From the Archive: Metallica's James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett Discuss Their 1996 Album, 'Load'
Here's an interview with Metallica's James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett from the July 1996 issue of Guitar World. To see the Metallica cover, and all the GW covers from 1996, click here.
“When we were making our last record, nobody knew who the fuck Kurt Cobain was!”
Kirk Hammett, at ease in the lounge of the New York City recording studio where he and the rest of Metallica are rushing to finish their sixth album, Load, is acutely aware of how much the musical climate has changed in the five years since the band put out their last studio recording.
In the late summer of 1991, when Metallica released Metallica, “smelling like teen spirit” was still something to be avoided at all costs. A few short months later, Nirvana’s Nevermind had turned the music world on its head.
With its metallic sheen and top-dollar production values, Metallica (known the as the “Black Album” to the initiated) stuck out like a sore thumb in grunge’s raw sonic landscape. Yet, powered by timeless metal anthems like “Enter Sandman,” and “The Unforgiven,” it sold in excess of eight million copies, in the process turning Metallica into one of the biggest -- if not the biggest -- bands in the world. As it turned out, it was also heavy metal’s swan song, or at least the last recording to be successfully marketed as “metal.” Today, Metallica stands as the last towering monument to an era marked by bombast and excess.
When it came to make Load, Metallica clearly felt the need to find a new, more forward-thinking sound. “A lot of bands get stuck staring at their own belly buttons,” says vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield. “They’re like, ‘Wow, we made such a good record last time. We’ve got to keep doing this.’ We won’t do that. The whole point of Metallica is to come up with fresh shit.”
Perhaps nothing reflects Metallica's embrace of Nineties musical values than the band's striking new hairstyles, although both guitarists are reluctant to attribute significance to the cosmetic change: "I had fucking long hair for 20 years! Of course I cut it!" grumbles Hammett.
Metallica's new 'dos, however, are peanuts compared to the musical makeover undergone by the band. Load is a fiercely modern album, combining the moody melodicism of Seattle's best bands with the skull-splitting crunch that only Metallica can deliver. It's also the first album in which Hetfield shares rhythm guitar duties with Hammett.
"We wanted to get a looser sound on this record, and the best place to do that was with the guitars," Hetfield explains. "It was a little nerve-wracking at first. I felt like there was too much new shit happening in Metallica at once. And that was probably the newest thing of all, besides our stupid haircuts."
Hammett also approached the new guitar regime with a degree of trepidation. "I was actually feeling very self-conscious about it, because I didn't want to step on James 's turf," he says. "But it turned out a lot better than I thought it would, and it adds a great texture to the mix." The new division of labor, which yields slyly intertwining parts, is more closely related to the telepathic guitar interplay of the Rolling Stones than to the battering-ram riffery of Judas Priest or Diamond Head.
While amply packed with heavy fare, Load also finds Metallica exploring new sounds and previously unexplored genres. Songs like "2x4," with its Aerosmith-like swagger, and "Dusty," which rocks to a ZZ Top-on-steroids groove, reflect the band's new-found ability of the band to incorporate Hetfield's love of Southern rock and Hammett's blues jones into Metallica's patented grind. Hypnotic, pop-tinged offerings like "F.O.B.D." and "Mouldy," a startlingly lush, swirling anthem, also indicate that Hetfield has vastly expanded the emotional range of his vocal delivery. In so doing, he firmly establishes himself as one of the premier rock voices of the Nineties, along with a handful of others like Kurt Cobain, Layne Staley and Soundgarden's Chris Cornell.
And bands like Soundgarden, of which Hammett and Hetfield are both staunch admirers, are the company that Metallica intends to keep. This summer, Metallica will headline the Lollapalooza tour, sharing the bill with Cornell and Company, the Ramones, Rancid and a host of other alternative rock bands. "I think that the bill on this year's Lollapalooza is pretty good," says Hammett. "It may be a little top-heavy because of us and Soundgarden, but it's certainly stronger than last year's. Fuck all those fucking elitists who say 'Metallica's not alternative' or 'They're too big of a band to play Lollapalooza.' They're just being very narrow-minded."
Hetfield's take on why Metallica belongs on Lollapalooza is a bit more succinct.
"Uh, next guitar question, please."
GUITAR WORLD: How long have you been working on Load?
