Helmet’s Page Hamilton Breaks Down ‘Betty’ Track by Track
New York City alt-metallers Helmet were one of the more unlikely success stories in early Nineties music. Led by jazz-educated guitarist Page Hamilton, a preppy-looking, post-30 veteran of the downtown Manhattan avant-garde underground — he had logged time with experimental composer Glenn Branca and the noise outfit Band of Susans — the group hewed to an aesthetic that was practically militaristic in focus: clipped block-chord riffs; vocals that were alternately barked or sung in a monotone, detached manner; and an unrelenting, machine-like rhythmic thrust, delivered by four serious-looking dudes in crew cuts and khakis. And yet, their 1992 major label debut, Meantime, moved more than half a million copies, largely on the strength of the MTV hit, “Unsung.”
When it came time to record the follow-up, released in 1994 as Betty, Hamilton had a particular idea in mind: career sabotage. “I think I adopted a stance from the Ray Davies/Paul Westerberg school of thinking, which was something like, ‘If things are going really well, do the opposite — shoot yourself in the foot,'” Hamilton says today from his home in Malibu. “Because to me, Helmet had this unbelievable commercial success with Meantime, and then suddenly everybody — record company people, managers, lawyers — had an opinion about what we should do next.”
But none of them likely could have imagined the multifarious directions Helmet would take with Betty. Tracks like “Wilma’s Rainbow,” “I Know” and “Milquetoast” (which had appeared earlier that year, as “Milktoast,” on the soundtrack to the Brandon Lee film The Crow) continued the band’s riff-as-power-tool aesthetic, while also expanding upon it. Hamilton leaned more heavily on his diverse musical background, putting noise elements, unusual meters and extended and augmented chords to greater use. The band also pulled further away from their minimalist hardcore roots by exploring jazz (“Beautiful Love”), blues (“Sam Hell”) and oddball funk (“The Silver Hawaiian”). Then there was the fact that they named the album Betty (“like slang for a good-looking chick,” Hamilton says) and opted to go with a decidedly un-heavy image of a fresh-faced and neatly dressed woman, smiling and picking flowers, for the cover art.
The whole thing might have seemed a recipe for disaster. And yet, Betty has since become one of Helmet’s most beloved albums, as well as a landmark of mid-Nineties metal. In recognition of this, last year Hamilton, backed by a new Helmet lineup, took Betty on the road, performing it in full in Europe as part of a 20th anniversary celebration of the record. Now, Helmet is bringing the show to the U.S. for select dates.
As for why Hamilton thinks fans have connected with so passionately to Betty? “I like to think it’s because it sort of flips things upside down, while still being honest musically,” he says. “People had these expectations of us and these associations: Helmet meant ‘In the Meantime’ or ‘Unsung’ or whatever, and we came out with this different groove. Also, I think it’s a good album. We always were very dedicated to the music. That helped a lot.”
What also helped a lot was Nirvana. After releasing one album, Strap It On, on indie Amphetamine Reptile, Helmet in 1992 suddenly found themselves at the center of a major-label bidding war, something that could only have happened to a band like them in a post-“Smells Like Teen Spirit” music world. They signed to Interscope for a reported one million dollars and, even more astoundingly, with an agreement that they would have a practically unheard of amount of creative control over their music. “More than anything else, the creative control part of our contract was what made me want to send Nirvana a fruit basket,” Hamilton says. “They were so successful, and it changed the landscape so much that the labels were now trusting bands like us with our own music. Which was great, because that was the only part I cared about. I didn’t give a shit about videos. I didn’t give a shit about print ads or commercials or any of that stuff. It didn’t interest me. I figured we were never going to really be a mainstream band anyway.”
And yet, for a few years, Helmet was. The band followed the success of Meantime with an appearance on the Judgment Night soundtrack, teaming with House of Pain on the song “Just Another Victim.” They scored a hit with their contribution to The Crow, followed quickly by the release of Betty. Afterwards, they toured the U.S. with the Rollins Band and Australia with the Beastie Boys, appeared as themselves — playing a cover of Black Sabbath’s “Symptom of the Universe” — in the abysmal 1995 Jerky Boys movie and released one more album, 1997’s Aftertaste, before disbanding. They then watched their syncopated, drop-tuned sound influence a generation of bands playing nu-metal, post-hardcore and various other heavy music offshoot styles.
But, according to Hamilton, these acts tended only to skim the most obvious ingredients off the top of Helmet’s sound. “I’ve spoken to many bands over the years who cite us as an inspiration, and that’s nice,” he says. “But I think people got lost in the whole, ‘Oh, I can just drop-tune and play with one finger!’ thing. I haven’t heard much of our harmonic language being used. I haven’t heard a lot of the altered or extended chords. I just hear the riffage.”
One band that did dig that riffage is Linkin Park, who invited Hamilton to play and sing on “All for Nothing,” a track from last year’s The Hunting Party. “They’re super-passionate dudes and it was a lot of fun to be in the studio with them,” Hamilton says. “Although I think they were surprised I was so unfamiliar with their music. But I’m 54 and I’m still listening to Thelonious Monk and Jim Hall. So it’s just a different world.”
