Kirk Hammett

Metallica’s axe man on horror, metal, death and destiny

Today is Kirk Hammett’s 54th birthday. In years gone by, the Metallica guitarist would have celebrated by getting higher than Tony Montana. But today his vice of choice is coffee laced with almond milk. Sitting in a Kensington hotel room wearing a brown snakeskin jacket and black skinny jeans, Hammett readily admits that he’s amazed to have survived this long. After all, extreme music, extreme adulation and extreme hedonism have characterised his life thus far.

Widely renowned as one of the greatest lead guitarists in history, he founded Exodus in 1979 before being poached by fellow Bay Area thrashers Metallica in 1983, after they fired guitarist Dave Mustaine for substance abuse. The group has gone on to record ten albums, selling over 100 million of them in the process.

When he’s not shredding around the world with bandmates James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Robert Trujillo, Hammett collects horror movie memorabilia, with a particular penchant for Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi flicks. In August 2017, he will exhibit his vast collection at the Peabody Essex Museum in the heart of witchcraft country — Salem, Massachusetts. He also co-owns KHDK, an electronics company that manufactures “evil” and “ghoulish” guitar pedals.

Tonight, he and his three friends will launch Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, their first album in eight years, by playing a gig for 800 fans in the arches below Waterloo Station. Hammett’s curly locks maybe greying a little, but he still talks and acts like a young Californian surf bro. For someone who is synonymous with the macabre, Hammett has, somewhat ironically, one of the sunniest dispositions Rough Trade has ever encountered. But what demons lurk beneath the surface?

Tim Noakes: Happy Birthday, Kirk!

Kirk Hammett: Thanks! Birthdays are a weird thing for me because of my beliefs — I believe that we’re born and then we’re reborn and reborn and reincarnated [with] millions of lives behind us and in front of us, that kind of thing. Putting that into perspective it’s kind of amusing.

Tim: A lot of people are saying that we’re actually living in a computer simulation right now, do you feel that way?

Kirk: We have to be in something. Whatever it is, it’s obviously too far advanced for human comprehension — the concept of a higher intelligence, to grasp that is beyond our comprehension.

Tim: Do you find it difficult to get as angry as you did in the early days of Metallica?

Kirk: That anger doesn’t go away — it’s deep-seated, it was put there a long time ago, earlier in our lives. The reason why we clicked and connected musically way back when, was because we all were disenfranchised. We saw that in each other in an unconscious way. When we played our instruments we were on the same anger level and it took off and soared. For me, that anger is right under my skin all the time and it’s a thing I have to constantly monitor. It’s always there, and unless there’s a magic pill that will make it go away, it’s something that you just learn to process over the course of your life, ideally in a healthy way. For me, I learned to process it in the most unhealthiest of ways and was applauded. Sex, drugs, rock n’ roll, that whole lifestyle.

“Anger is under my skin all the time and it’s a thing I have to constantly monitor. For me, I learned to process it in the most unhealthiest of ways and was applauded.”

Tim: You used vices to mask your anger.

Kirk: I call it tamping it down — not shoving it down, not pushing it down, not stomping it down, just slightly tamping it down. The thing with tamping it down is it almost always rises up again. I’ve since learned to live with it and accepted that feeling. I just know that there’s other things in my life that I can be thinking about right now. I find doing things like meditation and yoga really help, but back in the past we would tour for a couple of years and that required more extreme medication. But really what it needed more of was nurturing. I’ve since learned how to nurture myself mentally. Otherwise you’re kind of like a bull in a china shop.

Tim: Is that the underlying thrust of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct?

Kirk: I think we can all agree that there’s been times in our lives when we’ve purposely made a bad decision, fully knowing the consequences, but you’ve got to scratch that itch. I know I’ve done it more than a thousand million times. And I’ve still survived. You just find something else. Right now I think I’m addicted to sugar and almond milk and caffeine — it’s another kind of stimulant. But, you know, I’m dealing.

Hammett and Hetfield unwind

Tim: What was the apex of your self-destruction?

Kirk: After a while you pass a line where all of a sudden the recreational aspect of it is left to dust. You’re causing more harm to yourself and everyone around you than you would have in the beginning. The intensity of the consumption gets so much, and then the spiral begins. When you’ve passed that line, that’s when your awareness gets fucked with and it’s hard to find yourself. It’s hard to take stock because all of a sudden you’re telling yourself all these lies about all these different things, you’re in self-denial. Things continue to get worse and worse and you’re thinking, ‘Is it everyone else, or is it me?’. That’s pretty much the ultimate line: ‘Is it everyone else, or is it me?’

