Helmet's 'Betty' is still a bombshell

A conversation with Page Hamilton about band's classic third LP
By Peter Lindblad

The Helmet lineup in 2015 that's
playing 'Betty' in its entirety.
The record-buying public doesn't always take kindly to so-called "experimental" records. Helmet's Betty has taken its fair share of pot shots from detractors.

Relaxing in a black RV parked outside of the High Noon Saloon in Madison, Wis., back in March, Page Hamilton, one of the true architects of alternative-metal, is fighting a cough just hours before gig No. 61 of Helmet's recent tour, one in which the landmark Betty album was to be played in its entirety, with a second set chock full of favorites from other Helmet albums thrown in for good measure.

Helmet - Betty
The show will go on, road fatigue or no road fatigue, because Betty deserves it. And with miles to go before he sleeps – Helmet had 20 more shows to go on this victory lap for perhaps the most confounding record in the band's catalog – Hamilton couldn't be happier with the reception the tour's received.

"Amazing, yeah it's been great," said Hamilton, joined in Helmet nowadays by Dan Beeman, Kyle Stephenson and Dave Case. "We're sold out tonight, sold out tomorrow in Chicago, sold out in Cleveland. Last night in Minneapolis was 550, so that was a packed house. It's been good, really good. I love seeing packed houses, and the band is playing really well, so that's all you can hope for."

In 1994, anticipation for the follow-up to the monstrous sonic earthquake that was Meantime, Helmet's 1992 major label debut on Interscope Records, was feverish. An almost militaristic march of heavy, disciplined riffs and infectious grooves as high and tight as a Marine's crew cut, the groundbreaking post-metal masterpiece Meantime breathed fresh air into a scene that had long grown weary of the excesses of '80s glam and was mighty suspicious of grunge. What would Helmet do for an encore?

Along came Betty, an ambitious bombshell of thick, pummeling aural punishment that sent shrapnel flying in every direction, some of it landing in the disparate camps of jazz and blues. Although it wasn't the commercial smash everyone was hoping for, critics generally took a liking to it and over time, it's come to be appreciated as one of Helmet's finest.

Still, even as tracks like "Biscuits for Smut," "Milquetoast" (see the video below) and "I Know" retained the crunch of Meantime, more offbeat fare such as "The Silver Hawaiian," the jazz standard "Beautiful Love" and the demented lap-steel weirdness of "Sam Hell" led to lots of head scratching.

However, if this tour is any indication, Betty, Helmet's third record, has aged well. 

"Both albums seem to have survived the test of time, 20 years for Betty and 23 years for Meantime," said Hamilton. "And we play songs from both those albums, as well as Aftertaste. In London, after we did Betty, we did the second half of Meantime and the first half of Aftertaste for the second set and they went more crazy than they did for Betty, which pissed me off, because I thought, 'There goes my Aftertaste idea (laughs).' It's good to see that sometimes when you get flak when an album comes out because it's not like the previous album, that 20 years later you can see you did things right. That's what it's all about, because we're not trying to win any pop music competitions. We're not a mainstream band and never have been. Helmet fans are very loyal, and they know we're not going to come out with a disco record, or techno or whatever's the flavor of the month. We'll never sound like Katy Perry or Maroon 5."

Upon Betty's release, though, some were wondering if Helmet had lost its edge.

"I remember that day we did Flipside magazine, which was a cool magazine back in the late '80s, early '90s," related Hamilton. "It was Helmet mania, and they just loved Helmet. When Meantime came out, he came out to see a show in Long Beach, Kirk (or KRK Dominquez) from Flipside said, 'I wanted Helmet and I got a bonnet.' He thought we'd gotten soft after Strap It On and didn't like it at all."

Taking the sardonic criticism in stride, Hamilton vowed not to let it influence his artistic vision.

"I learned then that it doesn't matter what you do – somebody's a fan of what you do today, tomorrow they may be disappointed because you're not doing what you did yesterday," explained Hamilton. "So you have to stick to your guns and have a thick skin. You have to do make music for yourself and make music you know is good, and not try to please anybody else. I'm not worried about what critics say, or even fans. It could be disheartening at the time, but I have to know it's good. I have to study my craft and continue to move forward without throwing the baby out with the bath water."

Hamilton has a good sense of what Helmet's identity is, and although they may take the occasionally unexpected detour, he makes sure they never lose sight of who they are as a band.

"We're not Marilyn Manson," said Hamilton. "I'm not going to grow tits and change outfits. That's not what Helmet's thing is about. It's four guys in street clothes standing up there and trying to make music. It's strictly drop the needle. That's what it's about. That's what my heroes were for me – John Coltrane, Charlie Parker. They had cool suits in the '40s and '50s and '60s, whatever, but they just played music. It was just about the music, and that's what turned me on, that's what got me excited. Sure, I thought Jimmy Page looked cool in his dragon pants, in his penny loafers and whatever, and Robert Plant in ladies' blouses, but it was all about dropping the needle and listening to them singing and playing – that's what it's always been for Helmet. Some people hate that. They don't like me because I don't do that. They don't like us because we don't do that, and that's their prerogative. They can't say that we're not honest or we aren't good. They're saying they don't like us."

Helmet dropped the needle and then some when Hamilton, drummer John Stanier, bassist Henry Bogdan and guitarist Rob Echeverria – the replacement for Peter Mengede – entered the studio in the fall of 1993 to begin work on Betty, with writing and recording sessions at Soundtrack, Power Station and Sound on Sound in New York City.

