- 12 Aug 20
29 years ago today, Metallica released their self-titled fifth studio album, commonly known as The Black Album – featuring hits like 'Enter Sandman' and 'Nothing Else Matters'. To mark the occasion, we're revisiting Paul Nolan's classic 2008 interview with James Hetfield.
On a fine summer’s evening in Marlay Park, Hot Press is escorted into the house on the grounds for an audience with Metallica’s lead singer, James Hetfield. The frontman is standing in a hallway, chatting and laughing with Jack Black, tonight performing in his capacity as singer with Tenacious D. Hetfield has just been transported via buggy from the side of the stage, where he watched the performance of Sweet Savage, the reformed Northern Irish metal band whose track ‘Killing Time’ was once covered by Metallica.
Black heads off to prepare for his performance, and Hetfield comes over to a makeshift production area, where he sits down to talk. Tall, imposing and covered in tattoos, the singer is nonetheless an amiable character, and straightaway has a query for your correspondent.
“I saw on the internet, maybe last year, that Hot Press put out a disc of previously unreleased Phil Lynott tracks,” says Hetfield, a long-term Thin Lizzy fan. “I’d like to get a copy of that.”
Having chastised the singer for letting his HP subscription lapse, I mention that for the magazine’s 30th anniversary issue last year, we dug out photos from the occasion on which Lynott and Bob Geldof acted as guest editors.
“Sir Bob Geldof,” Hetfield laughlingly corrects me.
Metallica are hitting the road to promote Death Magnetic, their first album since 2003’s St. Anger, which had a somewhat mixed reaction from fans and critics (though still sold six million copies). Death Magnetic represents a return of sorts to Metallica’s thrash metal roots, with monstrous riffs and pulverising drums to the fore. Does Hetfield view the record as being something of a back-to-basics project?
“Well, that’s the buzz,” he acknowledges. “We were in the mindset of Master Of Puppets and …And Justice For All, that kind of time. What were our influences and what were we ingesting? What was going on in our heads and our lives and all of that? That was kind of the homework, although it’s very difficult to really be there. But we got the essence of it, and we were trying to get the hunger.
“Rick Rubin, who produced the album, certainly has a knack for stripping down and simplifying, which is obvious from quite a few of the records he’s produced for other artists. Some are a little too skeletal, I would say, but for us his main statement was – and it’s not the first time we’ve heard it – that no one’s ever captured the live Metallica in the studio. That’s what we really were trying for, and once we started writing, we got the feel of old school metal, and it felt really good to play that way.”
Interestingly, in a further nod to their earlier career, the group have bought back the logo which adorned their first five albums.
“I’ve always been a fan of that logo,” says Hetfield, pointing to a tattoo of one of the distinctive Metallica barbs on his arm. “It was the thing I scribbled on a napkin at (original Metallica bassist) Ron McGovney’s house. There have been various versions of it, and that’s great, but this one is the essence; it fits better. It has been tweaked a little bit, but it feels good to have the barbs back!”
Having mentioned Rubin’s noted ability for capturing a raw, unembellished sound in the studio, I ask Hetfield what the band hoped the renowned producer would bring to the album in an overall sense.
“We were looking forward to working with anyone at this point, in starting a new chapter,” explains the singer. “Bob Rock certainly served us well for a long time, but the comfort factor had set in to an extent; we kind of needed to get pushed around a little bit. Rick Rubin came up long after we decided to work with someone else besides Bob. We wanted him to capture the essence, like he’s done with lots of other bands, and that’s what we did.
“He sat us down, and the mission statement was to write a setlist to play for a record company, as if we were a new band who needed to get signed. He said, ‘Treat it like you’re starting out, you’re hungry, and you need to impress.’ So that was it.’”
Among the artists Rubin has worked with over the past couple of years are U2. When Metallica drafted in Anton Corbijn to take photos and direct the ‘Hero Of The Day’ video during the Load era, Lars Ulrich commented that he was impressed with the way in which Corbijn had been able to reinvent U2’s look on Achtung Baby.
Although there are obvious musical differences, would Hetfield say that Metallica feel a certain kinship with the Dublin group, given that they are both globally successful bands who have enjoyed an unusual degree of longevity?
