"They chopped off the end of the bone, had to go in and put in a new tendon. So I'm kind of impeded."
So begins my conversation with Page Hamilton, frontman and guitarist for the newly reformed metal band, Helmet-the appetizing details of his reconstructive shoulder surgery after a recent mountain bike accident. From there, we ease into jazz theory, the beauty of small clubs and the subtle humor of the Beatles.
It's hard to say which part is more unnerving, but Hamilton is lighthearted about them all.
For the first time in seven years, he and Helmet are back on the road to support a new album. Written and produced by Hamilton, Size Matters is a crushing effort that brings back the sparse, down-tuned weight that made Helmet one of the few East Coast voices heard above the din that was Seattle, circa 1991.
After the critical success and commercial failure of 1997's Aftertaste, they were gone. There just wasn't a good seat for Helmet in a rock pantheon topped by the likes of Gwen Stefani and Scott Stapp.
"It wasn't for lack of trying," Hamilton says. "I'd been writing and went through some talks with record companies, but I wasn't 21 anymore. I'd given up my wallet chain when I was 17."
For an Oregon native who moved to New York to study jazz, the leap from Charlie Parker to Helmet's signature "reductionist rock aesthetic" has never been a clear one. To hear Hamilton digress on the topic is as entertaining as it is erratic, like trying to jog after a few spins on the merry-go-round.
When asked about the common critique that his music is nearly devoid of melody, he answers:
"I don't know if you know about my background being a jazz geek.... I have one foot in the world of standard harmony and one foot in the world of my harmony. The thirds are thrown out on most of my chords. The third is what gives a chord its color and that's where the color of the harmony establishes the key center and gives you melodic possibilities. So I understand when people say it's not melodic. You could probably go in and fill the chords out with the third, but when you're playing with a really saturated guitar sound-a lot of distortion-and you play a power chord with a third, it sounds like shit."
Reeling him back in from explanations of overtone series, upper tertials and his brand of modal harmonies, we get back to the new lineup. With proven players-guitarist Chris Traynor (Bush, Orange 9mm), bassist Frank Bello (Anthrax) and drummer John Tempesta (Rob Zombie)-Hamilton's only concern is that he "couldn't get Frank to get a haircut."
Compared to playing midsize arena shows with Nine Inch Nails in 1997, the current two-month U.S. tour will be much more intimate (which is somewhat like advertising a tiny apartment as "charming"). The band's Oct. 27 show at the 200-plus-capacity Casbah sold out weeks in advance. Judging by such response, Helmet probably could have filled larger venues and made more money, but Page prefers his lightning in a bottle.
"I'd rather play smaller places," he explains. "It gives the band an opportunity to experience that sound pressure when you turn an amp up to 100-120db and pack a room full of people."
From the sound of Size Matters, there's no question Helmet will leave a trail of bleeding ears. The first single, "See You Dead," is an aggressive testament to the pain of a crumbled relationship.
Hamilton explains, "It was inspired by "Run For Your Life' by the Beatles, where [Lennon] says, "I'd rather see you dead little girl/ than be with another man.'"
The chorus of "See You Dead" screams, "I could miss you more right now/ or I could slit your throat!" It makes you wonder what kind of person could glean so much brutality from a track off the all-acoustic Rubber Soul.
"I always thought that in 1964 to write, "I'd rather see you dead than be with another man' was good humor, not to be taken literally," Hamilton explains.
So, when Hamilton sings, "Sometimes I get lonely/ and all I need is to see you dead!" as a wall of amps ruptures your inner ear, just remember: giggle-this is some funny shit. BHelmet plays, sans thirds, with Instruction at The Casbah on Oct. 29. The show is sold out.