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Interview: Helmet 30th Anniversary New Zealand Tour

Interview: Helmet 30th Anniversary New Zealand Tour

Nich Cunningham / Photo credit: Tom Bronowski / Tuesday 4th February, 2020 2:35PM

NYC headwear enthusiasts Helmet are currently celebrating their 30th anniversary. The genre-defining '90s alternative rock band has recently completed a numerically symmetrical 30 date tour of Europe followed by 30 dates in the US. May will see Helmet hit New Zealand for three concerts. With the kind of relentless vigor the band is known for, there will be no support and Helmet will perform a daunting 30 song set. In contrast to the often cold and clinical nature of the music he makes, Helmet prime-mover Page Hamilton is affable and enthusiastic in conversation. His well considered responses illustrate that his passion for his music and music in general is as strong as ever.

UPDATE 3/4/20:
Helmet's 30th Anniversary tour of Aotearoa has been rescheduled to November 2020...


Monday 16th November - The Studio, Auckland
Tuesday 17th November - Meow, Wellington
Thursday 19th November - Cassels Blue Smoke, Christchurch

Tickets available HERE via UTR, all tickets remain valid for the new dates

Nich Cunningham: So 30 years of Helmet – how does that feel? Did 1989 Page Hamilton have any conception or thought of that kind of longevity?

Page Hamilton: I never anticipated I would be playing Helmet songs 30 years later. I always said if I couldn’t perform comfortably and feel good about what I’m doing then I would stop, but it’s weird I have more fun than ever.

I try to keep myself in shape. I quit smoking about 12 years ago which has been really good. And I don’t drink too much, you know, on the road, stuff like that. It’s important when you approach 60.

This music is not like strumming folk chords. It’s very physically demanding. I really honestly have more fun – I love playing. I think my band mates a couple of times, like, roll their eyes when we are on song 31 or 32 and I’m like “Ah but its going so good! Keep playing” and they’re like "ah!"

We’re excited to get down there: we did like 30 shows in Europe and 30 in the US. And then the folks we work with in Australia and NZ both wanted to bring us down so we’re really looking forward to it. We actually added some shows because Brisbane and Melbourne sold out so fast…

It must be a good feeling after 31 years of doing this that there is still this high level of demand for your music…

Yeah, its great! I feel the band has sort of stuck to the road map musically – we never tried to do anything to fit in with whatever is going on at the moment. Probably ‘cos I don’t know any better, I’m too stupid to think about how to make ourselves commercially viable! It’s just like gah this is fun music to play! And other people seem to like it too.

I had a great conversation with my friend Tommy Victor from Prong. We toured together a couple years ago. He said “When we got on a major label I felt like we had to do something to sell records.” Now I’m not familiar with their music after that but he felt like he was unhappy with what they did, he said he was happy we stuck to our guns the whole time.

Given that this is an anniversary tour, some reflection is inevitable. Your work in the '90s can rightly be considered seminal and genre-defining. Was that your aim at the time? Was there a deliberate aesthetic backbone to Helmet or was it more a case of your natural self-expression?

There was never a specific goal. The purpose wasn’t “Hey we’re gonna do something that’s gonna influence a bunch of people.” I just was always, especially early on when I was very young, to a fault, if music sounded derivative - a melody or change, a chord change or a rhythm sounded derivative I would shy away from it.

Then I just felt like, because I loved jazz music and I was always playing jazz guitar everyday that, within the context of Western music; improvising in that way, you know we’re all using the same 12 notes in Western music? It’s just a matter of how you combine them. To me, I think I always had a pretty good feel in rhythm – rhythm is so important. It’s simple in theory but complicated in practice: how do you come up with something that’s original and interesting? I think maybe listening to strange music for a rock guy, it influenced me rhythmically, harmonically, melodically and everything.

There was this same thing lyrically. There was this whole snobbery, this whole “I’m a songwriter’ and to me they were so precious and I was like “I’m gonna be the anti-songwriter – I’m going to use this stream of conscious collection of images.”

As I’ve gotten older I learned to use the language and be less obscure and strange. Betty was probably the peak, like what the hell am I singing about? Just collecting these images... I’d think of a good line and go “that’s great!” But working with (Dave) Sardy on Aftertaste; he’s like “What are you saying?” I’m like “I’m not really sure...” I started more of a narrative feel to stuff.

I think it’s just my nature - I wasn’t worried about trying to be popular. When people are like “Let’s do something that’s a hit!” It’s kind of gross, a gross way to approach music because that’s not what turns me on as a listener. I’d rather hear Monk than Maroon 5! And the drummer in Maroon 5 is one of my best friends and I think he’d rather hear Monk than Maroon 5!

Given your interest in improvisation, are Helmet songs still played as they were recorded?

Over the years, speaking of my friend from Maroon 5, Matt Flynn, when we did the Ghandi thing he came up with that ending of 'Milquetoast' where we extended and it’s a quasi drum solo and we did that when Tempesta was in the band and we do it now with Kyle. That was a Matt Flynn thing.

As far as the arrangements – the arrangements are pretty much just the albums, the only area where I put on the lab coat would be the solos. You would hope that as a guitar player that practices and plays and you’re constantly trying to make progress musically, that your solos would be different.

On songs like 'Give It', I’ll start the solo off the way I did on the album just ‘cos I like it – I was basically superimposing a Bb triad over a D minor vibe, but now I kind of go more D Dorian – I hear it that way. Your ears change as you get older and you hear things differently. The more you practice and play – right now I’m transcribing a Charlie Parker solo from Hothouse, and it’s going to influence you. Even if I don’t consciously try to incorporate it. So that’s where the improv goes.

What can people expect from a Helmet show?

The band probably know 90 songs. It’s really fun. I pulled out like ten ‘new’ songs that were old songs that we’d never done live before. Like the Björk cover, Sabbath cover. The original 'Unsung' B-side was a song ‘Your Head' – and we‘re actually releasing a live concert from the Big Day Out '92 or '93, we have CBGB show from 1990 and I go “That’s a cool live song!” so we add that song. It’s really been fun – cos we like to vary the set every night and we have so many songs to choose from.

Nich Cunningham is half of TOOMS with Dorian Noval, playing with Emily Edrosa, B*tch Magic and Roy Irwin at Whammy Backroom on Saturday 8th February, before they head to the US to perform at NYC's The New Colossus Festival – tickets available HERE via UTR. 


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Helmet 30th Anniversary Tour
Mon 16th Nov
The Studio, Auckland
Helmet 30th Anniversary Tour
Tue 17th Nov
Meow, Wellington
Helmet 30th Anniversary Tour
Thu 19th Nov
Cassels Blue Smoke, Christchurch