Metallica: "We hate each other, and we love each other"

A photograph of Metallica messing about in a photo studio, 2016
(Image: © Jimmy Hubbard)

It’s here. It’s finally fucking here. As Metal Hammer sits in a lush, decked-out Q Prime Management boardroom, 20 floors above a bustling Times Square on a muggy October morning, it’s finally time to get stuck into what is, without a shadow of a doubt, the most eagerly anticipated heavy release of the last decade. An album that we were honestly starting to think might never see the light of day. An album eight years in the making. An album that, after all the delays, the touring excursions, the festivals, the film, the Lou Reed… thing, the lost riffs, the Antarctica gig, Glastonbury and God almighty knows what else, will come to define the next chapter of the story of the biggest metal band in the world. Even by Metallica’s lofty standards, this is A Very Big Deal.

As the first few, battering notes of Hardwired… To Self-Destruct’s title track kick into gear, it’s still hard not to imagine that something’s about to go wrong: that at any moment, Lars Ulrich is going to burst through the door, march across the room, pull the plug of the impressive PA that’s been set up for us and announce that, no, actually, the album isn’t coming yet after all, because Metallica have decided to do a Garage Inc tour instead, or play on the moon, or launch their own manga animated series, or… but no. Sure enough, as the first track wraps up, the thumping intro to Atlas, Rise! boots off and we are officially in unknown territory. Two discs, 12 songs, 80 minutes of new Metallica material. Time to get comfy – this is gonna take a while…

It’s a lot to absorb, no doubt,” agrees James Hetfield two hours later with a booming chuckle. “I mean, it took me years to figure out which song was what, ha! But now that it’s finally done, it feels good to have created something, and to have it here. Do I regret it taking so long? Sure, but things happen. We don’t wanna turn into a fucking nostalgia band quite yet. We still have something to say.”

They aren’t being shy about saying it, either; one of the most immediately striking things about Hardwired… is what an angry record it is. Angry at the world, angry at humanity, angry at life itself. James is positively spitting fire, keeping the dystopian, humanity-slaying themes of the title track alive through endless rolls of apocalyptic imagery (‘I am Hell unbound/Burn your kingdom to the ground’ – Here Comes Revenge), biblical references and what seems like a desire to see the planet itself implode in a fiery Armageddon so we can just sack it all off and start again (or, as he puts it: ‘Finally cure the Earth of Man’ – Spit Out The Bone). While James insists that, despite appearances, he’s “actually very hopeful”, he will admit that as a father, he’s grown increasingly concerned for the future of this planet, and that he’s had to vent his frustrations across this record to help get his head back in check.

“I tell ya, as a father of three teens, you pray that the world our children are coming into is gonna be OK and good,” he muses solemnly. “Lyrically, the song Hardwired is a summation of everything. It sums the whole record up. Because, yeah, we are fucked, heh-heh-heh! But you can drive yourself crazy with thinking about this stuff. At the end of the day, you have to just go, ‘You know what? I don’t have any control over this.’ And, I think that kids these days are pretty well rounded and pretty knowledgeable, and very aware of the right and wrong of things – so much more than my generation. But am I OK? Yeah, I am now, because that stuff is now all out of my head…”

Dressed in a plain black t-shirt and a hunting jacket, with sunglasses dangling around his neck, Metallica’s frontman may not possess the same, dangerous air of spunk, spit and fire he used to, but he’s by a distance the most badass 53 year old you’re ever likely to meet: more hardened road warrior than frantic hellraiser, wisened sheriff over gun-toting cowboy. Today, James seems relaxed and in good humour, that great, room-filling chortle permeating his answers at various points as he opens up about the album, the long journey to its inception and, most interestingly, his personal life. After all, eight years is not just a long-ass time in career terms; Metallica’s four members have all undergone some immense personal changes in that time – including passing the Big 5-0. For James, that was a milestone that he openly admits caused him to have something of a minor midlife crisis.

