Helmet, with Peter 2nd from the left
Peter Mengede interview
by Peter Crigler
Without a doubt, Helmet were one of the most dynamic and powerful bands to come roaring out of the entire '90's. Brutally heavy and uncompromising, Page Hamilton, John Stanier, Henry Bogdan and Pete Mengede tore up expectations about what was believed to be suitable for major label rock bands. One of the best examples of the post-Nirvana signing frenzy, the band made good with 1992's Meantime, one of the defining records of the decade. Though Mengede soon left the band and started the short-lived Handsome, the rest of Helmet carried on until 1998 when they could no longer stand each other. Page still tours under the name but the rest of the guys have played on with their own projects. But damn, this band was just astounding.
Q: When did you start playing guitar?
PM: I started playing guitar when I was about 11 in Brisbane, so, maybe grade six or seven. And I started getting pretty good in grade nine, then I used to wag school. Instead of doing my homework, I'd go to Ford's Fender after school every day and do guitar setups, hang out, and learn how to play. So, that's mostly where that came from. I left Brisbane because otherwise I would have had to have played and would've ended up playing in a cover band, which would have sucked. I moved to Sydney when I turned 18, flew down seated a few rows behind AC/DC. I was involved in the independent music scene down there. I worked for Rocking Horse Records, Hot Records, for Phantom for a brief spell mostly in record distribution and importing independents from the U.K. I then moved to Melbourne and worked for Monash Records doing import work and at their city store Gaslight on the weekends. That's when I was saving to go overseas. So, I worked in the independent music scene until I moved to the US in early 1986.
Q: How did Helmet come to form, and what was the music scene like at the time?
PM: Helmet formed, would have been, late '87, early 88 maybe. My wife at the time, Reyne, was working for Rockpool. She was a music editor at Rockpool magazine, which along with CMJ was one of the college alternative music mags of the time. She was flown over to the U.K. to do a feature on Blast First, which at the time she met Page who was playing with the Band of Susans. He wasn't very happy being in the Band of Susans. So, shortly thereafter she introduced us, suggested we start a band, paid for the ad in the Village Voice, that found John Stanier. The three of us played around for a while, we were looking for a bass player. Eventually Henry turned up and everything fell into place. So, it was myself, Page, John, then Henry, after a couple of trial bass players. Music scene at the time? Mostly in America it was horrible glam rock with men dressed as female hookers. It was pretty nasty, there was small Motorhead kind of inspired scene, somewhat, down on the Lower East Side. We had some sort of hard noise rock kind of wannabe bands down there. But look the mainstream music scene in America was absolutely dire, it was white soul, Michael Bolton, the Mullets, and men dressed as transvestites. Hair metal was everywhere, and there was just no way that you were gonna be a part of that if you were of a right mind. So, anyway I worked with Dutch East India in distribution at the time working in the same building as Gerard Cosloy- he was running Homestead with Craig Marks, who went on to edit Spin, so it was fantastic. I really landed right in the middle of the American independent scene at a great time. I also wrote for Rockpool, doing reviews and interviews. I ended up being, sitting in the middle of the New Music Seminar in '87, '88, which is incredible.
Q: How did the band come to develop its sound?
PM: It was just a combination of the four people playing. Page was the songwriter in the band. Everything started in regular tuning. One night we played a show at the Pyramid with the Melvins and Nirvana (circa Bleach). The Melvins were playing in drop D. And from that day forward, pretty much everything, most of what Helmet was doing was in drop D. Over time we learned how to play together. Low budget touring helped. I liked aggressive music and so hopefully that came out in the playing. I didn't like playing with a broomstick up my ass, anyway. It was a great release.
Q: So how did AmRep come into the picture?
PM: We recorded some demos with Don Fury at his basement on Prince Street, I think, so we threw them on a cassette and Page mailed them out to labels. Tom Hazelmeyer received a copy, wanted to put out "Born Annoying". At the time that was just incredible because now that we were distributing his Pogo the Clown single through Dutch East and the thought of being on Am Rep was just mind boggling, really. So, we thought that that was the... well, I thought that that was part of the pinnacle of success at that time.
Q: What was it like recording Strap It On?
PM: Well, it was pretty quick and to the point really, and cheap. We did it down at Wharton Tiers' basement in the 20's, East side. Most of it was done live from memory, apart from the vocals. Most of the guitars, the instruments were done live, with we four playing in the room. I got to do some overdubs on "Murder" so I had a reverse reverb thing happening there. My memory is not great, but I think that the whole thing was recorded and mixed inside of a week.
Q: So when did the majors start coming around, and what did that feel like?
