Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett and vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield are two of the most influential musicians in rock history, having launched not just a band, but arguably, the entire genre of thrash metal. Their 30-year career has seen countless achievements—nine Grammy Awards, an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Black Album (one of the best-selling albums of all time) and the release of a documentary and major motion picture—and they’re not through yet. Hammett and Hetfield are incessantly driven by one simple, honest truth: making music makes them happy.
“I feel good when I write music—it’s as simple as that,” says Hetfield, spending his morning at Guitar Center San Francisco. “Musically, I think all of us love playing music, and that’s the thing—that’s gotta be a part of our lives. And why would we not play it together, ’cause together we create some great stuff.” Hammett adds, “I just want to get better. I still just want to get better … you hear a lot about how people go on about, you know, how certain artists have their creative peaks and whatnot, and they peak and then it’s all downhill and somewhat expected, blah, blah, blah—I don’t believe in that, man. I don’t believe in any of that [stuff].”

Last year saw the release of the motion picture Metallica Through the Never, and while it shares the same title as a track from 1991’s Metallica (The Black Album), the film is unlike anything else in the band’s extensive career. “It’s a completely different way to experience Metallica,” says Hammett. “For us, it’s a new and challenging way for us to connect with different people … that isn’t musical.” The story of Metallica Through the Never follows the character of a young roadie named Trip, who is sent on an urgent errand and embarks upon a bizarre adventure—all set against the backdrop of a Metallica concert. Hammett describes the writing process, “Nimród Antal, our director, he came up with the basic story. And once we got through all the shoots, Nimród started editing this stuff … he would edit a version of the movie and we would all sit down and watch it with notepads … [then] go around the room and everyone would read off their little notes and ideas and opinions and whatnot … and we did this, like, 15 times. At least. And so, that’s how we ended up with the actual screenwriting credits.” As far as the meaning behind the name itself, Hetfield offers, “Initially, that song was written about how small we are, compared to the universe or the mind of, the body of God or higher power or whatever it may be—we’re just a little speck in it all, and how great we think we are … through the never, ‘never’ meaning there’s no end, and kind of working through that somehow. What does it mean to you after you die, where did you come from, you know, a lot of just giant, giant question marks.” Hammett adds, “We’ve discovered that Metallica is more than just a musical vehicle for us now, and it’s a very, very cool sort of thing.”

Metallica Through the Never is hardly Metallica’s first venture into the world of filmmaking. In 2004, Metallica released Some Kind of Monster, a documentary that follows the band through the recording process of 2003’s St. Anger, as well as Metallica’s search for a bassist to replace longtime member Jason Newsted. The band is arguably one of the most well-documented groups in the history of metal, and as Hetfield explains, that can have mixed effects. “There are times when I feel I’ve got no privacy; there are times when I feel I’m not transparent enough—so it’s both, you know?” he says. “For me, being transparent, being true, looking the world in the eye, being honest about where I am, what I am, has to happen or else I start to get on that ego roller coaster again. But also, a sense of boundary, a sense of privacy, you know, I’m a human, and living in a kind of a crazy, fantasy career, and to not have your space is not healthy either, so, it’s gotta be both, you know? And I think every human is like that.”

That transparency Hetfield speaks of has undoubtedly allowed fans to feel a closeness to the band throughout the years that is unique to Metallica. “We’ve gone through our own roller coaster of ego on our 30-some-odd-year career, and there’s some point where you think you’re God-like, and all of that stuff, and you can do no wrong, and all that silliness … but to imagine that you’ve inspired somebody—not that someone looks up to you and just wants to rock out with you, or hang out and eat, or have a beer, or want to screw you or whatever it is—but someone who is actually inspired to the point where their life has been changed. They might pick up a guitar, or even a lyric has inspired them to get through something in their life … that is the great thing about music, and that’s what it’s done to me. That’s what it gave me throughout my life and continues to … so if I can give that to somebody else, that is great.”

The process of creating music is undeniably where the passion begins for both Hammett and Hetfield. And over the years, the two of them have developed a unique relationship and way of communicating with one another musically. “James and I, we’re very intuitive. We kind of know—at whatever point—what the song needs, and we kind of lean to [whoever’s] strengths are needed [for a certain] part of a song,” says Hammett. “We’ll be jamming on a riff and then we’ll think, ‘Okay, we need a chorus.’ James’ll pull four chords out that’ll work for whatever melody he’s working on and I’ll follow him. Or, you know, there’ll need to be something dynamic that happens before or during the guitar solo, and I’ll take the reigns on that. And basically, we just figure it out intuitively and we just kind of naturally go where we’ve always gone naturally. And we’ve done it for so long, that we kind of just expect it to happen … and it does.” Hetfield adds, “There’s no code, there’s no written, devout law of how [to] write a Metallica song. It shows up in a riff, it shows up in a drum beat, it shows up in a one-liner, it shows up in poetry, it shows up in a bass line, it shows up in anything … there’s no set way. However it comes, it comes, and we’re grateful.”

It’s every guitarist’s dream to one day collaborate on his or her signature guitar, and for more than 25 years, Hammett and Hetfield have had the privilege to work with ESP in developing numerous signature instruments. “I knew from the get-go that ESP were my kind of company,” says Hammett. “’Cause, number one, I loved the fact that they would make me anything I wanted … I also love the sound of the guitars, and I [love] how sturdy they [are]—I mean, I’ve taken my ESP guitars and have thrown them around, dragged them, they’ve been pelted by all sorts of foreign objects, they’ve been in 30-degree-below weather and they’ve been out in the Sahara, I mean, these guitars are just … they’re the best. I love what they can do.” Hetfield adds, “You know, those guys really—they make a roadworthy guitar. A lot of the vintage guitars I had, I didn’t want to bring on the road … ESP makes it possible to bring guitar shapes out on the road that I love—and they are road dogs. They survive.”

Hammett and Hetfield have spent more than three decades crafting songs that have inspired musicians and music lovers across multiple generations—a feat that can seem impossible to any budding artist. But Metallica began just like most bands: a couple of kids, driven to pursue the feeling they get from making music. “Go for it. Go for it,” says Hetfield. “Be inspired by what inspires you … we wanted to sound like Diamond Head, we wanted to be Motörhead, we wanted to be all these bands, and we ended up developing our own sound … once you get confidence, you need that confidence from somewhere, and if you’re inspired by somebody else, take it, and eventually you’ll have your own. For us, I think the main thing is—what’s the key to it all—it’s you gotta be honest, you have to play what you feel, you have to play what you like, and you can’t listen to what other people really say about what you’re doing. You’re doing it for a reason, and someone will like your music. They’ll find you.”

Written by Brian Ruppenkamp / Photography by Ryan Hunter

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