Interview: Helmet’s Page Hamilton On David Bowie Saving His Life, Buddy Holly’s Influence On ‘Ashes to Ashes’

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If you look at Page Hamilton’s resume you will see; frontman for rock band – Helmet, songwriter, guitarist, producer, teacher and composer. Like most established resumes, underneath the highlights and career achievements lies the foundation which is the education. For Hamilton that includes both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in guitar. He has been a student of the axe for as long as he can remember. His guitar studies began at the University of Oregon before moving to New York City where we would study both classical and jazz guitar at the Manhattan School of Music. This lead to performing in a guitar orchestra before joining various rock bands. Eventually, Hamilton would form his own group, Helmet, which would end up being signed by Interscope Records. This did not slow down Hamilton’s eagerness to continuing learning. Upon moving to Los Angeles, he continued his studies at USC where he then focused on orchestration.

Present day, Hamilton is a busy guy; juggling film work, a new Helmet record and teaching at music camps – still with his guitar leading the way. Alternative Nation recently caught up with Hamilton from his Los Angeles home, shortly after the release of his latest work – providing the score for the film Convergence, and discussed everything from his recent scoring gigs to Helmet songs written alongside Nine Inch Nails to being recruited by the late, great, David Bowie.
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Does debuting music in film or TV have the same anticipation and exciting buildup for you as releasing a record?

It’s different than one of my own records because that’s pretty much my baby entirely. Obviously the other musicians contribute a great deal, but I write, sing, produce, do the lyrics and the arrangements, so it’s a lot. I feel with Convergence, and all the work I’ve done with Drew Hall (writer, director), we do the best we can and then just put it out. We’re not really trying to please anyone in particular, it’s just to make something we like. It’s more of a collaboration with the director and the other composer – Patrick Kirst, we trust each other. I could tell him if I think something sucks – which I guess is a good quality and not such a good quality.

How did you end up working with Drew Hall?

Drew approached me at a show, that’s how I first met him. He’s a fan of Helmet and the work I’ve done in other movies. He was well educated in my work and my musical background. That didn’t stop him though from saying he didn’t like something and I’d say, “Fuck you, this is super cool you have to leave this in there.” (Laughs) We laugh about it though, we really have a good time. I understand it’s his vision. Drew’s very open-minded to letting me do my thing.

With the excitement of it being released, we did the work, I’ve seen the seen the film and I’m proud of what we’ve all done. I have the utmost respect for them and love working with Drew and Patrick. We are like three brothers, where I am the older brother. Patrick is brilliant too. Both Patrick and Drew are way smarter than I am where I’m thinking – damn, I’m just bringing the scary heavy metal thing.

I remember writing a piece one night in particular. My uncle had just passed away. I was driving back from Long Beach having just visited him in the hospital. It was like three of four in the morning and I had to write a cue for the next day. I ended up writing this creepy, weird, fucked up music. I thought Drew was going to hate it, but I didn’t care, I had to write it. I woke up to an email the next day saying, “Dude, this is amazing!”
I told him when we first started working together that there are plenty of guys who do film scoring 101. I have a ton of admiration for those guys, but that’s not what I’m about. The music to me has to have a different personality.

How did you get into scoring in the first place?

The first movie I scored was called Chicago Cab. John Cusack’s company produced it and it was based around the Hellcab play that was running in Chicago for years. I was introduced to them through my cousin who’s an editor in New York. I had always been interested in scoring. I love Bernard Hermann, I listened to his stuff for years. I then got a call from Warner Brothers, they had tried to sign Helmet years ago and where working on the Heat soundtrack. They were looking for something different guitar-wise and liked some of my previous work. That basically got me working on movies and peaked my interest. I don’t actively seek the work though. I had an agent for a while and it just didn’t make sense. Scoring just seems like a natural extension of what I’ve always been doing in Helmet. The blend of guitar and orchestra is a great thing that’s yet to be fully tapped.

Was scoring part of your musical background and education or more of something you picked up on your own?

Picked up on my own. I did study orchestration with Jack Smalley when I moved to Los Angeles and studied at USC. My Master’s degree is in jazz guitar and my Bachelor’s is in classical and jazz. I always made my studies about music not about work. It’s there where I first started to learn about how to score movies. If you don’t have a feel for human interaction and dialog then you shouldn’t be scoring movies. To me, it’s about trying to enhance what’s happening on the screen. It’s being a scribe sometimes or you add tension. It’s about being a human being. It goes beyond just musical things. Studying with Jack, he taught me how to write what’s appropriate. It was interesting for me, having been the leader in my own band and having my own vision. I was trying to now get in someone else’s head. That’s why before I write score, I’ll watch the movie over and over and take copious notes.

How many different instruments do you play?

