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Kirk Hammett: “I was sitting on the toilet when I got the call to join Metallica”

(Image credit: Ross Marino/Icon and Image/Getty Images)

Before he joined Metallica, Kirk Hammett was the co-founding guitarist with Exodus - the thrash pioneers who did more than anyone to kick-start the Bay Area scene. Hammett’s sole recorded appearance with the band was on a three-demo 1982 demo, before he was poached by James Hetfeld and Lars Ulrich at the start of the following year to replace the recently-fired Dave Mustaine. In this previously unpublished interview from 2014, Kirk looks back on his time with Exodus, the birth of thrash and just how he ended up joining the group who would become the world’s biggest metal band

What are your memories of starting Exodus?

As a kid growing up in the late 70s, I was just looking for the hardest thing I could find. I was way into UFO and Judas Priest and Thin Lizzy, and I had recently discovered the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal and this stuff that was going on in Europe. I gravitated to it. I started playing those songs, and my guitar style started to incorporate facets of what all those bands were doing.

And so when I formed Exodus and I started jamming with Tom Hunting, I turned him onto all these bands and said, ‘This is what we’ve got to do – we’ve got to do something like this.’ I don’t know if you know Tom Hunting, but he’s a very high-strung person. He’s always shaking, or tapping on something, or hitting something. And when he plays drums, he’s kind of that way too. Whenever we’d play a song in the beginning, it started a certain tempo, but three or fours weeks later, it would be twice as fast. And so when we started writing songs, that’s why the beats per minute were up there – because Tom Hunting had a lot of nervous energy. A lot like Lars.

We were just trying to find our sound. I remember months in and months out, in Gary’s [Holt, guitarist] garage, playing cover songs, trying to write songs that were as good as the songs we were covering, and just finding ourselves through our instruments and our music and just playing together.

For me, that was a really golden time. We were all very naïve and we weren’t jaded at all. We were open to a lot of the bands we were hearing for the first time. We had a vision. And then Metallica came along, and it looked like they’d been at it for a good six or eight months longer than we had been at it, and had all these similar influences.

When did you first hear Metallica?

I’d seen a flyer. [Exodus singer] Paul Baloff had seen them at their first show ever in the Bay Area, I forget where it was. He said, ‘They’re so warring, we have to go see them.’ And then actually got on the bill to play with them. We opened the show, and they came on and just blew the roof off. And then a local band, Laaz Rockit, came on, and everyone just left.

What were your first impressions of them?

I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again, but I thought, ‘These guys are great, but they’d be so much better with me.’ Around that time, Exodus were going through some personnel changes. We just got rid of the previous bass player, and brought another bass player in, and it was a different dynamic within the band. We weren’t rehearsing for some reason or another – I don’t know, maybe Paul Baloff was off doing something. We were kind of going through a hiatus when I joined Metallica.

Where were you when you get the phone call to join Metallica.

It was April 1st, April Fool’s Day, and I was sitting on the toilet. I got the call from [Metallica sound engineer] Mark Whittaker, and after I hung up, I was like, ‘I can’t believe I just got that phone call. Was that an April Fool’s Day prank?’ A couple of days later I got this tape from them, but I already had the demo and I already knew two thirds of the songs on there.

I told the guys in Exodus and they were pissed. They were pissed. I remember Paul Baloff was so pissed that he poured a beer over my head. He said, ‘[angry-hurt voice] I can’t believe you’re doing this Kirk’, then poured his beer over my head. I just took it, ‘Yeah, yeah, I know…’ 

Did you feel guilty about leaving a band you’d started?

Oh yeah. But, y’know, I also left a lot of music with those guys. A lot of the music I wrote ended up on that first album [1985’s Bonded By Blood], and they recorded some other songs that never made it. I never said anything because of the way I left them. I always had guilty feelings about that. Well, not any more…

Paul Baloff was one of the great thrash frontmen. But what was he really like?

He was totally insane. First of all, he was a bit of a troll. He was about 5’5”, and he had this stringy mountain of hair that went down his back. He was a bit older than the rest of us – he took authority whenever we were all hanging out, just doing whatever.

He was super-funny, super-witty, super-creative, a very intelligent guy. And he was very opinionated. He did not mince words with anyone. If we were all standing around and someone walked up who was wearing a funny pink shirt, he’d say, ‘What’s with the pink shirt? Off with the pink shirt now!’ And he’d grab it and try to tear it off the person. ‘Come on – no pink shirt!’ The way he did it, it wasn’t so much confrontational as hilarious. He always did it with tongue firmly implanted in cheek. It was infectious. I’d find myself reaching for the person and helping Baloff rip off the pink shirt.

His whole thing was that he’d walk out onstage with Exodus and look out and go, ‘Okay, where are the posers? Posers must die!’ If there weren’t any posers, he’d point his finger at some helpless fucking audience member who looked like a perfect victim and go, ‘There’s one!’

 Did you listen to any of the albums Exodus recorded after you left?

Oh, absolutely. Bonded By Blood encapsulates such a moment in time for me. That’s the one. I like [1987’s] Pleasures Of The Flesh as well.

Why do think they were never as big as they should have been?

Their drug problems, their record company problems… I think when they did have some momentum built up, there was a bit of a lag in between albums releases, so they couldn’t pick up on that momentum again. There was a point where they didn’t put out an album for a few years, and I think that was detrimental to their career.

Having said that, I think they’re an increiible band. Gary is an amazing guitar player, Tom [Hunting] is an amazing drummer… I can go on and on about how great Exodus are, and I’m really glad that they have some momentum going again. I just think that it’s so great that Gary went to fill in for Jeff [Hanneman] when Slayer needed a guitar player. I remember going up to Kerry  Knigand saying, ‘Man, that’s so great that you got Gary.’ Kerry just turned to me and said, ‘You know, he’s the only one of us that didn’t make it.’ I just thought, ‘Man, you are so right on.’ I love that man Gary Holt.

Do you ever wonder what your life would have been like if you’d stayed with Exodus?

There wouldn’t have been two or three years between albums. And there wouldn’t have been quite the drug problem that they experienced. I’m not saying I’m an angel, but some times I pull back.