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24 Hours in New York with Metallica

The metal icons gather to discuss their 10th studio album, plus the past, present and future, and what they’ve lost along the way.

The metal icons gather to discuss their 10th studio album, plus the past, present and future, and what they've lost along the way.

The long-haired twentysomething walking forlornly along the queue outside New York City’s Webster Hall holds in his hands a sign: “I need a miracle”. He is but one in a parade of punters combing the queue for anyone who might have in their possession a spare ticket to tonight’s fan-club-only show by Metallica, the tickets to which were solely available through the band’s website at a cost of $25, with all proceeds going to City Harvest, which rescues food for New York’s hungry. To borrow a line from the quartet’s recent single “Hardwired“, however, tonight that guy is shit outta luck – as the queue starts to snake its way through the doors of the venue, where security guards wave metal detectors and reserve the right to frisk, he can be seen skulking off, ticketless, into the distance. (He was always up against it – not even the offer of $400 from another punter could convince anyone to part with their ticket.)

Metallica have been in town for the past eight days to kick start promotional duties for their 10th album, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. Yesterday they started the working week on Howard Stern’s radio show, and the hours before and since have been spent parading in front of journalists, attending to photo shoots, performing at the Global Citizen festival in Central Park, filming videos and doing whatever else is needed to feed the Metallica promotional machine. Their duties will end in a few nights’ time with an appearance on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon, after which each member will return to their respective homes – Colorado for frontman James Hetfield, San Francisco’s Bay Area for drummer Lars Ulrich, Los Angeles for bassist Robert Trujillo and Honolulu for guitarist Kirk Hammett. But right now, on this relatively warm Tuesday evening in New York City’s East Village, their focus is solely on the fans pouring into this 1200-capacity venue, which, when Trujillo last played here in 1989 as a member of LA crossover punks Suicidal Tendencies, was called The Ritz.

Inside, the band’s advertised 8pm stage time comes and goes, as punters nod their heads to the sounds pumping out of the PA – Disturbed, Stone Sour and Slipknot; hell, there’s even a Megadeth song in the mix – neck $10 beers and check out the new line of merch (popular item: a black shirt with the words ‘We’re So Fucked’ in bold yellow on the front, and ‘Shit Out Of Luck’ in white on the back, a nod to the apocalyptic lyrics of “Hardwired”). As each song ends, yelps of excitement fill the air, followed quickly by disappointment as another song blares out of the PA.

At 8.45pm, Metallica catch everyone off guard by simply ambling onstage, one of the rare occasions their presence isn’t announced by their traditional intro music, Ennio Morricone’s “The Ecstasy Of Gold”. They detonate with a cover of “Breadfan” by Welsh rockers Budgie and, as you’d expect of a band at home in venues 50 times this size, convert the room into a mass of flailing bodies. In the upstairs balcony, VIP guests such as filmmaker Morgan Spurlock, DJ Eddie Trunk, former Anthrax (and now Volbeat) guitarist Rob Caggiano and Metal Blade supremo Brian Slagel (the first man to ever release a note of Metallica music via the 1982 compilation Metal Massacre) survey the madness, as for 100 minutes the band romp through a set that leans heavily on classics such as “Master Of Puppets“, “Harvester Of Sorrow”, “Enter Sandman”, “Fade To Black”, “One” and “Sad But True”, but sees them debut new single “Moth Into Flame” live for the first time ever. That the hard-thrashing “Hardwired” is greeted like an old favourite speaks volumes about the feeling in the room.

As the show comes to an end and each member takes a turn to address the audience, a heavy NYPD presence gathers outside, suggesting trouble is afoot. The prevailing mood as fans spill out onto East 11th Street is, however, one of joy. Joe Burns, a 40-year-old fan from Philadelphia in a black Slayer shirt, estimates he’s seen Metallica “over 100 times”, but still regards tonight’s performance as “mind- blowing”. (“It was high energy, start to finish. The new songs are thrash as hell!”) A fan since he was “a kid”, he puts his loyalty down to one thing: “They took my soul,” he smiles, “and they still have it.”

At one o’clock the following afternoon, Lars Ulrich, 52, is pacing around an upstairs room at Electric Lady Studios. Located on a leafy street in Greenwich Village, its plain glass doors offer little indication of the treasure trove of rock & roll history contained within. At the base of the stairs leading to Studio A, the wall is lined with framed covers of a selection of the albums recorded here: AC/DC’s Back In Black; Kiss’s Destroyer; Patti Smith’s Horses; David Bowie’s Young Americans; the Clash’s Combat Rock; Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book. Later in the afternoon, someone will put Jimi Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland on the turntable in the lounge area – the guitarist founded the studio in 1970 – and Trujillo will spend minutes staring longingly at the record’s cover. If these walls could talk, they would surely sing.