JAMES HETFIELD: It's been a long time, man. We started in April or May of last year. We worked on writing the songs for three or four months and just kept going and going. We had tons of material, stuff we had accumulated from five years of not writing. First it was like, "Okay, let's stop at 20 songs." Then we'd get going and say, "All right, we'll stop at 30."
It was fuckin' crazy, man. All this material had built up on the road. There were bags and bags of tapes with riffs on them. Sifting through all that shit was difficult.
Did you record more songs than those that are slated to appear on Load?
HETFIELD: We recorded quite a few drum tracks, I think 28 in all. We were thinking of doing a double record, but as time went on we realized that we couldn't tackle all of it at once; we were like nine months into the recording and weren't even done with half of the songs. It was too hard to focus, too much to swallow.
Do you think that you'll use some of the drum tracks on your next album?
HETFIELD: Oh, definitely. That'll be the next record. The tour for this album is supposed to last one year -- no more. When we're done with that we'll go into the studio to finish up the 15 or 16 songs that we've already started. Hopefully, they'll still sound good to us then. If we like them, we like them; if not, we'll revamp them, add to them or do whatever it takes. But our feeling right now is that there are some good songs waiting to be finished.
It sounds like you're eager to accelerate your touring and recording cycle.
HETFIELD: Five years between records is too crazy. We don't want to do that anymore. It's getting to be too fucking ridiculous: people waiting for new material forever, us touring too long, killing ourselves. We have to shorten these things up. Unfortunately, it's really difficult to shorten the tours. People don't really realize how global the music market has become. There didn't used to be a fucking Indonesia to play, there wasn't a South Africa, an India or a fuckin' Turkey. Now there is, and we want to be there. [laughs] We're going to have to miss a lot of places we hit on the last tour in order to be back in a year.
The listening public's tastes have shifted radically since you made your last album.
HETFIELD: They've completely shifted since we started writing the songs for this record!
KIRK HAMMETT: In the time between albums, we watched all this shit fly by and wondered, "How does Metallica fit into this?" And then we realized that we didn't fit into it at all, never have, and never really will.
Were you influenced by any of the grunge or alternative music that followed Nirvana's Nevermind down the pipeline?
HAMMETT: The only real influence that the music I've been hearing has had is that it's sparked my interest in all the old, shitty-sounding Electro-Harmonix and MXR effects pedals I used to use when I was younger. But I listened to a lot of that Seattle stuff before it became mega-popular. When it got that big, I stopped.
HETFIELD: [to Hammett] Why? Did they suddenly become shitty when they got popular?
HAMMETT: No. I just felt that I couldn't get away from it.
HETFIELD: That happened to me. When the "Black Album" got popular, I stopped listening to it. [laughs]
That album has sold eight million albums to date and is still on the charts. What -- if any -- are the drawbacks of having such a huge hit on your hands?
HETFIELD: Everything gets so inflated. Everything is "More! More! More!" More touring, more interviews -- more of everything. Everyone wants something -- always. They can't just take you for who you are.
Luckily for us, success wasn't a night and day thing. We had taken a few steps on our way up, so we were able to handle it mentally. No one in Metallica ended up shooting himself or shooting up, or whatever it is people sometimes feel the need to do in these situations. You see it every fuckin' day in this weird-ass business.
I mean, everyone has their little things that they need to do to release pressure. When you're touring for that long, there's shit that just happens to your head. Sometimes you stray, and hopefully you've got a band that will help you through. We're really lucky to have stuck around this long without having any major crises. I mean, we've had people die in the band and things like that [original bassist Cliff Burton was killed in a tour bus accident in 1986], but as far as people pulling and tugging and fucking with shit, there haven't been too many problems.
It amazes me how certain bands fall apart. It's like, "Fuck, man! Can't you see that shit coming?" But sometimes they don't. It's hard to keep a band uniform and still maintain a comfortable degree of individuality; you have to respect each other all the time.
When you do get some time off, what do you do? Do you get as far away from music as possible?
HETFIELD: I go in cycles. I won't bother listening to music for quite a while, and then I'll feel down or shitty or something and realize that it's because I haven't picked up my guitar or played music. I've conditioned myself to need this stuff for so long that I can't be away from it for too long. It's like, "Whoa, I've got to fuckin ' pick the guitar up and start playing." And it's scary when you haven't played for quite a while and can't remember the riff to "Seek and Destroy!"