I just play guitar. At school I had to play piano, but I would not sit down in front of people and play piano. I use it as a compositional tool. If somebody said we have a rudimentary gig for you where you have to play piano and I had a couple of weeks to woodshed I would do it, but I would never sit down at a piano otherwise. It’s so much easier to write compositional things on a keyboard. In fact, there’s a song on the upcoming Helmet album that started with a giant keyboard drone. It doesn’t appear on the song right now, but I might put it in there anyway. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album. It’s called “Bad News.”

I do a lot of camps with kids too and I’ll sit down and play basic drum beats, but I’m a guitar player, that’s really what I’m comfortable with.

With all the different areas of music that you are involved in whether it’s scoring, music education, producing or being in bands, would you say Helmet is your priority above of rest? That’s really what you do and all the other stuff is secondary?

Unfortunately I have a hard time focusing on a lot of things at once. That’s a good thing and a bad thing. I was reading the human attention span has decreased from 12 seconds to 9 seconds which is a second more than a goldfish. We’re just so distracted by technology. For me, I have to focus at the task at hand. That said, the first thing I do every morning when I wake up is play jazz guitar for an hour. I’ll work through a standard that gets my ears and fingers going. If I’m working on a movie or lyrics, then I’ll go start to write. It’s like my morning meditation in a way. Ever since I was a kid that kind of music connected with me in a very strong way. I remember my parents listening to Ella Fitzgerald or if it was a party scene, they’d put on happy jazz music. For some reason it just connects with me. It’s a great way to start the day and it’s a great study. I encourage every kid I work with to be open minded to it. You’re only going to benefit from it. Even half of Carlos Santana’s songs work off jazz progressions. That’s also where Helmet came from. My teacher would encourage me to move one note in chords to different strings, you start building chords and that’s how a lot of the Helmet tunes were developed.

Looking at your music in Helmet, which is on the heavier side, and comparing that to scoring which is more atmospheric, less-is-more, you really cover the spectrum. Is it challenging to cover such a wide range like that?

It is challenging, but I do really enjoy it. The film thing has enhanced the Helmet thing and vice versa. Obviously without Helmet I wouldn’t be in this position. My guitar technique really started to develop during the first album – Strap it On. I was in New York recording the solos, I had the knowledge, the ear for it and some technique, but something was lacking. I was playing the solo on a song called “Repetition” and I remember thinking this solo just does not work with this minimalist riff. The solo felt like something more than just me playing guitar. I started stomping on a bunch of pedals to the point where the guitar was out of control and jumping out of my hands. I had to half wrestle it, half play it and that’s how I started to develop that weird style. It became useful in the film world. It’s something I’m still working on. Because it can be so out of control, it’s not always useful for everyone. The film Collateral for example, I don’t think it worked well there. A teacher once described it to me as putting on a lab coat where you’re really mixing and testing these weird things out. That’s really what it is. I don’t just jump in like it’s a studio session, I need a couple of days to get a feel for what I’m doing. It requires a lot of patience. That’s the challenge in a film, everything can’t be just noise-based.

I had the chance to speak with Charlie Clouser a few months ago. Clouser had some fascinating stories on his introduction to scoring. I noticed you worked on a Saw film with Clouser. What was that like?

I love working with Charlie. He’s absolutely brilliant. He’s the most brilliant sound-sculpting guy in the computer world that I’ve ever been with. I was going down to New Orleans a lot when Trent Reznor had his funeral home studio. I remember watching baseball downstairs one day and all of sudden heard something that just sounded fantastic. I came up stairs like, “what in the world is that?” It was Charlie just chunking along on a whammy pedal. It was total caveman. I told him to cut one chord to two bars and the next chord to two bars and put them together. And just like that we wrote the chorus to song called “Enemies” – which we wrote together for the Size Matters record. It’s one of my favorite songs and it came out of that.

So “Enemies” basically came out of a Nine Inch Nails session?

Well, Charlie and I had the same publisher for a while. We had also toured together. Helmet opened for Nine Inch Nails at the end of their Downward Spiral tour. After they did the Bowie tour they wanted to do a smaller club tour. Smaller clubs to them was like 5,000 people. I became friends with those guys and really enjoyed their approach to music which was totally different from mine. Mine came from musician whereas theirs came from more sound-sculpting. They had something that I really loved and I had something that they really loved. So I went down to New Orleans, stayed for a week and really enjoyed it. They then invited me back and made me a little room in the “live room.” They set up me to just write away. I would do some jams with Trent where he was on keyboard and I was on guitar. I really enjoyed that time. Plus I love New Orelans. It’s one my favorite cities in the world.

What was it like working with David Bowie?

It was a complete honor. It was an amazing experience to get to be around the guy. I got to learn 30 of his songs then go play them at Wembley in front of a million people. It was nerve-racking as well. I had just left my wife and was in a rough place with drinking and doing other things I shouldn’t have been doing for about a month before I got the call from Bowie. So in a lot of ways maybe Bowie saved my life. I could’ve been on a two year binge. I worked my ass off don’t get me wrong, but also my head was not in a great place.

