PAGE HAMILTON (HELMET)
'I think in 2021 we’ll have a new album...'
11/07/2020, Danil VOLOHOV
photos: © Chad Kelco, Tom Bronowski,Jacob Blickenstaff
For Page Hamilton, jazz-music has always been an incredible source of inspiration. His recent “Fairytale Aliens” recorded with M’Lumbo is one more proof of it. And with this – Page keeps staying true to himself. Since the very first days of Helmet, Hamilton used to combine his jazz-influences with the energy of classical rock-music he used to listen to while growing up – from The Beatles to ACDC. And everything in between.
Page Hamilton is a rare example of a person, who’s not afraid to look back and speak about his primary influences and their role in his music today. Through years he passed through series of artistic metamorphoses taking the roles of producer and film-composer. And now, he is ready to start his work on what would become next Helmet album.
In the interview for Peek-A-Boo magazine, Page Hamilton told us about the theoretical aspect of his scoring work and the place of art in his music, about the early “Strap It On” and upcoming Helmet record. About ideas and collaborations and “Fairytale Aliens”.
In March 2020 you released “Fairytale Aliens” - the result of your work with M’Lumbo. An incredible mixture of different styles of music. My first association was Mr.Bungle. How did it come about and what can you say about it ?
Rob Ray [note. - Robert Jordan Ray Flatow] from M’Lumbo and I were in the band in New York - in Brooklyn in the 80’s. Probably like 86-86…For a couple of years. We started in touch. Helmet took off did our thing and Rob formed M’Lumbo around the same time I think – late 80’s. I’ve always loved what they did so I said: “Hey! We got to work together one day!” – when I would be in New York, I would go to his studio for a day. And we would record stuff. We ended up doing this for a five or six years. Before we knew that we got enough for a couple of albums. New York based label - Ropeadope [Records] released the record. So yeah, that’s it! We’ve done one live-show together several years ago. And we’ve actually played an album release show in March. When pandemic struck. So I had to leave New York and get back to Los Angeles. And we cancelled the shows. I’m happy that the album’s done and out. It’s sort of this is it for me with these guys. It was a labor of love for five years. I said to them: “I don’t think we’d be touring!” – but, it’s a fun record!
It seems that with recent Helmet records – “Seeing Eye Dog” and “Dead To The World” you’ve started exploring the tendencies you’ve never touched before. These records are much more lyrical – in comparison with your early works. What affected and inspired you during the writing process ?
I think as guitar-player and jazz-nerd that I am – since I wake up every day and play jazz-guitar I kind of constantly involved in that music. And I listen to a lot of jazz-stuff – whether it’s Thelonious Monk or Nat King Cole – it kind of seeps into your music. I think, It’s every musicians duty – so to speak. Continue to work on your craft. With Helmet, I think if I’d have tried to repeat “Strap It On” or “Meantime” I feel pretty bad about it. I’m constantly progress as a singer. When I moved to Los Angeles in 2001 – right after September 11th, I ended up working with a vocal guy and he kind of showed me how to expend my range and showed me a lot of great harmony things…Cause, Helmet used to be: me singing, John, Henry, Chris or Pete – they never sang. So it’s just growing as musician and trying to push forward without abandoning guitars-bass-drum-idea of a rock-band.
As musician you’ve always had a very specific reputation. On one hand – your jazz-background always played an important role in your creativity. On the other hand – you were never afraid of mixing it with avant-guarde-sounding guitar chords. When you started exploring the world of music – as a listener, what attracted you the most ?
Oh, boy! You I kind of go away to being a kid. And being a car sick in my perents’ station wagon – on the back seat. At that point, song my America came out called “A Horse With No Name”. And I remember kind of going inside the music: there was that 12 string guitar sound and bongo-drums and drive-bass…I just remember something drew me in…Whether it was this drawn-y one chord-two chord song. It’s hard to say. Just the feel – for me, like is something swings. Or just the rhythmic stuff is what I find really exciting. I think, what some people miss using computers with Pro-Tools is just that natural feel stuff doesn’t have to snap-to-grid. Some people, for example, I went through a phase where I listened to a lot of drum and bass – Squarepusher, Orbital, Aphex Twin and stuff that was instrumental but programmed and interesting. And I still kind of come back to chords and melodies and jazz-stuff all the time. My favorite rock-band would have been somewhere between ACDC and The Beatles. I love those bands. Both of them have this kind of rawness. If you’d listen to The Beatles. Those recordings are so cool. And ACDC sounds just louder and meaner than any other band to me. Both those bands had a great feel. Some people say say: “Well, I don’t hear jazz in Helmet’s music!” – and I’m not trying to incorporate jazz necessarily. But what jazz does it’s about swinging, feeling. It’s about groove and also exploring different chords. Those are two things Helmet is always been known for. Keith Jordan – the great drummer who plays with Keith Richards, said to me: “You’re guys are the only heavy band that grooves and swings!” and I’m like: ‘Yeah! That’s kind of true! It’s heavy! And it’s still about the groove!” Without trying to be funk or whatever. That’s why I love ACDC – it just feels very groove.
