Metallica, forever: An interview with Kirk Hammett

Metallica’s new album Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, is pretty much what you’d expect from the world’s most successful metal band in 2016 – primarily because we no longer have to expect much from Metallica.

It’s not really their fault. Between the fragmentation of music delivery and the dipping of rock music’s cultural significance, Metallica releasing a record doesn’t feel like a ‘moment’ any more, insomuch as it feels like a veteran band simply giving themselves a reason to tour, and their fans a reason to go that tour and bitch about them playing new songs.

For all that, obviously, Metallica’s legacy is assured, and oddly pretty easily summed up. You can rank their early golden period — Ride The Lightning, Kill ‘Em All, Master of Puppets and …And Justice For All — in whatever way you want and you’re probably not wrong. It all helped lay the blueprint for modern metal, and for all the chagrin it may’ve caused their brigade of denim jacketed fans, 1991’s Metallica (the Black Album) had the same effect on commercial hard rock. It’s also still pretty fucking terrific and is now kind of weirdly underrated (especially for a record that’s the highest-selling of the RIAA Soundscan era).

(Quick aside: When I say ‘pretty easily summed up’, I’m taking the piss. Metallica fandom online is the ouroboros of musical engagement: no matter where you land on the Metallica fan scale, there will always, without fail, be someone there to tell you why you’re wrong and that you suck. First, that person will say that they were into them on [insert ‘whatever earlier album than you were talking about, preferably Ride the Lightning/Kill ‘Em All’ reference here], then offer their opinion on when they started to suck, and then say something about how critics don’t ‘get’ Metallica anyway. That initial person will then undoubtedly get into a shouting match with someone else who claims to have been into them even earlier and thought they sucked before well you were even born and so on down some devolved dipshitted path forever and ever. It’s darkly comedic how ubiquitous the ‘not as good as [insert favourite album here]’ and the decrying of the original writer/poster/whoever as a hipster who ‘doesn’t even like Metallica anyway, so they should get back to listening to the Black Keys or something’ is. The point being, Metallica, like any other band, mean something different to everybody.)

But it’s been 25 long years since the Black Album, and following the 1996-1997 double barrel hodgepodge of Load and Reload, then their vainglorious misstep/stab at relevancy of 2003’s St Anger and the 2004 peepshow Some Kind Of Monster documentary, Metallica have been different.

It makes sense too; for all intents and purposes, and for good or ill, since the mid-‘80s Metallica have spent their career maturing musically… with differing degrees of success. They’ve implacably moved ahead and incorporated new elements into their music: Black Album’s commercial metal/hard rock and ballads; Load and Reload’s blues-rock and country quirks; the attempted rawness of St Anger. The problem was quality, especially when it came to Load, Reload and St. Anger. Their mid-career period featured some impressive highs (‘Fuel’, ‘King Nothing’, ‘Hero Of The Day’), but also some really fucking brutal lows (er, all of St. Anger).

But, interestingly, Metallica became self-aware. Following St Anger and Some Kind of Monster, drummer/impresario/little-bloke Lars Ulrich, singer/guitarist/presumed-libertarian James Hetfield and curly-haired guitar Harry Potter Kirk Hammett (and to a lesser degree, new bassist Rob Trujillo) seemingly decided what they were happy with Metallica representing and, really, being.

The result? 2008’s surprisingly kickarse Death Magnetic and 2016’s Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. They’re almost Metallica ‘Best Of’ records, just with new songs (and in the case of Hardwired…, a really bad title). They’re the work of a veteran band who’ve settled happily into their skin, writing songs that liberally mine their own back catalogue, grab-bagging from every existing Metallica era. It makes for tunes that feel and sound familiar, if not quite unique, and imbued with an energy that had stagnated in the 15 years prior.

And the good news is that a lot of those songs are pretty fucking good.

So, with Hardwired… still fresh and Metallica announcing their world tour dates , Fasterlouder had a long, extensive chat with Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett on a wide-array of topics: from losing his phone containing all of his riffs for Hardwired…, to the relationship between him, Lars and James 33 years after he joined the band, why snarky reviews have lost their bite, and just what Metallica in 2017 means.

FL: It’s mental that Hardwired… has gone to No.1 in something like 54 countries — did that surprise you, given the state of music streaming and sales, and the sort of cut through you have to have now to get a Number One record?
Kirk Hammett:
It’s pretty crazy that it’s doing so well, because whenever we do something, we’ve learned over the years not to be too attached to the eventual outcome; you just never know how our fans are going to react to anything we do. So in that regard we’ve learned not to expect too much, put the album out and wish for the best, and hope it resonates with everyone.

It’s tricky for a band who’ve got different generations of fans too: Do you go into a new album expecting or hoping that it will win over new fans? That you’re not just preaching to the choir?
Yeah… It’s great when it happens, and of course we’d love for everything we’ve ever done to be very well received, but the reality of the situation is that the world is just not that way, and we’ve experienced both sides of that coin. So, yeah, of course everything we do we want to say to fans of the band “We think this is really fucking cool, do you guys agree, or not agree?” And basically that’s the bottom line; do they agree or do they not agree with what we decide to agree put out? But yeah: we want to reach as many people as possible all the time with our music… and if that doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world to us.

