We recently sat down with Helmet mastermind Page Hamilton for a great conversation about The Beatles, Guitar Hero, the good new Helmet album Seeing Eye Dog… and the problems with 2006’s Monochrome.
One of the worst insults I was ever dealt was that Aftertaste could have been written about me.
Ever since, I’ve always wondered… Was there some event or person or catalyst that really pissed you off, or what?
You know, each song generally kind of starts off with a different target, and then I kind of expand upon it and try to make it a little more general, and becomes sort of about human character, or lack of human character…
There wasn’t one specific person. I can think of people that I was making fun of, but I won’t say the names. Some are well known, and others are just within my universe.
Aw, we would love to hear those names.
Yeah, I can’t. It’s, you know… My girlfriend said she talked to a woman that works with a lot of bands, Dr. Sharon, and she called me and left a message saying “Dr. Sharon said you were the nicest man in rock. And she’s met a lot of men in rock.” And I go, well that’s a really sweet, sweet, nice thing to say, and though I play music that is part social commentary and part character assassination, and part you know, bummed out love… I don’t like bumming people out… I don’t mean anything by it necessarily, but it’s fun to come up with lines. I think Elvis Costello’s music kind of inspired me in that way, when he’d say things like “I wish you luck with a capital F.”
Now that’s the way to write a song. So when I say something, like in Birth Defect, “I’d rather be insulted by you than someone I respect…”
Yeah, that was one of those key lines.
Yeah, it’s just… It’s fun, and it makes people smile, and we can all relate to that, and that’s kind of what it’s ultimately about.
It’s funny, I’ve written songs about broken relationships, girls or whatever, and they seem to apply to every single relationship–
Every single relationship I have, I’m like ‘hey, this could be about her.’
Does that maybe say something about you?
Yeah, exactly, I can complain all I want, and continue to make the same mistakes, and that’s the beauty of music.
If one is honest and genuine in writing… And I’ve always made it about the art, the craft itself, the language, [or as] one of my mentors used to say, solving musical problems and solving lyrical problems. Ultimately it helps, just as a writer’s aide, to have someone in mind when you start out.
Sometimes you start out and it’s just so juvenile… Some of these newer bands… I heard a line in a song a friend sent me the other day, and it… I won’t tell you the band, you might know it when I tell you the line: “I think that I am going insane / The blood is boiling inside my vein.”
And I’m like… That is fucking sixth grade poetry.
And you are a man, a twenty-something year old man, and I’m sorry, you need to go do some homework.
Maybe that’s why they’re huge and play bigger places than we’ll ever play. I think you have to have some kind of artistic responsibility to try and create your own language and create something that’s interesting.
You can take it to a variety of extremes… Early on, I wanted to be the anti-songwriter because I thought songwriters were all self-absorbed pompous-oids or whatever, so I was like, I’m going to take the E.E. Cummings approach, and then Robert Poss from Band Of Susans kind of inspired me in this way, to write a collection of images that’s more stream of conscious than narrative. And that’s perfectly valid, and interesting to me. You get these different images…
Do you ever feel pressure to keep it heavy, as you’re known for?
No, I don’t. I don’t feel any pressure. A lot of people have been commenting that this album covers so much ground musically, and I think you kind of get to the point where… I know we’re not a household name, and I’m not catering to anyone, I’m just trying to make music that I like.
It was important in New York in the 80s, I think for all the bands, to kind of be unique. It was a thing. That’s where our indie scene was very strong, and we had all these bands, from Sonic Youth… to you know, Helmet and Insane and Surgery and Honeymoon Killers and Foetus was there, such a wide variety of music at the time, and it was important to sound unique, rather than try to regurgitate what had been done, and that’s still… I always feel fortunate to be able to do what I love, and I know it’s not for everyone, but I think the people that love Helmet love everything about it…
There’s a lot of new layers to the new album… And I mean, I can’t see a Beatles cover on… Meantime.
So I just have to wonder, like did something click for you artistically…
I think Betty was the album that said I don’t want to be pigeonholed… We did Strap It On and [then] Meantime, a lot of people said was a logical progression… The elements are similar, you just kind of expand on what you started without completely reinventing yourself with every album. And I think the Helmet vocabulary was so strong, people like… Matt from Chavez and David Sims from the Jesus Lizard said this to me, ‘I heard you guys and was so pissed off! Why didn’t I think of that? My God, it just makes so much sense…’ This minimalist, unison, odd-time riffs against 4/4 and the whole feel was such a beautiful thing, so you just kind of expand upon it.
We had tried covers, many times. It’s tough to do covers. I spent a lot of time working on that Across The Universe movie, the Julie Taymor movie a couple of years ago, and I learned so many Beatles songs for that movie, and played on so many… I felt really confident that we were doing something great with Beatles songs.
You can’t cover the Beatles; They’re great songs by great musicians, and seminal recordings, so how do you top it? You can’t. But it’s not about topping it, it’s about trying to pay homage to somebody that changed your life, and that’s how I feel about the Beatles.
I’d always wanted to do that song. We didn’t do it for the movie. It had a little of everything. Guitar geek, and plaintive melody, Lennon’s sense of urgency, and a good… a fucking phenomenal bassline, and few chord changes, which is nice for Helmet… (laughs)
I had read you guys had kind of tried a heavy version, or at least vocally, a more kind of Helmet-y version, and you said it wasn’t really working; It felt forced?
Yeah, it felt contrived. We actually did a double-vocal, more Unsung style vocal on there. Everyone was like ‘wow, that sounds so great!’ But I was like, nah… It’s not immediate enough, it seems a little bit emotionally removed, and Lennon’s voice is just so urgent, there’s a sense of urgency. There’s almost a strain in his voice… I love that, he’s kind of like pushing himself.
