Kirk Hammett: The Phoenix
Originally printed in Guitar World, December 2008
Kirk Hammett tells why Metallica burned their bridges with St. Anger and explains how they rose from the ashes to create Death Magnetic.
Kirk Hammett is wired and tired. It’s evening in Los Angeles, and in approximately one hour, Metallica will hit the stage of the Wiltern Theater to raise money for the Silverlake Conservatory of Music, a nonprofit music school for low-income students. While Hammett is psyched to be playing for this great cause, there is no denying that, at the moment, he’s draggin’ ass.
“I tried to sleep in this morning, but I couldn’t because I’m on baby time,” he explains. “I have a one-and-a-half-year-old, and my wife’s giving birth to another baby in about six weeks. I’ve been getting up at 6:30 in the morning, so this is already getting late for me.
“I’ll have to reset my rock and roll clock if I’m going to have any chance of making it through the next tour,” he adds, laughing.
Hitting the reset button has become a theme for Hammett and his band over the past year. After spending much of the decade redefining their sound, Metallica have gone full circle and returned to the crunching, thrash-metal style that established them as the world’s greatest hard rock band in the Eighties. While it’s tempting to attribute this dramatic about-face to their superstar producer Rick Rubin, Kirk explains that the band did much of the heavy lifting on their new album, Death Magnetic, themselves.
“Rick was important because he planted the creative seeds, but he left the lion’s share of the execution to us,” Hammett explains. “It was a great relationship, because he gave us guidance but left our core intact. For example, if there were anything he thought was substandard, or just wrong for us, he would just tell us to write something else; he wouldn’t try to tell us how. There was a lot of mutual respect.”
When asked why, after 20-plus years in the business, Metallica didn’t just produce the record themselves, Hammett laughs and shakes his head. “We need an outsider, or else a lot of creative decisions would become stalemates and we’d never get anything done,” he says, referring to band’s notoriously turbulent relationship. “We need a tiebreaker. Maybe if there were a fifth person in the band it could work, but at this point we’re not about to get a keyboard player.”
One thing the band could apparently agree on was to give Hammett plenty of room to rip. Considering that he was all but forbidden to play solos on the group’s previous studio effort, St. Anger, it’s both a shock and a relief to hear him cut loose on Death Magnetic. As frontman James Hetfield explains in the accompanying interview, putting one of the greatest soloists in rock history on a short leash probably wasn’t a good idea. To Metallica’s credit, they’ve more than made up for the error by allowing Hammett to play fast, loud and long throughout Death Magnetic. In fact, one could argue that Kirk practically owns the album.
The mellow surfer-dude yin to James’s tough-guy yang, Hammett takes this vindication in stride. In the following interview, he talks with modest pride about his new lease on Death and how goddamn good it feels to be “face melters” once again.
GUITAR WORLD How would you describe Death Magnetic?
KIRK HAMMETT I would say it sits somewhere in between …And Justice for All and the “Black Album.” It has an aggressive, technical side, like Justice, but there’s also a lot of melody, like the “Black Album.” We wrote the album with every intention of it being just a kick in the face, and I think we pulled it off. We’ve been working on it for long enough—close the three years. At one point we had 24 songs, and we had to tear it down to 14, and it has even fewer now, but I think it’s everything that we wanted to hear.