Pillars of the 90s: An Interview with Page Hamilton about Helmet's Meantime
[This is the fourth installment of the Pillars interview series. You can check out the rest here]
Label: Interscope Records
Favorite Song: "In the Meantime"
The Bare Bones: Meantime is the second full-length album by New York noise rock/metal outfit Helmet, founded by guitarist and vocalist Page Hamilton (Band of Susans, David Bowie, Glenn Branca).
The Beating Heart: There are many ways to skin the cat of Helmet's influence as a band and Meantime's immense impact as an album. But one stab at the magnitude of its importance to the 90s so-called "alt-metal" scene and to the contemporary noise-rock, hardcore, and extreme metal scenes would be to say something like: Back in the early 90s Meantime was the heaviest, grooviest album the cool art-house, indie types were listening to, and the most obscure, weird, and alienating album the metalheads were listening to. Like that zany professor in the B-Movie horror flicks, his face lightning up as he attaches two live-wire electricity cable together, Helmet were that lightning strike that forever wedded two schools of musical thought, two separate scenes, providing a vehicle through which vicious grooves and intense, cerebral takes on music found their common ground. And on top of all of that: It was a hit. Perhaps as a testament to the strange marrying of styles that would come to define the 90s heavy music scene, as strange, as heavy, and as disorienting Meantime was it became an iconic MTV album, with singles such as "In the Meantime" and "Unsung" receiving intense airplay and screen time.
And as is the case with all of the albums in this series, it also happens to be a work of immense importance to me personally. Helmet at their peak embodies to me the ability to express aggression through the very act of being original. Obviously, the crushing riffs didn't hurt, but it seemed to me then – a feeling that has remained with me ever since – that beyond the walls of noise and walls of percussive kinetics Helmet was as influential as it was mostly as a result of them, the band, being who they were. The exploding, visceral force of true originality. Which is, of course, is the reason I was more than honored to talk to the great Page Hamilton about the origins of that great album, of the band's take on music, and its enduring influence.
What is Pillars? Before I get to my talk with Page, a few words about what this all is, and what I hope to achieve in an investigation of the great albums of the 1990s. I feel like what happened, inadvertently with the Albums of the Decade project was a documentation and to an extent consolidation of what it is that I have loved an admired about the music of the past 10 years or so. I began writing this blog as a way back into music and heavy music after something of a hiatus from metal in the early 2000s and it was for me an investigation not only of what I love but also why I love it. And those interviews were instrumental in my own understanding of my appreciation of music and, really of art more generally. However, having gone through that series as long as I have has also pitted me face to face with the understanding that the wellspring of my own musical inspiration as well as that of many of the artists I admire today – that weird, unique confluence of inspirations that made up the musical scene of the 1990s – had to be tackled in some way.
So, if any of that pseudo-intellectual mumbo jumbo speaks to your soul, and if you haven't already, please follow follow us on Facebook, Instagram, Spotify and support whatever it is that we do on Patreon, and check out our kinda-sorta podcast, MATEKHET (YouTube, Spotify and all that). On to my conversation with Page.
Is there a moment with a song or an album, maybe as a younger person, that really changed what you thought about music or made you want to become a musician yourself? Obviously there might be more than one of these, but anything that stands out?
There are many. The first things that pop into my head are Led Zeppelin, Sabbath, and AC/DC, because I can remember tracks from each of those bands that I listened to as a teenager. But if I had to pick one I’d go with Led Zeppelin, and there are a couple of songs that set me on my path, I think. One was “Black Dog,” the beginning of the song with…I didn’t know how he got that sound, but it turned out that he was scraping the pick on the strings. But when you’re 15 and you have no idea what the hell that is…. And then “In the Light” and “Achilles’ Last Stand” – those three songs from three different albums really had an impact on me. And I remember when my brother, my sister, my mom, and my dad would be watching The Love Boat or whatever in the living room I would be in the family room with our RadioShack speakers – dad had me crawl under the house to run the wires for them, hammering on the floor and yell: “Come over here” and he’d drill the hole and I stuck the wires through [laughs]. So, I liked to lay in the dark in that room, and there was like a sliding accordion door I could use so I didn’t have to listen to the shitty TV program, and I remember my head right next to the speaker with “In the Light,” from Physical Graffiti – the keyboards, and the eerie John Paul Jones things going on, and there’s so much going on, and then he kicks into this amazing Bonzo groove and this heavy, sick guitar riff and that cool Robert Plant weird high-vocal thing going, and it’s mysterious. It was later Zeppelin, ‘75. So, yeah, that song really drew me in, drew me inside, because there’s so much going on with the keyboards and its interplay with the guitar, the vocals, the drums, everything. It was a song that I can remember early on closing my eyes and just imagining another world. I was somewhere else and I was trying to pick out each instrument. That goes back even further for me – I look back at being a car-sick kind and a song by America called “Horse with No Name” that cured me of my car sickness when I was 10 or 9 or whatever, on the AM radio in the station wagon. But as a musician what really made me start to fantasize about being a musician was Led Zeppelin.