I've noticed that it's hard to figure out what you want to do when you come off a two-year tour. While you're out on the road, you make up this list of things that you want to do when the tour's over, and then when you get home you end up vegging. It's a strange feeling to be out on your own again, not to have the Metallica family around you. There's no tour manager to wake me up and tell me to do this or that. It's like, "Whoa! I have to start doing shit for myself here and deciding what I want to do." And then when I finally get it together and start doing all the shit I planned to, it's time to get back to Metallica again.
Sometimes you get torn between the two worlds. Especially when you get to our age, you start to develop a family life and get things kinda going. No one in the band is married or has kids or anything, but you have a girlfriend and your little sanctuary at home, and you've got to keep that together.
But Metallica is the fucking world to me -- it always has been, and that's not going to change. Whoever becomes my partner through life has got to deal with that. I'm married to Metallica.
The last two Metallica albums had specific musical agendas. And Justice for All [Elektra, 1988] was an exercise in taking the complex, challenging arrangements of Ride the Lightning [Elektra, 1984] and Master of Puppets [Elektra, 1986] to their most elaborate extreme, while Metallica was an exercise in economy…
HETFIELD: Economy, my ass! [laughs] That was the most expensive record we've ever made.
. . . in which you reigned in your song structures and focused on crafting more concise rock songs. What were your goals for this album?
HETFIELD: We wanted to attain a certain degree of looseness with this record. The drums are pretty much as anal as ever, but the vocals, and particularly the guitars, breathe a lot more. Instead of me playing all of the rhythm guitars and trying to double them as closely as possible, like I'd done on our previous albums, both Kirk and I play contrasting rhythm parts on almost all of the record. There isn't really much of that one-dimensional wall of heavy guitar -- with a clean guitar coming in once in a while -- that we've had on previous albums. I wanted a "medium" sound, if there's such a thing. I was like, "How do I get that? I fucking don't know."
Was it decided before you began recording that both of you would play rhythm guitar on this album?
HAMMETT: No. It was never really something that we spoke about. The first mention of it came while we were recording the drum tracks. When we do that, we all play the songs together in a single room, but the only thing that goes onto the multi-track is the drums -- everything else just gets taped. Some of the songs were sounding so good on those tapes that James was like, "Well, maybe Kirk should play on the final version of some of these."
Later on, on a day when James happened to be away on a hunting trip, I was laying down a couple of solos, and when I finished the lead on one of the tunes our producer, Bob Rock, said, "Okay, tune up and we'll do the rhythm for this song now." I was like, "What?"
HETFIELD: By the time I came back, Kirk had put down rhythm tracks on four songs.
HAMMETT: I specifically went out of my way to come up with a second guitar part that would complement James's, not ape it. Not that the riffs weren't interesting. The riffs are the riffs -- they're the most important part of the song. Our parts have a really good sense of interplay. And you can actually separate the two guitars and tell who's playing what. James is on the left side, and I'm on the right.
James, was it difficult for you to surrender control?
HAMMETT: I don't think it's a control issue as much as it used to be. It's more that we're all here to accomplish a common goal.
HETFIELD: It was what was needed for the record. The looseness just wasn't coming across. No matter how many fucking martinis I had, I could never get the guitar tracks to sound different enough. It was the same guitar player playing it fucked up. It wasn't a fucked-up guitar player trying to play it right. [laughs]
Basically, no matter how close Kirk plays the riff to the way I did, it won't sound the same because it's his fingers, his style and his attitude. I would lay a basic scratch track of what I thought the other guitar should be, and Kirk would come in, listen to the track and then do his own thing with it, which was cool.
In the past, was the fact that Kirk didn’t get to play rhythm guitar on the records a source of tension within the band?
HAMMETT: Not really. In fact, on this album we argued more about the solos than anything else. But we're always arguing about something, so it was just par for the course.
HETFIELD: I often have a pretty specific idea of what the solo to a particular song should sound like, so it throws me for a loop when Kirk comes in with something else. But then everyone sits down, we talk it out and work out a middle ground that everyone can be happy with. You don't want to have something on a record that someone in the band is going to go insane over and hate.
