By Mark Derricutt
Helmet - commonly called "Thinking Mans Hard Rock" in its early days due to the clean cut nature of its members, and their penchant for odd, staccato, jittery rock. They were a band that were always at the periphery of my musical experimentation - I knew who they were, I knew they were awesome, and the now iconic album cover for 1994's 'Betty' is now burned forever in the back of my mind - and yet, somehow I never listened to more than a handful of songs. So with that in mind - I was excited to learn that not only had they reformed a number of years back, and released a new album in 2016 'Dead To The World', but that they were heading to New Zealand for two nights: Christchurch on April 21st and Auckland on the 22nd (the first date sadly escaped my recollection during the interview).
(Editor note April 7 - Since this interview the venues for both Helmet's shows have been changed - more information concerning this - HERE.)
Hi it's Mark here from Libel Music here in New Zealand, thanks for taking time out to talk to us about the coming show here on 22 April at the Kings Arms Tavern...
Yes, we've actually played there before, and it's kinda my preferred venue in Auckland so I'm really looking forward to it.
It's interesting you say that - I knew you'd played before but couldn't recall where or how often.
Yeah we've played many times, but this will only be the 2nd time at the Kings Arms. Last time - I honestly can't remember the venue, but there's something about the vibe of that place that I just like... even though there's not much of a hospitality area for the band. It's nothing fancy, it's just the vibe was really really great. I prefer that generally over fancier venues that have cold-contact with the fans, I'd rather have more contact with the people at the shows.
It's a shame, I don't know if you're aware of it but the Kings Arms has been sold and will be closing down sometime next year.
Aww shit. No Way? That's just perfect....
Yeah, the unfortunate nexus of housing pressure and lack of income/attendance of shows. So it's great that bands like yourself come through now before it's gone.
Well we'll have to tear it up then! Let's make it an awesome night.
So you're planning on playing the entire Betty album in full?
Yeah! That's going to be the first half of the set, and the second half will be stuff from the 'Dead To The World' album, and other albums like 'Strap It On', 'Meantime', and 'Aftertaste'.
I must confess, I'd never actually heard any Helmet until yesterday, the (Betty) album cover has been in my mind for the last 23 odd years as something I should check out, but I've just never got there.
Wow... what... do you live in a cage?
It's more I've never "sat down to listen to a Helmet album"...
That's funny, I've not heard that one.... I absolutely understand that there are people in the world that are not familiar with the band, but it seems, like the band's been around for so long, since 1989 and a lot of bands/musicians have always swarmed around us that it seems..... that's funny.. hopefully, it lived up to the hype?
Definitely, and it's going to be even better when I see it live! I've heard the odd song and ones from the Crow soundtrack...but I've just never sat down to listen to a "full album".
Fortunately we're still around so you can experience the live thing, it's fun - sometimes I think it's better 'live' than on the album. I mean a lot of bands are like that - it's a band playing music, you know what I mean? It seems unique in this day and age, I see so many bands that have so much running on stage; so many tracks that they're slaves to the machine and our band is like a jazz band, in that we play the songs and there's improvisation and specific sections, so not everybody's improvising, but there are arrangements. I'm kinda spreading buckets of shit all over the top of the band when they're rocking great sometimes. I think it's great because you can do things live that don't really come across on an album, also as you know some of the songs are now 20+ years old so they kinda take on a life of their own in a live context, just because I've played the songs a couple of thousand times so they kinda morph into something that's different - I mean the song is Milquetoast for example is a good example of that - it's quite different live than the original recordings.
Do you ever get bored of playing those, or think "I don't like this anymore, I could change it...."
Nope... Yeah no, because the band - the current lineup knows about 90 songs from some 27 years worth of material, and we have a new album that came out 'Dead To The World' so at least half of the second set is made up of those songs and the rest of the stuff we'll rotate. So we're playing brand new songs and we'll rotate, like we don't play Milquetoast every night, or 'unsung', or... just for my own sanity so that I can remain honest when performing - if I did the same set every time, the same ten songs like some bands do then I'd go crazy. I think THAT would get stale but when you have 90 songs to draw from it keeps it so... I throw curveballs at the guys and it's just fun for them to do the set each night.
Have you ever taken it that one step further and let the audience decide the set list on the night?
I do that... mostly to fuck with the crowd cause they ask for songs and I'm like "Nah, I don't wanna do that". I don't think I'd have the crowd decide the set list, but when you're at the point in set doing your 3rd or 4th encore it's fun to ask, and sometimes it'll jar my memory "oh yeah, we haven't played 'Speechless' for awhile". Sometimes it's more fun to just deny them than have them request songs and reply "we don't know that one". There's always the guys who want the obscure song that was a cover from the Saturday morning cartoons like Gigantor that was never performed live and never will be performed live, or like the song from the "Johnny Mnemonic" movie that was never performed live and never will be. It's like "Nah, why bother?" - we have so many other songs that I like better, there are songs that are fun and challenging but if I can't remember exactly how it goes you know... some songs require specific tuning as well and if we're travelling overseas I don't have six guitars so I can't do the Sinatra tunings, it'd screw things up. Or 'Murder', the last song from 'Strap It On' is an interesting one that I want to revive, and maybe we'll revive it down there - it's really fun to play - a bit giant wall of shit where the guitars are purposely detuned so it's out of tune, you have to stop at the end of the song and retune, but it's a fun song to play.
