You name it, the New York-based Helmet has been tagged everything, including alternative, metal, progressive and thrash. But they think of themselves as a mere pop band, which is odd, considering their hard, grinding assault and deference to mass appeal in favor of artistic integrity. This group has been in the public eye for eight years, yet still, no one can define what it is they do.
This explains why Helmet isn’t one of the world’s biggest bands, although they should be. They remain a critic’s favorite, and have long hovered on the verge of blockbuster status. Since their 1992 release Meantime, other bands have attempted to pirate their obliterating sound and fury.
But Helmet’s Sabbath-stoked vocals, seething guitars, hemorrhaging rhythm section and experimental songwriting distinguish them as true innovators in perpetual transition. Their fourth and newest release, Aftertaste, is set to position Helmet squarely in the big leagues. Maybe ’97 will be their year.
A back-to-basics album, Aftertaste has been described by the band as a return to their roots. On their last release, ’94s Betty, Helmet dabbled in jazz, hip-hop, even funk, all within a metal framework. In contrast, Aftertaste is a melodic collection of catchy, hook-laden tunes – a kinder, gentler Helmet, perhaps? Are you kidding? The album retains all the brutality one would expect from Helmet, nestled within an eminently listenable context. “I consider half of this album to be a little more song-oriented than the last one, taking us a big step forward,” explains the band’s 28-year-old drummer John Stanier. “The other half goes all the way back to our very first record.”
That would be Strap It On, which came out in 1989, not long after Helmet signed a multi-album record-breaking million-dollar contract with Interscope Records. Stanier surprises us when he says, “That was a really difficult period for us to go through. It was a good deal, but for a while, people were only talking about the deal, and not the music.” Still, Stanier can hardly complain about how quickly events unfolded. Helmet had been together for a matter of months when they were signed, and Stanier had lived in New York for only a year before he hooked up with the other band members through a want ad in the Village Voice.
He moved to the Big Bad Apple in the Summer of ’88 after attending the University of South Florida for two years, where he studied classical percussion. “That’s where I learned all the rudiments, and I also studied percussion ensemble, mallets and all of that,” he says. “It was all orchestral – a totally different universe from what I’m doing now. At that time, I was studying and playing all of the orchestral stuff during the day, and at night, I was playing in a hardcore band. Both worlds sort of clashed.”
Yeah, kind of.
Originally from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Stanier and his family moved to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, when he was a teenager. His parents were bohemians – his mother an artist, his father a tenor-saxophonist-turned-teacher – who contributed to his appreciation of diverse musical styles. “I’ve been exposed to just about everything, musically speaking,” he says. “My parents played a pretty big range of music at home. Sun Ra was my first concert, when I was two. I never really got into jazz – although I respect it – probably because I grew up with it and it was played so much around the house. It really wasn’t my thing because I hadn’t discovered it for myself. So I had to find music that was my own, so to speak.”
Stanier was practically in diapers when it dawned on him that drumming was so darn cool: “It was really early on, because when we were little, my dad was still playing music, and that’s when I knew it was going to be the drums. At the time, we lived in Pittsburgh and he was teaching college and he’d have these all-night parties with all his musician friends coming over to play. I remember this drummer, who I would watch all night long. I guess I picked the drums because they were the loudest.
“When I was 12, I started jamming with a bunch of guys in my garage. The cool thing about my parents was that we could always play in our garage and they’d never complain. And we were loud. Really loud.” Surprisingly, Stanier’s earliest influences were not drummers from the heaviest rock bands, but progressive rockers. “Hands-down, Neil Peart,” he answers when asked which drummer he venerated most while growing up. “I think he completely re-wrote the book on rock drumming. Bonham definitely did a lot for rock drumming, but Peart took it to the next level. I really went through a prog-rock period, listening to Yes, King Crimson, Emerson Lake & Palmer. Then I got into Terry Bozzio, who completely blew me away. I’m also influenced by hardcore stuff – Chuck Biscuits and early D.O.A., Grant Hart from Husker Du, Alex Van Halen, too. I also got into Lenny White and Return To Forever.”
