Metallica: Louder, Faster, Stronger - Rolling Stone
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Metallica: Louder, Faster, Stronger

How the band conquered bad habits, group therapy and ego clashes to make one of its heaviest records ever

Metallica, Weenie Roast

Metallica perform in Irvine, California on May 17th, 2008.

Lester Cohen/WireImage/Getty


paper sign taped next to a door back­stage at SKK Hall in St. Petersburg reads TUNING AND ATTITUDE. On the other side of the door, the atti­tude is deafening. The four members of Metallica – singer-guitarist James Hetfield, lead guitarist Kirk Ham­mett, bassist Robert Trujillo and drummer Lars Ulrich – are playing the death march “Harvester of Sorrow,” from the 1988 album . . . And Justice for All, at peak volume, in a windowless room not much bigger than a janitor’s closet but somehow packed with amplifiers and a full-size drum kit. Hammett and Trujillo, pressed into corners, have just enough space for their elbows and guitar necks. Hetfield’s mike stand is up against Ulrich’s twin kick drums. When Hetfield sings, he is right in the drummer’s face, roaring down at him like a hanging judge passing sentence.

But Ulrich leers right back, and no one is eager to leave. After the band runs riot through “Whiplash,” from Metallica’s 1983 debut album, Kill ‘Em All, the door opens, and tour manager Rex King squeezes into the room. “Are we supposed to start playing rock & roll soon?” Ulrich asks, pointing a drumstick toward the sold-out crowd of chanting, impatient Russians. “Seven minutes,” King replies. “OK,” Ulrich says, “that’s enough for one more.” Metallica play the whole epic tangle of “Creeping Death,” from 1984’s Ride the Lightning, before rushing to the stage – Ulrich has to change into his stage clothes en route, in the hallway – where they play all three songs again and 15 more, most from the band’s first thrash-metal decade, over two hours.

“It’s absolutely one of the highlights of the day,” Ulrich crows later, talking about Tuning and Attitude, “especially right now. Things are pretty nutty with the new record. There is a lot of stress in the three hours before the shows.” It is mid-July, and Metallica’s ninth stu­dio album, Death Magnetic –— their first with Trujillo, who joined in 2003, and their first in 17 years with a new pro­ducer, Rick Rubin – will be out in two months. But the record, more than two years in the making, still isn’t finished. Rubin is overseeing mixes in Los Ange­les while the band is in Europe, head­lining shows with Down and one of Ulrich’s favorite new bands, the Sword, from Austin, between local press inter­views, conference calls with Rubin and meetings about stage design for Metal­lica’s North American fall tour.

The Tuning room “can sometimes be the first time during the day when we are actually in each other’s head space,” Ulrich admits. “It’s the pre-show meditation, the closest we get to that.” There has been a Tuning room – or trailer, if it’s an outdoor-stadium gig – at each stop on every Metallica tour since the late Nineties. On a good day, Metallica will spend an hour or more in there: warming up old, rarely performed songs, playing Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden covers. They also jam and record the results, improvising rhythms and guitar lines compiled on so-called “riff tapes,” the traditional raw materials for Metallica’s songwriting. Most of the rapidly changing parts in the 10 long songs on Death Magnetic –— a stunning combination of jigsaw-guitar composition and live-rhythm-track assault – came from Tuning and Atti­tude sessions.

There was none of that on the group’s early tours with bassist Cliff Burton. “It was drink before you go on,” Hetfield recalls with a growling chuckle, sitting on a couch in the band’s dress­ing room in St. Petersburg a few hours before the show. “Courage in a bottle. ‘Oh, shit, we’re on in 10 min­utes? Where’s the vodka?’ Glug, glug, glug.” By the early Nineties, the band had rebounded from Burton’s death in 1986 – in a tour-bus crash – with a new bassist, Jason Newsted, and the multiplatinum success of 1991’s Metallica, which has sold 14 million copies in the U.S. alone. But there was exhaus­tion on the road. “We were sick of each other,” Hetfield says. Instead of a toast, “it was, ‘Meet you onstage.'” Even now, Hetfield says of the Tuning room, “We need it, for sure.”