But then there was “Highway to Hell” – the first time I heard that, I just couldn't… That was the first song I had heard by AC/DC and I was a teenager by then, I think I was 18 or 19 and I was just like “Oh my God! That’s the scariest thing I have ever heard in my life!” And then it was probably “Sweet Leaf” by Sabbath, and I just went: “What, what is he singing about?” It’s weird because all three of those bands and all this music has gotten better with time. When this pandemic hit I listened to “Sabbath Bloody Sabbath,” it just came up randomly on my phone, and I had goosebumps. I put it on repeat three times in a row. Same thing happened with “War Pigs.” I was like: “Did this band get better?” Another band that happened with is Emerson, Lake, and Palmer – I hadn’t listened to them in 20 years and then I heard Brain Salad Surgery and it seemed to have gotten better. And I know more know, I’ve been playing for who knows how many years – since 1977 – playing guitar, singing and writing music, and I hear things now like “Oh my god, Keith Emerson is quoting a Sonny Rollins called “St. Thomas!” When you’re 18 you don’t know Sonny Rollins, I didn’t. And when you’re… I’m 60 now, then suddenly it’s: “Oh my god, Keith Emerson ripped! He was one of the greats, one of the true great musicians to have ever walked the earth!”
And then it got into…. I was the only guitarist in the Bob Moog documentary. They had a bunch of keyboard geeks, from NIN and Kraftwek and whatever, and here I am this dirty guitarist, and Bob Moog was like… Yoda or something: “Oh, I never thought about that, running the guitar through the…” He was very surprised about the shitstorm I was making. I ended up using those pedals when I played for Bowie because we did stuff off of Low, Heroes, and Lodger, Moog-treated guitar stuff, and those pedals were custom made for that – it’s the circuitry that Eno, being the genius that he is, probably figured out how to run the guitar through those things and now you can just buy the pedal and do it.
I’m digressing, but all that stuff to me is tied together. The music that I loved really held up. I didn’t really like bands like Journey and stuff. I knew they could play and sing, it’s just that the music didn’t hit me. It seemed to have a purpose, which was to write a hit and sell records. And when Black Sabbath was writing “War Pigs” or “Sweet Leaf,” they weren't thinking: “This is going to be a commercial smash!” or AC/DC’s “Highway to Hell” – do you think your mom is going to like that song? But she’s probably going to like “Cold as Ice.” If your mom and dad like something you don’t want to get into it. When I write music I don’t ever want it to sound like anybody else. A lot of people are concerned with what the world thinks of what they do and I think that everyone is sitting around thinking of what people think of what they do they’re not going to do something that’s interesting or different.
I had a question about that since you kind of half-segued into my follow up question which had to do with maybe understanding better now how those earlier experiences informed your music. Whether it’s, in Zeppelin, the interplay between the different parts or the dynamics between the parts, or the scariness of it, when we’re younger we’re just attracted to something without giving it too much thought. But, other than knowing you’re attracted to people not seeming to care what others think of their work, do you now look back at some of that music and going “I kind of get what it was that I liked about that song?” Or that you can see yourself as a musician in that music that you liked as a kid?
