Thirty-nine years ago this month, on April Fool’s Day, Kirk Hammett got a call he hoped was no prank: an offer to join Metallica. The guitarist, then age 20, was still playing in Exodus, the thrash-metal band he’d co-founded as a teenager, but he’d fallen in love with Metallica since they first played the Bay Area, where he grew up. So when he realized the opportunity was no joke, he flew to New York, where the band was prepping its debut album, and within two weeks, he was shredding solos onstage alongside James Hetfield and Cliff Burton. From that point on, Metallica was his focus.
Now, nearly four decades later, Hammett is planning the release of his first solo outing, an instrumental EP titled Portals, due out this weekend on Record Store Day. Over the years, he has made the odd guest appearance on songs by Septic Death, Orbital, and Carlos Santana, but largely he has stayed loyal to Metallica. Twenty years ago, when the state of Metallica was particularly fraught — a time when then-bassist Jason Newsted said he felt like he didn’t have the freedom to work on side projects — a release like this would have seemed unimaginable. So now venturing out on his own with Portals, as well as the Wedding Band, the covers group he plays in with Metallica’s Robert Trujillo, seems almost daring.
“Doing a solo album was always in the back of my mind; Metallica stuff was always at the forefront of my mind,” he tells Rolling Stone. “This album kind of came together more incidentally.”
He planted the first seed for Portals five years ago when he planned an exhibition of the horror-movie posters he’d been collecting for years. All that was missing was some mood music, so he and his wife, Lani, collaborated on “Maiden and the Monster,” a seven-minute audio vignette full of light, shade, and melodrama that Hammett likens to a soundtrack to a nonexistent movie. “My initial vision was to explore, musically, the movies of the Twenties and Thirties,” he says. “But then it just grew and grew and grew.” He held another exhibition and wrote another, more metallic song, “The Jinn,” and in 2019, when Metallica teamed with the San Francisco Symphony for their S&M2 shows, he forged a bond with conductor Edwin Outwater, which led to two symphonic collaborations.
“When I met him, we hit it off right off the bat because he’s a horror fan,” Hammett says. “I just said to him, ‘Man, you got to check out these two pieces of music that I wrote that are kind of horror themed. You and I should do something together.’ And he said, ‘I’d love to do it.'” The two musicians ended up reworking a song Hammett had been struggling with that would later become Portals track “The Incantation.” Prior to collaborating with Outwater, Hammett had found the song so vexing he’d revised it seven times and was calling it “The Insanity Suites.” The piece, which lasts eight minutes, sounds like a lost John Williams theme for Star Wars before evolving into a doomy classical-metal hybrid, while their other collaboration, “High Plains Drifter,” evokes the mood of dusty Ennio Morricone soundtracks.
Hammett and Outwater got their demos together during what Hammett calls “the first lost Covid year,” 2020, and recorded them the following year in L.A. That’s when it then occurred to him that the songs would make a good EP. “It’s a fucking instrumental album, and it sounds nothing like Metallica,” he says. “So it sits in a different spot than all the music that I’ve been involved in in the past — and I like that.” He played the music for his bandmates and Metallica management, thinking he’d release it after the next Metallica album, and was surprised when management suggested he put it out now.
“I was also pretty shocked that I got the complete band’s blessings on it,” he says. “It was amazing because our band has not had a lot of great progress with band members going solo, as everyone knows. But all that went down almost 20 years ago, and we’re such different people now. We’re all just older, wiser, and more mature.” He pauses for a second. “Well, I don’t know if we’re wiser, but we’re definitely older, and a little bit more mature, a little bit more responsible. So something like this takes on a different sort of meaning now than it would have 20 years ago.”
Here, Hammett, now a few months shy of 60, reflects on the journey that led to his first solo record.
You were surprised your Metallica bandmates gave Portals their blessing. In 2001, the band did an interview with Playboy where James Hetfield said, “When someone does a side project, it takes away from the strength of Metallica.” What’s changed?