St. Petersburg turns out to be a good example of what he means. Twenty min­utes before showtime, a scrap erupted in the dressing room between Hetfield and Ulrich over the length of the set list. “James only wants to play two hours on this tour,” says Trujillo, who was there. “He said, ‘We went over four minutes the other night.’ Actually, a couple of people timed the show, and their times were off. Lars was saying, ‘Are you saying I’m lying to you?’ ‘No, but are you?'” Trujillo, whose lineback­er build and bass-maniac act in concert belie his mellow temper offstage, says, “It was really uncomfortable.”

“Lars and I were on the verge of get­ting teenage for a second,” Hetfield con­cedes later with a thin smile. “We got snippy with each other. I could see he was overwhelmed. He could see I felt the same way.” So the band adjourned to Tuning and Attitude. “We got in there, and I could tell, ‘We’re not vibing yet. We’re not looking at each other.’ But all it takes is one smile” – Hetfield makes a demon-wolf face – “and you get one back. ‘OK, it’s cool.'”

“What bugs me about that movie is people still think we’re that,” says Hammett. He is talking about Some Kind of Monster, the 2004 documentary that covered every hard, bleak turn in the recording of Metallica’s 2003 album St. Anger: Newsted’s unhappy exit in 2001; the heated arguments between Hetfield and Ulrich, who together start­ed the band in 1981; the blazing egos and deep hurt revealed in the band’s sessions with therapist Phil Towle; the near end of Metallica when Hetfield abruptly entered rehab to quit drinking and didn’t return for nine months. That film, Hammett complains fiercely, “is not us anymore.”

Metallica are certainly not the same alcoholic speed-metal loons who re­corded Eighties fight songs like “Seek and Destroy” and “No Remorse.” They are now all devoted middle-aged fathers. Hetfield, 45, and Ulrich, 44, each have three children. Hammett, 45, and Trujillo, 43, each have two. (The latest arrival, Hammett’s second son, Vincenzo, was born on June 28th.) The hand that once toured like a balled fist – four guys in a single tour bus, around the same table in a bar – is rarely to­gether in transit; members frequently travel separately, with their families. The Danish-born Ulrich is spending much of this summer European tour based in Copenhagen, commuting to shows by chartered jet with his three sons and his girlfriend, Danish actress Connie Nielsen.

There are other changes. Hetfield and Ulrich still live in the San Fran­cisco area, Metallica’s home base since 1983. But Hammett, who was born in that city, moved to Hawaii in 2006. And while Hetfield remains sober, Ul­rich still loves a long night on the town and good company for the ride. “If Lars says, ‘Hey, let’s get a nightcap,’ beware,” Trujillo warns. “You will be out until six in the morning.”

But onstage in St. Petersburg and at the next two shows in Riga, Lat­via, and Bologna, Italy, Metallica play exactly like the band that made Justice and 1986’s Master of Puppets, with a cohesive fury that is all over Death Magnetic songs like “The Judas Kiss,” “All Nightmare Long” and “My Apocalypse.” They are not playing any of the new material yet, but it is hard not to miss the irony: At the same time that they have found balance in their lives and made a truce between one another, Metallica have gone back to their most intense, complicated records for inspiration.

“It was bold of them to put that movie out,” says Rubin, an old friend of the group. “It clearly showed them at their worst. But when I walked in, they were a very different band. They were together.” The album they made with him, Rubin claims, “feels like the Metallica I grew up with.”

“I get nervous when everything becomes a sound bite,” Ulrich says, pretending to shiver, one afternoon over a cup of tea in a Copenhagen hotel restaurant. “St. Anger, 2003, they don’t get along. Death Magnetic, 2008, it’s all hunky-dory. But Phil Towle said, when we were nearing the end of St. Anger, that everything we went through then would not come to fruition until the next go-round.”

Ulrich beams. “Of all the things he was right about, he was really right about that.”

It’s a lot bigger than I thought,” Hetfield says in a low, awe-struck voice.

