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   Metallica Interviews & Articles Guitar Magazine Aug. 1999


GUITAR MAGAZINE AUG. 1999

Captain Kirk

Guitar Magazine’s Guitarist of the Year Speaks Out on Childhood Boredom, Metallic Evolution, and His Obsession with Horror

On the third floor of a Georgian mansion in San Francisco’s 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 Hammett’s home.

“This 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.”

Looking around the Gothic antique surroundings, it’s clear that 16 years as one of rock’s 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 it’s clear that Hammett’s a serious celluloid enthusiast.

Recently, 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 I’ll 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 don’t have music, and for me that’s 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 Hammett’s 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 wouldn’t 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 I’m never going to be at home when I want to be, I’m never going to be where I want to be all the time, and I’ve happily given in to that. It means I’m happier and probably freer than I’ve ever been.”

Indeed, 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 band’s career peaked, of course, with 1991’s “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 audience’s 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, 1997’s Re-Load, moved another cool five million. But falls were dismayed by the group’s seemingly abrupt image shift from metalhead hair and traditional black attire to short coifs and stylized fashions. Even so, Metallica’s cool and belligerent self-confidence was ultimately justified. The Load tour sold out across the globe, arid by its conclusion in mid-’97, Metallica’s status as one of the world’s biggest bands was confirmed.

Of course, today’s 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 y’know 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.”

The 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, it’s 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 won’t 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 wouldn’t be in that way.”

Given his work with Orbital on the Spawn soundtrack, and the smattering of digital tools in his studio, it isn’t surprising that Hammett is interested in pushing Metallica in a more technological direction. “From my 25 percent, it’s 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 it’s a major part of our sound. But I do think now that we’re more familiar with the technology that’s out there, and what it can offer us, we’ll 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, we’re constantly looking for things that will open our sound up more.”

Far more surprising than Hammett’s desire to push sonic boundaries is his tangible sense of insecurity. “Being 100 percent honest, I’m 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 I’m just not fitting in too well with things generally, and the guitar and music are the things which keep me in sync.”

Like 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. “I’d 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 my playing.”

Five years ago you wouldn’t 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 it’s 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. I’m the kind of person who needs that; otherwise the alternative is drugs and alcohol.”

Hammett’s 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 Rick’s 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 wasn’t all about that. In the suburbs as a young kid, all you had was your neighborhood and your bedroom.”

Hammett tried to alleviate the boredom with a cheap electric guitar that cost him ten bucks and a copy of Kiss’s 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 Claypool (Primus).

“We had long hair, and the local red-necks just didn’t understand us,” Hammett remembers. “They thought we were ‘S&M fags,’ and that’s a direct quote. A typical afternoon was like this: We were bored, we’d go home after school, we’d put on the latest UFO, Thin Lizzy, ZZ Top album, and we’d just play guitar. Then someone would show up with a car, we’d jump in, drink, and listen to metal, along with some juvenile weed smoking. We just didn’t fit in with a lot of people; we were always seen as outsiders.”

From the time he started practicing guitar seriously, it was clear that Hammett wouldn’t 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. “It’s funny. When I talk to my mom now, she’ll always say she was very supportive of all my efforts in the beginning, and I’ll correct her in front of everyone. She fought me all the way until I left.”

Hammett 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 I’ve 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.”

In 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 Whittaker’s call. “The funny thing about it is that when I’d 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.”

Whittaker sent Hammett the Metallica demo, the credits of which had been doctored to incorporate his name instead of Mustaine’s 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 didn’t 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 I’d ever met. James was a lot quieter back then, but I remember how amazing the change was when he drank. He’d go from this quiet, joking guy to this loud, obnoxious, funny but kinda dangerous drunk who’d start destroying someone’s 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 couldn’t 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 Hammett’s 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 wasn’t until Ride the Lightning (1984) that I felt a proper part of the band, because I’d contributed my own stuff to it.”

The 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.”

Shortly after the ‘Black’ album’s first single, “Enter Sandman,” hit radio, Metallica were selling 50,000 copies a week, confirming Metallica’s 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 long-term relationship.

“I 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 you’ll carry the residue of that up-and-at-’em attitude that alcohol brings. Drugs and alcohol have a lot more short-term excitement, but they’re 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 I’m not hung over.”

By 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. I’d 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 growing.”

Part 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 it’s 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 I’d always listened to but which was only then starting to loom as large. And then on the ‘Black’ album tour I’d 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.”

It’s 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. “He’d say stuff like, ‘Do you honestly want that on the album?’ or ‘It’s your album!’” Hammett laughs. “He’s a person who encouraged me, gave me more of a positive attitude toward my own playing.”

Rock spent the better part of six years telling Hammett to enjoy the time and space of his instrument more. Add in the guitarist’s enlarged portfolio of influences, plus his persona growth, and you’re left with an artist who approaches playing with a whole new attitude.
“Back when I was a kid, I’d solo over anything,” he exclaims, chuckling. “I’d spend hours noodling away to whatever was on the radio, and that carried pretty much through the ‘80s. Now I’m 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, it’s only two or three chords at a time. Then there are players like Billy Gibbons, who’s 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.”

Buried in a corner of the second floor is a room where Hammett keeps his mini-studio’s 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 loyalty’s to Metallica. That’s where I’ve spent the most time, those are the three musicians I fed totally telepathic with, and the creativity’s at an all-time high. We seem to have endless places to go. I think there’s at least three albums of original material left in us, if not more.”
Three hours after the beginning of the interview, Hammett’s assistant informs him that his jazz teacher has just arrived (a testament to Kirk’s eagerness for a larger guitar vocabulary), leaving barely enough time to reflect on the familial strength within today’s Metallica.
“There’s a lot of things we don’t talk about that we just naturally feel together,” he says protectively. “That goes past the music, too, gets into our lifestyles. We’re 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 we’re just now hitting our stride…“ He pauses to find the right words. “I’ll put it simply. We still have hunger and we still have creative horizons we need to conquer.”

As the afternoon draws to a close, it suddenly becomes clear that Kirk Hammett, Guitar Magazine’s Guitarist of the Year, hasn’t allowed himself one tiny little gloat. “I know I’m not that bad,” he concedes. “But in the overall scheme of things in musical history, I’m still not really good enough to measure up with the greats. I’1l say this much: I think I’ve made some good musical decisions.”

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