In the meantime
Page Hamilton is the bandleader of Helmet, a band that exists at a weird cross-road of metal and post-punk. They group had a series of hits, like “Unsung” and “Milquetoast,” in the ’90s heyday of alternative rock and is coming back to town with the Toadies on Sunday, Oct 28.
If somebody says they like Helmet, you don’t necessarily know what other bands they like.
I was having a conversation about this with somebody recently in terms of bands we’ve toured with and played with. We toured with the Beastie Boys in Australia. We did shows with Slayer, Mötley Crüe, Marilyn Manson in Europe. We did shows with Aerosmith. We did shows with Rage Against the Machine. We did shows on the Warped Tour … Thursday, Rise Against—completely different. I like that about the band … but from the standpoint of being a saleable commodity, it’s not good, because people need to identify with it.
But the albums Betty and Meantime were both commercial hits.
Meantime sold 650,000 records in the U.S., and that’s huge. We never really expected that. … We were as surprised as anyone, but at the same time we thought we were a really good band. … But there was always going to be a limit. We’re never going to sell 6 million records, and the record label probably thought we were—that we were going to do Nirvana. Have you listened to Nirvana in terms of Helmet? There’s nothing—Nirvana is a great pop rock band. It’s accessible. There are hooks. And we’re about these riffs and weird rhythms disguised in 4/4 drumbeats, and a guy that has a—let’s just say, interesting voice [laughs]. Stream of consciousness lyrics and he’s singing kind of, but he’s more of a vocalist than an actual singer. I always loved Iggy Pop, Jim Morrison and Nick Cave. Are they singers? Yes, in a sense, but we’re not talking about vocal histrionics or American Idol—but I have no interest in that. To me that’s not music. To me music is about having your own personality and developing your own vocabulary, and that’s way more exciting and interesting to me. When I heard bands like Wire, Killing Joke, Gang of Four and the Buzzcocks, I was excited. I was like, what is this? It’s rock music, but it’s not like the Aerosmith and Zeppelin I grew up on, but it’s just as cool.
You did a stint as a touring guitar player for David Bowie?
Yeah, in ’99. I had a terrible year turn around quickly. I broke up with my wife and companion of 10 years in July, and in August, David Bowie phoned me, which was a real trip. It was just such a great learning experience and confidence booster and an honor, needless to say.
It’s weird to imagine you in a supporting role …
I feel like part of being a musician is to adapt to whatever situation. Once you accept a gig … you be a team player. It’s not about me. It’s about doing what’s right for the situation. Right now I’m writing music for a movie … serving somebody else’s vision, but within those confines you have the opportunity to be creative yourself, and that’s really exciting and fun. … You have to be humble to be a musician, and be a good musician. … I’ve written a couple of jazz tunes this year. I got together with Tony Bennett’s daughter, Antonia, and worked on a bossanova thing I had. It was really fun and a different kind of challenge. I like all those challenges. If I was only in Helmet for 25 years, I’d be boring and one-dimensional. When I see these guys that are just rock musicians, and I won’t name any bands, but some of these new metal bands that started to get together with Desmond Child just to write hits to support their lifestyle, and the guitar-shaped pools and the mansions and whatever. I’m like, man, is that why you do this? And the answer’s yes, that’s why they do it. That’s not why I do it. I mean, I wish I had a guitar-shaped pool—it would be saltwater, because I don’t like chlorine—but I don’t need it to be happy. It’s not what I got into music for. I got into it because I’m genuinely a complete geek and it’s so exciting when something blows my mind.