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James Hetfield: the ultimate interview

James Hetfield at the O2 Arena, London. on March 28, 2009
James Hetfield at the O2 Arena, London. on March 28, 2009 (Image credit: Neil Lupin / Getty Images)

There is a scene in the 2004 Metallica documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, where drummer Lars Ulrich petulantly voices his dissatisfaction with James Hetfield's post-rehab approach to recording. 

Specifically, Ulrich is unhappy with Hetfield's edict that all work on the forthcoming album, St Anger, end at four o'clock in the afternoon so that the singer can spend time with his family. Ulrich paces and grumbles: "I realise now that I barely knew you before." 

It is a throwaway line, but one that resonates with Metallica fans. After all, since the band released their debut album, Kill 'Em All, in 1983, Hetfield had seemingly developed into the archetypal metal frontman. An intense, uncompromising performer of feral charisma, Hetfield's free time was filled with women, hard drinking, southern rock and hunting. 

To his audience, Hetfield was a bulletproof icon of head banging good times and strength through superior riffing. They felt that they really knew this man - but they were entirely wrong.

In 2009, Classic Rock got to know the man a little better.


What was your childhood like?

I grew up in suburban LA, pretty middle-class. Our house was great. I could walk to every school I went to – elementary middle school and high school, all right near by.

Dad was a truck driver, owned a trucking company eventually. Mom was a stay-at-home mom, she was an artist – she painted and she did some graphic design stuff. It’s funny, I remember being at home alone a lot, which is weird. I had two older half-brothers and a younger sister. It was difficult in the house, definitely. 

I was just trying to put myself in my dad’s shoes. He was marrying a lady who’s got two teenage boys and how difficult that would have been. I remember being a loner a lot, seeing my sister get in trouble a lot. A very rebellious, loud type of child. I saw how the consequences went for her so I kind of went the other way. I was kind of covert in my getting away with stuff, which didn’t serve me well.

You were raised in the Christian Science religion?

That was very interesting yet alienating… My reality of it is that it was very alienating for me as a kid. Now, being older, I can understand the religion a little bit more. The power of the mind allowing positive thinking to heal you, trying not to acknowledge the illness, things like that. Not going to doctors, basically ignoring all that intelligence. That didn’t make much sense to me at all. 

I would think, now, in my life, they work well together. Yes, there is a power of the mind but there’s knowledge that we’ve learned. Someone breaks his or her arm, you go get it set at least. That was not even allowed. 

I couldn’t go to health class as a kid. You’re learning about how your body functions, things like that. I wasn’t allowed to learn that. I would have to leave the classroom and go stand in the hallway or go to the principal’s office. It was more like a punishment. My parents were trying to make me better in a way by keeping me away from that stuff, but it was very much the opposite.

My dad split when I was 13. At that point I just said to my mom: “I’m not going to Sunday school any more. Make me.” That was it.

What do you remember about the divorce?

It was very confusing for me, as a kid, to not know what’s going on. It was kind of hidden. That’s a big character defect that I still carry – I think everyone’s hiding something from me. Dad took off and for months and months we had no idea that he wasn’t coming back. My mom said he was on a business trip, and finally told the truth. 

Just the fear of being the man of the house, too, not knowing what to do. Feeling like I didn’t learn enough from my dad, that he wasn’t there for me and all that stuff just started piling up. A lot of hatred towards him. He didn’t even say goodbye.

I have no idea, really, what was going on between the two of them. It could have been something completely horrible where he had to just leave or else. But they were both extremely religious, and to me that goes against the whole divorce thing. Abandonment. So [I had] abandonment issues.

And then my mom passed away about three years after that. I attribute it to a lot of the discomfort with the divorce and the turmoil there. It was very traumatic.

Metallica in 1985

(Image credit: Icon And Images / Getty Images)

Presumably she wouldn’t have treatment for her illness?

No, no, definitely not. She wasn’t interested in finding out what it was, even. We watched my mom wither away. My sister and I would look at each other and we couldn’t really say anything. It was that whole Catch 22 about acknowledging the illness, then of course you are going to be sick. My brothers, finally – they were old enough to understand this – said: “Something’s really wrong. Let’s get her some help.” But it was much too late. Cancer, she died of.