Well, we kind of see it like this: We’re not musicians, we’re artists. Ethically, morally, and creatively, it’s wrong to deny someone the opportunities to express themselves and create. And I think that’s kind of where everyone is sitting right now. Also, now we’re so much more accepting of what happens in our lives because so much stuff has happened to us in the last 20 years — so much stuff has happened in the last five years.
I think we’re a little bit more aware of our own mortality and how much more time we have as functioning artists, musicians, and band members. So there are other things that are more important to consider, like the longevity of the group, the mental health of the group, the creative energy of the group.
And those guys know I ain’t fucking going anywhere. Metallica is my fucking bed. Metallica is my home, and it would be fruitless to leave the band because, if I did, people would be reminding me every single day of how I was the Metallica guitar player. I don’t want to be put in a situation where I have to resist that. I want to always fucking be seen as just another guy in Metallica trying to make the best music along with these other three guys because that’s basically what we do. That’s our calling. It’s what the freaking universe wants us to do. I think along those lines.
It seems like things have progressed in a positive direction within the band since the days of Some Kind of Monster. In that movie, you expressed that you felt like you were in the middle of inter-band disputes, and you’ve said that you felt like a referee. Are things different now?
Yeah. Well, Rob’s that guy now [laughs]. It’s freed me up to concentrate on more musical stuff, but the attitude’s different now.
We’re much more open. We listen to each other. We’re much more considerate. This is not stuff we all sit down and talk about; I’m judging this just from what the current behavior is in the band and what it feels like. We kind of instinctually feel things, and sometimes we talk about them, sometimes we don’t, and we really don’t talk about the bad things. That’s led us to get into all these weird situations in the past. We’re just such a fucking human band. We’re not perfect as people. And we make mistakes in our personal lives left and right. Where we’re efficient in our personal lives, I think there’s a tendency to try to make up for it in our musical lives as well. I think that just that in itself is something that has driven us for decades. If you got this explanation from James, it’d probably be the same thing, but translated in a different way; same with Lars.
At this point in time, I just tend to see things a lot differently than I ever have. It’s outside the business thing, it’s outside status, and outside of just where we stand in culture. It’s everything to do with what motivates us, what’s inside of us, and why are we doing it. What is the ultimate goal? And the ultimate goal is to freaking make music that fucking brings happiness to people and helps people. I mean, when you go deeper and deeper, “Oh, it’s just these five notes in this particular fucking pattern make me really fucking happy.” We string these concepts together. Music is magical.
Had you ever attempted a solo project before this?
No. I still have yet to sit down and write a whole song’s worth of lyrics by myself. I’ve never tried that. I still have yet to sit down and write a fucking three-chord, Dylan-esque type of song because I’ve never gotten around to it. I still have not really explored my singing voice. I don’t know what the outcome of any of that would be.
But I feel like I’m getting around to doing it now and it’s weird because I think about that and I think the fact that, fuck, I’m almost 60 years old. “Am I late on this?” I say to myself. It’s not that I’m late on this; it just seems like the timing is right for me to be doing it. It’s presenting itself to me. And so, that’s kind of how I sit with this.
When Jason was doing all that solo stuff and there were two or three things he did, it wasn’t just one, my attitude was like, “That’s cool,” but it wasn’t for me. My head was somewhere else. I was still trying to come up with cool riffs and stuff. I had this thing: When I do something, I want it to be new, different, and original. Of course, nothing is a hundred percent original, but I just want something that’s a different flavor that has not been tasted a million times. So my attitude was, “OK, Jason’s going to do that. That’s great. Fuck, good luck. When I come to do something like this, it’s going to be a hundred percent me.” That’s kind of been my attitude.
It sounds like you’ve gone through something like a self-realization to get to this point where you’re confident enough to be like, “I’m doing this. Let’s all support each other with what we want to do.”
Yeah. That’s a hundred percent right. It has been a bit of a journey of self-realization for me in the last, I would say, 10 years, really. I got sober seven and a half years ago, and that was amazing because I felt like I’d gotten my brain back after just spending so much time just fucking either being hungover or drunk and not too much of anything in between. But when I stopped drinking, I had all this time. I stopped going to bars and nightclubs, even going out to spots to eat. I stopped all that even on tour. And so I had all this time.
