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Interview: Metallica's Kirk Hammett on His New Book, 'Too Much Horror Business'

You know him as Metallica’s lead guitarist. But to a select group of obsessive outsiders, Kirk Hammett is famous for a completely different reason: for years, the wizard of wah has been quietly amassing one of the world’s most extensive collections of classic horror memorabilia.

Attendees at last June’s Orion Music + More festival got a sneak peek at the skeletons in Hammett’s closet when he presented a sample of his collection in the “Kirk’s Crypt” mini museum. Now, with the publication of Too Much Horror Business—The Kirk Hammett Collection (due out October 1 from Abrams Image), Hammett is unveiling the full extent of his secret passion to the world at large.

“All throughout my life I’ve had to explain my attraction to this horror business,” he says. “It relaxes me like a sunset might relax other people…except in my case it would be a full moon with a strange creature lurking about!”

The large-format, 228-page, hardcover coffee-table book features more than 300 full-color images of pieces from Hammett’s private collection. Among the artifacts are costumes from Bela Lugosi’s 1932 film White Zombie and the 1934 Lugosi–Boris Karloff flick The Black Cat; movie posters from Nosferatu to Hellraiser; rare toys like the Great Garloo and Frankenstein Tricky Walkers; original Basil Gogo Famous Monsters and Frank Frazetta fantasy paintings; props like the notorious Dr. Tongue zombie from Day of the Dead; and enough other items to qualify Hammett for an episode of Hoarders. In addition, Too Much Horror Business contains three conversations with the guitarist about his childhood, the nature of collecting and the connection between Metallica’s music and horror.

Hammett’s passion for horror toys, props and ephemera stretches back to the late Sixties, well before he even picked up a guitar. After he sprained his arm in a fight with his sister when he was five, Hammett’s parents planted him in front of the television, where he watched the man-eating-plant film called Day of the Triffids. After that, he found himself drawn to his brother’s Frankenstein figures, and it wasn’t long before he was spending his milk money on horror mags like Creepy and Famous Monsters of Filmland. For the better part of the next decade, Hammett dove deep into the scene. And then he picked up his first guitar.

“My whole life shifted,” Hammett explains. “I stopped collecting, and I started selling monster magazines to buy records.”

The move from horror to music put Hammett on the path that would eventually lead him to join Metallica in 1983. But like a true horror junkie, Hammett found his way back to his first love. It was just after the release of Metallica’s debut, Kill ’Em All, that Hammett’s horror obsession was reignited. The band was touring in Canada when Hammett spotted some sealed copies of Famous Monsters on a newsstand. He snatched them up and soon after found himself seeking out specialty stores for vintage posters and horror toys from the Sixties and Seventies. Before he knew it, Hammett had built a network of memorabilia dealers in the cities where Metallica would stop on tour. In the near 30 years that have passed, he has spent much of his Metallica downtime painstakingly acquiring each piece in the epic collection that is presented in Too Much Horror Business, and he sees no end in sight.

“I’ve gone through decades living with this predicament,” Hammett says with a laugh. “And it shows no signs of waning!”

Here, we catch up with Kirk to discuss some horror business, including toys he’s destroyed, the scariest items in his collection and which monsters best represent his Metallica bandmates.

Q: Can you name three modern horror films that you love?

"Insidious is amazing. It’s so fucking great. It reminds me of an old-school horror movie. I also really enjoyed Troll Hunter. They use a lot of found-footage-style film, and I love the stop-motion effects they use with the trolls. It’s a total homage to Ray Harryhausen and his Dynamation [technique]. I’m not even sure if it’s stop motion or CG made to look like that style, but it reminds me of how horror-movie monsters looked back in the day. One of my favorite horror films of the Nineties was Event Horizon. It scared the hell out of me. I love horror movies in space. I love it when the genre switches over and what was sci-fi becomes horror."

Q: What one item have you lost at auction that still haunts you to this day?

“There’s been numerous times when I’ve missed out on stuff. Occasionally I’m on the road when the auctions are happening, so I can’t be there or I’m in the wrong time zone to get on the phone. Here’s a good example: In the very last scene of the movie The Shining, there’s a close-up of a picture on the wall with all these people from the Twenties having a drink. They show it earlier in the movie, but in the last scene Jack Nicholson’s [character’s] face is now mysteriously in the photo. The actual still picture used in the film came up for auction 15 years ago. It was estimated to go for like $100 to $200. It was so cool that I decided to bid $1,200 for it, thinking no one would go that high. But it ended up going for $1,400, and I missed it! So then three years ago it came up for auction again, and the estimate was $2,000 to $3,000. I was like, ‘Okay, I am not gonna miss this second chance. I’m gonna pay $12,000 because no one is gonna pay that much.’ That’s a ridiculous price, but I still didn’t get it a second time! [laughs] I couldn’t believe that I wasn’t the only geeky nerd out there that was obsessed enough to pay crazy prices. But over time I’ve found there are at least one or two other people out there that feel the same way I do about certain pieces.”

Q: If you made a horror film about Metallica, which monster would play each band member?

