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.