By the time you founded Helmet, there were lots of things happening in New York. Hardcore, avant-guarde music, garage-rock – all these musical tendencies. And of course, the Jazz scene was still strong. So after you left Band Of Susans- what drove you to these tendencies you started exploring during pre- “Strap It On” era ?
I can’t that about one thing specifically – that drew me in. But when I got to school, I started auditioning for the bands. There was the paper that was free in the 80’s – called The Village Voice. And I started answering it! I went to Queens and auditioned for a cover band. I went to Downtown New York for addition – where I ended up moving. Then, I met Band of Susans and auditioned for them and got into band. Robert Poss turned me on a lot of great music. I discovered late 70’s-early 80’s British thing…I knew Killing Joke. Robert turned me on Gang of Four – I was like: “Man! This is a f*****g s***!” And then, when we toured with Wire – I became great friends with them. And I just kind of explored that world: Buzzcocks and The Undertones. I like Joy Division a lot! Then I also auditioned for Glenn Branca – around the same time. And got into his group as well. He’s kind of blew my mind. His approach and turning – all the strings tuned to one note…That would be a major trial on a standard tune-guitar. Instead of chromatic chords in Glen’s tuning. And then – his rhythmic ideas. Super imposing. 3 against 4 was really common. Glen is one of the biggest influences on my music – no questions! I got played on Symphony # 6. And got to work with him on Symphony # 8. We played that piece life – it wasn’t finished. We played it in Spain at the World’s fair. He was a huge influence. And his widow, his wife – Reg [Bloor] does some really interesting music too. I really like her stuff – I’m on her mailing list. When Glen came to Los Angeles to do Symphony for a hundred electric guitars – I met Reg. Also met Mike Watt who was in the bass section. He’s one of the most important musicians for me. He’s so honest and pure and works his ass off! I admire him! He’s a great role-model for all of us!
Starting the band in the late 80’s, you were influenced by visual images – the thing that Robert Poss [Band of Susans] – encouraged you to do. How important did the role of visual side of things, visual approach play during that era and nowadays ?
I’ve always been a person who absolutely has no artistic talent! I can barely draw stick-figure. But I love painting. I’m obsessed with Spanish painters. I’ve been to Prado in Madrid around 6 or 7 time. I love Van Gogh. I’ve been to Van Gagh museum in Amsterdam probably 10 times!
Part of visualizing is what my mentor - Garry Hagberg, a partner of the great Howard Roberts, who founded Guitar Institute of Technologies, which is called now – Musicians’ Institute. He always talked about the visualization of a fretboard. Roberts was talking a lot about visualizing fretboard, about sonic shapes.
I used to sit in subway in New York having a fretboard in my brain. I was such a nerd. Then I would also try to tap out rhythms on my lags – when I was in subway. I tried to do 5 against 4, 3 against 4. 3 against 4 I can do on my sleeve now. But 5 against 4 – you have to do it really slowly. One hand is playing in 5 – the other hand is in 4. So visualizing your instrument is something, I think a lot of people don’t do away from their instruments. And I think, also, as a writer, If you write away from your instrument – if you don’t have a guitar, the stuff comes out that’s completely uncontrolled by the limiting scope of your technical ability. So if I hear something in my brain, and I can visualize it in my fretboard. I don’t have a perfect pitch. I have a relative pitch. “Te-te-e-eee-eee” [note. – then Page played the chord ]. Thinking about music away from the instrument helped me. Actually, Helmet sound, Helmet’s drop-tune and vocabulary came to me when I was walking. It was late at night in New York. I used to live at Avenue C. It was around 16th street, I think. And I was walking home and I got the intro riff to “Repetition” the first song on “Strap It On” in my head. Helmet had been formed and we recorded. But we didn’t have that vocabulary. So I got the guitar at 4am in the morning. The pitch I heard was D. So I had to drop-tune. So the whole kind of vocabulary revealed itself. So that’s kind of result of visualizing music, visualizing the guitar fretboard…
You music has always been passing through quite aggressive presentation with lots of elements – that John and Henry brought as characteristic features of your style. And that are still important for you. But how do you remember the very first reaction of your fans and your first tour ?
