Kirk Hammett Talks About Metallica and Lou Reed’s ‘Lulu,’ Cliff Burton, and Not Playing Lead Guitar
Metallica and Lou Reed are releasing their collaborative album, Lulu, today. The album tells the tale of a girl, Lulu, who falls from her place in high society into prostitution and other questionable activities—she even has a run-in with Jack the Ripper. Reed took the concept from a pair of plays by 20th Century German playwright Frank Wedekind, and the music he and Metallica play is just as dramatic, full of plodding guitars, Reed’s spoken-word recitations, and lots of strings. Below, Kirk Hammett talks about how meeting Reed at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th anniversary concert led Metallica into making an album that forced them outside of their comfort zone. For more on the making of Lulu, check out the November/December issue of Revolver, available on newsstands everywhere and online here.
REVOLVER Was Lou Reed influential on Metallica, musically, prior to this?
KIRK HAMMETT That’s a very, very interesting question because the person who turned me onto the Velvet Underground was Cliff Burton. He would listen to the Velvet Underground. He started listening to the Velvet Underground on the Ride the Lightning tour, and him and I shared a room. So we would take turns playing DJ and throwing on various stuff. And he would always throw on the same stuff. He would always throw on Misfits [laughs], Lynyrd Skynyrd, the Velvet Underground, the Dictators, and Creedence Clearwater Revival. Having said that, I’ve always been a huge Velvet Underground fan, ever since Cliff turned me onto them.
You have to really, really understand the Velvet Underground in context to really truly appreciate what they did. They were writing songs, and Lou was writing lyrics that there was no precedent for that before them. To me, that earns the utmost respect, because you can almost say that about Metallica. Before us there was no precedent for what we did. In that regard, sure, a huge influence. They’re outsiders, the Velvet Underground, in much the same way Metallica were outsiders back then, and still to a certain extent are now. So come on [laughs] Lou is the original punk. He truly is the original punk. He explored that whole punk attitude. It’s in Metallica now, because we share a little bit of that punk ethic. We always did and we still kind of do now, I would say. Our fuck-it-all sort of attitude. [Laughs]
It’s interesting that, 25 years after his passing, Cliff is still affecting what you do.
You know, you’re absolutely right. I actually never gave it that much thought or looked at it like that. But yeah, he still is affecting us and he is still having an influence over us, which is pretty amazing.
Lou Reed is known for being…difficult. Were you nervous about working with him?
Yeah, because he has a reputation for being a grouchy kind of guy, but he couldn’t be a nicer kind of fellow. It’s really remarkable because he has a really similar attitudes about things that we do. He has a bit of sarcasm to his personality, which is exactly how we function. We function on sarcasm. [Laughs] I was just with Lou, like, 15 minutes ago and I said, “Lou, you’re one of us. Are we one of you?” And it’s just one of those situations where it’s incredible how well we get on. We get on that well musically and it’s just amazing to me.
When did you feel a connection with him?
Once we started playing, he was just like, “Oh, my God. This is great! This is what I’ve wanted to hear all my life.” He was just basically saying that the day we rehearsed with him for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. And that’s what led to, “Oh, we should make an album.” And we all kind of unanimously agreed: Yes, we should make an album. And that’s pretty much how things started. It was really actually very cool.
How did the Lulu concept come up?
Originally, we were supposed to cover some of his songs, maybe some of the more well-known songs as well as some of the more unknown songs in his catalog. But then he got this idea to present these lyrics to the Lulu plays that he wrote and pretty much present the lyrics to us and say, let’s do something around this. Let’s write some music around this. And basically that’s what we did and it turned out really well. The lyrical content was pretty heavy, but very cool nonetheless. And it didn’t even take that long, which was amazing for me. We were thinking it was going to take two or three weeks, but really took only about a week. Maybe a week and a half. Totally not as long as we expected it to.
How did you change the music from Lou’s demos?
They were really loose-knit. The demos basically were… Most of the lyrics were there, I would say 95 percent of the lyrics were there. But then you would have a few chords underneath the lyrics, or he would have a very definitive sort of melody that ran through the song. A melody that went over those chords and basically we took what was there and just kind of riffed on it and just made it grow and turned it into something else. It was really very easy, just because it was. [Laughs]
At what point did the wall come down in regard to working with him?
He was very comfortable with us. He was very honest. And us as a band, we totally respect honesty. We totally respect all the things that come along with building a musical relationship, and he totally trusted us musically. It was an amazing sort of situation that we’re still blown away at how good it turned out. All five of us. It’s just one of those things, bro. Just one of those things.
What did you do that was adventurous in the studio?
