Interview with Helmet guitarist/vocalist Page Hamilton | By Brandon Ringo
The further removed we are from the ‘90s, the more it resembles your drunk uncle who smells like old shoe leather, but whom you still keep around for the free beer. One of the decade’s most musically fascinating years was ’92. The year that featured the death of hair metal also saw the rise of Billy Ray Cyrus, “Baby Got Back,” the continuing rise of death metal and grunge, and one of the “alt metal” scene’s most—ahem—unsung treasures: the album Meantime by Helmet.
The New York City-based four-piece—led by guitar genius Page Hamilton—were certainly made of sterner stuff than many of the bands who had massive hit singles come out in ‘92. Instead of slowly decaying into a punchline over the years, Hamilton has kept the band leaner, meaner, and noisy as all fuck, as recently exhibited by their eighth studio album, Dead to the World, out now on earMUSIC.
Though it has been six years since the band’s last album, Seeing Eye Dog, they have been anything but stagnant. “We recorded five cover songs as well as the new album tracks, we did a 7” for Amphetamine Reptile, and we did a split 7” with the Melvins for the Australian tour two years ago,” Hamilton explains. “We were kind of getting going, and it got me going writing-wise. But then, I really buckled down about a year ago and said, ‘Hey, we gotta get this done.’ The recording, tracking, and mixing really came together by May.”
Typically, the writing process for Helmet records begins and ends with Hamilton in the driver’s seat, but that’s not always the case. “I’ve always essentially come in with completed arrangements 95 percent of the time,” he shares. “There were instances where I encouraged the band to write, like on [1994’s] Betty and [1997’s] Aftertaste, but for the most part, those albums were written and arranged by me with the exception of the drums.”
“On this album, on the song ‘Bad News,’ [drummer] Kyle [Stevenson] did this kinda Motown groove, and I go, ‘That’s not what I was thinking, but I love it! That’s great!’” Hamilton enthuses. “So, Kyle has co-writing credit on this album; it’s the first time I’ve actually done that, because I feel like he contributed so much. Without that groove, that song wouldn’t be that [song].”
Between records, the band have also spent a lot of time touring to celebrate the anniversaries of their classic albums, Meantime and Betty. Despite revisiting these albums live, Hamilton had no interest in trying to replicate their sound. “I definitely keep ‘em separate, ‘cause I know, for the most part, it’s easy to sit down and repeat yourself,” Hamilton affirms.
Despite his intentional estrangement from Helmet’s past work while writing Dead to the World, Hamilton’s unique approach to writing riffs and grooves has given them a fascinating duality. “There’s a song on this album that has a groove that is something that I’ve dabbled with before in the song ‘Swallowing Everything’ [from 2006 release, Monochrome],” he explains. “That kind of groove that we ended up using in ‘Red Scare’ is in that vein. It’s different notes, but it’s the same type of feel, which is what I was going for. So, that’s where I kind of borrowed from myself but expanded it.”
Hamilton’s penchant for experimentation with his riffs has also led to some very interesting discoveries. “Because I spend so much time with the guitar, I come up with these new voicings every time,” he confirms. “Every time I write a new album, there’s new Helmet chord voicings that come out, so that’s something I’ve always been very proud of. It’s like, ‘Hey, guitar geeks, check this out! Nobody’s ever played this chord in the history of rock before. Look at it! Isn’t that neat?’ I know some people don’t give a shit, but to me, it’s a cool thing, and I’ve always been proud of it.”
Dead to the World’s magnificent, alluring album cover stands alone in its beauty, while perfectly complementing the album’s lyrical themes as well. “The red sand is something that I became obsessed with for some reason; I started researching and finding all these cool desert photos with red sand, blue sky, and white clouds. Hopefully, people will notice that it’s red, white, and blue,” Hamilton explains. “There’s a lot of political [and] social commentary on the album about the state of things in our country, and it’s the human state. I’m not waving my fingers at politicians, I’m just saying how we could be so polarized and so hateful towards our fellow human beings. It’s amazing to me that we’re becoming so much further away from peace and love instead of closer. It’s certainly good to write about it; if nothing else, I get if off my chest for a minute.”