Originally published in Guitar World, April 2009
They both started as cult heroes—Metallica’s Kirk Hammett was a man of
the people, and Tool’s Adam Jones was a man of mystery. Join them as
they compare notes on how they transformed their heavy metal into a
It’s only 5 P.M. when I arrive at the Forum in Inglewood, California, but the parking lot of this classic 18,000-plus arena is already crowded with metalheads of every age, shape, color and gender, all eating and drinking in anticipation of tonight’s show. Above the din, a familiar metal refrain blasts from a stereo:
The Horsemen are drawing nearer
On leather steeds they ride
They come to take your life.
And what better soundtrack to prepare for the four bringers of tonight’s metal apocalypse—Metallica’s James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo—than their own ripping ode to Armageddon, “The Four Horsemen.” Although Metallica won’t hit the stage for hours, the excitement is palpable among this hometown crowd of old thrashers, young longhairs, weekend warriors and metal chicks, all of whom have come to see Metallica kick out a fiery set of old and new favorites pulled from a quarter-century of classic metal—from their 1983 debut, Kill ’Em All to last year’s epic Death Magnetic.
Since the release of 1991’s chart-crushing “Black Album,” Metallica have enjoyed full-fledged global domination of the metal market. Yet, as expansive as their empire has become, there was a time back in the early Eighties when the SoCal four-piece was championed almost exclusively by a cult of adolescent males disaffected by mainstream music—a grassroots, tape-trading clique that related to Metallica’s fast-as-hell riffs, boundless energy and boozy, kick-ass older brother persona.
Counted among those headbangers was Tool guitarist Adam Jones, who has followed the band ever since Kill ’Em All.
“They’re still the ‘older brothers,’ ” says Jones, who has accepted Guitar World’s offer to watch the sold-out show and catch up with his old friend Kirk Hammett. “The reason I like Metallica is because they’re very complex, mature men who at the same time have the enthusiasm of little kids. There’s nothing better than meeting your heroes and finding that they’re real, down-to-earth people. You can go out and have a beer with them and talk about something besides, ‘Oh, you’re great. I love your band. I love that song.’ You can forget all that and just have a really inspiring conversation.”
Like Metallica, Tool insist on creating the music they want to hear, a progressively heady and utterly heavy sound that, as it turns out, many others want to hear. What’s more, their willingness to challenge industry models and expectations has earned them the respect and devotion of fans, critics and artists alike. “I’m a big Tool fan. How could I not be?” Hammett announces when we sit down for our interview on the evening of the Forum show. “They have everything: riffs, arrangements and subject matter. They just kick ass, and they are definitely one of the best bands to come out in a long time.”
As a testament to the loyalty of Tool fans, when the band released 2006’s 10,000 Days after a five-year gap between the previous album, Lateralus, the record immediately shot to Number One and eventually went Platinum. Tool are the rare band that can go up the mountain, disappear for years and return—with 10 (or so) commanding tracks—to an even stronger reception.
Intriguingly, Tool and Metallica took opposite attitudes toward building recognition when their popularity started to grow: Hammett and his bandmates became increasingly more visible; Tool obscured their faces in photo shoots and stopped appearing in videos. “When we first started out here in Hollywoodland,” Jones explains, “we saw that everyone had to have a look. We decided that people would be more serious about listening to everything we did if they didn’t know what we looked like. Early on Metallica had a bit of the Tool thing going in the fact that they weren’t overly pumping their image. But because of their success, Metallica found themselves in the spotlight more than we were, to the point where they’ve now become iconic. But to me the music is what comes first. I remember hearing those first three Metallica albums. They were so good I didn’t care what the band looked like!”
Given their similar experiences and mutual admiration for each other’s bands, it’s not surprising that Hammett and Jones connected when they first met in the Nineties. “We opened for Metallica in Korea and decided to hit Hawaii on our way back to do a couple shows,” explains Jones. “Kirk was heading to Hawaii, too, but I didn’t see him on our plane. After we landed, I was getting my luggage and I felt this tap on my shoulder. It was Kirk, and he said, ‘Are you the guitarist in Tool? I love your band. Would you like to come to dinner?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah!’ ”
In the years since that first meeting, the two have cultivated a friendship built on a shared belief in art for art’s sake—not to mention a love of seriously thrashing guitar work, classic prog-rock, esoteric subjects, comic books and surfing.
