Kirk Hammett: “It’s weird, I’m 59 years old and I don’t think I’ve even peaked creatively or musically”

Fresh from the release of his debut solo EP Portals, Kirk Hammett talks creativity away from Metallica, the “audio cinematic approach”, and why he’s still got so much left in the tank…

Kirk Hammett: “It’s weird, I’m 59 years old and I don’t think I’ve even peaked creatively or musically”
Paul Travers
Header photo:
Ross Halfin
Metallica photo:
Anton Corbijn

This past Record Store Day, Kirk Hammett will released his first ever solo EP, almost four decades after making his recorded debut with Metallica. His regular bandmates weren’t always so accepting of extracurricular activities of course – bassist Jason Newsted was infamously ousted from the band after his requests for a bit of time off to focus on side-project Echobrain were rebuffed.

But that was then, and this is now. As the guitarist himself points out, it would take a lot to pull focus from the megalithic machine that is Metallica in 2022 and certainly more than four-track EP Portals, as fantastic and beguiling a record as it is. The project started life as a single song, called Maiden And The Monster, that Kirk recorded to soundtrack his It’s Alive! exhibition of horror movie memorabilia. Like a suitably monstrous creation it took on a life of its own, blending cinematic atmosphere with an orchestral sweep and a touch of the heaviness that by now has probably seeped into his DNA.

Here, Kirk talks to Kerrang! about Portals, the impact of his sobriety and Metallica’s Pavlovian response to Ennio Morricone…

How did the Portals EP grow out of the It's Alive! exhibition?
“The first song [Maiden And The Monster] came straight from the exhibition. With the second song [The Djinn] I tried to write something really simple but when I sat down again with the initial idea it grew into a major piece because the ideas just kept coming. I took it like, 'Okay, there are musical ideas resonating and it wants to become more than one musical idea.’ With enough ideas it becomes a song or an instrumental or whatever it needs to be. So the same thing happened with The Djinn as happened with Maiden And The Monster and I just threw up my hands and said, 'Wow, I don't know what's happening, I have two instrumentals and I'm just sitting on them.’

“Then when I met Edwin Outwater [the conductor who worked on S&M2] I played it for him and said, ‘Let’s get together and write some more of this sort of stuff,’ he was so into it. We went through it all and that became High Plains Drifter and The Djinn. This wasn't something where I sat down and said, ‘Okay, solo album, it's about time!’ I don't take myself that seriously! And I'm not that intelligent, I'm seriously not. I write music and shit happens… and this falls under the category of shit happening (laughs). But now that it has happened, I've gotten a taste of this and this sort of autonomy, I'm thinking, ‘Why not?’ I have the full band's blessing on this, particularly James [Hetfield] and Lars [Ulrich] and so it's okay, now I have something else cool to do. Edwin and I have every intention to keep on collaborating as well, because the results have been so great.”

Lars and especially James used to be very opposed to side-projects pulling focus from Metallica. Has that attitude simply mellowed over time?
“Well, come on, it is 20 years later and Metallica have gotten even bigger since then. So trying to divert any kind of focus at this point, it would take an army to do that. And it's just good ol' me. And also we've all grown. We've all grown from our experiences and we've certainly grown from [Jason Newsted’s departure]. It's a recognition that we're all musicians, we're all artists. Who's to say to someone else, 'Don't put your art out there, I don't want you to'? We've all grown up, basically. So the question is, were we not grown up back then? Of course not. We'll be the first ones – or at least I will – to put my hands up and say I only feel like I've reached maturity in the last 10 fucking years. Also I have to say I've been sober for seven and a half years now and my mind is in a different place, I'm better focused. I got my brain back, I've gotten my memory back so nowadays I'm in a better place. I record music and my focus is that much better.”

After so much time focused on Metallica did you have to shift your mindset to write for something else?
"No, not at all, because it was a very conscious effort to write things for Portals that did not sound like they could be on the next Metallica album. And that's very easy because I play all different kinds of music. I play jazz, bossa nova, rock, all sorts of stuff. It's very easy for me to know what a Metallica formula is because I helped fucking formulate it. So it was very easy for me to not write stuff that sounded like Metallica and vice-versa – it's very easy for me to slip into Metallica mode and write heavy, aggressive music. I've been doing it for so long I can literally put myself in that mode in 10 seconds.