James’s kids think he’s an idiot. This photo is unlikely to change their minds

James’s kids think he’s an idiot. This photo is unlikely to change their minds
(Image: © Jimmy Hubbard)

“Oh, that was fucked,” he reveals. “I’d tell myself every birthday, ‘I don’t care about birthdays, it’s just a number, who cares, blah blah blah’, but man, at 50 I had a fucking freak-out. My wife and family said, ‘Oh, another crisis?’ But there was something about [turning 50] that really brought a clearer bifurcation. It was like, ‘Am I the family guy, or am I Lemmy Kilmister? Am I gonna go out a rebel, ‘Fuck you!’ to the end? Do I do both? Can I?’ It all came flooding in.”

To hear Metallica’s most seemingly bullet-proof member admit to that level of everyman insecurity is a sobering moment, and while he says that he has long come to terms with the balancing act that comes to every veteran rock star – “I can do both. Family first, band close second” – he’s also had to deal with facing up to an emerging generation that’s more open-minded and well connected than ever.

“According to my kids, I’ve been an idiot for a while, heh-heh-heh!” he laughs. “I’m starting to realise, that, gosh, the way it was for me growing up, there’s some old ways of thinking there. Kids today are so open to different things and so much different music, too. My youngest daughter will listen to anything and everything – pop, rock, alt, 70s stuff. She likes it all.”

While he’ll admit to a staunch anti-’selfie culture’ stance – “What do you do all day? Just sit there trying to take selfies of yourself?! Go fuck your selfie!” – James will admit that “Snapchat has some cool filters”, and is more than internet literate enough to have seen the online phenomenon that has perhaps defined this stage of his career more than any other: The Hetfield Memes.

“They are awesome!” he beams. “It’s funny. I love it! I love that, I guess, there’s a certain look that becomes a representation of sarcasm, or humour, or idiocy. I love the fact that we’re recognised, and I got no control over it. What am I gonna do other than laugh at it and enjoy it?”

Though he’ll admit that the monetary setback from the Through The Never movie “was huge” and acknowledges the near-vitriolic public reaction to Lulu, he’ll still proudly stand by everything Metallica put their name to in the eight years since Death Magnetic. There’s particular relish reserved for his experience working with Lou Reed, confirming that the whole process “was a blast”.

“He was a true artist,” he continues. “He had his fans and his non-fans, and people that think he’s just a prick, you know? And he definitely was! But man, he was sharp. He was real sharp, and we learned a lot about him.”

Given the honest mood we’re finding Het in today, it’d be remiss to not also ask about his working relationship with Lars these days. Things across the Metallica camp certainly seem a lot more chilled than in years gone by – not least during the St Anger sessions and the infamous Some Kind Of Monster documentary that followed them. Is the two-man heart and soul of this band sailing through smooth waters in 2016?

They may be a dysfunctional family, but they’re a happy one

They may be a dysfunctional family, but they’re a happy one
(Image: © Jimmy Hubbard)

“Heh-heh-heh! Smooth? What is smooth?” he chuckles with a knowing look. “We’re married and we hate each other and we love each other. It’s as simple as that. There’s no blood, there’s no physical fighting, it’s all a mental game, but these days we know how far to push each other.”

Relatively plain sailing, then? So when was the last time you told Lars to go fuck himself?

“About eight months ago,” he shrugs. “We were in the studio, and it was just like, ‘Hey, I’m the guitar player, I like this guitar part, I wanna play it.’ He’d be like, ‘This part is better’, and I was like, ‘Since when are you the Riff Police?!’ So at that point, it was, ‘OK, I’m done for now, I have to leave’, but a week later we were talking again.”

With our interview with the aforementioned “Riff Police” imminent, there’s time to shoot down one last, looming elephant in the room. Or, rather, a bear.

“Heh-heh-heh!” comes the laugh again. Alright, let’s nail this one, then. Do you or do you not hunt bears? “I have hunted bear before, but no, I don’t now,” he replies. “I’m a meat hunter. I hunt to eat. I like the organic process. I like being a part of it. It tastes way better. My kids, they’re like, ‘Ewww, I don’t wanna see you gutting and skinning an animal!’, but someone’s gotta do it.”

