WEB-EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: THE BEST OF THE REST OF JAMES HETFIELD ON WINNING ALBUM OF THE YEAR
When I interviewed Metallica’s James Hetfield to tell him to he won Revolver’s Album of the Year (announced in the issue on newsstands now) for the band’s latest, Death Magnetic (Warner Bros.), I asked him if he knew what the interview was “about,” wondering if someone had already spilled the beans. He said, “Yeah. About 20 minutes.” Cue the rim shot. Anyway, once we got going, we chatted for far more than that. Turns out, even with all the hoo-ha surrounding how good Death Magnetic is (including ours), Jaymz is keeping everything in perspective. After submitting the interview for the “Victory Lap” that accompanies Mr. Mikael Wood’s fine review in the issue, I thought it would be a waste to let the rest of our conversation disappear into the ether, so I’m including it here. Enjoy. —Associate Editor Kory Grow
REVOLVER You’re on tour right now. Have you guys been doing anything fun lately?
JAMES HETFIELD Mmm, mostly sleep. [Laughs] We went and saw the Sword play the other night. We don’t really get to see ’em that often. I mean, they are on tour with us, but we got to see ’em in a little club, which was awesome.
I’m guessing it confirmed why you brought them out on tour?
Oh yeah, they’re awesome. I mean, they’re young kids, man, having some fun. Reminded me a little bit of us starting out, you know?
With all the critical praise you’ve been getting, it seems like writing about death has brought a lot of life to the band.
Well, we went through a near death, between the Monster movie, and St. Anger. [Pauses] A lot of clichés apply: “You never realize you’re alive until you almost die,” “You don’t know what you got until it’s gone,” but it’s very, very true, and it’s very true for us. And the gratitude we have for still being together, it shows. It shows on this record. You know, in other interviews, I’ve been saying—we need each other more than we hate each other. It’s as simple as that. And we focused on that instead.
What did it take, personally, between the four of your to make a record like this?
Personally? A lot of respect. A lot of communication, and a lot of focus when we are there. There’s a lot of honesty, and, y’know, giving honest feedback that’s helpful for the project, not just button-pushing and twisting knives. Stuff that’s really honest and will make the project better. And I think we’re all getting a little better at that; our skin is a little thicker, and we’re able to let stuff we don’t think fits bounce off, y’know. And working with Rick Rubin, we learned a lot about that!
You learned about having a thick skin?
Well, you’re putting your heart out there, y’know? And anyone who writes music or writes like you do knows that you put your heart out there with your art. And when someone judges it, of course that’s going to hurt, but you either have to have the confidence of, “Yes, OK, I can make it better,” or “Part of this guy’s statement make’s sense—this part doesn’t,” and roll with it.
Can you give a specific example from one of the songs where you needed a thick skin?
Well, riff-wise, I’m pretty damn confident. But when it comes to lyrics, that’s when it gets even more personal. It’s coming from somewhere, and you’re not really sure where it’s coming from. No matter how external, it’s digested by you; it’s attached to your life somehow. Whether it’s your upbringing or recent events or whatever it may be, it’s attached, and you’ve got to have feeling in it, and that means there’s an opportunity to have feelings hurt.
So when you’re writing lyrics and someone says, “Meh, that’s not so good,” you think, Wow, OK. ’Cause they’re basically saying your life isn’t so great! It feels kind of like that, because you’re putting yourself so far out there. But being up to the challenge—that makes more sense to me. Getting all pissed off and rewriting works in one way, but taking the challenge is always good. So there were quite a few lyric things. There were quite a few on some songs, just as we would do on Lars doing a certain drum roll and say, “Meh, you can do better than that, try a few things.” We did that, where they said, “Those lyrics are OK. Try something else.” There were quite a few on this record. They didn’t sit down and analyze every little thing like Rick did on this record, but I sat at Rick’s house in his bare-bones living room, where he’s got basically a white leather couch and a big-ass stereo, and we sat there and went through it.
We were basically looking for stuff that moved us: “This moved me. That moved me. I don’t know what the Hell these words mean,” you know? Even [the title] Death Magnetic, what the hell is that? I don’t know, but it moves me! It’s got emotion to it! We looked for a lot of that, and through the past, even the earlier records had a lot of that cryptic attraction. You didn’t know exactly what it was, but the minute you sang it or felt it, you knew what it meant.
Obviously, people have been comparing those records to this one, especially with Rubin telling you to go back to that 1985 mindset. Where did you draw the line between Metallica’s past and present?
Well, you can only go so far back until you’re playing dress up or becoming the character of who you were in the past. It becomes Halloween, and suddenly you’re dressing up in a costume, which is certainly not what we’re into. And so we weren’t really into our past that much; we were running from our past the whole time, and as an artist, feeling that if you’re not creating, thinking, breaking new ground, you feel you’re not really an artist. You’re not really moving forward. You’re not really satisfied. I think Rick allowed us to embrace our past a little more and stand up and take credit for some of the good things that’ve happened in the past. And I think fans had a lot to do with it with the 20th anniversary of Master of Puppets. Things like that, people coming out and saying, “Hey, did you know that it was 20 years ago when this album came out?” Oh, right. That’s important, isn’t it? I guess it is. We’re hearing that it is! Let’s celebrate it. Let’s go out. We did Master of Puppets in its entirety on tour, playing the whole album from first to last note. And that also helped us to start to embrace history.
Lars once said that the way people treat those albums as classics made you want to move away from them.
You know, that makes sense. It’s like, “Ach! All right, those’re classics—don’t fuck with ’em! Move as far away from them as possible.” And it works in the reverse, also. There are bands who continue to make similar types of songs because that’s what they feel, not because they can’t do anything else. There are some great examples of bands out there who remain consistent, and our fear was that consistency just meant blandness, almost to the point of running away from your own sound.
When you listen to this album now, what do you think about?
That’s a pretty heavy word.
Yeah. It feels alive. It’s a happy record, even though it’s got death all over it. But it works for us, since we’ve kind of died, and it doesn’t mean it won’t happen again. But you can rise above, and you can come out of the ashes stronger, and it feels like that’s what we’ve done. We’ve gotten a whole team of people who feel the same way—record company, road crew. We’ve got four guys on our crew—and that’s just four backline guys, sound guys—who’ve been with us more that 20 years. We had a party for those guys, to celebrate ’em .
They’re family, too.
Oh, totally. The have dedicated, you know, at least half of their lives to this band, and lifestyle, and standing up for it, being proud and loyal. And that to me is the ultimate.
From the albums you selected as ’08 favorites [see the issue], it sounds like you’re still very much into metal.
[Laughs] Well, these days, I don’t really listen to the radio. It’s either satellite or putting CDs in, so most of the stuff I’m picking up from [Sirius/XM Radio’s program] Liquid Metal or stuff like that, and try to discover the next great thing that moves me, like everyone else is. And there was a while where it was pretty disappointing. So I’m just happy that rock, hard rock, heavy metal, death metal, whatever—it’s coming back. It’s feeling good. It’s rising, so you can see it on the charts, feel it, see and heart it on the radio, the satellite stuff. Hopefully, it’ll show up on the TV somewhere. You see these award shows, and it’s all just rap or black soul or something, and there’s no rock! Represent, man! There’s a lot of bands that’ve been flying the flag.
You’ve said that you’re writing riffs on the road right now. Given what’s on Death Magnetic, we here at Revolver can’t wait to hear what you guys do next.
We hope the wait was worth it on this one, and we’re honored to be represented by your magazine as the Album of the Year. We’re thankful for that. It’s tough out here, so seeing people out there, that’s what it is all about.