For as many years as I could remember, Amphetamine Reptile Records has been one of — if not the — favorite labels of mine. I mean, they had the Melvins, Cows, Killdozer, and the God Bullies. So, some seriously weird bands. However, there was also this other band on the label that never seemed, to me, to fit in with that crowd because of how “normal” they were. They weren’t doing art-punk, but they made up for this with serious guitar riff-age and the attention of major labels. As a result, Helmet was given the opportunity to sign on to a major label. Two years ago the band released Dead to the World, and now they are on the road with Prong. FPH spoke with the mastermind Paige Hamilton ahead of the show tonight at Warehouse Live about thanking Chickens, working with Steve Albini, and major labels.
Free Press Houston: So, Helmet and Prong — it’s such a weird combination! Who thought of this?
Paige Hamilton: Um, it was — Tommy [Victor] who came to see Helmet in Dallas after Danzig played, because he plays with Danzig as well. We started talking about stuff, and I think we both thought it would be great to do shows together sometime, but I’m not sure which of us said it first. It went like that. We started getting serious about it and texted for a while, trying to work it out a few years ago, but the schedules didn’t work out. After we had this whole tour booked about a year or so, the same thing happened, because he plays with others and I work on movies and am producing a singer right now. We all have a million things going on, so just trying to coordinate is not always easy, but I’m glad it finally worked out.
FPH: I’ve always wondered: Who or what is Chicken and why is he thanked on Strap it On?
PH: Oh, yeah. Chicken John. I worked with him at one of the many gigs I did in New York before the band took off. He played guitar with GG Allin and he drove bands around. It was a moving company, Vital Vans it was called. We had one crappy band that was held together with chewing gum and wire and we would move million dollar pieces of Mark Kostabi art, apartments in the Bronx, and bands. I remember waiting for bands at these different venues. It was a pretty fun show, but yeah, Chicken was just a buddy of mine.
FPH: I recently interviewed someone you’ve worked with in the past, Steve Albini. What was your experience with him and what did he bring to the table with “In the Meantime”?
PH: It was great! We were all fans of Big Black and Steve, at that time, didn’t have his own studio, he worked at Chicago Recording Company. We were on tour, so we worked out a couple of days to work with him. We crashed at his house, which was very cool. We did a song called “Rock Messiah,” which Tad said was one of their favorite songs, and I was like “How did you hear it? We never released it.” Somehow it got bootlegged; either Steve did it or Chicago Recording. I’d love to find it, I remember it being a pretty cool song. The chorus is “bow to me.” We were making fun of rockstars. Yeah, he’s a funny guy with an incredibly unique approach to things. Very talented and never short on opinions. I remember certain things that he would say, like if I asked him if that was good, he’d go, “Well, if that’s what you’re going for.” He was a real super smart-ass, really funny guy. I remember giving him shit one day because he hadn’t bathed and I was like, “Damn, you got some nasty body odor, dude!” He just had some smart-ass comment. We actually got to know him pretty well, because when I was in Band of Susans we toured with [Albini’s band] Rapeman in the U.S. and Europe. I’m one of the few people that have seen him incredibly drunk.
FPH: Can you talk about anything else, besides catching him really drunk once, that was entertaining? For example, in a different interview he admitted to be pretending to be Kurt Cobain whilst on the phone with Gene Simmons, because Kurt didn’t want to speak with him.
PH: Oh, that’s pretty funny! I don’t have any stories like that, but I did really appreciate — we were in this giant bidding war between major labels and Tom Hazelmyer, our dear friend and record boss at Amphetamine Reptile, said, “I am getting too many calls to handle any more with Helmet,” because the band was just exploding, you know? Haze didn’t want to deal with it anymore, which I completely understand. AmRep was an independent label with a couple of people working there. So it was time for us to move on. One woman gave me a blank check from Imago Records, others were saying “a million dollars!” Steve as admittedly against major labels; he thought it was just a way to ruin a band. I completely understand where he was coming from, and I agree with him, to an extent. For a lot of bands it wouldn’t be right. But it just happened to work out for us, and it made sense. He sat down with us in his living room and did two kinds of columns, like, “This one is the major label, the money you get, the money you spend.” He was very smart in that way, about the music business. I appreciated it, but I didn’t agree with his assessment of our situation. It made sense for us to go to Interscope, it was a pretty ideal situation for us and it worked out well.
FPH: Regarding Interscope Records, can you talk about the move from AmRep to Interscope? Is it fair to call Interscope the AmRep of major labels? It seems, to me, that Jimmy Iovine wasn’t as afraid to take risks on bands as much as other label executives. And for the most part, I’ve read good things that bands had to say about the label.
PH: Yeah. At the time they didn’t have a lot of artists, there were only a few. They had Gerardo — like “Rico Suave” — and they had Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch. They hadn’t signed NIN yet. They also had the Storm (ex-members of Journey) and they had Primus. We were like, “Oh, this Primus thing.” We related to it because it was an off-the-wall, cartoony band, and they had sold a couple hundred thousand records and we were like, “Wow, that’s impressive.” We wanted attention, and that’s the problem with major labels; they allow you to sign a bunch of bands, but then they’ll put out a record and have hits on the radio. That doesn’t work for our music, it’s not the indie approach of things. That’s why so many bands failed. Great bands like the Pixies, Quicksand, the Melvins — at one point, because we got this great deal and I read this book by Dan Passman that my manager said I needed to read and needed to know what we were getting in for, so I studied up on the music business. I tried to help bands like the Cows. It’s not like I was some expert, but us rock dudes didn’t really know what to do, we didn’t want to get screwed. Interscope was a very unique situation. The two I ended up liking were them and Warner Brothers. WB had all this kind of history, but at the end of the day, there’s no way they could’ve done what Interscope did, because they were just this giant corporation, you know? We wouldn’t have gotten the attention that we did at Interscope.