Following the release of their 1992 chart-busting breakthrough Meantime, Page Hamilton and his band Helmet returned with the woolier, more experimental Betty, which pushed the boundaries of their minimalist, halting, piston-pumping throb. Widely regarded as a misstep when it first came out, the album went on to become a fan favorite, so much so that Helmet is playing it from start-to-finish on their current Betty 20th Anniversary Tour.
"I'm a fan of Ray Davies and Paul Westerberg, who have had a similar penchant for doing something that's relatively successful and wanting to shoot themselves in the foot," Hamilton explains, as Helmet starts another leg on an already 18-month-long tour. "It's still a fun record and people seem to be fond of it. This tour is bigger than the Meantime tour. It's been a strange ride."
Page is speaking as much for himself as the band. After all, it took a lot of gumption for a scrawny 18-year-old to hop coasts, trading bucolic Oregon for scary/grimy, '70s New York City. "I was just an idiot and figured I could do that," he laughs. "Going from Eugene to New York was quite shocking. But it was a good move."
He studied jazz guitar — which he still plays every day when he gets up — but gravitated toward rock after graduating music school in the mid-'80s. He found a willing teacher in guitarist Robert Poss, whose combo Band of Susans was exploring symphonies of distortion similar to those of Sonic Youth and Glenn Branca.
"No question about it, he was a huge influence on me," says Hamilton of his mentor. "Distortion and guitar choices, amp choices and things like that — I was coming from this college jazz band thing, and Robert was a total gear geek and got me into that stuff."
Hamilton joined BoS for their second album, Love Agenda, then left to play, in Poss' words, "half-speed Sabbath riffs." But after three albums and nearly a decade, Hamilton grew restless and put Helmet on hiatus in '98 to explore other interests.
Over the years he's played lead guitar for David Bowie, released jazz recordings, scored films (The Crow, Heat), produced albums (Caspar Brötzmann, Totimoshi), and performed on others' albums (Linkin Park, Wire, Joe Henry). This summer he was even a soloist in modern composer Mason Bates' symphony orchestra piece, "Mothership."
But Hamilton's best-known band beckoned him back, even though he's already had another rock act, Gandhi. So six years after shelving Helmet, Hamilton resurrected it with new members. "I absolutely missed it," he says.
These days, self-sabotage is no longer among Page's goals.
"I think it's a musician's responsibility to try to do something different, and you're going to do that as a younger man," he says. "Now I'm writing songs with the vocabulary I established back then. It's just expanded."