What do you think is the appeal of Metallica to a 16-year-old now, in 2017, versus a 16-year-old in, say, 1986?
I mean, that pissed off 15 year old, or 16 year old — or, actually I should say, that 15 or 16 year old who might be pissed off — might find a great release through our music, might find our music to be a great cathartic sort of process for them to get out any anger or frustration that they have. Our music has historically been able to do that… at least for myself, our music helps me in a very cathartic sort of way, and the hope is that it would help people in the same fashion.

“That’s how I tend to look at it: “Alright, so what’s going to hold more water, what holds more merit in the overall picture,” you know?”

The big difference between 1986 and now is, yeah man, things are a lot more divided and things are a lot more uncertain, a little bit more unpredictable; the world is just unpredictable much more nowadays and changing really, really quickly. So yeah, I would say for all the uncertainty in the world and disenfranchisement that uncertainty can create, maybe Metallica and our music is something real and solid and predictable that people can latch on to and use to help them. Maybe they come to a point where they can use our music in a cathartic way and hopefully find a way to cope with the world after experiencing our music.

Y’know, another thing I have to say is that our music has stood the test of time, I mean, Master Of Puppets, if that album came out today it would pass muster as far as, y’know, sounding contemporary. Even though it came in 1986, I think if it came out today it would stand up to any of the other contemporary releases.

Does that help to deal with any criticism that gets levelled at Metallica now, in 2017? That 33 year weight of history?
Y’know, you have to look at it like this: it’s one random sentence or paragraph or article up against 33 years of work. That’s how I tend to look at it: “Alright, so what’s going to hold more water, what holds more merit in the overall picture,” you know?

Well, over that time, one of the most interesting aspects to Metallica is how you’ve always moved forward regardless of what people thought, and incorporated different musical elements into your music… and it feels like you’ve wrapped them up nicely in the last two. Have you finally landed on the ‘right’ Metallica mix?
[laughs] Y’know, ‘What is the right mix for Metallica’ should be the question! At this particular point in time, right now, it feels like it’s a mix that certainly seems to be working for us as a band, and for the audience as listeners. But ahhhh, whether or not we decide to keep this mix or this formula moving forward remains to be seen. Y’know, we might get a flash of inspiration and go in a completely different direction, three years from now. Who knows?

So the Metallica country album is still on the books then?
[laughs] Never say never, I’ve learned… never say never. I mean, we’ve already done a country song with ‘Mama Said’, so we’ve already broken the ice on that.

Back to the history of the band: obviously not many bands make it past 30 years together. The relationship between you, James and Lars: is there a secret to making you three work? What do you think you can attribute your longevity and ability to come out of stuff like Cliff’s death [Cliff Burton, Metallica’s bassist from 1982, died in a bus crash in 1986], or the St Anger and Some Kind of Monster period and just keep on going?
If there is one thing we can put our money on, let me know… because I don’t know what that one thing is, because it’s not really, really clear. I will say though: we started this fairly young. I mean, I was 20 years old, Cliff was 20 years old, James was 19 years old, Lars was 19 years old, and at that point we’d already been playing music by ourselves for two or three years. So my theory on this is that we started a long time ago, when we were really, really young, and we’ve experienced so much stuff together, and we really are kindred souls: there’s something in all of us that I think we recognised on an unconscious level that bonded us together.

We’ve experienced so much, so many incredible things — incredibly great things, incredibly awful things — and we’re still standing… and what keeps on pushing us forward and further on down the road is each other. Just knowing that we’ve experienced so much and we have such a deep bond, playing music, experiencing life, growing up, becoming parents, going into middle age, we’ve done all else things together. Metallica is a job, it is a career, but it is also our lives.

And it’s so deep within us the thought of not doing what we’re doing is more of a jolt than just continuing to do what we do. What we do is what we know: it’s in us.  And every time we play music, it sounds like us… so why would we not get together and make music, it’s just what we do, it’s like living and breathing and walking and talking to us… playing in Metallica, playing shows, playing together, going out on the road, recording, it’s just something we’ve always done, and something we’ll always do, because we’re just set in the routine of Metallica… and sure it looks attractive to go do your own thing, but could it really be better than something we do together? I highly doubt it.

So knowing that, why would I even think of a life without Metallica? I know that now. I know I’m probably in the best position I could manoeuvre myself in to make music, so why would I change that?

With that connection between you three, you lost your phone with all your riff ideas on it [Hammett lost his phone, containing a reported 250-plus riff/song ideas at a German airport in 2014], telling the other guys must have been the worst feeling in the world.
Of course it was! Of course it was! And they still jab me here and there with jokes, just even simple jokes like me saying “Where’s my phone?”, and saying “Uhhh… Does it have any riffs on it?”

