For a guy who had pieces of collarbone pretty much jutting through his skin less than two months ago, Page Hamilton is in a surprisingly good mood. It's the Vicodin keeping him from screaming in agony across the phone line, he laughs. Seems the affable, Los Angeles-based Helmet singer and guitarist decided to do some hardcore mountain biking in the Oregon backwoods during a family get-together in August, one last little vacation before resurrecting his celebrated precision-punk/metal band with a new album, Size Matters, and a subsequent tour.
Unfortunately, he capped the fun with a high-speed meet-and-greet with a tree.
"I had already jammed my finger playing football with my nephews and I was like, 'Oh no, my finger's messed up, I hope I'll be ready for the tour,'" the 44-year-old wryly chuckles. "Cut to the next day -- 'Sir, we need to take off part of a bone and insert some screws and a dead guy's tendon into your body.' The doctors say I'll have a full recovery, but I didn't think the pain would last this long. It's a hell of an injury. But I'm tired of sitting on my butt -- I just wanna get out there."
Those are the words Helmet fans have been longing to hear since 1998. Up to that point, the NYC-bred band -- founded in 1989 by Glenn Branca disciple Hamilton while he was a member of noise-rock experimentalists Band of Susans -- had gone from subterranean powerhouse (arguably the group with the most punk-underground buzz in the 24 months preceding the Nirvana explosion) to platinum-selling juggernaut. Helmet's inimitable sound -- terse, sinewy, bruising riffs soldered to pummeling rhythms and Hamilton's barked lyrics -- set a high bar for '90s alt-metal and (for better or worse) laid the groundwork for the hordes of nü-metal acts that prospered in its wake, even if so many of those bands, while blatantly ripping off those sounds, swapped out Helmet's spartan everyman-isms for belligerent posturing.
But after four albums and near-constant touring, Helmet's nine-year run screeched to a halt when bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier had a bitter falling-out with their frontman after a particularly grueling tour. "We were really sick of each other," Hamilton says now. "We were working so hard, y'know, doin' 22 shows in 21 days and driving around in this little van. And when you put a lot of miles on, tensions build up, and we definitely had our share of moments. We needed a break, and those guys just decided they didn't wanna do it anymore. So at that point I pretty much thought that Helmet was done, but I thought it was a shame. 'Cause I knew I wasn't done."
After several months spent decompressing, Hamilton began plotting his post-Helmet career. There were songwriting pow-wows with J. Robbins -- an old friend whose band Jawbox had also just broken up under less-than-amicable circumstances -- but that musical alliance was short-lived. There were on-and-off sessions with Nine Inch Nails producer and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Clouser at Trent Reznor's New Orleans studio. Page also played guitar in David Bowie's band during a 2000 tour, before moving to Los Angeles and diving into soundtrack work, something he'd done sporadically during the Helmet years (the many film scores to which he's lent guitar sounds include S.W.A.T. , In Dreams, Catwoman, and Collateral). And there was a new band named Gandhi for a little while, which played a handful of shows but never released an album.
Last year, though, Hamilton was entertaining two major-label offers for a solo record deal when old friend Jimmy Iovine, head of Interscope Records, rang him up and suggested Page make another Helmet album. Iovine, of course, was the guy who swooped in to sign Helmet in the early '90s, back when the band was still on the tiny but well-regarded indie label Amphetamine Reptile and making waves with its raw-sounding debut album, Strap It On. That was in the midst of the post-Nirvana major-label feeding frenzy, when truckloads of money were being thrown at bands, and rumors abounded that Iovine had handed Hamilton and company a multimillion-dollar advance. It caused a fair number of Helmet fans to cry "sell-out," especially when the somewhat more polished Meantime came out in 1992.
Hamilton bristled at his naysayers then, and still feels somewhat compelled to justify his decisions now, especially in light of recent accusations from some quarters that he's cashing in on the Helmet name once again.
"For years and years I got asked questions about it," he says. "Sure, it was a better deal than bands had been getting, but it wasn't like we got stock in the company. And when someone says, 'Hey, we'll sign you and give you all this money to make a record,' we were like, 'Hell yeah, cool.' We weren't like, 'Fuck the man' or whatever. I mean, making Strap It On with our bartending tips and having to mix it with three guys' hands on the faders at the same time, there's something to be said for that. But I like having time to make records and being able to work in a good studio with good gear, and I love having someone else take care of all that marketing stuff and whatever. I just wanna be able to keep making records."
That's still the case today. "And when Jimmy said to me, 'Why don't you go make another Helmet record?' it totally made sense," he continues. "It's like, I'm known for Helmet, and to start from scratch and do something else, it's like, why? If there were no guitars on the record and I was singing through a megaphone and the drums were all loops, people might have a right to be disappointed, but there's something very unique about what Helmet is, and I stayed pretty true to that."
Indeed, much of Size Matters is rooted in those sharp, repetitive riffs Helmet fans know and love. The initial blasts of "Crashing Foreign Cars" and "See You Dead" hark back to Strap It On before opening up into the kind of layered, melodic choruses and outros the band explored on later albums like Betty and Aftertaste. The only really noticeable difference between the new album and past Helmet offerings is the vocals. Whereas Hamilton's voice previously exhibited two basic settings -- a gruff shout or a reedy, Ozzy-like croon -- here it displays more range and fullness, especially on slower burners like "Enemies" and "Unwound."
Most listeners would have a hard time believing it wasn't the original quartet that created these new tunes. But like its surgically repaired leader, the reconstituted Helmet has brand-new parts, all of them snatched from musical cadavers. Guitarist Chris Traynor, a founding member of Orange 9mm, played in the final incarnation of Bush; he also stepped into the guitar hole vacated by Rob Eccheverria (who replaced fired original guitarist Peter Mengede in 1994) for that last Helmet tour in 1998. Meanwhile, bassist Frank Bello served eighteen years in Anthrax, and drummer John Tempesta did time in White Zombie.
Hamilton says he briefly considered reaching out to Bogdan and Stanier last year, but figured there was zero chance of a happy reunion -- he isn't on speaking terms with either, and besides, both are currently involved with other music projects (Bogdan is a lap-steel player, far removed from the hard-rock world, while Stanier pounds the skins for the Mike Patton-fronted Tomahawk). "I was so lucky to find Stanier and Bogdan back then -- those guys are monster players," he says. "But Helmet is my band. I write all the music and all the lyrics, and I was the one who found those guys, and there's nothing to say I couldn't find other guys. It was a blast playing with those two and I wish them all the best, but the guys I have now, everybody is really experienced and appreciates the opportunity to do what we're doing, so there's not as much tension. These guys are amazing players, and I'm kind of a metal guy anyways, so I wanted to find some great musicians who want to make heavy music."
And not even a battered body can keep Hamilton on the sidelines any longer. "They've designed this waist-strap thing for me so I can play guitar without it being too painful," he says, laughing. "But I can tough it out -- I wanna rock!"
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