Helmet’s Beautiful Noise: an interview with Page Hamilton

In Page Hamilton’s career he’s played with Glenn Branca, Band of Susans, movie composer Eliot Goldenthal and started a band called Gandhi. He’s also recently joined former Gandhi member Anthony Truglio and started Jazz Wannabes. On Seeing Eye Dog he’s included a cover of The Beatles’ And Your Bird Can Sing, composed an instrumental piece suitable for a movie (Morphing), utilized a string section (LA Water) and his music is more melodic than ever, though balancing harmonious sounds with the anger and discord Helmet is known for. My interview with Page took place as they were crossing into Canada on September 16th, 2010.

Bret Miller: I understand you’re going to Canada.
Page: I can barely hear you.

I’m yelling into the microphone.
I’m in a bus so it’s kinda loud. We’re crossing the border into Canada. We had to push the interviews back because it’s a three ring circus here.

How many days are you into the tour?
Just over a week I think.

I’ll be seeing you in Los Angeles at the end of your Stateside tour.
Excellent.

The last time we talked was at Dodgers Stadium about four years ago. The most I remember about that day at the Warped tour was you and Joan Jett and how hot the asphalt was, I could feel the bottom of my shoes melting.
That was a fun day. The Dodgers Stadium was a beautiful setting even though we were in the parking lot. It was nice, being based in L.A., being able to go home to my own bed.

Did you get to meet a lot of good musicians at the Warped Tour?
I bonded with the folks on the tour and had a good time. There were the guys from the band Thursday, Joan Jett’s band, a bunch of New York guys that were like minded (Page is originally from NYC), they’re funny dudes.

The extra disc on Seeing Eye Dog is a recording of Helmet live at the San Francisco Warped tour date so that brings it all back.
Chris Traynor had a tape of that show. He said that the show was really good, we should release it. Then Brian, our sound guy had a stereo version of it so we kind of tweaked it as much as we could with two tracks and had it mastered. It’s a cool show.

One of the other cool things you’ve done is made several packages for fans to choose from. One of the things I liked was the USB key drive with four of your concerts from the past three years.
We did the shows in Detroit, in France, in Belgium at The Grasspop Festival and Budapest to go with the San Francisco show.

It’s nice that you’re able to give yourself recognition as the source of the material as opposed to somebody putting up bootlegs on a site.
Absolutely, and I had control over the shows and the mixes. I think two of them were multi-track and the rest of them were stereo or sound board feeds. So we had a lot of flexibility with how they were presented. You are getting a very accurate representation of the band live. That’s nice for me. I would go through a lot of shows to find the ones I like since there’s a time when you fall over the mic or miss something or bad monitors or you’re out of tune. For the most part the shows are 95% intact.

So these are good representations of your concerts as opposed to hearing a recorder in someone’s pocket.
That or someone that auto-tunes their vocals and fixes and edits the shit out of a live show and calls it live. This is our band, I hope you like it.

I just read something and I’m probably remembering it wrong, but fans get a download of the CD if they buy a concert ticket? (That deal is over, go to http://helmetmusic.com/seeingeyedog to order the CD in various packages)
I know if you buy the deluxe package there’s a laminate for you to come after the show and hang out and drink beer with us.

I should have got one!
Its fun. We’ve had a few people show up. I’m not much of a host, I just tell people ‘Hey, come back and hang out with us and our friends.’ Which we’re going to do anyway.

I saw the laminate and thought it was good for nothing and apparently it really works.
People have showed up for sure. We had a guy last night in Seattle and it was getting kind of crowded in the dressing room and I suggested we reconvene in another place, the Lava Lounge, so we had an after show party with our good friends and band and crew and it was really fun.

After all these years and different labels, how interested in the business side of things are you?
I have a manager who is good with that stuff and I trust him implicitly. He’s got suggestions that I just listen to on what he wants to do. He knows me well enough at this point to know that there are certain things that I just wouldn’t be into. I’m not much of a businessman. I like that in this era there are so many options. I own my masters a 100%. The artwork and the decisions are ultimately my responsibility. I love collaborating with artists like the guy that did the cover (Shiloh Strong) as well as the kid that did the deluxe box layout. That’s what is important to me, not so much the business side of things.