I was crushed when we lost Bowie though. In fact, Helmet was just doing a series of vinyl seven inch cover songs and one of the songs we did was the Bowie song “Move On” from his Lodger record. It’s such an underrated song and one of my all-time favorites. I had finished the vocal before Christmas and my manager suggested I send it to him which I was going to do, I didn’t know he was that sick. He had a huge impact on me creatively and personally it was so great to be around him. He was such a sweet human being. He called me “Hangover” Hamilton because I was one of the only ones that drank. I’d be hungover sitting in the Dublin airport and he would come over and give me a kiss on the forehead and say, “Oh Page is at it again.”

I can honestly say having played his music and hearing that voice in my ear monitors, he was really on another level. One of the greatest songwriters ever. What he did for pop music will never be equaled. I think if I hadn’t played with him I would still feel that way.

Was there any special moment you had with him behind the scenes or lesson he taught you that you will never forget?

Yeah, for sure. I have so many little stories – like eating Chinese food with him in LaGuardia airport. Or him telling me how “Ashes to Ashes” was inspired by Buddy Holly. I don’t know if he said that in interviews, but he told that to me.

You mentioned working on new Helmet music and you have the Open Air festival in Chicago coming up, what else do you have on your plate right now?

Still tracking a few more songs for this album. There are few parts – I didn’t like the way they turned out so I’m going to redo them. I’m also in lyric mode working on a ton of writing there. I then start with this super cool group from Nashville called the Dead Deads. It’s kind of like power-pop-punk. I think they are going to tour with Cheap Trick. So I have that in few weeks then I’ll be up in Oregon to go around to some schools and teach guitar camp. I also have this group I play with in New York City and we have a few songs to finish as well. So I’ll have this big pile of music to be released hopefully in the fall. Then I have this short I did with Drew that’s really cool. The movie is still in the development phases so we’re hoping it gets picked up.

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  • dakotablue

    So that’s three musicians I know of who Bowie helped overcome their addictions, including Iggy and Trent. What an artist and friend he was! Too bad he never worked with Weiland (who was hugely influenced by Bowie).
    Hamilton mentions loving Bernard Hermann’s film scores–he did all or almost all of Alfred Hitchcock’s movies.

    • Kooler Than Jesus

      Hermann also wrote very popular and amazing scores for other famous movies like “Taxi Driver”, “Cape Fear”, “Citizen Kane”, “The Day That Earth Stood Still”, “Fahrenheit 451” and many more, but certainly his scores for Hitchcock are among his more popular works (“Vertigo”, “Psycho”, “North By Northwest”, etc).

      • dakotablue

        Thanks–I knew Hermann did other soundtracks but didn’t have the movie names at my fingertips (or I did but was too lazy to look them up!)

  • Felonious Punk

    Great interview. Page Hamilton is so underrated in his realm, it’s practically criminal. Helmet and Faith No More are two of the major bands who were laying the template in the early-90s for what would later devolve into the genre of shit more commonly known as “Nu-metal”. You can hear Helmet’s influence in hundreds of bands the same way you can FNM. I don’t think Helmet has ever released an album that wasn’t great compared to everything else going on around it at the time.

    • Mr. Shit

      “Aftertaste” kicks more ass every single time I hear it!

      • Felonious Punk

        That’s a great album, yea! I think ‘Betty’ will always be my favorite because that was the one that got me into them in the first place, but Aftertaste is just a straight gutcheck. Some of my absolute favorite stuff Page has done — Pure, Driving Nowhere, Broadcast Emotion, Like I Care, Crisis King — is on Aftertaste.

  • Internet Astronaut

    I grew up with page in southern oregon and gave him a copy of never mind the bullocks when he was at University of Oregon and I was a high school sophomore or Jr.

    During that time he was a Jazz/classical student and a huge Zep fan whom I saw the song remains the same at a midnight showing in an old church.

    • Mulch100

      I grew up in Medford too, that is really interesting to hear from someone who knew him. It’s not a very big city so I’d always wondered what street he lived on. I saw Helmet open up for Nirvana in 1992, the night after they played the grammys. Helmet tore it up, they were actually better than Nirvana.

      • Sebastian Sassi

        Nirvana was selling an image while being scarcely passable as musicians; Helmet is a remarkable musician thriving in the absence of a market-driven image. So yeah, apples and orange.

  • Mr. Shit

    I’ve been kicking this around in my head for a while, and I think it’s time to say this. It might sound silly, but hear me out. Page Hamilton must be some kind of freaking prophet or something. The album “Aftertaste” was released in 1997, and the lyrics on that album may not have made much sense within the context of 1997, but in the last 10 years or so, those songs have become incredibly relevant to the the world we live in. And the songs make more sense with each passing year. Listen to the lyrics of songs like “Exactly What You Wanted”, “Like I Care”, “Crisis King”, “Birth Defect”, “Insatiable”, “It’s Easy To Get Bored”, and of course, the song that should be the official soundtrack to Facebook, “Broadcast Emotion”! These are songs written about 2016, but were released almost 20 years earlier!