“Absolutely, they are a very big inspiration in terms of longevity, and getting along,” he responds. “Also, they’re still exploring and reaching for new ground. And they piss us off, because we want to be the first (laughs). We were thinking of doing the 3-D movie, and they went and did it. But I’m sure glad they did, it’s amazing. So yeah, I’d say we feel a kinship, especially in the career band category. There are a lot of bands, but not many bands who still continue to be talked about, good or bad.”
Given that Metallica come from a metal background, does Hetfield feel that – as opposed to similarly huge groups such as U2 or REM – they are more open to accusations of selling out when attempting a stylistic reinvention?
“Somewhat,” he considers. “There’s a strange a kind of fantasy realism in metal. It’s un-artful, though. It’s somewhat realistic, but so mythical at the same time. You’re not really supposed to depart from certain areas, and we certainly discovered that. I remember on …And Justice For All, somebody in a club came up to me, spat in my face, and said, ‘You guys sold out. You made a video.’ We’d even heard that before, for playing a song like ‘Fade To Black’. It’s odd, because it’s very constrictive, and very conservative in a way. But wild. When we cut our hair, all hell broke loose, I guess.
“But then we turned it around, and they realised, ‘Hey, they really don’t give a shit. They really are doing it for themselves, so what does that mean for me?’ It’s pretty odd to have to live by rules in such a free form.”
Hetfield has said that one of his lyrical preoccupations during the creation of Death Magnetic was the subject of rock ‘n’ roll martyrdom, and departed icons such as Layne Staley. Did it remain a prominent topic throughout the writing process?
“When you’re writing lyrics over a two year period, you go through many things,” notes Hetfield. “You’re influenced by a lot, and one was that subject of the fallen heroes of metal or rock; the martyrs who believed in the myth of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll, and they took it to the grave, or the gutter, wherever they ended up. It’s very unfortunate. We had heard a lot about the older generations, and it’s not that they’re out of our realm, but I’m thinking of the Elvises, the John Bonhams, the Jimi Hendrixes.
“Phil Lynott kind of fell in the middle there somewhere, but for us it was not really anyone from our generation, until we started realising that, ‘Yes, there are quite a few.’ Layne Staley was probably the one that we had dealt with most, or tried to do gigs with (laughs). He kept cancelling shows and we didn’t know why. But it just kind of hit home that it was a reality that he had taken it too far, and wanted to end up being the martyr he was; he couldn’t escape that trap.
“And it all kind of revolved around the rebirth of Metallica. Obviously, working with Rick Rubin, there was a Johnny Cash feel around, and that was another inspiration. I saw an interview with Johnny where he talked about his actual near death experience, where he had seen the light in the tunnel and all of that. He came back and his attitude was completely changed, he had gratitude in life. That’s a pretty big metaphor in our lives, with St. Anger being a purging and the death of an old thing. We feel fresh and new.”
Did Hetfield, whose struggles with alcohol abuse have been well documented, ever fear that he himself could fall into the rock ‘n’ roll martyr category?
“Well, we all lived it, we thought that was how it was supposed to be,” he says. “And it might have to be that way. I’m not here to say it’s not. I’m here to say that we’ve survived it, but obviously there’s tomorrow. We’re down the road but we’re not that far from the ditch. It can always happen. But we realise that we need each other more than we need that other stuff.”
Hetfield’s problems with alcohol reached such a level that he was forced to go into rehab in 2001. Upon his departure, he struggled to reintegrate into the band as they commenced the tortuous sessions for St. Anger.
The fraught recording was memorably captured in the 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster, during which the band are witnessed engaging in regular arguments, and, at one point, agreeing to their management’s suggestion that they hire a therapist, Phil Towle, to help them communicate better (a decision described in the film by former Metallica bassist Jason Newstead as “really fucking lame and weak”).
Was Hetfield more comfortable during the recording this time around?
“Yes, a lot more comfortable,” he nods. “This was kind of the fruits of our hard work on St. Anger. One of the things said by Phil, the enhancement coach or whatever you want to call him, was that the work we were doing was not for that record, it was for the next one. That stuck with me, and it’s very true. We had everyone and their brother surrounding us and helping us, trying to mediate and get us in the room together.