Yeah. Well, there are a couple of things. Now I can admire something like Journey, Foreigner, Toto, or Bon Jovi and I can appreciate it as a musician. Like, “Wow, that guy can sing” or “That guy can play,” but it still doesn’t move me in the least. And in retrospect I think what it is…. If you look at one interesting band that Helmet influenced – just because Dimebag [Darrell] told me it did – Pantera. And if you look at what they were doing before they “became” Pantera – the music wasn’t interesting to me. They were good players but they hadn’t found their voice yet. And I saw them play, they were opening for Prong in Minneapolis, we were opening for The Melvins. And I saw Mind Over Four and they were OK, and then I saw Pantera and I was like: “There’s something there, that’s a good fucking band.” And I was kind of blown away, they were playing from Cowboys from Hell. Well, then they came in and watched us and I said something on mic like “Guys I don’t know if you saw that band Pantera but that was really incredible.” And that was not our crowd, that was not that Amphetamine Reptile, Lower-East-Side New York crowd, but I didn’t give a shit, I never wanted to be a part of some club anyway – because we didn’t really fit in, we weren’t indie, we weren’t metal. But I saw Pantera and went “That’s the fucking real deal.” And then I heard somebody say “Thanks!” and I looked down and the band was standing in front of me. Long story short, we got to Dallas six months later and they had hooked up with us and started playing parts of what would be Vulgar Display of Power to us, which is their Helmet album. They had this ability already, but they had to discover their voice. They had started to discover it with Cowboys from Hell but by the time they had heard Helmet it was just there. And Dime had told me, he said “I told you you were going to influence me!” And I was flattered, because that guy could play, and I get that it’s a process, a learning process, even for great musicians.
So, I can listen to stuff now and understand why I don’t connect with Bon Jovi, personally, but I can appreciate it and I can know why it’s huge. And I also understand what it was that I liked…. I mean I remember the first time I heard “Highway to Hell” so specifically. It was in a stereo shop. I didn’t have two nickels to rub together and one of my best buddies Clay said: “Man, you have got to hear this fucking album, and so we went in [the shop] and back in the 70s speakers were as big as me, huge speakers, and there was this glass door that you opened and played, and he put the song on and every hair on the back of my neck stood up, and then that voice comes in and you’re like “WHOA! I have never heard anything like this!” Still to this day. I mean, I play it sparingly because you can’t play the same song 18,000 times, but when I put it on it’s still special. It’s always interesting to me when people who are “musicians,” when I tell them that one of my favorite bands is AC/DC, they’re just shocked! Because people who don’t know anything about music will dismiss it as this simplistic, head-banging, blues-based metal.
And there are people who are like that with Helmet, who think it’s just “meat-head” music whereas there are people like T. M. Stevens, who played with Miles Davis and James Brown, an amazing musician, and he came to see Helmet and was like: “Helmet is just like a big ball of ice cream, just sweet and amazing and delicious, and then you dig in and there’s spinach inside.”
[Laughs] That’s incredible.
I was like: “That’s the best description ever.” Some people have described us as a musician’s band, but I never wanted to be that band with the “M” on our cape, like “Look what we can play!” I wanted to disguise it, that’s what AC/DC does. They’re these amazing musicians but when Phil Rudd comes in on that turnaround on “Highway to Hell” and you fall out of your chair because you never expected it. Stuff like that, that’s other-level shit. And the same with some of that stuff I revisit now – Sabbath, AC/DC. Early Aerosmith did the same thing for me – “Back in the Saddle.” One of the greatest songs ever, one of the greatest singers ever. That guy was inhuman.
That song is incredible. The amount of menace and groove is unbelievable.
Things like that and Led Zeppelin IV, I still don’t know how they achieved…. I mean, we’re talking rock guitar sounds, and you’ve got a Fender, a Marshall, a Gibson, a Fender or, in Jimmy Page’s case, a Telecaster with the string bender and a Supro amp. Gear that anybody can buy, we can all buy the gear and that’s how the gear companies at the NAMM show sell it: “You wanna sound like Page Hamilton? Then get this!” You’re probably not going to sound like me. Billy Gibbons, one of my great heroes, we played a festival in Switzerland. I had bought a Music Man Stingray 2 guitar in Germany that came into the shop the year it was made, in 1970. It had been in the shop for 30 years, the plastic was still on the pickguard, and I bought it for some ridiculously low price and I had shown it to Billy to have him sign it. And we were talking and I told him that I was surprised to see him playing a late-model Telecaster through a DigiTech guitar effects processor, and he said: “Page, you know, it’s all in the hands.” And it’s true. Jimmy Page, and Angus, and Malcom, and Iommi, the whole process is spending time with your instrument and finding the way in which your voice can develop.
