Metallica: On the road with metal's biggest band

James Hetfield
James could barely contain his excitement after finding the cleverly camouflaged guitar
(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Lars Ulrich is chomping on a toothpick, sipping tea and wondering how his band have managed to remain so famous. We are sitting backstage at Toronto’s Rogers Centre, where Metallica will later perform before 52,000 people on the 18th North American date of their ongoing WorldWired tour.

They first played the city in 1985, at a club show alongside W.A.S.P. and Armored Saint, before this stadium even existed. “As you get further into your run, you almost get high from the fact that it’s still even fucking happening,” he marvels. “I may not be as critical as I was 10 years ago, because a bigger part of my outlook on everything now is, ‘Holy fuck – I’m 53 years old. People still give a shit!’ That just blows my mind.”

The drummer is in good spirits today, welcoming us into Metallica’s “tuning room” – a makeshift rehearsal area decorated with fan-made flags where the group warm up for 30 minutes each night – and peppering his conversation with phrases like “blowing my mind” and “mind-fuck” that are characteristic of his speech.

Honestly, at this stage in their career, you’d think they could afford chairs by now…

Honestly, at this stage in their career, you’d think they could afford chairs by now…
(Image: © Ross Halfin)

The last time Metal Hammer spoke to the band was in New York in September 2016, two months before the release of their 10th studio album, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. At the time, fans had only heard the spunky title track and were nervous about what to expect from the rest of the band’s new material. Since then, the record has gone platinum in the US and double-platinum in Canada – they’ll actually receive commemorative sales plaques from their Canadian distributor tonight – as the WorldWired tour has rolled through a handful of major cities in Asia, South America, Europe and now North America. In October, it will finally reach the UK.

It’s clear Lars focuses less on the detail of Metallica’s performances these days, and more on gratitude for their continued success. “When you start talking about the drum fill in song eight or something,” he says, “does any of that really matter in relation to the fact that there’s 52,000 people coming tonight, or my shoulder is still functioning, or we can all get dressed in the same room or share space?”

Hammer landed in Toronto just a few hours ago, but Metallica have been here for nearly a week. Long gone are the garage days when they’d get in the van or tour bus and drive from venue to venue together. Now in their 50s, they choose a series of “base camps” from which to operate – cities that act as temporary homes while they commute to and from shows in surrounding areas (prior to Toronto, they were based in New York City, Chicago and Miami). This strategy keeps them from tiring too quickly, mentally and physically, of the lifestyle and of each other.

Just another intimate Metallica show...

Just another intimate Metallica show...
(Image: © Ross Halfin)

The 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster showed a band with potentially volatile chemistry, and while they’ve moved on massively since then, Lars is candid about the need to still maintain boundaries. “We’re very conscious of not crossing a burnout line,” says Lars. “We set it up so that we have the slightest to smallest chance of the whole thing derailing. We’re aware of the abysses around us, and if we can steer that train and keep it on the track – and at the same time hold onto the train, because the train also has a mind of its own – this thing could go on for 200-300 more years. We don’t need to go to dinner [together] every night; we don’t need to hang out; we don’t need to wake up and text good morning, and go to sleep and say goodnight; but we need to get along and have a nice, civil time.”

Before arriving at Rogers Centre this afternoon, Lars has been spending his free time in Toronto with his wife, model Jessica Miller, while guitarist Kirk Hammett has kept busy by scouring local shops in hopes of adding to his collection of vintage horror movie posters. There’s currently an exhibition featuring 150 of what he calls his “best pieces” on display at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, where the infamous witch trials took place 325 years ago.

“When you ‘base’, you feel like you have some sort of foundation,” Kirk says. “You know that when you set something down, you don’t have to pack it up 10 hours later. It’s great, because you can actually feel a little bit grounded, rather than wondering, ‘What city am I in? What day is it? When you’re moving around like that, it can be very disorientating.”

