“People enjoy talking sh*t”: Metallica's Kirk Hammett defends "Lulu," the band's daring and notorious Lou Reed album

The guitarist opens up about creating one of rock and roll's most surprising and ridiculed partnerships

Published February 7, 2015 10:30PM (EST)

Lou Reed, Kirk Hammett       (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/AP/Abraham Caro Marin)
Lou Reed, Kirk Hammett (Reuters/Jessica Rinaldi/AP/Abraham Caro Marin)

“Lulu,” the concept album collaboration between Lou Reed and Metallica, is a bold, daring and powerful musical explosion of literary aggression. It pushes the listener’s mind and body up against a wall and forces a confrontation with the dark machinery of destruction often at work in the corners of the human soul. It’s too bad that most people think it’s a joke.

Prior to the album’s 2011 release, “Lulu” was widely derided as an impending embarrassment, heralded as the low point of the collaborators’ careers. Before anyone heard a note of the collaboration, the Internet masses were preparing to hate it. In order to protect their acumen and fulfill their own prophecy, even after they listened, they stood by their hate.

With Lou Reed set for a well-deserved, posthumous induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist, the moment has arrived to newly and fairly evaluate “Lulu,” which, due to Reed’s death, will forever stand as his last original release.

In the oeuvre of both Reed and Metallica, “Lulu” emerges now as a strong piece of poetic theater-meets-metal. Metallica took on the new role of foot soldiers rather than commanders, using their ballistic firepower to carry out the orders of their artistic general. Reed based his lyrical narrative on two plays written by German playwright Frank Wedekind. The plays and the album tell the story of a small-town girl who enters the sexual underworld of Germany and reacts to her exploitation by eventually killing her clients. Its musical roots lie with an acoustic demo Reed recorded before Metallica transformed the songs into the ugly beauty of hard rock.

One of the greatest practitioners of that ugly beauty, and one of the most recognizable guitar legends of modern music, is Metallica’s lead guitarist Kirk Hammett. I first discussed “Lulu” with Hammett when I interviewed him about the Metallica classic “The Black Album” for my upcoming 33 1/3 book on the record. I learned that Hammett is particularly proud of “Lulu, “and we recently had a conversation about the album, the initial reaction to it and its legacy.

David Masciotra: How did Lou Reed propose making an album together, and what was your reaction to the idea?

Kirk Hammett: I thought it was a marvelous idea and a marvelous opportunity to work with someone who was one of the great artists of the last century. We (Metallica) were in the mood and mindset to do something different. The door opened when we performed with Lou at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concert. When we went into rehearsals to play at the show, we jammed on “Sweet Jane” and “White Light/White Heat.” He had some initial complaints -- that we were too loud for him, and just that there was no way he could compete with that. So, we turned down and started playing the songs again, and it clicked right away. He actually started shouting, “Fantastic! This is what I’ve been waiting to hear all my life.” He was making a statement that we were fulfilling something with his music, inside of him, that he had been searching for. If you think about his experiments with sound and noise, and his attempts to be provocative and confrontational with sound, maybe upon hearing us play with him, on his songs, it struck a chord with him somewhere deep in his mind. Of course, that’s what I like to think, but there is evidence that makes me think that.

Right after those rehearsals he said, “We need to make an album together.” All of us agreed, and when we started to talk about it, we were uncertain how we would meet in the studio. Would we write songs together? Would we jam on his songs or ours? Then, one day, we got a call that Lou had written the words and acoustic music to this story named “Lulu,” and he asked if we would help him reinterpret the songs, sonically.

What did you think of the concept?

I thought it was great, intense. When we researched the storyline and the history of the play, we fell in love with the project. It was unique and unlike anything we had done up until that point, which made it exciting. "Lulu" is set in Germany in the 1920s, and there were some really cool and interesting things happening in horror cinema at that time. That helped attract me to it, and made it more exciting. The whole concept of the prostitute killing her clients was provocative, especially for the time, and we recognized the potential that, with its story and music, it could be a really special album.

How did you feel about Metallica taking on a supportive role in the creative process, which was something entirely new for all of you? Even with your respect and admiration for Lou Reed, I would imagine that it was an adjustment leaving the driver’s seat and not writing the songs.

It was a great challenge for us on many different levels. To be in the studio with a personality like Lou Reed, and making that work with the collective personality of the four of us as a band -- that would seem like a huge ego wall to scale, but amazingly, we were all able to put our egos aside, I think, because we were so committed to the concept of it, and so excited to be making music together. It certainly was a challenge for us to work in that situation, with less control, but it was also a challenge in changing the way we record. We are used to refining our sound over the course of weeks, months, sometimes years. Whereas Lou was all about first takes and capturing the moment, not thinking about it too much. He saw going back and using computers, Pro Tools and overdubbing as cheating.

