MAGAZINE AUG. 1999
Magazines Guitarist of the Year Speaks Out on Childhood
Boredom, Metallic Evolution, and His Obsession with Horror
the third floor of a Georgian mansion in San Franciscos
glitzy Pacific Heights is a long, dark corridor. Its floors are
carpeted in a rich, velvety purple-blue, and the walls are adorned
with scores of 1930s original horror movie posters, all beautifully
framed and tastefully lit. Near the top of the stairs is a long
couch, and the doors along either side of the hall remain closed.
It could be a small museum. It could also be a David Lynch movie
set. Instead, it is a small part of Kirk Hammetts home.
is one of my favorite places in the house to get away and relax,
says the amiable 35-year-old Metallica guitarist of his movie
corridor hideaway, a further ode to childhood fantasies and hobbies
Hammett has been successfully indulging in since high school.
Sometimes I make phone calls up here, and sometimes 1 just
lie down for 30 minutes and take in the peace arid quiet.
around the Gothic antique surroundings, its clear that 16
years as one of rocks most appraised and revered guitarists
has delivered Hammett some fine rewards. A stroll through the
adjacent rooms reveals an original painting from Swiss surrealist
H.R. Giger; a heavy collection of original horror movie masks;
and figurines, busts, and original portrait photographs of Boris
Karloff, Lon Chaney Jr., and other stars of 30s and 40s
horror. Add to that a sizable collection of movies, including
everything written or directed by David Cronenberg, and its
clear that Hammetts a serious celluloid enthusiast.
the movies have become more than a hobby for him. Hammett is currently
in the process of undertaking a venture with old friend Les Claypool
to start a Bay Area-based film production company, and continues
to find a wealth of musical inspiration in the black anti white
crackle of old horror classics. Sometimes Ill walk
right over to the guitar immediately after watching a movie,
he says, standing next to a theater-sized TV screen in his luxurious
viewing room, complete with state-of-the-art video, laserdisc,
and DVD facilities. Then there are some I go back to simply
for atmospheric ideas - old Universal horror stuff like Dracula,
Frankenstein, The Mummy, The Black Cat, and Murders in the Rue
Morgue. A lot of those dont have music, and for me thats
a blank slate. He leads the way into a large dining room,
where a stuffed two-headed sheep sits in the corner, caged and
under a canopy. The previous two floors of Hammetts sumptuous
home have already provided touristic glimpses of other such taxidermy,
as well as a meditation area arid a state-of-the-art basement
recording studio. Such rock n roll luxury has made
a boor out of many men, but Hammett genuinely wouldnt know
where to start on such a tired and typical path. After 15
years you surrender to certain aspects of your life and just accept
them, he says, then smiles. I used to fight for my
privacy and generally not be the nicest person in the world. But
now I just realize Im never going to be at home when I want
to be, Im never going to be where I want to be all the time,
and Ive happily given in to that. It means Im happier
and probably freer than Ive ever been.
Hammett remains virtually the same friendly, sometimes insecure
but ultimately positive guy who back in 1983 went cross-country
to New York to audition for Metallica. Since then, Metallica have
quickly risen from crusaders of underground thrash metal to rock
royalty, selling somewhere in the region of 60 million records
internationally. The bands career peaked, of course, with
1991s Black album, which sold 18 million copies
worldwide. Since then, Metallica have done exactly what got them
where they are. Instead of pandering to their audiences
tastes, the band has pursued its own selfish interests, with scant
regard for the trends of the market it helped spawn. Metallica
s 1996 album, Load, sold approximately seven million copies
worldwide and its sibling release, 1997s Re-Load, moved
another cool five million. But falls were dismayed by the groups
seemingly abrupt image shift from metalhead hair and traditional
black attire to short coifs and stylized fashions. Even so, Metallicas
cool and belligerent self-confidence was ultimately justified.
The Load tour sold out across the globe, arid by its conclusion
in mid-97, Metallicas status as one of the worlds
biggest bands was confirmed.
course, todays metal world is in a different universe from
where it was in 1983, when Metallica first lashed out with the
fire and brimstone thrash assault of Kill Em All. As a result,
the band seems far removed today from modern metal warriors such
as Korn, Limp Bizkit, and Tool, who are blazing a trail similar
to that Metallica ignited during the ...And Justice for All period
in 1988. Fortunately, Metallica are a band beyond the confines
of any genre, one of those rare arena acts for whom at least a
few million people will always wait.
Having released a double-disc set of old and new cover material
titled Garage lnc. last November, Metallica took on their strangest
challenge yet when they collaborated with the San Francisco Symphony
Orchestra and conductor Michael Kamen on April 21 and 22.
