Helmet: “I write music I like because Taylor Swift fans will never ever respond to what we do…”
In our latest Cover Story, Helmet’s founding member, Page Hamilton, talks about how he is still excited about writing music and being uncool.
When the American alt-metal band Helmet formed in 1989, little did frontman Page Hamilton realise how much of an impact on heavy music his band would have. After a well-received debut in the form of Strap It In, the band hit mainstream success across the alternative scene with their classic albums Meantime, released in 1992, and Betty, the follow-up from 1994.
However, it wasn’t just alt-metal fans who took the band to their hearts, musicians across the rising alt-metal scene regularly cited the noise-rock band as an influence. Bands like Deftones, System of a Down, and Korn have all name-checked Helmet as an inspiration.
Breaking up officially in 1998, Page Hamilton reformed the group in 2003 and, twenty years later, the band recently dropped their latest album, Left. Opening with the full-throttle “Holiday,” the album showcases Helmet doing what they do best – no-holds-barred noise rock. In our latest Cover Story, V13 spoke to founding member Page Hamilton about the band, their influence on heavy music, and why they’re happy being the most uncool rock band around.
The album’s out, so we just wanted to have a catch-up as 2024 has started, Helmet ended 2023 with a tour and the new album so what are your goals for the year ahead?
“We finally got to do some shows in the Summer of ‘22. August, September, and October so we finally got going again but it was the same music. Nothing new from 2019. We got a new agent as one of our agents bit the dust in the pandemic in the U.S. He talked about us doing a new album and booking a tour. The label said yes.
I had a piece to deliver for the oldest high school orchestra in America in Memphis, Tennessee for their hundred and fiftieth anniversary. I was supposed to deliver it on February 1st or the end of January something like that roughly and I think the date was February 6 when I delivered it. After that, I had to start thinking about the album as I didn’t have a single song written. I don’t know why but I’m one of those people that needs the pressure to write somehow. I don’t just sit around and write songs.
I mostly sit around all day, playing jazz tunes. Seven days a week for thirty-five years, that’s what I’ve done. I always take notes or write shit down. I’ll have ideas because the human race, capitalism, and Western culture are just so ridiculous. There’s just always shit that I find amusing or aggravating or interesting so I’m always writing things down. Little notes here and there, whether it’s from a YouTube commercial, a TV commercial, a car radio commercial, a billboard, or a political debate or political commentary.
A lot has gone on since we put out, Dead To The World in 2016 when fuckface won the election so there was a lot to write about. Not just in the United States either, but I think all of Western civilization has grown. Between political factions, people’s beliefs they’re incredibly distorted. Truth has very little value in this day and age amongst a large percentage of the population.
There’s a pretty cool Robert De Niro speech at some awards show. I love how he’s been very outspoken about Trump and they tried to censor his speech, but he remembered what he had intended to say. He’s talking about the 30,000 lies in his four years in office. 30,000 lies. There are 75 million people who think this guy is worthy of being President. That has been eating at me for a long time. That and the MAGA faction and the Freedom Caucus, they call themselves. The right-wing kooks that are in Congress: Lauren Boebert, Marjorie Taylor Greene, Matt Gaetz and Jim Jordan. There’s just a whole fucking gaggle of them that are just lying sacks of shit. It’s just fascinating to me.”
“I always have ideas because the human race, capitalism, and Western culture are just so ridiculous. There’s just always shit that I find amusing or aggravating or interesting so I’m always writing things down.”
Has it been easier to write an album given what’s gone on over the last few years?
“I don’t want to jinx myself and say easy, but I wrote, recorded, performed, mixed and mastered an album between February 7th and June 7th, let’s say. Pretty fast. It’s not an epic, quadruple concert for Bangladesh box set or whatever, but I grew up on albums that were half an hour long, so I’ve kind of stuck to that for the last couple of albums. 38 minutes is a nice length.
I just thought the CD era was so stupid, you know, we need more tracks because we have more space. We don’t need 75-minute albums of bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, as Andy Kaufman would say. What’s the character he plays? Tony Clifton that asshole character he plays, bullshit, bullshit, bullshit, my line, bullshit, all I ever did was do live mixes.
It’s nice to have goals after a couple of years of the pandemic just pulling it out from under us. I suffered as many people did and lost lots of money and my health suffered. I got back on my feet though.”
It’s been six years since the last album. Aside from those two years what have you been doing to keep busy?
“We toured a lot. 2019 was the 30th anniversary of the band was formed in ’89 in New York City so we did the 30th Anniversary tour and that was going to keep going into Australia, New Zealand, South America, and Japan into 2020. Then the pandemic hit, so that all got postponed but we toured pretty extensively up to then. I did another orchestra piece for another school in Atlanta. I also work on jazz stuff. I do probably about three or four movies or TV movies for HBO or Netflix as a session guy as well.
