Curiosity Without Boundaries: An Interview with Kirk Hammett


Kirk Hammett lives according to, what he calls, “curiosity without boundaries.” The lead guitarist of Metallica provides an impressive, but unpretentious reminder that many observers of the heavy metal and hard rock juggernaut might forget: Despite their unlikely mainstream status, after selling more than 125 million records worldwide, Metallica navigates strictly according to their own cartography.

The band’s self-titled record, otherwise known as “The Black Album,” is, once again, dominating news in the heavy metal sphere, as Metallica promotes the new box set – a Deluxe edition of the Black Album, featuring remastered tracks, alternative renditions of signature songs, and a wide range of cover versions from artists as diverse as Ghost, Kamasi Washington, and Miley Cyrus.

I first interviewed Hammett, along with all the other members of Metallica, while writing my 33 1/3 book on the Black Album. We had a fascinating and freewheeling conversation about the composition, recording, and seemingly endless life of the record – a conversation that also touched on Hammett’s acceptance of Buddhist philosophy, how the Civil Rights and anti-war movements influenced him at an early age, and his broader thoughts on music.

Metallica album cover
Lulu album cover

Since then, we’ve talked about Lemmy Kilmister, and the collaboration album with Lou Reed, Lulu. The release of the Black Album boxset, and the debut of the Black Album episode on the 33 1/3 Spotify podcast, presented the perfect opportunity to have another discussion.

On October 1st, I interviewed Kirk Hammett about the Black Album, his philosophy of creativity, and the often misunderstood identity of Metallica.

David Masciotra: I recently watched the Woodstock 1999 documentary. Did you have a chance to see that?

Kirk Hammett: I didn’t even know there was a documentary.

David Masciotra: Well, there is a documentary about all of the problems and crimes that occurred during that festival…

Kirk Hammett: It was a catastrophe.

David Masciotra: Yes – and the reason I’m raising it as a subject is because the commentators had an irritating tendency to constantly talk about the “aggressive lineup of bands,” lumping together Metallica with Limp Bizkit and Korn, as if there are no differences between you and them. It prompted me to think about the most fascinating dynamic of band. You certainly have an aggressive sonic approach, but you often couple it with an introspective and contemplative subject matter and presentation. What are your thoughts about that combination in Metallica’s music? Is it something that the band is deliberately trying to explore?

Kirk Hammett: Yeah, definitely. I would say, “all of the above.” Initially, of course, we were all attracted to the same aggressive music. We had it in our blood as an influence and inspiration. Aggression in music gave birth to our individual sounds, and Metallica, collectively as a band. The raw power and the raw energy of hard rock and heavy metal was exhilarating, but it was also provocative and seductive. So, we embraced it. But then we grew as people and as musicians, and the music grew in tandem with us, taking a more, like you say, “introspective approach,” and bringing in more musical and lyrical ideas, so that our art could grow with life. We’re a band that is willing to try anything, musically, if there is enough belief in the music, the sentiment, the emotions, the subject matter, the presentation. Once you commit to making music as exploratory as possible, it almost becomes an assumed conclusion that you are going to keep working to make it broader and broader. So, to answer, yes, aggression is always there. Having the name, Metallica, is descriptive of how we sound. But people pigeonhole us with those other bands, and it is easy for people, like maybe those in the documentary, to take us at face value and throw us in a pile. To do that, you have to be focused on some other thing, though – something besides the music.

David Masciotra: There are many attempts to pigeonhole your music in such a way that is disloyal to what the music is actually about.

Kirk Hammett: I have to tell you, Dave, we’ve been experiencing that ever since I joined the band. That’s always been there since day one. People look at the name, and they hear the music played at such a heavy and high rate, and they throw us in a pile – “They’re a fucking noise band” or “They’re like all these other loud heavy metal bands over here.” Or we are representing something. For example, when we showed up to the Grammy’s, or other award shows, we became the token heavy metal band. We were the first introduction for a lot of people in media to our kind of music, and they had no idea what to make of us. There were bands that were mainstream that we were influenced by, and Hallelujah, God bless them, but we were different enough that it was easy for people to pigeonhole us into something that they didn’t really understand.

David Masciotra: People would probably find it interesting that the last time we talked you recommended two books to me, both of which I really enjoyed – The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche, and Anatomy of a Rose: Exploring the Secret Life of Flowers by Sharman Apt Russell. How do you channel your interest in Buddhist philosophy and other ideas into the creation of heavy metal music?

Kirk Hammett: The ideas that are coming to me, the opinions I am hearing, and art I am absorbing, and then do something with it, maybe even in a way that I don’t fully understand, but somehow those ideas make it into the music, or make it into a poem, or make into my designing of something. Like, just recently, I called up a company that makes guitar picks, and designed a hybrid guitar pick that I had not seen on the market. It was a blessing to me that the idea just came to me, and I could pick up the phone and know exactly who to talk to – it happened to be a guy I went to high school with – to make it happen. And that – the hybrid pick – could lead to a new sound, which can bring in new ideas, musically. Being open and curious leads me down new roads where I can develop more awareness in music – genres, what’s been done, what hasn’t been done – and with age, I’ve developed a sharper perspective about what hasn’t been done before, and I can bring those ideas to the band, because they are all equally open and curious, especially when it comes to music. To sum it up, I enjoy the road – taking the road where I don’t know what is at the end of it, and letting it lead me somewhere new – philosophically, creatively, musically.