After I spent more time with some specifics about his vocal performance, and the way he does it, he uses an “h” sound in a vowel to do those turns…
Right, bringing it down?
Dah-ha-ha-oooown. You know? It’s like how the fuck did he do that? You know? “When your prized possessions… start to bring you dah-ha-ha-ooown…” Oh, that’s how he does it. It’s such a beautiful part of the song. Live it’s hard to do, with the screaming guitars and everything, I just kinda go, “daaaaooown.”
I’m going to cheat live. In the studio I nailed it. And I thought, if it turned out and it wasn’t good, we won’t put it on the album. [But] everybody loved it. And it made perfect sense with LA Water, you know, the sort of beautiful chord changes with the dominant seventh chord going on in there. I really like [playing it live].
Live, we do the Beatles beat, ’cause I want something a little more up feeling, and we have a lot of slow songs, like White City and She’s Lost on the album to play, and some of the oldies, like Like I Care and Tic, which are kind of the slow jams. (laughing)
You told Noisecreep that you had some regrets about Monochrome. You called the process a nightmare, and talked about re-recording it. Is that still fresh, or are you kind of over it?
I feel so happy with this album that I’m not going to dwell on it. But Chris Traynor and I feel the same way, and he wants to do it as well. I just can’t afford it right now. I’ve been paying for things myself, and it just doesn’t make sense for me financially.
I like the album, you know… The process was just more work than it had ever been, dealing with the record company and breaking in a brand new drummer, and going to New York, where I’m only in part-time now… I got a cold while I was doing it… The record company was pressuring me to watch video directors while I was in the studio… Like, ‘are you fucking kidding me? What does this have to do with anything?’ Like I could give two flying fucks about a video, you know? I want to make a great album. And oh, by the way, I’m the singer, lead guitar player, producer and writer of the songs, so if I’m not working, nobody’s working. There were all these things that came into play and made it kind of a difficult album to make and it’s the last time I’ll make an album like that, I’m done.
We have control, I own this 100%, I will not have somebody steal my money from me again… Except for the kids that download it for free, and that’s going to happen regardless. So I hope I make the money back so I can make a record, and that’s all…
Is that your outlook on downloading and all that? They’re going to do it, and you just have to work around it?
I think people should pay for music.
You know, everybody’s had this discussion; I pay for medical service, I pay for restaurant service, I pay for movies… We make music, and the only way you can continue to make music is if you get paid for it…
I’m not an artist like Metallica or System Of A Down, that made millions of dollars. I’m still an underground artist essentially, going hand to mouth. I can’t afford to make recordings if I don’t make the money back. So I’ll see how this brave new system we have works out over the next couple of years.
Hopefully we’ll be able to continue to be able to make records. I really love doing it. This was just the best album experience I’ve ever had. It was just so much fun.
Have you seen the video on YouTube of the giant pizza playing Unsung in Guitar Hero?
Yeah, one of my favorites ever, yeah.
He gets confused at the bridge, which I just love. He slams the guitar down. That’s always the part of the song that’s tricky for people that want to jam with us. ‘I know Unsung!‘ Sure you do, get up here. At soundcheck, like drum techs from opening bands… They always fuck it up.
It’s so damn funny. (laughs)
How do you feel about being in Guitar Hero?
Oh, it’s great. When they first approached me, I was just like, yeah sure, whatever, I don’t know. And they handed me the plastic guitar, and I’m like ‘what the hell is this?’ I don’t get video games. But I said ‘well, I trust you, [if you say] it’ll be cool,’ and next thing I know, it’s this huge phenomenon.
Does it help you break into new audiences?
I think it has, yeah. I think we have a lot of younger kids now that listen to us. The vice president of ESP’s son saw me at a Christmas party, and José [the VP] introduced me, said ‘this is Page,’ and his son was like ‘Page Hamilton?’ José was like, ‘how the hell do you know Page Hamilton?’ He said, ‘Guitar Hero, dad!’
He was fourteen. I thought that was pretty cool.
I took my kid to Chuck E. Cheese’s a little while back and had an epic conversation with a fourteen year old as I played Guitar Hero with him.
Oh, that’s great.
“Hey. So like. Did you know that like. Ozzy Osbourne. From TV. Was in this band?”
That’s so great.
I had a night at a friend’s house, drinking copious amounts of tequila, and LAPD came by… I said, ‘I’ll go to the door, you’re just a loud, obnoxious drunk.’ I said, ‘yes, officer, I’ll turn it down,’ and my friend is [hollering obnoxiously] ‘I’M AN ER DOCTOR, I WORK ON LAPD COPS! COME IN AND PLAY GUITAR HERO WITH US! MY FRIEND’S IN HELMET, LET’S PLAY UNSUNG!‘
I sat with my tequila and watched my ER doctor friend and an LAPD cop in his uniform with his gun, with his partner standing there nervously, playing my song in Guitar Hero. Fantastic. One of the strangest and greatest moments of my life. I was like, ‘I love Guitar Hero.’
The cop that played was an older cop, very comfortable… The younger cop that was with him was so uncomfortable, like ‘we’re on duty, and he’s playing Guitar Hero with a drunken doctor and the dude from the band sitting there.’ It was so funny.
How’d he do on the bridge?
Helmet is currently on a full US tour. Head over to helmetmusic.com for tour dates. The good Reverend Justito caught their Redondo Beach stop over the weekend and wrote up an in-depth review that you can read here on his site, Concert Confessions.
Here’s our review of the new album.