“I would be a vampire, because they’re stealth, lurk in the shadows, and appear and disappear. There’s also a goth element to vampires that I really like, which doesn’t exist in werewolves, the Frankenstein monster or the mummy. James [Hetfield] would probably enjoy being a Frankenstein monster…but then again maybe not! Rob [Trujillo] would definitely be a werewolf, because he’s already halfway there in appearance. [laughs] And Lars [Ulrich] would probably make a pretty good vampire, like myself.”

Q: What’s the strangest thing you’ve ever collected?

“Hmm... For a while I was collecting Satan and devil stuff—you know, anything that had to do with old Beelzebub or Lucifer. But I had to put the brakes on it, because there’s a lot of stuff out there, and the collection was just growing too quickly. As far as eclectic stuff, I went through a really big taxidermy phase where I collected lots of animals. I’ve since had to go through and sell off stuff, because not only does it take up a lot of room but also there are little critters that like to move into taxidermy. And it’s not my thing to have little critters moving around my house.”

Q: How often does your wife say, “Kirk, you bought another monster mask?”

[laughs] “She’s learned to accept it. Plus she likes some of the stuff herself. She has a passing interest in movie posters, stuff like The Man Who Fell to Earth and Barbarella. So she shares a little bit of that appreciation, but for the most part she lets me do my thing because it’s something I’ve always done and probably something I will always continue to do.”

Q: Sophie’s Choice: Your guitars or your horror collection—one has to go.

“Oh! Did you have to ask me that question? [laughs] That’s putting me in the hot seat, man. I don’t know if I have an answer. That’s like, ‘What arm should I chop off? My left or my right?’ [laughs] That’s a hard one. I’d go nuts if I lost either one. But, in my heart of hearts, I would probably sell my movie poster collection before my guitars. My music and guitars are just that much closer to my heart. I mean, come on, music was the only thing that could tear me away from the [horror] stuff. But when I was able to get some disposable income, via music and guitar playing, I went right back to collecting. My appreciation for that stuff will be with me my whole life. But my guitars offer me a voice and a conduit to express myself. They give me a sense of accomplishment that I don’t think collecting will ever give to me. With music and guitar playing I can also help, and share with, more people than I could ever do with my collection. And that’s the bottom line.”

Q: What was the first collectible you had as a child?

“When I was a kid the first collectible I got was the Aurora Frightening Lightning [Strikes] glow-in-the-dark Frankenstein monster. I wish I still had it. I had multiple copies of that model, because as a kid I would pour lighter fluid all over it and set it on fire, or blow it up with firecrackers, or tie parachutes to it and throw it off the roof… If anything, I still have that intent in me!” [laughs]

Q: You dedicate the book to your young children. What piece in your collection most terrifies them?

“Down in my basement I have this pretty famous zombie prop from Day of the Dead called Dr. Tongue. It’s basically this guy who had a shotgun blast to the face, so he has no jaw and his tongue is just hanging out. Usually I cover him up so the kids don’t see him, because it’s pretty graphic. But the other day he wasn’t covered up, and the kids went down. The first thing I hear is, ‘Dad! Is that real blood on his face?’ And my heart sank. I was like, Shoot! They saw Dr. Tongue. That was one image I was trying to guard them and protect them from, but they saw it. Thankfully, it didn’t creep them out as much as I thought it would. Having said that, they both love werewolves…unless it’s a full moon, and then they’re really scared! [laughs] I have to tell them, ‘You know, if it’s a full moon and the werewolves are out; you have to eat all your dinner, because werewolves hate eating people who have full bellies. They love eating humans; but they hate eating human food! So if you eat everything, the werewolves won’t bother you.’ ”

Q: Was there anything that you destroyed as a kid that you now regret because you can’t find another?

“There are a few things that I destroyed when I was a kid that I would love to have now. There was this line of alien figures called the Colorform Aliens [a.k.a. The Outer Space Men]. Now one of those figures, outside the package, costs you anywhere from 100 to 300 dollars. But I had all of them as a kid, in their packages. I’ve since reacquired the [same figures], but it would have been nice to have kept the original ones. They were some of my coolest and most favorite toys from that period. Another thing I had when I was a kid was the Famous Monster [Photo] Printing Set, which I still cannot find to this day. I think there are only one or two examples that have survived. One is in Europe and one is here. They are so elusive. I wish I had one now!”

Q: You’ve done well for yourself. What keeps you from buying every collectible out there?

“I have to set limits for myself. If I had unlimited funds, wall space and storage, I would collect a lot more things, like Planet of the Apes, Star Wars, science fiction stuff, autographs, and prop guns and weapons. I have to draw the line somewhere. So I try to keep it to the stuff that got me going in the first place, which is the classic horror movie stuff and toys from the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties, basically within the boundaries you see within my book.”

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Brad is a Brooklyn-based writer, editor and video producer. He is the former content director of Revolver magazine and executive editor of Guitar World. His work has appeared in Vice, Guitar Aficionado, Inked and more. He’s also a die-hard Les Paul player who wishes he never sold his 1987 Marshall Silver Jubilee half stack.