This is a historic occasion. On a recent afternoon in their studio north of San Francisco, Metallica are playing the whole of their biggest album, 1991’s Metallica, a.k.a. the Black Album, in sequence for the first time. They are also playing it backward, starting with the emotionally wracked finale, “The Struggle Within,” and ending with the exultant menace of “Enter Sandman.” “It doesn’t say anywhere that if you play an album in its entirety, you have to play it front to back,” drummer Lars Ulrich contends.
Ulrich, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo will perform the Black Album at their Orion Music + More festival, to be held June 23rd-24th in Atlantic City. They’ll also stomp through 1984’s Ride the Lightning, another first. As the members explain in these interviews, before and after practice, this is a summer of firsts. An eight-show run in Mexico City will feature an extravagant new stage that is a component of the 3D movie Metallica are developing with director Nimród Antal. And with Orion Music + More, Metallica are launching a personalized twist on the festival experience. Ulrich is programming a film tent; Hammett is the host of Kirk’s Crypt, devoted to his collection of horror-movie memorabilia. Everyone in the band had a loud say in the wide range of acts on the rest of the bill.
“Do your festival, do your movie – it’s all so cool,” Ulrich raves. “Variety is the spice of life.”
This is a busy year for you, even without a new album. When you come to this studio, does it feel like your version of an office?
Not one bit. I look forward to coming here. It feels safe. It feels real. I can be my total self. Out there, not so much. When I get here, I feel grounded. I feel OK.
There was a different energy when we worked in other places. When we recorded in Denmark, we slept in the tape [storage] room. We’d wake up, go downstairs and record, then go upstairs and go to bed. But this is the ultimate. If you’re in a rock band, you want this. And we got it.
The place where we wrote [1986’s] Master of Puppets was over on Carlson Boulevard [in El Cerrito]. There was a garage where we never parked a car. There was a drum kit, a few amps – the smell of that carpet… ugh! It was going to be torn down, that historic little building [grins]. I wanted to buy it and put it in there [points to the recording room]. Put the old garage in our new garage. I had to let that one go.
After 30 years, a lot of bands would start slowing down.
A lot of bands would say, “I wonder what 30 years feels like. We never made it.” There’s a lot of people who want us to stop. This is a gold-plated problem. Why would you stop? There are so many cool things still. I don’t want to say no to something and then think later on, “What an asshole. You missed out on something that is not coming again.”
Twenty years ago, a lot of those people thought you walked on water.
It’s mostly “They’re not doing the things I want them to. They made an album with Lou Reed. I don’t want that.” They’re in love with something that isn’t. Or they’re in love with something that morphs, that needs its own space. They can’t contain it.
When you played the older songs at your 30th-anniversary shows last December at the Fillmore, did you recognize your younger, angrier self in those lyrics? You’re a different man than the one who wrote “Of Wolf and Man.”
Or “Dyers Eve,” which is pure spite. [Pauses] I look back at pictures and see someone who is happy – smiling, goofing, using foul language at the wrong time, kind of obnoxious, but happy. But behind closed doors, there was a lonely, ugly, hateful person. Thank God for that music.
There’s a romantic part of those days that I miss. I look at those photos and want to be that again. Then I look at my relationship with my band, my friends, especially my family, and I think, “I wouldn’t have this if I was that person.”
Are there songs on the Black Album that you find difficult to sing now?
Lyrically? No. It just solidifies what I was going through. I can see it clearer. “The Struggle Within” – I’m no psychiatrist, but it’s right there. “Don’t Tread on Me,” “Sad but True,” “My Friend of Misery” – it speaks a lot of what’s to come. When [the artist] Pushead did the original [sleeve] art for “Sad but True,” with the skull looking at itself, I had no idea the duality was so blatant in that song. He picked up on that: good and evil; the secret me and the public me. I’m glad I’m a little more transparent than I think I am. People have helped me more because of that.
How do you write angry metal lyrics now if you’ve left the rage behind?
Ask my wife why I get pissed off and want to smash the car into pieces. It’s still there. I wish it wasn’t. But why run from it? Just understand it. Use it. When I’m feeling like that, pick up a pen and paper. Pick up the guitar. Start doing it. Because it’s not gone. My family wishes it was. But it’s not.
Do you have a mental or emotional regimen to manage that?
Obviously the 12-step meetings. Meditation. Prayer. They all help me at least know that what I’m feeling is coming from somewhere for a reason. It’s understanding my cycle: feeling insecure, using rage to prove who I am and get what I want, then depression. And then it goes back to insecurity. It’s a cycle, not unlike drinking – all or nothing. History tells me it won’t last forever. But when I’m in it, I’m in it.
How far have you gotten into writing for a new album?