"And going back to when I got sober, I had so much more time. I was spending almost every night in a nightclub or bar and then I'd spend almost every morning recovering from that. Day in, day out, regardless of whether I was on tour or not. And now that's been removed from my life I have all this extra time, so of course I'm going to play my guitar more. It's what I love to do and as a consequence of that there's just a higher output. My rate of production is higher and it's a better model for me to work from. It's weird, I'm 59 years old and I don't think I've even peaked creatively or musically. I certainly don't feel 59, I still go out and surf three or four times a week, run, ride my bike and play my guitar. I still feel as energetic as I've ever been and I attribute that to giving up drinking. And this is all the result of that.”

The EP traces the history of horror from 30s classics on Maiden And The Monster on The Incantation. Was that always the concept or did it just turn out like that?
“That was the concept in the back of my mind. It wasn't like I sat down and watched Hellraiser and went, 'This part's going to be that.' Because I've been so into the horror genre ever since I was a young child, I've seen thousands of horror movies, read thousands of books and comic books. When I sit down I think about the atmosphere, the vibe, the emotion, the attitude of my favourite movies and that's all I had to do. I didn't have to put on a movie and put it under a microscope, or draw a Venn diagram of horror movies and music. That all sounds like too much work for me! All I had to do was go into my memory bank and my unconscious and it was so easy for me to do that."

High Plains Drifter in particular stands out. Does it slot in thematically because of the supernatural elements of that movie?
“I remember when I was watching that and I just went, 'Wow, did I just see a supernatural Western?' That movie has always been one of my favourites because as it unfolds you start getting the feeling that something is not quite right with Clint Eastwood’s character. There's a darkness there and a mystery there and then the final five or 10 minutes of the movie it all comes together. So that's the connection, but I also like the title because it also implies a higher plain of consciousness. I'm always looking for a higher level of creativity and a higher level to express myself, so that's another way I see that title and that song.”

That film was the one he didn't do, but did you also want to try your hand at that big dramatic Ennio Morricone sound?
“I have to compliment you because that's one thing not a lot of people know about: that it’s one of the only Clint Eastwood films he did not score. But I have to say Ennio is an influence that runs really deep with me. I hear Ennio's stuff [Metallica’s long-standing intro music The Ecstasy Of Gold] five minutes before we hit the stage. I have a Pavlovian conditioning to it. When I'm not on tour and I hear that song I get a burst of adrenaline, I start feeling jumpy. And I'm not the only one. One time I was with Lars and we heard that and he looked at me and said, ‘Oh shit, we've got to get our stage clothes on!’”

The title Portals suggests music that you want to transport the listener?
“Yes, I call it an audio cinematic approach because I don't really know what else to call it. The music tells a story. I can't say it's four instrumentals because conceptually it's more than that. But it's not soundtrack music, either. I was at a loss and someone was asking me what kind of genre it is. I don't know, it's kind of heavy but they're instrumentals so… audio cinematic is my half-assed way of trying to describe this music.”

Was it intentional to get it out for Record Store Day?
“It was all about the timing. I got a call from management saying we had the opportunity to do it and we bit the bullet and got everything done in a week so we could get it done for Record Store Day. It’s something really cool that I really believe in because as a kid I used to hang out at record stores and ask about this and that band. I love vinyl. I love the packaging, I love the sound, I love the ritual of taking out the record, putting it on the turntable, all of that. So Record Store Day, hell yes!”

You also produced the EP. Is vinyl the best format for listening to Portals?
“That's down to the listener. Some people like vinyl, some like listening to stuff on CD, some people like to stream. My thing is, I've been working on Metallica albums for the last 40 years and you just get to the point where you know what you're doing. I'm so familiar with the whole recording process and getting the sounds – recording, mixing, mastering. I'm so familiar with all that stuff so that when it came time to do this, yeah, I can do all that myself because I've been doing it for so fricking long. Sometimes I need someone to be subjective with it, though, so I called [Black Album producer] Bob Rock. I called him up and we mixed the tracks in days.”

You mentioned collaborating with Edwin again, so will there be more of this in the future?
“I hope so, yes. Edwin scored and arranged all the orchestral parts, that's his forte and specialty. He was listening to stuff and he just started singing parts at the top of his voice. I looked at him and just thought, 'This guy is so committed to the music.' With him on board it turned out much better than either of us expected and we're forging forward with more collaborations in the making as well. I can't wait until we start working together again.”

Check out more:

Now read these

The best of Kerrang! delivered straight to your inbox three times a week. What are you waiting for?