After Nirvana traveled from relative obscurity to superstardom in a matter of mere months in the early 1990s, corporate rock executives began searching for the next big thing in the independent music world. Helmet was pursued ardently. The obscure New York-based band signed a $1 million deal in 1992, less than a year after punk broke.
Helmet vocalist-guitarist-songwriter Page Hamilton still scratches his head over the attention his band earned. "It was so weird," Hamilton says. "We were this cool little band on this little record label (Amphetamine Reptile Records) and suddenly we're getting these incredible offers from so many labels."
Hamilton and his bandmates gladly signed for seven figures with Interscope. It worked out for them. The band's Interscope debut, "Meantime," went gold, and a number of critically acclaimed albums, such as 1994's "Betty," followed.
"It was the right deal for us with the right label," Hamilton says. "It's a deal that never would happen today. They really wanted us. They were into our sound."
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A number of Nirvana-sque bands were inked to deals in the wake of the success of Kurt Cobain and Company. But Helmet didn't pack the power-pop approach Nirvana rode to the charts. Helmet hit with a brutal, unrelenting sonic attack. Big riffs over a 4/4 slam hit its fans in the gut.
The aforementioned "Betty" is arguably the band's finest hour. The album features songs that bludgeon, but there's also a catchiness to the cuts, such as "Milquetoast" and "Biscuits for Smut." There's jazzy and funky elements to the "Betty" tunes.
Helmet will play that album in its entirety Thursday at the Motorco Music Hall in Durham.
"It's a challenging album to play," Hamilton said. "It moves in different directions. There are a lot of different tunings and textures."
The band, which formed in 1989 and broke up in 1998, was resuscitated by Hamilton in 2004. Helmet's leader is the lone original member. Guitarist Dan Beeman, bassist Dave Case and drummer Kyle Stevenson will back Hamilton.
"We're solid," Hamilton says. "Dan and Kyle have been with me for a long time (since 2008). We're fine."
Hamilton is happy where he is, light years away from leading a band that signed that huge deal in 1992. He is content and he should be - Helmet still sells out small theaters, thanks to a rabid fan base.
"I'm fine since I never dreamed of becoming a rock star," Hamilton says. "It was always about being a great musician and songwriter. That's the bottom line for me. It's not about the trappings for me. I became a musician to make music. We've made a number of albums (seven). It's been a good run and it's still going."