Em…Trying to think…I remember there were a couple of shows we did: Philly – New York – Boston – DC…First gig, I think we played was in Brooklyn. We’ve played in Pyramid them. Then we auditioned for CBGB’s and that’s what basically helped us to really launch us. There would be a couple of people we’d see at shows. Two guys and girl. There’s a picture of Pyramid club – probably like 5 people in the crowd…I also remember opening for the bands. In Philadelphia we opened for Antiseen, I believe. And these people were covering their ears in front: “You’re too loud!” ( laughs ). I just remember talking to the guys: “We’re doing it right! We’re on a right track!” – There were like sorority girls around. And I remember saying: “Yeah! That’s not our fans!” Sorority girls want to hear whatever is on the radio. So we understood that we’re on a right track ( laughs ).
But at the same time, looking back at selected works of yours, most of your listeners mentioned that you used to limit yourself to a certain extent.
Was it a part of the strategy you wanted to follow ?
I think, having parameters…If I’m writing for a Helmet – it’s a different approach then in I’m writing for a movie – for example. Everybody wants to think that they re-invented the wheel. I remember one guy at the school: “I don’t listen to any music right now, ‘cause I don’t wanna be influences by anything!” – and I was like: “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard! You need to be influenced!” And as Howard Roberts talked about that: “When you sit down to practice – play the guitar! Don’t make it some separate non-musical experience!” – and in the case of Helmet, I’m not trying to write music for everyone. I’m trying to write music that I’m interesting in! And think if the band of musician or writer would worry about the response – then, they’d lost it. It’s just “I don’t care!” – as I always being saying: “Well, Michael Jackson sold a billion records. So only billion people likes him! The other billions on the Earth didn’t like his music!” – so I wasn’t trying to reach anybody in particular. I was trying to make music that John, Henry, Peter and I would felt proud of. And wanted to play. You try to do something different. And something that’s not fit in. When some of the people make mistakes they worry about “being cool” – I’ve never thought about that! I knew we were good. I was very confident. But we were good because we worked hard. We rehearsed religiously three days a week. No matter what was going on! If it was Christmas holidays, my brother was in town – bring him to rehearsal. Or family was in town…All three guys were committed in the same way. I think that’s important. A lot of people forget how much time and energy goes into! Do your work and the rest would take care of yourself! I’ve always kind of believed that.
And I’m not a millionaire rock-star! We could have sold more records if we tried to do something that was more within the industry. But then I would have been playing song that I don’t like and I’m not proud of 30 years later. I love touring more than I ever have! REALLY miss it right now! We’re supposed to be in Australia! I really miss playing live!
Commenting on your work on “Betty” you said once that this record was mainly your attempt to turn things upside down – after the success you had with “Meantime”. But if “Meantime” more or less was similar to your debut – with “Betty” you started exploring different tendencies – musically and lyrically of course. Could you please tell me about your sources of inspiration during the writing process ?
Every record kind of has different influences. Early on, after “Strap It On”, I had this notion that I wanted to be anti-singer-songwriter. I thought, people are taking themselves too seriously: “I’m a singer-songwriter, and I’m gonna be Bob Dylan” – well, there’s only one Bob Dylan. So why don’t you try to create something that’s unique to you ? And Robert Poss influences me in that regard, as well. He used to write lines on pieces of paper, put them on the floor and then put things together as a puzzle. I think, all the things inspire you to do something different are good. I was reading about Paul McCartney who said: “I would sit down the piano. Sometimes with the guitar or with pen and paper other times being open to trying different things..” And I think, what you’re listening to at the time is gonna influence you for sure. I couldn’t face specifically what I was listening to what I wrote each record. But with “Meantime” I was probably listening to The Stooges and stooges-sounding Australian band – Radio Birdman, Peter [Mengede] turned me on to. Gang of Four, Killing Joke, Wire, Buzzcocks – all that stuff. That was early on. Killing Joke was a huge-huge influence. We have done two covers – two Killing Joke covers of their first record. We actually did Wire-cover that hasn’t been released yet! And we did Gang of Four cover that came out at the end of last year…Andy Gill oversaw the project. And I was really and obviously devastated that he passed away in his 60’s. But he loved it. And this made me really happy.
