"KIRKUS MAXIMUS" KIRK HAMMETT 1996 "THE EXPANDING WORLD OF KIRK HAMMETT"
"We never let mainstream music filter into our psyches too much," insists Kirk Hammett. "We try not to let ourselves be influenced too much by what goes on around us musically."
Those who accuse Metallica of cynically repositioning themselves as an "alternative" band in the wake of the general decline of metal might disbelieve Hammett, but such detractors need to bone up on the history of heaviness. True, the band presents new sounds and attitudes on their sixth full-length studio album, Load. But surely the razor-tipped, punk-informed sonics of early Metallica have more in common with those of current bludgeonaires Soundgarden and Rage Against the Machine than with the near-forgotten '80s metallurgists once perceived as Metallica's peers. Maybe Metallica is the only '80s metal band whose career is at an all-time high precisely because they spent most of the last decade crafting the sound of this one.
The group's enduring relevance is due at least in part to the open mind and ears of their lead guitarist (if indeed "lead guitarist" remains an accurate description of Hammett's current role). Kirk, a restless consumer and student of new music, keeps abreast of street-level developments while filling in gaps in his music-history knowledge. After selling absurd quantities of records and touring maniacally, many players would just sit on their Grammys. But after Hammett got off the road in support of the group's breakthrough Metallica album, he enrolled full-time at San Francisco State, studying music and rehearsing with the jazz ensemble. Kirk makes no claims of being a heavy jazz player, but his thirst for musical evolution mirrors that of his band at large.
And Metallica has certainly evolved. Load frequently abandons the jagged chromaticism and monolithic textures that were cornerstones of the band's sound in favor of subtler shading and a more organic ensemble feel. While James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich remain the group's musical Dictators for Life, Load resulted from an unprecedented degree of band democracy. In the past the two leaders would labor for months performing aural microsurgery on the basic tracks. Even though Hammett devised some crucial parts, he would enter the recording process chiefly at the very last stage, playing his solos and nothing else. But on Load the divisions of labor are more fluid, with Kirk tracking many rhythm parts, James generating memorable solos, and both playing subtle parts that reside between those once-distant poles. These textural experiments bloom in a heart-land-friendly harmonic realm, simplified and blues-infused.
"Maybe we're a bit more mature," suggests Hammett, sipping herbal tea by the fountain in his backyard atop one of the most posh hills in San Francisco. Mature? You mean the photo on Load's back cover depicting the band savoring wine and puffing stogies around Kirk's dining room table isn't a parody?
"No," grins Kirk. "It's a very accurate depiction. That's a pretty typical scene. Actually, we're all martini drinkers, even James--dry martinis with Bombay Sapphire. Cuban cigars." So you've finally outgrown that Jagermeister swill? "I never liked it," shudders Kirk. "When I'm in one of my more eclectic moods, I put on Chet Baker, slip into my smoking jacket and fez, and fix a dry martini."
Load is simultaneously experimental and conservative.
KIRK: That's an interesting way of putting it. Some of the tracks that are a departure from anything we've ever done show what we've been listening to for the past five years--like me being a total jazz and blues guy now. The blues influence is pretty evident. The jazz influence is more subtle, more in my phrasing than anything else. Of course, lames listens to a lot of country, and we all listen to tons of late-'70s hard rock. We've not been afraid to let that side of us show--after all, all our roots are in late-'70s stuff like UFO, Deep Purple, Sabbath, Zeppelin, Aerosmith, Thin Lizzy.
It's a much more American-sounding record.
KIRK: Yes, it is. Our first four albums were very Euro-metal. The "black album" [Metallica] was a transition away from that sound towards something more concise. We're listening to more American bands, and the influences are definitely there.
You've left behind a lot of your signature riffs, all those jagged flat 2s and sharp 4s. Now it's blues-box city.
KIRK: It is. I'm not modal at all on this record. A lot of it has to do with those blues influences.