Having arrived a few minutes early for our interview, Adam and I are escorted down a ramp into the belly of the massive Forum and led to the room designated for our interview. No sooner do we sit down on a pair of leather couches than Hammett bursts through the door, clutching a freshly custom-painted ESP. The rapport between the two guitarists is apparent as they greet each other with smiles and hearty handshakes.
After a minute of ogling Kirk’s occult-themed ax (more on that later), I sit down speak to the two guitarists about a range of topics, not the least of which is how to become a successful artist while staying true to your vision—a subject that both guitarists are uniquely qualified to discuss.
GUITAR WORLD Let’s start with a little history. How did you guys become friends?
KIRK HAMMETT I’ve always admired Adam from a distance.
ADAM JONES A far distance.
HAMMETT As far a distance as possible. [laughs] We played some shows together in 2006, in Korea, and that’s when we started getting to know each other. After those Korean shows, Tool went right to Hawaii. I was also going to Hawaii, because I spend a lot of time there. They were playing a show, and Adam asked me to come onstage and play “Sober” with him. To which I said, “Hell yes!”
JONES Yeah, it was really great. We extended the breakdown in “Sober” where [Tool vocalist] Maynard [James Keenan] comes in by himself, and we built the song back up into the chorus again. We softly started playing the main riff and let Kirk swim over it. For a guy who didn’t prepare at all, he blew my mind! It just kept getting better—more complex and cooler.
HAMMETT It was one of my best onstage jamming experiences, ever. It was totally improvised and really mind-blowing.
GW Adam, in the days before Tool did you ever listen to Metallica?
JONES Absolutely. You always hear about the prog and math stuff that influenced me, but there’s also Aerosmith, AC/DC and Metallica. All that stuff has affected me. It’s really funny to think back to when I bought …And Justice for All, that one day I would be hanging out or surfing with Kirk.
GW You guys surf together?
JONES Yeah. The first time was in Hawaii, the day after we met. He lent me a long board and took me out to this spot where all the old-timers surf. I’m from California, so I’ve never had to paddle 30 minutes anywhere. [laughs] And you have to go out real far in Waikiki to catch the good waves. My arms were getting so tired, and I was so worried I was gonna look like a pussy! [laughs]
GW What initially attracted you to Metallica’s music?
JONES I definitely have this prog side of me, so I listen for counter rhythms and polyrhythms, and …And Justice for All had stuff in seven and nine. There’s even one riff that’s in 11, which I really like. But I’m sure you guys don’t count it like that, or maybe you do?
HAMMETT I can only count to four, bro. [laughs]
JONES Exactly. [laughs] We actually do that too. We write weird riffs and sometimes we count them and other times we just feel them. I always felt that the stuff on …And Justice for All was written from Metallica’s heart and not their head.
GW Kirk, what do you like about Adam’s playing?
HAMMETT I really appreciate that Adam is the prog master. I love the fact that he strives to create progressive music that really stands on its own. I come from a real old-school prog background myself. I love bands like King Crimson, Yes and Genesis. I love Robert Fripp, and I know Adam loves Robert Fripp, as well. I think it’s cool that he’s carrying that torch.
GW Adam, what attracts you to these artists? Is it strictly their music, or are you also drawn to their ideologies or creative processes?
JONES If I have the chance to find out what David Bowie was thinking when he came up with this or that, I’m absolutely interested. But it’s also nice to be immersed in just the song without worrying what it’s about. That curiosity can backfire. The funniest time for me was when I found out what the Melvins’ song “Boris” was really about. It’s from Bullhead, which is a very innovative and phenomenal record. I remember listening to the lyrics and being like, This is the purest, most meaningful and heaviest shit I’ve heard in a long time. Later on, after I befriended [Melvins guitarist/singer] Buzz [Osborne], I said, “That song ‘Boris’ really means a lot to me.” And he says, “Oh, that song’s about my cat.” [laughs] So it’s good to not get too analytical about this stuff.
GW Kirk, how much does musical analysis play a role in Metallica?
HAMMETT Adam really nailed it when he said some people count it and some people feel it. We totally feel it. You won’t hear anyone in our band saying, “Oh that’s in five and this is in seven.” We’ll say something like, “It’s on the upbeat,” “It’s on the downbeat,” “Switch here after you count to five”… It’s really simple for us: it comes from the gut and heart rather than the head. Sometimes it does come from the head, and I have to sit down and do the math. But after I’ve done the math, I just start feeling it again.
