Helmet’s Page Hamilton Tells Young Musicians to Just Be Honest With Their Music
Helmet's Page Hamilton was the latest guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio program to discuss the influential hardcore/alt-metal group's first-ever live release, Live and Rare, which features a performance at the legendary CBGB club in New York and the Big Day Out festival in Australia, both in the early '90s.
Reflecting on the band's early success coming up through the local scene in New York City and cutting his teeth at the iconic and now defunct CBGB venue, Hamilton called it Helmet's "living room" as he detailed the band's rise from playing early sets to headlining with the midnight slot as fans latched on to their unique style.
Helmet's influence has touched some of the biggest bands in heavy music throughout the late '90s and early 2000s and Hamilton feels fortunate to have such a wide-reaching impact on the scene.
He chalks it all up to honesty with his music, a lesson he tries to impart unto the music students he's been teaching throughout the pandemic.
Read the full interview below.
The live album highlights two early '90s shows in Australia and New York City, three years apart. What differences about the band over that time stand out most on this album?
There was a spastic energy back then that was pretty fun. You could feel the intensity — that sense of about to explode onstage. The CBGB show that we released was year zero for us. There's a lot more musical kind of flexibility, but we were very single-minded back then. There was something really cool about that.
I had these [live] tapes lying around for years and and I just really wanted to get it out. It's for super fans. If somebody hates us, they're not going to love us now because this is very raw and very intense.
Toshi Kasai, one of our brilliant engineers that we work with who does Melvins Big Business in many bands, kind of rescued some of the stuff by re-amping guitars.
As far as the Australia show, I have such fond memories of that first trip to Australia. We were at the Big Day Out festival in front of, I don't know how many people that day, 15,000 or something and we had just been tearing it up since we got there — swimming in the ocean, topless beaches… Here we are, four dorks from New York in Australia.
That audience getting to see us for the first time was really exciting and you could just tell that they were hanging on every note.
It was fun putting together [this live album] and now it's now it's done and I can move on.
Helmet, "In the Meantime" (Live at Big Day Out)
The CBGB show featured on Live and Rare happened just before the first Helmet album was released. What's still memorable to you about that venue on that particular night?
We practically had a residency there. I walked in one day with a demo tape and Louis and Hilly were sitting up front as they did for many years and she said, "If you want to play here, I'll listen to your demo tape in a couple weeks, but just do audition night." So, we did that.
Mike Kirkland and Tommy Victor from Prong were working front of house and the door that night and they said, "You've got to book this band." We stood out like a sore thumb at the time. CBGB was our living room and it felt like home. We played there once a month at that point and we we were always willing to open play early. We didn't care. We figured people would come and eventually we were headlining and doing the midnight slot, which was the prime slot.
By the time that show was recorded, I think we had already gotten to that point. Because we were so vigilant about rehearsing and working, I think we kind of passed the other bands by pretty quickly and CBGB was just a great place for us to try stuff out. There are arrangements on some of the songs pre-Strap It On that went through some changes.
We were on the Dope-Guns-'N-Fucking in the Streets compilation and we did a song called "Impressionable," which Jello Biafra told me was his favorite hardcore song of that era. I still hadn't come up with the chorus, so you can hear an early version of that song. John Stanier was just a monster and could play any tempo.
We just loved CBGB. It was a couple blocks from where I lived for many years, so I spent a lot of time there. I miss it. It was just an epic epic club and I'm so glad that I got to kind of cut my teeth there.
Helmet, "Impressionable" (Live at CBGB)
The recordings on Live and Rare were from when you were in your late 20s and early 30s. What aspects of the way you played then are still ingrained in you now?
The honesty and intensity.
When Helmet split up for a while and I had the awesome gig with David Bowie, which was amazing and a great experience, nothing replaces Helmet for me. There's just no music like it. I can't describe the out of body feeling that you get playing this music. Now that we've been denied touring for two years, my little space onstage — my pedals, my mic, my guitars, my amp — that little zone is my happy place.
That's always been the case with this band. We could play a song from 1989 or a song from 2020 (I'm writing a new album right now) and they all work together because of the aesthetic and the energy. I just say to kids that I work with honesty — just be honest about what you're doing and don't make it about the audience. Some people will like you and some people won't, so don't worry about it.
The influence of Helmet can be traced through so many bands. What interests you most about the way other musicians interpreted and incorporated what you did?
My friend Bill [Kelliher] from Mastodon just sent me a track. They covered "Just Another Victim" and it was interesting to hear their interpretation of the rhythmic figure.
I've been so fortunate that everyone from Chino [Moreno] in Deftones to Serj [Tankian of System of a Down] to the Korn guys and Limp Bizkit… our music meant a lot to them and inspired them. You can't look at it like they're trying to do Helmet — they took the energy and the aesthetic and maybe the drop-tune minimalist thing and did their thing with it.
I've noticed since I've been doing these lessons and teaching during the pandemic, is that a lot of the super hardcore Helmet fans are really interested in the weird harmonic stuff that we do, which which I haven't heard any of the bands do — these sort of fake jazz chords such as major seven sharp elevens with no thirds and things like that.
I think the rhythmic thing had the most impact, writing a motif, which is essentially like a classical approach to music and that's what a riff is.Whether it's a Beethoven riff or a Helmet riff, it's coming from the same musical place and I think people latched onto that.
You are a Renaissance musician in the sense that your career has been about different styles of music. How has genre fluidity kept you enamored with music?
I had this conversation with a student and I was talking about feeling inspired by music and, and deciding that that's what I wanted to do with my life. I have friends that are multimillionaire rock stars that lost the plot a little bit and it became about how much money they can make and how many women they can meet or whatever, which is fine — it comes with the territory in a rock band. But, if you lose sight of that excitement that you had as a kid… hearing Led Zeppelin for the first time at 12 or 13…
Duke Ellington, the great jazz composer said that there are two kinds of music — good music and bad music. Good music could be Gang of Four, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Dillinger Escape Plan… there are just so many great musical things to be inspired and excited about. That's important and that's something I try to share with younger musicians. I'm doing this songwriting class at School of Rock, which is awesome. I tell kids from ages 11 to 17 or whatever to just keep it about the music. The music will never let you down — the business probably will, but the music itself will never let you down, so make sure it's about that.
Thanks to Page Hamilton for the interview. Get your copy of Helmet's 'Live and Rare' here and follow the band on Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and Spotify. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio show here.