I only have 846 riffs.
Is that an exact figure?
In iTunes, you can see how many things you’ve got. And that does not include the soundchecks, the stuff we goof around with here. You plug in an amp. Suddenly it makes you feel good – you come up with a riff. “Dude, did you get that?” You can’t get away from being recorded here.
But Lars, the hoarder of Metallica, is obsessed with revisiting every stone, turning it over: “That could be great!” Yeah, it could all be great. But I’ve got a new one right now. That’s the Catch-22. You’ve got a riff from five years ago on tour that’s amazing. Do I still feel it? Don’t worry. Something better will show up.
Are there too many distractions – tours, the festival, the movie – that take you away from the primary business of…
Writing songs? Absolutely. This week is interviews, photo shoots, shooting videos for things. When are we going to start writing? “We’ve got to rehearse the Black Album.” I would love to sit and write a record without having to think of other stuff.
What is your take on 3D movies? When I hear that phrase, I get worried.
You think Pixar. You think hokey-ness. Our intention is to make something that is completely insane and blows minds. I also want a story line. I want this to be a cult-type film. It’s kind of silly, talking so in-depth about it when I don’t know what it even is yet.
Whose idea was it?
[Co-manager] Peter Mensch. It came from capturing the best stuff from all of the past tours. A lot of kids didn’t get to see the destruction scene [on the…And Justice for All tour], or the Snakepit [on the Metallica tour]. Put it all into a best-of. And hey, why don’t we film it in 3D?
Do you have a budget?
Yeah. It’s ungodly. It’s our life savings, basically. We don’t know what the hell we’re doing. But we know we want to try.
I’m surprised that after your 2004 warts-and-all documentary, “Some Kind of Monster,” you would make another movie.
Maybe someone else will go into rehab for this one. [Laughs] Rehab – in 3D!
Whose idea was it to play the Black Album in reverse?
If you like the idea, it was mine. If you don’t, it was James’ [grins]. For better or worse, I’m the set-list guy. This is all subject to change if it doesn’t work. But the idea of starting off with the lesser-known songs buried down there and ending up with “Sad but True” and “Enter Sandman” seems like a winner. You finish with the money shot, which is the first song.
That album’s shift away from speed metal to shorter, simpler songs set the tone for the rest of Metallica’s career – a willingness to experiment that still confounds even people who like you.
I’m a big believer that the records all thread together. That straighter, four-on-the-floor thing was present on earlier records, in “Harvester of Sorrow” and “Ride the Lightning.” But we went all-out because there was nowhere else to go. Where do you go after “Dyer’s Eve”? You can’t get faster. You can’t get more pissed off than Hetfield barking at his parents. That was the end of the Eighties for us.
We played a show in Toronto with Aerosmith in the summer of 1990, right at the time we started writing the Black Album. I remember sitting under the grandstand with [co-manager] Cliff Burnstein. He said, “The Misfits are a huge part of your influence – ‘Last Caress’ is a minute and a half long. [The Rolling Stones’] ‘Jumpin’ Jack Flash’ is part of who you are. You just haven’t released it yet.”
I went back to San Francisco, and there was a riff on Kirk’s riff tape [hums the “Enter Sandman” lick]. The whole song is just that riff. “Enter Sandman” was the blueprint. The rest of the record appeared over two months.
How much will playing that album live affect your next album?
I’ve been sitting with these songs for a month now, listening to them while I’m driving, immersing myself before we play them: “Why did we go one key up there? Why did we repeat that thing four times instead of two?” I was thinking about it again today. There was a moment in “Sad but True” with that half-chorus in the middle. Then it went back to the guitar solo, and there was that little break before it goes into the third verse.
I couldn’t help thinking, “Why was it put together like that? Maybe we can slightly borrow that?” If you can’t rip yourself off, what’s the point? It will be interesting to see, once we take this album out to people in different countries, what we’ll come back with for the writing sessions in the fall.
You do have a lot of projects that get in the way of making new music.
I don’t want to be that band that just does record, tour; record, tour. I will say to my dying day, “Who wouldn’t want to make a record with Lou Reed?” They are adventures, uncharted territory, places where you do more than just use muscle memory. I want to get away from that model, that the sole reason for a band to exist is to just make another record.
You don’t have on or off years now. They’re all working years.
I have an adverse reaction to the word “work.” Coming down to HQ, playing music and sweating – this is fun. We love this too much. We survived all of the pitfalls and traps we were in, all that nutty stuff you see in Some Kind of Monster. This whole thing seems to have found a rhythm. It’s not like the Red Hot Chili Peppers. They make their record, they tour, then go away for three or four years. That’s not our destiny.
What parts of the Orion festival can you take credit for?
