You don't expect to end up talking about talk about Beethoven, the Brill Building pop era or Charlie Parker when interviewing the leader of one of the heaviest and most influential rock/alternative/metal bands of the last 20 years, but Helmet singer-guitarist Page Hamilton is no ordinary rocker.
The 47-year-old Hamilton, who started Helmet in the late '80s by placing a classified ad for bandmates in The Village Voice, has an undergraduate degree in classical and jazz music and a master's in jazz guitar.
When not redefining the sound of hard-rock guitar with Helmet, he has played with Joe Henry, David Bowie, Therapy?, Caspar Brötzmann and Nine Inch Nails, has produced the work of other bands and led the group Gandhi.
Hamilton had lots of time for such work after Helmet broke up in 1998; he reformed the group in 2004 to release the album Size Matters. Its follow-up, Monochrome, was released last year.
Now, Helmet is headed to Tucson for a gig Wednesday, Nov. 21, at Club Congress. We caught up with Hamilton by phone last weekend as he and the rest of the band were shuttling between hotels in Raleigh, N.C.
Helmet's technically sophisticated blend of precise, syncopated guitar playing, unique tuning, unusual time signatures and a heady mix of distortion, dissonance and feedback has inspired countless post-hard-core, alternative and metal acts. He is, however, modest about his band's influence.
"I understand how the guitar vocabulary has maybe been influential to some musicians, the sort of minimalist approach to riff writing, but that's been part of music forever. I always bring up the example of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony--that melodic line that everybody knows is just two notes.
"That said, I am always very proud of the legacy we do have."
Hamilton was born and raised in Oregon and moved during the early 1980s to New York City to study jazz guitar. Before assembling Helmet in 1989, he performed for a while in the guitar symphonies of composer Glenn Branca and was a member of Band of Susans.
Helmet's first album, the amazing Strap It On, was released in 1990 by the independent Amphetamine Reptile Records to immediate acclaim. Soon, the band was working on the even more thrilling Meantime for the major label Interscope.
After an odds-and-ends compilation, Born Annoying, released by AmRep, and two more studio albums, the original group fell apart. It wasn't what Hamilton wanted at the time.
"When we disbanded, it was the choice of my bandmates. I wanted to continue, maybe take a year off, because we had been touring intensely for almost 10 years, but they wanted it to be over. When you come to a crossroads like that, you just have to say, 'Good riddance,' and then, 'What am I going to do next?'"
Hamilton didn't sit idle for long.
In addition to the work with other rock artists mentioned above, he worked as a composer and/or session musician for films such as Titus, Heat, Chicago Cab and Saw.
Most recently, the studio band re-creating The Beatles songs for the current film Across the Universe featured Hamilton, performing alongside such luminaries as Jim Keltner and T-Bone Burnett, as well as composer-producer-arranger Eliott Goldenthal.
Even still, when the chance came to start work on Size Matters, Hamilton jumped for it.
"It was great to be working as Helmet again, and it allowed me to kind of stop overthinking Helmet's legacy and continue now in the format and approach I have always liked the best: two guitars, bass and drums.
"I mean, when you play a small place in Bakersfield, Calif., and 50 people show up, you kind of wonder why you're still doing this shit. But when you play in Melbourne, Australia, from which we just got back, and you play in front of 1,000 people and sell the place out, it tells you that people do still care about the band, and they want to hear the music."
The current Helmet lineup--which Hamilton says is stable for now--includes drummer Kyle Stevenson, guitarist Jimmy Thompson and bassist Jon Fuller. He auditioned dozens of players, he says, but his current compatriots all were found as a result of consulting with colleagues and friends.
Hamilton assures longtime fans that his new band is doing a lot of the classic Helmet material, including early favorites such as "Sinatra," "Repetition," "Blacktop," "In the Meantime," "Unsung," "Bad Mood" and "FBLA."
"We have more than half of Strap It On down and more than half of Meantime. The goal for me would be eventually to have all the albums down from beginning to end, but that is asking a lot of them and of me."
As a jazz musician, Hamilton admits he often approaches heavy rock from that direction. "Jazz has made me, the way I think and hear and write, although it would be hard for you to notice just from listening to Helmet's music."
Not so unnoticeable is the way Helmet's music, even the brutal early stuff, swings.
"That's true, and that's incredibly important. The Beatles swing, especially if you listen to Ringo. What people don't always remember is they were influenced by the blues and R&B. And AC/DC swings; they were into blues and R&B, too. Those elements find their way into your music, even though you are using it to try to create your own guitar vocabulary and melodies."
Although it's been a more than a year since Monochrome came out, an explosive new single, "Revenge Destroys Everything," was released on iTunes in September.
Hamilton says the new song might be on a new album he hopes to start recording in early 2008, although that wasn't its purpose.
"It was the first thing I've done with the new lineup. It was a great opportunity to get the new lineup in the studio, hear how we sounded and allow them to see how I work."
Helmet recorded it for the soundtrack of the forthcoming thriller Tatua. At that movie's MySpace page (myspace.com/tatuathemovie), you can watch and listen to a music video of Helmet's latest tune.