DARK RECOLLECTIONS: Helmet

By on 4 April 2012

Marketed as the “next Nirvana”, caught up in million dollar bidding wars and loved by Beavis And Butthead, HELMET caused a major stir in all areas of the rock world with ‘MEANTIME’. Twenty years since it’s release Page Hamilton remembers the high times and high praise from the one and only Ozzy Osbourne…

RELEASE DATE: June 23, 1992

LABEL: Interscope

LINE-UP: Page Hamilton (vocals/guitar), Peter Mengede (guitar), Henry Bogdan (bass), John Stanier (drums)

 

“It’s the little things that make life enjoyable,” snorts Page Hamilton. The Helmet vocalist/guitarist/founding member/mastermind is laughing and reminiscing about the exact moment two decades ago when he realised that the band’s 1992 masterpiece, ‘Meantime’, had become a recognisable figure not just within the confines of extreme music, but in the broader world of hard rock, heavy metal and pop culture. And just as their clean-cut, prep-school image (“Our fashion was no fashion. We called it ‘Gap-core’ because my wife would just buy my clothes and I’d wear whatever she bought me,” he laughs) was direct foil to the military-like precision and grating noise of their music, Page’s interest and obsession with extra curricular touring activities was to his almost missing out on that early stand-out moment of the band’s career.

“I remember being in a club in Pittsburgh after we played and purposely trying to cock-block [guitarist] Peter [Mengede] because I thought it was funny. There was a Helmet video on ‘Beavis and Butthead.’ Peter poked me, pointed at the TV and I looked up and it was like, ‘Oh yeah…’ You couldn’t hear it, but you could see us and the cuts to Beavis and Butthead headbanging or whatever. But I was more interested in fucking up Peter’s attempts to pick up these two chicks. And I did and it was great!”

 

The popularity of ‘Meantime’ came at a time when grunge was king and metal as a whole was already partway through its rapid downslide after a surprising ascent throughout the ’80s. We’re not going to claim that ‘Meantime’ could be identified as a straight-ahead metal recording – you’d get an argument to the death from Page himself on that topic – but its noisy chords, hellacious vocals (that swung back and forth from monochromatic screams to Ozzy-like crooning), drill-press drumming and overdriven everything had more to do with metal than their “Gap-core” image portrayed and their label probably wanted. ‘Meantime’ followed on the heels of a much publicised bidding war, which then-fledgling LA-based label, Interscope (of which Atlantic Records was a 53 per cent owner/shareholder at the time) came out as victors to the tune of $1.3 million for a three album deal. This brought the band an absolute shit-ton of press. As well, an absolute shit-ton of fiery debate within the underground about their selling out, especially once Interscope started marketing the New York-based quartet as venerable competition for the title of “the next Nirvana”.

“I remember [Nirvana frontman, Kurt] Cobain telling me he was driving in a car somewhere in Los Angeles and something came on the radio promoting a Nirvana/Helmet show and the commercial said something about winning flannel shirts, Doc Martens and tickets to the show. And he was all, “What the fuck is that?!” As it turns out, that came from some marketing genius at Interscope. I’m not a business man; it’s never been my forte. I’ve always had people to take care of that stuff and sometimes my faith in them has been rewarded with a kick in the balls. I remember one time I was talking to Neil Young after a show. We were standing in a stairwell and some guy from the label walked by us and went to say goodbye to me by saying, “Hey Page, keep on rockin’ in the free world!’ I looked at Neil Young, embarrassed, and rolled my eyes. Neil rolled his eyes as well. He understood.”

Despite some of Interscope’s  foot soldiers not knowing their heads from holes in the ground, Jimmy Iovine and Ted Field (the label’s founders) knew they were on to something with Helmet and ‘Meantime’. After the touring cycle following the release of their debut ‘Strap It On’ via AmRep, the band wrote half of the album before signing with Interscope. A deal giving the band a ridiculous amount of creative control was offered and Helmet delivered an album that sounded so simple and minimal on the surface, but was brimming with driving melody, exhaustive attention to the details of music theory and its application, precisely structured songs and a lead guitar method more akin to the Lower East Side’s avant garde music scene as opposed to metal. It was a huge melting pot of influences, streamlined and sculpted into what Page describes as “my version of pop songs. They were noisy, rattling and very different from Nirvana. It was like comparing Hendrix to The Monkees, y’know what I mean?

