Helmet: content on the outskirts

October 09, 1992|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Pop Music Critic

"Being a rock star is a very specific thing," says Helmet frontman Page Hamilton, over the phone from a hotel in Cleveland, Ohio. "It's a job -- a job for Bono and Sting and Axl Rose. Those guys are rock stars. That's what they do.

"That's not what we do," he adds. "That's not what we're capable of doing. We're capable of playing music, and just staying on the outskirts [of stardom] is preferable for us."

Being utterly disinterested in fame and fortune is hardly a normal attitude for a rock and roll band, particularly one that has come as far as fast as Helmet has. After all, in less than six months, this New York-based quartet has gone from the darkest depths regions of the alternative rock underground to the dazzling heights of MTV.

And no one is more surprised by Helmet's speedy success than Hamilton and his bandmates. "We were totally surprised when the majors started calling in the first place," he says. "Then to see it on MTV so much -- it's such a strange thing. I can't stand most MTV when I've seen it.

"It's unbelievable."

Particularly since the only real change that "Meantime," the group's recent major-label debut, has brought to the band has been popularity. Musically, the group's sound is just as hard-hitting and uncompromising as it was when Helmet was still signed to the underground indie Amphetamine Reptile label. In fact, the only obvious difference between the sound of "Meantime" and its independently produced predecessor, "Strap It On," is in the recording quality; the music is just as bitingly intense and jackhammer insistent as ever.

That's not to say Helmet hasn't gotten grief for moving up to the majors. Hamilton thinks it's a little silly, but he understands why these fans act that way.

"There are elitist audiences in all the new genres of rock," he says. "Some people are going to jump ship on us because we went to a major label, but that's a small percentage."

Why do these fans feel so intensely about their bands? "Where we came from, which is the indie label scene in the States, people they need to identify with something," he explains. "Amphetamine Reptile has a specific thing they do. If you get into some Amphetamine Reptile band and listen to another Amphetamine Reptile band and you like it, suddenly you're an Amphetamine Reptile fan.

"I've always maintained that we're not really part of any specific group, though obviously we're going to be seen as having come out of the underground and more of a punk thing," he adds. "But I never worried about who thought what. I hope people will just listen to the music."

Music, for Hamilton, has always been a value unto itself, something that goes beyond categories and pigeonholes. "It breaks down to there being 12 notes in Western music, and you can arrange them however you like," he says.

"I got exposed to a lot of different kinds of music, and was attracted to different kinds of music at different times. I found that I had to focus on one kind of music for a while. Like, I couldn't listen to anything but John Coltrane for a long time, and then I couldn't listen to anything but Mozart. You just get these periods.

"But the more music you hear, the more you realize that you just take everything on its own merits. I can get into Killing Joke as much as I can get into Bartok or Coltrane, whatever."

Perhaps that's why it's so easy for him to shrug off his band's imminent fame. "The one way to take the focus on all this -- the hoopla that surrounds this whole ridiculous rock thing -- is to keep playing music," he says. "That's what it's supposed to be about, and some of these bands, they get away from it.

"I opened up USA Today, looking for football scores yesterday, and I saw this thing that said 'Prince: The Planetary Premiere of His New Video.' Planetary premiere? We just all burst into hysterics.

"It was unbelievable, the pomposity of the whole thing."

Helmet

When: Oct. 12 at 8 p.m.

Where: Michael's Eighth Avenue, 7220 Grayburn Drive.

Tickets: $18.50.

Call: (410) 766-7474 for information, (410) 481-7328 for tickets.

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