HAMMETT: We try and resolve things right away, so that two years from now no one will say something sarcastic to the other person about it.
HETFIELD: Well, they probably will anyway. But at least there won't be too much fuel behind it.
What were the bones of contention?
HETFIELD: "Is that in key? Are you sure that's in key?" [laughs]
HAMMETT: I had to sit down and explain my approach. I probably have the most open mind of anyone in Metallica, as far as music is concerned. I like a lot of different stuff, and so, occasionally, I'll take an idea inspired by something sort of "out" and bring it to the band. I won't bring it to the band unless I think that there's a chance that they'll like it, and 90 percent of the time they do. But there 's that 10 percent of the time where they question it.
On this album, there was one song -- which will remain nameless to protect the innocent -- where the solo that I played had such a different type of feel that it changed that entire piece of the song. We spent hours debating it, and I literally had to walk James through every single note. There was something about it that he just didn't like, which he thought might have been a harmonic thing. But then we realized that it was just the general sound of the solo. Then James came up with something -- like five notes -- that colored what I had played sufficiently to make it work for him too.
Your solos on this album are very textured.
HAMMETT: I would hate to say that I'm bored with the standard rock guitar solo, but I've done it for five albums now, and this time I wanted to go in a completely different direction. I wasn't interested in showing off any more. I wanted to play something that fit the song more like a part than a solo per se, something that had the power to establish a completely different mood in the section of the song that was allocated to me.
When I play at home, I have a Lexicon Jam Man sampling delay with which I can create a loops on which to layer guitar textures. That's why things like the Roland VG-8 and the guitar synth, both of which I used on "Mouldy," are so interesting to me -- they put so many sounds at my disposal.
Don't get me wrong, though -- I still listen to Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, Robert Fripp and Adrian Belew. I'm still way into that type of guitar playing. I just don't feel the need to play that way within the context of Metallica any more.
You've also almost abandoned your wah pedal, which you used on most of the solos on the last album.
HAMMETT: I didn't notice that until just the other day. I was laying down a wah track and I said to Bob, "Guess what? We don't have the problem we had on the last album. You don't have to hide the wah pedal anymore."
The slide solo on "Bitch" is a first for you.
HAMMETT: We wanted to find something different for that song, not just another guitar solo. The slide was really effective because it's such a new sound for us. It's only recently that I've felt comfortable enough with my slide work to actually commit to playing it on the record. I've been working on it for years now -- it's not an easy thing to do. I'm actually really proud of that guitar solo.
Do you use any open tunings when you play slide?
HAMMETT: Man, that shit just confuses me. When I found out that Duane Allman used standard tuning, it really inspired me to work on my slide chops. Before that, I thought that slide players all worked in open G and could use all the tricky tunings.
The solo on "Bleeding Me" also sounds particularly inspired.
HAMMETT: That's the one lead that I played totally off the cuff. I did seven or eight passes, and it felt so goddamn good. Every time I finished a take, Bob would look at me and say, "Wow!" It's one of the more typical "rock" solos on the album. I had the wah pedal going, and I was going for a combination of fast playing and long, sustained notes. It has everything in there: melody, hooks, rock and roll phrasing, a bluesy vibe, lots of dynamics, and the Hendrixisms that I always try to sneak in there.
James, you also play quite a bit of lead guitar on Load.
HETFIELD: Honest to goodness, I don't know anymore. So much different shit has gone on this record as far as laying guitar tracks that I kind of forget what actually made it into the final mix.
HAMMETT: I don't feel as possessive about the guitar parts as I have in the past, precisely because there's so much there. I mean, ultimately it doesn't really matter who played what; the parts are just there to make the songs happen. I mean at this point, I think that people know we can play.
All of Load is tuned down a half step -- another first for you.
HETFIELD: Tuning down a half step helped a lot of things, like getting the bends going in the riffs. The most fun thing in the world is sitting down with your guitar tuned down a whole step and riffing out. Unfortunately, that sounds too muddy, so we settled for tuning down a half step. Tuning down also helps me a lot by extending the apparent range of my voice.
Vocally, you've taken a lot of chances with this album.
HETFIELD: I feel that it's more raw. It was a lot more fun doing the vocals this time, not as stiff a process. We were trying to be a little less anal.