This time yesterday Ulrich was addressing a group of 40 journalists in Studio A, who were about to be played Hardwired… To Self-Destruct in full. “I think there’s more people in this room hearing it [now] than have heard it to this point,” he offered, bouncing into the room and immediately ingratiating himself by shaking hands and conducting a snap poll of where each journalist is from.

The album was, he explains, finished 13 days ago, “so it’s freshly baked”, but beyond the most basic details – it was recorded by producer Greg Fidelman, who engineered 2008’s Death Magnetic and has been working with the band ever since; it was recorded solely at the band’s HQ in San Francisco – that’s about all he really wants to impart, looking to co-manager Peter Mensch and asking, “Is there anything else I should say?” He faces the journalists again. “I feel as awkward as you,” he laughs. He motions to leave, but stands at the back of the room as the playback begins. “I wanna know how it sounds,” he says, before commanding, “Turn it up!”

If Ulrich was a ball of energy yesterday, today he is slightly – only slightly – more reserved. He was out until 3am this morning, celebrating and pressing the flesh after the Webster Hall show and, to be honest, looks like it. Dressed in a black V-neck shirt, blue jeans, white ankle socks (his sneakers lie discarded nearby) and a black cap, a toothpick protruding from the corner of his mouth, it is, he says, sipping from a can of Perrier mineral water, an exciting period. “We don’t exactly put records out every six months, so when you do put a record out, the difference now is when people tell you how awesome the record is, or how awesome the show is, you actually pause long enough to take it in,” he says. “And I don’t remember doing that a lot in my twenties. We put a lot of work and effort and time into this record, and the fact people are digging it is really cool. You never know, especially anymore, ’cause it’s such an unpredictable, wild west atmosphere in the music world now. So the fact that people are responding to this and kind of embracing it is cool.”

“My relationship with Lars, we’ve been friends for a long time,” says Hetfield. “We hate each other, we love each other, but at the end of the day we realise, this works.”

Ulrich is one of those rare entities – a drummer whose profile is equal to that of the frontman. It was he who co-founded the band with James Hetfield in Los Angeles in 1981 after placing a ‘musicians wanted’ ad in local paper the Recycler, and it is he who Trujillo will at one point today refer to as “the boss”.

In the summer of 2014, Ulrich was handed an iPod that had “1500 or 1600 ideas on it”, a byproduct of the fact that every note Metallica play is recorded, be it in sound- check or in the ‘Tuning Room’ backstage where they warm up before a show. He spent the better part of that summer systematically listening to the riffs, most of which had emanated from Hetfield’s guitar, earmarking 50 he thought worthy of a new Metallica album. He likens the band’s songwriting process to “landing planes – move this [riff] over here, move this one over here. It’s an unusual way of doing it, but that’s our way of doing it.”

Do you ever worry that, while wading through all those ideas, you’ve missed something amazing?

“I always worry that I’ve missed something amazing!” he splutters. “But what I increasingly hang my hat on is there is such a wealth of material that even if I miss something amazing, there’s something else amazing right next to it. James Hetfield is so unbelievably prolific.”

“I’ll just keep writing, whether we do an album or not,” says Hetfield, 53, a few hours later, sipping a cup of tea in the lounge area connected to Studio A. “OK, now I’ve got 5,000 riffs. But who cares? Is any of that good? Is any of that relevant? That’s the most important question, I think. But Lars is very adamant about documenting everything. He’s like our secretary, man,” cackles the singer. “He writes down everything, and when I’m warming up, listening to the sound [of the guitar] he’s like, ‘Hey! What was that? You recorded that, right? That’s going to be a great riff!’ Oh my god, where does this end?! [He’s] a hoarder! [He’s] a riff hoarder!”

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Ulrich (left) and Hetfield (right) with bassist Cliff Burton in 1984. 2016 marks 30 years since Burton was killed while on tour in Sweden.

For Hetfield, the path to Hardwired… To Self-Destruct began in earnest after the “Lords of Summer” single was released in 2014 to accompany their ‘Metallica By Request’ tour of South America and Europe. “It was like, ‘Hey, we can write a song. We haven’t forgotten, and this feels good to play a new song, let’s get in there and continue that.'”