So the creative side.
People ask how many records we’ve sold and I’ve never one time looked at the charts, it just doesn’t register with me. I guess its about making money and you obviously want to make enough money to support your band but Helmet’s never been about being a mainstream chart-topping band anyway.

After seven albums and twenty years with Helmet, coming into Helmet you’d already been in a few bands. I would hope you already had some wisdom about how you wanted Helmet to be led.
Its absolutely a pure labor of love and I feel blessed that I can eke out a living from it. I’ve got guys with me that I love. We’ve gone through a lot of stuff just this week alone. Some of it is too personal but we’re there for each other. We even had our tour manager have a heart attack on Monday so we spent three hours in Redding, CA in the emergency room on our day off and we had to leave him, his father came and got him and it was crazy. You have to be very tight and really love what you’re doing. Throughout the years stuff happens. On the road we got in a wreck where a kid was in a coma, another kid had a broken leg, our drummer had a broken rib. You just never know what’s going to happen so you have to be solid in your core group and my motto has always been ‘family first’ so I understand. That’s why we get along so well and we love hanging out, we have a good time.

How have you appreciated what they’ve added to the Helmet catalog?
I don’t have this weird feeling of guilt like I’m getting to do something that they might not want to do. As great as all the line-ups have been, I’ve had some really great line-ups, I always had this feeling that the guys weren’t making enough money, or they wanted more creative input. With these guys they understand their role and they’re really happy and they love the music. All of them grew up on the music. To be part of it they’re really honored and its not like in an ass-kissing way, they certainly don’t kiss my ass, I couldn’t deal with that, but they genuinely love the music, they love playing it and they put everything into it. I don’t feel guilty, I don’t feel like I’m having them do something they don’t want to do.

They don’t just feel like they’re hired hands.
Or that there’s some unhappiness that I don’t understand.. This is actually occurring to me for the first time with you asking this question, I kind of feel like when I look back that the guys that I’ve played with liked the music but that they weren’t completely happy in their situation. I don’t know if that’s just familiarity breeds contempt or what. (Original members) John (Stanier, Drums) and Henry (Bogdan, Bass) and I spent many years together, almost ten years and 1500 shows or 2000, I don’t know how many shows we played. You can wear on each other after a while and I think it got to the point where we weren’t comfortable with each other anymore. Its kind of sad in one way but in another way we did great things together and I’m very proud of what we accomplished together musically. That was the bottom line with all of us, we always wanted to make it about the music. I think it was time for it to end, for those relationships to end. I’d love to be friends with them, I have much respect for them as musicians and I hope one day we can bury the hatchet and say whatever differences we thought we had it is sort of inconsequential in the overall scheme of things. Some of the things we blew out of proportion when we were younger are embarrassing. Life is short, count your blessings.

If you got together all the past members of Helmet you could have a huge band like the one you were in with Glenn Branca way back when.
It would be a giant wall of shit. It would be awesome. Maybe that will be my swan song, maybe when I’m 60 or something I’ll write a piece for six drummers, six bass players and eight guitarists or whatever we’ve had in the band and it would be really fun. I would have them making a big wall of noise and I’d play crazy solos over the top of it.

Just completely ruin your career…or start a new one.
Don’t worry, it will be genius. It will give the Helmet critics more to scoff at and loathe and you’ll give the Helmet-heads more great material for them to drive their wives, friends, neighbors, kids crazy with.

On the new album you have a cover of a Beatles song. Is that your first cover?
We’ve covered songs before but we’ve never put one on a Helmet album proper.