It was just another example of how we like to go out and
try things, explains Hammett as he walks into the kitchen
to grab a quick lunch. And yknow what? Playing with
the symphony turned out to be one of the most amazing experiences
of my life. It took our songs to a completely different level.
They were literally morphed into symphonic pieces.
symphony presentations appear to signal the start of further explorations.
With both James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich having commented that
Garage Inc. was the end of a phase, it seems clear that Metallica
will once again stretch their creative wings in late fall when
they settle in to write their next album. Before then, the band
will likely release an album of the symphony concerts, produced
by Bob Rock, who masterminded the formidable Black
album. For me, its all about ignoring the metal trends
that are happening right now, says Hammett. You see
a lot of metal bands that are very hip-hop influenced, using seven-string
guitars for that low tuning, and we definitely wont go along
that route, because it is such an of the moment thing.
If for some reason or another we decided to use seven-string guitars
it wouldnt be in that way.
his work with Orbital on the Spawn soundtrack, and the smattering
of digital tools in his studio, it isnt surprising that
Hammett is interested in pushing Metallica in a more technological
direction. From my 25 percent, its all about utilizing
the tools to maintain uniqueness and heaviness, he says,
sensing the fears of millions. I mean, it will never get
to the point where its a major part of our sound. But I
do think now that were more familiar with the technology
thats out there, and what it can offer us, well take
advantage of some of it. Maybe that will be in the form of samplers
and loops. We thrive on a classic formula that, in my opinion,
will never go away. But at the same time, were constantly
looking for things that will open our sound up more.
more surprising than Hammetts desire to push sonic boundaries
is his tangible sense of insecurity. Being 100 percent honest,
Im not a good speaker, he explains over a bowl of
homemade minestrone soup. The guitar for me has always been
a much stronger voice than my own. Even now, I still go through
phases where Im just not fitting in too well with things
generally, and the guitar and music are the things which keep
me in sync.
many, Hammett has worked out stress and subsequent insecurity
through a health regimen that has revolved around diet and exercise.
But when his appendix burst in London during a November 1998 European
promotional tour for Garage Inc., he became even more diligent.
It really shook me, he says quietly. Id
never had any major illnesses, and for the most part I really
took my health for granted. But when the appendicitis came, it
hit me how impermanent everything is, and it made me reevaluate
years ago you wouldnt have found yogurt, let alone yoga,
in the Hammett household, but these days the guitarist waxes lyrical
about the tools he uses to quiet his nerves. Yoga is a great
way to deal with stress, especially in the studio where I need
something to calm me down, he says. I want everything
to be perfect, and its unrealistic to think that way. Yoga
is a way of me keeping that in check, and it improves my mind
to the point that when I go over to the guitar I have less things
tugging at my mind when I play. Im the kind of person who
needs that; otherwise the alternative is drugs and alcohol.
path to international stardom is the quintessential tale of teenage
rebellion that turned ever so good. Born and raised in San Francisco,
the half-Filipino, half-Irish Hammett grew up in the Latino-settled
Mission district, enjoying AM radio and older brother Ricks
collection of Zeppelin, Hendrix, and Rolling Stones albums. He
says the first decade of his life was pleasant and uneventful,
but at 13, his world was turned upside-down when his family moved
from the city to suburban El Sobrante in the East Bay. It
was a slight case of culture shock, he says. I went
from cultural diversity to a place where the mall or the high
school football game was the big event, and I wasnt all
about that. In the suburbs as a young kid, all you had was your
neighborhood and your bedroom.
tried to alleviate the boredom with a cheap electric guitar that
cost him ten bucks and a copy of Kisss Dressed to Kill.
But the instrument sat dormant for weeks before repeated pressure
from his brother encouraged Hammett to practice regularly. He
soon discovered that El Sobrante was crawling with like minds,
such as Gary Holt and Tom Hunting (Exodus), and good friend Les
had long hair, and the local red-necks just didnt understand
us, Hammett remembers. They thought we were S&M
fags, and thats a direct quote. A typical afternoon
was like this: We were bored, wed go home after school,
wed put on the latest UFO, Thin Lizzy, ZZ Top album, and
wed just play guitar. Then someone would show up with a
car, wed jump in, drink, and listen to metal, along with
some juvenile weed smoking. We just didnt fit in with a
lot of people; we were always seen as outsiders.
the time he started practicing guitar seriously, it was clear
that Hammett wouldnt allow anything to distract him from
playing, not even the obligatory parental disapproval
that forms the backbone of so many musicians teenage years.
My parents saw the guitar as a potential threat toward both
my grades and overall attitude towards society, he laughs.
