Metallica Gear Up for Second Orion Festival

Inside the metal gods' early-morning rehearsals: riffs, jokes, raw power

June 5, 2013 10:50 AM ET
James Hetfield of Metallica performs in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
James Hetfield of Metallica performs in Atlantic City, New Jersey.
Theo Wargo/Getty Images for Orion Music + More

A few minutes after 9:00 A.M. on a Tuesday morning, flip-flop-clad guitarist Kirk Hammett dashes into Metallica's Bay Area rehearsal room. The rest of the band started closer to 8:30; barefoot frontman James Hetfield has a hard out at 9:35, so there's not a lot of time. (Hammett is sorry he's late, but he got stuck in a slow lurch between a utility truck and a garbage truck on his way in.) The musicians form a semicircle around Lars Ulrich's drum kit and jump into a handful of tunes they haven't played in a few years. You'll never hear staples like "Enter Sandman" or "Seek and Destroy" being rehearsed at Metallica HQ, but if it's a deep cut from 1983's Kill 'Em All or 1997's Reload, odds are the band will give it a cursory once-over before bringing it to the stage.

Metallica are in the midst of final preparations for their second Orion Music and More Festival, coming to Detroit's Belle Isle park on June 8th and 9th. Last year, the band played two of its albums in their entirety over two nights, a concept they won't be revisiting this year; instead, based on Tuesday's rehearsal, there will be numerous fan-pleasing rarities. Often, the band doesn't need to run through a whole song at rehearsal – just a few of the transitions and the occasional guitar solo. Ulrich, who creates the band's setlists, is the maestro: He calls out the name of the song and a specific starting point ("After the second chorus, before the solo"), quickly counts off, and immediately the rest of the band is right there with him. It's impressive. There are techs on standby with Teleprompters and studio versions of the songs for comparison, but they aren't called upon too often.

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The band runs fully through two lesser-played songs, then smooths over a few riffs. Even at 9:15 in the morning – a time Ulrich calls "borderline inhuman" – with mugs of hot tea on stools and some sleepy eyes, Hetfield and Hammett lock into precise twin-guitar harmonies, bassist Rob Trujillo gets into his famous crouch to drive home the heavier grooves and Hetfield goes all-out on some tough vocal parts. Hetfield briefly flubs a riff and shares a laugh with Hammett, who jokes that it's so early that he can "barely remember how to hold a pick." The mood turns silly, and the guitarists add falsetto vocal harmonies to an otherwise abrasive song from their early days.

Hetfield unplugs, says farewell, and leaves. Left without a singer, the band presses Rolling Stone to take the microphone, but after noticing the number of active video cameras in the room, we politely pass. The remaining trio tackles a few more songs instrumentally, and Trujillo temporarily takes charge, leading Hammett and Ulrich through a song the band has only performed once before, one Trujillo didn't even record with the band, but he knows the changes best. He later becomes playfully incredulous when Hammett can't remember the lines of a song he's been performing for over 30 years. "He may secretly listen to those songs more than the rest of us do," Ulrich says of Trujillo.

After practicing a few more sections and deeming some of the other songs on the setlist too heavy for this early hour, they call it a day. Hammett bemoans a less-than-stellar report about local surfing conditions, and Ulrich and Trujillo settle in to do some press.

Instead of performing both nights at Orion, this year Metallica are ceding one night to another headliner, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. A stage dedicated to electronic dance music, which Ulrich dreamed up after seeing Skrillex perform at Outside Lands last year, is the other major addition. The drummer names the Deftones, Japandroids, Fu Manchu and Foals as his most highly-anticipated Orion performances this year.

When we remind him that the following day is the tenth anniversary of the release of St. Anger, he's surprised, but quickly comes up with a not-at-all-serious idea.

"Fuck, we've got to play St. Anger in its entirety, then," Ulrich says – aware that even joking about performing the divisive 2003 album may strike fear into the hearts of many. "When you've been around as long as we have, you can find an anniversary pretty much anywhere you look. I was not aware of that. I don't pay a lot of attention to dates at that level, but fuck, 10 years since St. Anger, Jesus. That's four more years than the Beatles made records. I sometimes trip on that."

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