"When I’m happy, I’m writing the heaviest riff possible." From his deeply religious upbringing to fronting the world's biggest metal band, the life of Metallica's James Hetfield, in his own words

James Hetfield in 2003
(Image credit: Mick Hutson/Redferns via Getty)

James Hetfield has spent over 40 years years as Metallica's guitarist and vocalist. As the man at the helm of the biggest metal band on the planet (this isn't hyperbole – we've got the stats), he's travelled the world and charted the course of modern metal while doing it. 

It's not all been plain sailing. A tough upbringing in a staunchly religious family made Hetfield a natural fit for the role of the 'outsider', while Metallica suffered the ultimate blow when their beloved bassist, Cliff Burton, died in 1986. 

Elsewhere, battles with addiction have plagued Hetfield's adult life and resulted in stints in rehab in both 2009 and 2019. He's also had to learn to deal with his anger management issues, which have threatened to drive a wedge between him and his bandmates more than once, as ably captured in the 2004 Some Kind Of Monster documentary. 

Back in 2009, Papa Het spoke to Metal Hammer about his formative years, teaming up with Lars Ulrich and what Burton would have made of the direction the band took in the 90s, amongst other things. Here's what he had to say.

You were born James Alan Hetfield on August 3, 1963, in Los Angeles, California. Did you have any brothers and sisters?

“Yes, two older half-brothers, Chris and Dave, and a younger sister, Deanna. My mom’s second husband was my dad. It was pretty difficult. My younger sister, we would fight like cats and dogs and then when [my] parents came home we’d help each other clean up the mess, and cover for each other. But my older brothers, they were pretty much a generation apart and unfortunately it wasn’t as bonding. They were not quite old enough to tell me what to do and not young enough to understand what I wanted to hear, so it was kind of an awkward middle position there.”

Were you a good student at school?

“I was a pretty average student. Pretty quiet, pretty reserved, just kind of get it done and then go home and have fun and play. Loved sports.

Because of your parents' strong Christian Science faith, did that impact in terms of the school you went to or the way you were treated as a child?

“It didn’t impact on the school. It wasn’t like going to a Catholic school. It certainly did affect me though – more than my sister and my brothers, I took it a little more personally. Our parents didn’t take us to the doctor. We were basically relying on the spiritual power of the religion to heal us or to shield us from being sick or injured. And so at school I wasn’t allowed to sit through health class, to learn about the body, to learn about illnesses and things like that. And, say, I’m trying out for the football team [and] you have to get a physical, to get a doctor’s note, I’d have to go and explain to the coach that, you know, our religion says this. So I felt really like an outcast, and, you know, kids would laugh about it. When health class would begin, I would be standing in the hallway, which was basically a form of punishment in other aspects. Everyone who walked by would look at me like I’d been some criminal of sorts, you know?”

That must have been tough.

“It was [but] it helped mould who I was, you know? When you’re young you want to be like everyone else, you don’t want to be unique. But I see the uniqueness in it now and it’s helped me to, uh, you know, accept and embrace the uniqueness of me.”

Do you think it was those experiences that, long-term, gave you the ability to say, 'No, I'm not gonna run with the gang'?

“Yeah, I believe so. It helped me carve my own path, and even the spiritual part of it, when you’re a kid you can’t really grasp the concept of spirituality, and for me not going to the doctor was strange. All I saw was the people in the church that had broken bones and they were healing wrong. It didn’t make any sense to me. But also it helped me embrace the spiritual concept later on, you know, and actually see the power in that, along with the knowledge of doctors these days, so it did help me with my concept of spirituality.”

You first studied piano at the age of nine, and then later got interested in your brother David's drums. Were the piano lessons in classical music?

“Yeah. My mom had seen me over at a friend’s house just kind of start bashing on the piano, and she thought, ‘Oh, he’s gonna be a musician. Okay, we’ll sign him up for piano.’ I did that for a couple of years and it was really a bit of a turn-off because it was learning classical pieces, stuff that I wasn’t listening to on the radio, you know? I remember it was at an older woman’s house and the cookies at the end was the big deal. But I am so glad it was somewhat forced upon me, because the act of the left and right hand doing different things, and also singing at the same time, it gave me some inkling of what I do now. Singing and playing is somewhat easier than it probably would have been if I hadn’t had piano [lessons].”

By the time you met Metallica drummer and co-founder Lars Ulrich, you were a teenager, playing guitar, and had been through your first high school bands – Obsession, Phantom Lord etc. Did any of them sound anything like what Metallica became?

“No. Obsession was a high school band and we would basically just jam in my friend’s garage, doing cover songs. We’d do Thin Lizzy, Black Sabbath, some Robin Trower, some Led Zeppelin… And we’d do a couple of parties; that was pretty much it. I don’t remember learning guitar, ha ha ha! I just remember picking up a guitar for the first time and going, ‘How do they make all these noises?’”

When you and Lars first got together, was it as teenage buddies or was it specifically about playing in a band together?