I had to go live with my brother for a while, leaving all my friends, halfway through 11th grade. Fortunately I did have an older brother, David, who was fairly well-off and established. He had a wife. And that kind of put his life on hold, me and my sister. My sister didn’t last that long – she was too much trouble. They found my dad and she went to go live with him. 

I wanted nothing to do with him. It took a long time to get back in with my dad and kind of forgive and at least embrace the unconditional love of a father and son. But still, there were tons of questions unanswered. He passed away. A lot of the stuff I had to go through in therapy revolves around childhood and my reality versus their reality.

When was the first time you took any medicine?

When I was living at my brother’s I had this massive headache. I used to get migraines all the time as a kid. I didn’t think there was any relief or any help for that. Prayer didn’t seem to be working for me and that was the only prescription in my house, that or reading The Bible. 

I remember my brother giving me some aspirin for the first time and I was freaking out. “What’s it going to make me feel like, what’s it going to do?” At that point I realised the benefits of God-given knowledge around taking care of ourselves.

What age were you then?

Probably 16 or 17 years old. I got no shots, none of that stuff through school – which I’m kind of glad about. Who knows what was shot into us as kids?

By this point you were learning guitar?

My mom took me to piano lessons because we were at a friend’s house, I started beating on the piano and she thought I was going to be a virtuoso [laughs]. Three years of piano lessons at an old woman’s house that smelled horrible.

I realised quite early that it was a great communication tool. I liked being alone. I liked being able to close off the world. And music helped with that a lot. I’d put on the headphones and just listen to music. Music would speak my voice and it connected on so many levels. It made perfect sense that I would want to express myself that way. 

It was all about Kiss and Aerosmith. That was the first concert I went to – Aerosmith and AC/DC at the Long Beach Arena [July 12, 1978]. I also loved Ted Nugent, Alice Cooper. A lot of the edgier, harder rock that was American at that time. I didn’t get into other stuff until being introduced to Lars two years later.

How did you first meet Lars?

When we first hooked up I was in high school playing guitar with a friend of mine and trying to get this band, Phantom Lord, going. We answered Lars’s ad in the paper, we met at a little warehouse somewhere, he set his drums up, and he wasn’t very good at all but he had the motivation, he had the knowledge. He had the drive and the aspirations that I did.

Culturally, how different were you two?

Extremely. Apart from his playing not being so great that time, there were some different smells coming from him [laughs]. The stigma of being European is that they don’t manufacture soap over there and no one bathes. Going to his house – definitely a different vibe. Very friendly, very open. My house was very elite, very closed off. If you didn’t believe in our religion… We didn’t have a lot of house guests. Lars’s house was the exact opposite. Very hippie, very ‘Come on in.’

James Hetfield

(Image credit: Krasner/Trebitz/Getty Images)

Apparently Lars had a pretty impressive record collection.

I wouldn’t say he was spoiled, but as an only child he had a lot of records. I walked in and I could not believe it. I had my little stack; he had a whole wall in his bedroom filled with stuff. He’d just go to the record store, and say: “I want to check these guys out.” I could not afford that. But, man, I came over and started recording everything I could from him.

Were you shy back then?

Very. I was very withdrawn, wasn’t really trusting of the world whatsoever because of what had gone on as a child. Then the drinking helped me break out of that a little bit but at the end of the day it was worse. I’d dig a deeper hole for myself.

Was there a feeling that Metallica became your family?

Yes, yes. There’s no doubt. I was searching for people that I could identify with. I couldn’t really identify too much with my family and, basically, as a child it disintegrated right in front of my eyes. There’s a part of me that craves family and another part of me that just can’t stand people. At the end of the day I feel like this lone wolf but, you know, I do feel that I need family, but not all the time.

Were you glad to see the back of Dave Mustaine?

I don’t know if ‘glad’ is the right word but it was definitely necessary. There would have been myself, Lars and him all trying to drive and it would have been this triangulated mess. It’s obvious that he had the same drive as us – he went on to do great things in Megadeth

The way things are now, the character dynamics, Lars and I are on one half of the scale with Rob and Kirk on the other. They’re great idea people but very good at being okay with someone else driving. It does take that, I think. They’re very un-ego-driven and Lars and I are the other way, it seems. That’s what I’ve been told [laughs]. So back then Dave had to go.

In Some Kind Of Monster he seems fairly unhappy about that.