In one of the interviews you made in the 90’s, speaking about your approach to recording albums you said that you’ve never been making a decision of what the album should sound like. But since then, you changed your artistic focus – especially, in the context of your scoring and producers work. In what way these experiences changed your approach to create music ?
I think, it’s good – if I have a project in front of me, and somebody says: “Will you score this movie ?” it always motivates me. And when you’re writing music for a move – it’s secondary to the picture. Here’s the story that’s happening on the screen being acted out and you have to someway enhance what’s going on, on the screen. Some of the movies I worked were really bad and the director said: “We’ll need a lot of music to cover this crap up!” and that’s really fun. And my approach always been…I just draw from my guitar-sonic-palette when I got to work on all these movies with Elliot Goldenthal – the great film-composer, great composer, I should say. I think, getting out of your comfort-zone is a good thing. Writing a music for “a specific purpose” – to enhance a scene or to make the scene scarier, more intense – it’s a kind of good approach. It makes you to get out of your normal songwriting habits. And it’s hard to say specifically how it influences what I do in Helmet but it has! There’s a guitar thing I’m working on for all these years – I was up till 5 am this morning, putting guitars for this movie I’m working on as co-composer. I want to pass the things back and force, doing bunch of guitars-stuff and my orchestral thing and send to my co-composer – he’s a keyboard-player comes from classical background. So it’s great to step outside your comfort zone. Once I’d finish this movie in the next two weeks, I’m gonna write next Helmet-album. I got a guy who’s been pushing me…I wanted to make an album a couple of years ago but the label was so slow in responding. I understand: they don’t make a lot of money on Helmet records. But I still have a record deal and I want to put out that f***ing record already! So I think in 2021 we’ll have a new album…I hope!
While working on a film-score you need not just to understand the characters, but the general tonalities of the movies. Think in terms of what would enhance this moment or that action – whether it’s noisy guitar chords or some kind of orchestrations. In such cases, isn’t it hard for you to get from your real-life experience ?
I go pretty much 100% by my own – like I feel, see what makes me feel or think…I start with one note. You got to break it down to the most basic. One note can say more. I got to study film-composing with Jack Smalley, who’s a professor at University of Southern California. And one of his lessons I’d never forget –he said:”Ok! This scene calls for a big note! That works well for this scene” and then added: “I’m getting paid for writing music, I’d better go and do more than one note”. So he writes more than 16 things and he finally said: “I fucked it up! All I needed to do is to play one note! In film-scoring you have to keep in mind that it’s not about fancy or showing a lot of notes”.
I run one note through wah-wah pedal and changed the timbre. Just making it slow. And after I send it to another composer – well known for writing gloomy movies he said: “I don’t know what you did but it’s the most amazing guitar sound…” – I don’t even know how the company’s called! Em…Total…Total Recall, I think. And write every single pedal setting down and create a sound – it’s all about the sound. I barely have to move my fingers. Just to change sting tensions. But it’s really fun! It’s really challenging as well! You have to tell yourself much more. I’m not saying I’m great film-composer. But for me, it’s like doing something that doesn’t sounds like what everyone else is doing. When someone hires me for a movie, they don’t try to get film-score 101 mainstream-composer guy. I’ve read some things where somebody said that with my soundtrack: “Page’s music is really avant-guarde!” – well, I don’t think of it like that! I just think I’m trying to do something interesting and fun. And makes me feel something.
I think it’s a great place to ask you about coming Helmet record – before there’s no record yet ( laughs ). What ideas do you have right now, and do you usually have a certain type of concept when you only set up for a work ?
Yeah. I’ve already set my vocal mic! I just moved, so I finally have my dream-scenario for my work-room. It’s really comfortable studio now. The work is still in process. I moved during pandemic which was kind of stressful. Slowly getting settled. What I’d do – I have settled vocal mic and I have Fender-amp with VHT preamp. I have a couple of guitar-sounds – I’d sit down with the guitar sometimes keeping a bunch of notebooks and writing down one line or something. When we did “Dead To The World” it was prior to Donald Trump taking – prior to the election. I’m not whoever saying whatever but “Dead To The World” kind of predicts Trump…A lot of the songs about where we are. But it’s always been underlined tone of racism and masonry, it’s always been in our country. And now they have a voice. Now they have a voice. And I think it’s not ok. Trump talks only about making America great. It’s always about America. F*ck everybody else. Actually – no. It’s about the entire world. I’ve always felt that there’s a human race. Not like: “We’re the greatest country on Earth!”. This country wasn’t here a hundred years before! If you’d look at 50-years ago, at the boarders of country that didn’t exist, there are cultures that don’t even exist anymore. We’re so arrogant. We all are human beings. It’s always fascinated me that people can’t see past their f*****g nose. If you’d treat people like s*it – you are s*it. And I’ve always being writing about that from perspective of a person born and raised in America. I have the right to complain about my country. Because, this supposed to be the democracy and I have a freedom of speech. Some people say: “You’re anti-American!” – well, I’m not! I love this country, I love my parents. But we need change things. Watching interviews with Marlon Brando from 1968 on The Night Show, the issues he’s been talking about in 1968 still front the center! We still haven’t solved the f***ing thing! It’s still a racist – more so, right now! It’s really frustrating that people can’t show more compassion and intelligence as for as how to interact one another. As for me it’s do one to others as you’d have done to you – whatever it’s from – from Bible or…And I’m not a band Christian or bad Buddhist. But I think it’s kind of basic [thing]: treat people with respect and compassion. If you’d worry about yourself – that’s the American condition right now. “F*ck everyone!” – it’s a bad way to live, folks.
