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Metallica's Kirk Hammett on how losing 250 riffs led to making the next Black Album

Jesse Kinos-Goodin

Metallica debuted in 1983 with Kill 'Em All, a no-holds-barred thrash-metal juggernaut that put the band at the top of the pecking order, where it remained for the 1980s and part of the '90s. Its fifth album, 1991’s Black Album, is the best-selling album of the modern Soundscan era (1991-today), surpassing 16 million in sales. Metallica's 10th and latest album, Hardwired... to Self-Destruct, debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart, its sixth album in a row to do so.

It's an impressive feat for any act, let alone a band of 50-something metalheads who have had more than their fair share of setbacks, including a very public and ugly battle with Napster that cast them as the scrooges of the music world, the critically underwhelming releases Load, Reload and St. Anger, not to mention the universally derided collaboration with Lou Reed, Lulu. Yet somehow, Metallica has technically always retained its spot on top. No band has successfully ridden the metal wave as long and as prominently as the four-piece — singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bass-guitarist Robert Trujillo. Even more impressive is the fact that, of the 291,000 album units Hardwired earned in the first week, 282,000 were in traditional, i.e. physical, album sales, an unheard-of figure in the age of streaming.

Although not so surprising, perhaps, when you consider the band's fanbase. At a recent “surprise” concert at Toronto’s Opera House, a benefit for the Daily Bread Food Bank and a rare opportunity to see the arena rockers play to a relatively tiny crowd of 1,000, Hetfield celebrated the accomplishment. When he asked the audience who bought the album, he formed his hands in a circle — the size of a vinyl record — in turn eliciting an uproarious response. It was the same when he made a smaller, CD-sized circle with his hands. But when Hetfield asked who bought it digitally, dismissively pretending to type into a phone, the audience booed. This is still the band, after all, that suggested anyone who pirates music should have their hard drive confiscated, a message its fanbase loyally adheres to.

As Metallica ripped into a two-hour greatest hits set spanning its 30-plus years, effortlessly mixing in new album tracks “Atlas, Rise!,” “Moth into Flame” and “Hardwired” with favourites like the barraging riffs of “Battery” or the megahit “Enter Sandman,” the feeling was palpable that these fans will never let their band fall from the summit.

“Metallica are back on top again,” Hetfield growled. As if they ever left.

While in Toronto, CBC Music caught up with Hammett at the Four Seasons Hotel to talk about the band’s longevity, how losing 250 riffs affected the album and why Hardwired is a lot like the Black Album. An edited version of the interview is below.

First off, the sixth No. 1 album in a row for you guys, so congratulations, but one of the most surprising things is that more than 90 per cent of it is physical sales, which is almost impossible in this day and age.

Yeah, considering that, you know, we used to be the prime targets for any sort of digital complaining that we would do, the whole force of the internet would come down on us, or so it seemed. So to put an album out there and see that people were actually going out, leaving their computers, leaving their desk, house, to go to an actual record store and buy the album, all I have to say is thank you. You are doing the right thing!

The only other artist that seems to be able to do that is Adele. You guys are basically the Adele of metal.

You know, I’ve given Adele a chance, and I can’t listen to that type of music, but I appreciate that she has a real strong audience. … But it's hard for me to draw any comparisons or conclusions when it comes to Adele.

It's been eight years since the last proper Metallica studio album, so I have to ask: what's taken so long?

I mean, we've been pretty engaged throughout those eight years. When Death Magnetic came out, we toured for a couple years behind that, and then we decided to make an album with Lou Reed, and then we decided to make a movie (Through the Never), all the while going out on tour every summer to whatever festival was going on in whatever country, and we did six years of that. Two years ago we decided to start thinking about making this album and cracked that shell and that leads us to now. I mean there are other bands out there that are even more late than we are, but I don’t want to be a tattletale so am not going to tell on them. But you know who you are, Tool!

I spoke with both you and James when Through the Never came out three years ago, and when I asked about the new album, you were much more enthusiastic than James, who seemed very reluctant. I wonder what changed from that mindset to finally saying, OK it's time to start?

Maybe it's because James has the heaviest workload whenever there is a new album out. Not only does the music have to be written, but then once it's all written he has to write all those sets of lyrics, and melodies, and then sing them. I think some of that was just apprehension. He maybe wasn’t so enthusiastic about it, and that's totally OK. I experience apprehension myself all the time over whether or not I can pull something off even if it's something I’ve pulled off a dozen times before.

Speaking of, I read about you losing your iPhone with 250 riffs on it. So going into the album, you had nothing to work off? What was that like?

No not really. It was not a good feeling, so I put the onus more on my lead guitar playing and just making sure that my lead guitar chops, my solo chops, my improvisational abilities were at their peak and that I was at the top of my abilities at any given point. For me, I had to make sure, from my other points of contribution, that I was contributing to my fullest extent and even more so. I pushed myself to play things I wasn’t sure that I could play. I think it shows.

You don’t have any songwriting credits, neither does Robert. It’s all James and Lars. How did that create tension during the recording?

We all get together and fill the music in, and then it ranged by Lars and James. I mean, whatever gets thrown into the pot it's still going to get an arrangement by Lars and James, it's still gonna have somewhat of a consistency to it. And so, you know, who knows, it's hard to tell.

Your band has been through more than most other bands should ever go through. What do you think keeps you guys still going and, even more so, managing to stay on top?

It's part of our lives, you know. A lot of the times when I think about the band and what we're doing, what we want to do, what we need to do, I don’t see it as my career. I see it as another day in my life. I have a feeling that's how the other guys see it, too. … We're doing a really good job at balancing the band stuff and family stuff, but still, it doesn't really feel like it's been this long because we've just lived it, we're living it … It’s just more of what I would do anyway, which is pick up my guitar and play music, whether I’m playing alone in my room or playing with the guys, or playing with the guys and 50,000 people happen to be watching. I’m still doing the same thing I did when I was 15 years old.

One thing that keeps coming up with this album, as well as Death Magnetic, is that it’s a return to form. For a band, is that almost a dirty phrase to hear, as if you’re not allowed or able to expand and move on?

Is it progression? Is it regression? It depends on your perspective. I think what really is the most important things is just how consistently good the album is. … Whether people call it a return to form or that they’re playing out their assholes, or whatever, it's all perspective. … Ya, we've relied on some of the same ingredients that we've put in other songs, but every song on here is unique and has something new to offer Metallica listeners.

Everybody is making comparisons to past songs and albums with this one. What specifically do you hear most?

The Black Album. Other people disagree with me, but the Black Album was very groove-oriented, it had a lot of bounce, and this album is similar. ... When I soloed against it the grooves were just so easy to solo to, they just wrote themselves. And that was the case with the Black Album.

You could pick worse albums to draw from.

Exactly. Like St. Anger. But I love St. Anger. I love Lulu, too.

Metallica’s Hardwired… to Self-Destruct is available now.

Follow Jesse Kinos-Goodin on Twitter: @JesseKG

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