So when you travel, are you travelling rather light?
Yeah it still sounds like the band, although I prefer the amps I play in the US and Europe. I leave one in Europe and two in the US - but I love Marshalls and a lot of those first albums were done on Marshalls so the sound is still authentic. It's still about the tuning and chord voicing, the rhythms and grooves, but for me I've become accustomed to these Triad custom hand wired amps that I have and their just... they're massive so... and Marshall does a certain thing that I really like but it doesn't have the same percussiveness on the bottom end, you have to readjust.
We fly to a small city in Norway called Sandnes and also Cagliari in Italy on the island of Sardinia, and we use Marshalls there cause those are fly-in dates, one-offs. But the guitars are still my signature model: ESPs which I bring with me and my pickups which were made for me by Dimarzio and the pedals, I don't bring as many pedals, but it's probably the only thing that that does is less variety of feedback skronk or whatever when I'm improvising, the solos are still a combination of jazz ideas combined with feedback and noise so the noise is just a little different... like a Marshall - you have to be careful with the feedback because it can be brutal if you don't EQ it right - it's kinda a different beast.
You mentioned you formed in 89, so you've been going about 27 years, broke up in 98, and reformed in 2004 and have been pretty stable in the line-up since then...
It took a few years but then Kyle Stevenson has been with me 11 years now, so that's a good run and then there's 2nd guitar player Dan Beeman has been in about 8 years, and the bass player has gone on 5 years or something like that.
I was heading towards the idea of longevity in the music industry, and keeping bands together - is Helmet "Page Hamilton" or Helmet the band - are you the primary/only songwriter or is everyone involved?
Yeah, it's a band - but as far as the writer, producing, and arranging goes it's pretty much always been "my band" and like I always ask for input musically and lyrically from the other players in the band obviously. I don't claim to play drums or bass, I mean I can play the bass if I have to. I think I play bass on a B-side on this album but it's not my favourite thing to do. But I've always written the songs, there are songs that are co-writes over the years cause I've wanted to keep the guys engaged, happy and involved and that's worked out great. In the case of 'Betty' there's two songs that Henry came in with basically the rhythm arrangements for The Silver Hawaiian and Rollo; those are his riffs and they're great and I'm really happy - it was actually maybe more work arranging/producing those songs than the songs that I write. Just cause of the musical communication, just trying to make them... work in an ensemble context.
Henry's a really great player but his communication skills were always a little awkward - so I had to kinda figure out what he was trying to do and in some cases write down, notate things on pieces of cardboard in the rehearsal space so we could all play the same thing - "is the riff this, or this?" cause one day he came in and said "well that's wrong" so I wrote down what he played that day and wrote down what he played the next day and said 'these are two different things, which one is it?'. But it was great in the end, the songs turned out great and they're two of my favourite songs to play live so it was good - then I think they kinda lost interest. I actually sat down with John and with Henry on separate days and showed them how I write with a 4 track and a drum machine and said 'this is what I do, you need to determine if this is a verse/chorus type riff or bridge or whatever and make an arrangement around it'.
That said, everyone's going to have a slightly different approach to writing than I do but I enjoy that. Now in clinics with guitar workshops and stuff like that I like doing it, I learn from it as well.
Do you actually listen to other modern music at all, so when it comes to writing are you taking inspiration from things that are current in the music industry/scene or is it more 'you are you and how you hear music'?
I listen every day, all the time, I mean I'm not listening to "The Voice" or "Dancing with the Stars" but this summer I'm playing an orchestral piece that Michael Tilson Thomas - he's the director of the San Francisco Symphony, and then I'm also playing a piece that Teddy Abrams whose the Louisville Symphony Orchestra conductor wrote, so there's more modern classical music than there's pop music but I'm always open and listening. I like guys like Bryce Dessner from The National whose a composer as well, a bunch of different stuff I'm into but I'm not listening to pop radio - sometimes once a year I turn it on to hear what's going on and I can last about 20 minutes because every single lyric is exactly the same bullshit you know - they're not reading Ezra Pound or like E.E. Cummings or whatever they're just people reciting from a diary or talking about pussy. I'm not cynical I just require more... I still play jazz music - Monday I'm flying to Atlanta to premiere a piece I wrote for Woodlands Brass, percussion and guitar for the St Pius Tempe High School and then I'm workshops with the students and the whole music program and that's fun for me.
It's exciting and I get to sit in on a jazz gig while I'm there, so I'm still working on jazz every day, this morning I played through a Coltrane tune, a Wayne Shorter tune, and a Charlie Parker called 'My Little Suede Shoes' or whatever so I work on listening to music every day, but like contemporary rock or pop music doesn't really interest me as much as other stuff.
You worked with David Bowie for awhile?
Yeah I did - it was incredible. He was just a beautiful human being and a genius so it was a great honour and I learnt so much about music and writing and playing and about myself - he gave me great confidence, he compared my playing to Phil Manzanera from Roxy Music in one way where it seems angular and avant-garde and random. But it's worked out - I thought that was cool. He was a brilliant guy and a big influence on me.
It's been awesome hanging out and chatting, but I think out times up, so I'll be looking forward to seeing "Betty" live in full at The Kings Arms Tavern on April 22nd.
Please come up and say hello!