In the past, though, Metallica has always been a band that holds itself to an extreme level of studio perfection.
HETFIELD: There's still that. There 's still a desire for perfection, but this time we let little things go. If the verdict was, "Well, that thing you sang was a bit pitchy, but it has some major attitude," then fuck it, let it ride. On the "Black Album," the vocals were so in the pocket all the time. I was trapped by the fact that I forced myself to repeat certain phrases exactly every time they occurred within a song.
Did you go so far as to use vocal sampling on the last album, to ensure that recurring parts would be exactly the same?
HETFIELD: Well, there were a couple of times where we flew in the background vocals on a chorus or something -- just to save the time doing the donkey work. But I didn't feel right about doing even that this time. I sang everything.
On "Believe" and "Poor Twisted Me," your vocals are distorted. Is there an industrial music influence creeping in there?
HETFIELD: We wanted to get some different sounds. That's just a good old Shure bullet mic, usually used for harmonica. It's got a distinct sound that you can't do too much to, but it's pretty cool for what it is.
But I wouldn't call that an industrial sound or anything. It's just a mic being used for an application it wasn't designed for. The song called out for it. I had always told myself, "I'm never ever going to use that distorted vocal sound that everyone uses." But it fit lyrically.
I've been really focusing on lyricists -- as opposed to people who just sit down and crank out some words for a song -- who write fucking poems and then put music to them. I wanted to understand other people's ideas about how to write lyrics. Nick Cave's Murder Ballads are the coolest, and I dig all the Tom Waits stuff. I 've even listened to some Leonard Cohen. I mean, I hate the fucking music, but his lyrics are very cool.
You do a lot more "acting" with your singing.
HETFIELD: The way we recorded the vocals this time made it a bit easier, not exactly to get into character, but to feel the vocals a bit more than before. All the other times I did vocals, I sat in front of some expensive microphone -- stranded out in the cold-fucking tracking room. There always was a big X on the floor, and I wasn't allowed to move from that spot.
This time I thought, "You know, I have a great time with the vocals in my studio at home. I fuck around with them and they come out fine. Why can't we try that here?'' So we'd take the SM-57 or whatever mic we were using and I would walk around the control room and just yell -- and it was fine. It was very liberating not having to worry about where I had to stand and all this other bullshit. I could just worry about what I was singing.
Apparently, Henry Rollins does much the same thing when he 's cutting vocals. He actually has to tape the headphones to his head because he gets so animated.
HETFIELD: Fuck headphones, man! We had the big fatties [large studio monitors] cranked. There's a little bleed, but fuck it. You've got to go for vibe.
Earlier you referred to "a lot of changes happening in Metallica." What, besides the changes in your rhythm guitar approach -- and your haircuts -- were you referring to?
HETFIELD: In general, there's a looser attitude. Some new things happened with Jason [Newsted, bassist]. In the past, Lars [Ulrich, drummer] and I had the fucking shackles on everybody. This time, if we came into the studio and heard Jason laying down some slap bass part on a song, we'd be like, "What the fuck? …Okay, let's count to 10 and hear it in the context of the song. We're open-minded here." It was difficult at times.
I had noticed over the years how frustrated Jason was musically and how a lot of the stuff he's written isn't getting onto the records. It also used to really bug me that he was jamming with all of these other bands. He'd make a demo with some friends, and somehow it would end up on the radio and I'd be like, "What the fuck are you doing, Jason? This is Metallica! You can't do that shit!" Then I realized that he was doing it because he needs to get his shit out. He wants people to hear his stuff.
HAMMETT: It's a good creative outlet and completely healthy for him. And ultimately, what's healthy for him is healthy for us.
HETFIELD: We kept his frustration in mind while we hashed out the parts he put down on the record.
Are there specific things on the "Black Album" that you wanted to improve on Load?
HAMMETT: The one thing that strikes me about the "Black Album" when I go back and listen to it is that there isn't enough variation in my tone. I kind of stuck with the same sound, and the only variation was a wah pedal here and a wah pedal there, or the minimal tonal variation that you get from tuning down.
But you can't really look back. If you do, you end up constantly comparing yourself to the past, and that has a way of holding you back. You end up with a whole catalog of albums that sound like one particular album that was successful. The idea should be to move forward and try and develop a new vision.
