Page Hamilton says he's to thank for all those jockguitarists in baggy shorts and baseball caps: “Any guy who likes heavy music that's picked up a guitar post-Helmet will experiment with drop tuning and playing a minimalist riff,” he says. “It sort of has become part of the rock vocabulary.”
And he's right—even though Hamilton's band Helmet broke up in 1999, their sound and wayward-frat-boy look remained, in turn inspiring “nu metal” bands such as System of a Down, Limp Bizkit and Linkin Park. But unexpectedly, Hamilton has returned with a new backing band under the name Helmet, and at least on the surface, surprisingly little has changed.
“During my time off from the band, I continued writing and working on solo material,” Hamilton explains, speaking from his Los Angeles home. “But everything still pretty much sounded like Helmet. I guess I'm a one-trick pony.”
So the grunt-and-growl guitar riffs, Spartan rhythms and fresh-from-the-ball-game looks that defined the band on its 1992 platinum-selling album, Meantime, remain intact. But Helmet's newest album, Size Matters, is also their most radio-friendly. It's almost exceedingly formulaic: in nearly every song, nimble numskull riffs jump into glittering choruses as Hamilton expands his range to echo the glossy harmonies of the nu-metal vocalists that have succeeded in his wake.
But is the reconstituted band—featuring former Orange 9mm guitarist Chris Traynor, who played on Helmet's last tour, drummer John Tempesta (Rob Zombie) and bassist Frank Bello (Anthrax)—merely a calculated attempt to cash in on its legacy?
“It wasn't my choice to break the band up,” Hamilton says. “Things weren't going very well between us personally, and we needed a break from one another, but I loved playing with those guys. I knew that if they weren't interested, I could find other guys.”
So in between various songwriting, soundtrack and collaboration projects, Hamilton put together the short-lived metal act Gandhi, which led the guitarist/composer to his latest conclusion.
“I realized what I was missing about Helmet,” he says. “It was [a style] I'd developed a long time ago and felt like I shouldn't be swayed by what other people thought I should or shouldn't do.”
At the urging of Interscope chairman Jimmy Iovine, Hamilton decided to continue onward with the influential—and individual—sound he had pioneered, pulled out of such disparate sources as jazz and New York noiseniks Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca. As he finished his master's degree in jazz performance from Manhattan School of Music during the late '80s, Hamilton dreamed up the swirling modal-and-more-scale chords that became Helmet's signature: a gigantic machine gone haywire, all screeches and wails.
“It's absolutely single-minded and specific,” he says. “I'm not compelled to pick up a guitar and play open chords. For rock music, no one has done that better than AC/DC, so why bother?”
Although the “new” Helmet sounds entirely familiar, the gloss and harmony shows things have changed since the departure of original drummer John Stanier (who remains creatively active in instrumental band Battles and noise pranksters Tomahawk) and bassist Henry Bogdan (who has retired from the music biz.) And his new lineup is equally as single-minded and specific about Hamilton's music.
“The guys I play with now have had all kinds of experiences in different bands, and they tell me they're honored to play with me and they love what I've done and what I'm doing,” he says. “So it's certainly a better creative environment. I can make suggestions to the guys, and they're willing to try them—there's no resistance. They realize I'm not doing it to exercise some kind of control, but just that I want things to be the best that they can be.”
The original Helmet eventually wore down after years on the road and personality conflicts hindering its creative process. Stanier declined to comment on his experience in the band. But Hamilton says familiarity breeds contempt: “When you feel guilty bringing in new songs and making guys play your songs, it takes the fun out of it.”
So, how long does it seem likely the new lineup will remain happy, healthy and viciously heavy?
“You need money to make a record,” Hamilton sighs. “So, it's really up to the labels how long we can keep it going. It's not like we're burning up the charts. But I do want to do a few more records before I feel like I can move on.”
Helmet with Chevelle, Crossfade, Future Leaders of the World and Strata as part of the Winterfresh Sno-Core Tour at The Grove, 2200 E. Katella Ave., Anaheim, (714) 712-2700; www.thegroveofanaheim.com. Fri., 7 P.M. $25. All Ages.