For me, the one huge thing was that Lou Reed doesn’t like guitar solos, and I’m a lead guitar player. I had to come up with a totally different approach, so I played a lot of synth guitar, a lot of Moog guitar. And I played a lot of eBow, electronic bow on my guitar. I took it from that approach and it worked out brilliantly because we were coming up with sounds and textures that fit the overall mood of the lyrics and the songs. And basically what we were trying to achieve. And Lars did a lot of totally experimental drum stuff. James was really, really happy about the fact that he didn’t have to write a ton of lyrics and sang every word to every song. Rob was just totally into it. He was totally and completely into it. It was a very cool situation for us and it felt very, very comfortable. It was very cool.
Lou is a great guitarist. What was it like for you to play with him?
He is absolutely a great rhythm guitar player. He has a very, very unique sound. he’s very into his guitar gear. I was shocked at how into it he was. He pored over every little nuance in his guitar sound and put a lot of time into making sure that his guitar sound was the way that he wanted it to sound. I was very impressed by that and I was very impressed by his overall guitar sound. To the point I was thinking, Wow, I have to check some of this stuff out because it’s really tremendously great. He was just phenomenal. What can I say?
Did you discover any new things about the band or yourself in this process?
Yeah, it showed me that we could still be truly spontaneous and in the moment. We wrote the songs right there on the spot, and the entire time I thought we were just coming up with some rough, basic tracks. But they sounded so good and Lou was so bent on using that and using those particular takes on the album that all we truly could say was, “Sure, we are capturing a moment, and it really is truly, truly spontaneous.” We haven’t been spontaneous like that for years and years and years, probably since the ’80s. [Laughs] To actually see that we were still capable of something like that this far into our career is very cool. Truly very cool.
I think it’s one of the best things we’ve ever done. I say that from a pure musical standpoint. I’m not saying that from a heavy metal fan’s point of view. I love it. I can’t say enough about how great I think it is.
How would you describe the music you’ve recorded?
That’s a really, really hard one. All of us were pretty much out of our element. [Laughs] We were all out of our comfort zone, and because of that, we came up with stuff we normally wouldn’t come up with. The heavier songs are just super different and loose but heavy. The more ballady songs were very, very—I don’t even know how to describe it. There’s a lot of strings. There’s a complete string section on most of the songs. It’s just something that’s completely different from anything any of us have done. And the fact that there are strings on a lot of it brings it to a different place completely. “Junior Dad” is 19 minutes long. And a lot of the reason why it’s so long is because of the strings. There’s a complete string section that we used as an outro and it works really well.
You’ve said in other interviews how emotional “Junior Dad” was for you. Why is that?
I had lost my father about three weeks previous. It’s one thing when you work on a song, you work on the chords, you work on the music, you have a certain emotional attachment, but it becomes next level when you become exposed to the lyrics and you’re exposed to the actual subject matter of the song. That song, I don’t really want to pinpoint exactly what the song is about, because it’s one of those songs that could mean a million different things to a million different people, but what it really meant to me, it had everything to do with the fact that my relationship with my father was just kind of, you know, very emotional. And that’s really what hit it. It pretty much touched up on my own relationship with my own father. It’s a hard one for me to talk about. Even now, bro.
Having worked together now, what does Lou think about Metallica now?
I get the feeling that when we got together with him at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, that was his very first experience with us. From what I could gather, he loved what he heard right off the bat. He became a tried and true believer—not so much a fan—but a believer in us. We’re definitely kindred spirits. In our approach, in our attitude, in the way we believe things should be done. It truly is amazing because, like I said, he was not really a fan…ever, I think. Maybe not even now! But he totally believes in us a hundred percent.
Are you worried at all about how Metallica fans will receive the album?
It was a creative journey that we needed to embark on for ourselves, and I would say that it’s not for everyone. It definitely is not for everyone. If you can tune into it, I would say that that’s a great thing. But if you can’t really relate to it, that’s fine, too, because it really isn’t for everyone. I would venture to say that some Metallica fans would love it and I would venture to say that some Metallica fans would hate it. And I’m not trying to be safe or anything like that or trite, but that is how I truly feel. This was not a very accessible album. It’s artsy in a lot of different ways, but it’s something that we wanted to pursue creatively. And it’s something that we wanted to see where it would go, where we could take it. And it’s largely an artistic endeavor for ourselves, and we’re just inviting everyone else along for the party. Truly, that’s what it is.
Do you have anything else you want to say about Lulu?
I would just say that it’s something that most people won’t be expecting from us. All I have to say is don’t judge it by heavy-metal standards and maybe you’ll understand it a little better. [Laughs]
Black-and-white photo by Anton Corbijn