In the past on tour, we’d play a show, go out for three or four hours and then I’d end up in my hotel room wasted. I play guitar for three or four hours until I passed out; I wake up next morning, have no recollection what I played the night before, and this went on for decades. Then you take alcohol out and, all of a sudden, I’m playing more and I’m remembering stuff and all of a sudden, every time I pick up my guitar, it’s become more of a vehicle than it ever has been in the past for me, because I’m just more grounded, in a better place. It’s a very, very positive thing that came out of me finally getting sober.
How did you like collaborating with people outside of Metallica for this? You co-wrote two of the songs with your wife, Lani, and two with Edwin Outwater.
It was different. I was very nervous about it at first because I’m used to a certain quality of musicianship. I knew Edwin definitely had it, but I just didn’t know if we would end up on the right page. But we totally did completely. I was just like, “Oh, I don’t have to worry.” He knows his shit. He knows his music theory. He knows composition. He has perfect pitch. I love it. It’s like, we’ll hear a note. I go, “OK. Edwin, what’s that?” And he’ll go, “E flat,” and I’ll go, “You just rule.” I love that. With me and him it was actually a very, very easy collaboration.
Do you think you’ll be performing any of Portals live?
I have no idea. When I think about it, we could play these songs with a chamber orchestra. Theoretically, we could tour these songs. It’s only barely a half an hour’s worth of music, so we’d have to pad it and play a cover or something. I don’t know. But yeah, it is conceivable that we could take it on tour.
Beyond Portals, what’s next for you? I know that Metallica have some gigs. Is the band working on an album?
I’m not supposed to really talk about it, but I’ll just say that we’re working. And I’m working right now. I always have projects in the works, and I’m feeling that now is the time to branch out beyond music. There’s a comic book in the works that will eventually become a graphic novel and then maybe more after that, but we’ll see how it goes.
Getting back to Portals, do you feel like people don’t realize everything you’re capable of as a guitarist?
I play guitar freaking every single day. I’m actually sitting with one in my lap right now. I could play a whole range of styles, ranging from fucking jazz music to bossa nova to blues to classical to fucking polka. I’m fucking pretty adept at a lot of different styles, but 90 percent of our fan base out there only hears me in a Metallica context. And so I realized this EP is a great opportunity to show a side of my playing that a lot of people aren’t aware of.
With this album, I didn’t really have to worry about playing solos that were catchy or were accessible. So a lot of the solo parts are truly a hundred percent stream of consciousness, rather than, “We need to make this Metallica sound.” I’m really stoked about that because in the future, if I do put out something that’s a little bit more radical, it won’t be such a surprise to people.
Speaking of versatility, one of my favorite moments from Metallica’s 40th-anniversary weekend was watching you play Cameo’s “Word Up” with the Wedding Band.
I love “Word Up.” I love Eighties electro funk. I’ve been listening that for as long as I can remember. Even in Exodus, I remember Tom Hunting, Gary Holt, and I just fucking listening to AM radio, driving around in the car, and whenever some cool funk stuff would come up, we’d turn the radio up and then we’d turn it back down when some shitty pop song came on. That was what we did. That’s always stuck with me. And Rob [Trujillo] comes from that same sort of spot too, so the Wedding Band is really, it’s a celebration of the fucking music that inspired us from the Sixties, Seventies, and Eighties.
A photographer friend of mine said, “When you guys get into those funk jams for 10 minutes, you lose the audience.” I said to him, “Do you think I really fucking care?” You think Jimmy Page fucking cared when he was going into minute 29 of “Dazed and Confused” at Madison Square Garden with fucking 20,000 people or so watching him? He didn’t give a fuck. He was just trying to fucking figure out what the next great part was. And that’s what we’re like. That might be antiquated thinking in today’s sort of culture, but I don’t care.