METALLICA’s Kirk Hammett Self-Destructs With BraveWords - “To Me There’s A Lot Of All Our Albums On This Album”
December 4, 2016, a year ago
A little stormfront called Metallica recently blew through Toronto, bringing with it a club show at The Opera House (see my review) in support of their action-packed new album of top-grade retro-thrash, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. Earlier in the day, I got to sit down with Kirk Hammett at the Four Seasons for a chat about the strident and grinding and groovy new record, and befitting of what we sometimes do when we talk to someone as legendary as the successor to Robin Trower and maybe even Tony Iommi as the world’s reigning wah-wah king, we offer this to you as a straight Q&A. I mean, normally, we don’t like to do this, but the bigger the band, I figure, there’s even more of a case to just get out of the way and let the talking do the talking.
Got the old school cassette. I am straight to MP3 on the phone, but please excuse the cassette; I like to see those wheels go ‘round and ‘round.
“Bro, hey, I am all about that cassette player, and I am looking at it with much envy. I am so loath to put anything on my iPhone.”
Well that’s a question…
“I’m like the poster boy for losing his iPhone. I am the poster boy for that.”
Tell me a little bit about that, so I don’t have to ask about it later, which of course I had to.
“Let’s just say it’s like, the reverberations for me, the consequences of losing my cell phone have been immense. I mean, it doesn’t matter who you are or what type of person you are, I think losing your cell phone is traumatic for anyone. And I mean, okay, I lost my phone, I lost a lot of music, but I mean, people lose cell phones, they lose all their personal information, you know? I’m kind of a technological sloth. It took me losing my iPhone to figure out that I can back it up to the iCloud. And the ironic thing about that is, the guy who invented the cloud is my next-door neighbour (laughs).”
Well tell me about… do you really feel like these riffs are lost? Are they going to be floating around in your head and popping up sort of regularly until you have them all again?
“Let me tell you this. I had about, I don’t know, 450 entries in there, which means there were about 250, 300 riffs, because a lot of times I’ll write different versions of the same riff. And when I lost my phone, I could only recall about four riffs. So I’ve closed the book on that (laughs). And, you know, I’m sitting on some music—now!—that I’m happy about. I’m just waiting, waiting for an opportunity, you know, where it can grow.
“And, you know, I’m always writing music. Every time I pick up my guitar, I’m hoping I can write the next ‘Rock The Nation’ or something.”
Okay, so tell me a little bit about this record, in terms of, let’s start with the production. What did you guys do differently versus Death Magnetic? What does Greg Fidelman bring to the table?
“Well, just right off the bat, a huge difference was the scenario itself. Being in the studio with Greg, and Greg having free reign to just do whatever he wanted to do, sonically, without Rick Rubin saying, ‘Okay, we want a very dry drum sound. And we want a very dry vocal sound,’ blah blah blah, which is kind of like Rick’s thing. Greg was able to kind of chase his own sort of audio instincts. Is that a term?”
“And you know, record us the way that we needed to be recorded. And you know, one thing that strikes me about this album that I just think is wonderful is, we have a great drum sound. And we haven’t had… well, let’s just say the drum sound for the past couple albums has been interesting. And so to get back to a nice, full, big-sounding drum kit on our records, is for me, so refreshing—super-refreshing. For me, it instantly makes everything sound huge, if that makes any sense at all. When we were recording this stuff, every time Greg hit the record button, and I’d hear huge drums, huge guitars, huge bass, I would just think huge myself, in my mind. Play something just as huge. Play something just as big and just as tremendous.”
How about Lars, in terms of like, what kind of drummer is he? He seems to be getting more like Lars all the time. There are certain things he’s doing, like going into those fills soon, using the snare a lot, wide single stroke rolls, almost playing ahead of the beat. Although I imagine this is pretty snapped to a click, but he really seems to be… Just tell me about him as a drummer. What does he do more of, and less of, than other drummers?
