With compassion-fueled apoplexy, alt-metal’s Helmet rolls into The Pyramid Scheme on Sunday as it prepares to release a new studio album, “Left.” The Local Spins interview with frontman Page Hamilton.
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Page Hamilton, singer and guitarist, noise-rock icon, self-proclaimed “old guy,” music teacher, record producer, Cormac McCarthy reader, social media luddite, composer for orchestras – wait, where was I going with this?
Right: Page Hamilton is a fascinating, worldly person with a sprawling, diverse career – and an omnipresent sense of humor, even though he’s best known as the rageful frontman and driving force behind veteran “alt-metal” band Helmet.
During a chat on an off day between gigs in Milwaukee and Indianapolis, Hamilton went off on tangents about his appreciation for McCarthy’s acclaimed novel “The Road,” how the internet has become a tool for bad actors, his respect for Taylor Swift’s outspokenness and how he can barely identify the Instagram app on his phone.
Mention how the venue he’s about to visit on Sunday – The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids – just hosted his old pals The Melvins, and he immediately jumps into a tour story from Helmet’s pre-fame days, when the two bands toured together. Their van was stuck in the snow on the way to a show in Kalamazoo, and Hamilton managed to get behind the wheel and vault it out of a massive drift.
“I was like, ‘This is a $700 gig for two bands, we’re not missing this s–t!’,” he said with a laugh.
That’s surely much less than what Helmet makes per gig these days – I didn’t ask; it would’ve been rude – considering the New York City band at the time sold a few million records in the 1990s, and was once the recipient of a mega-hyped million-dollar contract with Interscope Records.
The primary product of that deal was the crushing 1992 opus “Meantime,” which spawned the hit single “Unsung,” a chugging start-stop anti-anthem that helped define one raucous corner of the crazy-quilt patchwork that was ’90s mainstream rock.
And as is common with, well, pretty much every band that isn’t a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee, the flame of Helmet’s commercial success burned hot, bright and short. By the late ’90s, the band split acrimoniously after recording three albums for Interscope.
Hamilton, a wildly talented guitarist, formed his own jazz outfits, taught music and toured as David Bowie’s lead guitarist for a stretch. By 2004, he was ready to get the band back together, but no original members showed interest. So he assembled a new lineup, cycling through band members for three records and touring cycles before settling on drummer Kyle Stevenson, guitarist Dan Beeman and bassist Dave Case, who’ve been Helmet mainstays since 2010.
Now, Hamilton mentions in passing that Helmet “doesn’t earn a living from this,” adding, “I produce and teach and do movie sessions and all kinds of stuff.” That means composing an orchestra piece for Memphis high school band, a project that was immediately followed by recording sessions for “Left,” the new Helmet album set for a Nov. 10 release.
‘IF YOU WANT TO GIVE ME FOX NEWS TALKING POINTS, I’LL SHOOT THEM DOWN’
If that sounds like a shift that might induce musical whiplash, well, then you’re not Page Hamilton. But the record is a shift in lyrical tone for him. He jokes about the loaded ambiguity of the title – “It’s a little tongue-in-cheek. People get so riled up about political stances these days,” he said. But now, at age 63, he says he’s embracing his left-wing political perspectives and sharing them like he never had before.
“I never wanted to stand on a soapbox, I never wanted to shove anything down anybody’s throat,” he said. “Not to quote Bob Dylan, but I was never a finger-pointer… but this last six years or whatever, Trump ushering in racism and homophobia and trans hate – at this point, I’m sorry, you’re wrong.”
Hamilton shared how he’s the only lefty in a family full of Republicans – a family with whom he could always engage in the type of agree-to-disagree civil discourse that seems on the verge of extinction in America.
“I’m just making observations. I’m not singling out any individual. If anyone disagrees with me, I’m happy to talk about stuff,” he said. “But if you want to give me Fox News talking points, I’ll shoot them down, because that’s fantasy.”
This isn’t to say “Left” is a 31-minute political screed. Its debut single, “Holiday,” is an irrepressibly catchy, staccato-riffed cut that finds Hamilton toying with coarse language “in the dumbest possible way,” he said. But its follow-up, “Gun Fluf,” finds him wrestling with the gun-control issue – “we got more guns than you, we win,” Hamilton sneers in the song’s opening line.
“There’s anger in this song for sure,” he said. “I grew up with guns, and I have nothing against guns, but (I’m) against the way they’re being regulated – or not being regulated. And people act like they’re having their rights taken away because they can’t have an AR-15.
“When little kids have to be identified by their sneakers because of what those bullets can do to the human body … it’s just, c’mon people, I’d give it all up to save a little kid.”
That type of compassion-fueled apoplexy has always fueled Helmet, which Hamilton makes sure avoids being a nostalgia act. It also speaks volumes about its relevance as a contemporary band with artistic agency.
“It’s an honest album,” Hamilton said. “I don’t have an agenda. I’m just writing songs. That’s a thing that most of us who write songs do. We express things that are hard to express in plain English.”
Helmet plays The Pyramid Scheme in Grand Rapids at 7 p.m. Sunday with opening act Soulblind. Tickets are $27.50 and available online here.
VIDEO: Helmet, “Gun Fluf”
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