Exclusive Interview: Page Hamilton (Helmet) circa 2014
Founded in 1989 (1989-1998, 2004-present), Helmet has released 7 studio albums (Strap it on-1990, Meantime-1992, Betty-1994, Aftertaste-1997, Size Matters-2004, Monochrome-2006, and Seeing Eye Dog-2010) and has been a stalwart in the rock scene since the success of Meantime.
Currently, Helmet has been on tour in support of the 20th anniversary of the release of Betty (1994). During each stop, they will play Betty from start to finish and then play a second set full of various tracks from the catalog. First starting off in Europe (2014) and then taking this tour to the United States (2015) on a few legs. Recently they announced the last leg of the Betty 20th anniversary tour starting 09/17/2015 in Asbury Park, NJ at The Stone Pony and concluding on 10/10/2015 in St. Louis, MO at Firebird.
We were lucky enough to catch up with “The Riff Master” himself, Page Hamilton, before the start of this tour…
CH: Was there a reason behind choosing Betty to do this sort of tour across Europe and North America?
PH: “Our agent in London… asked me if I was interested. We were doing the Meantime tour you know and said what do we do next? Betty? And I said I don’t know… I can’t imagine there’s going be a ton of interest in that. He said let me fish around and we’ll see what the deal is. And it turns out there was a ton of interest. So it worked out great for us.”
CH: Since embarking on this tour, is there anything you have learned from doing Betty complete that you were never aware of during previous tours?
PH: “Betty’s a more difficult album. Meantime is dropped tuned… punched in the face here you go. Betty’s got a lot more of variety I think as far as the guitar sound, texture and things. The range of vocal styles is more demanding for sure. So we had to kind of figure… I had to figure out how to get the vocals right. And the guitar, like “Sam Hell” for example I did on a 6-string banjo. I kind of wanted to get a sound that was close to that and the vocal sound was slightly distorted. “Rollo” I think was the one I sang at home on a 4 track tape machine with a chorus pedal and an Ibanez distortion box. So in order to get those sounds live, I had to screw with some stuff and figure out what to do. It was a challenge but certainly worth it though.”
CH: How has the second set evolved since the beginning of the tour? Any tracks that you feel must be played nightly? And are there any tracks that you have dropped from the set list?
PH: “I think the band may have about 70-75 tunes, so we have a lot to draw from and I try to keep it different every night. But on the last run, I decided it was ok to play “Unsung” every night because people that were coming to see Betty were probably pretty hard core fans and if they had never seen us before they were have never heard that song live. So it was the first time I ever thought about what you guys would want to hear. Usually I’d be like fuck it I going play what I’m going play because we have a lot of good songs and I feel like Helmet is Helmet. But there are people that there initial exposure to the band was through MTV and that song… “In the Meantime” and “Unsung” were also big videos for us. It’s been cool. It’s been a fun thing… because we have such a variety of tunes to play we’ll sandwich “Unsung” in between “See You Dead” and “Ironhead”. “Welcome to Algiers” and “Give It” is another thing… so it keeps the music fresh. I’ve talked with Buzz from The Melvins when they’re doing a tour. They write their set list and that’s the set list for that whole tour. And that for me wouldn’t really work because I’d get sick of it. You know like playing the same order every night. But then they would go on their next tour and they’ll do a completely different set, so that’s how they keep it fresh. But our ways a little different. I think everybody in the band has to fly their own way to work with it… with us there is no three ring circus show you know? It’s just us singing and playing. It’s the same thing with The Melvins, there’s nothing going on. Bands like Tool and Primus they have lights, videos and cool things to watch so the music, in my opinion, the music becomes slightly secondary to the show. And that’s just not Helmet… we’re not Pink Floyd. Love that music but that’s not us.”
CH: Was it hard to get back into the mindset to play tracks off of Betty after 20 years? What was the most difficult track to re-learn or play live off of Betty?
PH: “I think the hardest… the trickiest song on the album might be “Vaccination”. Though there are other songs that have sort of moments that where I have to shut my brain off cause I’m singing and playing at the same time. “Vaccination” I just play and sing the verse cause there’s just no way I can figure out how to play that riff you know? It’s a weird displaced rhythm while singing but it has worked out great. I think the top of the album I’m pretty comfortable with because we do those tunes “Wilma’s Rainbow” and “Milquetoast”. And I know those have been kind of regulars. “Clean” is tricky… That’s where I really have to shut my brain off. Which is very strange, like heavy metal John Bonham meets reggae kind of vibe… I don’t even know what the groove is, it’s so weird and I have to sing while I’m playing that verse riff. So those are the two toughest for me.”
