Two decades removed from its last truly cutting-edge work, 1988's classic ... And Justice for All, Metallica finds itself strangely resting on top of the world while still fighting to stay relevant. Starting with 1991's Metallica (known as the Black Album), the band began to veer wildly from the thrilling thrash-metal style it once played with unparalleled skill. Last year, it returned with the Rick Rubin-produced Death Magnetic, an attempt to re-embrace its trademark, epic song structures. Fans and critics alike hailed the band's return to form, and this fall sees Metallica on a long-awaited arena headlining tour. Guitarist Kirk Hammett talked to New Times about the band's mindset and where it stands in today's metal climate.
New Times: Looking back to the Black Album, why did you suddenly go for shorter songs? You had three classic albums in a row with winding, involved, progressive songs, and your fan base up until that time came to you for that.
Kirk Hammett: We were just burned out on it. We wanted to do something that was more groove-oriented and had a little more soul. With the stuff we did in the '80s, a lot of times it was about showing off our chops.
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So why the return to form with Death Magnetic?
We got tired again. [laughs] When we started writing for Death Magnetic, we found out that the more progressive stuff sounded good again. We hadn't done it for a while, and all of a sudden, it just kinda sounded fresh. A lot of it also has to do with the fact that Rick Rubin said that he wanted to make the ultimate Metallica album. In his mind, the ultimate Metallica album would be more along the lines of what we did back in the '80s.
How much pressure does the band feel, knowing there's this back catalog that's there to be measured up to?
It depends. [laughs] Some days you feel it; some days you don't.
Rick Rubin left the band alone in the studio a lot. What did he bring to the table?
His whole approach is like that of a fan — a person who goes out to the record store and buys albums. He knows what he expects to hear from a band, and when he doesn't hear it, he just goes elsewhere. He's not bogged down in "A minor in this part instead of D major." That's really cool because it leaves all the musical problems for the band to solve. At the end of the day, you get a less adulterated result. One thing about Bob Rock [the band's producer from 1991 to 2003] was that a little bit of his songwriting style and sensibility would work its way into the music.
How does finding personal peace reflect in the music when you're playing heavy stuff?
When I'm really down and out, music makes me feel better, and it just happens to be heavy metal that moves me emotionally. And you don't have to be clean and sober or a raging drunk to feel how music moves you.
How much do you still keep up with how metal is evolving?
The level of quality is definitely up there. I like that because I feel challenged.
What about during the height of thrash, with bands like Anthrax, Voivod, Celtic Frost, and Sepultura really reaching creatively? How inspired were you then?
I saw them as our peers. I totally agree that they were reaching some pretty cool ranges of expression — for that reason, I really tried not to listen to them too much.
In the 2007 documentary Get Thrashed, you said, "Metallica invented thrash metal." I wanted to ask you about Exodus, who you were playing with first. Exodus' Gary Holt says that everybody who was there knows what Exodus' role was.
You know what? [laughs] I guess I was just at the center of two storms. If I was still in Exodus, I would have said that Exodus invented thrash metal. I said that only because I was in Metallica at a certain moment in time. There were steps that were being taken, and there's a whole group of musicians who were feeling it. It was a Zeitgeist. I would say Metallica and Exodus probably simultaneously — Anthrax and Slayer too — we were all just taking cues from what we heard and what the state of heavy music was at that point. It was something that we all just kinda felt.
On the band's classic albums, you play only leads. Did you feel left out?
The whole reason for that in the beginning was that James had such a tight style of rhythm playing. There are merits to doing it both ways. When you have one guy, it's going to be like a plank, almost like different grains of wood compressed into one thing. But when you have two separate guys, the timing will be slightly off. What that does is, it actually makes it sound big.
How much have you had to struggle with James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich being more dominant?
I've always been more of a team player who wants to get the whole unit moving forward. A lot of times, if Lars and James had butting opinions, the last thing you need is a third person in there. It would just add to the inertia of the situation. As far as music is concerned, I wrote parts. All the parts that we ever write have bits and pieces from everybody. I was totally fine as long as they used my bits and pieces. [laughs] We wrote together as a band starting with St. Anger, and I have to say that now the dynamic between James and Lars and myself is a lot different — a lot more even as far as the quality of the ideas. And now that we have Rob [Trujillo, bass] in the band, who has the same approach and quality of ideas, I'm definitely thinking that four heads are better than two. The chemistry somehow works now.
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With Some Kind of Monster, how hesitant did you feel airing all that dirty laundry?
I didn't want any of it to come out. But then I thought it can help people see that therapy is not a bad thing. I come from a generation where therapy was stigmatized. Going to see a shrink was considered a weakness. But after my experiences, my whole deal was, "If we can help people work their way through whatever situation they're going through, then I'm fine with it." But, by the same token, I'm a very private person. So I really had to make a concession. If there's a band out there on the verge of breaking up, maybe they'll see this movie and think otherwise. I had a long talk with the producers about that very thing.
After the Napster backlash, how do you look back on the band's attempt to fight downloading?
I'm still against file-sharing. I still think people should respect the concept of intellectual property. I don't have a problem with downloading that intellectual property once the people that deserve to be paid do get paid. Technology is a double-edged sword. It's convenient and quick, but we pay a pretty high price for that convenience, that impatience. I would much rather be able to go out and buy a better-sounding CD than a shitty MP3. The whole email and texting thing — I'm not sure if it's really bringing us together as much as it's isolating us. I kind of miss how people used to just call each other up.