I think it’s natural for all the artists to be influenced by the things happening around them. And of course, the current situation is such a tricky thing. We’ve been isolated by social networks that cheated the distance between people. And right now, getting to the situation where isolation is probably the only way out – we miss the simplicities of interaction…
Ironic, right ?
Yeah! Absolutely! And how much do these things affect you right now ? As it’s impossible to distance from the news…
As you know, I’m political. But I’m not gonna stand on soap boxes and clench my fist saying: “Fuck the man!” but I think in a weird way my approach is little more subversive. It’s still about art and craft of writing and song, trying to communicate something. But I’m not gonna stand up and say: “I have the answers!” – these things always influenced me. Going back to “Driving Nowhere” after “Aftertaste” – I wrote that song before September 11th. And that notion, the home-grown terrorists, conservative disillusions and killing of innocent people has always existed. I can see our country – people just watch the news and they don’t know what’s true and what’s real anymore. People can say whatever they wanna say. And now with Internet every 14-years old has an opinion about something. It’s kind of scary but at the same time, if you’d try to keep some kind of perspective and for me all I am is a songwriter – person who plays guitar and writes music. Nothing more. I’m not a world-leader. But I can talk to my friends and people I know saying what I think.
One of the characteristic features of your music is a certain kind of tension you’ve always put into your songs. Whether these are solo-parts on ‘Unsung” or the chorus of “I ♥ My Guru” – musically, do you think it’s important to put that element into compositional structure or you never really think about it and just let the song lead you ?
Yeah! I don’t specifically think in those terms. I kind of thing in terms of overall picture – the arc of the song. There might be tension but: ‘This is a really cool sound!” – this might create tension. Like with “Unsung” – the rhythmic figure with these big open chords. It’s about dynamics. And one thing, my mentor - Garry Hagberg was talking about. What music consists of ? A melody, harmony, rhythm, form – stricture. And text – words. These are the elements you have to deal with. And if I have a cool chord or cool melodic it kind of asks to start with a shape. Riff-writing is much like classical music in that way. It’s a motive. So you got: Ta-da! Ta-da! Ta-da! Ta-da-da-da-da! – it’s one note! But it’s an interesting rhythm! And it’s builds this cool tension. And busts into: “Ta-da-da-da-da!” or “Ta! Da-da-da-da-da!” those kind of release. Those are all elements you’re working with.
Despite the fact that Helmet has always been your main project, over the years you used to tour and play with various artists. In particular I want to focus on your jazz-performances. But being on stage no matter what project and format you’re performing with – do you have the same kind of feel ? Or it varies ?
All those elements, I just talked about - harmony, melody, rhythm, form, text – all parts of music. When I sit down to play jazz tuned which I’d do later today – it’s chords and melodies. And I work on these ideas cause I’m gonna record another album – hopefully this year. Finally got to jazz-thing. Actually, Tony Bennett’s daughter – Antonia agreed to do a song with me which I’m really excited about. She’s a cool singer. I have to kind of set-up different work space for each thing. Like with films – I set up for film-scoring right now. I have five pedalboards. I might use one of them or use them all together. And going them through my mics and stuff. When I’m doing Helmet – I have a microphone on a boom stand in front of me…But it’s all music. If I work on a movie – that’s gonna impact my Helmet writing. If I work on Helmet – It’s gonna impact my movie-writing. I have another film later this year…If they get it made. When you’re playing life – it’s influences your writing. Being able to play 3000+ shows over the thirty years you still have to sit down, block everything out, put your phone away and go to work.
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