“It was definitely about music. I had never seen him or heard of him before that. I had been in this band, Obsession, [and] I had brought an original song to play and none of them liked it so that’s when I basically kind of said goodbye to them. When I met Lars I was jamming with this other guy in high school, forming this band, Phantom Lord. [Lars was into] some of the bands we had gotten turned on to at the time – Saxon, Judas Priest, things like the Scorpions. Some of the more popular metal bands that had made it over into the States.”

So, basically, it was about music. Yet the two of you have maintained an incredible partnership. A lot of marriages don't last as long as the relationship you've had with Lars. Is it still primarily about music or is there a friendship there too now?

“We’re pretty much the opposite at everything – except when we play music together. You know, whenever we take a break, we’ll go away for six months from each other and come back together and start talking about where our lives have taken us, and it’s, ‘Oh, I’ve been listening to this and discovered this.’ ‘Wow, me too!’ So it’s kind of… parallels, in one way and then complete opposites in the other. That is the beauty of it. That has helped us battle through a lot of things together but given the extreme differences there’s lots of different viewpoints you can learn and take from.”

When Cliff came into the band he was obviously a very big influence, not just musically, but as a human being…

“Absolutely correct. Besides introducing us to more music theory, he was the most schooled of any of us, he had gone to junior college to learn some things about music, and taught us quite a few things. When Lars and I had seen him play with [Cliff’s previous band] Trauma, our jaws fell onto the floor, and we said, ‘We’ve got to get this guy.’ He and I aligned a lot closer as friends, as far as our activities, music styles that we liked, bands that we liked, politically, views on the world, we were pretty parallel on that wavelength. But, yeah, he had such a character to himself, and it was a very strong personality, he did creep into all of us eventually. And he’s missed greatly by this guy sitting here now.”

What would Cliff have made of some of the directions the band went in the 1990s? Beginning with The Black Album in 1991 up to the time of St Anger in 2003?

“Well, I certainly would have thought there would have been some resistance, for sure. I think The Black Album was a great album and I appreciate the fact that we did have the balls to do that and have [producer] Bob Rock to work with us. It had to be, it really did. You know, when I go back and I listen to [previous album] And Justice For All, it couldn’t have stayed on that path. We needed to bring in another set of trusted ears. [But] I think Cliff would have probably interjected some different stuff, getting his bass heard and some more musically challenging things, probably. I would certainly think that the Load and Re-Load [era], I would have had an ally that was very against it all – the reinvention or the U2 version of Metallica.”

When you say 'an ally', you mean that you personally were not comfortable with that mid-90s period of the band's story?

“No, no, not at all. There’s some great, great songs on there but my opinion is that all of the imagery and stuff like that was not necessary. And the amount of songs that were written was… it diluted the potency of the poison of Metallica. And I think Cliff would have agreed with that.”

So by the time you got to St Anger, is that a new start for you or is that the end of the period you've just been describing?

“Well, I’m not sure. For me, St Anger kind of stands alone. It’s more of a statement than an album. It’s more of the soundtrack to the movie, in a way. There’s some really interesting and cool riffs, some great songs on there. But sonically it sounds fragmented, which is exactly where we were at the point. But in that fragmentation it brought us together. So it was a very necessary piece of the puzzle to get us where we are today.”

How much of Death Magnetic was to do with the fact that Rick Rubin was the producer, and how much was to do with the fact that Bob Rock (overseer of every Metallica album since and including The Black Album) wasn't the producer that time?

“I think it’s a combination of all that. I think Bob… we had gotten too comfortable with each other, especially going through all of the emotional draining of St Anger. It was good to move on. Rick Rubin is the exact opposite of Bob Rock. And the fact that we were able to sit down and write ourselves, do things for ourselves without Rick Rubin babysitting, that was where we were able to try our wings out again and fly as a band. So it was the right thing at the right time. Not to talk bad about Bob whatsoever, because he’s taken us places that we never would have gone before. We’ve learned so much from him.”

You were very open in the Some Kind Of Monster movie about coming to terms with your anger issues. Is it necessary, though, to retain a certain anger in order to feed your creativity as a songwriter?

“Ha ha ha! Well, that’s a great question. I think every person that goes through something like what I’ve gone through very much worries about that. But the creativity, it will come from where it has to come from. Anything can be digested and be spit out Metallica-like. I’m not gonna start writing about picking flowers now. When I’m happy, I’m writing the heaviest riff possible. Being happy is not overrated. But also, there will always be anger issues with me, no matter what. There always seems to be another cool piece of the puzzle revealed.”

Originally published in Metal Hammer issue 192, June 2009

Mick Wall

Mick Wall is the UK's best-known rock writer, author and TV and radio programme maker, and is the author of numerous critically-acclaimed books, including definitive, bestselling titles on Led Zeppelin (When Giants Walked the Earth), Metallica (Enter Night), AC/DC (Hell Ain't a Bad Place To Be), Black Sabbath (Symptom of the Universe), Lou Reed, The Doors (Love Becomes a Funeral Pyre), Guns N' Roses and Lemmy. He lives in England.