“One thing he’s been doing more of, for like ten or 12 years, and he’s actually turned me onto the concept, is playing through the bars, playing through the measures. So typically, you know, on our first two albums, I mean, my guitar solos, every four beats or eight bars, I would change the lick. Pretty much on the beat, you know? And that’s a very organized sort of thing that musicians do to organize their ideas. But some musicians, and particularly jazz musicians and sometimes blues musicians, will play be on the beat but play through the bar, or start early, play into the bar, or play through the bar and go out in the middle of the next bar. And he started doing that with his drums, and when he kind of like latched onto that concept, he said to me, ‘You know, I notice that when you play your guitar solos, you’re doing it bar by bar, riff by riff. Beat by beat. Why don’t you try playing through it?’ And I thought, that’s kind of cool, kind of John Coltrane-ish. And so that was just a concept that we started doing. And it’s what he does. It’s basically like a blues/jazz thing—say goodbye to phrasing on the downbeat; say goodbye to phrasing on the upbeat. Phrase in between, get into that space that is somewhere in between. And I think that’s what Lars is doing a lot of on this album.”
Is there a debate between the guys about… some of you like the long songs and other ones would like them shorter? Because this album, you seem to have struck a really nice balance, more of a balance that on Death Magnetic. Do you guys have debates about that?
“I mean, it’s pretty well known that James always pushes for shorter songs. And it’s pretty well known that Lars is a bit verbose (laughs), in his attitudes, when it comes to speaking in interviews, whatever. Explaining things, he can be a bit verbose, and musically, he can be a bit verbose too. He has a tendency to want to say a lot. And so there’s always like a push/pull there between those two guys. Whereas me, I try not to put any sort of limits on anything like that. A song is a statement, and I don’t think it should be dictated by the time limits. I think it should just be dictated by what the song is and what the music is and what the feel is, and the mood. But everyone has their own different opinions on this. I will tell you that it’s great to be two or three minutes into a song and go completely somewhere out of left field and stay there for two or three minutes and then come back to home base. There’s a real satisfaction in doing that, playing songs like that. And then, you know, there’s that whole kind of punk rock attitude of just going in there and saying what you need to say and getting out. Going in there, fucking shit up and then leaving.”
What about in terms of… I mean, there’s obviously a lot of Tony Iommi to your soloing. But there also seems to be a lot of Tony to the riffing that you guys are coming up with. How important is Sabbath as a reference point for you guys? The shuffle feels, the doom, it’s a bit bluesy, there’s a circular sort of architecture to the riffs. There’s a lot of Tony, it seems.
“Well, you know, Black Sabbath, they’re a band whose music is never very far away from us. Only a couple steps behind us, or more like, we’re a couple steps behind them or something. But, you know, the feels and the moods, the shuffles (laughs)… you just defer to what Sabbath did. Whether it’s conscious or unconscious, it’s just like, all roads lead back to Black Sabbath.”
And maybe I guess filtered through or via the Black Album somewhat, because there’s a lot of Black Album on this record.
“Oh absolutely, to me there’s a lot of all our albums on this album. And so, I mean, this album just makes total perfect sense to me.”
Tell me a little bit about the song “Dream No More". That’s the one with the Lovecraft Cthulhu thing to it, and James is doing an interesting thing vocally on this one. How did that all go down? Was there debate about it, discussion?
“There wasn’t really much debate about it. The vocal performance he did on that song is very fitting for the song, the song subject. Basically, these are like your Cthulhu followers who are trying to awaken the great god, and so it should sound somewhat unworldly and desperate and dark and haunting. I love the video; the video is probably my favourite video out of all of them because it’s just so weird to me.”
And what would be one or two of your favourite solos on here and why? Where is one that you really felt compositionally that you made a statement?
“There’s a solo in ‘Halo On Fire’ which I thought was really great, and it just kind of like wrote itself. I just showed up at the studio and compositionally it just flowed out, and I thought, wow, really cool.”
Huh, there you go (I show him my notes): “Halo On Fire – probably my favourite solo.”
“Cool (laughs), and I like the solo on ‘Moth Into Flame,’ because it called for just a really fucking... just a really intense ripping sort of solo. And so it’s got a really intense ripping sort of solo on there (laughs).”
And so where did Rick Rubin kind of drop out of the process? Where’s he involved here?
“You know, it’s just... you know, it just kind of... we just kind of started with Greg, and so it just kind of happened that (laughs)… It just kind of just happened.”
There always seems to be these awkward conversations when it comes to Rick.
