Some Kind Of Monster - Kirk Hammett: We're A Little Thrash Band From California
His day job might be with Metallica, but Kirk Hammett's has another passion for the macabre, Metal Hammer travels to his inaugural Fear Festevil to witness the horror at first hand...
This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #255.
It’s fair to say that the sidewalk outside the Regency Theatre, in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco, is used to the sight of blood. Depending on which tale you believe, the place got its name from the police working these streets, who received either bribes or a hazard pay bonus and were able to afford better meat, or from the nether regions of the prostitutes who worked the same streets. Either way, the Tenderloin has been a den of iniquity since the early 1900s and shows no signs of changing, the word ‘sketchy’ inevitably springing to mind. The Regency itself was built in 1909 and was once home to a Masonic Lodge, adding an air of conspiracy to a building that is already replete with rickety old lifts and secret corridors. And let’s just say the Masons know a thing or two about masonry.
It is, then, the perfect venue for Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett (or Kirk Von Hammett as he’s known for the event) to throw the inaugural Fear FestEvil, a horror/metal/sci-fi extravaganza that showcases, among other things, his colossal collection of movie memorabilia. Seriously, who wants to go to some faceless convention centre when you can have zombies lurching at you out of the dark in this place? It’s perfect. So much so that, as you walk into the former Masonic Lodge, where Kirk’s collection is on display, your jaw will, quite of its own accord, hang open and make you look rather stupid. You may say “Wow!” but Machine Head’s Robb Flynn probably summed it up best with “Holy shit!” Suffice to say that it’s suitably impressive. Indeed, Mr Hammett himself was scheduled to give Hammer a guided tour, except no one had the foresight to think that he might be spectacularly busy running the show and sound-checking for his later guest spot with thrash legends Exodus.
Instead we are left to explore for a few hours – first Kirk’s collection, and then the multitude of stalls in the basement with their endless ways to empty your pockets. Rare books, rare vinyl, devil heads, skulls, oh the temptation… It’s probably for the best when we’re called away, Kirk’s entourage rather comically following him to the toilet by accident, before we’re led, naturally, to a secret room for our interview. Kirk himself is smartly but casually dressed, thankfully not wearing the fangs he’s been sporting for Fear FestEvil promos.
MIGHT WE SAY, SIR, THAT THAT’S A PRETTY DAMNED IMPRESSIVE COLLECTION. EVERYTHING FROM LOST IN SPACE TO DRACULA AND THE WALKING DEAD, ALIENS, HELLRAISER, FRANKENSTEIN, YOU NAME IT…
KIRK: “Yeah, I’m pretty OCD. When I get into something I totally go off the deep end and I engulf myself in whatever it is. When I discovered horror movies as a kid, I lived for horror movies. I bought monster magazines, I bought the books, I bought the toys, the comics and I just really loved it. I wasn’t really that great at sports and I grew up in the city with very little parental supervision as a kid. Basically I’d get home from school, get out of my Catholic school uniform, put on some street clothes and run down to the comic store, which was about four or five blocks from my house. I’d spend my afternoons there just reading comic books and hanging out.”
DO YOU THINK YOU MIGHT HAVE DEVELOPED A LOVE OF HORROR FROM CATHOLIC SCHOOL? A LOT OF THAT IS PRETTY GRAPHIC AND THEY LIKE TO FRIGHTEN THE CRAP OUT OF YOU…
“Oh yeah! The very first graphic images I can ever remember seeing were in altar boy school in mass books and prayer books. They would have depictions of the crucifixion and I remember looking at it and thinking, ‘Wow, this is creepy and gory and violent. Why is it so appealing to me?’ I can remember, as a child, I’d just go to that one prayer book and open it up and just stare at it. A few days later I’d do the same thing.”
WHY DO YOU THINK HUMANS ARE DRAWN TO THAT?
“I think it’s just hardwired into our system. I watch my kids – I have two boys, five and seven, and we don’t have cable TV, we give them a steady diet of toned-down Disney-type movies – and they still want to beat each other up! Every time they pick up a stick it turns into a gun or a knife or something, so aggression like that is hard-wired into human beings. We’re a warrior race, a tribal warrior race. We’re not a peaceful race at all. People go on about how it’s a mortality thing in movies, it makes you feel good that you’re alive, but I’ve never really bought that line. I buy the aggression.”
