Page Hamilton is like my dad. I've been saying that a lot lately to deflect criticism of Helmet's admittedly not awesomely titled comeback album, Size Matters (Interscope), from its many detractors, be they drinking buddies, Myspacesters, fan forum dorks, Vice loyalists, or editors of extreme music mags (i.e., everyone with taste and "taste" that I know). Let me stress right away that I'm not playing the dad card in that quintessentially misguided, middle-class teen-rager way, à la "Pop smacked me upside the head 'cause my intensity was for shit at the meet, so I ran upstairs, slammed my door, and blasted 'The Unforgiven.' Fuckin' Hetfield is like my dad." Nah, my biological father kicks ass—um, figuratively. There's nothing a family man craves more after an hour-plus weekday commute than decompression, but the guy came home many a night and, without even undoing his tie, drove my 15-year-old licenseless ass to indie boutiques and waited patiently outside while I built my rock vocabulary.
Now that's being a dad—he helped his son not suck. Page Hamilton filled in the blanks. As Helmet's frontman, his work colored a great deal of my personality. Passive-aggressive, terse, a wee bit pretentious, and prone to repetitive, self- destructive implosions? Check, check, check, and check. You may only know Helmet as that cool, preppy, '90s noisecore quartet whose songs all kinda sounded alike (thanks to Hamilton's popularization of simplified drop-D tuning), or worse, an oft-cited influence for countless dirge 'n' purge nü-metal miscarriages, but they're my Beatles. Were you to suggest that they (or he, more accurately, as you'll see) have softened and aged to the "suck" threshold, I wouldn't even know how to reply. Not because I would be upset beyond words or anything, but because I'm simply on a different plane of appreciation and acceptance. It's good to feel that way about a rock band in my late '20s—kinda scary, but good.
Their indie debut, Strap It On (Ampheta- mine Reptile), and 1992 major-label coming-out party, Meantime, are vital metal catalog pieces even for the nonobsessed, establishing Helmet's bruising, unique, staccato template. 1994's follow-up, Betty, was—ironically, considering the title of Helmet's lone hit single—unsung, a misunderstood masterpiece in which Hamilton's jazz, blues, funk, and bluegrass affections leaked all over his stop-and-go power-rock blueprint. He acrimoniously parted ways with bassist Henry Bogdan and snare-snapping drummer John Stanier after 1997's melodic, surprisingly (some would say alarmingly) accessible Aftertaste. After scoring a few films, producing a few albums, and forming short-lived quintet Gandhi with some metal-averse N.Y.C. friends, Hamilton recruited Aftertaste-era rhythm guitarist Chris Traynor, Anthrax bassist Frank Bello, and White Zombie drummer John Tempesta to reboot Helmet. A few tracks from the oft-downloaded, industrial pop-leaning Gandhi demo were reworked ("Enemies" and "Everybody Loves You"), and the resulting Size Matters (Interscope) is a mixed bag for purists and curious newcomers alike. Save for the crippling rat-a-tat fills of "Crashing Foreign Cars," Tempesta never establishes a locomotive presence the way Stanier did, and Hamilton—who once barked colorful, incongruous beat imagery—now very much sings forthright, relationship-inspired choruses inspired by the Fab Four's Rubber Soul ("See You Dead"). There's even sort of a power ballad, the tender, soaring "Unwound."
All of these evolutions and adjustments have irked finicky file-sharing fans to no end, well before the album's proper release two weeks ago. To their ears, discernible narratives + a new rhythm section + an architect who now offers an array of nonsnarled vocal approaches = "Helmet," not Helmet. Dating Winona Ryder didn't exactly do wonders for Hamilton's cred either; their high-profile relationship is likely the unspoken core of much of the backlash. Interestingly, I've interviewed Hamilton twice and we've never come close to discussing her. Our chats are monologues disguised as conversations disguised as interviews. He's a self-aware man, but also astonishingly passionate as he trucks through his early '40s. Slicing his bon mots and anecdotes into an essay would be an injustice, so I pieced his loghorrea into what he really wants to express: a mission statement. Hell, I was never any good at shutting up and letting my real dad give me a talking-to anyway.