And that was Helmet – we didn’t want to sound like anyone else. We had great influences in New York at the time – Sonic Youth, Live Skull, Rat at Rat R, those bands were our sort of elders, and I loved those bands, I loved the noisy stuff, the out-of-tune stuff. And then I played with Band of Susans and learned a lot from Robert Poss [of Band of Susans]. But there was something missing in all those bands, for me, because I like stuff that has more of a groove and also that’s a little heavier. If you think about AC/DC, Sabbath, Zeppelin, and Aerosmith, as we talked about – groove, groove, groove, and heavy. So, somewhere in between those worlds and the British world of Killing Joke, Wire, Gang of Four, Buzzcocks, all that sort of became Helmet’s music. I also loved Big Black and Husker Du – a lot. All of this once I got back into rock, because I had put rock aside. Once Journey and Foreigner came out in the 70s I had moved on to Miles Davis, Grant Green…. I actually first discovered George Benson, which pretty much made me crap myself, like: “How do you play the guitar like that?!” and that was what got me into jazz and stuff like Miles Davis. And from one Miles album you got Coltrane, Cannonball, Bill Evans, Paul Chambers, Philly Joe Jones, just this amazing group of musicians and so you buy albums by all of them. And so I kind of put the rock thing aside, I had to, because jazz is such a difficult music to get inside of. You can listen to it and enjoy it, but to play jazz, you can’t fake that shit. A lot of the rock stuff, a lot of the bands that had asked me to work with them…. It’s disheartening. It’s like: “You can fix that, right?” and I’m like: “Yeah, we could, we have ProTools we can fix that. Why don’t you just fucking play it?”
So I had a question about that, but I’ll digress first and then get back to the question. I kind of started my musical life, you can say, as a metalhead, but those years were very strange metalhead years, the early-to-mid nineties. A lot of cross fertilization, a lot of weird bands. And the band I liked the most were the ones that never really fit in any one box – Faith No More, White Zombie, Helmet, Tool, or Prong. And really I didn’t get into “serious” metal until later. And then another crop of bands came up a bit later, for me at least, that kept that weird lineage but seemed to have all started out as hardcore bands – Slint, Fugazi, ISIS, Neurosis, and so on. And so recently I’ve been really digging into what it was that caused some of those artists to shift from a simpler kind of music into a more complex one. And after many interviews I kind of got closer to understanding those connections.
But, and this is where we return to the question, Helmet seems to be the exact opposite. You couldn't do rock anymore so you turned to this hyper-complex mode of music – jazz – and you’re going to be involved, even from a guitar-based standpoint, in a New York scene that is very avant-garde and forward thinking – Glenn Branca, Sonic Youth. And then you get to Helmet – not even Strap it On Helmet but zooming right into Meantime Helmet, and it’s like, where the fuck did that come from!? If you’ve immersed yourself, as you say, in all that complexity, from where does that drive come to create what sounds like straightforward rock? In what way was Helmet a continuation of that period, if at all?
I often get that comment: “I don’t hear jazz in your music,” and I’m not trying to create a fusion of jazz and rock, I think that’s too self-conscious. When I look back now I can see what Helmet had in common with jazz or classical music. I talked to this old pianist, Dick Butterfield, he was a great player and I was like: “Hey man, what are you playing, it’s just this A section without any chord changes” and he was like: “I’m just trying to swing.” And I always thought to myself that feel and the swing come first, and it has to come from your heart. Sometimes you have to apply knowledge from your brain to push an idea forward, but…. If you think like something like “In the Meantime” – I was at the basement in New York City that we shared with Sonic Youth for rehearsals in Little Italy, a block from the Ravenite Social Club where [notorious mob boss] Sammy the Bull Gravano and all those guys were hanging out. So that was the environment in New York in 1990-1991, and I would get these ideas just as I was walking home and I had this groove in my head [sings out the riff that precedes the first verse of “In the Meantime”] and I would set up a click track on the drum machine and just try to find that part on the guitar. And if I couldn’t stop playing it for like a half an hour then I knew it was great. I was just like: “This just feels so good. I don’t know why.” I used my ear first and never analyzed it, until John [Stanier], our first drummer, and I needed to figure out how the hell are we going to get into this turnaround. And that guy, the way he figured that out…. I was like: “John, you’re going to play 4/4 and just ignore me and listen to me and then it’s going to shift into [sings that the transition from riff to verse].