David Masciotra: Your reference to genre could bring us up to speed with the Black Album boxset. One of the most enjoyable elements of the boxset is hearing all of the cover versions, and hearing how these songs have such adaptability to other genres. Did you anticipate the malleability of these songs, or did it take you by surprise?

Kirk Hammett: We’ve always appreciated when people cover our music by morphing or mutating it, or throwing it into a blender, and making it their own. That’s ultimate – that’s what cover versions should be all about. Otherwise, it is a parody or Xerox copy, and I’ve never been interested in a parody or Xerox copy of our music. I want to hear how people take our music, and use it as a platform for self-expression. Most of these bands have clearly done just that. They’ve made it their own. Some of the bands have done it in subtle ways, and some in bombastic ways. But it is all convincing.

David Masciotra: I thought it was amazing to see you and Rob Trujillo on stage with Kamasi Washington performing an incredible jazz version of “My Friend of Misery.”

Kirk Hammett: I’m so glad you saw that! I must have watched that clip a million times. Bro, it was crazy, because before we went on stage, we were all talking about how we are huge John Coltrane fans. So, I was thinking, “Fucking hell, I can’t go up there and play my usual licks. What would John Coltrane do?” Then, it hit me, I can go up there and play a harmonic minor, and I was so inspired, because I was in! It worked! I figured it out, literally, twenty minutes before we went on. I cornered Rob, and I said, “Rob, play the solo section.” And he did that, and I started soloing, and it really worked. It felt so great to be up there with those musicians, and you can see that Rob and I were smiling from ear to ear. For that ten minutes on stage, that was my entire universe. It was all that mattered.

David Masciotra: It is an astounding performance, especially for me because I have an equal love for hard rock and jazz music. It also brings me back to one of the most exciting things I learned about Metallica when interviewing all of you guys for my book, and that is the seemingly unlikely influences. I remember that you talked about Stevie Ray Vaughan. Now, you’re talking about Coltrane. James Hetfield talked about studying John Lennon lyrics. He even mentioned a Chris Isaak song.

Kirk Hammett: Oh yeah! We’re all over the map in terms of influence, and what we listen to. It definitely isn’t just the obvious. We aren’t guys who sit around exclusively listening to new wave British heavy metal, or 1970s hard rock. I just like intense, passionate music, and especially, intense, passionate music with a dark side. It could be any genre, bro, and a perfect example of it is “Blacklist” (the covers on the Black album boxset). Other than the happy version of “Nothing Else Matters” that My Morning Jacket does, all of the versions have that dark edge and dark feel.

David Masciotra: Earlier, you mentioned that Metallica was the first heavy metal band to make it into mainstream precincts. When I interviewed Jason Newsted, he said that Metallica became the “ambassadors of heavy metal.” Why do you think the Black Album, in particular, was so successful, and broke down so many barriers for other heavy metal and hard rock bands?

Kirk Hammett: Man, that album sounds amazing – the recording of it. I feel fine saying that, because we put so much work and time into it. The guitar sounds are A plus. The drum sound is huge, powerful. It jumps out at you. And you can hear the bass! James is singing loud and clear. We were all at the top of the game. The solos came to me so easy on that album. We were all in our prime. We were all playing incredibly. Also, we knew what we wanted. It was all so clear to us. We were determined to make an album that had impact. We were holding up albums like AC/DC’s Back in Black. They were not only doing amazing numbers, but putting out such a powerful sound. Somehow or another, we managed to pull it off. Also, the timing was right. We had all these institutions – MTV, major radio stations in every city, record stores with their own followings in every city. All of these things helped sell albums, and that is all gone today. Radio stations and record stores, especially. They influenced people, and they created a buzz and excitement on the street, in city after city. We managed to capitalize on that, and it fit together with our ambition to create songs that were more direct, simpler, more to the point, because we thought we had taken progressive as far as we could with …And Justice For All. I remember in the early days of playing the song, “…And Justice For All,” I needed a notebook for the arrangement. After playing “Enter Sandman” once or twice, it was easy to remember the entire thing. At the time, that felt liberating.

David Masciotra: That’s one of the great things about Metallica. You have songs like “…And Justice For All” and “Orion,” but you also have “Holier Than Thou.” That variety is thrilling for someone following the band as a fan and writer.

Kirk Hammett: Thanks so much, Dave.

Metallica's Metallica cover

David Masciotra is the author of five books, including Metallica by Metallica (Bloomsbury, 2015)and I Am Somebody: Why Jesse Jackson Matters (I.B. Tauris, 2020).

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