He’s an amazing, talented person. Maybe just part of his character is having a chip on his shoulder. If I got kicked out of Metallica I would have one too. Ron McGovney, our first bass player – very big chip on his shoulder. They’re never able to really be comfortable in the now, and that’s tough to see. Lars did say that too in the interview: “Can’t you see what you’ve done?” But none of that matters because he’s chasing something unreachable.”

Did going through your mother passing away make coping with Cliff’s death any easier?

It’s never easy. You don’t get used to it, especially at that age, and the mindset I was in, drinking so much to drown out any feelings… That was another part of Christian Science: there were no funerals, no grieving period where you’re able to cry and get support. It was just: “Okay, the shell is dead, the spirit’s gone and move on in life.” So when Cliff died there was a funeral but I didn’t feel the vibe. I just drank harder. Drink it away.

Lars said that before the accident you and Cliff had become close, and one of the effects of the tragedy was that you and Lars became close afterwards. Would you agree with that?

Yes. Cliff and I really identified with each other. We liked a lot of the same stuff. Same music – he was into more Southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd, stuff like that which I love. He loved being out in nature, hiking, camping shooting guns, drinking beers. Him and I identified with each other.

What do you remember most about the accident in which he was killed?

It was so cold. We were in Sweden in the winter. I would sleep in the back lounge for a little warmth. I would have been right next to him. You know, I don’t dwell on that. It is what it is. We survived for some reason to carry it on. We certainly do miss Cliff. So many things could have been different.

Do you think you toured again too quickly after Cliff died?

I think we did everything too quickly after that. Getting a bass player, touring. We went straight back out. That was management’s way of dealing with the grief: “Just play it out through your music.” Now it feels like there wasn’t enough grieving or enough respect paid, and enough of just dealing with each other and helping each other through. We went out on the road and took a lot of it out on Jason [Newsted] once he joined. It was more like: “Yeah, we have a bass player but he’s not Cliff.”

Did you like Jason?

Yeah, I did like Jason. There was a real ‘up’ vibe with him. Real child-like, not childish. The things we liked, the things we enjoyed, writing together, it was fun. Then some bigger fame started happening, some resentments were built and things changed with all of us.

Lars claimed that a possible title for 1998’s … And Justice For All was Wild Chicks, Fast Cars And Lots Of Drugs. Was that an accurate picture of the band at that time?

Well, we all had our battles back then, we all had our vices that were growing hugely, you know. Yeah, we were fighting demons. At one point it turned from fun into destruction. It started to take us over. Justice, it started to build. We had just done Master Of Puppets, toured with Ozzy and started to headline our own stuff. Things were starting to happen right then and things became available – women, parties, you name it. 

We got sucked into that. That’s how it was supposed to be. In those days, you know, I don’t know who of us was married, but I certainly wasn’t so it was okay. Not so okay for the girlfriends waiting at home but, you know, stuff you had to do as a kid and as a learning experience. It was fun. You have to do all that and find out that ‘Well, that’s not what music’s about.’ It was like the bonus track but it started to take over the whole record, you know [laughs]?

Taking drugs didn’t interest you, though?

Thank God it didn’t interest me. I was afraid of drugs. Maybe the Christian Science upbringing but also, in high school, my very first band – the aptly titled Obsession – I remember smoking pot and thinking: ‘Wow, this is great.’ Then I smoked five joints one evening, went into jam and, man, it hit me so hard. I freaked out, thought we were playing the same song for half-an-hour. I did not like it.

What was Lars like when he was doing cocaine?

Oh, man. Talkative? Even more so, if that’s possible. The typical shit. I did not like being around them when they were on that stuff.

Were you fun to be around when you were drunk?

Definitely not. I would get pretty violent. There’d be the happy stage, then it would get ugly where the world is fucked and fuck you. I became… the clown, then the punk anarchist after that, wanting to smash everything and hurt people. I’d get into fights. With who? Sometimes with Lars. That’s how resentments would get released, pushing and shoving, throwing things at him. 

We’ve got two different kinds of personality. Very much so. He wants to be the centre of attention all the time and that bothers me because I’m the same way. He’s out there charming people, and I’ll be intimidating so people will respect me that way.

Does that hold true now?

