After a career that spans four decades, you might expect rock legends METALLICA to be running on empty. But, having overcome every hurdle that life – and the music industry – could throw at them, it seems they have only just begun
Death, addiction, lawsuits… Through all the trials and tribulations, Metallica have somehow survived more than 35 years on hard rock’s relentless road.
The youthful fire that scorched a blazing path through the metal scene back in the early 1980s still burns brightly, despite all four members now being in their 50s.
Here, vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich trace the evolution of Metallica from wild-eyed thrash punks to one of the biggest bands on the planet.
THE RED BULLETIN: You celebrated your sixth number one album last November when your latest record, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, topped the charts around the world. After all your success, do you still get a kick when that happens?
JAMES: Oh man… for sure! But you know, it’s bizarre, and very surprising. The older we get, the more special getting a number one album is going to get. After 35 years, that this can still happen, it’s great. It’s the oxygen we need!
LARS: The fact that Metallica can still release records that matter to people is a great thing; that hard music still matters to people is a great thing. I feel like rock groups are becoming a minority. There are fewer and fewer bands doing well on a global scale, so being one of them is a privilege. It’s a good time to be in Metallica.
Hardwired… was the first album to be released on your own label, Blackened Recordings. How different was this experience compared with others?
JAMES: It wasn’t that different. What I would say is that as it was on our own label – which is only our own label in the US; we’re still on Universal in the rest of the world – we were able to take our time and write without deadlines. No one was saying, “Hey, we need it by this time.”
LARS: When we entered into contract negotiations, the aim was always to eventually own our own back catalogue. Any disassociation and dynamic that releases you is a great thing because you are truly free to do what you want. The main difference was not in the recording, but in what happened the day after we finished, because we now have to do 90 per cent of the work ourselves, whereas 10 or 20 years ago other people did most of the work. We have a much bigger infrastructure now.
You’re a band that has often worn its heart on its sleeve. Looking at your back catalogue, are there any periods where you now think, “What the hell were we thinking?”
JAMES: There are things I would like to change on some of the records, but it gives them so much character that you can’t change them. I find it a little frustrating when bands re-record classic albums with pretty much the same songs and have it replace the original. It erases that piece of history. These records are a product of a certain time in life; they’re snapshots of history and they’re part of our story. OK, so …And Justice for All  could use a little more low end and St. Anger  could use a little less tin snare drum, but those things are what make those records part of our history.
Metallica started out in another age, when vinyl was king. You now have your own vinyl printing plant in Germany. Why is that?
JAMES: We grew up with and love vinyl. It’s an experience, an event. It’s tangible: you hold the record, take it from the sleeve; place the needle in the groove. About six months ago, I was in LA, visiting some old high-school buddies and we just sat around listening to vinyl… stuff like Kansas. Just the act of flicking through the boxes, smelling the cardboard, reading the sleeve notes and listening to that warm sound – it’s very immersive.
So, you’re essentially your own bosses now. Would you say it’s been a natural progression from crazy kids with a dream to rock moguls/businessmen?
LARS: I’d like to think that we’re still crazy adults, still trying to figure it all out. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see a businessman, but obviously when you have a bunch of people who work for you, there’s a point where you at least have to act mature. I’m 53 now, but I still feel like that crazy kid trying to work out what’s going on at times, so to have a trusted team behind us, with our own set-up, and being fiercely independent like Metallica is… that’s really a cool thing of which we’re very proud.
You don’t look like businessmen, but isn’t it also true that Lars has been very active in that side of things since you started out?
JAMES: Lars is the more business-savvy guy. He followed Motörhead, he followed Diamond Head, and he learned from them and other bands how they did things, why they made the decisions they made, why one manager is better than another… He’s very inquisitive when it comes to business. Me? I just… didn’t want a job! I wanted to play music, create and have my therapy and career wrapped into one! It’s good to learn from others and apply that to your own life, but deep down we’re still rebels, risk-takers. We like being challenged by life and being faced with the question “What do we do next with this gift we have?” Planning and preparation is only part of it. Guts, soul and fire are also invaluable weapons.
I find it hard to imagine Metallica sitting around in glass-walled offices, shouting into phones, with ties askew…
JAMES: There are no ties, man, and we’re very rarely in an office. As for shouting into phones, we pay people to do that! I think the bigger picture is about who’s in control, who’s running the ship and who’s just having a good time being in the band. It might be fairly obvious, but Lars and I are the two guys who put this band together; we formed this thing from day one and had this vision. We’ve been in the driving seat, but Kirk [Hammett, lead guitarist] and Rob [Trujillo, bass player] are always ready to go with us, wherever this ride takes us.