Tim: When was the last time you crossed that line?

Kirk: It’s been a couple of years — maybe two, two and a half years. I hit my apex not that long ago. I’ve cleaned my life up a bit and I’m feeling good about it. At this point I think it’s a good time to do something like this. I was living the myth, the rock star mythology — and it’s all mythical by the way. That myth has taken a lot of musicians’ lives. I hate to say it, but that myth has taken its toll. The myth is dying out because the people who believe in it are dying out.

“I was living the myth, the rock star mythology — and it’s all mythical by the way. That myth has taken a lot of musicians’ lives. The myth is dying out because the people who believe in it are dying out.”

Tim: Part of the Metallica myth surrounds the tragic death of bassist Cliff Burton 30 years ago. You lost a card game to him, and as a forfeit had to give up your bunk bed on the tour bus. It crashed while you were all asleep and Cliff got thrown from the bunk through a window and crushed below it.

Kirk: That’s absolutely true. We were all there, we were all playing cards, we all experienced it together.

Tim: It’s such a sad story. Does that twist of fate — a simple game of cards between two friends which results in this tragic death — still haunt you?

Kirk: It does haunt me, I’m actually spooked out by the fact that you asked that question because I was just online, and all of a sudden I went on a tangent and it led me to this YouTube clip of me talking about it on MTV, like, 20 years ago. I just got a little bit of a chill, a weird muscle reflex down the back of my spine. The events that happened are really unfortunate, but it also presents a huge ‘what if?’ mortality question for myself.

Cliff Burton
“It was my fate to lose that card game but it was Cliff’s destiny for what happened to him. I don’t want to go there because that is total self-destruction.”

Tim: That’s the thing — it wasn’t in your control. You can control whether to take drugs, get pissed or sleep with someone, whereas that is…

Kirk: Fate and destiny. Those are questions of fate and destiny. It was my fate to lose that card game but it was Cliff’s destiny for what happened to him. I don’t want to go there because that is total self-destruction. If you start ruminating and spiralling down on that theme, fuck that, I’m not even going to go there because you hear stories about people in that position committing themselves to mental institutions because they just go crazy or drinking themselves to death or taking their own lives, or whatever…

Tim: You’ve obviously got a firm belief in destiny. I saw that you’ve released your own Ouija board and tarot cards, which are all intertwined with destiny and fate. What’s the weirdest Ouija experience you’ve had?

Kirk: Every time I play my Ouija guitar — every time we’re playing Orion — my picking hand just can’t help but spell out Cliff Burton [laughs], I’m just kidding. Cliff and I used to have the most hellacious arguments, it was so funny. One time he said, ‘I think we should solve this with fisticuffs’, and I didn’t even know what fisticuffs were, I say, ‘What’s fisticuffs?’, he goes [gestures], I go, ‘I’m not going to fucking punch you [laughs], we’re both musicians, this is ridiculous’ — so we decided to wrestle instead [laughs]. Actually he was very polite and well-mannered, much more so than the rest of us — he was much more grounded than the rest of us.

Tim: Destiny also provided the album title for Ride the Lightning whilst you were reading a Stephen King novel, right?

Kirk: Yes, I was reading The Stand while we were recording Kill ’Em All. It was a phrase in that book.

Tim: Would King be your most influential literary influence?

Kirk: I’m kind of bewildered by him. In my mind Stephen King has become more than just an incredible author — he’s almost on the verge of becoming a character in one of his books. In 1979 he wrote a book called The Dead Zone, about a boy who emerges from a coma with clairvoyant skills. The current political situation in the United States seems to me like a concept out of one of King’s books. The creative part of me goes, ‘Wow, this was pre-recognition on his part?’. Or maybe it’s just pure coincidence. I don’t know.

“The current political situation in the United States seems to me like a concept out of one of Stephen King’s books”

Tim: The same could be said about James Hetfield and “Master of Puppets”.

Kirk: Yeah, fair enough, absolutely. Although I would say “Leper Messiah” is more appropriate [laughs].