ARE YOU DISCERNING WITH YOUR COLLECTING? OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE FAVOURITES, BUT IS THERE STUFF YOU DON’T WANT?
“There are a few movies out there that are too gratuitous, gratuitous violence, and I tend to frown upon it because it’s inserted as a cheap thrill. For me the best horror movies have to have a really strong plot, a really strong fantasy element, or a giant monster or something. The torture genre of the horror genre never appealed to me quite as much.”
YOU’RE NOT INTO SAW AND HOSTEL THEN?
“I’m aware of those movies and I think they’re clever, but I’ll be honest, one time I took my wife, who was my girlfriend then, on a date to a morgue in Chicago. When we got there they performed four autopsies right in front of us and I turned about seven shades of green. Then we went into the big cooler where all the bodies were and I saw so many dead bodies in so many different sorts of situations that afterwards, for a good month or two, I could not watch any sort of horror movie. It was the humanity in me that prevented me watching horror movies, because it reminded me of what I saw at the morgue. Like I said, there were all sorts of people in all sorts of situations. When I finally started to get out of that morgue hangover the one thing I really couldn’t handle as much as I could pre-morgue was slasher films, because when you see victims of that sort of thing… again it’s the humanity, or loss of humanity.”
ISN’T IT A LITTLE ODD PUTTING ON A FESTIVAL WHEN THE METALLICA ORION FESTIVAL IS CANCELLED?
“Wow, I never looked at it like that. The whole impetus of this came from the Orion Festival in 2012. We had our lifestyle zones – James has his car thing, Lars had a movie festival, Rob had a surf and skate thing, and mine, it was obvious I was gonna do a haunted house… which became a crypt, which became Kirk’s Crypt, which was a huge success at both Orion festivals. At the end of the second one I thought, ’This is really a lot of fun, and it’s not as difficult as I thought it was gonna be.’ Organisation-wise, it’s a little bit of a nightmare, but it’s a lot of fun so why should I wait for Orion festival? Why can’t I just do this on my own?”
DO YOU THINK YOU’D GO MAD IF IT WAS JUST METALLICA?
“I don’t think anyone can do just one thing that intensely. Even Lars likes to go skiing now and again, and that’s a man who lives Metallica every single fucking day. Lars is hardcore, he’s one of the most hardcore guys I know, but even he takes a break and goes skiing. For me, when I discovered heavy metal, I saw a lot of the same imagery that was being used in heavy metal and horror. I remember staring at my brother’s copy of Paranoid thinking, ’These guys look like they’ve just stepped off the set of a horror movie.’”
WITH THE BEST WILL IN THE WORLD, METALLICA MUST GET BORING SOMETIMES – YOU’VE ACHIEVED EVERYTHING YOU EVER DREAMED OF AND MORE, AND THERE’S ALMOST NOTHING LEFT TO ACHIEVE…
“I’m never really bored with Metallica because there’s so many challenges that come down the road, and a lot of times you don’t know what’s coming! That factor’s shown up on our radar in the last decade or so. Before that we were just a metal band, but now we’ve become kind of like a creative platform under the guise of Metallica. Playing with other people is always really great and inspiring, and I’ve known Gary [Holt, Exodus guitar] and Tom [Hunting, Exodus drums] since high school so it really feels like we’ve all come full circle and most of us are still standing and have our wits about us. That in itself is a celebration, but to play with those guys and play one of my favourite Exodus songs, Piranha, is so fun. I’m really stoked about Carcass too! Their newest album is fucking great! And then we have Death Angel the next night. I wanted to create a cool vibe for all the old Bay Area metal fans, and take it back to the 80s when we’d all rally round our local bands.”
IS IT STRANGE TO YOU HOW MUCH METALLICA ECLIPSED THOSE OTHER BANDS? PEOPLE SAY THE BIG 4, BUT IT’S MORE LIKE THE BIG ONE AND THE OTHER THREE…
“I try not to spend too much time thinking about stuff like that because whatever I think of is still not going to be a satisfying enough explanation. It’s just the way things are and how the chips fell. Exodus in the 80s had some bona fide problems, but I think their first album is just as good as Kill ’Em All. We were just playing the music we wanted to hear because no one else was playing it and it wasn’t being played on the radio. It was only a small group of people who knew about it and it was almost elitist in that ‘No posers allowed!’ thing.”
