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Q&A: Metallica's James Hetfield

"There's more dedication from the four of us than ever before"

August 28, 2012 3:06 PM ET

You have been in Metallica for your entire adult life. Have you ever felt restricted?
I made myself feel restricted: "I'm tired of arguing. I'm not gonna argue for another five hours about something little and stupid. You win. This is Lars' band. When I'm able to be me, it'll be the side project, the solo thing." Which is just ridiculous. Every band that I've known that has done side projects or things like that — I don't respect them anymore.

There are very strict parameters to life in Metallica. It's like joining the Army.
The metal militia, dude! We've all discovered there is freedom through structure. There has to be some structure in my life, at least. I think Lars has discovered that a lot. You could look at Jason [Newsted] as the sacrificial lamb. I didn't want him doing 12 side projects: "You're in Metallica." But it was so unconnected when he left [in 2001], so compartmentalized. But now, Metallica is the four of us. This is our solo project. This is the best way to get our emotions and feelings out and touch people.

Was there a clear leader in the beginning? You or Lars?
There were leaders in different ways. There's no doubt Lars was the spearhead of wanting to get a band together. But I was the same, and we joined forces. Lars had the name. I had the logo. He was more the business guy, the thinker. I'm much less of a thinker. And there was his personality, the only child growing up in a pretty well-off family.

A well-off bohemian family.
Yeah, getting to do what he wants, anytime, anywhere. The negative side of that, somewhat obvious — spoiledness. But the positive side of that is he can get it done. He has the faith he can get it done. There are times when I think all of us follow his energy. There's fear at times. I can see it in him, when he feels like he's not getting his way. We always revert to our teenage years [laughs].

Have there been moments you can point to when it's not about being bandmates or Metallica against the world, but just two guys who share an emotional moment together — without embarrassment?
When it's just him and I, easily. The obvious one was me coming out of rehab — trying to talk to him, one on one, where I've been and need to go, what I'm feeling. There are times when he's gone through rough stuff as well. You forget all the shit. The armor gets taken off. You sit down and . . . [takes a deep breath] There were even times long before that. Lars would get himself in trouble in a bar, and I'd step up and get him out of it or protect him. Yeah, the little brother with the big mouth. [Laughs] Depending on who it was, I'd let him sort out some of his messes himself.

When you came back from rehab, you had to reconnect with both your family and the band. How hard was it? In a sense, you had to do it twice.
My whole life was duality: Here's my life at home, here's my life on the road. Keep the family at home, because they don't want to see what's out there. Eventually they had to get to know each other. Yes, they are two separate things. It's no secret. We get on stage, and we're our alterego. We are the person we want to be: strong, in control, singing to the masses. At home, at times I'm not even heard [laughs]. But they have to live together, and they do — pretty well.

In your early lyrics, you wrote a lot about war, death and authority. But unlike a lot of thrash and punk bands at the time, you never fell into the I-hate-my-parents and I-hate-school cliches. You wrote about reacting to pressure, but you never personalized it into family.
There are pro-family songs — "Battery," "Whiplash." They are "fan" family songs. Go and conquer together. There is one song I can specifically disagree with you on, "Dyers Eve" ["Dear mother, dear father, what is this hell you have put me through"]. There is a lot of blame in that song.

Blame for what?
Insulating and alienating, which happened a lot with our religion [Christian Science]. That song was about being in a cocoon, and now that I'm out on my own, oh, my God, the world is shocking me. I don't know how to deal with this stuff. I don't know how to deal with grief, poverty, confrontation. How to live on my own, after father leaving, mother dying.

Was the band your family for awhile?
Yeah, and that works for the first three or four albums. Everyone wants that: the vigor, fire, piss and vinegar. You really believe that you're taking on the world. A lot of that us-against-them that I had with our family transferred to the band, where it became a positive thing. Then as the band starts growing up, things start going other ways. ""Wait a minute, you guys aren't as dedicated as I am. I'm holding this together."" The fear of abandonment again started to play up. But I understand it now. I also feel there's more dedication from the four of us than ever before.

When did the notion of success — financially — first hit you? Do you recall what you did with your first big check?
Buying a house. That was a big deal — up on the hill, away from everyone. Had the gate. This was after the ""Black Album."" Jason used to make fun of me, that I had a gate.

It keeps people out.
Keeps me in [laughs]. But to keep people out, yeah. That's my private area.

When Metallica opened for the Rolling Stones in San Francisco in 2005, did you get a sense of the levels of stardom out there – the backstage behind the backstage?
The fact that we were in a trailer, not even in the backstage area, was somewhat humbling.

And back to a deli tray?
I remember going to catering. We were going on early. We needed to eat before everyone else. I opened up the shepherd's pie, and someone said, "Hey, don't touch that. Ron Wood always puts the first spoon in the shepherd's pie." So I took the biggest spoonful I could and filled my plate [grins]. I didn't do it as a dis to them, just the system. Then it was, "Okay, everyone line up. The Stones are coming out. If you want to get a picture with them . . ." They had someone arranging that. There was an actual line.

Like meeting royalty.
It was crazy. Should I bow or curtsy? How do I address them? And they come out — and they're regular. They're like, "Hey, what's up?" They're all regular dudes. All that other stuff is more "important" than it really is. There are times when I sit and think, "We got it really good. We have it perfect." Then you hear U2 does this, AC/DC has this. Well, okay. I think Lars is more aware of that. I'm more fearful that if it goes too far, we'll never come back.

 

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