Tim: Did you start collecting horror memorabilia as a substitute for taking drugs?

Kirk: I’ve been collecting this stuff for a long time and a lot of it is just because I’m obsessed with horror movies, I’m obsessive compulsive — I have OCD — which is perfect for an addictive personality like myself. Ever since I was five or six years old I’ve been into this stuff — I totally love it, it’s inspiring for me and it’s fun and always will be. I don’t see myself getting tired of this stuff, I just love it, it’s a real source of — it has a calming effect on me.

Tim: It tamps it down.

Kirk: It tamps it down, man, big time, in an okay way.

Tim: Do you think there’s a link between the monstrous nature of your obsession with the monstrous nature of your demons?

Kirk: Oh totally, bro, directly related. You can say it’s an analogy, a huge metaphor for what’s going on inside my brain, absolutely.

Tim: A lot of the things I’ve seen from your collection are quite comical.

Kirk: I love the kitschiness

Tim: They’re not like the horror movies of today, which are…

Kirk: Really intense and serious. There’s a place for that in my mind too, I love a lot of contemporary horror movies. Horror movies just keep on getting better and better, the stuff that’s coming out on the cable stations, it’s just amazing. Horror and sci-fi these days, and comic book culture — Marvel, DC — it’s the best it’s ever been, especially for someone like myself who has always been in this culture and who has always watched this stuff. There was a real dry time when horror movies were just kind of so-so, particularly about 10 years ago. But nowadays it’s really artful, really original stuff — some of the sci-fi stuff is really great. Technology really makes the sci-fi stuff look amazing, and some of the technology makes the horror stuff amazing, too. I see effects that are not possible any other way but digitally, and you can tell, but it’s like, ‘Fuck that, this works’.

Tim: You’re not stuck in nostalgia. What do you think really first drew you to the darker side of pop culture?

Kirk: I don’t know, I was dropped on my head when I was a child, maybe that did it [laughs]. There’s a funny picture of me with, like, a big mark on my forehead, and I just look at it and think, ‘Cranium damage?’ [laughs]. Maybe it was that, I don’t know. I can’t put it down to any sort of reason or event or incident or whatever that just shocked me to hell. Maybe I was visited by Satan who said, ‘You will like the darker things in life, including music’, I don’t know. It’s part of my aesthetic.

“Maybe I was visited by Satan who said, ‘You will like the darker things in life, including music’, I don’t know. It’s part of my aesthetic.”

But on the opposite end I love the beach, I love the ocean, I love the sun and I interact with it in the most intense way with surfing. So that’s the yin yang of that. That’s an intense yin and yang. For the first, like, 40 years of my life I was a vampire — literally. I stayed up all night and slept all day happily.

Kirk Von Hammett

Tim: Tell me more about the horror side of your life — you’ve got a horror show coming up at the Peabody [Essex] Museum in Salem?

Kirk: I’m fucking tickled to the tits, as they say. For 25 years I’ve been trying to get movie posters of the horror genre, as fine pieces of art, particularly the ones from the ’20s and ’30s because those are the finest examples. Last year I got a phone call from the Peabody Museum, from this fine gentleman called Dan Finamore, who saw my horror book and got the idea that I needed him to have, which was, ‘Hey, this stuff needs to exhibited at a museum as fine art’. It’s a match made in heaven because the Peabody Museum is not only one of the oldest and biggest museums in the country, but it’s also in Salem, Massachusetts, which is witch town USA. It’s so appropriate that my collection [should] go there.

Tim: What’s Salem like?

Kirk: I went out to Salem for the first time last summer and was just amazed at the aura at the spooky witchiness that kind of prevailed over the town — in August. Usually that stuff doesn’t show up until around October, round Halloween, but you got the vibe in August. So I thought, ‘This is cool, this is perfect, I just can’t believe it’.

Tim: If I had to listen to three horror soundtracks on the way to your show in Salem, what would be on the playlist?

Kirk: Start with The Hunger because it’s a wonderfully beautiful, diverse, very emotional soundtrack — it really cycles through a bunch of different atmospheres and vibes and emotions, and beauty too. There’s Bach’s cello concerto [NB: Suite #1 for solo cello in G major], there’s Lakmé by Delibes, and then there’s two guys who did the more atmospheric sort of stuff with the more intense scenes. It’s great, I love it.

