Helmet’s Page Hamilton – ‘Left’ Album Is Our ‘All You Need Is Love’ With a Little More Venom
Helmet's Page Hamilton was the guest on Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio show, stopping by to chat about the band's ninth studio album, Left. As you might glean from the title, the album has a more political bend to it, with Hamilton inspired by current world events to create this latest hard hitting material.
As Page tells it, this is not a finger-pointing album, but he does hope the songs inspire some conversation, as he feels keeping an open dialogue on divisive issues is the best way forward.
Jackie and Page also dig into his jazz background and how a John Coltrane cover ended up on his new album, Page's thoughts on the most rewarding periods in Helmet's career and how they've been viewed through the lens of some of their peers.
Check out the chat in full below.
We've got Helmet frontman Page Hamilton with us on the show. Helmet are back with their latest record Left. Page, you've never been one to hold back on speaking your mind. This new album definitely comes at you with some bite. Did you see a pattern forming as you were putting the record together or did it flow naturally? What was the impetus for the new album?
I hadn't written a Helmet song in several years and everyone has given me a hard time about it. In 2016, when things kind of started to really deteriorate worse in our culture and I had all this time off, we had the pandemic, I got sick, and everybody said, "Let's do a new album." So, I said, "Great."
I sat down and was writing an orchestral piece for the oldest high school orchestra in the U.S. in Memphis, and I delivered that on Feb. 6. I just sat down and started writing the Helmet album basically Feb. 7. I always keep copious notes anyway and I read and I'm a YouTube addict like everyone else. I don't have a regular TV but there was no plan. I had no plan, but the older you get I think the less you care what people think. Not like I was ever concerned with it as you said, I wasn't ever held back but I would always talk about not standing on a soapbox and not writing as Bob Dylan calls them finger pointing songs, but I've just kind of got sick and tired of a minority in this country screaming more loudly than the majority and I sing in a loud heavy metal band so I can scream pretty loud.
The songs just came out and I wasn't consciously trying to write anything political but some people's feathers are ruffled. It's astounding to me that the word Left that it gets people so angry. It's just kind of ridiculous. I've been saying this album is sort of our version of "All You Need Is Love" by the Beatles or Bob Marley. "One Love." It's just kind of a delivery with a little more venom.
Helmet, "Big Shot"
We're talking about the new Helmet record Left and one of the key tracks on this album is "Gun Fluf." As a gun owner yourself, what did you want to get across when it comes to the epidemic of school shootings and gun control in the U.S.?
I'm just writing songs. Like I said, I'm not trying to stand on a pulpit holier than thou or whatever. I just think it's ridiculous that we have so many mass shootings. I don't know, I'm not a lawyer. I'm not a scientist. I'm not a constitutional expert. I'm not a doctor. I just read the news and I see the news and every time there's a mass shooting, for me it's been so heartbreaking. Especially the kids, like the Uvalde one, it tears me up and it's gotten ridiculous.
I grew up with guns. I'm from Oregon. My dad took me hunting. My Grandpa gave me a 12-gauge shotgun when I turned 12. We were responsible gun owners, and I never needed an AR-15 rifle. Those are made for killing human beings and the fact that gun laws are becoming more slack, it's almost this petulant child. We're not saying we're trying to take guns away. We're trying to say we need to control who can own a gun and it's obvious.
Gun advocates want to say that it's not the guns but we're the only country in the western world that has this many guns and has this problem. More kids are killed by guns now than any other means in this country and I think I was reading- the ages they're saying kids from like 7 or 8 to 19 for some reason they include the young teenagers in there. I mean that's Insanity and I would give up every gun to save one human being, one child. We need to keep a dialogue going and if people want to get down on me because I'm speaking my mind then so be it. I'm sorry, it's ridiculous. We can fix it, you know? I honestly think we can.
Helmet, "Gun Fluf"
One of the other things that grabbed your attention on the new album is the fascination with celebrity in particular, when it comes to murders as you sing about on the song "Holiday." I know there was a lot of time to kill in the pandemic period and one of the big things was True Crime podcasts. I was just curious, did you go down that rabbit hole at all or find the whole thing just a little too much?
