Two decades in, Helmet still pushes the envelope of alternative metal  | Music | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Two decades in, Helmet still pushes the envelope of alternative metal 

At his home in California, Page Hamilton is having problems with iTunes -- he can't figure out how to arrange the classical music on his three external hard-drives full of music in a satisfactory way. "My computer died and it's taken me a couple of years to reorganize my playlists," he tells me over the phone; a friend is over to help. "I'm a technological nincompoop, and he's one of those genius kids."

The Helmet frontman -- the only constant member over the band's two decades in existence -- has a strained relationship with technology, to say the least. Our conversation digresses into rants about incessant Internet self-promotion by everyone from your local teen-age punk band to Courtney Love. "Twittering or, what's it called? Tweeting? I'm not that interesting," he says. "I'm eating a donut. Who fucking cares?" As he sees it, "Fewer shitty bands make it because they're into self-promotion; better musicians don't have the time or attention span to do that because they're out making music."

Formed in 1989, Helmet released Strap It On through an independent label, and was picked up by Interscope. Back then, all the major labels seemed to be looking for the next Nirvana, and Helmet's sound was just grungy enough to put it in the running. In 1992, the group released its second album, Meantime, which went gold by 1994. It was heavy, jazz-influenced music played by music nerds with short hair and a fair amount of contempt for fashion. 

"Some people need a club to belong to," Hamilton says. "Our club is a bunch of guys who like music. If people want to be a part of that, that's cool, but there are other clubs that are perfectly legitimate and fine that require more fashion and, well, I've never been a great dresser."

Helmet broke up in 1998, and re-formed with a new lineup in 2004; in between, Hamilton paid his bills touring as David Bowie's guitarist and writing film scores. (His credits include Heat and Titus.) Helmet's seventh album, Seeing Eye Dog, comes out next month. For this record, Hamilton -- always eager to incorporate jazz elements into his guitar playing -- let film scores and classical music inform his songwriting. 

"I've had a lot of fun doing things that keep Helmet fresh for me and exciting. I don't think anyone's music benefits from being a one-trick-pony," he says. "People gave me an unbelievable amount of shit in New York in the late '80s for playing jazz guitar. I felt, like, guilty because you don't have to have any training or ability or anything to play punk rock or noise or No Wave or whatever was going on."

While it's had a few hits in recent years, Helmet has never recreated the success of Meantime. And the band never did become the next Nirvana, though Hamilton seems a little too clear-headed to care about that kind of thing, anyway. While some credit Helmet with inadvertently helping to create Nu Metal by blending alternative metal, funk, jazz and hardcore, Hamilton sees Helmet's influence as being a bit more clandestine. "There's always that thing of influencing someone and not being recognized for it," he says.

Helmet's fan base has remained steady over the years, though, and Hamilton has had the odd experience hiring band members who grew up in hopes of someday emulating his guitar style. Which is, actually, quite a bit harder than one might think. Hamilton recounts a time T.M. Stevens, who played bass for the Pretenders and James Brown, described Helmet as a bowl of ice cream with spinach in the middle. "I love that image," Hamilton says. 

"It's like AC/DC. AC/DC is deceptive. It sounds so simple, but then why can't anyone else play like AC/DC? Helmet should sound simple. It's not supposed to be musician-with-a-cape, hot-shit, prog-rock whatever. Doesn't do it for me, never did. I like music that grooves, and jazz grooves, and Marvin Gaye grooves and Beatles grooves."


Helmet with The Last Vegas, Seven Years War and special guest. 7 p.m. Sun., May 23. Diesel, 1601 E. Carson St., South Side. $15 ($18 day of show). All ages. 412-431-8800 or

Two decades in, Helmet still pushes the envelope of alternative metal 
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