He is in St. Petersburg’s State Hermitage Museum, the world-famous art collection in the former Winter Palace of the Russian czars, standing in front of Rembrandt’s “The Return of the Prodigal Son.” Painted by the Dutch master from 1663 to 1665 and based on the New Testament par­able, the picture is almost nine feet high and seven feet wide. The figures – the consoling father, bent over his ragged, errant son; the older brother, stiff with jealousy – are literally life-size.

The rest of Hetfield’s party – his young son and two daughters; his wife, Francesca; Trujillo and his wife, Chlöe – are moving on to the next room. But Hetfield studies the painting intently for 10 minutes. Earlier, in the museum cafeteria, he told his daughter Marcella, 6, sitting on his knee, that he was excited to be in this museum “because my favorite painting is here.” This is the first time he has seen the original.

Backstage at SKK Hall, Hetfield explains that he first saw a reproduc­tion in rehab. “It was one of those work­shops: ‘Here’s the painting. Do you re­member the story?’ ” Hetfield, who was raised in a strict Christian Science fam­ily, laughs. “Nobody remembered it. But then we got deeper with it. ‘What do you see? Which one is you – the father, the son, the jealous brother?’

“Well, I see myself in all of them – except I didn’t have much forgiveness for myself. I discovered that.” Hetfield laughs again, this time with the hearti­ness of someone who left a huge burden way behind him. “But there is definitely the jealous-son part. I see that in Lars’ and my relationship.”

Hetfield was in his last year of high school in Los Angeles, living with one of his two older half brothers, when he answered a newspaper ad, placed by Ulrich, looking for musicians to share his passion for underground metal. Het­field’s parents had divorced a couple of years earlier; then Hetfield’s mother, Cynthia, an amateur opera singer, died of cancer when he was 17. (Hetfield also has a sister.) Ulrich, who moved to L.A. from Denmark in 1980, was an only child in a well-off bohemian fam­ily. His father, Torben, now 80, was a professional tennis player and had writ­ten about jazz for the Danish newspa­per Politiken.

“It’s weird – I don’t know exactly what brothers are supposed to be like,” Hetfield confesses. His half broth­ers “were a generation away, not close enough to be brothers, not far enough to be parental. For Lars and I, this is the closest we get to having brothers.” But like siblings, “we battle for the steering wheel,” and agreement does not come easy. “Compromise” – Hetfield says the word with distaste – “sounds weak.”

Life between the two founders “has always been a strain,” says Hammett, who joined Metallica in 1983, after Het­field and Ulrich fired original guitarist Dave Mustaine. “There was a real bad spat in the first couple of months I was in the band – James pushing Lars, and Lars flying into his cymbals. It wasn’t about anything important –— who drank someone else’s booze. I’ll never forget it, because it erupted so quickly, in sec­onds. I’m between them – ‘Guys, mellow out!’ – and Cliff Burton is sitting there with a big smirk on his face, amused as hell, like he’d pulled up a seat at a box­ing match.”

“I think the guy is a genius,” Ulrich says sharply of Hetfield, daring you to contradict him. “I also have to deal with that genius. Looking back on it, James Hetfield, the growly guy, was a character he put up to protect the vul­nerable kid who went through so much with his mother and his whole upbring­ing. When he went through everything that’s in the movie, he found a way to dismantle that character and bring more of himself up front.”

Ulrich, in turn, learned to back off. Early in the making of Death Mag­netic, he talked with Hetfield about re­turning not only to the sound of their mid-Eighties albums but the storytell­ing in those songs, often triggered by films and books. “James has always written the words,” Ulrich says, “but the ideas came from both of us, initiat­ed by things we shared. . . . And Justice for All – we spent two hours watching Al Pacino in a courtroom [in the 1979 film of that name]. ‘Creeping Death’ – that was The Ten Commandments. We talked about having movie night again, once a week.” Ulrich even showed Hetfield the “un-fucking-believable” 2004 German film Der Urtengang (Downfall), about Hitler’s last days. “But I could see it wasn’t connecting. I was confused, slightly disappointed. But I realized I had to let him go off on this by himself.”