How fun was doing that song?
It was great. We’d been doing that song live in Europe. I worked on a Julie Taymor movie called Across the Universe a couple of years ago and it was working through thirty Beatles songs for that movie. I got it into my mind that it was possible to cover the Beatles. I’d always thought before it was a bad idea but I thought we did some cool stuff with the Beatles covers in the movie and its just a matter of how you approach it. You’re not trying to do a straight-up cover or match the Beatles’ version or anything like that, you’re just trying to do something creative. What’s the worst that could happen? If it sucks, it doesn’t go on the record. If its great, it goes on the record. It turned out really good. I couldn’t be happier. We did several versions of it though which might end up a b-side, with a Ringo beat and I think I did a double vocal.

Listening to And Your Bird Can Sing I was struck by how intricate the guitar lines are.
It always amazes me that there are people who discount what the Beatles did. The Beatles are un-fucking-deniable. They were not only four songwriters and singers, they were four really talented musicians and they had the best producer in the history of rock producers period. They made these seminal recordings that changed the way we listen to music and write and form bands. They knew their instruments, they learned by playing live and playing American music and they’re great musicians.
That guitar line, that harmonized part is beautiful. It’s thirds, fourths and inverted thirds throughout that line. It’s a great piece of music, because the Beatles had never done anything like that before or since, that song stands out for me.

Obviously you worked on a movie with a lot of Beatles music and it shows your enjoyment of it and it comes out on the album.
I love Michael Azerrad (Music journalist, author and musician) who wrote our bio and is a dear old friend, l love his description of And Your Bird Can Sing as “Helmet-esque Beatles” and LA Water as “Beatles-esque Helmet”. It ended up permeating the whole album, finding these upper tertials of the chords and filling them in with these sustainer guitars I use with these Fernandez sustainer pickups I have in them. They’re ESP guitars but I have these cool E-bow style pickups in them that can give infinite sustain like a string section in an orchestra. Stuff I do on movies ended up influencing and coloring the album like the track Morphing. It was kind of inspired by all these movies I’ve done over the years with Eliot Goldenthal, the great film composer. So I thought ‘fuck it I’m going to do a piece like this’. It was a real challenge but it was really fun at the same time.

It was a sound sculpture.
Absolutely. I start by improvising the guitar then I go through by hand and pick out harmonies for the strings and some brass and MoogerFooger, kind of feedback things and got Carly Smithson to sing on it. Big Briar are in North Carolina and they do these pedals that are the circuits from the old Moog synthesizers. The one I used on was a low-pass filter with a control processor called CP-251. It’s just really fun, sinus cleansing noise (laughs).

Are you still downhill biking?
I haven’t since my wreck but its not because of the wreck, I just haven’t had time.

What do you do to keep your energy up?
I take it back, last summer I went along the river to the waterfall in Banff, there was nothing real steep like that hill I came down and hit the tree. I’ve been running, which I love. On the road I’m doing nothing because I sweat for two hours every night and beat my body up. So I have to save my energy up on my days off because I’m 50 now.

Congratulations for making it that far.
Thank you very much. I always thought I’d be gone by 30-something the way I was going. But I feel great, I’ve never felt better. The road is just a matter of staying healthy. I’ve made my trips to New York a couple of times to do my Jazz Wannabes group which started as a duo and now it’s a quartet. Two guitarists, bass and drums doing everything from Monk to Thin Lizzy. I took my dear friend Anthony Truglio who was in Gandhi with me and filled in Helmet at times and is just a great musician.

At that, our time was up and I let Page continue on the Canadian roads. The band will be playing The Key Club November 4th in support of their new album Seeing Eye Dog before heading out to Europe for the rest of the year. Helmet is always as intense as they are loud, so bring your earplugs and tighten the laces on your moshing shoes because it’s going to get crazy!

Helmet is Page Hamilton (Vocals, guitar); Dan Beeman (Guitar); Dave Case (Bass) and Kyle Stevenson (Drums). Go to www.myspace.com/helmetrocks for tour dates.

(Interview by Bret Miller – Band photo by Tom Hoppa – Live photo by Glynn Davies)

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