James Hetfield on the Load tour, 1996, with drummer Lars Ulrich on the far left. Pic: Ross Halfin
Metallica go alternative? Metallica go (urrghgh!) 'trendy'?
Hardly. Despite the advent of short(er) hair and even a facial
piercing that graced the Metalheads' heads for the '96 release of
Load , Metallica are musically as unrepentant as ever.
That doesn't mean they haven't changed, though. It's five years since
the release of Metallica's last record-breaking opus - commonly
called The Black Album - and Load keenly
reflects the cultural shifts that have occurred in the interim.
Load is a highly charged 'now' statement of where
Metallica find themselves in '96 - built on a bedrock of their
trademark riffing, yet frequently swerving left to accommodate the
moody melodicism of grunge and, in its singles remixes, shuffling
onto techno-filled dancefloors to cut a rock-friendly rug. But don't
for one minute dare suggest that Metallica have put
together a trends-by-numbers please-the-mainstream record.
"At this point, more than any other point, we can do whatever the fuck we want," asserts James Hetfield, relaxing midway through rehearsals for their UK tour. "Why should we succumb to something else? Since day one we haven't thought about anyone but ourselves. We're selfish fucks!'
Indeed. But no one could accuse Hetfield of being a selfish, erm, chap in the guitar duties department; for the first time ever on a Metallica album James has been sharing the rhythm guitar parts with Kirk Hammett. Traditionally tagged the most conservative member of Metallica - both in his musical tastes and his influence over the band - Hetfield admits it perhaps wasn't the easiest of changes.
"It took a little time for me to get used to that. Getting Kirk to play along with me and have the parts complement each other was an even a bigger challenge than me trying to double it and get it tighter than a knat's ass, like we did before. And it's obviously affected the sound - it's broadened it and made it deeper, instead of being a one-dimensional sound. Most of the time my rhythm parts are mixed on the left and Kirk's are on the right so you can hear who's doing what - which is cool."
The clearer definition of roles graces what is, ironically, the band's most united album to date. Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich have loosened up to allow Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted more of a creative input; Metallica are certainly no longer the James'n'Lars show of yore. "I think, when we took a break between the albums, we grew up on our own and came back with a little more respect for each other," says James, lighting a cigar the size of a large hot dog. "Lars and I were clamped down pretty hard on a lot of the stuff in the past and we could see the other guys were a little unhappy. Everyone's gotta be happy so you've gotta give and take sometimes, and it's working out really good."
Not surprisingly, Metallica songs generally start with riffs which are gradually built into songs. The CD single's demo version of "Until It Sleeps" shows how their tracks evolve with, on that particular take, Hetfield singing "non-words"...
"Yeah. It's very annoying, isn't it?," grins Hetfield unapologetically. "We do that so I can come up with the phrasing - it helps everyone 'cause they know where the singing's going to be. Lars can throw fills in then and we can get the arrangement tightened up. We started using that method on Ride The Lightening for the song "For Whom The Bell Tolls". It was just these big, fat open chords - I knew I was going to sing over it and I knew what I was going to do, but no one else did. They were going, 'That song's fucking crap - it's just a bunch of chords.' And then when I laid the vocals down they're going, 'Oh, yeah - it makes sense.' So now we get that going earlier, before the words are written.
In common with the The Black Album , Load features songs with more simple arrangements and less chromaticism in the riffs. "Chromaticism? You mean we all don't know what key we're playing in?," jokes James. "Sure, the arrangements are simpler. It's a reaction to And Justice For All which was really, really anal. Every little bit was worked out. The arrangement was so orchestrated that it got really stiff, and when we were on tour it got really boring. So we knew we had to move on and The Black Album was pretty much the opposite. I think Load is even more simplistic, in a way. First we chose riffs that were great, and Lars and I would go jam on them. Then, instead of trying to force one riff with another riff, it was like, 'Let's jam on it,' and we'd see what came out of that. 'Does it have to be another riff? Maybe an open chord bit would sound better?' It was more of a feel thing when we were writing this stuff. So the songs kinda started writing themselves, in a way, which was a little more fun than just trying to stick a bunch of riffs together."
James' main concern in the studio, it seems, is getting a good rhythm guitar sound in the first place. "After I've got my guitar sound how I want it, the rest is pretty easy! On Load we got away from the scooped sound on The Black Album by getting some more mids going. If you've got a scooped sound you have to turn it right up, because all the apparent loudness - as they call it - is in the mids, which is where the guitar frequency is supposed to be. But with the scooped sound I was taking up all the highs where all the drums, hats and cymbals were, and I was also taking all the lows where the bass was - I was everywhere, basically! So we tightened up the guitar and got more mids going, and to my ear it's a fuller sound. It's also a little easier to control the whole band; there's a lot more room for the bass to hold its weight and it's a little easier to look a picture-wise, sonically-speaking. And it's louder... which is better!"