I have one specific composer that I love working with who I do a fair amount with. We’ve done a couple of German things. He’s from Germany originally and teaches at USC, the Southern California University in L.A. I just kind of sit around and transpose jazz tunes into keys that work for my voice. I have this pipe dream fantasy that I’m going to do an album. I think that’s kind of the next thing.
I have three months off from Helmet when I get home for Christmas. I have a bunch of stuff written for a solo album, I guess you could call it. I’ve started thinking about it, it’s all instrumental weird shit. One batch was music I wrote for a movie that I’ve scored that I quit about halfway through because they were just scumbags, truly scumbags. A combination of Hong Kong and Hollywood scumbags. Mafioso scumbags. I had a meeting with them on the phone and I was in the car and I pulled over and decided I’m, I’m done.
They were trying to muscle us into doing it just doing some bullshit. They had taken a three-month or four-month hiatus. I can’t remember what the exact circumstances were, but they expected us to jump right back in when we’re musicians trying to make a living. Everything got put on hold or something and then all of a sudden they were ready to go. I was going on tour in like five days or something. I can’t compose on the road. I’ve tried. It doesn’t work. I got a lot of music from it, a lot of really cool music so the good news is when you don’t have to listen to some dipshit producer, or a director or some other asshole that doesn’t know shit, you can add any parts you want. You can make it as dense as you want. You can mix it any way you fuckin’ want. It was very liberating as I wasn’t shackled to this mediocre movie when I quit. I had all this new music that I had written that I hadn’t given them.
“One batch was music I wrote for a movie that I’ve scored that I quit about halfway through because they were just scumbags, truly scumbags. A combination of Hong Kong and Hollywood scumbags. Mafioso scumbags. I had a meeting with them on the phone and I was in the car and I pulled over and decided I’m done…”
They got some other composer who, I think had the film music patch on a Yamaha DX7 where he bought the Movie Music sample CD, you know, hold this key down and… Everything I do is organic… everything. I’m a guitarist and I’ve been playing the guitar in films since the first big movie I did was Heat with and Al Pacino for Elliot Gould. I’ve done like 20 movies with Elliot. I did another Shakespeare, Tempest with Helen Mirren which was fucking amazing. So, I’ve done all this guitar shit. Shit sculpting I call it.
During my Bowie era, when I got to play with Bowie for four or five months, I said I was not a guitar player and he asked me what I was talking about. I said I consider myself kind of a shit sculptor. He was cracking up because he said I didn’t have to play anything that anybody else played on the old songs, just play in the spirit of music. I didn’t have time to explore because it was such a short stint.
So my stuff is all organically generated. I write on the keyboard and I use orchestral samples, but a lot of it is guitar sounds that are, that are not recreatable but they’re also fairly aggressive. I tend to be fairly aggressive. I have a fairly aggressive approach to guitar sounds which I think, for some, like for James Newton Howard in Collateral, I think it was a bit too much. Elliot, on the other hand, is a wild man. He loves the weird shit that I do… noisy and stuff. Patrick Kearse, the composer I work with a lot now, he, he loves it although he’s always complaining about noise so I have to tell him that when you put gain into to get feedback and make, you know, growling noises, it can be noisy. It’s not going to be calm and peaceful, is it? I use digital processing but with a power amp. I need that depth. I don’t know. It’s just a weird thing. I got to feel it in the back of my teeth. It’s got to make your teeth shake if you’re going to use a guitar.”
In terms of transferring from your film scores and your jazz stuff into writing for Helmet, how does that work? Do you have to be in a certain mindset to write for Helmet? Is it a challenge to switch?
“Helmet is the only band that I write lyrics for, so that’s the extra thrill. Helmet is, for all intents and purposes, a pop band, right? I write three-minute rock songs. They’re not like an orchestra. There’s thematic development, but it’s like building tension with the riff and releasing tension with some chords and there’s a melody over the top. More so now than back when my approach was more rhythmic because I was still trying to figure out how to fit it in and make the words work. Songs like “Vaccination” are better because they’re such weird fucking riffs.
I love it, that’s why I keep kind of copious notes throughout my daily life because lyrics can be daunting. Back in the early 90s, I wanted to be like the anti-songwriter because I just thought songwriting… songwriters were so pretentious. Like why don’t you create something new? Then I started appreciating people like Elvis. Elvis Costello’s was my gateway back into the real world when I learned you could do cool shit with the same old chords. He has amazing chord progressions… beyond belief but it’s only a couple of chords.
I write everything down in notebooks. They’re always within arm’s reach and I have anywhere from 10 to 12 notebooks because I write and then distil the ideas from this notebook to that notebook and then I’ll open say William Butler Yeats or Charles Simic. I got an idea for this album from Tom Wolfe from Bonfire in the Vanities that I just opened randomly to a page. I opened this collection of Yates works that I have used for years and years and years randomly. I want to say it’s Sailing to Byzantine. I’m not a hundred percent positive but the first line is this is No Country for old men and I just about crapped myself.
