Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning have fueled many heated sessions over the years. Now Metallica is ten albums deep spanning over their 35-plus years existence. Hardwired… to Self-Destruct fits right in with their early albums and they’ve been promoting it by playing smaller venues around the world, giving their fans an intimate experience to blow out their eardrums. James Hetfield took some time before playing Oakland’s Fox Theater to talk about technology, the symphony and longevity.
Interview & Photos: Jordan Joseffer
You’ve done huge stadium tours and festivals but recently you’ve been taking it back to smaller venues. Does playing a venue like the Fox bring you back to the Kabuki days in the ’80s?
Ha! Almost like that. Dude, it’s so fun. This is the last date on the promo tour. We’ve just been doing promo all over the place: New York, LA, London, Paris, Berlin, here—doing smaller gigs to get the vibe pumped up. Playing new songs, getting people excited, getting them out to see music, you know, metal music. I’d rather see a band in a small place. I love this place. The Fox is awesome. I’ve taken my kids to see plenty of gigs here. This is probably the biggest one of the clubs we’ve done recently. They’ve been between 150 to this, so we’ve had fun. Over in London we played the House of Vans.
I was there. That was an awesome show.
It was cool. It didn’t sound the best but you’re in a freaking tunnel.
It was a legit London dungeon. At that show you guys opened with Budgie’s “Breadfan.” I think its awesome how you guys pay tribute to other bands and have collaborated with other artist like Lou Reed. What does it mean to you to cover these songs and work with these artists?
Yeah, you know, we have our influences and every generation has their influences. It’s not like we have to school anybody on anything. For us, it’s exciting to work with people like that. People that are kind of outside of the box. Doing cover songs for us is always fun. Paying homage to all of the bands that have helped us on our path to Metallica, you know? From the Misfits to The Ramones to Motörhead to Blue Öyster Cult to all these underground New Wave of British Metal bands. So yeah, we don’t have to school people but I don’t know—I guess I school my kids in a different way. Like riding to school, “Hey, this week we’re doing the Beach Boys, next week we’re doing the Ramones, next week AC/DC.” I just play some stuff. They don’t have to like it but at least know it.
So when you’re driving no one else gets to touch the radio?
Well, in most of my hot rods they don’t know where the radio is. It’s all hidden.
Both Metallica and Thrasher started in 1981 and have been going strong. What’s the secret to your longevity?
Well, honesty for sure. Doing what you want and playing what you feel good playing. When you put out the good vibes and you put out the honesty in your art, people show up. We learned pretty early on that there was no party for us so we made our own. We made a party and everyone’s invited. If you don’t like the party, don’t come. Simple as that. I think Thrasher’s the same way. It’s making a huge impact these days. My kid’s wearing Thrasher stuff. I had nothing to do with it and I asked him, “Where’d you get that?” He’s, like, “Uh, I think it’s cool.”
You guys kind of broke the mold with the release of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. It seems like everyone is trying to figure out the best way to release an album in this digital world. You guys went ahead and dropped a music video for every song right before the release. What made you take this approach.
I don’t know. It was a combination of a few ideas thrown out there. You know there’s no rules. There’s no rules now at least. Back in the days when it was a little more traditional and this is how you release an album and this is how you’d set it up and things like that. But there’s so many ways to get ahold of people now, so many ways to get music to people. We obviously noticed that YouTube is where it’s all at right now. I mean, anything I need to learn how to do, I just look it up on YouTube and somebody’s made an instructional for it. If I were to hear a new song I would much rather see something along with it. I also think that someone’s going to do it anyway. Someone’s going to take your song and make a video whether it’s just the album cover or pictures of stuff so let’s just make it right; let’s make it good.
But do you feel like you’re surrendering to online piracy in a way by putting it all out online? After the Napster battles, do you feel like it’s going to get pirated no matter what so you might as well be in control of it?
Yeah, I mean, I guess in a way. Our battle with people giving our stuff away was a moral battle. Not a technology battle or a convenience battle. We felt like our vault got opened up, you know? It was like in The Little Rascals where he goes in and grabs all of that old guy’s money and he starts throwing it out the window. It’s not about money but it is somewhat about money. I don’t do this for a hobby. I love doing it but this is how I survive. If it was a hobby I’d look at it different maybe. I don’t want the guy working on the brakes of my car telling me that’s his hobby. I want it to be done right from a professional. The paramedic that shows up at my house, like, “Hey, this is my side job. I do this for fun!” Like, “Uh, no.” We do this because we love it and it sustains us and our families. You know, technology is awesome. We love what’s happening. We’ve been embracing it since we knew how things were going to be. It’s out of our control so let’s take advantage of it and let’s make it unique and that’s what we’ve done with everything. We want to be different; that’s all.