PAGE HAMILTON: I foolishly got on [Helmet's home page]—the label said, "Write something in the journal"—so I checked out the forum. People get their fuckin' bowels in an uproar. You know, "The Gandhi version of 'Enemies' is so much better." I'm like, "the Gandhi version?!" I did the vocals in my bedroom in New York, and Charlie [Clouser, Size Matters co-producer] pounded out a big, dumb drumbeat. Please! Better than the album version? I don't think so. Three of the five songs on the demo had programmed drums. Gandhi was my jam band with my drinking buddies; Helmet is my band band. I reserve the right to use my songs for whatever purpose.
I just did an interview with a guy who pointed out that it was always kinda like that. We put out Meantime and it was like, "You guys sold out, man! That album's weak! It's not heavy!" So we put out Betty. "Ah, Betty sucks!" Then we put out Aftertaste. "Ah, man, Aftertaste sucks. It's not as good as Betty. Betty's so great!" It's like, "OK, thanks for showing up. Have a nice day." I guess I'll just make the albums, and people can think what they want.
I'll challenge anyone to get into a musical conversation with me if they want to question my integrity. I can't be swayed by what I think people want to hear. We were cool when we were on the cover of Flipside in 1991, but when we're on the cover of Alternative Press in 1992, we're not cool? I dunno. . .
The first bad review of Meantime I read was in London. It was crushing. All we'd heard was how great we were, the downtown New York darlings, blah, blah, blah. Then you read this review—"This guy's a jackass idiot and his mom wears army boots"—and you're like, "I've never even met this guy David Stubbs, who for the rest of my life I will always remember and when I see him I'll elbow him in the jaw." [laughs] You know what I mean? You can carry this stuff around and let it get to you, or—like John and Henry, my relationship with them—you can not worry about it. And I really let it get to me the first couple of years: "God, what's wrong? What's their problem with me?" Then you start to realize: I'm not a psychiatrist. I'm not a marriage counselor. I'm just a dude that writes songs. Do you like my songs? Do you wanna sit down and play with me? Fine. If you don't, fine.
I'm totally appreciative of people that are so into what Helmet represents to them that they wanna write about it in a forum, but what would they have me do? Beg John and Henry to play with me? I'm not gonna do it. We had nine years. They are two of the most amazing, underrated musicians in the world. Everybody raves about John, which is obvious, but people completely overlook Henry. If you stand in a room with the guy, he's beyond bass. It's Bassasaurus. He's an animal. But we don't get along. We don't like each other. When my former label was excited to put out a Helmet record, what am I gonna say? No?
I'm not a millionaire. I'm not even a thousandaire. I don't have much money in the bank. I rent an apartment. I lease a car. Would I like to sell 10 million records? Fuck yeah! You know what I would do? I would go away and study orchestration for five years. Ultimately, I wanna be a self-absorbed bastard and write for a 100-piece orchestra and stand there in front of it and hear big, giant, low open E drones.
I got into music because I get to wake up every day of my life—you should see my setup—I've got a big 88-key Roland keyboard with orchestra samples, and I can fumble around like a jackass and play piano. I've got a laptop here. I've got a compressor and a microphone that goes into that, the world's greatest guitar preamp—a VHT—and my guitar. I can sit here and go "OK, what toy am I gonna play with today and make noise and have fun—and what am I gonna write about?" That's what I do it for.
With bandmates or fans, if they don't like the direction I'm going in, I can apologize, but I'm not gonna repeat myself. I'm not gonna try to make Meantime again. Interscope said that when I gave them Betty: "It's really a great record. I kinda expected another 'Unsung.'" Well, I'm not Linkin Park. I'm not trying to appease a fan base by writing the same single over again.
Helmet play Graceland with Instruction at 7 p.m. Thurs., Oct. 21. $15 adv.