You talk a lot about achieving independence. How important is that in having a long and successful career?
JAMES: For us, yes, it has been important, but for other people? I don’t know. When we were starting out, getting signed by a label was huge. I don’t think that’s such a huge thing now. The fact that you can make your own music in your basement, press it and put it out yourself is wonderful, but how far do you get with that? Do you eventually sign up with someone who’s bigger? These are the business decisions you need to make. You have to ask yourself, “What is it we want to do?” Do you want to tour the world, stay local? You should do what makes you happy.
LARS: We’ve always felt we were outsiders. I guess we never really felt the need to play the game. The best thing about our success is that it has afforded us the opportunity to carve our own creative path. Primarily, independence for us means that we’ve never really taken money from anybody; we’ve never owed anybody anything.
JAMES: We’ve always been control freaks. As artists, we’ve always felt the need to have at least some control over how our art is presented. Whether you’re an artist or a sculptor, you’re going to have a strong opinion on how your art is hung or where it’s placed – that’s part of the artistic vision.
But wouldn’t you agree that you have to adapt and be flexible in any career?
JAMES: When the floodgates opened and music was all over the internet for free, it scared us and we didn’t know what to think about that. But obviously now it’s a great, convenient way to get your music, so adapting is the only way to survive. I think that’s true in any walk of life.
You mentioned free music online. Do you regret the way you were represented during the Napster case where you opposed illegal downloads?
JAMES: What people think about us, about me, is none of my business. I knew it was the right thing to do. We were an easy target. Someone who is established and who is concerned about their art is there to be shot at.
LARS: It was a street fight, and the other guys painted this picture that it was between Metallica and their fans, and Metallica against downloading, which it really wasn’t. It wasn’t about downloading; it was about choice. If I want to give away my music for free, whose choice is that? Is it my choice, or someone else’s? It was a strange summer.
That strange summer included a South Park episode portraying you, Lars, crying by your pool because you couldn’t afford to have a gold-plated shark-tank bar installed due to illegal downloads…
LARS: That has floated across my eyeballs. But I’m pretty thick-skinned. We took a lot of hits that summer; that was one of them.
So you never fancied having a gold-plated shark tank bar, then?
JAMES: We’re practical people. We’ll put our money into a stage set or a good production or making a movie. As far as decadence goes, there’s none of that. We’d kick each other’s asses. That doesn’t fit the Metallica mould.
That wasn’t the only dark period: your 2004 documentary film Some Kind Of Monster showed the band at its lowest ebb, going through a lot of personal struggles. How did you keep the band together during that time?
LARS: When James came back from a year away [from the band] with a new set of tools for interacting with us, I wasn’t sure for the first six months how that was going to work out. I wasn’t sure I could adhere to those ways. It all fell back into place around 2005 and 2006, but it was pretty ropey there for a while. We weren’t quite sure what was going to happen. I’m not a big fan of ‘what if’ questions, because who knows what would have happened if we had split. But we’re here, talking to you. Trying to imagine a world where Metallica split 10 years or so ago is a waste of energy.
Let’s waste a bit: if you had split, could you see Metallica jumping on the reformation bandwagon now?
LARS: There are lot of bands that reform for a lot of different reasons. There could be someone who says, “I’m reforming this band for $20 million,” and I’d say, “Good on ya!” Who the hell am I to say that you shouldn’t do that? I can barely keep my own shit together!
On the subject of touring, you’ve made it clear that from now on you won’t be going out on a long haul; instead, you’ll play for two weeks, then have two weeks off to spend with your families. Does it get easier to juggle family life with a music career as you get older?
JAMES: We’re extremely fortunate to be where we are. To be able to do two weeks on, two weeks off is great – not only for our families, but for our own sanity, our physical, mental and spiritual well-being. We can’t go on tour like we did when we were in our 20s. It needs to be age-appropriate touring these days!
The new regime also means you get a bit of downtime. Maybe to do a little skateboarding, James?
JAMES: It’s been a while since I’ve been on a board. We played the House of Vans in London at the end of last year, and some of our crew had a go, but those days are done for me. I’ve got other passions now. We all need ‘you’ time. You need to get away. There’s still a lone wolf in me who loves solitude, loves going solo whether it’s music, hunting, hiking or camping, whatever. Or getting in the garage and tinkering with something, getting really lost in a project… I love doing that.