I came up with the name [laughs]. For me, having the Arctic Monkeys on there is big. I think they’re a heavy-metal band disguised as an indie band. If you listen to a song like “Perhaps Vampires Is a Bit Strong But…,” there’s almost a Rush element in there. Avenged Sevenfold are near and dear to me. They were on the fence about it. They were taking the summer off. I called one of the guys and said, “It would really mean a lot to us.” The Black Angels are just cool. A friend of mine said, “Check them out,” and I was like, “Wow, it’s the Doors meets something else in 2011.”
Were there any bands you invited who said, “No way, we’ll get killed by your fans.”
The issue isn’t with the bands. It’s more if this type of festival can exist from the fans’ point of view. Because we’re doing it, it gets branded as a particular thing. We have to work harder. If Radiohead does it, it’s cool. If we do it, it’s not.
I’m stunned that people are stunned by us doing these things. It’s our DNA.
The 3D movie is a weird leap, even for you. It has elements of documentary, fiction and live performance, on this crazy stage.
This has been circling for two years. It’s time to life-size it, get it out of our minds and on the screen. And if it’s done right, it can be sensational. You’re not watching Metallica onstage. You’re onstage with Metallica. In IMAX, James Hetfield is 38 feet tall, snotting on you, spitting on you. It’s 2,000 decibels. If there is an earthquake outside, you wouldn’t notice.
But you can’t do that for 100 minutes. It loses its appeal. There is another element in there – intimate, small, a story that takes place over the same trajectory as the concert. The question is, “Where do they weave in and out of each other?” But you have to cut away from the concert to enjoy the concert.
Even at a Metallica show, you gotta take a break for a beer or a leak.
This idea goes back to the Nineties, when IMAX movies started coming out. We were in talks with them. That’s when an IMAX camera was the size of a house, and they only had 12 minutes of film. You had to stop to reload. But seeing Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol in IMAX, which I did the week it came out, and then when we broadcast the Big 4 show [with Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeth] from Sofia, Bulgaria, to movie theaters in 2010 – that’s what sealed the deal.
How do you look at your long-term future? You just celebrated your 30th anniversary. Another 30 years might be optimistic. I still don’t feel we’ve challenged ourselves enough. We still talk about “the next album.” We can do whatever we want with our music. “We’ve hidden a new Metallica CD in each ZIP code in America. Go find it!” There’s nothing but options.
Just don’t mention the word “work.” The a.m. grind, getting my three kids ready for school – that is the work part of my day. When I come in here, that’s when the fun starts.
What are you learning from playing the Black Album?
For the longest time, I thought “My Friend of Misery” was an instrumental. In 1990, when we were getting it together for the album, we always played it as an instrumental. Before we finished, we decided James should write lyrics. When we were talking about playing the Black Album live, I listened to it, to relearn it, and went, “My God, it has words.” When we rehearsed it this time, it was the first time we’d played it with James singing.
But the simplicity of that album, the structure of it, verges on the poetic. A good poem has the right word in the right spot at the right moment. The Black Album has all that. The guitar solos almost wrote themselves.
It wasn’t like you slowed down and simplified to become more successful. But a lot of your fans considered the Black Album a betrayal of your speed-metal origins.
Metal is one of the most conservative forms of music. The conundrum is that it’s also rebellious music. It’s supposed to be extreme. It’s not anything anybody talks about. You just know what the terms are. Is that metal? Yes, it is. No, it’s not. And if it’s questionable, it’s probably Metallica [grins].
But like at our festival – I am very excited to see [blues guitarist] Gary Clark Jr. There hasn’t been a guitar guy in a long time who has been this interesting to me. I loved the fact that when we did Lollapalooza [in 1996], we were playing with the Cocteau Twins, the Ramones and Cheap Trick. I loved that dichotomy. If you’re just going to throw the same ice cream at me, I’m outta here.
Your Orion festival is a huge undertaking. Do you expect to make money?
Let me let you in on a little secret. Whenever we go on these kinds of endeavors, it’s never to make money [laughs]. We want it to be fun and exciting. Maybe we break even. Or lose money. Whatever. It’s not a financial thing. We’re trying to come up with something cool.
So what supports everything you have in this studio – touring? Yeah. The merchandise. We basically take funds from wherever we can. This is a real luxury. But great things come out of this. We have a place to rehearse, to write songs, to come up with new ideas. We don’t necessarily save money having this place, because of the way we work. We take our time, doing what we need to do, and do it until it’s done.
Do you have years where you have to go on the road to pay the bills?
That’s every year. The cycles of taking two years off don’t exist anymore. We were able to do that because we had record royalties coming in consistently. Now you put out an album, and you have a windfall maybe once or twice but not the way it used to be – a check every three months. We have to go out and play shows, and we’re totally fine with that. We’re a great live band that enjoys bringing the music to the people. I never thought it was enough, just giving them a CD.