No monsters in sight: Metallica are happy in each other’s company these days

No monsters in sight: Metallica are happy in each other’s company these days
(Image: © Ross Halfin)

These days, the group typically tour in leisurely paced, two-week increments, followed by two weeks off at home. They also limit themselves to around 50 shows a year. Still, Kirk says that he doesn’t like to drift away from the stage for too long. “To be completely honest, I’m a mental waste-case,” he says. “I have mental issues, and anger is one of them. What really, really helps me is music, and playing music, and going out there onstage. What people don’t understand is the anger, the angst, the anxiety, the frustration – all those various feelings and emotions that are attached to our music – are feelings that live in us, and have been there since the beginning. Just because you become famous or you have a little bit of disposable income, that’s not a cure for my inner anger. I have to deal with my inner anger every single fucking day, and music helps that.”

There was a time when fans wondered whether this tour would happen at all. In the years following the release of Death Magnetic in 2008, Metallica busied themselves with the universally panned Lulu, released the 3D concert film (and box office bomb) Through The Never, curated the failed Orion Music + More festivals and played a bunch of one-off shows, with an occasional tour sprinkled in for good measure. It was a long, eight-year wait for Hardwired..., and the question on everyone’s lips was: can they still cut it? Almost a year later, with critical acclaim and chart successes under their belt, Lars is proud of the album and feels it’s ageing better than some of its siblings.

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

“When you make records, there’s a point where youstart asking questions – ‘Why did we do that?’ ‘What were we thinking?’ ‘What frame of mind was I in?’ Most of the time when you ask the ‘Why?’ question, it comes from a critical place,” he says. “[With Hardwired…], there’s none of those questions yet. I really have no issues or faults with it. I played along to a few songs in my home studio to warm up before we started on this leg, and I thought the record still sounded incredible, [even though] it’s coming up on a year. That’s a long time, and for some of our other records, there were a few of those ‘Why?’ questions that showed up earlier than a year.”

Every night on this tour, the band play five new songs as part of a setlist that typically comprises 18 tracks performed with surgical precision – 19, if you include an instrumental jam between Kirk and bassist Robert Trujillo. Even better, the Hardwired… material sits comfortably alongside the classics. “They fit right in,” Kirk says. “The flow between the new songs and the older songs, which is usually a good barometer as to how well they’re liked and how well they work live, is pretty seamless in terms of audience reaction. That’s always a great thing, because that means they like what they’re hearing.”

“Do you want heavy?” a battle vest-clad James Hetfield asks a packed Rogers Centre four hours later. “Metallica gives you heavy, Toronto!” As the audience roar in approval, the group launches into Sad But True for what the song statistics page of the band’s website says is the 1,218th time (it’s the seventh most-performed song in the group’s catalogue). Even though they could surely play the track in their sleep by now, it sounds absolutely colossal tonight – a sneering, primal war stomp that makes 52,000 heads bob reflexively. It’s far from the only highlight of the band’s 140-minute performance.

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

With the crowd warmed up by support acts Volbeat and Avenged Sevenfold, Metallica open with a one-two punch of new material via Hardwired and Atlas, Rise!. Just as Kirk says in the tuning room, the response to the new songs is overwhelmingly positive, but when the band subsequently turn back the clock with For Whom The Bell Tolls, the crowd go even more ballistic. Up next is Fuel, which is punctuated by eight giant columns of flames that, according to a fact sheet supplied by the band’s publicist, each emit 10 times more heat than the average home barbecue grill. Notably, it’s the only song aired tonight from the often controversial years between The Black Album and Hardwired..., which makes this truly an all-killer, no-filler performance that, thanks to five, 50-foot video screens sandwiched between giant inflatables of the M and A from the band’s logo, feels larger than life.

After The Unforgiven provides a temporary breather, Metallica deliver another double-shot from Hardwired…: Now That We’re Dead, which features a memorable Taiko drum circle jam and perhaps the band’s best riff in a quarter-century, and Moth Into Flame, which sees the stage stalked by what might be best described as a fiery shark fin. Both prove to be genuine highlights – no small order when your competition includes capital-C classics such as One and W_herever I May Roam_. Following a blazing rendition of Hit The Lights – the first song the band ever wrote – James asks for a show of hands from “the first-timers in the Metallica family”. After a good third of the audience raises their arms, he pauses for a moment to take in the sight. “It’s pretty amazing that there’s still some new people coming in to see Metallica, man,” he says. “Young, old, medium… medium-aged? What is that?”

