Metallica got extra loud in their first live set in a year on Wednesday, headlining a benefit concert in Los Angeles for Flea's music school for kids, the Silverlake Conservatory. That meant no ballads and no new songs from the band's upcoming Rick Rubin-produced album. Instead, for nearly two hours at the Wiltern Theater, Metallica erupted with big sludgy riffs and epic speed metal going all the way back to the early Eighties.
"Now that's a beautiful sound right there," singer James Hetfield told the crowd, responding to the cheers from 2,000 fans who had paid $300 (or $500 for VIP seats) for a rare chance to see the band in a smaller venue. "It's great to be playing live again."
New songs from the upcoming album would just have to wait until the fall. Meanwhile, there were no special effects, but just four guys rocking out onstage, from the intense riffs and beats of "Fuel" to the heavy gloom of "Sad But True." Lars Ulrich stood while pounding the drums during "Ecstasy of Gold" and some fans dared to crowd-surf in the old art deco theater during "Master of Puppets," despite warnings at the door. They couldn't help themselves.
Near the end of the night, Flea joined Metallica on bass for the insanely fast "Fight Fire With Fire," a speed metal classic from 1984. It was enough to inspire Hetfield to step back and flash the devil's horns with both hands at Flea and his band, just like any other fan.
Hours before Metallica's set, Flea was downstairs warming up on bass and watching a silent TV screen showing the NBA playoff game between Boston and Cleveland. Ulrich was talking to TV reporters nearby and Hetfield was in a great mood and ready to reveal just a few things to Rolling Stone about the new album.
When you guys are about to get back in action, is there a certain anticipation, or just business as usual?
We have a tendency to rehearse way too much. So we'll book two weeks of rehearsal and probably rehearse about five days and then fuck around the last week, and say "We're good." And then we'll end up playing some of the new songs because we're all hepped up on them right now. Most of that goes away. We have some of the nightmares that maybe other musicians have: the nightmare of I can't find the dressing room, the guys are playing a song I've never heard in my life, my guitar cord's not long enough and I can't make it up to the microphone, the guitar neck is made of rubber — your normal dreams. But after we rehearse the dreams go away, and I feel a little more confident.
What brought you to this benefit?
We've been asked a couple of years. This is an extremely worthwhile cause. Music is disappearing in schools. It's got to be somewhere, especially these days, where music is taken for granted. It's nice to have a place where you're able to do that. Music has absolutely saved my life.
Did you know Flea?
The name is somewhat memorable. When you hear someone named Flea, you go "What? He must jump a lot." I've been a Peppers fan for a long, long time. I considered them a little more psycho. I never got to see them in the early days.
You guys came up in the same time, but in totally different scenes.
Very different. Back then we liked hearing different styles of music. They weren't heavy, but they were extreme, and I was into pretty much anything extreme.
Does the new Metallica album have a title yet?
It's got a title and we're still playing with it to see if we like it. But I guess the album's done. It's still got to be mixed. All the singing, all the recording is pretty much done. And we're pleased with it.
Was it an unusually long process this time?
It doesn't seem that way, but at the rate we're going, the next one will take four years. I don't particularly like taking that long. There's a few things that I know could make it shorter, but other band members disagree, so we do our best with a compromise.
After the last one, and the trauma captured in the Some Kind of Monster documentary, this one should have been a breeze.
Yeah, exactly. It was a breeze as far as material. This is where the disagreement comes in. We had too many songs. Let's write 10 good ones. This riff's not good enough? Say goodbye to it. Let's have the discipline to wave goodbye. That doesn't apply here. We're craftsman: We can take an OK song and make it good, but if it's not great, it doesn't make the record. But we see it through to the end. We're whittling it down to 10 or 11 now.
What brought you to Rick Rubin?
It was time to get a fresh set of ears. Bob Rock has done amazing stuff with us. It got a little comfortable. Maybe the fire wasn't there as much, in our viewpoint. Bob is a great person, a great friend. I feel extremely safe and comfortable with him, and maybe that wasn't what we needed to feel on this. We needed to argue a bit. We needed to get shaken up a little bit. That's what the mission was.
Did you always agree with what Rubin had to say?
Definitely not. But I was very willing to look at it and try it. If he's suggesting it, there's a reason behind it. And most times it was better, sometimes it was not. We like to be open, but there are times when we just know we're right and it's as simple as that. It wasn't head-butting like in the past, but there was some negotiating going on.
What was the idea behind making this album?
The direction is embracing our past in the now. We know what we know. It's hard to erase that. But to strip it down again, and get back to why we're doing this? Why did we write songs that way? The template was Master of Puppets and the strength of that record. How can we do that now?
You still see that album as a high mark for the band?
Oh definitely, no doubt about that. Hopefully this will be another one. We feel this record is really good, especially after St. Anger. It was very one-dimensional and abusive to the listener. That was the anger coming out. And if you weren't feeling that, it didn't feel so good. But this one is a lot more moody. We a lot of things I think make a diverse and interesting record.
Doing any of that tonight?
We're not playing any of the new stuff. I don't think this is the place. This is a benefit for Flea's thing. We don't want to grandstand with anything else here. There will be a time for that.