PM: The majors really had no interest in us whatsoever, even though Sonic Youth had ... were doing pretty well and were selling around 100,000 records. The Pixies were selling, I don't know, 50 - 100,000 maybe? There had been some bands that have made some inroads into the mainstream, but it was never an expectation for us. But after Nirvana hit everything just went mental. All the hair metal bands were dropped like hot potatoes, I remember we played a place called Sudsy Malones in Cincinnati one night. It's a laundry/bar, people wash their clothes while they watched us play. And across the street a band called Britney Fox filled a big room. These metal bands were naming themselves after porn stars at the time. So they were drawing the big crowds and we had maybe 30 people having a beer, waiting for their socks to dry, while watching us. But that changed, so, it started I think with Relativity Records making a right sized offer for their independent label. Warner Bros. were a serious contender but in the end it was either Warner Bros. or Interscope and based on the numbers... Page wanted to go with Warner Bros. but if we had gone with Warners we would've been still working day jobs the day after signing. So fortunately common sense prevailed and we went with Interscope.
Helmet, with Peter on the far right
Q: So when did the band sign with Interscope, and was it true about the one-million-dollar advance?
PM: Yes, we signed with Interscope, just from memory it would've been very early in '92. Nirvana broke late '91, I think. It was a $1.2 million dollar advance for three records. So, when you look at that, it wasn't such a big deal. $400,000 per record, but that included recording, an independent promotions budget, independent publicity, tour support, videos, I think was $50,000 worth of tour support all recoupable. There was a separate publishing deal, which became a bone of contention later, most of the band had very little or nothing to do with it. So, it gave us a recording budget. It allowed us to tour, we stopped... trying to find people's houses to stay in on the road. We were able to afford cheap motels, so, we bunked two to a room. It was better than sleeping in the van. I hated rotating turns sleeping in the van for instance in freezing cold Detroit in the middle of winter. We had to do it because we had nowhere else to stay and make sure the gear didn't get nicked. We signed in the lawyers' office. We went to the St. Regis hotel and I wasn't drinking, but some people had champagne and then Henry and I rode downtown in a taxi. I thought to myself "God, I'll never have to work again in my life!" Henry just said he had a sinking, sickening feeling in his stomach.
Q: What was it like recording Meantime? Was there any pressure on the band to be commercial?
PM: No, no no no. We had been touring the songs, there was no question about what we were going to record. "Unsung" had been released as a single through AmRep so I guess that the idea there was that was going to be the single. We took a bit longer with Meantime, we might've taken two weeks all up including first mixes. Drums and bass went down first, my guitars, I did those in an hour and a half or so of a morning. I remember it was really, really quick and there was a mistake in a song that just bugged me, but we didn't have time to go back and fix it. Page took time doing his vocals and guitar overdubs, that was probably the lengthiest part of the recording process. Again, we were really budget conscious, as we had no commercial expectations. We didn't want to spent $70 to $100,000 on recording the album. Andy Wallace mixed it out in Jersey. That was kind of interesting, a bit painstaking though, a bit tedious watching someone ride a kick drum fader for days, and days, and days. Anyway, there was no pressure to be commercial, but Interscope did arrange for a very expensive recoupable video, shot in LA, with lots of strobes that set the tone for many alternative videos that came thereafter. So... If there was anything else that would've been a factor around that time it would've been the Gap opening a on St. Marks Place. Page started to buy his stripy t-shirts there. So, that set the Helmet fashion agenda, I suppose.
Q: What was success like, and how did everyone react to it?
PM: Some people got carried away with it. I enjoyed it. I loved playing and all of sudden we're playing in front of big crowds, people were going off and we were playing better and better the more we toured. We had some incredible tours, played with incredible bands, and it was fun. But I was also aware of the dynamic quickly changing in the band and there were some concerns. It was certainly less one for all. There was a fight in Zurich one morning where Henry and John got stuck into Page and said that he was taking all the credit, that they weren't getting any, and they weren't very happy about it. So, I did go back home to New York and suggest to management that we were going to do another album, we should all contribute, and have our contributions acknowledged. I guess that didn't go over too well. So, what else do I remember about that? I wasn't drinking, I had stopped drinking by then so, I was quite aware of everything that was going on.
Q: What ultimately caused your departure from the band?
PM: Alright, well I was aware that there wasn't much scope for creativity in the band. My former wife, Reyne Cuccuro, was an entertainment lawyer. She was familiar with contract law, and we had gone over the contracts from day one. I was aware of the way things were in that band. I wasn't going to be able to write. That was my main issue, I had spoken to people about writing for the next record and that had not gone down well. Just from my point of view, that was the biggest issue. There was a deterioration in relations there, then one thing led to another. At the time, I felt that departing from the band was the worst thing in my life. I thought it was the biggest fuck up ever. I hated myself. That was really, really painful, but many years later, having spoken to Henry and John, and post Handsome, I realized that that was the best thing that could have ever happened. Absolutely the best thing. Lucky I didn't stick around in that band. You'd have to talk to John and Henry about their experiences after, and the way things ultimately worked out for them, but I'm so happy I left. It was great being in the band, wasn't so hot towards the very end, but I have lots of great memories and I went to do something else...