Do you use iCloud now?
[laughs] Bro, y’know the ironic thing is that my neighbour in San Francisco friggin’ invented the cloud, alright! Yeah. It’s brutal.

So, having lost your phone and the riffs you would’ve contributed, do you come into these sessions for Hardwired… being like, “I have to bring it, I have to deliver the most fire shit”?
Exactly. That was pretty much what I was left with, so I dove headfirst into trying to be the best lead guitar player i possibly could. And y’know, that’s what I went for… I tried to be the best possible guitar player I could be at the time, while also putting myself up to a tremendous challenge that I wasn’t completely 100 percent confident about being able to pull off. The first few recordings managed to go well, actually surprisingly well, a lot easier than I expected, so after two or three songs of recording solos in a purely improvisational way, I thought “yeah, I think I can do this, I think I can pull it off”, and from that part on I got even more inspired and got even more sideways and let myself just do even more crazy stuff all the time. It was great. I just really, really enjoyed the whole process.

With that in mind, what goes into making a great Metallica guitar solo?
It’s intensity. That’s one thing. If I can’t get a certain intensity, then it’s melody. If I can’t get a certain intensity and melody, then it’s catchiness… I don’t just want to play a flurry of notes that really don’t say anything or make a statement or anything… it’s just like, if you’re just going to play a flurry of notes, then why even bother, y’know?

But I mean, for me, it’s important that my personality comes through, that’s another thing that’s important to me as far as guitar solos are concerned. I want it to sound, I want it to have an element of what I’m feeling, an element of my being in the solo… and the only real person who can determine that is myself. So there you have it!

Looking at some of the ideas on Hardwired… one that obviously stands out is ‘Moth Into Flame’, which James has said was inspired by Amy Winehouse and the dangers of fame. Are you happy you guys are famous enough.. but you’re not horrifyingly famous?
Yeah… I’ll tell you my take on that: musicians, famous musicians, rock stars, aren’t really known for their appearance so much as they are for their music, really… movie stars, movie actors, they have absolutely no privacy, they can’t go anywhere, because their whole fame and celebrity is based on their appearance. So I have friends who are big time movie actors, you can’t go out in public with them, basically. Bottom line is for them to go out in public, it’s a big ordeal! There’s a lot of pre-planning; you can’t just go out. With musicians it’s different; we can all just go out and all do our own thing, and if you don’t want to get noticed, you do things that don’t get you noticed! If you don’t want to get noticed, don’t go out dressed up like you’re about to go out onstage, you know what I mean?

But with Amy Winehouse, I saw the documentary, my take on that was, from the beginning she didn’t have a very good support group. There was no one around her who had her own best interests prioritised, and it’s a shame because she was misguided from the very beginning and when she started to get some guidance, it seemed like it was more difficult to trust people at that point; it was too late at that point. And yeah, it’s really unfortunate, y’know, that she was driven to cope in the only way she knew how to cope. And it’s a bummer.

Well, you’ve really prioritised your version of your support groups over the past few years, and really working on a family-band balance, where you build your recording around your family lives. Was everyone on board with that?
Yeah. Prioritising family is the most important thing; we all have children, we all acknowledge we need to hang out with our families and children to keep us sane. [laughs] We set it up so we have a really good balance of band time and family time, and when we go out on the road we’re not out for more than a couple of weeks at a time, and that allows us to put in a good chunk of family time and a good chunk of band time and tour and play shows.

Your — and James’ and Lars’ — life’s work is Metallica; which is pretty crazy when you think about it. What’s the best part of having Metallica be your life’s work?
Creating incredible music and then being able to bring that incredible music to people and seeing how that music brings them so much joy and happiness and helps them so much… all over the world, bro, all over the world. That’s the best part of being in Metallica: being able to help so many people through the music. That, for me, takes the cake: being able to help other people through our music, and bring them to maybe a better place, even if it’s briefly in the course of a song, make their life a little better within the course of the song. That to me is great. That’s fantastic; that’s what I want do: help people.

Well, across 33 years, all the releases, tours and everything… can you even pick out a favourite Metallica moment? One where you’ve felt ‘This is what it’s all about’?
That’s a hard one… it’s hard to find a definitive moment, y’know. I mean, I could say something easy like ‘Oh, it was the Rock ’N’ Roll Hall Of Fame, blah blah blah’ because that’s an easy one for people to understand, and an acceptable situation, because it was televised and everyone knows about it… but bro, y’know, I have moments when we’re playing, if we’re in rehearsal, or in the studio,  or onstage, and I just feel like ‘This is what I should be doing’. I get moments where I’m feeling like I’m doing exactly what i was put on this planet to do. ‘Cos I just feel like I do what I do the best, and to be able to do it in front of people, and show people the best side of me… and to see the positive effects that has on other people.

Hardwired… To Self-Destruct is out now via EMI.