Before we can get into the politics of meat hunting vs trophy hunting, however, our time with James is up, and the boardroom door swings open.

Lars Ulrich: the heart, and often the mouthpiece, of the Metallica empire

Lars Ulrich: the heart, and often the mouthpiece, of the Metallica empire
(Image: © Jimmy Hubbard)

“Tag out!” beams Lars Ulrich as he high fives his departing comrade and takes a seat. Looking trim, dressed in a fitted leather jacket, jeans and a baseball cap and chewing on that ever-present toothpick, the drummer is restless, thoughtful and typically open in his answers, clearly stoked on the chance to talk about new Metallica music and returning any jabs we throw his way with good humour. Which is lucky, because our first question for him today is: just why is Hardwired… so goddamn fucking long?!

“Six weeks ago, it might not have been that long!” he smiles “We only finished this record 12 days ago, and the major decisions about what to do with it were all made around the end of July.”

“Look,” he adds with a cheeky grin, “as is well documented, we only put out a record every eighty years or whatever now, so if it’s a little ‘too long’, that’s OK. It gives the hardcore fans and the people that really care something more to hold onto, and it gives us more songs to play live. And if there are some people that think, ’Eighty minutes of metal is too long’? Well, that’s a good problem to have.”

And, in fairness, while its running time will be a difficult hurdle for many, the bottom line on the initial listen is that this is a good Metallica album. Very good, in fact, and occasionally great, the likes of Moth Into Flame, Atlas, Rise! and Spit Out The Bone towering over anything they’ve put out since the 90s. It’s certainly the best-sounding Metallica album since the 90s, too, and Lars is quick to praise the work of producer Greg Fidelman, who stepped up from an engineering role to craft a beefier, fuller production that easily eclipses the tinnier sonics of Death Magnetic and misfired ‘DIY’ aesthetic of St Anger.

“Greg was a trusted comrade,” says the drummer. “Was he bold in having his voice heard? 100%. There were times where I had to put my foot down, but it was basically Greg, James and I the whole way. He’s a fucking trooper, and he stepped up.”

It’s no surprise to hear that Lars had a fair few Final Says in the recording of this album; while there are plenty of signs of democracy in the way Metallica resolve their issues these days, it’s clear that Lars and James remain very much at the centre of this band – and that Lars, in particular, has had to shoulder more and more of their ever-growing empire. After all, this is the first Metallica album to be released on their own label, Blackened Recordings, and the step-up in responsibility has not been lost on their unofficial leader.

“Metallica continue to grow, it’s unbelievable,” he explains. “We feel busier and have more to deal with now. We also have our own record company, we pay for things we put out on it, we do our own videos. So there’s more stuff for me to manage, there’s more people there now, and God help us all, ha ha ha, for better or worse, I’m still the glue that keeps it all together!”

When we ask how often he comes down with a case of the ‘WTF?!’s at the sheer pressure he must be under, he’ll admit that it comes “pretty much every day”, but Lars doesn’t seem fazed, weary or annoyed at any point in our interview. He’ll repeatedly go to lengths to emphasise that all Metallica’s issues in 2016 are “good problems to have”, describing the band’s day-to-day workload as operating “smarter, not harder”. He’ll also acknowledge our suggestion that out of every band to ever grace our scene, Metallica have been the ones to extend a hand outside of the metal bubble and court the mainstream the most – even if it has rarely reached back.

“We’ve always felt like the weird boys in the room,” he notes. “We’ve always felt like the outsiders, the disenfranchised, the loners, the outcasts. It hasn’t changed. When we’re fortunate enough to do stuff like Glastonbury festival, there’s pride in the fact that we get to represent heavy music.”

That said, Metallica’s relationship with the metal scene itself is as complex as it is long, and when pressed on where he actually feels like the band fit these days, he pauses for a rare moment.

“I’m an only child,” he offers. “And I think I’ve always had this little thing about how we don’t fit in anywhere. I still struggle with that, with not being… accepted. No matter the numbers, no matter the perceptions of us, I will always have a little bit in me of feeling like I have to prove myself.”