I texted my literature pal, he’s a former FBI agent in the U.S. He’s one of my best friends. I’ve known him since we were 10 years old. We’re big book nerds together. John looked it up and said you’re right. How lucky is that? He said to me, it’s not lucky. He said you’re just a dork.”
Do you dig back into those notebooks at all when you’re writing? Have you got those notebooks going right back? Do you keep them?
“You know what? I, because I lost so much money in the pandemic, I have a couple of super fans I sold probably a half dozen of my diaries to. It was to pay my mortgage. It’s kind of sad but I don’t need them once I’ve extracted all the ideas out of them. I go through them all and if there’s something I like, I transfer it to another notebook.
I just bought a place, right? I closed on my place in LA in January 2020. Everything was going well and I had a couple of movies lined up. One was going to film in Birmingham. We had more tours going and I’d finally gotten out of the funk I went through like 10 years ago and then the pandemic hit…
I still have like probably forty notebooks in one of my bookcases. I write a lot. I need to write a lot. Sometimes I do a stream of consciousness. I’ve done things like I’ll put my headphones on and put on a song with words, which could be anything from Nat King Cole to Radiohead, and I listen and then just free-associating, just write… I have different tricks like I think all writers do. Sometimes I might take a hit off a joint and sit down and just write whatever or sometimes I write first thing when I wake up. I’ll get an idea or whatever. It’s all really necessary because you can never have enough materialized ideas or stuff.
Graham Green who’s another one of my heroes, I’ve read, I think, pretty much almost everything of his. He said he would get up even when he had a job as an editor or a film critic or whatever he was doing. He would get up first thing in the morning and write for, I think, an hour and a half. I can’t remember exactly. I just love that. I’m not that disciplined, but I’m always writing things down, whether it’s on a scrap of paper. I have a lot of Post-it notes around my desk.”
Inspiration-wise, lyrically, I mean, songs like “Powder Puff” and “NYC Tough Guy”, could you talk us through the themes of those songs? Even a song like “Holiday,” because the record kicks off and it’s straight into it, there’s no holding back…
“Yeah, “Holiday,” the idea is that every Christmas season, families get together, or I do, and I swear my sister and I are up until 3 in the morning watching either “Law and Order” marathons, or “Forensic Files,” or “Dateline,” and it’s all murder, murder, murder. I got this idea about people like Axl Rose and Johnny Depp glorifying Charles Manson by buying his songs, his lyrics and stuff or whatever they bought from him, almost giving this piece of shit attention. I was trying to demean him as just a mama’s boy playing the martyr. The idea that this was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s family member that was murdered and we become kind of desensitized, well, my manager was a little bit miffed. He’s from Sheffield and was saying that it was just F-bombs so I was telling him that I’m trying to do the lowest common denominator language.
Another thing that I had an idea about was all these bands that it’s just the lowest common denominator hook. I won’t mention any names or whatever, but I just wanted to make it uncomfortable. You know what I mean? Rather than us being sort of desensitized to it, I wanted to make it a little uncomfortable and I think I succeeded.”
You’re right, it doesn’t hold back…
“It’s funny. I got the melody from the intro and then the re-intro is in a different key so I had to transpose the melody. It’s just basically one note difference that we play in drop C tuning so the A would be an A-flat and the melody, I don’t know… I got that hook in my head too inspired by my old boss David Bowie and the man I just mentioned, Elvis Costello.”
Just to wrap up, Helmet has inspired generations of bands from Deftones right through. How do you want Helmet to be remembered?
“I’d like us to be remembered. I can’t control that. I’m not going to try to control that. I get asked a lot because everyone from, you know, Serj from System of a Down to Dimebag to Chino to Jonathan and Munky from Korn have said to my face that, without you, we’re not here, you’re huge influence. I’d rather have people be inspired and influenced and excited by us who are musicians. I’m not worried about the Taylor Swift fans as they are never, ever, ever gonna respond to what we do, but I’ve never written a song with the idea that I’m trying to appeal to a specific audience. I write music that I want to hear whether it’s for everyone else or not, you know what I mean?
Beavis & Butthead once said that you could walk past you in the street and you wouldn’t even know that you guys were cool. How do you feel about that? Do you still feel like you’re cool without being cool?
“I’m fine, I’m okay with that. I think my old drummer Stan wanted to be in the Cool Kids Club in New York and I never understood why. It’s hollow and I’ve written songs about it. I think that the reason that we’re still playing and doing it is that our fans and people realize that it’s honest, it’s coming from an honest place. I truly and genuinely get excited about music and I still love doing this. Even though the travel and all that stuff takes its toll and we are still playing in the same shitholes, making albums is one of the most fun things you can ever imagine.”
Helmet released Left on November 10th, 2023 through earMUSIC. You can pick up your copy here.
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