The sounds and texture are very open, but the actual note choices are quite conservative. The music pulls in two directions at once.
KIRK: Well, we're exploring a lot of new territory, but we didn't want to take a lot of harmonic chances while we were doing it. We were still feeling it out, so we tried to keep it really simple.
In the past Lars and James would labor for months perfecting their tracks, and you would step in at the end of the process.
KIRK: It was totally different this time, definitely more of a band effort. I contributed a lot more music, and the guys just liked a lot more of my ideas. We were all there from day one in the studio. I played rhythm guitar for the first time, which made me rethink my whole attitude about recording. I went from sitting in a corner worrying about my solos to searching for parts that enhance the mood of the song. We were very keen not to duplicate what James was playing, but for me to add a counterpoint, a texture. James and I were much more flexible about crossing over into each other's areas. The boundaries are not as obvious. Some of the solos I do are so simple--more like parts than solos--that people might think it's James. My whole concept on this album, even on the solo sections, was geared more towards parts than solos.
In the past it was always riffs front and center, interspersed with hard solos. Now you explore the middle ground and distance with coloristic parts that are neither monster riffs nor flashy solos.
KIRK: There are fewer 30-part orchestrated guitar sections, fewer massive, bludgeoning riffs perfectly replicated by lames. There are more flexible ideas, more artistic flourishes, more colors. I've probably been influenced in that direction by people like Robert Fripp, Adrian Belew and David Torn. I'm more interested in using guitar sounds as textures and using effects in a more textural fashion. To paraphrase Robert Fripp, I'm more interested in painting a soundscape like he and Adrian Belew do in King Crimson, on Bowie records and in Fripp's solo stuff. Fripp is one of the most interesting guitar players I've ever heard--and I've just discovered him!
In the past many of your solos were comped together, assembled from sections drawn from many different takes. The new solos sound more like continuous takes.
KIRK: We totally went for live feels, just playing the part as completely as possible. Our computer guy might fix an out-of-tune note here and there with Pro Tools, but we didn't do as much comping. Our producer, Bob Rock, wanted to capture the live essence of Metallica for the first time, and that's one of the reasons I played more rhythm guitar--it's closer to what it's like when you see us live.
Except that there's a greater range of tones. It sounds as if you used lots of different guitar and amp setups.
KIRK: We dragged out tons of guitars, effects and amps--and between all of us, that's a lot of stuff. We would do anything to get an interesting sound. We did a lot of blending old stompboxes with the newest technology, like using an old Electro-Harmonix Electric Mistress pedal with a DSP-4000, or a new Eventide effect with some Mu-Tron box or some distortion pedal that was only made for six months in 1967. It got to the point where we were just grabbing things according to their color--we didn't even know their names or what they did. We just started turning knobs. One thing we did use consistently was an MXR Phase 100. In the past we'd always go running for some slick flanger, but the Phase 100 just fit so much better than any rack-mounted sound. We used a lot of Roland VG-8 [a digital system based on modeling synthesis], which I found to be great when mixed with more traditional sounds. I really like the way you can mutate a VG-8 sound and then blend it with, say, some old miked amps. You can hear that on the heavily tremoloed wah part right before the guitar solo on "2x4."
Your tones have a lot more depth this time around. They're less scooped.
KIRK: They're warmer, thick-er, with more low mids.
Your single notes have a whomp they've never had before.
KIRK: We wanted a thunkier, whompier sound. When James first started putting down his rhythm guitars, I thought, "Wow--that's a lot more 'rock,'" and I tried to get some of that. It's not the totally scooped sound we've been known for for 10 years, but the riffs still come across as heavy as ever. In fact, I don't think some of the riffs would come across as well with that "typical" Metallica sound.
The solos are moving into the sonic universe that used to be the exclusive realm of the rhythm guitar.