My little sister and I are obsessed with Dateline and Forensic Files and every holiday we get together and there are marathons of Law and Order as well which is, as you know, fictitious but pulls from the headlines. We spent hours watching these murder shows, and it's just one after another after another.
I personally, I loved the Tarantino movie Once Upon a Time in Hollywood when he's making fun of the Manson family. I think I feel like celebrities like Axl and Johnny Depp buying Charles Manson songs is just like really, like this guy was a piece of you know what, a complete scumbag and that was somebody's daughter.
But it's also people got mad at me. Like, well, Page never really swore much in songs, but it was kind of like, it's kind of the point. The lowest common denominator language, coming up with dumb rhymes, dropping F bombs and it was making my bandmates laugh so I thought, it was worthwhile but that's kind of the idea there.
Than these kind of pampered mama's boy. He was just a mama's boy you know, playing the martyr. You just see so much of that in our culture making excuses for people and I like to think that's always kind of been a humorous thing and to me, in metal, in heavy music, in my songwriting for sure. I'll sit down with anyone and have a conversation about the about this stuff. I mean, I have friends. I grew up in a family of conservatives, my brother who's gay and Republican, my sister who's Republican, my mom and dad may the rest in peace, and I was the kind of outcast but we've always sat down on the back patio and, over a beer and talked about stuff and if we can't continue to do that, then our system of government, our cultures, America will fail. A lot of people think it's already failed. It's too late. I don't. I feel like we have to keep the dialogue open and if one of these songs stirs something up in somebody and they want to sit down and talk with me about it, I'm fine.
Page speaking about the pandemic downtime, you played some jazz guitar, gave lessons, worked on an orchestral piece, all things expanding your musical horizons. So, when I saw the track listing, seeing that you took on John Coltrane's "Resolution" didn't seem as much of an odd choice, but I wanted to get your take on including that song on a Helmet album and what Coltrane's music meant to you?
When I was a young man in college at University of Oregon, I was the youngest and worst musician of the bunch. Later, when I moved to New York and went to grad school at Manhattan School of Music, I should say, I was the youngest and least accomplished bozo and I found all these older musicians to be so welcoming and so open and turned me on to so many different approaches to improvisation, harmony and all these things.
Coltrane, there was a bassist in Eugene, Oregon, Andre St. James, who was kind of regularly at all these jazz gigs. I saw Matt Waldron and Sonny Rollins. I saw Dizzy Gillespie, all these people that had come to town, Ornette Coleman, it was a really, really booming time in Eugene, and I was talking to Andre St. James. I was the young 20-year-old thinking I could sit in with these guys at the jam sessions and I found really great musicians to be really supportive and saying, "Man, you're coming along, it's going good," and the lesser musicians being like, 'You suck man, what the hell are you doing up here? You can't play this music."
I would get discouraged at times, but I found these older, more accomplished professional jazz musicians were incredibly supportive and so Andre and I had a conversation about Coltrane, and I said, "I just recently discovered him when I was about 19 or something and A Love Supreme just clicked with me, that album." There was something you can hear there, it's technical facilities, musicality, but there was this incredible emotional intensity and just in that you felt like with Coltrane, every note he played mattered, and he was just screaming to be heard. That album, it just took me.
"Resolution" is the second movement of the four part piece and I just always felt like this the tenor saxophone and the electric guitar were very related as well as cello. Those ranges are not dissimilar and I love sonically by using feedback, sustain all these things. I've done probably 20 movies with Elliot Goldenthal, the great film composer, and he said to me once a million years ago while we were doing Heat that your guitar is like an orchestra, you play very orchestral and it always kind of stuck with me and so I feel like writing an orchestra piece is in my wheelhouse and playing jazz music, trying to pay homage to one of my all-time musical heroes was important to me.
Kyle [Stevenson], my drummer, was not reluctant. He's been open to everything that I've thrown at him including the day before we're going to record 'Gun Fluf' telling him, "Oh, I want to start a song with a drum solo." He was like, "Oh, thanks for the notice, you know?" He came up with this really great part. But yeah, Coltrane has been one of my all-time heroes from many many years. I guess I discovered him at 19 or something and now I'm 63. That's a long time. Mike Watt, my great pal from the Minutemen and an iconic bassist, he's a huge Coltrane fan as well so we always kind of exchanged notes, you know, as it were.
