FEAR OF FEAR: Helmet vs. Prong
Page Hamilton and Tommy Victor on their CBGB roots
New York City in the late 1980s and early ’90s was a hotbed of confrontational post-punk and experimental rock sounds ground out by a generation of artists and musicians with a heady axe to grind. Sonic Youth delivered the city’s noisy aesthetics to MTV and the world stage. On the ground level, bands such as Pussy Galore, Unsane, Cop Shoot Cop, and more fostered a fierce outsider scene — art-punk for the sake of urgency and contempt. It was an antagonistic, East Coast counterpart to the stranglehold that Seattle’s muddy grunge sounds held over the music of the times. Two bands that emerged from the New York scene, Helmet and Prong established their own legacies by veering away from the formulas and perceptions of their respective hardcore and metal backgrounds.
Helmet's Page Hamilton and Prong's Tommy Victor, the singers, guitarists, and principle songwriter's for their respective bands, first crossed paths on the hallowed grounds of NYC’s fabled music haunt CBGB. It was the same club that fostered such legendary acts as the Talking Heads, Blondie, Television, and the Ramones a generation before, and proved a fertile stomping ground for an even angrier musical chapter. Before Helmet and Prong launch a co-headlining tour at the Masquerade on May 3 — their first time ever playing a show together — Hamilton and Victor sat down to talk about Helmet and Prong’s 30-year journey.
Do you remember how you two first met?
Paige Hamilton: I remember specifically, the exact moment when we met: Tommy was mixing front of house and we were all pretty nervous, it was like our third show ever and we were auditioning to get a gig at CBGB. I remember walking in with a demo tape and Louise Parnassa, whom Tommy will fondly remember, was so very droll and disinterested. She was like “I might listen to this in a couple of weeks, but if you want a gig here you have to audition.” I said, “Alright, when’s the next audition?” Do you remember this, Tommy?
Tommy Victor: I do. I believe it was on a Sunday or a Monday night …
Hamilton: Helmet formed in early ‘89 so we would have auditioned around May or June ... I had this weird small Marshall that was really cool, and this matching 212 cab, and I remember Tommy coming up to the stage to mic it — you really couldn’t see the speakers — but he put a mic up to it. He was the first person to ever mix Helmet. Mike Kirkland, Prong’s bass player at the time, was the door guy, and Louise said, “These guys think you’re great, so we should book you.” I think they said something like, “Should play with bands like Unsane and Cop Shoot Cop” (Laughs).
I mean … it makes sense.
Hamilton: So we started playing CBGB every month. Of course, we saw Prong there. We didn’t have a whole lot of interaction; Tommy probably thought, “Great, here’s another fucking band that I’ve gotta mix” (laughs). That night there was a female folky kind of singer wearing a long dress, and there was a band where the guitar player had a bandana tied around his thigh. I remember thinking, “What are you doing?” We were just dorks who played in whatever clothes we were wearing. But this band was kind of ... Night Rangerey.
Victor: It was funny, they’d have a mix of bands like Bon Jovi, and then the lower east side bands, and then some R&B acts at those audition nights. The club was mostly looking for the draw. Then a band like Helmet came in ... Creatively, they were amazing, but they didn’t draw a lot of people. It was all about business, for sure.
Hamilton: I miss that, man. I miss when it was one of those steaming hot New York summer days and you’d stop by CB’s and sit in the air conditioning for like 10 minutes. I did that when we’d get off the road and come home. I loved that club, and I have such fond memories about that place.
Victor: It was a great gig. That was my day job, and I was fortunate that I could roll out on tour and come back and mix bands. It was perfect.
Did Helmet and Prong ever play a show together back then?
Victor: No, it never happened!
Hamilton: We talked about it. We were mutual admirers of each other. Someone told me, “Tommy Victor loves you guys,” and I was like, “Fuck yeah!” And our drummer worshiped the drummer from Prong, he was a monster. But sometimes you get busy. We had a booking agent in Minneapolis so we ended up playing with a lot of Minneapolis and Chicago bands back then. A lot of AmRep bands. We’d definitely go out to see everybody play, but sometimes opportunities just don’t present themselves.
Tommy and I started talking about touring together four-six years ago. In retrospect, Helmet and Prong — there’s elements of noise and hardcore and metal and different things in the music — the aesthetics we share make it feel like we were cut from the same cloth.
Back in those days, metal and punk/hardcore crowds didn’t mix, there was like a Coke vs. Pepsi rivalry.
There was some of that going on with the crowds, but Helmet and Prong had cross over appeal. In Prong, we’d play shows at L’amour, which was a strictly metal place, so we saw that as an opportunity to cross over and play with the early thrash bands. But also, we played with the Undead, Broken Bones, Agnostic Front. It’s crazy when you look back. There were divisions, but there was more space to expand, and more opportunities to break down barriers.
