an interview with guitarist Page Hamilton
When I called up Page Hamilton he was on another call. An A&R guy from the label for the band he’s currently producing, Classic Case, had started his L.A. morning off on the wrong foot by calling him from NY to complain about minor details on recent studio tracks. The well-educated and well-spoken vocalist/guitarist/songwriter of the seminal metal/hardcore outfit Helmet spent a few minutes venting to me about the frustrations of label execs second-guessing musicians “who know what the hell they’re doing, and do it well,” before diving into expansive answers to my many questions.
At this point in your career, after you’ve already put out six albums with Helmet and have been called an innovator within your genre of music, do you find it easier or more difficult to come up with new ideas for songs?
I don’t want to say, ’cause I wouldn’t want to jinx myself for next time! [laughs] It’s like ‘oh, it’s easier!’ and then next time I have writer’s block, or something! I try not to put that pressure on myself, I’m not trying to out-do myself. I don’t compare what I’m doing today to what I did yesterday. It’s just not productive. Every fan and critic will do that. It’s like what we were just talking about, producing albums for people and whatever, everybody having an opinion about music and about everything you do. First of all, I’m flattered that they care enough, but at the same time if I sat there and thought about it I’d drive myself crazy and I’d never progress. So I don’t let what other people say affect me anymore, and I don’t think about it myself. I just sit down with a guitar everyday. You know, let’s say, 85% of my life I sit down with a guitar and a keyboard and a drum machine… it’s always been about the music, for me. I’m not trying to repeat myself, or repeat past glories [laughs].
It’s like, Meantime was a cool album — I’m glad everyone likes it, but that was 14 years ago. Just because that was the first album that introduced the greater public to us, so of course that’s gonna be the favorite album. My favorite Killing Joke album is the first one, ya know. I love pretty much everything they’ve done since, but there’s always gonna be a soft spot in my heart for that record. It’s the same with any band and with critics. It’s hard for people to step back and be objective to something they have an attachment to, and I’m aware of that. I’m a way better writer than I was in 1992, that’s for sure. I’m a better singer, better guitar player… ya know, I have more knowledge and ability in the studio and in every way. I hope that in 10 years I’m better, if not I’ll quit.
Do you ever go back and listen to your old stuff, or is it “the past is the past, let’s move forward?”
I don’t sit around and listen to my records and smoke cigarettes…
…and go “damn! I’m good!”
[laughs] Yeah, I can’t pat myself on the back and go “wow, remember when I did that”… No, but there are times when I have to listen to the music to teach it to the ever-rotating band personnel. I have to learn details of songs when people are like “I wanna learn this.” Like Jared, from Classic Case, asks me, “What’s that chord you’re playing in ‘Speechless’?” And I’m like, “Jesus, I haven’t played that song in 12 years.” So I have to go back and listen to it sometimes and go, “Oh yeah, it’s simple — it’s this.” I mean, I have listened to my stuff, but I can’t remember the last time I did. Except when I started working with these guys, with Classic Case…
How’d you get hooked up with the Saw III soundtrack?
That’s a label thing, Warcon. I had nothing to do with that. They’re just looking for ways — thank god — to keep the album in people’s consciousness. I know nothing about selling records, so I leave that up to them. I just made the record, and I said pick whatever songs you want for singles and videos and whatever. I like all of the songs, I like the whole album, so whatever they can do to help maintain a high profile so that we can afford to make another one… next summer, that’s what I look forward to.
You mentioned the cross-marketing within the record industry. It seems like the labels are looking for other avenues to promote music, since the whole industry is in flux right now. What else can be done to make people want to buy music again, instead of listening on the computer and finding it in other ways?
I don’t think there’s an answer. It’s a different time. People have access to so much, and have so many options, that everything becomes a little less significant to some extent. Like everyone was looking forward to the new Led Zeppelin release in ’75,’ 76, ’77, or whatever — there was AC/DC, REO Speedwagon, and a handful of rock bands… Hip Hop was in its infancy. There was less out there. You went to a record store, you bought records… But now you can get anything, and hundreds of thousands of songs and thousands of records come out a year… People belong to these genres. I saw this thing on TV — VH-1, Fuse, I don’t know one of those — and they were asking all these guys in Metal, “What is Metal?” And they were like, “Oh, that’s a tough one…” It’s not tough — Metal is a marketing tool. Calling something Metal. Is Zeppelin “metal?” Who gives a shit! Or Van Halen, or AC/DC, Black Sabbath… I don’t care what you call it, it’s great music! Is it Metal, or Punk, or Hardcore? I don’t know, I never thought twice about it. People used to say “you’re ashamed of Metal, you don’t want to be Metal.” I’m like, is that because I don’t wear black all the time and I don’t have any tattoos?
As a musician, the only thing you can do — ever — is making it about enjoyment of music, and respect of music and try to improve as a player, a singer, a writer, a producer, or whatever you do it for. If you do it to get laid, then God bless you, that’s cool. I got laid before I was in a well-known band, I’m not doing it for that. [Laughs] For a lot of people there has to be a purpose behind it. Would I like to sell 10 million records? Hell yeah, then I could put in a pool and a big ol’ house, and never leave, and I could pay someone to grocery shop for me. I could just work on my orchestration techniques or something, I’d find some way to waste time! Watch Yankee highlights from the last 20 years… I get nervous sometimes, ’cause there are so many musicians putting out so many records out there — the majority of whom are completely incompetent — and I don’t really think of it as music. People are like, “What do you think of this band?” It doesn’t even register on my radar. When I was 12 I may have liked it, but I’ve heard that band, x, y, or z for the last 25 years. They’re not doing anything new. I have to hear some sort of personal stamp on Western tonality, something!