Its funny. When I talk to my mom now, shell
always say she was very supportive of all my efforts in the beginning,
and Ill correct her in front of everyone. She fought me
all the way until I left.
began taking guitar lessons from Bay Area virtuoso Joe Satriani,
and coupled with the enigmatic influence of Jimi Hendrix, and
Michael Schenker, Hammett discovered that hard-rock guitar struck
some deep chord within. It was what I wanted to hear continuously,
he states. I remember going to a Day on the Green Festival
in Oakland in 1978 where the bill was AC/DC, Van Halen, Pat Travers,
Foreigner, then Aerosmith. [I was] a young kid barely able to
figure out barre chords, [and] it was one of the most influential
shows Ive ever seen. You had all the bad-ass guitar players
under one roof: Angus Young, Eddie Van Halen, Pat Travers, Joe
Perry, and Brad Whitford.
1982, Hammett formed Exodus with childhood pals Hunting and Holt.
However, his time in the band was short-lived. Mark Whittaker,
a local manager/tech who had worked with Exodus, had ended up
with Metallica in New Jersey while they worked on their debut
album, Kill Em All. When it was clear there were personality
conflicts with then-guitarist Dave Mustaine, Whittaker played
the band a tape featuring Hammett, and was told to get in touch
with him immediately. In a far from prophetic occurrence, Hammett
was on the toilet when he answered Whittakers call. The
funny thing about it is that when Id first seen Metallica,
I wanted to be in a band like that, he says, then chuckles.
So when I got that call, even though I was surprised, I
felt like it was inevitable that it would happen.
sent Hammett the Metallica demo, the credits of which had been
doctored to incorporate his name instead of Mustaines as
guitarist, meaning ostensibly that Metallica had already decided
Hammett was their man. The guitarist borrowed the airfare from
his mom and embarked on his first trip out of California. After
Metallica played Seek & Destroy with Hammett,
big smiles were exchanged, and Hammett didnt go home. I
really connected with Lars, recalls Hammett. To this
day, we have a very natural rapport. He was very, very driven,
a rock star more so than anyone else Id ever met. James
was a lot quieter back then, but I remember how amazing the change
was when he drank. Hed go from this quiet, joking guy to
this loud, obnoxious, funny but kinda dangerous drunk whod
start destroying someones stuff, pulling [in] all these
different women and screaming at the top of his lungs.
As impressed as he was by Hetfield and Ulrich, it was original
bassist Cliff Burton who made the biggest impact on the young
Hammett. I was surprised at how cultural Cliff was,
reflects Hammett. He was well-read, very smart, knew his
musical theory inside out, and [was] very personable and funny.
He liked H.P. Lovecraft and Dungeons & Dragons, and I couldnt
get over the fact he was still wearing bell-bottoms. I remember
jokingly telling him that there was a place in El Sobrante that
sold them, and the moment we got back from New York he went and
got 12 pairs. The bombastic and powerful personalities of
Hetfield, Ulrich and Burton, combined with Hammetts natural
reserve, left the guitarist unsure of where he stood in terms
of creative input. For Kill Em All I felt more like
a session musician, he remembers. I just came in,
did pretty much what I was told, and played the solos. It wasnt
until Ride the Lightning (1984) that I felt a proper part of the
band, because Id contributed my own stuff to it.
euphoria of success was bluntly checked by the death of Burton
in a Swedish bus crash in September 1986, something Hammett remains
uncomfortable talking about more than a decade after the fact.
To cope with their immense grief, Metallica began working again
as quickly as possible. In less than a year, the band replaced
Burton with Jason Newsted, who had previously been in the Arizona
thrash band Flotsam and Jetsam. Less than two years later, Metallica
forced their way into multi-platinum sales with ...And Justice
for All, and wound up touring endlessly. It took Hammett the best
part of four years to adjust to the extreme ups and downs. For
Justice, I fell into this kind of apathy, he starts before
trailing into silent thought. I managed to catch myself
in time for the Black album, though, where I just
figured it was time to write the best stuff I possibly could.
after the Black albums first single, Enter
Sandman, hit radio, Metallica were selling 50,000 copies
a week, confirming Metallicas status as a megaband. Sex
and drugs became inevitable byproducts of the successful rock
n roll lifestyle, and the band got caught in typical,
hedonistic rock star behavior. It cost Hammett a marriage and
had a really bad drug and alcohol period after the Black
album, he explains, sipping some herbal tea. Alcohol
makes you uninhibited, and to a certain extent you bring that
with you when you play your instrument. Even the next day youll
carry the residue of that up-and-at-em attitude that alcohol
brings. Drugs and alcohol have a lot more short-term excitement,
but theyre just a quick track to the same space that working
out and yoga gets you. And it takes its toll. Yoga has a lot more
strength and endurance; it puts me in a better mood, plus Im
not hung over.