That the realisation they could still write a song sounds like something of a revelation is in part due to the fact that in the years since wrapping up their Death Magnetic world tour in Melbourne in late- 2010, Metallica seemed to do anything they could to avoid writing a new record. In 2011 they collaborated with Lou Reed on the much-maligned Lulu; in 2012 they founded their own festival, Orion Music + More, which was shelved after 2013’s event for financial reasons; in 2012 they founded their own record label, Blackened Recordings, on which Hardwired… To Self-Destruct will be released, and through which they began their campaign of re-releases earlier this year with lavish reissues of 1983’s Kill ‘Em All and 1984’s Ride the Lightning; in 2013 they became the first band in the world to perform on every continent after playing a gig in Antarctica; and in the same year they released a movie, Through the Never, which was part concert film, part fictional drama, and all financial disaster.

Through the Never was a wild journey that obviously cost a lot of money, and we took a little bit of a beating in that whole experience,” says Trujillo, 51, reclining on a couch in Studio C in a Thrasher shirt, blue denim jacket, black Cons and black jeans. He speaks with a So-Cal drawl, his eyes darting around the room, only meeting yours when he arrives at the conclusion of his point. “But I believe that with Metallica you take chances, and sometimes you’re humbled by the chances you take, and you bounce back. And in bouncing back you become stronger and get more fuel for the fire.”

“We have to keep changing it up, and doing things in order to not feel that we’re stuck in a status quo,” says Ulrich. “Back in the day we’d make a record, go on tour, and then disappear for two years. The last time we disappeared was 2005, we shut down for almost a year. But we haven’t shut down for the better part of 10 or 12 years. We’ll play some shows, play some festivals, work on some songs, we’ll do a movie, play some more festivals, go to the Antarctic, do different shit and mix it up. That’s fun.”

On the rare occasion that Metallica do close up shop, odds are it will be short-lived, and based around school holidays. Recording sessions for Hardwired… also made concessions to school schedules. “We made a conscious decision to make this record at home, in our own building and studio, and that was great, but with being at home comes domestic responsibilities,” reasons Ulrich. “At 2.45 when I have to go to school pick-up and we’re in the middle of some super cool thing, it’s not easy to walk out of the studio. But you still do it. It’s severely important for us to keep our domestic responsibilities intact.”

That was famously a big bone of contention between yourself and James around the making of ‘St. Anger’. You seem much more at peace with it now?

“Listen, you’re 35 years into your career, there’s obviously going to be bumps in the road, so obviously that was a pretty significant bump, and we dealt with it for a couple of years and worked our way out of it.

And all that’s a distant memory, that’s 15 years ago.

“It takes effort, trust me, to preserve the wellbeing of the collective. But we prioritise that wellbeing almost more than anything, and I think that’s part of the reason we’re still functioning so well.”

When Robert Trujillo first joined Suicidal Tendencies in 1989, he’d go jogging while listening to Ride the Lightning and Slayer’s Reign In Blood on his Walkman, and today says that “to be able to join [Metallica] and be a part of that tribe is really special”. Though he joined the band in 2003 in time to tour behind that year’s St. Anger, he regards Hardwired… as his second proper record with the band, Death Magnetic being his first. He concedes that while that album was very much a collaborative effort between all four members, Hardwired… “is more centred around James’s riffs and supporting those riffs”. It’s an album, he says, that taught him about “simplicity” with his playing, “something I never really thought about before, in terms of heavy music”. It’s also a record, he believes, that has set Metallica up for the future.

“We didn’t blow our wad on this album,” he smiles. “There’s still more wad to blow.”

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In December 2013, Metallica performed their ‘Freeze ‘Em All’ show in Antarctica.

Some time ago, James Hetfield started noticing two fans in the crowd who had become regulars at Metallica shows. At each gig, they held in their hands a poster of a girl, and when Hetfield got the opportunity to meet them he asked why. “[The guy] said, ‘My wife and I weren’t fans of the band, but we are now. Because our daughter was a big fan, and she got killed by a drunk driver.'” He sighs. “She was young. How could you not be pissed off? How could you not want to go after somebody? But what they chose to do was embrace the music she loved and get to know her through the music and connect that way instead. They continue to show up at shows, which I love. We’re friends now. And they’ve gotten through something that I don’t think I could get through.”

