records in 1992, Helmet released “Meantime,” and the five-piece soon put singles like “Unsung” in heavy rotation. The album eventually went gold, selling 2 million copies.
Helmet’s inventive take on metal and hard rock found favor with both critics and peers. But in the late ’90s, having survived personnel shifts, changing labels and even the storm of rap metal, bandleader Hamilton decided to dissolve Helmet. The jazz-trained Hamilton went on to play with musicians ranging from free-noise guitarist Caspar Brötzmann to glam god David Bowie, while also producing other acts and focusing on soundtrack work, eventually scoring a dozen films.
In 2006, Hamilton reformed Helmet. Last year saw the release of “Seeing Eye Dog,” a return to form as the 51-year-old Hamilton leads a new band (guitarist Dan Beeman, bassist Chris Traynor and drummer Kyle Stevenson) through 10 tracks of patented, Helmet-style sonic abuse.
Folio Weekly spoke to Page Hamilton as he was driving through what he called an “extremely loud and windy Iowa.”
Folio Weekly: How did you go from being a jazz-loving kid to playing this brutal rock?
Page Hamilton: I started off playing guitar because of Led Zeppelin. But then, shortly thereafter, I discovered George Benson, because when I was a kid my guitar teacher asked me if I liked jazz and I said, “Yeah, man, I like jazz [laughs], not really knowing what it was.” My parents listened to Dixieland, Ella Fitzgerald and George Shearing, so they would sprinkle that in with George Benson and the Brothers Four. I saw George Benson play in concert a couple of times and he was mind-blowing. I was right down front when I saw him at the Greek Theater in Berkeley. I remember seeing him drop his pick and not miss with his thumb; he just kept right on playing. Benson was a disciple of Wes Montgomery and that just kind of led me into exploring the music. My friends listened to crap like Boston and Journey, so my punk rock became John Coltrane and Miles Davis “Kind of Blue” — an album that changed my entire life.
F.W.: It was also a huge guiding force for a killer player from this area, Duane Allman.
P.H.: Totally, and that makes perfect sense. And you know, I look back on that album, and Miles’ modal approach to writing music, I think that really influenced the direction of Helmet’s music. I think we were always trying to avoid obvious chord changes and played really Modal Metal. Actually, [laughing] I’m just making that connection right now!
F.W.: Did working with a strong leader like David Bowie influence your perceptions about being a bandleader?
P.H.: Absolutely. I learned what to do and what not to do. Bowie referred to me as “his quiet one” in the band, and my friends all know I am hardly a quiet guy. But when you are sitting around with greatness, you don’t f*cking yammer on. I just wanted to listen, learn and observe. And I did. One time at a rehearsal, he turned to me and said [in an impressive Bowie imitation], “Advice for budding young songwriters: I based half of my songs on Danny Kaye’s ‘Inchworm.’” And I was just like, “OK … ” [Laughs.] He and I were eating Chinese food at LaGuardia airport and I realized he was the most naturally humble guy. He happens to be a genius but he’s still a human being. That in itself was a big lesson.
F.W.: Julie Cafritz from Pussy Galore/Free Kitten recently told Folio Weekly that you were “always a lovely, stand-up guy but was always like the older guy on the scene” — probably all of 28 at the time. How does it feel, 20 years later, to be older but probably louder than before?
P.H.: Yeah, I was like 29 but you know, Sonic Youth are like twice my age so go figure! I think I actually notice it more because the girls at the shows are like 22 years old, only now I feel protective of them! It’s like the reverse of Spinal Tap.