Are there any bands out there now that do impress you, that you feel are doing something new and interesting?
Yeah, there are a bunch! We’re not talking about reinventing the wheel here. You’re talking about rock music, and I spend about 10% of my time listening to rock music. I’m not out hustling and trying to find new bands. If they bring something to me, for work, and I think “oh, that sounds cool, I have an idea about what I can do with those guys.” My goal is to find what’s interesting about a band and help point it out to them. With Classic Case I can point out and say “that’s ok, but it’s straight out of the Radiohead songbook, or Jeff Buckley.” And they’ll go “oh, yeah.” That’s cool, but let’s do something more interesting with it ’cause those bands existed and it’s done, and let’s do your own thing with it. Like the band Against Me!, on the Warped Tour, they’re pretty straight ahead — a cross between Tom Petty and The Clash, not over the top players, but good solid songwriters and I enjoyed watching that. The band Motion City Soundtrack, they’re super pop and have this kind of Men At Work meets Elvis Costello thing going, late ’70s / early ’80s pop song vibe with a great singer. It was pretty cool, I can appreciate that as much as I can appreciate Slayer. Ya know, it’s not AC/DC or Led Zeppelin, but it’s still good [laughs].
You were one of the few veteran bands on the Warped Tour this year. What made you decide to finally do that?
It was a label thing, Kevin Lyman owns the new label and he’s also the chief Warped Tour guy. He’s tried to get us to do it over the last 12 years, but it never panned out. This one made sense. Yeah. What a deal!
Did you enjoy it?
Well… have you ever gone to one of the shows?
Yeah, I caught your set in Orlando… I actually lined up in the rain to talk with you guys while you were doing your signing…
Oh, God bless you. I have no recollection of Orlando at all. [laughs]
It was one big rainstorm.
Yeah, so Florida was! It rained in Orlando, Miami, South Carolina, North Carolina. That whole little chunk [of] it was like — get me out of here!… There are great audiences there! I have a great time down there. It’s such a goofy state [laughs]. What the hell — you’ve got the Miami Beach thing, and then the redneck thing, and the swamp alligator thing. Florida and Texas should both be their own countries, they’re so bizarre, but I love them both.
So, getting back to your involvement with Saw III, your video for “Monochrome” is going to run during the credits, is that right?
Is it? I have no idea. You mean, at the end credits, right? Yeah, you know more than I do. [Laughs]
Have you already finished that video?
Yeah, but I didn’t do anything. I sat with the bass player from Classic Case and a video camera in the foyer of the studio here in L.A., and sat on a road case and sang the song through a beat box, and then picked up my guitar and played the guitar solo parts. I said, “Shoot my left hand, shoot my right hand.” We did it three times, and sent it to the label and I said, “Have fun.” I said, “I’d prefer not to be in it,” so they had this treatment that involved me with the girl that was in the movie — Shawnee Smith — and candles, and writhing on the floor… I said, “That ain’t gonna happen. I’m not an actor.” I mean, I had fun making the “Gone” video, ’cause I was in L.A. and working with a friend of mine, who’s an actor, and I could just give him shit for three days about what a great actor I was! [Laughs] It was just fun ’cause it was with pals. But for this one, I didn’t have time to do anything. When they sent me the treatment, I said, “That’s not me, can’t you just get some movie footage and incorporate me into it?” So that’s what they did. So I hope it’s cool, my stuff was funny — I thought… Videos have very little do to with music, but I’m all for it, ’cause it’s another way to give those guys a way to keep the album in people’s face. And I’m proud of the album, I want people to hear it.
My last question, how has your opinion of the music world changed since you started playing rock music?
I was much more naive back then. I though that everyone would love me because I was fabulous, I didn’t think they’d just want to make a lot of money off of me. So, you think you’re onto someting really great — and you know it’s good — and then your bandmates realize it’s good and it’s the four of you against the world. Then when people jump on the bandwagon, you’re like, “yeah! See, I knew it was a really good thing!” But then the people in the business world, they’re just looking to make money off you, so when you’re not making them as much money, I’ve seen people drop like flies. I’ve discovered who’s loyal, and who cares for me as a human being. That absolutely includes former bandmates [laughs], unfortunately. People will get what they want from music, and I can’t allow… You heard me a little frustrated, but I’ll be fine once I get in my car and turn on KUSC and they’re playing Brahm’s Piano Concerto and I’ll forget completely some angry conversation I had with someone in the music business.
That naïveté I had before has given me the resolve I have now that I’m on the right path, and always have been. To keep it about music and not be swayed by people’s opinions. The only way to get to that is to work your ass off and make it about the music. Work at it everyday, and never take it for granted. That’s how I started. I came from a music education background — I went to school and had to complete assignments, study classical guitar and jazz and play in the big band… all that discipline made me a better musician. Those things still carry over. The late, great Hal Roberts guitar exercises that I learned 20 years ago I have in front of me — right now. I’m sitting here with a notebook, the song “Cherokee,” Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday. 62 beats per minute, 3 times through… all those things.
Stick to your guns, do it for the right reasons, ’cause some of those people will come and go in your lives. The people I care for in the music business are still with me. Kenny McPherson, David Whitehead… the other people have gone away. There’s no bitterness about it, cause people have their reasons, but I’d never work with them again. Even Jimmy Iovine, God bless him, he was loyal to me. He phoned me and gave me the opportunity to get Helmet going again. It was his money and his suggestion, with Size Matters. When he, and we, realized that this was not the place for the band to be anymore he still called me to work with this rap group he has and I write with them because he has faith in me as a musician. He’s a businessman and his job is to run this huge label, but he’s a music fan and he appreciates what I’ve done and the vocabulary that I’ve created, so I’ll always be loyal to him.