The last time Metallica was in town they were part of the inaugural My Coke Fest (and all the various names that festival went through over the years), that saw them play the logistically disastrous Centurion Cricket Ground, a cold and rain-drenched ABSA Park in Durban and one of the last big gigs at the old Green Point Stadium in Cape Town. All of this was back in 2006.
Back then the band promised to be back and seven years later they’ve made good on their promise and then some. Speculation over why the venue in Cape Town was changed shortly before the show aside, the band returned and blew audiences away with a number of intense, fast-paced shows that left everyone in utter awe that a band that’s been around for such a long time still has the energy to perform with such intensity.
During a recent interview, guitarist Kirk Hammett revealed how the band constantly tries to keep their shows fresh and interesting by mixing up set lists, rearranging songs slightly, altering solos, adding little things here and there. Mixing things up a bit isn’t just there to keep their live shows interesting for the audience, but also for the band themselves. Apart from bassist Rob Trujillo, who joined the band in 2003, the guys have been playing together for almost 30 years and therefore run the risk of getting bored playing the same material over and over. While Metallica is fortunate to have a vast catalogue of material to choose from, there is only so much they can squeeze into a two-hour performance.
Late last year the band formed their own record label called Blackened Recordings and proceeded to acquire the rights to all of their recordings, giving them full creative control. Not that they had been hamstrung in that department, as one so often hears of bands whose creativity suffers from heavy interference by the label they’ve signed to. Starting small in the ’80s, Metallica built a sizeable fanbase before signing to a major label which gave them some clout in terms of creativity from the start. Being one of the genre-defining leaders in the burgeoning thrash-metal scene in California also helped at keeping the label claws off their music. Over the years their fanbase has grown into an army of devout followers, almost guaranteeing sales and further helping to keep control firmly in their grasp.
Having full control over their material doesn’t come without its challenges since dealing with the business side of things now fall squarely in their laps – right when work has started on their brand new album. The traditional record company system has worked well for Metallica and Hammett feels it is still the best way to market and distribute an album, even though he says they’ve seen album sales drop by as much as 75 percent over the years (mainly) due to music piracy and the shrinking portion of income legal digital downloads generates.
Speaking to Hammett one realises that Metallica has been very fortunate in having such a loyal following of fans. This is band who positively benefited from the old record company model, when album sales ruled and tours were part of the promotional process. In some respect they’re old men who only know a system (or business model if you will) that is becoming less relevant every day, their well-known tussle with Napster serving as a stark reminder of this. In a way, they’ve been lucky. The system never really screwed them, they were at the right place at the right time, making the right kind of noise (literally) and part of Metallica’s genius lies in their ability to have kept fans coming back for more for almost three decades, even with their sound remaining largely unchanged.
This genius was on display at their recent shows in South Africa, where they had audiences hanging on every angry note. They are masters of their craft, pouring everything into every show in a way bands rarely do these days.
For all the power Metallica wield as a band over their fans, their hardcore image and angry, heavy music, as individuals they are some of the nicest guys you are likely to meet and Kirk Hammett speaks candidly and with humility about the band he’s given his life to, about the fans and about surfing. It’s widely known that he’s a keen surfer and we speak at length about his bucket list of waves he’d still like to surf, having already ticked many of the waves most surfers can only dream of surfing off the list.
Living so close to the infamous Mavericks – a notoriously vicious break near San Francisco that is on par with the giant waves of Hawaii’s North Shore – he has considered surfing this angry monster, but feels his physical condition won’t allow him the opportunity. His approach to surfing seems to be in line with his approach to playing the guitar; meticulous, practiced and always up for a challenge.
Before the interview winds down the topic of supergroups and collaborations come up. A talented and experienced guitarist such as Kirk Hammett has undoubtedly had numerous opportunities to play with some of rock’s greatest musicians, but in an attitude that seems to sit at the heart of Metallica’s overall psyche, he’s defiant:
“I already play with the world’s best rhythm guitarist, the world’s best drummer and the world’s best bassist – I get to play in a super group every day of my life, why would I want to play with anyone else?”