"Do you always do that?" Metallica's hulking frontman, James Hetfield, asks Lars Ulrich, a hint of agitation in his voice. The two are facing each other in the "Tuning Room," where the band typically rehearses before a show. It's roughly 20 minutes to showtime on the first night of the tour, at Baltimore's M&T Bank Stadium, and they're trying to get their 1991 classic "Wherever I May Roam" right, but the drummer is playing a strange off-kilter rhythm.
Fifteen years ago, this might have resulted in a long, teary group-therapy session, as documented in the 2004 film Some Kind of Monster. "What I said was a nice way of saying 'What the hell are you doing?'" the frontman says later with a laugh. But today, Hetfield drops the issue and lets Ulrich play the song his own way while exchanging grins with guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Rob Trujillo. When they finish, they shrug and whip through their punky, blazing-fast new single "Hardwired." This is how Metallica are operating on their first North American tour in eight years (and first stadium run in nearly 20): loose and easygoing, but also sensitive to one another's feelings.
"We've played some of these songs 94,000 times, so it's not like we necessarily need to practice them," Hetfield says. "It's more about warming up – it's like an athletic approach where you gotta get the blood flowing. Sometimes it's hard not to get a little adventurous or curious in the certain part because you just have to try and find ways to keep your attention focused."
"The band can still pretty much fall apart at any moment," the singer says with a laugh a few days later. "But we don't want that. We know too much now. It's come with time and growing up together, going through tons of shit together and possibly maturing. I know that's a strange word in this business, but we care too much. We know where all the nuclear buttons are with each other, but we don't push 'em. We love what we do, and we want to keep it going."
This new headspace is a positive effect of the painful group therapy sessions the band endured in Some Kind of Monster with "performance enhancement coach" Phil Towle. "He got himself a little bit of a bad rap because he was deemed the villain in the movie and I think I've hurt myself sort of defending him over the years," says Ulrich, who co-founded the group in 1981 with Hetfield, "but I'm pretty sure if it wasn't for his tireless efforts, we may not be sitting here in Baltimore today 'cause there wouldn't be a band. ... I learned a lot about myself for those couple years, and I still access some of that stuff occasionally."
Part of the reason why the band has been able to maintain peace is the way they give each other space. Although their latest LP, Hardwired, has gotten a warm reception from fans ("In 35 years, I've never heard the sentence, 'Why are you not playing more new songs?' until this tour cycle," Ulrich recently said), they tour only in two-week increments with two weeks off in between. And in between gigs, they fly in and out of the cities they're playing. For their recent East Coast run, they based themselves out of New York City; after the Baltimore gig, Ulrich went to a party in Brooklyn for a 2 a.m. nightcap and Hetfield spent the next day at a shooting range in New Jersey, "letting off some steam." Other than meet-and-greets, the first time they check in with each other on a show day is in the Tuning Room, a makeshift oasis decked out in black curtains and flags their fans have given them.
With the exception of a few hours when horror buff Hammett visited Edgar Allen Poe's grave ("I couldn't resist, bro"), Metallica's time in Baltimore was mostly about business. Since they were launching a tour, they kicked things off early with a four-song soundcheck for 260 contest winners the night before the big show. The scene in the "Snake Pit" – a small area in front of the stage enclosed by a catwalk – was one of shouting and frenzied excitement, as the band played two Hardwired songs. Although they're playing on a gargantuan stage, which stretches the width of the football field, that has the "M" and "A" from their logo on either end of it and is loaded up with pyro, video screens and inflatable balloons, they performed a relatively stripped-down set of new songs and fan favorites like the heavy "For Whom the Bell Tolls" and the hyper-speed "Battery."
Ulrich came out early and mugged at the fans, talking to them and accepting an American flag that the serviceman who gave it to him said had been flown at an Air Force base in Iraq. The drummer spots some fans in the front row – a woman in a surgical mask, Amber Thomas, and her high-school–age nephew, Ryan Vestel – who held up a sign saying they'd driven 15 hours from Florida to get there and that it was "almost time" for the woman to "fade to black," so her sign had her pleading for a guitar pick or drum stick. "I got diagnosed with lupus over eight years ago, and it's now to the point where my heart is failing, all my organs are failing, the chemo's not working," she says after the show. "I'm at the end." She didn't get a pick or a stick, but Vestel got one of Hetfield's guitar picks. Would he give it to her? "No." Thomas didn't get a pick the next day either but says now that seeing Metallica live was finishing part of her bucket list.
The next day, the band arrived at the stadium at 4 p.m. in four separate SUVs escorted by police on motorcycles. About a half an hour later, the four members convene in the Baltimore Ravens' locker room for a meet-and-greet with 12 impeccably well-behaved fans who paid $2,499 each for the opportunity to get a photo with the band and autographs and ask the musicians whatever is on their mind. They also get access to the "Memory Remains" Metallica museum, a mini traveling Rock and Roll Hall of Fame that shows off the group's clothes, handwritten lyrics (on display are alternate lyrics to "Creeping Death"), original album art for Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, cassette collections (including Hetfield's own No Life 'Til Leather cassette) and actual instruments – some of which fans can play.
"We very cautiously decided to do experiences," Ulrich says. " We spent a lot of time seeing what everybody was else doing. 'What's Black Sabbath doing? What's Guns N' Roses doing? What happens in the pop world?' It felt foreign to us and, dare I say, a little hokey. So we just had to sort of get to a place where we would get comfortable with that."