Q: What were you doing in the time before forming Handsome?
PM: Well, we were litigating. I had to litigate, I had to try to get my royalties and my gear back from Helmet. That put me $10,000 in debt with the IRS ( which I had to pay off ). The gear was locked up in a rehearsal room and I was not able to access any of my royalties. It took two years while a federal judge sat on the case to decide jurisdiction. So, I went and worked for the Alternative Distribution Alliance for a while, dealing with record stores. I was grateful for that. I got to listen to a lot of music while I was there and worked with good people. It also helped me pay for and support Handsome. We had to wait for Pete Hines to finish Teacher's College up in Boston before we could do anything serious. So, we were writing, recording. We put together a band in which everyone wrote. We were all equals creatively. Eddie Nappi was a fantastic contributor; he and I wrote well together. Tom Capone did not come along until long after we'd signed with Epic. We were signed as a four-piece. Jeremy wrote all his lyrics and melodies. Hines contributed significantly to the arrangements; it was a fantastic creative partnership of equals. It was everything I had hoped for in a band. Oddly, there was a bidding war and we signed to Epic Records for 1.2 million dollars, split everything evenly. We took Tom on and made sure that he was taken care of when we signed a publishing deal with Chrysalis there again as equal partners.
Handsome, with Peter returning to 2nd from the left
Q: How did Handsome come together and what was the experience like?
PM: Well, it was pretty difficult. I was absolutely, stone cold, fucking broke, in court, waiting for a phone call from a judge, who was also working on the first World Trade Center bombing. There was absolutely fuck all happening, I was just trying to put something together. Eking out a living, just getting by, while learning how to write and how to write collaboratively. So, it was terrific in terms of learning and developing resilience. We had a lot of support too from Reyne Cuccuro. She helped us enormously during that time.
Q: What caused Handsome to break up seemingly so suddenly?
PM: Probably, I'd say it had a lot to with expectations, band expectations, and honestly, we had people in the band who were heroin addicts. One infected a second one. We had people who might've had some substance abuse issues, that were good when they were off the grog, not so good when they're on it. At times 90% of our effort was spent on trying to get someone into rehab or stopping them from possibly OD-ing. That became pretty tense, also after we recorded, there was an expectation with certain people in the band that we were gonna sell four million records if we had Terry Date do the album, Kevin Kerslake do the video, but that wasn't the formula for success. I think in hindsight we had a fantastic deal with Sony/Epic. We should've kept going. We should've taken that 90% of effort that we spent on dealing with personalities, and directed that towards song writing. That would've been better. Anyway, at the end of the touring cycle, Hines and Jeremy decided they couldn't be around each other anymore, so, they wanted out. We'd had it with the heroin too, sick of that. And Sony had a ... it was pretty standard. It was something called a leaving member clause, which gave record companies an out at that time. So, if one original member left the band, they could exercise their right to void the contract, which they did. So that was that. It was a shame.
Q: What was it like getting on stage with Page in 2011?
PM: It was good, because I never had got to play in Brisbane. I did play other shows in Sydney, Melbourne, but not here at home so, that was good. Certainly, did feel good playing those songs again. Yeah, that was fun.
Q: Do you keep in touch with anyone?
PM: I've spoken with John, once when he came through town with Battles, it was a bit of a Helmet post mortem. And I do stay in touch with Henry, so, we correspond frequently. Eddie Nappi, he is in Florida working for Amazon. Pete Hines is working as a chef in Salt Lake City. Jeremy Chatelain is doing something within a creative cooperative in Salt Lake City, some sort of creative hub. And Tom Capone, he went back with Quicksand but there were some problems there, I'm not too sure what happened to them or where he is now.
Q: What are you currently up to?
PM: I played over here in a band called El Gordo but I teach guitar nowadays, and I'm so busy that by the time I do get some free time on Sundays, I just put the guitar down and give my fingers, my mind, and my ears a rest.
Q: What do I think about the impact of alternative rock in the '90's?
PM: Certainly had its moments. It was really, really refreshing being able to hear something raw with a tune after all that hair rock, fucking crap that we had to sit through for the '80's. But I also think that looking back on it, a lot of it that went mainstream is pretty simple. A lot of the more commercially successful stuff, whether it be ... not that I like it, bands like Hootie and the Blowfish. They are just glorified camp fire sing alongs... Shine, Collective Soul. Some of it was pretty fucking lame, very lame, but it was nice to be to be to recycle the 70's through an independent filter for a while at least in the '90's. Now it's all being recycled again.
Q: What do you ultimately hope Helmet's legacy will be?
PM: I can only talk about the period I was in the band with ... I don't know. Well I just think, I remember the shows, I feel we played some great shows. I don't think the album Meantime is in any way representative of how good a band we were live. We had energy and we were aggressive, and we certainly weren't writing or playing to pander to a demographic.
Also see our interview with Helmet's Rob Echeverria
Also see Peter Crigler's blog
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