“‘Unsung’ was already written. ‘In The Meantime’, ‘Give It’ and I think a different version of ‘FDLA II’ was written as part of a demo we recorded with Steve Albini. ‘Unsung,’ we had recorded as part of a Peel Session or with Mark Goodrich in England – it was one or the other, I can’t remember – and it was already released as a 7” on AmRep. That’s what generated all the excitement about us because this college/indie radio station in Long Island, New York that usually played The Cure and U2 and stuff was playing us, which we found strange, but it was fine for us.

“I wrote pretty much everything,” Hamilton continues, “except for drum fills and bass fills, which are obviously things that are worked out within an arrangement. [Drummer] John [Stanier] and [bassist] Henry [Bogdan] were both really good at editing themselves. They got the music and understood that it wasn’t about doing a drum or bass fill every four measures. When it comes to the context of Helmet, it’s got to be direct and to-the-point. I’m very detail-oriented and kind of obsessive compulsive, so little things like adding a 5/4 measure in a 4/4 groove as turnaround that throws you off are little things I would work on and try every possibility until I got what felt right. That’s just the way it was; they knew that and I knew that.”

What came out was a classic, as recognised as such by everyone from those who once complained in the pages of punk rock bibles like ‘Maximum Rock And Roll’ and ‘Flipside’ about the band selling their souls to the major label devil and die-hard fans who didn’t care if the album came out on Rap-A-Lot Records to industry people and the band’s influences to the hundreds of thousands who bought it and gave the band their first (and only) gold record and, of course, Beavis and Butthead.

“Jimmy from Interscope told me once, ‘Man, I heard one of your songs on the radio following some Judas Priest and it made Priest sound like a bubblegum pop band!’ and Ozzy was like, [adopting British accent] ‘I don’t remember recording that! Them boys did their homework!'”

 

 

This year marks the 20 year anniversary of ‘Meantime’ and despite the fact that Helmet’s current incarnation (Page along with guitarist Dan Beeman, bassist Dave Case and drummer Kyle Stevenson) have already been occasionally performing the album in its entirety since 2007 during various Australia and American tours, an official month-long celebration entitled the European Meantime Anniversary Tour started earlier this month in Lisbon, Portugal – hitting the UK on April 2 at London’s Electric Ballroom.

“Well, I want to tour and I enjoy touring in Europe, so I want us to get over there as much as possible. Our promoter in Germany brought it up and presented the idea to our booking agent in London. He started fishing around, people were excited and I was on board because it’s ten songs that we enjoy playing. I prefer not to play the same set every night, so the other songs [in the set] will be different every night and there will be some nights we play ‘Meantime’ in reverse order because it flows just as well with the key changes and stuff between songs.

“The other guys have made it clear that they want to leave it behind them,” Page responds when asked if whether or not he’s reached out to the members of the ‘Meantime’ line-up to take part in the 20th anniversary celebration in any capacity. “I formed the band with an ad in the Village Voice and auditioned both Henry and John. I liked what we’ve done, but they want it to be part of their pasts. Peter played with us in Brisbane a while ago and it was really nice, but emotional for me because you feel like, as the band leader, you’re the one everybody hates and you get blamed for the break up of the band. At the end of the day, it’s just ego shit. I have nothing but respect for those guys as musicians and it was their choice to leave. No one was fired or kicked out. Whatever their complaints are, are their complaints. I don’t know if they felt I got too much credit or what, but that’s human nature and it happens in every band situation. You still have people who argue about Lennon versus McCartney. You’re talking about two of the greatest song writer’s who’ve ever lived – maybe everyone should just shut the fuck up!”

Words: Kevin Stewart-Panko

Helmet are touring the UK this week, tonight they’re playing Glasgow Cathouse

About Miranda Yardley

I'm Miranda. Bite me.

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