A week before James Hetfield and Co. are inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the metal icons’ Guitar Hero: Metallica video game hits stores, on March 29th. The new addition to the GH franchise boasts 28 controller-shredding songs taken from Metallica’s voluminous catalog as well as band-approved acts including Motorhead, Slayer and Mastodon (check out our sneak preview here!). Rolling Stone sat down with frontman James Hetfield at SXSW a few hours before Metallica’s epic “surprise” show to find out how he likes his pixellated persona, whether he thinks Death Magnetic sounds better on video game or record and if he believes encouraging kids to pick up plastic instruments is hurting their chances of learning real ones.
Which member of Metallica is the best at playing Guitar Hero?
Oh, I don’t know. I think we’re all equally bad.
As a guitarist, how are you at using the guitar controller?
The initial thought was, “This is gonna be so easy.” And then I picked it up and tried doing it. And it was like [makes plunking sound]. “Are you kidding me? You guys suck! You’re supposed to follow me!” I gotta be on with the lines. And Metallica’s not as on with the lines as some other bands. Especially having Lars as a drummer [Laughs].
How do you feel about the criticism that games like Guitar Hero are keeping a generation of kids from picking up actual guitars?
That’s an interesting backlash. I think Guitar Hero is a great gateway drug to real music. If you’ve got the music bug, nothing’s gonna stop you. It’s your destiny to express your gift.
When you were speaking out about file-sharing in 2000, Metallica was accused of being anti-technology. And now you’re on top of a technological trend.
We’ve never been anti-technology. Never ever. When we’re recording records, I want the newest, coolest gear possible. You want to combine it with the old amp or the vintage something. We’ve had one of the coolest websites from way back. Obviously the Napster part and the music-sharing was something that struck us in a different way, and we stood up for the artist. Technology’s always been a way for us to get out music out there and this is another prime example. That’s how music is connecting with people. Young kids love playing video games. Let’s school ’em. Lars’s kid came up to me and says, “You know what my favorite song is? ‘Mississippi Queen’ by Mountain!” Where did you hear that? “It was on Guitar Hero.”
How do you feel about the way your character looks in the game?
[Laughs] Well if I had my way, it would be super giant and ugly. Well, it is anyway. There’s a bit of ego in there, like, “I wish my guns were bigger.” But it’s a chance to change yourself, maybe the way you want to be seen. Maybe there’s some psych class 101 in there. When they brought the first drawings in, everyone was cool with the other people. But with your own person it’s, “I don’t look like that! The hell?! I look like a friggin’ cavemen!” Well, Robert’s definitely a caveman. [Laughs]
What do you think about the opinion that the mastering job of your last album, Death Magnetic, sounds better on a video game than on CD?
[Laughs] Then cool, I guess! It sounds better in my car than on my TV, I think.
What’s the first video game you fell in love with?
My buddy had Pong. We were obsessed with it. That was it, man.
Don’t miss our sneak peek at Guitar Hero: Metallica.