AND YET HERE YOU ARE DOING THE GRAMMYS THIS YEAR WITH A CLASSICAL PIANIST!
“I know! The whole Lang Lang thing just surfaced in one week, like, ‘OK, we’ve been invited to play the Grammys with a classical pianist, here’s the track, do you want to do it?’ We’re like, ‘Sure!’ even though we’re just a little thrash band from San Francisco.”
NOT ANY MORE, YOU’RE NOT. REALLY!
“Maybe in my mind. I think maybe we want to think of ourselves as a little thrash band from SF. Sure there’s managerial situations and strategies and whatnot that we’ve used to become bigger, but at the end of the day it just comes down to the music. When we’re all gone, the music is gonna live on, and that’s gonna be our legacy, not selling out four stadiums in a row in Sweden or playing with Lang Lang at the Grammys. It’s gonna be someone discovering Disposable Heroes and thinking, ‘This is really cool stuff, what year is this? 1986, wow!’ in 2086!”
IS IT TRUE THAT JAMES HAS 800 RIFFS FOR THE NEXT METALLICA ALBUM?
“Yeah, and I only have about 432!”
HOW ARE YOU GOING TO CULL THAT TO 12?
“The thing is with Metallica, there’s never a shortage of ideas, which is apparently different from other bands. You’re right, there’s basically 12 slots and a song goes in each slot, and how many riffs can you put in each song? There’s probably a mathematical formula for it, but I’m bad at math. I don’t think the album is gonna come out before 2015, unless we do something really radical and just decide to work the way we did with Lou Reed, which was crazy for us. We’d be writing it with Lou, working out all the parts, and then go, ‘OK, let’s try it with all these changes.’ We’d play it and Lou would say, ‘That’s the take!’ and we’d be like, ‘Excuse me?’ Apparently that’s the way Lou worked throughout his career.”
DO YOU STILL GET NERVES PLAYING?
“When I’m playing with Exodus I get nervous because I’m out of my comfort zone, I don’t have my tech, it’s different songs that I haven’t played a thousand times. Bring on the night and the fucking metal! The challenge for me is to try not to drink too much before I go onstage with Exodus.”
IS THAT A DANGER?
“Yeah, we’re all party buddies from way back, but it’s harder to bounce back these days. I either have to pace myself or resign myself to the fact that I’m gonna feel like shit for a week.”
Despite bar prices that are more scary than any horror movie, Mr Hammett is not alone in sinking a few tonight. Hell, there’s a liquor store right opposite if you want to go old school, and to a certain extent that’s what Fear FestEvil is all about, old-school horror and old-school metal, slasher flicks and circle-pits. During the day there are seminars and forums with guest appearances from actors, directors, and musicians like Scott Ian, Kerry King and Slash. There are taxidermy classes, modelling classes, meet and greets, and legends of metal just wandering about taking it all in. Chuck Billy from Testament, Big Jim Martin from Faith No More, Jeff Matz from High On Fire and the aforementioned Robb Flynn, on a last blast before heading into the studio. And then, as Von Hammett says, “Bring on the night and the fucking metal!”
The Regency Ballroom holds about 700 people, looks great and sounds like crap. And it shouldn’t be any other way. Liverpool’s grindcore veterans Carcass hit the stage as an indecipherable low end rumble, until you find that sweet spot in the crowd and suddenly it’s 1989 again. But you have to find it first and risk a few stray elbows from the circle-pit. And then Carcass sound incredible, belting out classics like ghosts from the past to people who haven’t heard them in 20 years, along with tracks from last year’s Surgical Steel, all louder than hell and rattling the foundations.
Admittedly we never do find the sweet spot for Exodus, but then that was always part of their charm: always a bit too much high end, and somehow that, too, wouldn’t be right any other way. They thrash through ‘hits’ from Bonded By Blood, Pleasures Of The Flesh and the inevitable Toxic Waltz, while a kid dressed as the Toxic Avenger takes to the dancefloor. And sure, Kirk Von Hammett’s guest spot is more pissing about jamming than anything else, a few Metallica riffs, and knocking out Blue Öyster Cult’s Godzilla, but the smile on his face says it all. Already he’s planning for next year’s Fear FestEvil, taking what worked from this one on to the next and dumping what didn’t. You really should check it out. Dare we say, it’ll be some kind of monster.