CH: I know that you once toured with David Bowie back during the brief hiatus with Helmet (1998-2004), what was some memorable moments that you can recall (or speak of publicly) from touring with Mr. Bowie?
PH: “Yeah it was cool, I mean honestly my ex-wife is really who got me into him. I was in a band in the 80’s when “Let’s Dance” was a huge hit and it was that kind of era of 80’s Fashion rock. He ended up making an amazing album and was successful as well which is very rare. And so my wife at the time was really into him, I started exploring and I got all the albums… it was cool. He’s such a great song writer, a great singer and a great musician. Plus he’s a ridiculously intelligent guy. He’s all self-taught and well read… it was really cool for me to be around him every day obviously. But I never tried to get a moment. I wasn’t like hey let’s go hang out. I would let him find me if he wanted to talk. I was always available, so like dinner together at LaGuardia Airport with crappy Chinese food on our way to Canada for the Much Music Awards. We made Christmas dinner in Gothenburg, Sweden with the whole band, it was a joy to hang out with him. You couldn’t meet a nicer human being and he’s just brilliant… I kind of would always say he’s not like you and I. He’s quite a bit better! (Laughing) Not to knock you and I, but he’s fucking amazing. A great experience.”
CH: Any thoughts on getting back to your jazz roots after the completion of the Betty 20th anniversary tour?
PH: “I was just in Poland, actually Krakow, playing the Film Music Festival as part of Elliot Goldenthal’s ensemble for “The Tempest”. It was a movie made from the Shakespeare play by Elliot’s significant other Julie Taymor who is a genius. I had the privilege of working on three of her movies. That was a lot of work and I was doing writing in between… and trying to keep the Helmet thing fresh. I practice jazz every day… I just played my friend’s wedding down in the Turks and Caicos which was really cool. His father is a huge jazz fan and wanted to hear a Thelonious Monk tune (“Ruby My Dear”). It’s quite difficult but really fun and challenging. And then I did “The Nearness of You” as well. While the bride walked down the beach I did “The Wedding Song” and the “Wedding March” which is cool. I’ve booked another gig in August after the Britt Festival which is in Southern Oregon where I grew up… I just got a little music today so I’m going to work on that. I really like the little jazz gigs that keep popping up so if something comes up, I do it. I got some recordings in September with M’Lumbo, it’s sort of free jazz meets drum and bass. It’s the band I played with in Brooklyn in the 80’s that has kind of turned into this really interesting thick jazz… I do not know what to call it but it is really great stuff and I love them. The leader of the group is a very dear old friend of mine from New York… brilliant guy. So I have that coming up and then I’ll do about a week of jazz gigs with my Jazz Wannabes group while I’m out there before Helmet starts that fall tour September 17th.”
CH: I know that you personally released, ‘Page Hamilton Movie Music Volume 1’, in 2014 (33 tracks). How has the process with new Helmet material progressed since touring? Any finished tracks? And any sort of time frame for this new material?
PH: “We recorded some new tracks which I’ll finish up the vocals before the Europe show comes up in July… we do not have a release date set. Once we get our bass player back out here in August before the tour in the fall and I’ll finish writing another batch of tunes somehow (laughing). I don’t know when or how but that’s the goal, so we don’t have any dates. Just getting it in when we can… thank God we’ve been really busy which has been really good. So we just kind of worked around my schedule and the guys… the guys have a few things going on too. There is no plan yet.”
We want to thank Page Hamilton for taking time out of his day to sit down with us and answer these questions. He was a delight to interview and we wish the band much success on this current tour plus his solo endeavors. Catch Helmet on the last leg of the Betty 20th anniversary tour in a venue near you starting in Asbury Park, NJ on September 17th as they play 20 dates until October 10th, 2015. They will also play Aftershock 2015 in Sacramento, CA on October 24th before taking a break from touring until ShipRocked 2016 in Fort Lauderdale, FL (January 18-22, 2016).