It gave us an opportunity to remain open, and open ourselves to seeing where the creativity led us. Lou had the reputation of being the crankiest artist of music, but with us, he was really funny, friendly and open. I saw a warm and loving person. I’m glad we were open enough to let things happen.

During the recording process, your role as lead guitarist also changed. You were more in the business of adding your texture and flavor where you could.

When Lou showed up to the studio, he had a lot of gear -- a lot of new technology that we had never used before. He actually turned me on to the Moog guitar, which is a guitar that you can get Moog synthesizer-like sounds out of it. You can get a whole myriad of sounds out of it. I ended playing a lot of that. If you listen to “Little Dog,” Lou is strumming, James (Hetfield) is doing chordal stuff and I’m adding atmosphere with the Moog guitar. I did that with “Junior Dad.” I added some texture to “Bradenburg Gate.”

I laid down a guitar solo I really like on “The View,” and that’s interesting because Lou was notorious for his prejudice against guitar heroes and guitar solos in general. I actually wrote him a letter explaining to him why I believed strongly that there was a need for a solo in “The View.” So, I sent it to him in email, and it was a weird experience, because there was a lot of nail biting while I waited for a reply, and his reply was, “Love it. Fine. No problem.”

Weren’t there other surprises in the recording process?

Well, besides that solo, when I got ideas in the moment, I had to capitalize on it, because you have to understand that when we thought we were just fleshing out the songs and getting familiar with them, in Lou’s mind (and we did not know this at the time), those were the takes. We thought we were just jamming, and Lou conveniently did not tell us this, until we did all the takes. I thought we would play the songs 50 times. There was none of that at all. That’s not the Lou Reed way, and it taught me that it is sometimes good to just record in the moment, and have the consciousness to enjoy and create in the moment, rather than thinking about what you are going to do.

When he said, “Those are the final takes,” all of us in Metallica had a moment of confusion. We were shocked, but it worked out.

I love it, and I listened to again to prepare for the interview, and I was just blown away by it. It is about being open. If you don’t open yourself to it, or if you are unable to accept it for what it is, I can see how a person can feel overwhelmed and challenged by it. People should listen to it without attaching their expectations with the Metallica name to it. If you are open to it, it really is a musical journey. All the tracks are so unlike the others. For example, “Pumping Blood,” which is like speed metal, just comes out of nowhere in the context of the record.

It was unrealistic for people to expect a typical Metallica album with Lou Reed singing lyrics. If more people would have allowed themselves to experience it for what it is, the album would have been better recognized.

Well, many people started ridiculing the album before they even heard a second of it. What do you think that was about? Why did this firestorm of hostility toward it begin before you even released one note of it?

It started with prejudice. Many people judged it before they even gave it a chance to come across honestly. It was a prejudice toward anything that might sound different and out of step with their expectations. A lot of it was that the concept did not look good to people on paper. Seeing “Lou Reed” and “Metallica” in the same sentence, for some reason, provoked a lot of emotion in people, and they got hostile. A lot of it, too, was probably trolling, because on the Internet people enjoy talking shit about something new every day. I don’t think the album was given a fair shake, but like a lot of Lou’s music, maybe it will get another chance.

For Metallica, it is a landmark achievement. It is something we will always hold as a feather in our collective cap. It was huge success, creatively.

It was a success for Lou Reed too, because throughout his career one of his ongoing projects was to take literary and poetic songs and put them in a rock and roll or hard rock structure, and make that marriage work.

He told me personally that he wanted to be the Charles Baudelaire of rock and roll. He wanted to elevate rock music to a literary level of respect. In my judgment, he did. He was active until the end, and doing great work until the end. I’m grateful for my time with him.

Do you think that the Internet enhances people’s conformity and close-mindedness?

Many of the people who hated “Lulu” before they even heard it were just being sheep on the Internet. A byproduct of the Internet is that it helps polarize issues. Internet culture, and social media, contributes to the polarization of our politics. There’s always been people disagreeing for the right reasons and wrong reasons, but now we see the polarization happen instantly. On the other hand, people will say that Internet culture is bringing people together; but I wonder, is it bringing people together, or just making it more convenient to communicate? There’s a big difference.

“Lulu” was a victim of the conformity that comes with that instant polarization. People were jumping on the bandwagon, because they wanted to agree with the 400 thousand people who had already said they hated it.

It is clear that you have strong feelings on the subject…

Well, the emotions are complicated, because it is not just Metallica. It is Lou Reed. He’s no longer here. So, I feel more protective of it.

By David Masciotra

David Masciotra is the author of "Mellencamp: American Troubadour" (University Press of Kentucky) and the forthcoming "Barack Obama: Invisible Man" (Eyewear Publishing).

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