Many Metallica riffs and songs use the flattened fifth interval or 'Diablo in musica' as those over-imaginative dudes in the Spanish Inquisition called it. "Yeah - Black Sabbath was the first band I heard using that. It has that sort of less happy and evil sound and that fits in with our style. We've used it a bit, no doubt - just about every song has got something going on like that."
But gone are the Iron Maiden-esque galloping rhythms and the breakneck speed-riffing from days of yore. Instead, James donates a distinct wiff of horse manure to "Mama Said" with his pedal steel-like B-bender Tele licks, and a Southern rock vibe on "Ronnie". And, shock of shocks, a couple of the songs - "2X4" and "Poor Twisted Me" are based on triplet feels...
""Poor Twisted Me" is ZZ Top, right there," howls Hetfield. "That riff just came out of fucking around in Lars' dungeon. I was goofing with an echo setting, and that set the timing for that song. And then we came in and put a beat to it and it had a pretty kinda greasy groove to it. "2X4" was the first riff written for the album - it came from way back; I remember soundchecks goofing around on that riff. And yeah, it's got that flattened fifth thing... yet again!'
Amongst James' favourite Metallica tracks are the songs planned for the next album, written whilst working on Load . "I'm already itching to get the other songs out 'cause they're kind of relevant to us now, and I hope they stay that way," he frets. "Apart from that, there's bits of every album that I dig - especially the really heavier stuff like "The Thing That Should Not Be" and the instrumental stuff. It's like, 'Wow, we wrote that shit?!"
"But, overall, I'd have to say Ride The Lightening is my favourite. Kill 'Em All , our first album, was already written when we went into the studio but Ride... was the first next step, when we started to discover the studio and what we could do in it. That was kinda the fun bit, and it still is. When all the basic drums, bass and guitar were done on Load we got to go in and colour the song - get all the toys out and add weird guitar noises!"
Ride The Lightning 's chief lyrical concern was - well, death, basically, and Load isn't exactly laugh-a-minute either. Hasn't wealth and success perked James up at all? "Well, I think I understand feelings more now but I don't think I've mellowed or anything. Some of the earlier stuff was just, 'I got shit in me and it's coming out - look out!' Now, it's a little more controlled and I think a lot of the newer lyrics are a little more therapeutic, in a way."
As if to prove he hasn't mellowed too much James gives short thrift to the compulsory-for-'96 "Where's ya hair, dude?" question, but is more forthcoming on the subject of Metallica headlining the latest Lollapalooza alterna-fest - even though he's equally bored with being asked this, too.
"People forget that when we started we were pretty fucking alternative, man, and we haven't changed to fit in with anything," he growls. "We did Lollapalooza 'cause we wanted to and it was cool. It was as simple as that. We got see a few great bands and make some new friends. We played in front of some people who came to see us and some people who wouldn't normally listen to us. That's what it's all about for us - writing songs, getting it together then playing in front of people and watching their faces."
Kirk Hammett on the Load tour, 1996. Pic: Ross Halfin
A few minutes later and it's the turn of Hetfield's guitar foil to
take the TGM chair. Metallica's manager Peter Mensch
almost immediately follows him into the room. "Kirk - you're doing a
guitar interview? Oh, right, I forgot you used to be a guitar
player... before you got into this fashion thing ."
Resplendent in white vest, thick black eyeliner, black nail polish and with facial piercing in place, Kirk Hammett - the self-styled 'weird one' in Metallica - takes this in his stride. Puffing on a cigar (cigars are big in the Metallica camp at the moment, though the existence of a cigar roadie is sadly unrecorded), Kirk settles down to talk about Load .
"Before we started, the producer Bob Rock sat me down and said, 'You know, you're going to be playing a big of this album,' which was cool by me. At the end of the project I sat down and looked back on everything, and he had incorporated a lot of ideas I had and he did make us into a band in the studio, which is something that we've never actually been."
For the first time, Kirk added rhythm guitar parts. "The core of the rhythm parts were there and I would go in and just think to myself, 'Is there anything I can do as a counterpoint to what we're doing?' And that's how we would do it. It was obvious when we should both play the same parts but then again there were certain parts where it wasn't so obvious, and I'd work out a different part."
One of the biggest guitar surprises on Load is Kirk's solo on the opening track "Ain't My Bitch" - the first Metallica slide solo ever. "The first solo I came out with just didn't sit well - it didn't jump out and grab you," explains Kirk. "Bob Rock suggested I should play some slide; I said, 'It's funny you say that because I've brought my guitar' - a '63 Les Paul Junior I had specially set up with a high action. We sat down, rolled the tape and got a slide solo out of it, which is really amazing, 'cause a lot of it was just totally off the cuff! I mean, I'm no Duane Allman or anything like that - but it works for the track and it adds a different dimension to the song that's never really been heard on a Metallica album before. It also made me a lot more confident in my slide playing, and led to more slide playing on the album."