Today, Hamilton’s world is indeed different — he spends much of his time playing jazz gigs, collaborating with other artists and scoring movies. He also continues to work with Helmet. Since reuniting in the mid 2000s the band has released three records, including 2010’s Seeing Eye Dog. Hamilton says that he’s already three or four songs into a follow-up, which he hopes to begin recording later this year. Until then, he’s focusing on Betty.
“That album was the sound of us being obscure and weird,” he says. “And one thing I’ve found from doing these Betty shows is it’s also a difficult album to play live. A song like ‘Sam Hell,’ where it’s just me alone, and I’m essentially playing this blues groove and singing? That was nerve-racking at first. But it’s been a great challenge, and apparently the music means something to people. So I’m happy to do it.”
On the eve of the U.S. Betty anniversary tour, Hamilton took Rolling Stone on a track-by-track walk through the album’s 14 songs.
The title came from a place in New Orleans that I believe was on Magazine Street, right next to the funeral home that Trent Reznor later bought for his studio [Nothing Studios]. Helmet was playing at Tipitina’s and I was walking around before the show, looking for something to eat. Wilma’s Rainbow was a shop that had shaved ice and wings. I thought, That’s a great title for a song.
As far as the intro riff, there’s a Gang of Four tune, I think it’s on Entertainment!, that has a harmonic type of thing in that that I always thought was cool. I love how volume and distortion can help you achieve all these weird false harmonics at different places on the [guitar] neck. Then I added a weird chord at the end. I just trusted my ears. I hear something in my head and then I find it on guitar and go with it.
Vocally, it’s a hard one — there’s a lot of screaming. Unfortunately it’s also the second song on the album, so at these live shows I have to be ready to go, right off the bat. Like, “Aahh, shit.”
It’s another song of mine about having other people’s opinions crammed down your throat. I guess at that point in time I was kind of addressing some of my peers, who I had become a little tired of listening to. There’s also some lines about the whole notion of rock stars and models: “Wafer thin, the waif is in/She’s chlorine clean, and portion fed.” It’s this idea that these people are beyond reproach and above the rest of us. The whole rock-star thing tends to repulse me a little bit.
‘Biscuits for Smut’
The riff was an accident. I was visiting my family and I had a beautiful blue G&L guitar with me that I had just put new strings on. I picked it up a half-hour later and it was tuned to an open A7 chord. I loved the sound and the feel with that tuning, and I immediately came up with the harmonic thing at the intro.
The lyrics are kind of a combination of a few things. My grandfather, who we called Grandpa Bones, had told me a story about his dog, Smut, that he had growing up in Oklahoma. One day his mom — my great-grandmother Momo — made some biscuits, but she overcooked them and they were too hard so she threw them out the door for the dog. I liked that idea. Then I started thinking about a serial killer story, and I just put those two things together. I wrote the song in about 15 minutes.
We did one version of this with [Nevermind producer] Butch [Vig, on The Crow soundtrack] and then one with Andy [Wallace]. I had wanted to work with Butch before but I was wary because of the whole Nirvana thing. Record companies wanted everything Nirvana but we weren’t Nirvana. But I met him and really liked him.
Butch gave me the idea to have no guitars on the first verse. Like, “Why don’t you mute the guitars here and just do this vocal thing?” And then he added that Pink Floyd, A.M-radio effect to my voice. That all changed the feel of the song, because originally it was in-your-face right from the beginning. Which is kind of our thing — Helmet’s not really known for dynamics. But Butch was like, “How about some dynamics?” And I said, “What a great idea!” It turned out to be one of my favorite things on the album.
The lyric is about not accepting one another’s idiosyncrasies. That’s sort of the gist of it. We all have our shit to deal with, you know? When I did the vocal, I got the take I loved but the engineer we were using wasn’t really prepared for it. It came out distorted, but it was the one I had to have. So unfortunately we had to put it on the record that way.
I also love the guitar part at the end of the song. I had this beautiful old [speaker] cabinet that I found in a pawnshop in Cleveland years earlier, and it looked like somebody had taken a machine gun to it. It was just shredded but it sounded amazing. I hooked it up to my amp and started getting these dinosaur/elephant noises out of it. I destroyed the cabinet but it was worth it.
That was something that Henry [Bogdan, bass] came up with. We were in rehearsal down at our place on Mott St., and we would play the riff and it was tricky. Then we’d come in the next day and play it and he’d say, “You’re playing it wrong.” And I’d say, “Well, this is how we played it yesterday.” Then he’d play it differently. After going back and forth I grabbed a Sharpie and a piece of corrugated cardboard that was laying around and I wrote out what he played in musical notation. I said, “OK, cool. I’ll have it tomorrow.”
So we come in the next day and, again, it’s “No, you’re playing it wrong.” Finally I said to Henry, “OK, play it.” Henry played it and I grabbed another piece of cardboard and wrote down exactly what he did. Then I showed him both pieces of cardboard: “OK. This is what you played me yesterday. This is what you played me today. We’re an ensemble. We have to make a choice — it’s one or the other. Is the accent on the and of four or the and of one?” So it was a funny thing. But it was such a good riff and such a good set of changes that it was worth putting in the time. And it’s one of my favorite songs to play live.