This seems like a curious oxymoron given that the music Metallica play is meant to be outsider music in the first place. When we point out that he’s rarely been shy of saying some inflammatory things about metal culture over the years, he lets out a friendly chuckle, before adding:

“I can look you in the eye and say that any time I’ve spoken, it was that moment’s truth. Now, I do reserve the right as a 52-year-old man to change my mind! I go through good days, shitty days, different moods and, ultimately, different periods. But to me, what’s odd about metal is that you’re expected to have this sameness, or this kind of, ‘I love this!’, and then five years later you still wanna do it that [same] way. Growth, and maturity, and discovery, and creative curiosity, or journeys or whatever, it’s almost like they’re frowned upon by some people. And as you know, when I’ve talked about that stuff, that’s when members in the metal community go, ‘Wait a minute, he’s betraying us!’ If people think we’ve betrayed the metal community by listening to the Arctic Monkeys, that’s completely ridiculous.”

So what exactly do you think of the state of heavy music in 2016?

“I still appreciate my Maiden and my Priest and my giant guitar solos as much as I ever have,” he muses. “There may not be as much new stuff that’s fuelling my fire, and I haven’t felt a hard rock thing in the last couple of years that’s really been, like, ‘Fuck yeah!’ Maybe people think that’s snotty or whatever, I dunno, but on my iPod, there’s lots of metal, and there’s lots of other stuff. I can be a little contrary – I’m Danish! – but sometimes the conservative elements of the rock community need a kick up the backside. It’s fine. I think that, 35 years in, we’re at peace with all this stuff.”

And that, it would seem, sums Metallica up right now. A band largely at ease with the various demons that have circled around them over the decades, and a band – as evidenced by the performance we witness later the following evening – legitimately stoked to be back doing what they were put on this Earth to do. When they cross the city the next night to play the intimate Webster Hall for the first official gig of the New Era, the Four Horsemen kill it – slaying the classics, cruising through new cuts Hardwired and Moth Into Flame and busting out a few token rare cuts for good measure – all the while looking like they’re having the time of their lives. No sloppiness, no misplaced drum fills, just tight and true metal fucking thunder.

“That was exciting!” smiles Rob Trujillo as he strides off stage. “You never know how people are gonna react to your new music. A lot of times it’s, ‘Oh, yawn, time to get a beer, it’s the new song,’ but it seems like the new stuff has been very well accepted.”

Given that Rob echoes the excitement about the new material that his bandmates have thus far exuded, we can’t help but ask about the fact that he and Kirk Hammett, on a creative level at least, have seemed to have had very little to do with it. Lars earlier mentioned that it was very much he and James at the core of the creative process this time around, and indeed a quick glance at the writing credits corroborates this – there is only one nod to Rob – on the track ManUNkind – and none at all for Kirk. What’s going on there, exactly?

“For some reason, Lars felt it was really important to connect with James,” Rob offers diplomatically. “It was evident that there was a surplus of riffs that were coming from James, and I think Lars focused more on simplifying the creative journey, and locking into James and really bringing him in for this album. But I was still there every day. It’s not like they’re over there by themselves writing the album – I’m with them, and I’m there supporting them with my bass. But no, I didn’t sit there and show James my [ideas]. Death Magnetic was a collaborative album; there were a lot of Kirk riffs in there, and there were a lot of my ideas, too. This isn’t like that. It’s Lars’s vision, and I’m happy to support whatever we need to do.”

So, Hardwired… is officially the Lars and James show. While Rob comes across as genuinely happy to toe the company line on this one, Kirk seems marginally less impressed, if still decidedly philosophical about the situation, when we raise it with him later on.

“For me, being in this band, I always want to contribute,” he shrugs. “I always have a lot of musical concepts and ideas to bring to the table. Obviously, that was not meant to be [this time], and I had to accept that fact, even though it was a very bitter pill to swallow.

