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.'”