Helmet - Meantime
While touring in support of Meantime, there were reports of internal tensions, and Mengede allegedly did not leave on the best of terms in early 1993. Still, Hamilton doesn't recall the sessions for Betty as being overly stressful, although there was pressure from outside influences.

"Yeah, it was a little bit, I suppose, but every album there's some stress involved," said Hamilton. "Strap It On, it was my bartending tips that paid for it, so we're like, 'Okay, that mix sounds good,' and I had to stand there with my hand on two faders, and Bogdan on one; they had two faders, so we're mixing manually on the board, and it was like, 'Okay, I think we're set up now. Push that up a little bit. Now go back.' So that's stressful. With Meantime, we'd signed a big record deal, and we had people from the record company coming in and listening, so we're like, this is weird, you know? And with Betty, after a gold record and a Grammy nomination for Meantime, everybody wanted to make it Nirvana. We're like, 'We're not anything like Nirvana,' nothing like Nirvana. And Aftertaste … well, 'Betty didn't do as well as Meantime, so Aftertaste has to be like this and that,' and I was like, 'All I can do is write the songs and record them and sing them to the best of my ability.' And that's what it is. It should be fun. The process has always been fun and enjoyable for me, and it's simply about music."

When it came to Betty, Hamilton and company had aspirations of expanding Helmet's sound to incorporate other genres, as other voices within the band begged to be heard.

"Yeah, that was what was fun about it," said Hamilton. "We wrote some songs … I guess it started with, 'Well, man, what more can we do?' Strap It On morphed into Meantime, which morphed into Betty and there were other elements. Henry had an interest in lap steel guitar, and other things he was writing. He was listening to the Beatles I think when he came up with the riffs for 'Silver Hawaiian.' And I wanted the whole band to feel more included, because I think they saw that when there was a clear leader in the band after a couple of years, there's a leader and I think that makes guys uncomfortable. I just wanted make sure that everybody knew it was a band, that I'm the singer, the writer and essentially the producer, but without a great band, you're shit. I'm not Trent Reznor, where I've got the genius technological ability … that guy's amazing in the studio. I don't know if he can play guitar as well as I can, but he's a genius in the studio, so he doesn't necessarily need a band to make a record. I do."

Like all Helmet records, Betty grooves ... relentlessly. Hamilton feels that comes naturally for Helmet, that it's not something they ever have to think about.

"I think every record grooves. We never consciously said we've got to groove or we've got to be groovier or whatever," said Hamilton. "John Stanier was listening to a lot of hip-hop and a lot of drum and bass. Henry was listening to country and western and Hawaiian music, and I was listening to my usual jazz, which is all about groove and feel and swing, as well as classical things, expanding my understanding of harmonic knowledge. But we never consciously said, 'God, We're so funky.' AC/DC is a different kind of funky from Rage Against The Machine or Red Hot Chili Peppers. To me, those bands are more trying to incorporate that thing in their sound, and I like AC/DC, that sound. That's my band. I thought the Beatles grooved. The Stones, in their sloppy way, kind of grooved, so it's not like we're trying to play white-boy funk or anything."

While the notion of whether a record grooves or not may be a nebulous concept, song composition is not, and while more well-known tracks off Betty might garner more attention, Hamilton is sweet on another.

"Somebody asked me that last night after the show," said Hamilton, responding to a question about which song on Betty is his favorite. "It's hard for me to say, but I'd probably have to say 'Overrated.' I've always liked the structure. I just found this cool chord progression of things that I thought of at the time. There was a cool tension release in the song; it's an interesting structure. It's not really supposed work at all."

Hamilton admits, "I've always experimented with structures, that's kind of what I'm known for." On "Wilma's Rainbow," Hamilton used another Helmet classic as the foundation for what that track would become.

"I like that song," said Hamilton. "That's the structure that I came up with for 'Unsung.' That's a different structure, too. It's got a verse and chorus, but it's also got a developing section in the outro, and a song like 'Pure' from Aftertaste,  it's got a different structure."

Construction of Betty was completed by Helmet, along with Andy Wallace on mixing, Howie Weinberg on mastering and Martin Bisi, known also for his work with Sonic Youth, Swans and White Zombie, handling the engineering. Bisi was a late arrival, coming in midway through the proceedings to record Echeverria's guitar parts and additional overdubs.

Finally, on June 21, 1994, Betty had its coming-out party, settling in at No. 45 on the Billboard 200 Album Chart, Helmet's best chart performance ever. Alas, it was not the commercial success Meantime was, and in the aftermath, Echeverria departed to join Biohazard, leaving Helmet a trio. 1997 brought Aftertaste, and later, a new guitarist in Chris Traynor, formerly of Orange 9mm. That record spent very little time on the charts, and sales were disappointing. The 1997-98 "Aftertaste" tour was the band's swan song – that is, until Hamilton revived Helmet in 2004.

If he has any regrets about any of it, Hamilton isn't sharing them.

"There's so many events that happened over the life of the band," said Hamilton. "It was roughly 10 years, and now I've got eight-plus years with Kyle, so he and I are the core of the band at this point, but we've got two guys who are amazing players, Danny and Dave. So it feels like a real band to me, as much as the original lineup did for the first five years. Unfortunately, people grow … not unfortunately, but people grow apart, and it happens and you can't control what other people want to do. They decided it was their time to move on, and I said to them early on when we were about to sign a record deal, to Peter, John and Henry, 'I'm not putting your kids through college just because we were in a band together. I don't owe you anything, and you don't owe me anything.' They were clear that it was my band, it's just sometimes shit happens."

Check out this Helmet performance on KXEP to get a taste of what they're like live nowadays.

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