If you listen closely to Aftertaste, you can hear remnants of Stanier’s progressive rock influences whenever he attacks a fill or orchestrates a break. For instance, he punches through an absolutely wicked drum passage on “Harmless,” a track Stanier jokingly refers to as “the drum solo song” [see Ex. 1], then adds, “That wasn’t hard at all. It was really easy.” Okay. So which track did Mr. Smarty Drawers find especially challenging? “The bridge in ’Birth Defect,’” he answers [see Ex. 2]. “That was super-hard. I don’t remember how many takes that took, but we don’t do more than two or three takes. That was fun to do, but definitely a challenge.”
Stanier’s 1997 Setup
Drums: Tama Artstar Custom
1. 24″ x 16″ Bass Drum
2. 14″ x 5-1/2″ Snare Drum
3. 10″ x 10″ Tom
4. 12″ x 10″ Tom
5. 13″ x 11″ Tom
6. 16″ x 16″ Floor Tom
A. 14″ K Hi-Hats
B. 22″ A Custom Ride
C. 22″ A Earth Ride
John Stanier also uses Regal Tip Quantum 3000 wood tip sticks and Remo heads.
Both examples demonstrate how Stanier can unleash the flash and finesse of the fanciest fusion drummers, yet he chooses to parcel out his technique sparingly, and rarely overplays, if ever. His strategy fits perfectly with Helmet’s. “I can hear when a drummer is overplaying, and that’s cool in some bands where it works,” he says. “But overall, I think a good drummer knows when to throw the little extra things in and when not to. And if a drummer can add those little extra things at just the right time, then it’s amazing. That’s when a song is really special.”
Speed-for-speed’s-sake doesn’t top Stanier’s priority list. Keeping good time does. “In the studio, tempo is definitely a priority,” he says. “We’ll do a couple of cuts and then we’ll listen to the playback, and if my parts are dragging or speeding at certain points, then I’ll have to concentrate more on those parts. Live, tempo is important, but not as much. It’s not that hard to get your tempos right live, and if you think too much about tempo, you’re more likely to screw it up.”
Beware! If you ever encounter Stanier in person, do everyone in spitting distance a favor and restrain yourself from asking if he uses a click track. We did, and got the following impassioned response: “Never! I hate click tracks! I’ve used a click track once, years ago, for about five minutes. That was it! I like it when a certain part of a song gets a tiny bit faster. I like hearing records that do that because that means that the band was getting excited. By the time some of our songs end, we’re just bursting at the seams, so of course we speed up. I like to hear that with other bands, too. Definitely.
“Another thing about a click track,” he adds: “My experience was that you pay so much more attention to this click rather than relaxing and playing along to the song. It totally makes the tempo the whole purpose of being a drummer. That is your first purpose, I guess, but it’s not the only thing you’re there for. That would be boring, musically speaking.”
True, and Stanier does pick up the tempo ever so slightly on “Diet Aftertaste” [from Aftertaste]. Was that an adrenaline rush or a deliberate choice? “It probably was not intentional. But unless the song is really slow, where a tempo change would be crucial, you won’t usually notice it. On mid-tempo or fast songs where it speeds up a little bit, well, it just happens. That’s just me admitting that I suck,” he says self-disparagingly. “I’m not proud of that at all. That’s a fault of mine, definitely. Maybe in certain parts I’ll speed up a little bit. If it’s super noticeable, then it’s really bad. But like I said, stuff speeds up, stuff drags, and that’s more human sounding.”
And to capture such living, breathing humanity on magnetic tape, Helmet records all basic tracks live, though they aim primarily at nabbing working drum tracks, then overdub guitars and vocals as needed afterward. However, for the Aftertaste sessions, producer Dave Sardy threw Stanier a curveball when he insisted that the drummer set up his kit and lay down tracks in the studio’s restroom. You heard right – sitting there next to the commode. Needless to say, Stanier wasn’t amused. “Sardy is pretty crazy and is always experimenting with stuff,” Stanier says. “We had this bathroom at the studio that was all tiled – walls, ceilings and floor – so it was a total echo-chamber. It was ridiculously loud in there.”