JONES Thinking too much will always become distracting. When you think too much, especially when you start to get successful, you can go down paths like, Oh, what will the fans like? What will radio like? But when you keep it in your chest or stomach, it stays about What do I like? When you nail that, only then will your excitement be reflected by other people who listen to your music.
GW In the early days Metallica gained its rep and momentum through its cult status, with the tape traders and underground metalheads. Similarly, a cult of fans has always surrounded Tool. I’m wondering what, in your opinions, are the upsides and downsides to becoming a cult phenomenon?
JONES The upside is that you can play onstage and you can fart, and no one knows it. [laughs]
HAMMETT [laughs] I just totally lost my thought, because that statement was just so profound.
JONES [laughs] I know, sorry. I think the downside is that there’s a real potential to forget your roots and why you started playing
in the first place. It’s important to remember where your head was when you first started, because when you get successful and spoiled it’s easy to forget the excitement of when you were first writing songs. And that’s why his band and my band go into hiding—to write songs and try to find that spot again. We do this so we don’t just keep writing what we wrote last time that was successful and start sounding like a cover band of ourselves. We have to constantly go back and find ourselves.
HAMMETT I guess you can say Death Magnetic is Metallica reaching back to our cultish days, as well. I don’t know if you can even call us a “cult band” now, because we’re a very popular band. Can you be a cult band and still be popular? I don’t know.
JONES It probably depends on who you ask. I think the word “cult” comes from an outsider’s perspective. When someone on the outside looks at Metallica, they would say they have a cult following. Because Metallica have had years of success and have a dedicated fan base, it could almost seem like people are following them out of blind faith, but I don’t think this is exactly correct. Tool has had that too. I’ve heard stuff like, “How can a band that a lot of people never heard of have Gold and Platinum records?” That’s when they’ll say, “It’s because Tool has a weird cult following.” To me it’s just a term people use to describe something they don’t quite know how to explain…which is not necessarily a bad thing.
GW It also seems a cult band can become an easy target for disgruntled fans when it grows beyond being their “pet band.”
HAMMETT I know that a lot of people who are cultish types are really obsessive. They really want a certain thing, or feeling, and they find this thing in a band. When the band grows bigger—and maybe more personally inaccessible as a result—these cultish people try even harder to get this thing or feeling from the band. There’s a certain type of person who is obsessed with Metallica who spends all of their time trying to get this one thing outta our music, and when they don’t get it they become passionately pissed off. [laughs]
JONES For me, there’s nothing wrong with obsession as long as you’re getting something out of it that’s positive. And when your expectations are let down because you didn’t like this record as much as the last record…well, you just have to be a little more forgiving, or move on.
HAMMETT “Forgiving” is totally the right word, because after all it is just music. You can live through it.
HAMMETT Speaking of music, how’s the new album coming along, Adam?
JONES It’s coming along…great! [laughs] No, we’ve been on hiatus. I’m writing and [bassist] Justin [Chancellor]’s been writing, but Maynard has been working on his wine. [Keenan owns the Caduceus Cellars winery in Arizona.] We’ve all just been taking some time away from each other, which has been nice. I’ve also been working on producing some comics.
HAMMETT Ah, fantastic. Right on. I know last time we talked you were doing a Tool video.
JONES We’re working on “The Pot,” but I’ve been really lazy lately. [laughs] The setup for it is a lot more epic, so it’s actually good that we’ve been able to have more time. It’s going to be all stop-motion and in 3D. We’re doing it so that we can hopefully have it shown in the theater.
HAMMETT Wow. With glasses and the whole thing?
JONES Yeah, because a lot more theaters are going digital and those projectors can do 3D. We have a consultant who worked with us on the 3D packaging for 10,000 Days, and he was telling me that in 10 to 20 years you won’t need goggles for 3D, you’ll go to the movie theater and everything will look like 3D. It’s almost holographic. It’s really exciting. Sorry, gimme a chance to nerd out and I will. [laughs]
GW No sweat. Actually, let’s nerd out on some music questions. Musical tension is a large component in both Tool and Metallica’s sound. Kirk, Metallica are known for locked-down rhythms, which are balanced by your frenzied solos. As a guitarist do you see your role as a release for all the pent-up aggression?