It’s crazy considering how convenient and accessible it is for people to listen to music. People can pretty much listen to any song, anywhere. The fact that vinyl sales have been growing is surprising. Why do you think people are still drawn to vinyl?
It’s pretty amazing. My kids like vinyl. At first it was kind of novelty, like, “Ooh, this is retro,” down at the Urban Outfitters buying records and a little record player. But they do like it and they do like the—you know, there’s a ritual to it. Putting the music on, dropping the needle and listening, actually listening to it. Instead of being out and about driving or whatever where you’re kind of listening to music but you’re not. You put the record on and you actually sit and listen to music. Vinyl has never gone away but it’s definitely popular. Somebody told me that vinyl outsold digital sales for a day or maybe a week or something and that was pretty awesome to hear. The more ways the better.
People just like to hold something and have something to look at.
There’s no doubt. It is always cool to hold something and take your time with it. When you’re online there’s always that feeling, like, “I’m kinda wasting my time here.” Vinyl is just a bigger platform too. You get to do cooler artwork and make it more exciting.
How’d you get involved with the San Francisco Symphony for S&M?
We did that with Michael Kamen. He’s a conductor that worked with a couple of rock people before. I don’t know if it was Pink Floyd but I know it was Bryan Adams. He was the guy who was bringing the world a little bit and it was his vision. He wanted to do a metal band. He came to us and we said, “Hell yeah. Let’s try it.” It took a lot of work. When we played with the SF Symphony we had to move it to Berkeley because the place in SF is set up acoustically for acoustic instruments. When we plugged in no one could hear anything. It was just a mess so we had to do a lot of work to make it sound right. It has lots of power. That’s where we connected. I was pretty nervous playing with real musicians. I don’t know why I think they’re real, ‘cause they can read music or something. We don’t know how to read music but we feel it. We love the power and we love what it does to us. Let’s connect there. They obviously feel the same thing. There are obviously some people who clock in and sit and play and read their stuff, clock out and go home. Most of the people there obviously love it or else they wouldn’t do it. They helped us sound and feel more powerful than ever.
Were there any classical music purists who were bummed to play metal songs?
You know, no. If they were they didn’t show it. I’m sure there were people that it was just a job for them then there were other people, like, “Oh my God. I’m a hero at home. My kids are loving this.” The harp player was wearing a Metallica shirt underneath his tuxedo and underneath that he was tattooed. He was a tattooed biker who was playing the harp in the symphony. It was awesome.
Do you feel a sense of home-court advantage in the Bay Area like a sports team?
It’s always nice to be home. You just feel the area. I don’t live here anymore but I spent so much time here that this does feel obviously like home. Like The Fox Theater, I’ve been here lots and lots of times. It’s comfortable. I think we feel comfortable no matter where we are but to go home and sleep in your bed is always awesome.
I’m sure you have diehard fans who would gladly listen to “Enter Sandman” on repeat but are you offended at all by the CIA’s use of your music to torture prisoners?
Ha! We’ve tortured people with it for a long time. A lot longer than the CIA. I’ve got nothing to say about that really. I’m honored my country is using something to help us stay safe, if they are. But then again, once the music is out, I don’t have control over that. Just like how someone’s giving it away online. They’re using it to do what they do. There’s plenty of Metallica cover bands, there’s plenty of people doing “Enter Sandman” or “Nothing Else Matters” in Gregorian style, bluegrass style or Celtic harp combos and you know—the music is out there and it gets used so there you go.
Kerry King once told me in an interview that Slayer would have been scarier and maybe more effective.
I agree. No doubt about that but there’s still even scarier stuff than Slayer too. There’s some pretty intense crazy stuff out there.
A lot of these shows recently have been tied into local charities.
It’s kind of a no-brainer. It’s been going on for a long time but during Death Magnetic it became more of a tradition. When there was leftover food from the concert, backstage, catering—let’s have it go to use. Money is always easier to transfer. With food you have to worry about it going bad and you don’t want to hurt people. You’re trying to do good here. At the end of the day nothing goes to waste. If it gets thrown in the dumpster it gets put back into the Earth somehow. Freaking maggots love it then they turn into flies and the cycle continues. But to get it to humans, that is the mission.
Awesome. Anything else you’d like to say to the Thrasher readers?
That we are freaking unbelievably shocked and surprised at the reaction to the new album and how people are loving it. After 35 years, still getting on stage and kicking maximum ass is still fun and we feel like athletes at times. I know skaters that are still doing stuff in their 50s and it’s awesome. So keep pushing those limits.
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