Hetfield eventually came back with what Rubin called “gut spill”: jagged, abstract bursts of verse, charged with raw terror and challenge, about death, particularly suicide. “I hear the crowd screaming, ‘Die, die, die,’ every night [in “Creeping Death”] – that has been in our vocabulary for a long time,” Hetfield acknowledges. But Hammett was an unwitting inspiration this time when he brought a photograph of Alice in Chains singer Layne Staley to the control room at HQ, Metallica’s Bay Area studio, after Staley was found dead of a drug overdose in 2002. “That picture was there for a long time,” Hammett says. “I think it pervaded James’ psyche.”

“I did not know Layne,” Hetfield says. “I met him a few times. I know [Alice in Chains guitarist] Jerry Cantrell quite well and learned about Layne through him. And I could see some of the things Jerry went through to keep that band together.

“After what I went through,” Hetfield says, “I started writing a song based around a Layne Staley type, a rock & roll martyr magnetized by death. Why did he choose that path, someone with such talent? Is it necessary for some people?” That song, tentatively titled “Shine” (“Everything looks the same/In the shine of a midnight revolver”), did not get on Death Magnetic, but its reverberations did, in songs like “The Day That Never Comes” and “Cyanide” (“Suicide/I’ve already died/It’s just the funeral I’m waiting for”).

“I remember in an interview with Cliff,” Hetfield says, “when someone asked, ‘What’s Metallica’s mission?’ he said, ‘Conquer the world and self-destruct.’ I’m like, ‘What? What year is this gonna be?’ But that was an interest­ing answer because it was the way we felt: Burn the candle as hot and long as you can. We never knew we’d be around this long.”

Hetfield believes Death Magnetic is actually an album about fear. “There are people drawn to death,” he says. “The other side of the magnet is people push away from it. They are afraid. They don’t want to talk about it. It will happen to all of us, and we will all face it alone. How do you deal with it? And how can I get comfort from this?” According to Hammett, one of the other titles considered for the album was Songs of Suicide and Forgiveness.

Ulrich is glad he bagged movie night. “It’s poetry,” he says of Hetfield’s lyrics for the record, “unfiltered, unedited. It’s what’s in his heart, in his spine.” The drummer has also learned something new about his friend.

“He’s a lot more tormented than I realized,” Ulrich says. “The fact that he carries that shit around in him – I wouldn’t wish that on anybody.”

The overnight flight to Copenhagen on Ulrich’s jet, after Metallica’s show in Riga, is about 90 minutes – plenty of time for a parade of trays full of fresh fruit, raw-tuna appetizers, tiramisu and flutes of champagne. The small plane is full of Ulrich’s family and guests, almost a dozen people, including his two sons by a former marriage, Myles, 9, and Layne, 7. (Ulrich and Nielsen also have a year-old son, Bryce.) There is Ulrich’s old schoolmate Peter Von Wowern, now an engineer; and artist-musician Franz Beckerlee and his wife. Beckerlee was the guitarist in Gasolin’, the top Danish rock band in the Seventies, and is a long-time Ulrich family friend. “I saw Lars make his first hit on a drum,” he says while waiting to board in Riga. Lars, then eight months old, crawled across a floor and smacked a toy drum with his hand. “Look at him now.”

It has been an exhausting night. After the concert, the entire Metallica entourage stopped at a Riga airport hotel, where the four members took over a room for a long band conference and a phone meeting with Rubin. But on the plane, which doesn’t take off until 2 a.m., Ulrich is as energetic as he was onstage, wisecracking with every­body, making sure their plates and glasses are full. He’s not just paying for the trip; he’s in charge of hospitality, too. “Danes by nature are very social,” Ulrich explains. “We love gathering people and making them feel welcome, rolling out the red carpet. I love bring­ing big bunches of family and friends on the plane.”

But there are no other members of Metallica here. The Hetfields have flown with Hammett to Rome, where Hammett gets off, then to Milan. Trujillo and his wife are off to Paris. The band will not be together again until a few hours before the Bologna show two days later.

