It might be hard to believe, but earlier this year Metallica’s debut album Kill ‘Em All turned 30. Since its early days, the group has evolved from a collection of thrash-metal misfits into one of the biggest bands in the world, continuing to command sold-out venues while many of its genre brethren are left simply playing festivals or reunion tours. The group’s latest project is Metallica Through The Never.
Directed by Nimród Antal (Vacancy, Predators), the 3D IMAX film combines concert footage with a narrative storyline, following one of the band’s roadies as he travels through an urban hellscape of riot police and nightmare imagery. We had the opportunity to speak with Metallica lead guitarist Kirk Hammett about the making of the film, the evolving state of the music industry, and the band’s constant pursuit of the next creative challenge.
With Through The Never you’ve made this unique concert / narrative hybrid. Where did that concept come from?
It came from us. We knew that to make this thing different and unique we had to put a story in there, and concert films over the last 30, 40 years have become really formulaic. When I go see a concert film, I know exactly what I’m going to see. Concert footage, backstage stuff, an interview with the band, a little bit of history. I mean, it’s so predictable, and we thought, “Well, if we put a story into the footage, that’s something we haven’t really seen that much.”
Was the storyline something the band came up with?
"None of us wanted to make a science fiction movie." No, actually that was Nimród’s concept. When we put it out there that we were looking for directors and concepts, the ones we got back were few and far between. We got like five concepts to check out, and four out of five of them were science fiction! It was so strange. Here are science fiction concepts and Metallica together in the same sort of creative space, and it was really weird. It was pretty evident that none of us wanted to make a science fiction movie.
And then we heard Nimród’s, and Nimród’s concept was really great, I have to say. There were enough holes in the storyline for us to be able to collaborate and put our own little Metallica identity in. The concept itself is, I think, very Metallica. The protest concept, the rebellion, the anti-authoritarian sort of thing is in Nimród’s story, and we thought it was the right one and so we went for it.
The film goes for a subtle, immersive style of 3D. It would have been easy to go for something very gimmicky.
It definitely adds depth to the whole experience. It’s not so much, like, a drum stick’s about to whack you in the head as it is just giving the movie more depth. … We really wanted to break down the barriers between the band and the stage. We wanted to bring the viewer up on stage with us and experience the song as we experience it up on stage.
In the last few years the band’s been taking on a lot of interesting creative challenges. There’s the movie; a few years ago you you collaborated with Lou Reed on Lulu. Is stretching beyond straight rock albums an important part of staying engaged after all this time?
Well, it’s great because these are like extracurricular projects. They’re cool things for us to do, that we feel that we can totally get into and really make something really cool and different. And we know we’re late on this new album, and we probably would’ve been halfway through it if this whole movie thing didn’t come up. But for us, this is fun. It’s a new creative challenge for us. We like being challenged, we like going down new creative avenues in the name of Metallica.
Do fan reactions ever factor in when you’re deciding what to do next? With something like Lulu some people liked it, but there were definitely some long-term fans that complained.
"I think that 'Lulu' is some of the best stuff we’ve done."
No, because we’re doing it for ourselves, man. Lulu is a really good example. I think that Lulu is some of the best stuff we’ve done. I mean the song “Junior Dad” moves me to tears, and working with Lou Reed was such a cool, unique, and special thing for us. Maybe it’s not for everyone. Maybe it’s a challenge for our fans, but for us — Lars, James, Rob, and myself — we loved doing it and it was such a great experience. We look back at it very positively.
The music industry has changed dramatically since Metallica first broke out. Instead of albums and records stores, there are streaming services and digital sales, and the concept of the “big record deal” doesn’t really exist anymore. What do you say to younger bands coming up today who are looking for the best way forward?
"You can’t just make records and expect to sell them and live off that."
I’d say try to explore all those avenues and see what works best for what you’re trying to do. It’s ironic in that with the advent of this technology, making a living as a musician has kind of gone backwards. You can’t just make records and expect to sell them and live off that. If you really want to make a living making music, you have to go out there and play, and perform, which is just how it was 100 years ago! Musicians didn’t make any money off records, they went out and played and performed! And they made money by selling sheet music for like, 10 cents for a two-page spread of sheet music.
So in that way it’s ironic. Technology has given us convenience, but at the same time it’s making musicians work harder in that if you really want to make money making music and selling albums, you have to go out there and perform. And hope you sell stuff like merch, and get on YouTube, and all the other ancillary sort of things that go along with that.
"You have to go out there and perform."
But it’s just not how it used to be, and the way it was set up inspired a lot of people to go out there and really try their hardest to make an album that would sell a lot of copies. And in the wake of that came a lot of great art. Now that we’re in this situation, I’m sure there’s still a lot of great art being made out there, but it’s not the same. People don’t rally behind it, there isn’t a community behind it. How are people supposed to let other people really bond, how are people supposed to bond behind bands like they used to? It’s just not there. It’s all separate now, all in the name of convenience. That’s just the way it is.
Do you see a clear path forward that could change that, or is it just a matter of artists adapting to the current situation?
I don’t think it’s really our job to figure that out. Our job is just to make music. We’ve tried to figure out certain aspects of it, but at the end of the day, you know, it’s something that needs a lot of time. It’s work-intensive trying to solve problems like that, and we have other things that are more important that we should be doing, like making an album. Worrying about our art.
Speaking of the next record, what’s the current status?
We’re going to start working on it at the beginning of the year.
Will Rick Rubin be coming back to produce?
You know, we haven’t even really gotten that far [laughs].
Can you talk about some of the ideas you’re kicking around? The last album was billed as a return to the days of classic Metallica. Is the new material along those lines, or something completely different?
Like I said, it’s still too early to tell. What happens is we start playing and then see what appears, man. We see what unfolds. That’s how we’ve always done it, and we’ll just see what unfolds this time around.
Metallica Through the Never is now playing in IMAX 3D. It opens in regular theaters Friday, October 4th.