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For a guy who had pieces of collarbone pretty much jutting through his skin less than two months ago, Page Hamilton is in a surprisingly good mood. It's the Vicodin keeping him from screaming in agony across the phone line, he says with a laugh. Seems the affable, Los Angeles-based Helmet singer and guitarist decided to do some hard-core mountain biking in the Oregon backwoods during a family get-together in August, one last little vacation before resurrecting his celebrated precision-punk/metal band with a new album, Size Matters, and a subsequent tour.
Unfortunately, he capped the fun with a high-speed meet-and-greet with a tree.
"I had already jammed my finger playing football with my nephews, and I was like, 'Oh, no, my finger's messed up, I hope I'll be ready for the tour,' " chuckles the 44-year-old wryly. "Cut to the next day: 'Sir, we need to take off part of a bone and insert some screws and a dead guy's tendon into your body.' The doctors say I'll have a full recovery, but I didn't think the pain would last this long. It's a hell of an injury. But I'm tired of sitting on my butt -- I just wanna get out there."
Those are the words Helmet fans have been longing to hear since 1998. Up to that point, the NYC-bred band -- founded in 1989 by Hamilton while he was a member of the noise-rock experimentalists Band of Susans -- had gone from subterranean powerhouse to platinum-selling juggernaut. Helmet's inimitable sound -- terse, sinewy, bruising riffs soldered to pummeling rhythms and Hamilton's barked lyrics -- set a high bar for '90s alt-metal and (for better or worse) laid the groundwork for the hordes of nü-metal acts that prospered in its wake.
But after four albums and near- constant touring, Helmet screeched to a halt when bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier had a bitter falling-out with their front man after a particularly grueling tour. "We were really sick of each other," Hamilton says now. "We were working so hard, y'know, doin' 22 shows in 21 days and driving around in this little van. And when you put a lot of miles on, tensions build up, and we definitely had our share of moments. We needed a break, and those guys just decided they didn't wanna do it anymore. So at that point, I pretty much thought that Helmet was done, but I thought it was a shame. 'Cause I knew I wasn't done."
After spending several months decompressing, Hamilton began plotting his post-Helmet career. There were songwriting powwows with J. Robbins -- an old friend whose band, Jawbox, also had just broken up under less-than-amicable circumstances -- but that musical alliance was short-lived. There were on-and-off sessions with Nine Inch Nails producer and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Clouser at Trent Reznor's New Orleans studio. Hamilton also played guitar in David Bowie's band during a 2000 tour before moving to Los Angeles and diving into soundtrack work, something he'd done sporadically during the Helmet years (the many film scores to which he's lent guitar sounds include S.W.A.T., In Dreams, Catwoman and Collateral). And for a little while, there was a new band named Gandhi that played a handful of shows but never released an album.
Last year, though, Hamilton entertained two major-label offers for a solo record deal when his old friend Jimmy Iovine, head of Interscope Records, rang him up and suggested he make another Helmet album. Iovine, of course, was the guy who swooped in to sign Helmet in the early '90s, back when the band was still on the tiny but well-regarded indie label Amphetamine Reptile and making waves with its raw-sounding debut album, Strap It On.
"When Jimmy said to me, 'Why don't you go make another Helmet record?' it totally made sense," he continues. "It's like, I'm known for Helmet, and to start from scratch and do something else, it's like, why? If there were no guitars on the record and I was singing through a megaphone and the drums were all loops, people might have a right to be disappointed, but there's something very unique about what Helmet is, and I stayed pretty true to that."
Indeed, much of Size Matters is rooted in those sharp, repetitive riffs that Helmet fans know and love. The initial blasts of "Crashing Foreign Cars" and "See You Dead" hark back to Strap It On before opening up into the kind of layered, melodic choruses and outros the band explored on such later albums as Betty and Aftertaste. The only really noticeable difference between the new album and past Helmet offerings is the vocals. Whereas Hamilton's voice previously exhibited two basic settings -- a gruff shout and a reedy, Ozzylike croon -- here he displays more range and fullness, especially on slower burners like "Enemies" and "Unwound."
Most listeners would have a hard time believing it wasn't the original quartet that created these new tunes. But like its surgically repaired leader, the reconstituted Helmet has brand-new parts, all of them snatched from musical cadavers. Guitarist Chris Traynor, a founding member of Orange 9mm, played in the final incarnation of Bush; he also stepped into the guitar hole vacated by Rob Eccheverria for that last Helmet tour in 1998. New bassist Frank Bello served 18 years in Anthrax, and drummer John Tempesta did time in White Zombie.
Hamilton says he briefly considered reaching out to Bogdan and Stanier last year, but figured there was zero chance of a happy reunion -- he isn't on speaking terms with either, and besides, both are involved with other projects (Bogdan is a lap-steel player, far removed from the hard-rock world, while Stanier pounds the skins for the Mike Patton-fronted Tomahawk). "I was so lucky to find Stanier and Bogdan back then -- those guys are monster players," he says. "But Helmet is my band. I write all the music and all the lyrics, and I was the one who found those guys, and there's nothing to say I couldn't find other guys. These guys are amazing players."
And not even a battered body can keep Hamilton on the sidelines any longer. "They've designed this waist-strap thing for me, so I can play guitar without it being too painful," he says, laughing. "But I can tough it out -- I wanna rock!"
Helmet appears Monday, November 22, at the Engine Room, 1515 Pease. For more information, call 713-654-7846.
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