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MUSIC / HELMET : Aggressive Rock Gets Down to Basics : The group made its big label debut last June with its guitar-screaming 'Meantime' album. The foursome has been on the road ever since.

April 29, 1993|BILL LOCEY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A helmet alone may not be enough. A flak jacket, combat boots and a bad attitude may be the bare minimum when it comes to surviving the mosh pit when Helmet headlines the Anaconda Theater in Isla Vista on Tuesday night. The boob tube alternative, Roseanne Barr, is probably just as loud, but she's not this week's grunge/thrash/metal/punk/college/ alternative darling.

Helmet's sound is as aggressive as we in California imagine life in New York City to be. No sensitive ballads for them, but plenty of screaming and wailing guitars. After a few singles, the band released "Strap It On" on Amphetamine Reptile Records in 1990. The latest album is "Meantime," released last June on Interscope, Helmet's big label debut. They've been on the road ever since.

Helmet songs are typically about how messed up everything is, and how we should do something about it, if only we could. One song, "FBLA II" ("Future Business Leaders of America"), bemoans the fact that rock 'n' roll seems to be just a phase a fan goes through en route to a realtor's license, three-piece suit, BMW, 2.5 kids and an ulcer.

Helmet head man Page Hamilton is a native of Oregon who moved to New York to study music. During a recent phoner from Minneapolis, he discussed his band, named after a hard protective head covering.

You are one of the few who ignored Horace Greeley and instead went from West to East. Why?

Um, it's just that I think there's a lot more musical stuff happening there than anywhere else. I've lived in Seattle and the Bay Area, but I moved to New York to study music.

What's the New York scene like?

I love New York. I still don't think you can have a greater variety of music in such a concentrated area.

You guys are a baseball cap band. What's your favorite cap?

Well, I'm bringing a San Francisco Giants hat on this tour because when I was growing up in Oregon, all we could get were Giants and Niners' games. I'm a Yankees fan, too. The perfect scenario for me would be a Giants-Yankees World Series.

On your bio, there are recurring words such as "bludgeon," "barrage" and "aggressive." Does rock have to be mean?

No, I don't think so. The Byrds played folk rock and they weren't mean. The Beatles certainly weren't aggressive or mean. I used the word bludgeon once and now, well, you know how these things go.

So, then, what's Helmet music like?

I dunno. Heavy rock, hard rock.

Also on your bio you mention "musical economy." What's that mean--no 20-minute guitar solos?

Well, not too many people could do a 20-minute guitar solo, anyway. What I mean is cutting off the fat. Just because you throw in everything but the kitchen sink doesn't make music better. We strip music down to its basic elements, which is not necessarily playing a lot of notes. We all meander on our instruments but that should stay at practice.

Do a lot of metal kids go to Helmet gigs?

I haven't really noticed that many metal kids, but a lot of young punk rock kids. We do get called metal a lot because we play heavy music.

You have another version of "Future Business Leaders of America ("FBLA II") on the new one. Is that about dumping rock 'n' roll to join the system?

I'm referring to the intensity that the kids have, like when you look at a punk rock crowd and see how excited they are. But then society tells them to settle down and be responsible.

So are you going to be playing "In the Meantime" when you're 50?

I'll be playing something, maybe not Helmet music. Picasso and Goya lived to old age, and they didn't stop. Goya wasn't painting bunnies when he was 75. The other night, Timothy Leary, who is around 73 years old, was the MC at our show at Michigan State, and he rocked his ass off.

In one of your bio pieces, you refer to "The Decline and Fall of Western Civilization: The Metal Years." Are you like those rock dudes-- just in it for the beer and the babes?

I think that would be a pretty pathetic reason to get up in the morning. I like music. That's why I play music. I only drink an occasional beer. If I wasn't doing this, I'd probably be writing and playing guitar in my room.

So you guys are done with the day-job scene?

I haven't worked for awhile, but I've probably had about 20 jobs in New York during the last seven years. I was a security guard from midnight to eight in the morning. I was a stage hand at the Manhattan School of Music where I went to school. I was a limo driver, a van driver and a bartender. Lately, we've been on the road pretty solid. From July to July, we will have had nine weeks off. And our label, Interscope, is a really cool label. I wish every band could be on Interscope.

Just because a band gets signed doesn't necessarily mean their working days are over does it?

Well, you get to keep a little beyond your advances, but unfortunately, there is a huge number of bands that don't earn beyond their advances unless they have a hit single. Nirvana sold millions of records because they had a hit single.

Is Helmet on the radio?

I dunno. I don't listen to it.

How has Helmet music changed from "Strap It On" to "Meantime"?

I think it's gotten better, and more focused lyrically and musically. It's tighter.

Can music change the world?

Well, it can change my world. It's not gonna feed people in Somalia or end the war in Yugoslavia. I think everyone should do what they think is right. I don't believe in getting on a soapbox like that guy in U2 or Sting and I think Michael Jackson is ridiculous.

If I was hipper, would I be hearing John Coltrane in Helmet music?

You should just hear Helmet, but the Coltrane references are fine with me.

What's next?

Tour. Tour. Tour.

* WHERE AND WHEN

Helmet, Jesus Lizard and Therapy at the Anaconda Theater, 935 Embarcadero del Norte, Isla Vista, 685-3112. Tuesday at 8 p.m., $16.

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