Page Hamilton tells Truepunk about moving out west, snobby goths and rebuilding the Helmet machine.
Anyone privy to the unearthly rumble that is Helmet's live show will attest to the seismic power of Page Hamilton's song craft - and his gun-metal guitar! The New York quartet's down-tuned staccato grooves have impacted fans around the world, including this writer who fondly recalls the band's epic 1993 Big Day Out show in Melbourne featuring material mostly from their 1992 magnum opus, the now million-selling Meantime.
"I remember I was really hung-over and my pre-amp blew out!" recants a flu-ridden Hamilton on the phone from the US. "But it was a great show and I think my ex-wife got me some red boxer shorts, these towelling pyjamas or something to wear that day. We had such a great time at the Big Day Out hanging out with the guys from Mudhoney and Poison Idea. That was our drinking circle and we felt like the left-out kids from Sonic Youth and Nick Cave who were the stars, you know, the headliners. I actually said hello to Blixa (Bargeld) in the hotel, looked him right in the eye and said hello and he just didn't say anything. Nick Cave did the same thing to me in New York right near my house. I love their music but as people, well .."
It's comforting to discover Helmet's singer-guitarist and chief songwriter has kept his powder dry these past 15 years. Since the band's acrimonious demise a decade ago, Hamilton has spent his days listening to a lot of jazz (mostly Monk and Miles), working on various film scores and as a touring guitarist for David Bowie while also pursuing his own outfit Gandhi. In 2002, he relocated to Los Angeles, a decision based as much on personal self-preservation as it was motivated by his career.
"I think my personality is more suited to New York but I just had to get out," he says. "I was drinking a lot, you know the bars are open until 4AM and I'd just walk home. My dad was an alcoholic so I have to be careful. And I had some health issues after 20 years in the band. I broke my collarbone in a mountain bike accident and I had a long term ulcer that burst just from the way I sing, you know, pushing from way down in my stomach. And I was taking these little pills called Vicodin and they can be difficult to get off."
At the urging of his former label Interscope, Hamilton eventually agreed to recalibrate the Helmet machine in 2004, recruiting the group's latter-period guitarist Chris Traynor and former Testament/White Zombie drummer John Tempesta to record the comeback set, Size Matters.
"I actually had two bands together back then, Gandhi in New York - I had a couple of deals pending to put out records with them - and one here in LA. But then September 11 kind of threw a wrench in the works and slowed things down quite a bit. While still negotiating with these labels I got a call from Interscope asking me to do another Helmet record."
Hamilton admits he is no longer on speaking terms with his co-founding band mates, bassist Henry Bogdan, Australian guitarist Peter Mengede and drummer John Stanier. But for now Helmet is a case of dogs may bark but the caravan moves on.
"They chose to leave my band and they've never said why," shrugs Hamilton. "They choose not to have any contact with me - but I don't lose any sleep over it. I've stopped thinking about it."
In 2006, after showcase performances at Austin's SxSW conference and a headlining slot on the US Warped tour, Hamilton cranked out the album Monochrome under the Helmet moniker using co-producer Wharton Tiers, noted for his engineering work on Meantime and the band's 1990 debut Strap It On.
Monochrome landed the band supports on Guns & Roses' long-promised comeback dates later that year, propelling Helmet onto a world tour in 2007 that included European dates.
Claiming Helmet has over the years "given me something to do, given me a purpose", Hamilton has also committed himself to producing an instructional guitar DVD this year.
"I haven't done it yet," he concedes. "I have to write it but I'm kind of procrastinating because there's so much information that you could share."