KIRK: Some of that had to do with the combinations of amps we used. There was one amp that Bob Rock and I would just freak out on, a Matchless Spitfire, this small, single-speaker amp. We'd dial it in for just about any situation to add bite. It sounded so amazingly good. You can definitely hear that amp on the slide part in "Ain't My Bitch." About 70% of the overall amp sound is Boogie stuff--the TriAxis, the Mark IIC and the Triple Rectifier. We'd add some Marshall or Matchless, or some AC30, Fender Twin Reverb or tweed Fender for cleaner sounds. We added a Dumble to the blend in a few places for its unique midrangey twang. Our thing was combining a lot of amps and moving the mikes around a lot. There is a lot of room sound throughout.
What are some of the principal guitars?
KIRK: The ESP strat I always use, the one I got in 1987 and always use live--it's completely falling apart. I used a '58 Gibson Flying V on the rhythm tracks of "Wasting My Hate"--the PAF really accentuated the sound of the hollow cavity under the pickguard, which worked well with that particular pattern. I used a '63 Fender Strat for the twangy solo on "Poor Twisted Me," and I used an early-'60s Les Paul Jr. for the slide part. It was specifically set up for slide, and I used it for pretty much all the slide on the album. I usually use a brass slide--the glass ones sound smoother, but the brass ones have a raunchier edge. I used a Parker guitar for a small chordal thing on "Bleeding Me." I love that guitar, though I haven't sorted it out yet. It looks funny and reeks of late-'80s heavy metal design, but it plays great. I also used a '58 Les Paul Standard for the first time--it's a fucking amazing-sounding guitar.
What are the modulation sounds?
KIRK: Some of them are real rotating speakers, like a spinning Leslie or a Fender Vibra-Tone.
"Until It Sleeps" has an atmospheric quality far removed from "old Metallica."
KIRK: I was trying to contribute to the mood and atmosphere by coming up with something with a lot of space. That solo is pretty much what I came up with on the spot the first time around. I'm the one playing the clean, Chris Isaak-sounding stuff. That's with the ESP strat through a tweed amp with some slapback echo and reverb.
That tune has a lot of guitar tracks.
KIRK: Yeah. There's also this subtle low-end thing during the guitar solo where I plugged my VG-8 controller into a Roland Super JV synth module, playing those sounds through my Marshalls. Bob found this one keyboard patch with tons of low end, and I faded it in during the solo for some low-end movement. On that song we had a good idea of where the guitar tracks were going, but sometimes we just threw down a lot of ideas and sifted through them later, like on "The House Jack Built." The heavily tremoloed guitar line during one of the bridges is the JV again, running through Boogies and Marshalls. Playing keyboard sounds with a guitar is interesting--it always comes out differently than if you'd played it on a keyboard. Somehow the phrasing is always more guitar-like. And when you play it through guitar amps, you have a mutation that blends those two universes. I mean, just because it's made for a synthesizer doesn't mean that a guitarist can't fuck with it.
What about the one-note "solo" before the Talk-Box passage on "Jack"? It's a hell of a sound--and the polar opposite of how a lot of people would characterize your lead style. One note, no fast stuff, just pure color.
KIRK: That was actually recorded right here in my basement studio, where I do a lot of work trying to come up with parts and production ideas. I recorded a guitar sound through a Marshall, sampled it running through an Eventide patch with a backwards sound, chopped it up in Pro Tools, and then triggered the sample on a K2000 via MIDI using the VG-8 controller. But when it came time to re-create it, I couldn't remember how we did it. So I had my engineer, Ian Parks, download it onto a CD and FedEx it to the studio in New York so we could listen to it. But when Bob heard it, he said, "Sounds great--let's fly it onto the album straight off the CD." So we did.
Any more oddball approaches?