Kirk coped with his lack of creative input by focusing on his solos

Kirk coped with his lack of creative input by focusing on his solos
(Image: © Jimmy Hubbard)

Given that Kirk had already had to shrug off the artistic trauma of losing hundreds of riffs he’d written for the album after the phone he recorded them on went AWOL – an incident he still swears to Hammer legitimately happened and left him “knocked back” – Kirk has also had to sit back and accept that his influence on Hardwired… was to be relatively minimal. While he emphasises that it was not a situation of his making, he seems to have begrudgingly accepted that, if Metallica are to progress into the next stage of their career, it’s one that has to happen.

“I want to write for the band, because it’s part of what I do, but if it’s not meant to be, OK, I really didn’t have much of a choice,” he offers. “And so, I focused on my solos, and just making sure that my playing on the album was at its best, at its full potential. Hopefully I can bring my ideas to the next Metallica album. I just hope it’s not another eight years…”

It speaks volumes of the place Metallica are at in 2016 that Lars and James can assume almost total creative control without too much tension rising in the ranks, and as Rob notes, it marks a stark difference from the atmosphere he found himself stepping into when he joined the band back in the turbulent spring of 2003. In fact, it’s been his own experience working with some of metal’s most dynamic personalities through the years that has enabled him to keep a level head through any inner turmoils Metallica have faced since he arrived.

“There are certain people I’ve worked with, whether it’s Suicidal Tendencies, Ozzy, Jerry Cantrell or Zakk Wylde, where I’ve always had these individuals in a time when they were in their maximum phase of destruction,” he explains. “2003, I felt, was a fragile period for Metallica. The band were going through a rebuilding stage, a transition, and after James coming out of rehab, and his time away from the band, I especially felt he was fragile. I’m used to balancing those personalities, you know? So I had to find a way to make it work when I joined. Now, we all communicate a lot better. And Metallica, when it’s getting back to real work like now, it’s a dream, a definite beast. And it’s exciting!”

That, at least, is something all four men can clearly agree on.

“I hate being tardy!” Kirk laughs. “It’s been a long time, and we had to produce something for our fans. We’ve had a lot of amazing opportunities over the last eight years, and they were all great experiences, but we’re here now.”

Here they most certainly are. And while life will never be simple in their world, the bottom line is this: in a book as tattered, beat up and jumbled as Metallica’s, this might just be the closest you’ll ever see to them being on the same page. As families go, it’s still a dysfunctional one, but armed with some genuinely great new material, a renewed sense of purpose and with their issues mostly behind them, it’s a Metallica we will definitely take right now.

“So there’s hope?” asks Lars with a friendly laugh as he breezes past us before disappearing backstage.

Yes, Lars, it would seem there really is. But seriously, lads, don’t leave it eight years next time, yeah?

HARDWIRED… TO SELF-DESTRUCT IS OUT ON NOVEMBER 18 VIA BLACKENED

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HAVE YOU ALWAYS BEEN A METALLICA FAN?

“Yeah. They’re not much older than me, so we grew up with the same music. I was in bands growing up, so I came up in the early-mid 80s LA metal scene. We’ve a lot in common, and as a guitar guy I’ve always been a fan of their music as well.”

YOU WORKED ON DEATH MAGNETIC, TOO…

“Yes. I’ve done a lot of records with Rick Rubin, and he asked me to work with him then. That was my first experience of the Metallica guys. We hit it off and since then I’ve been involved in everything they’ve done, whether it’s DVDs, the film, the Lou Reed project, so it’s been nearly 10 years now.”

WHAT WERE THEY LIKE TO WORK WITH?

“There were bumps in the road and arguments and all the usual things. It’s healthy, but it’s sometimes hard for people who have been doing this for 30 years to have fun. But we did have a lot of fun!”

LARS SAID YOU WEREN’T AFRAID TO STAND YOUR GROUND AT POINTS

“Right! With these guys, there’s no lack of really great ideas, and most of what it is is just figuring out what’s the best of them. That’s a great place to be, but between Lars and James, sometimes they have different things that they’re looking for, a different way of doing things, and sometimes having that third voice just to say, ‘Look, it doesn’t matter whose idea this was, it’s a good idea, and this is the way we’re gonna go’ made it easier.”

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