“Well, the whole thing of it is that there was very little talk amongst us on who was going to produce it. I think it was pretty obvious to all of us that we wanted to do something that was more kind of like, amongst the four of us.”
Okay, well, here’s an odd question. You know, if Lars and James are co-producers of the album, how do they act like producers different from being musicians in the band? What do they get their hands into in terms of production?
“Well, let’s see. I know that Lars pretty much steers the direction of the album, much more than any of us. He kind of just—along with Greg—kind of oversees everything, makes sure that everything is up to snuff, that everything performance-wise is up to snuff, that the quality and musicianship is there. I make sure that when I show up, that I don’t start playing like Yngwie Malmsteen or something (laughs). Or I start playing like Eddie Van Halen. In other words, you know, he’s just keeping it focused and on course. Because all of us have a lot of ideas, and those ideas can knock the whole project off course at any point, if someone says, well, I want to do this and I really want this and, you know, and this has to go on the album. I mean, if someone like had that attitude about a piece of music, it could knock the whole project into a different direction. And it’s important for us to kind of stay united toward the direction that the album’s going, and not veer too far off course. Trying different stuff is cool, you know? Experimentation is cool. But like I said, we want to make sure that everything is congruent.”
And this might be a bit of an odd question, but what do you think you guys are doing different than the other pretty long-in-the-tooth thrash bands out there? I mean, what’s going into the composition of the songs, do you think, that Testament isn’t doing, or Death Angel isn’t doing, or Megadeth isn’t doing?
“You know, I thought about that a lot. And the only thing I can think of is we just do things the way we like to do them. It really just comes down to just our personalities as musicians and how we do things, the decisions that we choose to make. That’s the only thing that I can really kind of put it to. I mean, because those bands make great albums. They’re great live. I love Slayer to death. Slayer is one of the great bands out there, of the big four. Even though I love Anthrax and I love those guys, and I’m really good friends with them, I really think that after us, Slayer are the ones who really stuck to their guns. Megadeth is just mainly like Dave Mustaine and whatever backing band he kind of chooses to have at any point in time. But I really think that Slayer, they stuck to their guns, they didn’t veer off course. They created a sound and stuck to that sound. And why aren’t they bigger? I just don’t know.”
Well, I was just thinking. Metallica made it so huge, it’s almost like a bizarre situation where something goes off in millions and millions of people’s heads, that they can listen to extreme or at least pure metal, but only one band is allowed in. If it wasn’t for Metallica, it would never cross their minds otherwise. To be a band this big, playing this kind of music, is strange, almost like the gods allowed everybody to have one band like that in their playlist. It’s odd, and almost makes you think that… it almost proves that metal is great music—if you give it a chance. Because there millions and millions of Metallica fans, right? But millions of those buyers don’t listen to dozens of metal bands, or there’d be piles more huge bands.
It’s pretty extreme stuff to be selling these sorts of numbers.
“Yeah, and the crazy thing is, our first single is ‘Hardwired,’ which could’ve been on Kill ‘em All. It’s like, it’s not that far away from ‘Whiplash,’ musically. And it was played on like, 250 radio stations in America the first week. Why aren’t those same stations playing like the new Slayer single? It’s just as extreme.”
Okay, last question (we’re given the five minutes, wrap it up signal), how about just a little insight on how this title relates to what’s on the album, and why this album cover relates to what’s on the album?
“Well, that title is kind of like a statement on the human condition. My take on it is, why do we always—like, not always—but why do we sometimes make the decision to choose to do the thing that we know is the most unhealthy for us? You know? (laughs). And like, we’ve all done it. We’ve all done it! And we probably still continue to do it. And, you know, the conclusion is, we’re all kind of just hardwired to make decisions that work against us. At the best of times. And that’s where that comes from. And the cover, all of us kind of morphed into one is what Metallica really is. It’s the four of us, and we’re morphed into, we’re kind of like, we’ve morphed into this unit, this sort of thing called Metallica that is the four of us—and always will be. That’s my take on the cover. And the title, ask the other three guys, I’m sure you’ll get a completely different answer (laughs).”
Check out BraveWords' review of Hardwired… To Self-Destruct here.
(Metallica live at the Opera House in Toronto photos by Dustin Rabin)