the summer of 93, when Metallica played the last show of
their 330-plus date Black album tour, Hammett knew
he had to develop a normal life again, so he rescheduled his daily
life to provide structure and balance during the year-long hiatus
that followed. I decided I needed to do something regular
every day, and that was school, he says. So I went
to SF State to study film and jazz, which was a very low-key and
fun thing to do. I was listening to a lot of jazz, too, like Miles
Davis and John Coltrane. Id get up and jam with blues bands
around town. I also hung out in the city a lot, getting involved
with different musicians and different artists. Just learning
to cook your own food again was really important - waking up and
seeing your own pets and not dialing 9 before you
make a phone call were all very vital in learning how to continue
of the personal evolution involved jettisoning the black-on-black
traditional metal uniform. So, he started exploring the copious
tattoos and piercings of the urban neo-tribalists, as well as
a whole new world in tailoring that ran the gamut from 30s
gangster to 90s club kid. Of course, the fan reaction to
chin studs, tattoos, and eyeliner was less than warm. I
always felt people made too big a fuss of the image stuff,
he sighs. If you walk down Haight Street, where I was spending
a lot of time, everybody has tattoos and piercings, so its
no wonder I showed up with tattoos and piercings, because that
was my environment.
When Metallica regrouped in late 94 to start work on what
would eventually be the sessions for both Load and Re-Load, Hammett
came with his fresh image, a greater sense of self, and a slew
of new ideas. With Load, everything changed, probably because
I was simply writing better stuff, he says. I was
taking in a lot of Bowie, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Robert Fripp and
Adrian Belew, stuff Id always listened to but which was
only then starting to loom as large. And then on the Black
album tour Id been listening to a lot of real blues like
Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy, and Howlin Wolf, which helped change
my whole playing perspective. Those guys played their last note
like it was gonna be the last note of their lives, and I just
got so much into that.
no surprise that producer Bob Rock was the man who helped bring
Hammett out as a player during the Load sessions. A guitarist
himself, Rock knows exactly what it takes to get the job done
properly. Hed say stuff like, Do you honestly
want that on the album? or Its your album!
Hammett laughs. Hes a person who encouraged me, gave
me more of a positive attitude toward my own playing.
spent the better part of six years telling Hammett to enjoy the
time and space of his instrument more. Add in the guitarists
enlarged portfolio of influences, plus his persona growth, and
youre left with an artist who approaches playing with a
whole new attitude.
Back when I was a kid, Id solo over anything,
he exclaims, chuckling. Id spend hours noodling away
to whatever was on the radio, and that carried pretty much through
the 80s. Now Im really enjoying the power of understatement.
You listen to Pink Floyd and it is huge, expansive, and sounds
complex, but when you sit down with a guitar to figure it out,
its only two or three chords at a time. Then there are players
like Billy Gibbons, whos the master of understatement, all
about feel and almost how you hit the notes rather than how many
notes are in there. Just look at our best riffs: They all have
only four or five notes.
in a corner of the second floor is a room where Hammett keeps
his mini-studios speakers. practice amp, and general stuff.
It looks just like a teenage den dream, and it seems inevitable
that some of the rough tapes strewn about the floor would contain
ideas for a solo project. Mention of any such topic to Hammett
is met with gently rolling eyes and a slight sigh. I think
an experimental solo project is inevitable one day, he concedes.
But my loyaltys to Metallica. Thats where Ive
spent the most time, those are the three musicians I fed totally
telepathic with, and the creativitys at an all-time high.
We seem to have endless places to go. I think theres at
least three albums of original material left in us, if not more.
Three hours after the beginning of the interview, Hammetts
assistant informs him that his jazz teacher has just arrived (a
testament to Kirks eagerness for a larger guitar vocabulary),
leaving barely enough time to reflect on the familial strength
within todays Metallica.
Theres a lot of things we dont talk about that
we just naturally feel together, he says protectively. That
goes past the music, too, gets into our lifestyles. Were
all the same age and have lived with each other in the back pockets
for 15-20 years, so the collective consciousness runs very deep.
And musically, it really seems that were just now hitting
He pauses to find the right words. Ill
put it simply. We still have hunger and we still have creative
horizons we need to conquer.
the afternoon draws to a close, it suddenly becomes clear that
Kirk Hammett, Guitar Magazines Guitarist of the Year, hasnt
allowed himself one tiny little gloat. I know Im not
that bad, he concedes. But in the overall scheme of
things in musical history, Im still not really good enough
to measure up with the greats. I1l say this much: I think
Ive made some good musical decisions.