Hamilton: People back then would ask, “Is there a scene in New York?” And we were like, “Naw, we aren’t really part of a scene” (laughs). But when you look back, there was a huge scene. We were playing with such a diverse group of bands, and I dug so many of those bands — noisy shit! I loved stuff that was heavy, and I loved hardcore too. Sick Of It All toured with Helmet. I don’t know if people would be open to that kind of thing now, but, musically, it made a lot of sense.
Victor: You guys were a hardcore band, with breakdowns and unique signatures. A lot of hardcore bands, what they do now comes from what Helmet was doing. Any hardcore bands should be able to fit in playing with Helmet. There’s no doubt about that.
Likewise, Prong was, and is, a punk band, as much as it is a metal band.
Victor: Prong really is a punk band. I wasn’t interested in metal when Prong started. We started listening to a lot of metal bands, so we threw that into the mix.
Prong and Helmet were always thriving outside of the formula — what people expected you to do.
Hamilton: There was a punk rock aesthetic there, and we were both independent bands — neither one of us were putting out records on major labels. We were booking our own shows, getting in the van, and going out. We crashed in people’s houses, there was like a network of bands around the country who would give us a place to crash. I recently talked with these guys in a band that Helmet opened up for in ’97 — I won’t say who it was — and they were like, “No, we never toured a van,” and I thought, “Aww man, really? You always had a tour bus? That is weak.”
We earned our coolness back then, and we wanted to earn it in that way. I’m proud that my band was founded in New York City, and we were a New York band. I moved to New York with $500 and a guitar. That’s it. I remember one of the Biohazard guys saying to me once, “You aren’t really a New York band, because none of you are from here!” I said “Well, I don’t have my mom cooking for me! I fucking moved here with nothing!”
As far as I was concerned, New York was the center of the universe for music. Everything happened in New York. Helmet started playing at CBGB just like the fucking Talking Heads and Blondie did. I’m proud of that. New York is a fucking incredible place, and an incredible place to form a band. It impacted me as a person and as an artist.
Victor: It was a big melting pot of affordability, and living there, and having a band, and playing shows, and having practice space. That’s why this tour is so cool, because it’s bringing back old roots — it’s where we came from. It’s not all nostalgia, though. We are still making new records and forging ahead, but that needs to be implemented in people’s psyche. It’s very unique to the history of rock ’n’ roll, really.
You both had records come out within the last year, are you playing new material or is this kind of a victory lap?
Hamilton: Well, you know, the massive, massive sales from our last album, Dead To the World, have afforded me a mansion in Malibu (laughs). So yeah, victory lap. We have no new material to play right now, and we are actually resurrecting a few songs that get requested a lot, but we don’t ever get to play them. We’re also going to add some things that haven’t been played in like 10 years, or even longer.
Tommy, are you touring behind Zero Days right now, or is it a more comprehensive Prong set?
Victor: We never really tour about one single record, because there are so many of them. We do play songs off the new record, and we have to play the “hits,” too, you know. I enjoy playing the old songs. We never play the majority of a set as all new material. It’s always stuff that people want to hear.
Do you feel like when you add new songs into your set it kind of breathes new life into the older song?
Hamilton: For me it’s like that. People ask, “Are you sick of playing “In the Meantime?” And I’m like, “Are you sick of putting on a suit and tie everyday?” Of course I’m not sick of it! I wrote a song that people still want to hear 30 fucking years later?
Victor: I think someone like Keith Richards once said something about how the Rolling Stones were so tired of playing “Satisfaction,” or something like that. After that, I think it got into the mentality of journalists, that people don’t like to play their most popular songs. But that’s really not the case with Prong.Hamilton: I love playing our older songs, too. We play a lot of stuff from the last two records, too, and they work together well. There are touchstones. There’s a song or two from the new record that harkens back to Betty or Meantime, and I think, ah, this is how these songs are going to work together.
When new albums come out, people always want to give you shit about them (laughs). When people heard Aftertaste they said, “Hey wait this doesn’t sound like Meantime!” It wasn’t supposed to. Meantime was like four years old at that point — or however long it had been. Then 20 years later, people say, “Man, I didn’t like that album at first, but now I love it!”
Hamilton: You can’t win! (laughs). All I can do is keep writing, them and keep playing them. If I think a song isn’t worth playing live I won’t do it.
With Helmet and with Prong, I have always thought that our thing is our thing. We’re not trying to be metal, punk, noise, hardcore. All of those things are in the music. We formed these bands to please ourselves. Earlier someone said, “Here you are, 30 years later …” And I said, “Yeah, it’s a testament to the fact that we did something that we believed in, and we were honest. So it all comes back around, and here we are.