Backstage earlier in the day, Lars says he’s stunned by the number of young people he’s seen in the crowd on this tour. “A lot of people say that people love to come back to songs that have shaped their lives – ‘I grew up listening to Metallica when I was 15, so they hold a dear place in my heart at 35 or 45 or 55,’” he says. “That’s a fine theory, except the mind-fuck of mind-fucks is that half the people in the audience [on this tour] are 15, and it’s their first Metallica show. That’s the craziest thing – the turnover. There still feels like there’s this organic thing happening.”

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Later, Papa Het calls out a young fan who’s sandwiched against the barricade. “How old are you – 13?”, he asks. “And you’re in the front row? Who are you with – your dad? You and your dad came to Metallica? That’s fucking cool!” Lars then offers another young fan the ultimate heavy metal rite of passage by extending an invitation to come onstage, sit behind his kit and count off the intro to Seek & Destroy. As they perform the song, the band admirably manage to make a stadium show feel intimate. “We’re recreating the garage. That’s exactly how it was in 1883 when we started!” James quips, as the band gather around a second drumkit that’s magically risen from below the circular catwalk surrounding the ‘Snake Pit’, where 200-300 fans chosen by lottery (and for a few songs tonight, guitarist Rob Caggiano of openers Volbeat) stand shoulder-to-shoulder directly in front of centre stage. During the song, a ticket stub from the band’s inaugural Toronto appearance is projected on the video screens – a nice personal touch for the hometown crowd.

After Enter Sandman – still as potent as ever – brings a three-song encore to a close, an impressive fireworks display ties a celebratory bow on an epic performance. As the smoke clears, the band are whisked away by imposing, Secret Service-like sport utility vehicles. Soon after, despite Lars’s earlier comment about the band not needing to dine together, they are driven to an afterparty at a local restaurant with their tour mates in Avenged Sevenfold and Volbeat (Gojira will replace Volbeat for the second half of the tour). It’s a drastically different undercard from the band’s last North American stadium tour 14 years ago, when they were supported by Limp Bizkit, Linkin Park and Mudvayne. “We’ve played a lot of shows with Avenged over the years. We’ve played a lot of shows with Volbeat. These are people that we know very well; these are people that we’ve championed,” says Lars. “Some bands [we’ve toured with] may not have been judged by history with the same kindness as others, but I can look you in the eye and go, ‘There’s nobody that’s played a Metallica stage that we did not at that particular time endorse and support.’ I think as we get older, though, we like to have bands with us that are part of the family.”

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Still, there remains a huge gulf between Metallica, the rest of their family and beyond. On a global level, only Iron Maiden, AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses can consistently pack stadiums like tonight’s, and of those, the future of AC/DC is uncertain, while the jury’s still out on how long of a honeymoon the GN’R reunion will continue to enjoy. It’s a topic that Metallica ended up discussing with Iron Maiden last night, when they were hanging out after Maiden’s gig at a Toronto amphitheater. “One thing that came up a couple of times is that there aren’t many bands left,” Lars says. “Black Sabbath have sort of politely, respectfully exited; you’ve got AC/DC; you’ve got Iron Maiden; you’ve got Judas Priest. We appreciate more than anybody will truly ever understand the position that we somehow inadvertently ended up in. We’re proud; we’re appreciative; we’re humbled; and we’ll be at the leading edge of the cavalry and charge forward with the best intent.”

Kirk hopes that Metallica’s tour mates can continue to grow and prosper, but worries about the state of the genre when the band finally fade to black. “It’s important for me that there are bands like that coming up, but I haven’t seen the momentum,” he says. “Is it the record company? Is it the fans? Is it the band? I don’t know, but fuck, man – it seems like time’s running out on us. I want someone to listen to. I want someone to rally for. I want someone to cheer on. Do it, man – upset the fuckin’ masses. Piss people off. Make some great fuckin’ entertainment, and make some exciting music so that I can tell my kids, ‘See this band, boys? Aren’t they fuckin’ great? They’re the band that dad thinks are the right band to take dad’s band’s place.’”

Until then, the Metallica train will continue moving full speed ahead. This October, they’ll hit five arenas around the UK for their first proper tour here in eight years. Unlike tonight’s mega-performance, it’s going to be in the round, giving us the chance to get up close and personal with The Four Horsemen – somewhat like being in the tuning room, only with a bigger audience and a lot more pyro. “The summer stadium tour is outdoor, and more like a heavy metal picnic, whereas the arena tour is going to be much more intimate,” explains Kirk. “When we’re on a smaller stage, it’s closer to real life and how we really play our instruments together in a room, so of course it’s going to feel more comfortable. We’re able to interact more with each other and the audience.”