HAMMETT Well, like I said earlier, I’ve always just felt the music. That’s always been my approach. I’ve never put it under the microscope. My approach is to sit down and play, and whatever comes out is what I have to work with. But I do think I’m a very bombastic type of player. I have to try really hard to be subtle. Sometimes when the song calls for a section where I need to create a subtle atmosphere, I have trouble because there are all these explosions going off in my head. Death Magnetic is a good example of that: None of the solos are subtle! They’re all just going for the throat. It’s kinda just the way I play.
GW Your initial inspiration is spontaneous, but what specific techniques do you use to achieve maximum tension? Like maybe nailing a certain middle frequency on the wah?
HAMMETT Yeah, I use the wah in an unpredictable way. A lot of the reason why I love the wah is its unpredictability and randomness. You know that this tone will never be on that downbeat or that certain frequency will never be exactly at that microtone ever again.
JONES You mean there’s more to the wah than using it for porno music?
HAMMETT [imitating a porno wah sound] Wack-a, wack-a, wack-a. [laughs] And as far as our songs are concerned, we just do what feels natural. When we’re writing music—say when we’re riding on a very heavy rhythmic riff—it’s obvious to us where to go from there. Whether it’s switching to half time with clean guitars or playing some arpeggiated chord thing with a key shift, those are some ways we create tension within a song.
JONES Your wah playing has influenced the way I approach the effect, especially the way that you use it as a wash. I love how you’ll do a solo where you start real low on the wah and slowly bring it up. At least that’s what I think you’re doing.
HAMMETT Yeah, that’s exactly it.
JONES I think it’s cool, because most kids go out and buy one and immediately start playing the porno music. They don’t think about how you can get the low tones without the high, and then you can go high and cut the low, which can really add a lot of emotion to what you’re playing.
GW Adam, how do you go about adding tension to Tool’s songs?
JONES My bandmates and I have never looked at songwriting like, There’s verse, chorus, verse, chorus, breakdown, chorus, chorus, and it’s three minutes long because that’s what radio will play. Some songs have turned out like that, but we’ve never worried about it. My approach to playing, whether it’s a riff or adding effects, has been, How can I build this? How can I take this from zero to 10 and make it more and more exciting? I’ve been a fan of the Melvins since before our band took off, and they’ve influenced me a lot. The biggest thing I’ve learned about from them is the discipline of nothing—of negative space. Not playing between parts can be just as powerful as playing. Learning that taught me a lot about discipline, and I’m lucky, because everyone in Tool understands that sometimes less is more. It’s like film: you have to build a moment and carry yourself toward it. You choose your own path. Do you take the short or long path? Is it a gravel or dirt road?
HAMMETT I’ve just got to say to Adam, I think the way you dial in certain colors with effects is really admirable. How you implement the filters and pedals into your music adds so much color to the sound.
JONES It’s like you were saying, it’s all about asking, “What does this part of the song need?” And that’s what keeps it exciting, which in turn adds to the emotion and makes it more intense. That variety means so much more to me than, Oh, I hope Kirk plays the same exact solo on this song, too. Instead you hope he’s going to take the emotion of the current song and enhance it through his lead playing.
GW I understand you two share similar tastes in visual art.
HAMMETT Absolutely. We have a similar sort of aesthetic with art, comic books, graphics and that whole deal.
JONES Watch out, our nerd sides are definitely coming out. [laughs] As soon as I started making any real money, I began investing in art, buying paintings, sculptures and original comic pages. Kirk and I bonded on that immediately, because he has a huge appreciation of art. I will vindictively hate Kirk for the rest of my life because he owns a bunch of [original works by fantasy illustrator/painter] Frank Frazetta. [laughs]
HAMMETT I also have a big fascination with the occult and esoteric subjects. I know Adam is into sacred geometry [the relationship between mathematical ratios and music, architecture, cosmology and so on], which is something I’m way into, too, as well as quantum physics and all that sort of stuff. So we’re connecting on quite a few levels.
GW Speaking of mysterious subject matter, Kirk, you brought a pretty tripped-out ESP guitar with you today, which goes well with this issue’s cult heroes theme.
