After Page Hamilton broke up his band, Helmet, in 1998, he thought not only might he never bring back Helmet, he might even set aside his signature instrument.
But a conversation with famed guitarist/ songwriter Danny Kortchmar (known for his work with Don Henley and Jackson Browne, among others) changed those thoughts.
“I was exhausted after almost 10 years of a run, the same dudes. I went down to New Orleans, and Trent [Reznor of Nine Inch Nails] had this great studio down there and they put me up and taught me how to use the computers,” Hamilton says. “I said, ‘Yeah, I don’t need the guitar. I did that.’ And Danny Kortchmar is like ‘What are you talking about? You created a whole vocabulary that is now absorbed. You’re a guitar player. You’ve got to play guitar. You’re going to keep expanding on what you do.’ “And so I was like, ‘Yes, Mr. Kortchmar,’” Hamilton says. “When somebody of that stature tells you that, you listen.”
Fans of Helmet — and Hamilton’s guitar playing — are happy that Kortchmar intervened. Hamilton indeed re-started Helmet in 2004, albeit with what so far has been a shifting lineup of other musicians. And on the 2010 CD, Seeing Eye Dog, Helmet has arguably reached a new musical peak.
The CD opens on a high note with the zig-zagging riffing of “So Long,” and pretty much maintains the quality from there. On “White City,” “Welcome To Algiers” and the title track, Helmet gets plenty combustible, wrapping surging riffs and some strong melodies into a thick but very listenable package.
That’s not to suggest Hamilton’s time away from band life and touring wasn’t important. In fact, he used the time to venture into several different areas of music, including working on soundtracks by composer Elliot Goldenthal, producing records by other bands, working with a side band called Gandhi and even doing a stint as guitarist in David Bowie’s band.
All of these experiences were valuable — and Hamilton is continuing to produce records for bands and work on soundtracks. And he said working with Bowie was more than just a touring gig.
“There are so many great memories from that, and it can’t help but rub off on you,” Hamilton says. “He gave me great confidence, too. …When I had to go learn 30 years’ worth of Bowie material — I learned 30 songs in two weeks — it was kind of overwhelming for me. I told him I’m more of a sculptor than a guitarist. He laughed, ‘You’ll do fine.’ The first live gig was at Wembley Stadium. Thank you very much. But it was a great experience. It’s good for me to learn that.”
But today he has a new appreciation for Helmet — and feels he improved as a songwriter and guitarist by broadening his horizons with the various projects he tackled.
“I kind of expanded my palette, so to speak,” Hamilton says. “I had created the Helmet vocabulary, the minimalist kind of riffs, with 3/4 over 4/4, 7/4 over 4/4, that kind of flow where you develop an idea, like a classical musician would, only in the pop song context. Then I started expanding harmonically what I was doing, the voicing and things, and messing with keyboards and samples and just having a blast.”
Seeing Eye Dog marks a new chapter for Helmet, as the band is self-releasing the CD. For most of the band’s career, it had been on major label Interscope Records. But Hamilton said the major label experience wasn’t what got him thinking of staying away from a record company for the new CD.
“This last record [the 2006 CD, Monochrome], I signed to a smaller label, thinking we needed more attention than Interscope was capable of giving us, and it turned out to be a nightmare,” he says. “They were in the studio with a computer, showing me video directors. I was in New York, and I got sick. … It was just a lot of stress, and they [Warcon] were wanting me to do things I didn’t want to do.”
Unlike Monochrome, Hamilton felt the full freedom that comes with having one’s own record label in the making of Seeing Eye Dog. What also had Hamilton enthused was the involvement of two musicians that have joined Helmet over the past four years — guitarist Dan Beeman and drummer Kyle Stevenson. A new bassist, Dave Case, has also recently joined the line-up.
“I got really lucky that I found these musicians, Kyle and Dan,” he said. “They’re so enthusiastic and talented. I got really lucky and it kind of re-charged the batteries.”
Hamilton is feeling good about how the band is sounding on the concert stage as well.
“It’s going to be nice to get to play these [new] songs,” he said. “They’re challenging, that’s for sure.”
On the Bill
Helmet plays the Summit Music Hall as part of the Metalliance Tour on Tuesday, March 29. Show starts at 6 p.m. Saint Vitus, Crowbar, Kylesa, Redfang, Howl and more also play. Tickets are $25. 1902 Blake St., Denver, 303-487-0111.