“It’s a no-brainer for me,” says Metallica guitarist Kirk Hammett when describing his band’s involvement with the new Guitar Hero: Metallica. “Our band is custom-fit for this game.”
He’s right. Some of the best songs on Guitar Hero or its rival, Rock Band, are the more technically challenging or progressive ones, which bodes well for Metallica’s fretboard gymnastics. The game, released at the end of March, takes tracks from the band’s nearly three-decade history, with special emphasis (of course) on fan favorites. Special for Guitar Hero: Metallica are a few tracks that use a second kick-drum pedal for the Guitar Hero World Tour drum set, adding an extra dose of realism to the game’s already-punishing expert level. The game’s release coincides with Metallica’s ascent to new heights of fame: Its 2008 album, Death Magnetic, was its fifth consecutive number-one debut on the Billboard charts (a new record), and it sold 1.2 million copies in only six weeks. (By comparison, no 2009 album has gone platinum yet.) Earlier this month, Metallica was inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame, just days after the release of Guitar Hero: Metallica and a career-spanning “digital box set” on iTunes. That’s a significant turnaround for a band that staged a very public, damaging (though not baseless) fight against Napster and illegal downloading less than a decade ago. These days, Metallica seems perfectly at home in the digital realm, even if it means wearing velour bodysuits. Just before Guitar Hero: Metallica’s release, The A.V. Club joined other journalists to talk to Kirk Hammett about that.
The A.V. Club: Theory holds that actual musicians are at a disadvantage with these games. Have you found that?
Kirk Hammett: This is true. This is definitely true. It’s a completely different thought process. [Laughs.]
AVC: That isn’t just an excuse?
KH: [Laughs.] It potentially can be, but it is a different thought process in that the whole execution of Guitar Hero is all, like, brought down to four little buttons and one little tweak right here…
AVC: Five buttons.
KH: Five buttons! [Laughs.] It’s hard for me to count past four. As opposed to hundreds of thousands of variations on your left hand and another hundred thousand variations on your right hand, it really is all brought down to these simple movements, and it’s super-cool. I really have to say, whoever came up with the concept, they really did a good job in terms of making it as simplistic as possible. It actually makes it really, really accessible and really, really fun.
AVC: Had you played it before?
KH: I had played it before. It’s weird. It’s more like reading music than it is really playing guitar, because you’re reading notations on the screen and you’re doing the corresponding fingering. Even though it’s completely different from the real deal, it’s very similar in that aspect.
AVC: How did the creation of the game work?
KH: First of all, they wanted to make it as accurate as possible, so we went through this whole process called MoCap, which is short for motion capture. They had us put on these velour body suits—a fashion statement it was. I was just very disappointed that it was not light blue. We had these velour suits with these balls that were Velcroed to arms, legs, and torso, and we had these glasses that had two balls on each side of the glasses. And these balls had sensors so that every time we made a movement, cameras would capture the sensors moving across space, and it would capture our actual motions while we lip-synched to the actual songs. They also did full body scans of us so they could get our features as accurate as possible. So what we did was, we lip-synched the songs as a band, all four of us in the center of this room with all these cameras all around us capturing the motions we would use while we were actually playing all these songs, and then they would just take it from there, build everything else from there.
AVC: How accurate is the game?
KH: It’s very, very accurate. When you watch it, it’s us playing the song. It’s Lars doing his whole theatrical drumming deal, it’s James with his swagger, it’s me with my weird sort of head-banging style, and it’s Rob with his particular heavy-handed approach. They did such an accurate job in just capturing the way we move and the way we move together as a group. It’s pretty impressive, I have to say. It’s more than just filming us, for sure.
AVC: Did you have any input as to how the tracks were dissected, like the fingering and stuff?
KH: No, that’s something the designers pretty much did. They’re the ones who said “We should make this part particularly difficult,” or particularly easy. That’s more their call than anything else.
AVC: Did you feel incapable at all playing Metallica on Guitar Hero?
KH: I played an Aerosmith song. [Laughs.] It was somewhat difficult, but I did get the feel of playing my guitar even though it was something really strange and it was such a different approach. I did get that feel, and that in itself is what makes Guitar Hero so popular.
AVC: How did you first hear about the game?
KH: I saw an advertisement in some rock magazine, some music magazine, then I started seeing the poster here and there, and I remember even seeing the poster in the studio when we were recording Death Magnetic. Friends of mine started talking about it and started telling me how much they actually loved the game, and how some songs were just like so fun to play, some of our songs were just so fun to play. So I had a grasp on the concept, and then one day Lars said, “Oh, my kids started playing Guitar Hero, and it’s the best thing in the world.” It all just unfolded from there.
AVC: What was your initial reaction? That little joystick guitar looks so dinky.
KH: Yeah, I’m like going, “What the hell is this simplified piece of… toy?” [Laughs.] But it makes sense. It totally works for what the game is trying to achieve.
AVC: Did you notice any spike in interest when Metallica songs were available on Guitar Hero or Rock Band?
KH: I love that aspect to it. I love the fact that this younger generation’s being exposed to a lot of great classic rock and classic metal they wouldn’t be exposed to otherwise—definitely not from the radio. A lot of kids’ tastes these days tend to go toward the pop realm more than anything else, and I think it’s a great musical education for them. I like to think it’s inspiring enough that maybe these kids will one day make the leap to actually buy a guitar and learn how to play. I was speaking to a friend of mine who works in a music store, and he said that guitar sales are actually up. They’ve spiked because of Guitar Hero and because of this newfound interest in guitars and that kind of music. So it’s pretty cool. I really like it. Guitar Hero could be the radio of the future. Who knows? We’ll see how it all unfolds.
AVC: Are you aware of the online petition to re-engineer Death Magnetic?
KH: Yes! A lot of people say the Guitar Hero mixes sound better than the CD. I haven’t really sat down and done much comparison, but our fans are always gonna find something they’re not totally satisfied with, and they’re going to pick it to pieces. That’s fine with me, because it tells me they want more from us. They just want more, and they’re going to do anything or say anything to get more.
AVC: Was hearing about the preference for the Guitar Hero mix another moment when you realized how much things have changed? People prefer this digital version that came through their game console over the physical product of the CD.
KH: It’s amazing. I don’t know how it happened, but it just happened, and now that’s the way it is. You really can’t fight it. I tell everyone once upon a time there was this thing called analog recording, and it sounded really, really great—it sounded much better than anything you hear these days. I really can’t understand how I could come to a point that I can say that CDs sound so much better than MP3s. There was a time when I would say “CDs sound like fucking crap compared to vinyl!” Now it’s come to a point where I’m saying CDs sound better than the newest format now. It’s just wacky.
AVC: Meanwhile, vinyl’s having a resurgence, while CDs are dying out.
KH: And thank God that they are, because I think vinyl needs to survive so people know better.
AVC: Does getting into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame make you feel like a dinosaur?
KH: It makes me think about vinyl records, because [to qualify for inclusion] 25 years have to have gone past since the release of your first album. So I feel a little like a dinosaur, but at the same time, the fact that it’s just been 25 years, it’s just been crazy. What I really enjoy about the fact that we’re being inducted is that we’re still a valid band; we’re still making music. A lot of bands that get inducted, they’re in the winter of their careers, so to speak. We’re actually still making music, we’re still on tour, and now we’re going into the hall of fame. It’s cool.