The experience informed the lyrics to “Here Comes Revenge”, one of 12 songs on Hardwired… To Self-Destruct that sees Hetfield tackle an array of topics, some focused inward – “Am I Savage?” is about the “realisation that there’s a beast in me, and there’s a beauty in me too… that I can go from being super nice to some fucked up beast that has no real filter or common sense” – others taking in events such as the death of Motörhead frontman Lemmy Kilmister, to whom “Murder One” is something of a tribute. His passing brought Hetfield’s own mortality into clearer focus.

“Absolutely. No one is immune from death. Lemmy was a huge influence on our band, as a musician, as an attitude. Lemmy was grounded, humble, hilarious and really strong. And to know that he too is mortal, that rocked our world.”

Also under the microscope are Hetfield’s myriad relationships with those around him, including Ulrich.

“Lars is, ‘I have to do everything, or else it’s wrong.’ He’s got the weight of so much on him. And ‘Atlas, Rise!’ started out as a, ‘Here, let me help you with that. You don’t need to carry all that, brother.’ And then it morphed into more – and this is not specifically him, but I’m plugging him into this – I think he likes that. There’s a drama that makes him work, and we all have a bit of that. He wants the control but he doesn’t really have control. The illusion of control, and then the ability to complain about how you have to do everything yourself, and then you still do it.”

He chuckles.

“There’s some ‘Psych 101’. But relationships, my God, every day I learn something, and relationships are teaching me about what’s important. I went through a lot of stuff in 2001 [as captured in the Some Kind Of Monster documentary], that was kind of my freak-out period, realising my life is not working how it is now. And it took a huge bottom to realise that. And I think everyone in the band has hit their bottom in a certain way, a different
way, over the past 10 years. There’s been some realisations. It’s just the age – between 45 and 55. Fifties. That’s a number where you think, what the fuck am I doing? [Life’s] more than half over! But the relationship with Lars, we’ve been friends for a long time, it’s lasted longer than all the marriages in the band. God, we hate each other, and we love each other, and it morphs, it changes, but at the end of the day we realise, this works. And we’re a good team, man. Trusting him: ‘Yeah, I’ve got 800 riffs, and here they are. You edit them, you pick out the good stuff.'”

Once upon a time would that not have happened?

“Hell no!”

Earlier in the afternoon, Trujillo related a story about a conversation he had with Hetfield after the Webster Hall show. “I was talking to James and he was saying, ‘I can’t believe there’s so much excitement around this album.’ Not to say we don’t believe in the album, just because as you get older and make music, you never know what the reception’s going to be like.”

If there’s one member of Metallica who’s felt the barbs of public opinion a little more acutely than the rest, it may well be guitarist Kirk Hammett. Today the 53-year-old is sitting underneath a painting of a naked woman in a dimly-lit room attached to Studio A, dressed in black jeans and shoes, a white collared shirt with patterns of blue flowers unbuttoned over a black singlet. His trademark black curls are peppered with grey, and when he gets animated he speaks with a slightly exaggerated flamboyance that is as intense as it is endearing. He’s proud of his playing on the new album because he didn’t work out his solos in advance, and instead “wanted to capture the moment, the raw spontaneity, the raw emotion, whatever I was feeling at that moment while I was in the studio”. Whatever the fan reaction, though, he’s unlikely to see it, having sworn off reading online comments some time ago.

“It’s hard to walk away and say, this just glides off me, it’s not the case,” he explains. “My attitude, the healthy one that I’ve adopted is, I made the best fucking album I could make at the time, I played the very best that I could at this point in time, and I’m pleased with the results. And that’s all that really fucking matters. And the perfect example for that is Lulu. I think it’s some of the best stuff we’ve ever done. I think it’s a real fucking piece of art, we really went out on a limb. It means so much to me I’m just going to hold it close to my heart. And I’m going to draw a boundary around it to protect my thoughts and my feelings about the album.”

He smiles.

“Can you tell I’ve had a lot of therapy? My shrink would be so happy right now, he’d be jumping up and down saying, ‘Tell ’em, Kirk!'”

What have you had therapy for?

“Dealing with my own interpretations of my own fucking brain. I need a lot of therapy. I’m broken. My theory is that Lars, James, Rob and I were broken very, very early in life, and that’s why we became musicians, and the kind of musicians we are. A lot of anger and frustration, and needing a way to express and channel that. And I like to think that’s why we found each other, that’s why we were initially attracted, because we all had that in our personalities, and more importantly, when we pick up our instruments, the stuff that comes up is all congruent because we all come from the same sort of brokenness.