They do another meet-and-greet with Make-a-Wish kids ("That's always satisfying, like a good deed," Hetfield says), but most of their time is spent separately. They each do local press, and then Hammett typically does yoga for an hour and some of the others stretch out with a physical therapist or run on a treadmill. And then the drummer works out a set list with the band members. "I usually have all the information about last time we played in a city and try to put some deeper cuts that we didn't play last time," he says. Then they go to the Tuning Room to rehearse for the gig.
"Lars is in game time mode today," Trujillo says before the show. "He's fired up and focused, which is good. He's connecting with the production team on some of those specifics."
"Sometimes Lars' plate is too full and he won't admit it," Hetfield says. "He'll show up in the Tuning Room late, all wound up. So I remind him, 'You can say no. You don't have to do everything.'"
"When you're in a bigger place, there's more stuff to either worry about or that can go wrong," Ulrich says of his game mode. "You've got curfews and public-transportation shutdowns and if you play nine seconds past a certain time then it's $25,000 a second. We have awesome team out here, but there's some times where you sit there and like, 'Who's actually steering this ship?'" He laughs.
But he, like the rest of the band members, doesn't mind doing the extra work since he recognizes how special it is for Metallica to be playing stadiums – an increasingly rare feat for hard-rock and metal bands. "Not a lot of bands have been jumping from the middle to the top," Ulrich says, citing U2 as his role model for how bands get bigger. "Guns N' Roses have been around for 30 years, AC/DC have been around 45, we've been around for 130 years – it's an odd thing. Sometimes it's like, 'Holy fuck, we're playing stadiums. What if somebody finds out that we shouldn't be playing stadiums?'"
"There are a few bands still doing it on a level that's similar to back in the day," says Hammett, who says it feels "like 1993 all over again" on this tour but without the bands that seem ready to level-up. "There's Guns N' Roses, Tool, I wanna say Rage Against the Machine, but I'm not sure what their status is right now. But it's weird. Like, what happened to everyone? Did they just fade away, give up? Did they lose interest? Did the audience lose interest? Why did the audience lose interest? There are a bunch of different questions on why they're not here now and why are we."
"[Black Sabbath bassist] Geezer Butler and I were on a flight two years ago and he asked me, 'Who's gonna carry the torch when we're gone and Metallica's gone?'" Trujillo says. "I didn't know how to answer that question. I said maybe [French metal act] Gojira, but it's not like they're super young."
In the years since the band's last U.S. tour, it has stayed busy, playing mostly to die-hard European and South American audiences while indulging in creative whims. Lulu, their 2011 album with Lou Reed, got middling reviews. Metallica created their Orion Music + More festival, which ran for two years, and self-funded Metallica Through the Never, a 3D concert film. Both projects were a hit with fans, but lost money. In 2012, they left Warner Bros. and started their own indie label to record 2016's Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct. The independence they felt resulted in wilder arrangements and closer collaboration. (The only hiccup happened when Hammett lost his iPhone containing hundreds of song ideas. He still cringes when thinking about it – these days, he knows how to use the cloud.) The process worked: Hardwired hit Number One and went platinum – and the band has been playing lots of new songs live: The eight-minute rager "Halo on Fire" is becoming a new anthem, and "Atlas, Rise!" is a time-shifting epic that turns the Snake Pit into a frenzy. (Hetfield has been thrilled with how many young, first-time concertgoers he's been seeing.)
When Metallica take the stage in Baltimore, any residual nerves are gone. They do a huddle backstage ("We take turns saying something fairly goofy, like, 'We're going to go out there and kick some Baltimore ass,'" Ulrich says) and step in front of what can only be described as a supersized IMAX screen displaying close-ups and video for a two-hour gig. In Charm City, they play a whopping five cuts off Hardwired (as many as they do off 1991's Black Album), as well as fan favorites "One," "Master of Puppets" and a regular version of "Wherever I May Roam." They play oversized Japanese Taiko drums for a drum circle in "Now That We're Dead," blast 40-foot spires of flame for "Fuel," ignite flames from the stage for "Moth Into Flame" and project Pink Floyd–style lasers for "Nothing Else Matters." It's metal's biggest band at their most ginormous.
The show is also literally Metallica's largest production ever. Using 48 trucks, the stage takes three days to set up, equipped with lasers, balloons, more than 350,000 total watts of audio and a circular catwalk with a mini stage that the band plays "Seek and Destroy" on, aiming to recreate the garage atmosphere where it was written. The whole stage features 83 laser fixtures, which took 640 hours to program, and nearly 40,000 speakers for each production. Each night, they generate 2.5 megawatts of power – enough to power 1,800 homes for a month.
"Do you want heavy?" Hetfield asks before launching into "Sad but True," the start of a homestretch of hits that wraps with "Enter Sandman." Afterward, the band members toss picks and drum sticks into the audience and give their heartfelt thanks before running off the stage and immediately getting into cars that take them to their hotels and to the plane that will take them back to New York – making for an exit as big as the concert. "It's the old 'Elvis has left the building' thing," Ulrich jokes.
"I really feel like we've always been able to pull it together and persevere and move forward," Hammett said backstage before the show started. "It feels good to be able to fucking do stadium tours after 30-plus years. That's the ultimate, and I'm so grateful and feel so motherfucking lucky. I just hope that when we're gone, my kids can have something like this."