No. I think I’ve learned to turn that off. That part of me would bug me so much, because we were this band that was so anti-LA, anti-Hollywood, ‘don’t pose, none of that shit, just go do it’, and he was out there posing. Guns N’ Roses to me were part of the enemy. Lars was out there in the white leather jacket and all that, posing up a storm. 

Lars is that way, he will be infatuated with certain people in his life and need to get into them. That’s just part of him, I guess. He likes learning things from people who have that something. Axl had that.

Metallica with Jason Newsted

Metallica with Jason Newsted (Image credit: Hulton Archive / Getty Images)

Was it difficult to record Nothing Else Matters

No. At first it was. I didn’t even want to play it for the guys. It was so heartfelt, so personal to me. I thought that Metallica could only be these songs about destroying things, headbanging, bleeding for the crowd, whatever it is, as long as it wasn’t about chicks and fast cars, even though that’s what we liked. 

The song was about a girl, a girlfriend at the time. Just starting to be able to get some other feelings out. I certainly did not think it was a Metallica song. When the guys heard it they were amazed at how much they, I guess, related to it. It turned out to be a pretty big song on that record.

Did it feel like a big turning point?

I would say so. That opened the door even further and gave us carte blanche to play many different styles of songs. It touched a lot of people.

What do you remember about the 1992 tour with Guns N’ Roses?

Man, it was the excess tour. “Hey, you going to the after-party?” Axl spending tens of thousands of dollars on these parties. It was very extravagant, which was so un-me. The hot tubs backstage. I’d go back and drink their beer and shoot pool, that’s what I’d do. By the time they’d come off stage I’d be gone so I didn’t have to hang out with them.

You came across as this taciturn mountain man.

A lot of it had to do with me proving manhood to myself. A lot of the things that I felt my dad didn’t teach me, like working on cars, hunting, survivalism. Things like that. I really felt that I had to go and learn those things and prove to myself that I’m okay, that I can do it. My dad was like that.

Do you still go hunting?

Nowadays it doesn’t feel necessary, killing things just to kill them. I’m not against hunting but it doesn’t seem as necessary as going 150 miles an hour in my car now [laughs].

What changed your mind?

We went hunting – this was just before I went into rehab when I fell off the wagon majorly – in Siberia. I’ve got a wife and kids at home: “See you later, I’m going to Siberia.” 

I went out on the Kamchatka peninsula, hunting grizzly bear on snowmobiles in four foot of snow. You fall off the snowmobile, you’re done. I saw a bear print and it looked pretty human to me. I saw something in that that didn’t make much sense to me. 

We were in this four-foot high chicken shack in the middle of nowhere, four-hour helicopter ride out of this shitty little town. Drinking vodka – there was nothing else to drink. That was the end for me.

Were you uncomfortable with the band’s new image for Load?

Most definitely. Lars and Kirk drove on those records. The whole ‘We need to reinvent ourselves’ topic was up. Image is not an evil thing for me, but if the image is not you then it doesn’t make much sense. I think they were really after a U2 kind of vibe, Bono doing his alter ego.

I couldn’t get into it. The whole ‘Okay, now in this photoshoot we’re going to be 70s glam rockers.’ Like, what? I would say half – at least half – the pictures that were to be in the booklet, I yanked out. The whole cover thing, it went against what I was feeling.

What didn’t you like about the cover?

[Laughs] How can I put this? I guess when I talked about the resentments of being left out of the bond that they had through their drug use – Lars and Kirk were very into abstract art, pretending they were gay, I think they knew it bugged me. It was a statement around all that. 

I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. I think the cover of Load was just a piss-take around all that. I just went along with the make-up and all of this crazy, stupid shit that they felt they needed to do.

A lot was made of the haircuts at the time. Was that a group decision?

[Laughs] It wasn’t like we went in together and went: “Hey, can we get a deal on four haircuts?” It just slowly happened, with age, thinning hair. Long hair just didn’t feel right anymore.

Haircut Metallica

"Haircut Metallica" (Image credit: Midori Tsukagoshi/Shinko Music/Getty Images )

Musically was that the first time Metallica was unsure?

I would say so. That whole period. Why do we need to reinvent ourselves? A lot of the fans got turned off quite a bit by the music but mostly, I think, by the image.

Were you uneasy about Kirk and Lars kissing in the photographs?