“And I like using ‘broken’ as a term. It’s James’s term; if I had to use a different [one] I’d say we all came from really bad upbringings, we all had our challenges and had things happen to us that impacted us negatively in our life. But I also think that, fuck, man, that was done for a reason. It was done so we can do what we do and do it in a way that might help anyone else that’s going through some fucking shit. I know to no small extent that we’ve all gone to music as a therapeutic device. I think that’s why we’re so wrapped up in all this. It’s so intertwined in our make-up.”

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Metallica at Webster Hall on September 27th.

When Metallica took the stage at Webster Hall last night, they did so knowing it was 30 years to the day since the death of bassist Cliff Burton, who was killed when the band’s tour bus crashed in Sweden in the early hours of September 27th, 1986. Their performance of “Orion” – the Burton-co-penned instrumental from Master of Puppets that in many ways has become the bassist’s musical signature – concluded with Hetfield looking upwards and saying, “Love you, Cliff.”

“I knew it was Cliff’s death day yesterday,” sighs Hammett. “John Marshall, who was my guitar tech during the Master of Puppets tour, texted me early yesterday morning just one word: ‘Cliff’. And that sent a fucking huge lump to my throat, and I thought, well, this is one of the fucking rare occasions where we’re actually playing a show on his death day, let’s play ‘Orion’ as a tribute to him. It was a very emotional moment for me last night.” His voice breaks. “I still get emotional talking about Cliff. As time goes on I miss him more. I just long for his presence.”

”When we wrote ‘Master of Puppets’, there were 20 ideas and 15 of them were used,” says Ulrich. “Now there’s 1600 ideas. Everything’s so overwhelming.”

The last years of Burton’s life are commemorated in Metallica: Back to the Front, the recently released visual history of the making of 1986’s Master of Puppets and subsequent tour. In a YouTube video of Ulrich flipping through the book, he pauses on a page and remarks, “What happened to all that innocence?” It’s a reminder that for all that Metallica have gained over the past three-and-a-half decades, they’ve lost plenty along the way too.

“Brain cells. Hair,” laughs Ulrich. “But the thing I miss the most is, when I think back to those early years, I felt that our decision making process was way more instinctive, in terms of musical choices. Nowadays we’re really, really good at what we do, and with that and the amount of material we have, there’s so many choices, you almost get bogged down. When I think back and we were writing Ride the Lightning, I don’t remember sitting there going, ‘It can go this way, it can go that way, we can make it faster or we can make it slower, we can make it heavier we can make it lighter.’ Nowadays it’s like everything is a fork in the road. And back then everything was instinct. When we wrote Master of Puppets there were 20 ideas and 15 of them were used in the songs. Now there’s 1600 ideas. Everything’s so fucking overwhelming these days.”

“What have we lost?” ponders Hetfield. “The ease, maybe. The ease of just showing up. Playing a show like we did last night reminds me of how fun it was in the clubs, how on the Monsters of Rock tours we’d show up early and play our set and then we’d get to hang out and watch the other bands. I miss that part. Not being the head- liner. But I don’t want to jinx that either!”

These days there are reminders of Metallica’s past at every turn. 2016 may be the year the band release their 10th studio album, but it also marks 35 years since they formed; 30 years since Master of Puppets and the passing of Burton; 25 since the Black album; 20 since Load. And with all the rights to their catalogue now in the hands of Blackened Recordings (“Our managers were very anticipatory back in the day and negotiated some things where all that just ended up in our lap,” says Ulrich), and with the process of reissuing those albums already under way, Metallica now walk that fine line between being a relevant act producing new music and one with an eye on curating and dictating their own legacy.

“Those aren’t maybe the choices of words that are…” starts Ulrich. “The word legacy is not something…” He pauses. “It’s obviously to a degree what your fans want, so it’s about finding the balance between what you’re willing to share. And if you don’t do it yourself, other people will do it instead. It’s almost like there’s a responsibility to get some of it done yourself.”

“I’m always looking for the next thing,” says Hetfield. “I’m a ‘moreaholic’. I want the next great thing, and it’s usually the next great riff, the next great guitar sound, the next great lyric. The next one will be better. The next album will be better. And I just have faith in that. I would never look back, ’cause I might get lazy or rest on [my] laurels.”

“I think we’re doing damned good for a bunch of old fuckers,” adds Hammett. “But we’re still fucking angry, and we’re still motivated, and we still have a lot of fuck- ing ideas, and there’s still a lot of shit we want to do. And the passion’s still there. So I don’t think we’re going to be going anywhere soon.”

From issue #781 (December 2016), available now.