Elsewhere on the album much of Kirk's soloing is based around the E blues scale at the 12th fret, often using double-stop bends on strings two and three. "Playing like that just felt - well, really comfortable," expounds Kirk. "I didn't feel like being very modal on this album, 'cause I did five albums of modal stuff. I got modal in a few places like on "King Nothing" but the songs somehow just didn't call for that. Lars kept on telling me to 'lean into' the track - I would look at him and think, 'What the fuck is he talking about?' And then one day when I played a lick he said, 'Yeah, that's leaning into it.' I was laying back and playing a little bit off the beat - maybe like Stevie Ray Vaughan did.
"It was an easier album to solo on because a lot of the songs are based on very basic chord changes - it's less atonal than previous albums, more blues based. It was fun for me because I'm much more into the blues than I've ever been. Most of the solos were spontaneous - we'd run the tape and I'd play along, then maybe after seven or eight tries I'd be warmed up. Then on the 12th, 11th try we were rockin' and we'd get a lot of good shit on tape. We'd do a comp and then I would try to play it all in one pass. As well as the slide solo in "Ain't My Bitch" I'm really proud of the solo in "2X4" because I just lay back and let the guitar just breathe, playing licks that took full advantage of the sound of the guitar I was using, my '58 Les Paul Standard.
"But the solos on this album just weren't a real major concern to me. It was more the texture and the rhythm playing I was interested in - there's a lot more different sounds on this album. What I was trying to do was come up with guitar parts that would complement the song - to me that was a bigger challenge than playing the solos. I have my own home studio where I worked on parts and sounds - some of the unusual sounds on the album like on "The House Jack Built" were even flown in directly from my home demos."
It's well-know that during Metallica's early days Kirk had lessons from Joe Satriani. "Joe was a big influence back then," Hammett grants, "but not so much these days. He showed me how to use modes, and he showed me a lot of theory - like what chords to play over what scales, and vice versa. I learned a lot of finger exercises, as well. I had lessons from 1983 'till, like '87, on and off - maybe four lessons a year, sometimes. I never had enough time 'cause I was always touring! And then when he hit big with Surfing With The Alien he didn't have time either. In fact, I think I was probably his last student.
"I've been really big on practising in the past, but sometimes you just have to take a break from it. I found that when you take a break and get back to it, you're so much more enthusiastic - you just feel recharged.
"I also think it's important to know how to practice; I think a lot of people just end up playing the same old thing over and over and over. Right now, I'm really getting into jazz. I bought a book of all the jazz standards with something like 600 songs in it, so I'll pick that up and try to play some of the tunes. Between that and trying to write music, that's enough practise for me right now. Every so often I'll whip out the slide and play with that. I find that if I don't play a certain style for a long time it goes away and you have to kinda like play again and feel it out again, and then it eventually comes back."
Hammett has been around long enough to have seen several guitar styles come and go. Like Hetfield, however, Kirk insists that only rarely does hearing anyone else's approach lead him to re-examine his own. "When you hear something new and exciting, you think, 'Well, this is a style that's very much of the moment, but will it have longevity?'," he points out. "I think there are certain classic guitar styles that will always be around - blues playing, slide playing, the Eddie Van Halen school of playing. This thrashy, grungy type of playing - how much mileage can you get out of that? Will it be around for 10 years?
"One of my favourite things to do is to like come home after a night 'carousing' and just plug into an amp. I have an amp in my room for the first time in ages, because I'm single now - when you have a girlfriend or wife you can't really put a guitar amp in your bedroom! And so, like, I'll walk in at two o'clock in the morning and start playing for my own enjoyment... before you know it, the sun's coming up!"
Metallica recently upped their notoriety via an already infamous "on the road" feature in lad's magazine Loaded , so if you've ever wondered what sort of "metal mayhem" Metallica get up to in between gigs, look no further. Kirk, bless his dear little facial piercing, admits to being a little embarrassed by it. "Fuck me! A lot of that is fictional , really. Okay, sometimes we go a little bit crazy, but damn it, that makes us look like savages. And it's got nothing to do with guitar... so, ahh, next guitar question, please...
"The whole concept of playing guitar for me is pretty amazing because there's so much of it out there," he adds in a whoosh of philosophic sensitivity. "Out of the entire scheme of things I'm but a little pebble, if that... maybe even a grain of sand. There's so much to learn out there. I think I'll be playing guitar forever. Maybe I'll bury myself in a guitar-shaped coffin!'
This interview was originally published in The Guitar Magazine Vol 6 No 12, November 1996.
Copyright Douglas J Noble 1996
NB Ross Halfin is Metallica's official tour photographer. The culmination of over a decade's work with the band, "Metallica: The Photographs Of Ross Halfin" focuses on the band's major tours and is published by 2.13.61.