Helmet's Page Hamilton on Eighties NYC: 'We Had a Guy Hit Another Guy in the Head With an Ax'
Photo: Tom Hoppa
Page Hamilton is sitting beside the ocean in Malibu, the glow of the waves reflecting off his glasses. The founding member of NYC's legendary heavy alt-rock act Helmet has lived on the California coastline the last twelve years in something of an attempt to escape the hectic fray of Manhattan. "Oh, I love it," he says, referring to the scene that surrounds him. Breaking waves and dolphins diving in the distance are a dangerously easy thing to get used to, even if you have a reputation for pummeling eardrums.
Hamilton has been the principal songwriter and only enduring member of Helmet since he started the band by placing an ad in the Village Voice in 1989. Twenty-five years and seven LPs, twelve EPs, and fifteen different band members later, Hamilton really sees no point in quitting. Despite his approaching 55th birthday, for Hamilton, Helmet and their abrasive, low-rumbling crescendos are pretty much a permanent fixture in his life, and the band's presence in his day-to-day routine doesn't seem to be changing anytime soon.
Helmet are celebrating the twentieth anniversary of their third record, Betty, with a worldwide tour that kicks off with a two-night stand at the Bowery Ballroom (February 18 and 21) and continues the home-turf revelry by way of a Brooklyn gig scheduled for February 22 at Saint Vitus. As Helmet set course for their home city, the New York that spawned the band and its syncopated heaviness is nothing more than a memory for Hamilton in 2015. He recalls his arrival in Manhattan as an "enthusiastic rube from a small town in Oregon," anxious and ready to leave his mark on a city that would ultimately leave a bigger one on him.
Hamilton worked the front desk and also lived at the long-since-shuttered Clinton Arms Hotel on 99th and Broadway while he studied jazz guitar at the Manhattan School of Music. Like tons of people who lived through the New York of the Eighties, Hamilton bore witness to some of the more bizarre facets of the urban spectacle, especially while working the night shift at the Clinton Arms. "We had a guy hit another guy in the head with an ax over a girl, and we had a fire break out when a guy fell asleep with a lit cigarette," he says, before casually recounting an early-morning altercation with an ex-convict who wore women's panties on his head. "He was scary, too. Could have torn my head off."
Although Hamilton is best known for his groove-metal exploits in Helmet, the man's musical acumen makes him seem more like a laid-back jazz player than an angry headbanger. "I didn't grow up on punk rock, I grew up on Seventies rock," he says. "But when I first heard Grant Green and George Benson, that's when I flipped."
Even a cursory discussion about Hamilton's musical consciousness is rife with name-dropping like this, but not in a self-aggrandizing way. He'll invoke the centuries-old musings of Mozart, saying that "ear, brain, and heart" matter most when it comes to musical composition.
Hamilton is fascinated with the guitar as a field of study, not as an instrument used to promote rock-star idolatry or mosh-pit wankery. And probably to the surprise of most of their fans, Helmet's style was informed more by jazz musicians than Black Flag or Hüsker Dü. "Today I listened to Jim Hall and Charlie Haden," Hamilton says, reiterating that jazz greats like these gave Helmet a sense of "swing and soul" while many other heavy bands lacked such devices.
His audiophilia has paid its dividends over the years. In addition to a Grammy nod for Helmet's 1992 record Meantime, he's collaborated with everyone from David Bowie ("Your genius uncle, friendly and approachable, but not like anyone else") to Glenn Branca ("One of the biggest influences on the Helmet guitar vocabulary") to Linkin Park (whose 2014 song "All or Nothing" featured Hamilton as a guest guitar player and vocalist). It's an unlikely assortment of musicians and sounds, but they've all come to influence Hamilton — or, conversely, feel his influence — over the last twentysome-odd years.
As the sun dips and the pulp floating at the base of Hamilton's bloody mary mingles with melted ice, his Southern California calm is palpable. There "might be a touch of cynicism" when it comes to Hamilton's feelings on the city that birthed his most potent musical exploits and decades-long career, but he's nonetheless very reflective when discussing New York. He's quick to add that this "cynicism" is easily interchangeable with "wisdom," too.
The New York where Hamilton lived and grew is a far cry from the landscape of high-rise condos and inexhaustible wealth of the present, but one thing is certain: Helmet's sound — rich, chaotic, atmospheric, and dense with feeling — is still the same. And Hamilton is pretty psyched about taking Betty on tour following the New York gigs.
"Twenty years after our third album came out, we're performing that album around the world," he says. "That's the biggest pat on the back."
Helmet play the Bowery Ballroom on February 18 and February 21, and Saint Vitus on February 22. All shows are sold out, but tickets are available on the secondary market.
See also: The Ten Best New York Punk Releases of 2014 East Village Nights: An Excerpt From NYHC: New York Hardcore 1980–1990 The Top 20 New York Hardcore and Metal Albums of All Time
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