Then I would say we go into Re-Animator because that’s a really great upbeat soundtrack, especially the opening track [which] has this whole orchestra and wood drums, and it’s really driving. It’s a little bit reminiscent of Psycho, which is cool, and then after this opening track there’s all this atmospheric stuff that’s cool.

But then at the end of your drive, you’re just coming into that whole area of Salem, you should put on The Shining soundtrack by Wendy Carlos because it’s ominous and low-energy and fucking spooky as fuck. Really, I believe, [it was] ahead of its time in terms of instrumentation and mood.

Tim: Okay, if someone set fire to your house, what’s the one piece of your horror collection that you would have to save?

Kirk: One thing? Fuck… you’ve stumped me, I think my brain’s about to explode right now [laughs]. I would be sitting in the centre just spinning around and I’d probably end up going down with the house — ‘I’ve got no reason to live!’ It would be a three-way tie between The Mummy three-sheet, the Nosferatu one-sheet, and Boris Karloff’s outfit that he wore in The Black Cat in in 1934.

Tim: You could wear the outfit while carrying the posters…

Kirk: Yeah! I would put on The Black Cat outfit and take The Mummy three-sheet and the Nosferatu one-sheet, I know that’s, like, cheating… but I’m always trying to push the envelope. Every day I wake up, put my feet on the ground, look around and say, ‘How can I push the envelope?’ [laughs]

Tim: Do you think the dark uncertain times we’re living in will result in a resurgence of brutal music?

Kirk: Absolutely. From what I can see, heavy metal and music in general has always been a mirror for people’s feelings and emotions and conditions and situations and circumstance. It seems like in the best of times we’ve had really happy, almost mediocre, music, and in the worst of times we’ve had really angry protest music. So will it be that way in the future? I don’t know. But I do know that there are a lot of angry, disenfranchised people out there who are frustrated and have all this anger that needs to come out, hopefully in a cathartic way.

Tim: Heavy metal collective therapy.

Kirk: Yeah! Listening and playing heavy metal really helps. It’s a circular thing — music helps the person who’s creating it and performing it, and once they perform it it helps other people in its wake. It seems like the future is more unpredictable now than it ever has seemed in my own life. It’ll be interesting to see what people do — will they be glued to their computers and type out their frustrations, or will they just wake up, take a look around and realise what’s really going on: we’re being separated and divided in the trickiest of ways.

“It seems like the future is more unpredictable now than it ever has seemed. It’ll be interesting to see what people do — will they be glued to their computers and type out their frustrations, or will they wake up, take a look around and realise what’s really going on: we’re being separated and divided in the trickiest of ways.”

Tim: In the words of filmmaker Adam Curtis: “Click, share, go nowhere is the motto of our times”.

Kirk: That’s a mantra if I’ve ever heard one.

Tim: When Metallica last released an album, the iPhone had only been out for a year. Now everyone is a global media broadcaster. Do you think humans know how to handle the consumption and publication of so much information?

Kirk: It’s all about repercussions and consequences, just being accountable for any sort of idea that you put out there. Ideas go out into the ether, they go out into the universe — when someone expresses an idea it’s kind of like a vibration and it reverberates. You can’t really expect to just put some idea out there and not expect it to have some effect or echo or bounce back. It worries me.

Tim: We have never been more connected, yet so divided.

Kirk: It’s a weird world out there and we really need to not divide ourselves, because that’s what the powers who are trying to control us want. Right now everyone’s so divided and we really need to find a common ground rather than find our differences — to focus on what brings us together. Some people at the other end of the spectrum might say, ‘Maybe we should be more isolationist and just protect our tribe’, but I just don’t believe the end result is beneficial for everyone.

Tim: The world will dissolve if we become more self absorbed than we already are.

Kirk: Whether you like it or not it’s a world community now because of the fucking computers. That screen is a portal to the world and people just need to realise the responsibility that goes with being on the internet, period. There’s a lot of recklessness, a lot of irresponsibility, a lot of untruths, a lot of misguidedness, and it’s just worrisome because it just complicates the world even more.

Tim: If you had to pick one Metallica song to sum up the planet right now, what would it be?

Kirk: “Hardwired to Self-Destruct” [laughs]

Text © Tim Noakes / Follow me on Twitter

Interview conducted on November 18th 2016. 
Originally published in Rough Trade magazine, issue 11. 
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