Page, you've enjoyed a career with Helmet that's now in its fourth decade. Reflecting on your time with the band. I wanted to know which album and tour cycle you look back on as the most rewarding, both personally and professionally? Like, what made it stand out?
Oh, boy, it's hard to say. I look back to Strap it On when there were four of us in a van leaving Lawrence, Kansas at 2AM and arriving in Albuquerque where we were playing for the first time ever. So, they had a keg for us and all we wanted to do was sleep under their dining room table or basement. Those are good years, you know. We were very aligned at the time musically and we felt like we were the best band in New York and we played first at CBGB's because we didn't care. It wasn't an ego thing with us. We'll play whenever, we just wanted to play. So we would, and just kind of built our following in a very natural way. So I have fond memories of those days, postering over Dee-Lite who was coming up around the same time, so we were posting over each other's posters and running around the East Village, which is pretty funny.
I never really paid much attention to the scene, or what's people are listening to or in rock music, because I'm still pretty obsessed with orchestral music and jazz. That's the bulk of my listening, although others are, there's a lot of Beatles and AC/DC still, but I found the music business pulled us apart a little bit and that's it was kind of unfortunate. But when I looked back, it was kind of meant to be that way. It was necessary, I think.
Getting to meet Johnny Tempesta when I moved to Los Angeles, and we started playing together. That was a really great, great experience on Size Matters. We're still close friends. I went to see him with The Cult and that was a fun album. But it felt like there were too many people involved, you know, because it was the first Helmet album in seven years or something and everybody was wanting to get in on it.
I think now that I've had this lineup, Kyle Stevenson has been with me for 17 years. He replaced Johnny and I feel like I have a really great musical and personal connection and I love my guys, Danny and Dave and Kyle, you know, we understand each other. We all have our idiosyncrasies, and when you travel, you spend a lot of time with people on 3AM flights from Guadalajara to Santiago. You really get to know someone and you learn how to sort of peacefully coexist and then make great music together. So, it's hard to pinpoint one album because right now I feel this experience, making this album, was probably the best album making experience I've ever had.
Jim Kaufman, who I've known for 20 some years, he worked on Size Matters as a young man. There's no ego or pretentiousness or bullshit with him. We just had this incredible workflow. So, Kyle and I worked on the arrangements and went in and played and I feel like there were only one or two little bumps in the road but it was just such a great creative vibe and Jim was kind of blown away that I started writing in February and the album was done by June, recorded mixed and mastered. I love working with him, and I got to work with Howie Weinberg (mastering) again. I just think he's the best. He did Meantime, Betty and our last album Dead to the World and then Left.
Touring wise, we're heading to Europe, and I'm really looking forward to that because we haven't been there since 2019. But I would say of all the tours the 2019, 30th anniversary tour that's 30 by 30 by 30 was my favorite because we got to do 30 songs sets 30 shows in Europe and the same in the U.S., 30 song sets, 30 shows and that just was amazing to be able to kind of cover material from 30 years of the band including the Jerky Boys song, we did the Sabbath cover, the Bjork song, punk rock seven inches that we put out like "Taken," "Your Head" and "Impressionable" and we just we had about 100 songs under our belt so that never got boring.
I do a different setlist every night because I feel like you're going to perform more naturally if you're truly excited about playing a song that you haven't played for two weeks, let alone so many songs we haven't played for years, so there's no rock posing going on. We're actually having fun. I am, I hope my bandmates are, I don't know. They seem to be.
We've been talking about Helmet’s latest record Left and Page, it was recently announced that Helmet would be performing at Sick New World 2024. The first year definitely skewed more towards nü metal, with a bit more eclectic lineup this coming year. It's been interesting to see nu metal fade out and now a whole new generation are bringing it back. Helmet certainly started off their career with a lot of buzz in the early 90s. Hop to the trajectory of seeing audiences kind of recycle over the years. How are the Helmet fans these days, either similar or different than what you experienced at the start of your career?