Totally. That’s why they did it. I’m the driving force behind their homosexual adventures. I think drugs had something to do with it too. I hope [laughs]. There are many times in our career that people have jumped ship, and that’s going to happen. It’s more hurtful to hear: “Okay, people are stomping Metallica records because they’re suing Napster.”

It seemed like Lars led the Napster thing.

He is the figurehead for the band. He likes talking, he likes being out there. I’m extremely proud of what we did. It had to happen. No artist would stand up except some of the rap artists. We were abandoning the rebel attitude and, man, there couldn’t be anything more rebel than that.

In a 2001 interview with Playboy magazine you said that Lars is a bad drummer.

He will admit that. And I’m not a very good singer, but something happens when we play together.

Did you see therapy as being unmanly?

Definitely. Even [producer] Bob Rock introducing a little time-out meditation thing before playing. “No way! Fuck you guys. Have you lost your mind? Let’s just rock!” I was not open to it whatsoever.

What changed your mind?

My major crash. Wife throwing me out of the house. My wife said: “You’re not coming back until you sort this out and get some therapy. Not just the drinking, but all the other crap that goes with it, you know. The disrespect, doing whatever you want whenever you want.” I had to grow up. I had a family.

When was this?

This was during St. Anger. We were starting to write over at [former military base] the Presidio. Then, at one point within therapy, I realised how much my life was fucked up. How many secrets I had, how incongruent my life was, and disclosing all this shit to my wife. Shit that happened on the road.


Oh yeah. Women, drink, whatever it is. That brought up a lot of fear for the other guys, you know [laughs]. Like I’m this whistleblower and then all of a sudden: “Er, wow, isn’t it terrible, honey that he did that? You wouldn’t do something like that would you?” “Oh, hell no!”

It did stir up the mud – and the water was very thick with mud at that point. I think it was the saving part of Metallica, there’s no doubt. It had to come to an end a certain way. My wife stood up and told me: “Hey, I’m not one of your yes men out on the road. Get the fuck out.”

What was your reaction?

My life is over, first of all. Fear is a pretty huge motivator and it motivated me, having all these issues with abandonment and losing a group, losing people in my life.

And it looked like you were going to lose your band and your marriage.

Both of them at the same time. So that was: ‘I’ve got to get it together or they’re both going to go away and then what?’

When did you move back in?

My wife was pregnant with our third. She’s my little angel – Marcella. My wife needed me there and I was able to be there at the birth, which was amazing, and cut the cord and all that very bonding stuff. Yeah, my daughter pretty much glued us back together.

What do you think of St. Anger now?

It’s more of a statement than a musical piece of work. We had to make St. Anger. The guy who worked with us, [life coach] Phil Towle, he said: “All this work you’re doing right now is not for this record, it’s for the next one.”

Was Bob Rock upset when you decided to have Rick Rubin produce Death Magnetic?

I hope so. Not in a mean way. We both know that it got too comfortable, it got too easy, and you need to go explore. Maybe there wasn’t the tension anymore.

He was a fifth member, a father figure. Maybe we felt scared that we couldn’t go do a record without him, but I hope he misses us because we certainly miss him.

Did you find touring sober difficult?

At first it felt great but scary at the same time. Mostly it was: ‘What do I do now?’ But how many hours have been wasted sitting in a bar somewhere talking to people you’ll never see again? So I went sightseeing, did the stuff you would have done if it was your first tour. The guys were very respectful.

What do you and Lars have in common?

Besides children and family life, we’re very into art even though it’s completely different kinds of art. I like custom culture art, religious art, doing stuff for the band. He’s very into abstract art. Make up your own mind about it.

Do you love Lars?

I do. There’s no doubt that we were put together on this journey for a reason. We hooked up and, like my wife and I, opposites do attract and it’s a never-ending battle. We’ve got this chemistry that works even though resentments get in the way and we can’t see it sometimes. There’s an agitation, a friction, a spark that just happens.

Is that something you could have said 10 years ago?

I could still say that back then. It’s a different kind of love. We wouldn’t get our families together and go to Hawaii for a week. But, man, when something happens on the road, someone’s challenging Metallica or our ability, we will cling together like there’s no tomorrow. We will stand, have each other’s back, and fight to the death.

This feature originally appeared in issue 133 Classic Rock (May 2009).

James Hetfield

(Image credit: Niels Van Iperen / Getty Images)