Stanier continues to explain that Sardy leaned pretty heavily on him during the sessions for Aftertaste in order to wring out his best possible performances. “I was the one Dave singled out for this record,” he laughs. “He really picked on me to get my drums right. He saw early on that the more he pushed me, the more pissed off I got, and in the end, the better I played. We change the arrangements constantly in the studio, and we’re used to recording things so fast that I tend to be kind of ’on’ in the studio. So I’m really ready to do my parts and just get things done right.”
We wanted to know exactly how fast Helmet records an album. We found out. In the time it takes most bands to sort out their drum sounds, Helmet has already completed tracking and is halfway through with mixing. “We do work pretty quickly,” Stanier says. “In fact, there was no preparation at all for this new record. We’re definitely a last-minute band when we record. We’re always changing stuff right up to the last second as we’re tracking. In the past, we’ve tracked our records over one weekend.”
In contrast, Aftertaste took a comparatively indulgent seven days to record. “This one took a lot longer because we did it in L.A., and we were working with Dave and with millions of mikes.” (Excuses, excuses!) “For this record – as well as the last one – there was a lot of pressure on me in the studio, because the songs are never finished until the last second. Then everyone turns to me and says, ’Okay. Now you have to play an amazing part for this section.’ We play it through once and then I have to record it. That’s something that I complain about, but I actually like, because it’s spontaneous.
“Page [Hamilton, vocals and guitar] writes the basic structures of the songs and puts them on his four-track for everybody to hear,” Stanier continues. “If Page suggests something, I’ll just take it from there. For Aftertaste, we wrote a few of the songs as a band, but as far as the arrangements go, no one tells me what to play. I have complete freedom. I pretty much can do whatever I want, and luckily, everyone seems to like it. Of course we all toss around ideas.”
On occasion, either to relieve the boredom of the road or just to straighten out clumsy sections, Stanier plays his parts differently live than on the studio versions. “A little differently,” he clarifies. “In the studio, the pressure’s on and you’re really concentrating because you can’t mess up. Live, it’s a lot more open and obviously less demanding in some ways. As far as how hard I hit, it’s pretty much the same for live and the studio. But live, when it’s a year after the record’s out and you’re playing your 300th show, you can go off a bit on the song that you’ve played 300 times before.”
Still, Helmet are road dogs who tirelessly tour, and love it. “After being in a band for seven, eight years that tours as much as we do, you meet a lot of people,” Stanier says. “I really like playing the big festivals in Europe because you get to meet musicians from really different types of music that you’d never meet if you’re out on tour on your own. I love those kinds of strange bills where there’s a bunch of different types of bands, all thrown together.”
When Helmet isn’t on the road, Stanier either retreats to his loft apartment in New York or satisfies his addiction. No, it has nothing to do with sex or drugs. Remember, he’s not from Seattle. John Stanier is a snowboard junkie. “I basically try to snowboard as much as I can. I’m spending way too much money doing it,” he laughs. “I have a lot of friends who ride, so now I do that every chance I get. It’s also a social thing.”
See, it really doesn’t matter if Helmet isn’t one of the biggest bands in the world. Stanier has a good life regardless, and he doesn’t have to make many compromises (besides the occasional bathroom thing, of course). He’s a good guy, and especially thanks his parents, who nurtured early musical aspirations and tolerated Concorde-like noise levels in their garage all those years ago. Turns out the folks have even become a pair of Helmetheads. “They follow us around on tour,” he says. “They come to the majority of the Florida gigs. I’m really lucky. If it weren’t for my parents, I’d never have become a musician.”
Hey John, if it weren’t for your parents, you wouldn’t be here, period!
Stanier’s Aftertaste Grooves
During the recording of Aftertaste, John Stanier syncopated a killer solo on “Harmless” (Ex. 1) but had the most trouble tracking the bridge to “Birth Defect” (Ex. 2).