“This record was pretty much the opposite. No one was there; it was the four of us left to our own decisions on when to start, when to end, everything. It was our to time to fly and grow up a little bit again, after falling so hard. So it was actually great to have a lot of the responsibility, and obviously working with Rick, the phantom producer as they call him, who’s not there all the time, it was very good for us.”
What does Hetfield now think of St. Anger, at five years’ remove?
“I think it was absolutely necessary,” he replies. “I’ve heard little bits of it here and there. As a whole piece of work, it would be hard to listen to if I weren’t an angry person, simple as that. Pretty one dimensional. Like I was saying earlier, it was a purging of that moment. But there’s some good stuff on there. I know this is typical, a band slags their last record to pump up the next one, but it’s not the case.“I love everything we’ve done, and it has its time and reason. I notice now – and this is neither good nor bad – that it sounds disjointed. It sounds very separate, and that makes total sense, cos that’s kind of where we were at time.”
Death Magnetic also sees Metallica deliver the third part of ‘The Unforgiven’ saga. Intriguingly, the key line this time around is “How can I blame you when it’s me I can’t forgive”, an interesting spin on the previous installments, where the lyrical theme was not forgiving others.
“Yeah, it really has turned the other way,” says Hetfield. “It felt right, and it felt like the story could continue to be told. Those themes are pretty powerful, whether it be resentment, or the inability to forgive the world or oneself, whatever the case may be. I would think it’s universal, but maybe it’s universal in my head! So we’re still working some of that out (laughs).”
Notably, Death Magnetic boasts an instrumental number in ‘Suicide & Redemption’, a direct descendant of tracks such as ‘Orion’ from Master Of Puppets.
“I ran out of lyrics,” jokes Hetfield. “An instrumental felt right, and it fit into my essence of Metallica. I’d say Ride The Lightning had an album structure that really represented Metallica very well; a ballad, an instrumental, a faster song, a long epic, a tuned-down, slow heavy one. Kind of a full appetiser, poo poo platter of Metallica (laughs). So you get to taste all of us, which I enjoy.”
In Slash’s autobiography, he talks about the co-headlining tour of the US Guns N’ Roses undertook with Metallica in 1992. According to the book, Axl Rose hired his stepbrother and sister to organise extravagant backstage theme parties, which rapidly became a source of embarrassment to Slash, who writes that, “The Metallica guys, off the bat, disassociated themselves from that whole freak show.”
“I certainly remember the theme parties,” says Hetfield. “And what I recall of those were that there were a lot of shows, but there were maybe two theme parties, because it got so expensive it was ridiculous. I remember there was one based around Indy 500, which had an actual Indy car in there. And hot-tubs and what not. It dwindled very quickly after that. What would happen was that while they were onstage, we’d be back there using the party equipment (laughs), and basically take off with whatever they had with two legs. And there you go!”
The tour certainly wasn’t without its problems, with Hetfield infamously suffering burns as a result of a pyrotechnics accident, and Guns N’ Roses frequently going on late as a result of their singer’s spectacularly cavalier approach to punctuality. Overall, though, does the Metallica frontman feel that it was good fun to do?
“Absolutely,” he affirms. “I really don’t regret anything, and if I do, it’s just something that I need to work out now. But all these things happen for a reason. It was pretty funny, there was such a big stink about Guns N’ Roses and Metallica. I think it was extremely good. There were two good bands playing, who had two different styles, and I see now how similar we were, ego-wise. We were able to work out our ego stuff eventually, they were not. There were too many people in the mix and it just didn’t work.
“I remember it was like, ‘How many people have they got in the band now?’ There were like 15 people on stage. They were trying to do a big rock n roll party up there or whatever. Just very different. We were four guys making a lot of noise, they were 14 guys making a lot of noise.”
Time is pressing on and Hetfield has other duties to attend to. I conclude by asking if the co-headlining stint with G N’ R was the hardest partying tour he was ever on.
“No, I’d say that was Monsters Of Rock with Van Halen,” he reflects. “It was across the States around ’88. We were mixing …And Justice For All as we were touring, so the further the tour got from New York, the more difficult the drives were back to mixing. And we would be trashed; so tired and drinking. We were on early – it was Van Halen, Scorpions, Dokken, us and Kingdom Come. Anyway, we were near the beginning, and we had all day to get wasted. And that we did.”
Revisit our five greatest Metallica albums ever here.