That also means you’ve fallen way behind in making new music, because you’re so busy with touring, the festival and the 3D movie.
We’ve known for at least two years that we have to start writing songs. It feels like I’m standing on the side of a hill: There’s this big boulder at the top that I know is going to start rolling one of these days. And when it does, we won’t be able to stop it. But it hasn’t started rolling yet.
It’s on everybody’s mind. When we finished at the Fillmore last year, I thought, “A year from now I’m going to be 50. At this rate, does that mean I have two albums left in me? Three?” But if we run at a different rate, who knows? Five? The one thing I’ve learned is you can’t be too prophetic in this band, because something happens, and things completely change.
You also have a funny sense of timing. You’re performing the Black Album on its 21st anniversary, not the 20th.
It was only yesterday that I realized that my 29th anniversary with the band was last week. I totally forgot about it. I joined Metallica on April 12th or something, 1983.
Thanks. I don’t know if anyone else in the band noticed. Nobody said jackshit.
After nine years in Metallica, do you still sometimes feel like the new guy?
Yeah. I was so immersed in and challenged by every song we played at those anniversary shows at the Fillmore. The funny thing is, in “Phantom Lord,” the next-to-last song of the last night, I missed the key change. Lars was looking over at me with the semi-stink-eye; there’s a certain look Lars will throw you that you don’t want to see. I remember going, “Man, after all this, I blow it right at the end.”
I went up to the dressing room and said to the guys, “Man, I’m so sorry. I got lost.” And they said, “Oh, you too? So did we!” But at that moment, I felt like the new guy that blew it.
How would you characterize your role in Metallica?
I’m the guy who jumps ahead a bit and dissects the music – the length of certain sections, the notes, a lot of the foundation stuff. It’s better for me to be 10 steps ahead than two steps behind. They wrote the songs. They recorded them. It’s a part of them. But I want them to be able to lean on me.
At the beginning, it was horrible to be the guy who didn’t know the song inside and out. I started working on “The Call of Ktulu” [on Ride the Lightning] a year before we ever played it live. I hoped, as a fan of Metallica, that someday we would play it. I’m still trying to get them to play “The Frayed Ends of Sanity” [on 1988’s …And Justice for All]. But that hasn’t happened yet.
Is it part of your job to keep the spirit and standards of [the late bassist] Cliff Burton alive in the room?
I really believe that, especially now that we’re incorporating songs like “Orion” [on Master of Puppets] and “The Call of Ktulu.” That was a major step forward, because those songs hadn’t been performed live. It was a challenge to nail it and to spiritually connect with that material. Every night we play those songs, I feel like, yeah, Cliff is right there with us.
Did you ever meet him or see him live with Metallica?
No, and it’s the weirdest thing. Cliff’s best friend is also my best friend, [drummer] Mike Bordin from Faith No More. We played in Ozzy’s band together. When I went through the audition process with Metallica, I was staying at Mike’s house. I’d be in the guest room at 2 a.m., learning “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” and there would be this big picture of Cliff on the wall, looking at me as I’m learning his song.
Were there any bands on your wish list for Orion Music + More that you couldn’t get?
I thought it would be cool to have [Trujillo’s former band] Suicidal Tendencies. I had [flamenco duo] Rodrigo y Gabriela on my list, but they couldn’t make it. If it were up to me, Bootsy Collins and Parliament-Funkadelic would be there.
We have diverse interests. Lars does not like hot-rod art. He’s more abstract, modern. Kirk leans more Buddhist. The festival is an extension of that. But at the end of the day, people will get “Master of Puppets” and “Fight Fire With Fire.” That’s what we enjoy, too.
You’ve been in Metallica since 2003 and appear on exactly one studio album. Is that frustrating for you, not to be moving forward faster?
Sometimes. But we’ve done so much in that time. Take the Fillmore shows – so much work went into that. And making a record is huge: preparing the songs, locking them in. Everything is about nurturing, like vocals. There are a lot of possibilities, and James likes to try them all. Guitar solos take time in this band. Lars always has to be a part of that.
How much have you written, riff-wise, for the next record?
I have about 20 ideas I feel really good about, whereas on Death Magnetic I had one or two. But one of them ended up being “Suicide and Redemption.” Hetfield – he’s a writing machine. Kirk has over 300 ideas. There’s so much stuff from the tuning-room jams, from all of those years of touring. I like to think I have 20 ideas I believe in.
What’s the best one so far?
[Grins] There’s one that reminds me of something off Black Sabbath’s Vol. 4.
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This story is from the Big Issue of Rolling Stone.