So we just would work together. And those arrangements could essentially have been done to a click track, they’re in time, for the most part, except for a song like “FBLA II” that has that stutter in there. But even if there’s an extra beat it’s still in time, I’m not changing time signatures, because that to me is an intellectual decision and it isn’t coming from the feel. I never want to lose the feel. So that is, in an odd way, a jazz thing, because what is it that you’re doing when you’re improvising? Music is melody, harmony, rhythm, the form of the song, and text – the words – so in jazz when someone is improvising a solo it’s not about “Oh cool look at all those scales I’m doing, I’m superimposing a B Flat over a D Dorian” or whatever, it’s like Dick told me: “I’m just trying to swing.” When you’re listening to Bill Evans and the chord doesn’t come on one…. The problem I have with the cookie-cutter ProTools thing where everything snaps to the grid is that it completely cuts away the human element, the flow. Steve Turre, the great trombonist, he and I were talking about the Coltrane Quartet and he said: “It’s like a flock of birds, they’re flowing this way and that way together because they’re listening to each other.” If you listen to Robert Johnson then you say: “Wait, that wasn’t 12-bar blues that was 13, what is he doing?” If you snap everything to the grid then you’re taking all of that out of it. That’s what jazz improvisations is, it’s crossing the bar lines. Sonny Rollins is so far back in the beat, the chord’s one place and he’s another, and that to me is exciting. And that’s where Helmet was, that’s my answer to when people say “I don’t hear the jazz influence.”
And another thing was that jazz made me experiment with chords. Because, I know that if there’s a scale then this is how you harmonize it. So if you ask me for a C minor 7 flat 5 chord then here it is in this position, and in this position, and in that position – I know I can find a voicing of that chord anywhere on the neck. I also know that I can violate that chord by adding a natural 9. So, I know these things intellectually but I also know their sound, and so in Helmet, once the dropped-tuning came into my head for the first song off of Strap it On, “Repetition”…. I was walking home one night and that riff came into my head, and I picked up my guitar in four in the morning and I was like “Oh, that note I’m hearing is below the low E string” so I had to change the tuning because the note I heard was a D. I know you could drop tune, because Wire did it. Bruce Gilbert told me: “I’m playing in dropped tuning because it’s easier,” and Sabbath did it, but I didn’t want to do it because I liked the way the guitar plays in standard, but once I heard that it freed me for anything new. And I was hearing riffs. And that’s where classical music came in. When you think about Beethoven and when you think about possibly the greatest piece of music ever written, the most well known, the Fifth Symphony, that every human being can sing. Well, that motif, that’s a heavy metal riff. And how do you develop that? You [sings the motif as it develops]. And that’s what happens when you let the music happen. There are other ways of going about it, and I think that less interesting bands pick up the guitar and they go: “Well, I don’t know what to play next?” How about you fucking put your instrument down and sing it to yourself and let that moment happen and then you’ll come up with something?
All those influences, classical, jazz…. I worship Bob Marley, I still get goosebumps when I listen to him, those incredible lyrics, those incredible melodies. And when you listen to “400 Years,” you can go: “Wait, is the band figuring out what to play? What are they doing?” That shit makes me fall out of my chair every time I hear it. It’s feel!
They weren’t sitting around analyzing shit, and it’s just genius. That’s how I feel so many bands limit themselves to this ProTools, constructing things in a box, they’re missing things. Maybe some of them hear things and then put them into the computer but I think that for some of them it’s never going to be as soulful as something that you just let happen. Helmet never used a click track until the song “It’s Easy to Get Bored” on Aftertaste, because we didn’t have click tracks back then. John’s time was so good and Henry [Bogdan]’s time was so good and our time as a band was so good. Everything is about time and a time continuum, and what you do with time makes something interesting. It’s funny because when friends like Matt [Sweeny] from Chavez or David Sims from The Jesus Lizard say that we influenced them – Chino [Moreno] said that – or John Dolmayan from System of a Down, they appreciate that aspect of the music. That it has this free feel and that we did something with time that people weren't doing. And I think that the thing about the indie rock thing in New York at the time, it was all about the sonic wall, people weren't flipping the beat, they weren’t doing interesting things. I t was very interesting, great music but I was missing that funk aspect, that groove thing, and fucking with time.
I knew it would be cool when I brought that element into the band. Because we were still fishing around. It was during the first eight months of the band, I had written “Geisha to Go” and “Shirley McLain,” and that was very kind of Hüsker Dü-y in a wau, a little Buzzcocks and punk thrown in there. But in “Geisha to Go” the guitar is in 3/4 and the drums were in 4/4 and the bass was in 5/4, and that was an intellectual choice, I wanted to make 3,4, and 5 go together. And you can! It’s just a matter of knowing where it’s going to cycle around in each time signature against 4/4. Glenn Branca’s influence was probably the most important at that time, because Glenn was doing that. When I first started with him he wasn’t written stuff down using standard music notation, he had these charts and they would say “1,2 – 1,2 – 1,2,3” and that’s the rhythm you’d play while the drummer was always playing 4/4, and it just clicked. I would be sitting and the subway and just [beating rhythms with his hands] play three against four and it just fascinated me. Like: “Why does this feel so good?”