You did, however, keep one important part of the "Black Album" formula intact when you decided to work with Bob Rock again. How has your relationship with him developed?
HETFIELD: When we started working on the "Black Album," Bob was much more passive than he is now. He was afraid to take control. Now our relationship goes through phases, depending on what needs to be done. At different times, Bob tries to exert a little more authority over us. We laugh at him and move on. [laughs]
HAMMETT: The thing with Bob is that he can read us pretty well at this point -- he definitely knows what we're capable of. I know that on this album I came in and did a really great job at what I had to do, and a lot of that was the result of him zoning on a particular idea that I had and him telling me to build on it. Then there have been times where I've been a bit hungover and not happening, and he's flown off the handle and yelled, "Get your shit together!"
But you know what -- and I probably shouldn't say this -- there have been times when I've come in hungover and been able to play really well. And I think that in a few of those situations, being hung over has added a certain edge to my playing.
HETFIELD: [laughs] Oh no!
HAMMETT: I'm not advocating drinking, and this is a highly personal point of view, but there has been the occasional session where I've come in a little hungover -- not super hungover -- and it's made me think more and feel a little more sensitive...
HAMMETT: ...to the needs of the track.
HETFIELD: Kids, don't try this at home.
HAMMETT: But getting back to Bob, I think that he's really good at coaching us through things.
HETFIELD: That's his gig. He's not here to tell us what to do. He's trying to get the best shit he can out of us all the time. He's also a really solid guitar player with a good knowledge of theory, which can be really helpful in a bind. I'll be trying to work out a harmony, and he 'II come in and say, "Well A is the relative minor of blah blah blah," and since I don't know any of that shit, it's nice to have the instruction booklet right next to me.
HAMMETT: He's always pulling out the relative minor. It's his favorite thing.
Load has much more of an in-your-face mix than Metallica, which had considerable amounts of ambiance in the mix.
HETFIELD: I wanted the guitars back in your face again. I like the way Kill 'Em All [Elektra, 1983] just had fucking guitars up your ass and the drums were not the leader of the group. I think that on the "Black Album," everyone wanted to be up front. But something has to be back there, and it ended up being the guitars, which were given a wider, thinner sound and pushed back. I think that on this album, the drums drive the rhythm instead of leading the band, and there are these two guitars playing different things right up front.
I had one big fear when we went to the two guitar-player thing: "Is the fucking riff still going to be heard?" That's always been really important in this group. But I think we found a nice balance between them, and their level in the mix was crucial.
Were you asked to play Lollapalooza? Or did you do the asking?
HETFIELD: We invented it.
HAMMETT: We bought it.
HETFIELD: They asked us. We thought about it and said, "All right, why the fuck not?" All it is is a European-style rock festival. We've done festivals all over the world.
HAMMETT: It's like the Reading Festival [an annual British festival] -- except that it moves from place to place. We're used to being on different bills with different people. I mean, we played one festival in Belgium where we shared the bill with Neil Young, Lenny Kravitz, Sugar, Sonic Youth, the Levelers and the Black Crowes. That would never happen in America because those bands mean something completely different over here than they do in Europe.
The whole impetus behind Lollapalooza was to do something different and challenging. And I think that the bill with us on it is different and challenging -- more recently, they were stuck in a rut where they had to have alternative bands and indie bands.
Is it true that you played an important role in selecting the bands for this year's lineup?
HAMMETT: We did and we didn't. A lot of it had to do with availability. A lot of bands that we wanted were touring on their own. I mean, I would have liked to have AI Green or the Cocteau Twins.
HETFIELD: We're not picking Lollapalooza. We're not coming in to take it over. We're just gonna play. We don't really want to have anything to do with Lollapalooza except play it.
Are you looking forward to seeing any of the bands that will be on the bill with you?
HAMMETT: I like the vibe of Lollapalooza. I've been to every single one; I've actually jammed at a few, too. When Ministry was out I played with them a few times, and I did the same with Primus. I've fucking loved Soundgarden since 1985 or '86. And everyone loves the Ramones. I was talking to Johnny Ramone the other day and he was saying, "Goddamn it, Kirk, I'd already be retired and playing golf in L.A. if it weren't for you guys calling us up and asking us to do this summer tour." And I said, "Well, Johnny, there isn't any better way to go."