“We don’t do this to be luxurious,” Ulrich says, hoisting his champagne glass cheerfully. “It is a luxury, but it is a necessity. If we were still all on a bus to Düsseldorf, there would be one guy fed up with going to Düsseldorf. There would be bad feeling, maybe an argument over nothing, and things fall apart again. This way, it is comfortable for each of us. We feel good when we need to be together, to play.”

The Metallica air force is a far cry from the $5 per diem per member that Ulrich remembers on the band’s first U.S. tour in 1983: “That was just enough for two cheeseburgers – or two beers.” And there was the all-you-can-eat salad-bar scam: four guys tak­ing turns loading up the same plate at Burger King for $2.99. “Four guys eating off that plate with the same fork – there’s gotta be a lot of love in there.”

When the paydays ballooned with the Metallica album, it took Hammett time to adjust to his fortune. His mother was a clerk for a U.S. govern­ment service, and his father was a merchant seaman who left the family when Hammett was a teenager. “My family never had money,” he says. “Fis­cal responsibility was dropped in my lap, and I didn’t know how to handle it.” The first thing he did with a big roy­alty check was buy a Porsche, which he lost in abet.

“It was more of a gentleman’s wager,” he claims. “I told our tour manager on the Black Album, ‘If it sells over 10 mil­lion copies, I will give you my Porsche.’ He called me up when it sold 10 million and one. It’s funny, because a year ago, he put it on eBay. He was having health problems. He called: ‘Is it OK if I sell it?’ I said, ‘Hey, bro, I gave it to you. You can do whatever you want with it.'”

“A lot of these luxuries – I didn’t know they existed,” Trujillo says one afternoon, sitting in a room in St. Petersburg’s five-star Grand Hotel Eu­rope. A former member of Suicidal Ten­dencies and Ozzy Osbourne’s band, Robert Augustin Miguel Santiago San Juan Trujillo Veracruz III was born in Santa Monica, California, and raised on the west side of Los Angeles. “It’s actually longer,” he says, grinning, of his full name, “but we’ll roll with that for now.” His mother, who was born in Mexico, worked for Prudential Insur­ance. His father, who came from New Mexico, played flamenco guitar, was a business and math teacher, and now drives limousines in L.A.

“I didn’t even know what a massage was when I was in Suicidal,” Trujillo cracks. He first met Metallica when Suicidal Tendencies opened shows for them in the early Nineties. He later got to know Hammett through their mu­tual love of surfing. Trujillo is now in a band that tours with a full-time chiro­practor, Hammett’s cousin Don Oyao. “Metallica is also a band where, when you go on tour, you train for it,” Trujil­lo says. “I’ve had to hire a trainer who has me running cones and doing drills on a football field.

“But the magnitude of the work ethic is important to this band,” he in­sists. “Nobody wants to have to worry about the other person. You get up there and give 100 percent, no matter how sick you feel or what dramas you have in your life.”

Asked about his first encounters with big money, Hetfield is typically blunt. “I was very anti-rock-star – I felt guilty about having money,” he says, sitting with his family in his chartered jet, flying from St. Petersburg to Riga. When his mother died, Hetfield, his sister and half brothers received an in­heritance – “probably $100,000,” Het­field estimates. “That was for college.” But Hetfield never went. “Maybe, in a way, I wanted to hang on to that money because it was a part of my past, of Mom. I wasn’t going to spend it.”

He realizes his children have a dif­ferent relationship to wealth than he did as a boy. “Yeah, we’re in St. Petersburg, staying in the nicest hotel. But driving to the airport today, I’m saying, ‘See that apartment, floor eight in the corner? With the windows com­pletely dirty? Somebody lives there. What would it feel like to you guys to live there?'”

“I bring my kids around all this stuff,” Ulrich says over that cup of tea in Copenhagen, “because I was around all my dad’s stuff. I grew up in tennis locker rooms, around jazz musicians.” But as a father, Ulrich maintains “clear rules, order.” He points overhead, to his hotel suite upstairs. “We just had a packing party. I didn’t pack for them. The nanny didn’t pack for them. We’re standing over them while they’re pack­ing themselves. You try to do the best you can, with ‘please’ and ‘thank you,’ and not taking it for granted.”