We were a college rock band and basically there was nobody who said we were metal or anything. We were like an indie label rock band and we were college radio airplay so I registered my songs with BMI because ASCAP at the time didn't even track college radio. I advised all bands on Amphetamine Reptile to do the same. This is what you do. You'll get however many pennies a year and once the kind of bidding war thing happened, and we started reaching a larger audience when Meantime came out it was fun. It was interesting to have like Gene Simmons and Nikki Sixx and Tommy Lee and these people showing up at our shows.
I'm not smart enough to try to accommodate a particular audience, I just do what I love. I write what I love and we've always kind of maintained that.
I had a funny conversation I've told before I ran into Gene Simmons on a flight to New York, I was going to rehearse and do some shows with my band Gandhi that I had for a hot minute and I saw Gene and I was gonna like kind of sneak past him and go to my seat and he was the first seat, the first row in first class, and he's put his bag in the overhead. "Hey, Page, how's it going?" So, we stopped to talk for a minute. He's like, "What are you doing?" "I'm heading to New York to work with my new band." He's like, "Oh, what's it called?" And I said "Gandhi," and he goes, "No." I was like, "What, why Gene?" He's like, "Page, you're too concerned with credibility. You've got to make money" and he said the band should just be called Page and I'm like, I'm like, "Yeah, Gene. I don't want my name in the band. I want it to be a rock band, It's not just one dude or whatever," and I found that to be kind of funny people's perception of me that I was completely unaware of.
Page, you were talking a bit about people's perceptions of you. Tell us more about some of these tours that you had done back in the day.
We did the Guns N' Roses tour, and Sebastian Bach was the opening band. It was Suicide Girls, Sebastian, Helmet and then GNR and we were in a hockey arena and we could hear Sebastian next to us in his room. He didn't know we could hear him. He's like that Page dudes cool. He's a rocker like us and I'm like I don't know what people thought like if I was some like pretentious jazz snob, a pipe smoking, ascot dude, but there's people that get this perception of you because I have a very different background than most rockers.
My favorite band is AC/DC. I love metal. I love Slayer too but I also love Ralph Vaughn Williams and I got to play with Glenn Branca guitar symphonies and I like all music. I don't like limiting myself and so I don't need to be part of some club. We're never going to be cool. Half the British press got us and love us and half hated us because we didn't look like rock stars. We look like four dorks in shorts. It's like, well, you drive around a van in the United States and it's August and you're gonna wear shorts and T-shirts and cut your hair off. I mean, it was just practical.
So, I don't know. It's funny, all the bands. I mean, the nü metal thing is interesting. It's funny, we're friendly with Korn. They're really good guys and were really supportive. We went to play with them in the summer, and they liked to stop by the dressing room from day one. Like, thank you so much. Jonathan's [Davis] like, none of us would be here without you and it's like, "No, thank you. I'm flattered."
Everybody from you know, Chino [Moreno] too to as I said, Gene [Simmons] told me I was the future of music in 1992 when he said you don't need to play with hair bands and metal bands. I was like, we'll play with anybody. We don't care. You know, we've played with Marilyn Manson and Nirvana and Thursday, we've played with all the bands you know on the Warped Tour. That's kind of more screamo emo punk, and I know we always kind of stand out like a sore thumb because we don't really fit in any specific genre.
There's noise elements in our music. Steve Jordan, a great drummer plays with Keith Richards and everyone and he said, you guys are the only heavy band that swings, man. You guys swing and I'm like, that's cool. You know, people have their opinions. We're not making music for a specific audience. We're just making music that we want to make and I'm very proud of the album. I couldn't be happier. We’re playing about a half dozen songs live already and they're really fun to play live. They're challenging, but I'm looking forward to it. We're gonna do a big U.S. tour. The U.S. headline tour starts in late March, and this Europe tour is about six weeks. I just love playing live. It's so much fun.
Thanks to Helmet's Page Hamilton for the interview. The new album 'Left' is available now. You can stay up to date with Helmet through their website, Facebook, X, Instagram, YouTube and Spotify accounts. Find out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie's weekend radio show here.