And it takes me back to Pantera, to when they came to see us play at Trees in Dallas after we had met them in Minneapolis and they played us some songs from Vulgar Display of Power in the parking lot – at the parking lot, drinking beers before the Helmet show and they’re playing us this album that their working on. I remember we had started our song “Distracted,” off of Strap it On, and Phil [Anselmo] was right in front of me and I remember all of their faces light up when they caught the groove. Like they were waiting going “What the fuck is this?” and then went wild once they caught the groove. I love those moments where there’s this revelation, like: “I don’t know what is this, but it feels so good. Why does it feel so good?”
It’s interesting because, just intuitively as a listener and as someone who had been listening to Meantime for many years now, my own experience with Meantime wasn’t really “damn, this is a groovy album.” My experience was more like: “This is repetitive, cruel, bold, percussive music.” It felt as if it was really drums pounding everything away with the guitars in the background. Now, I can obviously look back now and see tons of groove there, but just intuitively I never thought of it as a groovy album.
Yeah, there’s something so aggressive about…. I was talking to Leo [Herrera], who was Trent Reznor’s engineer down in New Orleans back in the day, and he said that Trent and he were sitting there back then talking about how [Helmet] got it to sound so hard without the use of machines. Trent’s a genius at programming, he’s one of my peers that I really admire because he made such cool music with machines that had heart. And we worked together for a while in New Orleans and I was fascinated by his approach and he was by mine. I remember he looked at me at one point and said: “Do you have a pick in your hand?” and I said: “Yeah, I do,” and he went: “So how do you make the guitar sound like that?” and I went: “I don’t know, there’s something in my hands.” And it was the same vice versa, those guys turned me on to the computer and Logic audio. But I think it’s interesting that someone like him can use machines, use the computer, to do something interesting. He’s just a different kind of writer. I talked about it with Bowie once over a cigarette, he said Trent has a compositional mind and that’s true.
But I guess that what that means is that there’s always a way of being ham-fisted, also with computers. It reminds me of musical school, where there were two schools of thought. One was like this guitarist who told me: “Man, once we get our masters degree from the Manhattan School of Music, we’re going to be the shit,” and I’m like “Why are you going to be the shit? Because you got someone else’s approval. And another was this guy I knew from college who said: “I don’t want to know any theory, it’s just going to ruin my creativity” and nothing could be further from the truth. Point being that it’s up to the individual musician to absorb as much information as possible and still put it through your own filters that make it music. I know a lot of theory and I can analyze music but I don’t do it unless I need to. We were going to do this tour of just covers, because I always liked that Bowie album Pin Ups, just doing bands that influenced us, and it’s still kind of like studying when you go in and learn somebody else’s music. So, I would like to just enjoy “War Pigs,” but if I want to learn it then I can apply what I know and use my ears and it’s good for that to be able to analyze stuff. There are so many things that are, for instance, unorthodox about that arrangement, about the drums fills. I can tell you something, those guys listened to jazz. I know Bill Ward did, and John Densmore [of The Doors] talks about seeing Coltrane at Shelly's Manne-Hole.
I always find it strange that I’ve never had anything to do with jazz other than a passing interest and yet a lot of the drummers I admire – that’s usually my focus, for some reason.
The old adage: “You’re only as good as your drummer.” And it’s pretty true.
Exactly and most of the ones I really love in metal usually have some sort of jazz background.
Dale Crover, from The Melvins is a good example of that. Phenomenal drummer. First time I saw him I was so happy I laughed.
So I just talked about this in an interview I had just done with a contemporary drummer that I love for the same reason and I told him I had no reason what it was about that jazz influence that makes such a difference, but there’s something about coming into heavy music not wanting to make heavy music, per se, but trying to do something interesting that’s heavy that creates an interesting interplay. So, you talked about the interplay between the keyboard and the riff in Zeppelin earlier, and I think that one of the things that really grabbed my attention as a kid listening to Helmet was something like: “How can this riff be so hard and the dude singing be so calm?” That’s kind of the interplay there, for me, I guess, that it sounds like a train is rolling in and mowing down everything and your singing is almost detached. You’re floating over it.