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

They’ll continue to tour throughout 2018, hitting Scandinavia and western Europe in the first half of the year, and are already thinking about their plans beyond this cycle. Fans irritated with their recent diversions into films and other extracurricular activities will be heartened to hear that music remains their present focus. “The one thing we’ve had a couple conversations about is the length of time between Death Magnetic and Hardwired..., which was eight years,” Lars says. “We’d like to see if we can beat that. Obviously, that space had a lot to do with the Lou Reeds of the world, the 3D movies of the world, the Orion festivals of the world and all the other auxiliary projects – which we love doing, and which is a big part of us staying creatively fulfilled. But we’ve had a couple conversations about getting back to recording and being creative again sooner than later.”

In a candid acknowledgment few superstar acts would make, Kirk says he understands why many fans were frustrated by those secondary projects, but he predicts that in time, they’ll come back around. “I think for as much as people have issues with us, after a while, they say, ‘Alright, they’re not perfect – they don’t make all the best decisions at all the right times, but they’re only human.’ We’re doing the best we can, and doing the things we feel are healthiest for our art, our music and our creativity,” he says. “When we do something or exhibit behaviour that might be contrary to what people think we are, they get mad – but whether they’re pissed at us for one day, one week, one month or one year, eventually they’re going to be driving their car, and Master Of Puppets comes on, and they’re like, ‘Fuck yeah!’. That’s what brings them back.”

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Having already played every continent, Kirk says he’d love to someday perform aboard the International Space Station. Lars, meanwhile, mentions wanting to play Coachella. In the meantime, they and their bandmates will enjoy the feeling of having the wind at their backs as they circle the world in support of their best-reviewed album in years – another jewel in the crown of metal’s undisputed world champions. “What’s difficult sometimes to comprehend is why one record connects at one level and another record connects at a different level,” says Lars. “Lots of critics are saying lots of nice things, but I’ve also been in Metallica where lots of people are not saying very nice things, so you try to not get too attached to either outcome.

“I think the main difference now is appreciating that we still have this ability to connect when we play music. It’s that X factor – certain bands, put ’em in a room together and it still fires up. [For us], it still absolutely fires up. Hopefully it will keep doing that for some time, and hopefully when it doesn’t, we’ll be the first ones to acknowledge that it’s not, and respectfully walk away.” Based on what we’ve seen tonight, their flame burns hotter than ever.

(Image: © Ross Halfin)

Sum kind of monster The WorldWired tour in numbers

54,000: The number of guitar picks that the band will toss out during the WorldWired tour

0: The number we caught in Toronto

48: The number of trucks required to carry the stage set and equipment from city to city

83: The number of laser fixtures used in the tour’s production

640: The number of hours that it took to program the lasers

0.01: The number of seconds it took for us to marvel at how cool they were

1: The number of slices of chocolate layer cake we scarfed down in catering when no one was looking

9,000,000: The total amount of lumens (a unit used to measure the intensity of light) that the tour’s production utilises

1600: The number of lumens in the average light bulb

5.45: The combined length, in miles, of cables that are used to connect and power the tour each night

1: Distance in miles from Hammer’s hotel room to the Rogers Centre

2: Members of Anvil we spotted backstage

3: The number of times James Hetfield says ‘famileh’ in his speeches before For Whom The Bell Tolls and Sad But True

Win Master of Puppets deluxe box set

Metallica just don’t do things by half, do they? Their immense, remastered version of Master Of Puppets will be landing on November 10 via Blackened Recordings in a variety of formats – and we’ve got the deluxe edition box set version to give away to one of you lucky motherfuckers.

To stand a chance of winning the Master Of Puppets deluxe edition – which will feature 10 CDs, two vinyl LPs, two DVDs and a cassette tape, along with a 108-page hardback book, lithograph, folder with handwritten lyrics and six button badges – just head to https://tinyurl.com/metallicawin and answer the below question: Who originally produced Master Of Puppets? A) Bob Rock B) Flemming Rasmussen C) Paul Curcio

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