For all of their sometimes combusti­ble differences, Hetfield and Ulrich are very alike in one way. They are warm, commanding dads, openly affectionate, firmly reprimanding when necessary. “C’mon, girls, watch out!” Hetfield says as his daughters buzz around him while he changes guitars, offstage, during the Riga concert. “It’s hard for me to be sep­arated,” admits Hammett, whose wife, Lani, and sons are in Hawaii. (Trujillo’s children are staying in Paris during this run of shows.) “My dad wasn’t around a lot, shipping out. I remember having a relationship that was just letters – ‘Oh, a letter from Dad.'”

“We’re still a viable band – bring it on,” Hammett says with some fight in his generally chipper voice, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with our family lives, which is the number-one prior­ity for all of us.” Which makes Metallica “number two. Sorry, everybody out there. But if our families came second, the band would implode.”

And when all of the kids are grown and out on their own? “Who knows?” Ulrich says with a mischievous smile. “Maybe 10 years from now, it’s back to buses.”

It happens a few minutes into “Creeping Death,” Metallica’s first song at the Parco Nord amphitheater in Bologna, and again and again, more than half a dozen times dur­ing the show. Metallica perform on a deep, wide stage, with multiple micro­phones across the front so Hetfield can sing directly to different parts of the crowd. But he keeps stepping up on Ulrich’s drum riser, hovering behind the drummer, furiously strumming his guitar as Ulrich half-turns in his seat, looking up at Hetfield with bug-eyed glee. Hammett and Trujillo often hang out close to Ulrich during the set, like they’re still in the Tuning and Attitude room. Hetfield, though, is the only one who actually joins Ulrich on the riser.

It is not an unspoken rule or caste system, Hammett points out: “I don’t go up there, because Lars spits a lot. It’s an unconscious thing. He doesn’t really look, and you’ll catch some of it. I only go up on the riser during mellow songs like ‘Nothing Else Matters.'”

“It comes out in those moments – 27 years of bonding and what we’ve been through,” Ulrich says of Hetfield’s vis­its every night – during the fast, instru­mental section of’ Master of Puppets,” head banging together as Hammett solos in “Whiplash.” “Here we are. We’re still alive. We’re having fun, doing what we want to do.”

With nearly three decades on the odometer, Metallica now qualify for the question that dogs the Rolling Stones, the Who and U2 every time they hit the road: How much longer? “Metallica will go on forever,” Ulrich declares, “bar the $64,000 issue.” He points to his right shoulder. “The physical part.

“The Rolling Stones, Black Sabbath, Aerosmith – I have nothing but respect for their longevity,” he says. “But Char­lie Watts is not playing ‘Damage, Inc.’ three times a week or playing ‘Whip­lash’ every night. This has the po­tential to go on for a long time. But if somebody’s arm, back or neck just says, ‘Fuck this,’ and quits, I don’t know.

“I could be content without it,” Ulrich contends, “when it’s time to say, ‘Dude, that was crazy, now it’s getting a little silly.’ I know some people already think it’s a joke. We don’t – yet.”

Trujillo sees the future in the changes he has witnessed in Hetfield since join­ing. “I was pretty sheltered from the craziness that had gone down,” the bassist says. “When I came in, James seemed fragile. It was like there was a wall around him, to protect him. Now he’s got his juju back. He’s sober, but he’s got his attitude.”

“I don’t know what the future holds,” Hetfield says warily, as his jet lands in Riga for another day of Tuning and Attitude and trips to Ulrich’s drum riser. “The fact that we’ve been togeth­er this long – there’s a meaning behind that. We willed this to happen. It was a combination – the drive, the smarts, the right people.

“Listen, what else am I going to do?” he says. “That’s a scary thought. I think we’d all be OK if we ventured out on our own.” He pauses, turning and looking out the window as the plane taxis to the gate. “But I don’t want to lose this.” 

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