There are a couple of approaches to that. A song like “In the Meantime” versus a song like “Unsung,” where I’m singing in my wannabe-Ozzy, John Lennon voice, doubled – always doubled vocals. And there’s a song that comes to mind – “Welcome to Algiers” from Seeing Eye Dog. And I remember going in with that vocal, and the groove is 6/4, and I was working with my vocal guy who I started to work with in L.A. and who really expanded my mind as to what I can do with my vocals. Because I wasn’t as confident about it early on, I’d drink whiskey on stage, stashed behind my amp, to gain my confidence. So it was either I’m going to sing this pentatonic melody or am I going to scream my guys out like on “In the Meantime.” And it was always about fitting the puzzle together, and when you’re playing a groove like that the vocal…. I’m thinking of a song like “I Know” off of Betty. I remember thinking “How do I find the groove?” Because even as a singer you’re part of the groove, and I didn’t really understand it so I just went by feel. Another one like that is “Vaccination” – I can understand that song so much better now that I’ve been playing it for 30 years.
When we were on the Betty anniversary tour we did that song every night and I kept thinking: “Was it just dumb luck that I was able to find a vocal that would go against the fucked-up riff?” That’s probably the most fucked up riff I had ever written, it’s just weird as shit. But I heard it – I know where I was living and I know where I was when I came up with it. It was around the time Kurt [Cobain] died and I remember very well where I was emotionally with my life, because that was a terrible moment in the world. And I had to find a vocal that would work against that riff, and I couldn’t intellectualize it because then I would have to write it all out and fit it together like a puzzle, or I could just sing until it felt right.
My approach to writing vocals was once I had something I really loved, and after playing it for a half an hour – and John, Henry and I would do that all the time, like when I came up with that “Distracted” riff, from Strap it On, we played it, and I’m not kidding, for probably around 25 minutes straight, without stopping. Peter [Mengede] didn’t really get it, he was like “Alright, alright,” but John and Henry, they loved that Zen, hypnotic thing where you can get lost in the riff. John would push, Henry would drag a little bit and I would experiment going between the two – on the beat, behind the top, on top of the beat, just trying to find that feeling. And so when you’re trying to do the vocal, because my approach was stream of consciousness – from Strap it On, to Meantime, and it was at its peak with Betty, where I just went “No narratives for any of the songs, I hate singer songwriters, anything is OK, you can sing any fucking word you want. The Melvins, Buzz [Osbourne] is great with that. Like: “Pez are gonna let it slide, gonna burn what cotton decides are apelee” – what the fuck does that mean? Nothing. Frank Black was also really good at writing shit that’s like: “What the fuck is he singing about!?” “I don’t know man, but it’s awesome.” Robert Poss [of Band of Susans] really turned me on to that – coming up with lines, really powerful lines where the line itself may have many different meanings but in the context of the song, when you put everything together, it does something too. So it stands on its own, it does something in the song, but it also means nothing. It’s a rhythmic figure where the vocal is another instrument, another instrument in a four-piece orchestra.
When I first did “Repetition,” that was a really bad melody-phrase fit, and we did it on a radio show in East Orange at Upsala College, and I heard it and went: “This is terrible!” And when I came up with the rhythmic idea with the vocals that pushed the song, that made it something interesting, that’s way, way better.
So two more questions, one of which is a technical one. I only now noticed that all the songs on Meantime are engineered by the same person, Wharton Tiers, except “In the Meantime,” which was engineered by Steve Albini. Is that right?
So, a) Why? And b) What would you then put that version of the song as the album opener?
I had so many people come up to me and ask about that song being the opener, with that violent wall of drums, those chord shapes – basically a 13 sharp 9 chord moving up. And I just thought it was such a great way to kick off our second album. I didn’t take into consideration who worked on what, and Peter is not even on that song, that’s just John, Henry and I, because it’s a tricky song and Peter couldn’t pull it off yet. He was a very, very good guitarist, but I played his guitar through his amp on that song so that we would have two different sounds. The reason we used the Albini version, which was a demo…. We were in Chicago, we were on tour and we spent a couple of days with Steve at Chicago Recording Company, before we had his own studio. We stayed in Steve’s house. He said “don’t do major labels!” He’s a really smart guy and he had this chart done comparing major labels and indie – it worked out for us because we had a “hit,” and for a lot of our indie friends it didn’t work out – Melvins, Jawbox, Quicksand – they didn’t do so well. The Pixies even, they didn’t hit until later.