KIRK: On "Wasting My Hate" we came up with a totally fucked-up and over-distorted sound for the last verse--we called it the "kitchen sink sound" because we put everything we could on it. It's that really flappy sort of distortion that sounds like a bad Montgomery Ward amp. And for the solo sound on "Hero of the Day" we went for the absolutely thinnest tone we could get and ran it through an Electro-Harmonix echo/flanger. It sounded really crappy on its own, but played against the track it added a lot of character. When James first heard it, he didn't like it. We argued about it for two or three hours, and then he suddenly turned to me and said, "I like it now. I just figured out that it's like something Thin Lizzy would do." I just looked at him and said, "Okay, whatever."
You and James tune down a half-step for the entire record. In fact, almost all the songs are in E flat.
KIRK: Yeah. It gave the rhythms more weight, and it's easier for James to sing there. Plus, all the riffs I wrote were in E flat just because all my guitars are always tuned there since I play along with so much Jimi and Stevie Ray music. You definitely hear the Hendrixisms and Vaughanisms on the "Bleeding Me" solo.
That solo is real old-time Kirk stuff.
KIRK: Yeah. That song and "The Outlaw Torn" are definitely the most traditional Metallica tracks--they could be on Master of Puppets or Ride the Lightning. All the soloing on the outro is James, though the wah part is me. That sound reminds me of waking up with a bad hangover. There's also this effecty-sounding bit that isn't an effect at all. I'm just holding the slide at an angle up by the pickup, picking all the strings and using the wah. It sounds pretty crazy.
What about the sound at the top of "King Nothing"?
KIRK: That's another upper-string thing, going through an Eventide auto-pan/flange program. I'm up at the 15th fret of the B string, bending the D up to an E flat, against the first string, which is tuned down to E flat, and adding my spazzed-out vibrato. That sound comes back during all the choruses, but there the first string is tuned up to F. That solo is also pretty much old-style me.
In which songs did you have the biggest song-writing voice?
KIRK: It's all over the place. In "Jack" there's only one piece I didn't write. I wrote the arpeggiated part in "King Nothing." I had little ideas that became entire songs, or maybe one whole section in a song, like on "Bleeding Me," where I wrote the heavy melody and the heavy riffing part. My contribution is mainly sections that I bring in, which Lars and James then arrange using their ideas.
Has that become a painless way of working?
KIRK: Everything we do is painful, though it's less painful than it's been in the past. We're still very meticulous, and we still intellectualize every note, every beat, everything. But we do it a little less now.
As much as your music has changed, the music around you may have changed more. You once toured with bands like Kingdom Come and Dokken, though your attitude and sound seemed quite distant from theirs. But the rawness and intensity you project is now the norm in heavy rock.
KIRK: People will argue with me until the cows come home, but I think in a small way we opened the doors for the Seattle thing. Because we were a loud guitar band, it enabled people to open their ears to other bands of that sort. We shared that do-it-yourself ethic with the punk bands. Kurt Cobain definitely popularized that same ethic to an incredible degree. If any one person was as influential as Eddie Van Halen, it was Kurt. His guitar style resonated with a lot of people who were frustrated with trying to be Eddie or Yngwie. It opened a lot of eyes to the fact that you didn't have to be a tremendous musician to say tremendous things.
So what's opened your eyes lately?
KIRK: I've been listening to a ton of John Coltrane, and he's one of the best guitar players I've ever heard [laughs]. You can play his licks on guitar, and they can be monstrous or beautiful. He can make me want to quit being a musician, or make me want to cry, or make me feel like I'm in love. I've been listening to a lot of Miles too. Charlie Hunter's new record is great. But my favorite right now is Dinner in Havana by Rene Touzet & His Orchestra, this old Cuban lounge record. And I like Dave Brubeck because it sounds like cocktail music. The musical aspects are great, but whenever I hear "Take Five," I want to fix myself a gin martini.
Paul Desmond, Brubeck's sax player, once said he aspired to sound like a dry martini.
KIRK: [Jumping out of his chair.] Oh, yes! Yes, yes, yes! It totally comes across. Yes! I want my guitar to sound like a dry martini someday. That's it--now I'm on a mission!