HAMMETT More like occult heroes. [laughs] Basically, for this guitar, I gave the artist [American painter] Mark Ryden a list of topics, and I said, “Translate these ideas into your vision and paint it onto the guitar.” There’s a bee, which is symbolic of knowledge; the raven, symbolizing secret knowledge; and then the all-seeing eye, symbolic of universal knowledge. Caduceus [a symbol formed by a short staff entwined by two serpents] symbolizes the tree of life, but if you notice it also resembles a DNA strand [a double helix]. Then there’s the hand from heaven, the Rosicrucian rose and my astrological sign, Scorpio, as well as assorted skulls and a yin-yang. It’s full of numerology, astrology, occult and religious symbolism.
JONES It’s an amazing-looking guitar. I love all the light sources beaming off of the female shape, and the design at the center,
over the pickups, which I see as a life-and-death thing. Mark Ryden is really the icon of this current underground, up-and-coming art movement, and he’s paved the way for a lot of people who have similar approaches. I’ve seen his paintings in person in Seattle, and he is a master at what he does. I’m glad he’s now getting the recognition. And Kirk’s going to play it and scratch it all up? He should just put it under glass and hang it on his wall. Or better yet, give it to me. [laughs]
HAMMETT It’s gonna see some wear and tear, but that’s its purpose. Plus, Mark said he’d do touch-ups when they’re needed.
GW It seems you’re both very thoughtful when it comes to studying hermetic philosophies. Do you find them useful in adding order to your lives outside of the musical realm, too?
JONES The order is already there. It’s just that we’re making ourselves aware of it. Sacred geometry is basically studying anything and breaking it down to its purist form, be it a symbol, shape, color, vibration or sound. That’s what our life is. It goes outside who we are as people, the earth or the universe, into the spiritual realm or even an unconscious collective realm.
GW Going back to your guitar, Kirk, what specifically fascinates you about symbolism?
HAMMETT Well, as far as symbolism goes, there are different schools of thought, like how colors can influence your mood or perspective. Different symbols, like the all-seeing eye or the rose, will trigger different things in your psyche or unconscious. All this stuff is influential on some level and has an impact on the person surveying it, whether on a quantum level or a more overt level. I’m really interested in that sort of thing. Another good example of this is Jimmy Page’s use of the ZoSo sigil, which he had written on his outfit. [A sigil is a word or symbol of supposed occult power. Page’s ZoSo symbol first appeared on the packaging of Led Zeppelin IV and later on his stage outfits.] He thought that it helped his music and artistic direction. I’m totally into how certain images can influence the subconscious mind. On a very basic level, if this guitar was stark white I would feel completely different about it. The fact that it has this amazing graphic on it inspires me and moves me.
GW Does this kind of energy transfer relate to your belief in string theory and the effect of vibrations, which you’ve talked to us about before? [String theory is a model in physics proposing that all elementary particles are manifestations of the vibrations of one-dimensional strings.]
HAMMETT For me, music is vibration, and the universe seems to be created based on numbers and vibrations. If you want to get down to quantum physics, string theory and other dimensions, it seems to me that vibration is what holds the entire universe together. The fact that we’re musicians and we use vibrations to conjure up moods, atmospheres, emotions, thoughts and concepts—well, a lot of times I think musicians are magicians in that sense! But I’m just getting way out there on the ledge now. [laughs]
JONES No, you’re absolutely right. There’s an emotional bond that Kirk’s talking about that comes from what influences him and what influences me. That kind of bond is partially why I think Metallica are so successful. The four members are very different from each other, but they bring all these different perspectives and influences together and meet in the middle—and then it becomes something else altogether. I think that’s why their music is incredibly eclectic. I think of the “Black Album” and how no two songs sound the same.
I love my bandmates in Tool for that same reason: we all think about where things come from. Like I was talking about before with sacred geometry: if you can break something down into its basic form—like the vibrations Kirk mentions—and you can apply that to what you do, then people will get it, without even knowing they’re getting it! There’s a harmonic vibration that reaches out and affects people consciously or unconsciously. I’m completely inspired by this type of thinking, including Kirk’s views of the universe, and what I talk about as the “unconscious collective” and how all the different perceptions are interwoven. It’s almost like a sweater: there are many different threads along different paths, but they are all woven together. It’s a nice way of looking at the perception of things.