An Interscope Records employee once asked Page Hamilton a question he had expected but didn't want to hear.
His band, Helmet, had just finished their third album, Betty. The label suit wondered why no tune sounded much like "Unsung," the hit from 1992's Meantime.
"I already wrote that song," Hamilton remembers as his quip. It's the morning after a show in Philadelphia, part of a tour where Helmet is playing Betty in its entirety 21 years after its release. A day later, at New York's Bowery Ballroom, Hamilton offered eyerolls for predictable song requests from the sold-out crowd's more inebriated members.
"Do you know what album that one was on?" he sneered back. The audience members didn't seem to mind the ribbing, as they pushed and shoved one another through all 14 Betty tracks. The band faithfully played each note, each beat, each feedback squall in sequence. Hamilton took small liberties with the solos, but by and large, it was Betty as it's always been. You had to wonder what that Interscope lackey does these days.
"I didn't pay much attention to what [Interscope's] expectations were," Hamilton says. "When we signed that deal, they agreed that we got to keep creative control."
Essentially done with the glamorous side of heavy metal and in frantic search of the next Nirvana, major labels in the '90s worked to woo noisy underground bands from their indie label homes with big checks and bigger promises, like lusty college boys in search of guaranteed thrills. Years later, the process left countless musicians looking for a home, the end result of a failed attempt to commercialize alternative music's frayed edges. The imprints dumped many such acts when they failed to turn a sufficient profit.
But Helmet and the Melvins, at least for a time, found success in an increasingly tenuous middle ground between alternative rock and heavy metal. Helmet's Meantime LP and the Melvins' Houdini, which followed a year later, sounded uncompromising and current. Buoyed by popular single "Unsung" and its accompanying archetypal MTV Buzz Bin music video, the heavy but strangely approachable Meantime sold enough to go gold. A counterpoint befitting the era, the song rebuked The Who's "My Generation," with Hamilton's barbed one-liner: "To die young is far too boring these days."
Then came major-label record number two, Betty. Guitarist Peter Mengede left the group after Meantime, replaced by Rob Echeverria. Bassist Henry Bogdan and drummer John Stanier wanted to be more involved in the writing. With a formal education in jazz and classical guitar, Hamilton introduced them to his method, which involved a four-track recorder and a drum machine. "That had a big impact on the album," Hamilton says, citing Bogdan's riffs for "Rollo" and "The Silver Hawaiian" as proof.
Betty found Helmet at an uncanny musical crossroads, reflecting a willful defiance of the status quo. Exploring and refining the graffiti-ed East Village brick wall of sound of Meantime and 1990's Strap It On, this was music for metalheads who liked groove and scummy rockers who liked noise. There was more overt experimentation on Betty's wicked back half, like the jagged funk of "Biscuits for Smut" and the sordid blues of "Sam Hell." Hamilton had transitioned from feral yelper to angsty crooner, unintentionally creating a template that would soon be followed by successors such as The Deftones. Even the album artwork was distinct, featuring a milk-fed pastoral beauty, smiling innocently. She posed in stark contrast to the band's former industrial ugliness.
"I never consciously set out to show off," Hamilton says. "We'd had success doing the things we wanted to do, and we expanded upon it."
Helmet would release one more record for Interscope, 1997's Aftertaste, before disbanding. Each member went on to different musical endeavors, coasts and even continents. Hamilton headed west to Los Angeles, logged time with David Bowie's touring posse and produced a record for Gavin Rossdale's post-Bush project, Institute. In 2004, Hamilton rebooted Helmet with a new lineup and proceeded to tour and record three albums. Last year, he decided to resurrect Betty, playing it from start to finish.
But why revisit an album that disappointed by commercial standards, even if it stands as a fan favorite two decades later? Playing a classic album has proven an effective compromise for old bands wanting to generate new revenue without having to slog through a hits-focused set again and again. (Hello, Pixies.) And by guaranteeing that a significant portion of the night's program comes from one era, the band incentivizes fans to show up, especially those burned before by artists who boycott their big hits out of vainglory.
For Hamilton, the nostalgia trip brings more technical challenges than ideological ones. It lets the group revisit portions of the discography that rarely if ever got a shot in the live setting. Songs like "The Silver Hawaiian," for instance, hadn't been part of the live repertoire in decades, and "Sam Hell" had never been performed in concert at all prior to last year.
"The middle of the record gets pretty tricky," Hamilton admits. "On 'Clean,' I have to cut my brain in half, because it's a weird little riff and a funky drumbeat. And I have to sing against it."
Performing Betty live front to back isn't just an easy win for the band and fans; it also provides a chance for reflection on Helmet's cumulative output. Though Betty didn't sell as well as Meantime, some hailed it as Helmet's best work. Meantime consists of a taut 10 tracks, similar in sound and fury. Betty, on the other hand, ebbs and flows in ways the totalitarian structures of Meantime never permitted. Betty's more playful tracks allow the heavier material around them to let in more light. It's barely six minutes longer than Meantime, but it's much less demanding, teeming with familiarity and a kind of unexpected comfort. At some point between the two records, Helmet kept their New York attitude but lost their aura of danger.
Perhaps that transition and tension across the records will be most evident live, as Helmet opted to forego an opening act. Instead, they will play through the record only to return for a second full set of material from the remainder of their discography. For Hamilton, it's all an opportunity to continue proving that metal, math and rock don't need their own genres. They're more fun when they're commingled.
"People get too caught up in a band's image and classifying where it goes in a record store," he says. "I don't listen to music in that way."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Betty is back "