My now ex-wife and her mother had a jewelry company, and they used to sell stuff on the street in New York City. Back then, the “street crabs” were the guys who were selling the fake Rolexes. They’d be out on the street with their merchandise, and then there’d be one guy sitting on top of a mailbox or something, looking for cops. When a cop came by, he’d yell and they’d all roll up their blankets and run down the street. Being from a small town in Oregon and then settling in New York, I just thought it was a really interesting cultural thing. Like, “This is something I’ve never seen before!”
This was written at a particularly bad time in my life. After the success of Meantime my relationship fell apart and my social life was kind of spinning out of control a little bit. I spent a little too much time partying. And I remember a really hot New York summer day, walking home from this super-druggy area in the East Village. I had just been robbed, and I was like, “This is a bad place to be.” That was the inspiration behind the song.
I also really like the riff here. I had it hanging around for a while and then Stanier [drummer John Stanier] came up with that ridiculous drumbeat. It’s so cool. Only Stanier could have come up with that beat. Like, What?
I wrote this on a four-track at my apartment on 16th St. It was kind of a home-jam-type song. There’s a lot of tension, and then the tension just releases nicely into what I call the chorus — that kind of “grind” part. It’s a blues, really, but a Helmet-style blues.
This is also one of our hardest songs to play live. The rhythmic displacement is what throws you off. When we started these Betty shows, it took some doing for sure to get it down. And I can’t play the riff and sing the verse at the same time — I can either do the riff with the band or I can sing the words. Obviously I need to sing, so I lay off the guitar part. That’s actually not an uncommon thing for me. I have the same issue with “Unsung” for some reason.
It’s a song from the Thirties. But I was turned onto it through hearing the Bill Evans version. I also thought it was a great title that would stick out on a Helmet record. I’m a jazz nerd, but the other guys, I had to trick them into doing this a little bit. Back then John was reluctant to do things that he deemed uncool. So I went into the studio and pretended we just getting some levels. I said, “We need to hear the drums. Do that shit you do in sound check. Play the whole kit.” He did his thing and we recorded it. Then I did the same thing to Henry. I took those pieces, put them together and overdubbed all this shit on top of it. Then I spliced it into the song. I basically fooled the guys into doing free jazz.
The thing I remember about this song is that the solo was a bitch. I was really struggling with the changes. It was just this groove, and usually I try to find a spot for a lead and then go with it and develop it. Maybe I’ll start with something melodic, or maybe I’ll start with noise. But I didn’t know with this one. It was tricky. I wound up doing a bunch of fast things in the solo, and part of the reason for the speed of the notes was the fear of not knowing where I was going to land. I just said to myself, “If you play really, really fast and superimpose kind of a mode or a sound over the groove, you’ll be safe.” [Laughs]
‘The Silver Hawaiian’
Henry came in with this great riff and I had no idea what the hell I was going to do with it. But we worked and worked on the arrangement and got it trimmed down to what it is. And the lyric is just wordplay. In the Eighties I played in this band in Brooklyn and the singer would always do that — he’d write nonsense lyrics, sort of as a placeholder. So I said, “I’m gonna write nonsense lyrics and it’s gonna be the song.” That’s how you end up with lines like “Biscuits and jam and you’re eating your pie, too.”
I love playing this song live. I love the funkiness of the riff, and that low tone in my voice. I was a baritone in choir in community college so I like singing like that. It’s really fun.
It’s a pretty song. It’s about giving up, about how pathetic we all feel from time to time. And musically, I just had this cool little dissonant riff thing — the major seven clashing with the open E string. It’s a cool sound. There’s also some Melvins influence in there as far as I’m concerned, because they would write such cool songs that never came back to a section. They would just go A, B, C, D, and then done. And we had played with the Melvins on one of our first tours — seven guys in one van. They’re a great band. So there was definitely that influence here . . . although the vocals are really different.
I wrote this at the 16th St. apartment. The lady across the hall was a little bit wacky and said, “I hear you’re playing blues in there. Do you know Big Joe Turner used to live in your apartment?” I was like, “Are you shitting me?” So it was kind of appropriate that we did “Sam Hell.” In the studio I played it on a Deering six-string electric banjo.
As for the lyrics, I used to be a bartender at this place on 1st Ave. that eventually burned down. I had a lot of regulars, and one of them was this really sweet, well-read guy who just happened to be an alcoholic. He had a friend and they’d come into the bar sometimes at three in the morning. I really liked having the company, and I liked that they were just interesting New York characters that I had the privilege of spending time with. So I wanted to write a song about them.
There’s also that line about cat-eating [“She’s known for making good gravy and cat”]. When I first moved to New York I lived in an SRO, a welfare hotel, for two years because I had no money. And there was a woman there who, legend had it, had eaten her cat. And she was always looking for that cat. She’d come downstairs to get her government checks and look for the cat. And it was just like, “Jesus Christ, man.” All kinds of interesting events happen in the middle of the night in a place like that.
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