Helmet broke at a time in music when every band had the potential to do to Kurt Cobain what he did to every hard rock band working in the ’80s. Many artists would (and did) collapse under such expectations. Page Hamilton bucked the odds, turning out a run of three albums in the mid-’90s that redefined what metal could sound like. He hung up the Helmet name in 1998, formed a band called Gandhi “for a minute” and then settled in to working on film scores. Hamilton revived Helmet with a new lineup in 2004 and released two new albums: Size Matters and Monochrome. He also continued movie work, including Julie Taymor’s Across the Universe, tried his hand at producing, and got serious about playing jazz. All of these elements can be found on the third album of Helmet’s second act, Seeing Eye Dog, which was released on Joe Henry’s Work Song Records.
What made you decide to revive the Helmet name?
Jimmy Iovine over at Interscope is actually responsible for that. He called me one day and talked to me about coming in and doing some producing, playing on a couple of projects, and putting out another Helmet album.
Why was the time ripe? Helmet had been saddled with being the next big thing, and then it disappeared.
You mean the next Nirvana, even though Helmet sounds nothing like Nirvana? I had continued to write. I had been talking to six record labels, and I didn’t know what was going to happen. I had Gandhi. That was hard to keep to keep together because of the economic climate and the simple fact that it’s hard to do with a group of people. Jimmy really was passionate about the band, always has been, and was telling me about how people in other bands were telling him about Helmet and how we had influenced. He was always so behind what I do, and would tell me that I’m the best guitar player in the world. At that point I was like, “Fuck it, I don’t care what I call it; I just want to get an album.” I think even John [Stanier] and Henry [Bogdan] would acknowledge that Helmet was always my thing. I formed the band and auditioned guys for it. I wrote the music and words. I felt like it was fine. That’s how it’s been for the last six years.
Other than the new personnel, how have you evolved as an artist in the second incarnation of the band?
I have a lot more experience, obviously. I’ve been making Helmet albums since 1989. I continue to live life and play music. I read. I learn more about singing. I work with a vocal guy out here who helped me do some things that I couldn’t do before and stop doing some things that were bad for my voice, even though, knock on wood, I’ve never had any problem yelling or screaming into the mic. That’s always a fun thing to do. I would hope that a person who wakes up every day whose life is consumed with music would improve. I’m not a rock star. I’m a musician.
The title of the new album is Seeing Eye Dog. What about that song made you choose it as the title track?
I’ve been kicking the idea for a long time, the seeing eye dog poem (“The Seeing Eye”) by Ezra Pound. I accidentally opened Personae one day, and there it was. I thought to myself that I always wanted to do something with that. The little dog sees the imperfections of the big dog. That stuck with me, and I started writing the song.
Was there another song that was in the running?
At one point there probably was, but once I was set on that poem, I knew that was the right thing. I’m intuitive with my work. I let things come to me. If something sticks with me, that usually the right one. There’s a lot that goes into writing songs. I have notebooks everywhere that are full of ideas. Some of them evolve into songs, and the ones that don’t are cast aside. Sometimes I’ll try to rescue an idea, but that rarely works. If there are 10 tracks on an album, there are probably 30 ideas that didn’t make the cut. Sometimes writers get too precious with their ideas. I have no problem throwing things away.
Tell me about “Your Bird Can Sing.” It doesn’t seem exactly out of place, but it does seem very different from the rest of the album.
I love the Beatles and have since I was a kid. When I was working on Across the Universe, I worked up something like 30 different songs. I got into it. You get the Beatles in your blood. I’ve gone through these periods in my life where I go back to things that I’ve listened to, whether it’s the Beatles, AC/DC, Bob Marley, or John Coltrane, something I’ve listened to religiously, and hear it with fresh ears. I’ve always loved that song. The thirds and fourths in the guitar parts are so cool, and the intensity in Lennon’s voice is so amazing. He’s so relaxed, but there’s urgency there.
The other standout is “She’s Lost.” I thought I was listening to a Sleep track until the vocals kicked in.
That riff got into my head. It’s a sonic shape on the neck and octave. I move the third finger to the fourth finger, and each time you move it down, you get this beautiful riff. I actually had to let that song sit for a while, because I had a couple of options on that B section progression. When I got that second, moshy riff together I had words written that I eventually had to get rid of. They were stomping on the groove. It didn’t go with the song; I was writing a chorus for the sake of writing a chorus. Instead I put in the Dorian chord second solo in there. I had that in my brain, but as usual I went off on another tangent, superimposing my ideas over the Helmet modal thing.
As a whole, how does Seeing Eye Dog represent the kind of music you want to make?
I feel like people that like Helmet understand where I’m coming from. I don’t think it’s the most accessible music in the world. I don’t write for anyone. I write the music that I have to write. It’s not like I want to sit around listen to Helmet all day. Sometimes I want to listen to something that’s way more beautiful. The Helmet records have been holding up after 20 years. I put the music first, and I think that’s apparent in the work. Everything on the album is something that I want to do. The gravel voice singing that the vocal guy is helping me with is meant to sound like Bon Scott, who was the best ever. That’s a sound that I want, because AC/DC is my favorite band ever.
Have you read Why AC/DC Matters?
I have not. Is it awesome?
I’ll write that down. I have friends who do singer-songwriter stuff, and I play jazz with this girl Angela, and they just can’t understand. Some people just don’t get AC/DC, or Helmet, for that matter. Angela is always like “Can you believe he’s in Helmet?” when I play “Cry Me a River” or “God Bless the Child” with her. Some people are put off by the presentation, by a dude screaming and loud guitars. And AC/DC is fucking amazing. They are the best live band I have ever seen. Right under them is The Kinks. Right under them is The Talking Heads. People don’t get how deep it is to play something that sounds so simple. Nobody will ever have that groove or intensity. I feel that way about ZZ Top. We tried to cover “La Grange” a bunch of years ago in Helmet. It was a joke. We tried to slow it down, and it was like, this just ain’t happening. We tried to make it all moshy and it ended up sounding like “Stranglehold” by Ted Nugent. It takes balls or Zen wisdom to take something so simple and make it beautiful. I don’t listen to Joe Satriani and Yngwie Malmsteen. As a guitarist, I admire their music, but I want to hear AC/DC and Thelonious Monk.