So, we recorded [“In the Meantime”] with Wharton, hopefully he has it on tape somewhere, but it didn’t have the same immediacy as the demo version. All I had were the various riffs that I had done in my basement, and we got to Chicago Recording Company – I remember the Washington Redskins were playing a football game, and my band wasn’t really that much into sports, but they had it playing in the lounge. So I just said: “Go watch football, just go do your thing” and I just sat in the drum room. And I just had this little thing, I think it was a Zoom, and some headphones I could plug into, and I sat there in the drum riser in the drum room and I arranged the thing. I knew I had those riffs but it wasn’t ready to show to the band yet, and so I sat there and arranged the whole thing. And my part was this chord and I said to Henry and John: “Do something violent.” John wasn’t super into improvising. He would improvise in that he would come up with a part through experimenting, and so he came up with that insane part, which to me seemed inhuman, I’m still in awe of the guy. And so I said: “This is what we’re going to do and then it breaks into this big open thing, and here’s the arrangement.”
And it took awhile for everyone to figure it out, first playing against the beat, and then where the stutters come in, the fills – it’s kind of difficult. So, we did it, and recorded it, and Albini, being the smart ass that he was, never called himself “a producer,” and so he would not give us any creative input whatsoever. He was like “I am an engineer.” And we would go: “Well, what do you think?” because when you’re working on something you want to know what’s going on, and he would go: “Sounds pussy good, pussy good.” Well, OK, asshole [laughs]. I really wanted to strangle him sometimes, but we got it, we got the take. And then I went in with Peter’s Les Paul and his Marshall and recorded the second guitar part and he had it. And then I had to go and write the lyrics, and it was the same thing – I’d go into the drum room and sit down with my notebook and write. That’s kind of how I came up with it. And we didn’t match that frenetic intensity we had on the demo with the studio recording, so that’s why the demo ended up on the album.
Looking back now at the album as a whole, with all the years that have gone by, is there something you’re especially proud of when you think back at Meantime? A moment, a song, the whole thing?
I guess the end result, which is, musically, just an honest representation of where the band was at the time and where we were heading. We signed with a major label and Tommy Victor of Prong told me: “When Prong signed to a major label I tried to adapt. I admire the fact that you never you never wavered, that you never ‘sold out,’ you just did your thing.” And I remember having a conversation with [Interscope head] Jimmy Iovine and I was like: “So, we’re going to take some time and write an album, maybe next year,” and he was like: “No, now.” And so going from AmRep to Interscope wasn’t an issue, it was just a bigger distribution and more visibility. So we just did the album that we wanted to make and that’s why it holds up – it’s honest, just the natural evolution of four musicians together. It wasn’t this forced thing. And I say this to kids all the time when I produce them and they don’t listen, and a lot of them come back to me years later and say: “You were so right.” Don’t mind what your label thinks or what your manager thinks or what anyone thinks. You have to live with this thing for the rest of your life, you have to do something that you feel proud about, that you’re excited to play. You can’t think about those things. No musician worth his salt should be worrying about the response or the effect of what they’re doing – you do it, and you live with it. That’s true with any art, whether you’re Lenny Bruce or Van Gouge or James Joyce – you do what you know to be right. Be honest, it has to be that way.
I don’t get people who do all those other things other than music, design clothes, or do perfume. I'm a 100 percent musician and zero percent clothes designer, that’s why I have 20 of these grey t-shirts. A friend of mine, Ted [Parsons] of Prong once told me that Helmet was a great marketing concept, because we were doing so well, and it really bummed me out. I was like: “You know me, what are you talking about? We’re just four dorks who wear shorts on stage because it’s hot as fuck, and we have short hair because I got rid of my hair in the 80s.
So, I have a personal comment to that point. When I was 13 or 14 – and I’m basically still that person inside my body, the same kid.
You should always be that kid.
And that kid was always worried about never really fitting in anywhere because even the music that I loved seemed to require so much, image-wise. And really I asked that first question – the song what changed your life – so many times, but one of the most important moments for me was seeing you guys in the “Unsung” video and I was like: “Holy shit! Those guys look like me! They’re playing the heaviest music, and they look like dorks!”
And so I was like: “If they can play that music and be dorks then I can do whatever the fuck I want.” So, I thank you for that.
Yeah, I love that Beavis and Butt-Head thing: “You wouldn't think those guys are cool if you saw them on the street!” It’s funny, because it was unplanned, completely unplanned, just: “Who cares?”
And yet inspirational. Even in Israel in the 90s.