Heavy Is The Crown: Metallica Interviewed

Exploring the defiantly progressive path of metal’s most maligned monsters

Anyone who’s watched their 2004 documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, will find it astonishing that Metallica are still an on ongoing concern, but yet here they are in 2017, more potent and purposeful than ever.

The film chronicled, in brutally frank detail, the band at breaking point; their existence threatened by the power struggle between founding members James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich, the band were forced to play out their bickering, counseling and reconciliation on camera. Throwing Hetfield’s life-altering rehab stint into the mix, it’s such a traumatic viewing experience that it’s a miracle the viewer makes it out in one piece, let alone the group.

Thirteen years later, it’s an enlivened and positively constructive unit that Clash encounters atop a central Copenhagen hotel one golden August afternoon. They’re in town for the first date of the European leg of their WorldWired Tour, supporting 2016’s ‘Hardwired… To Self-Destruct’, an album considered one of their mightiest – and certainly their most cohesive in its vitriolic vision – of the last quarter-century.

Its success adds to the 100 million albums Metallica have sold to date, with this tour already racking up over $90 million – remarkable figures for anyone, let alone an impulsive heavy metal quartet that thrives on evolution and whose often unpredictable career choices thus far have been divisive, to say the least.

Daring to push the boundaries of the restrictive metal genre, Metallica have always pursued a resolutely progressive path that has yielded some rather unexpected results, with almost every album stirring unrest in their following: in 1986, ‘Master Of Puppets’ was deemed too classical, 1988’s ‘…And Justice For All’ was too tinny, while the immense ‘Metallica’ (AKA ‘The Black Album’) in 1991 was considered too populist. The ‘Load’ and ‘Reload’ albums in 1996 and ’97 were derided for straying too far from their thrash roots, but even in 2008, Metallica were accused of being too loud on ‘Death Magnetic’. Whatever move they made, Metallica couldn’t win. Fortunately, however, they did not give a flying fuck.

“There has always been this dichotomy about we’re sort of leading the cavalry, but at the same time, we’re not leading the cavalry the way that a portion of that world wants us to lead it,” Lars explains to Clash, “and so we’ve always been somewhat at odds – somewhat at odds, not at odds – and there’s occasionally been some friction there.”

“You gotta get out there and live,” he says of his band’s restless creative curiosity, “and if you don’t live then you suffocate. You only get one life, so it’s like our time on the planet is way too short to have that much willful limit of your own options.”

Eager to further analyse the unwavering nature of rock’s most consistently prevailing gatecrashers, Clash’s Editor-In-Chief, Simon Harper, enjoyed a private audience with the four tenacious titans – James Hetfield: singer/guitarist, authoritative, jocular; Lars Ulrich: drummer, impassioned, outspoken; Robert Trujillo: bassist, realist, diplomat; Kirk Hammett: guitarist, thoughtful, idealist – and began to navigate the complex web of their hardwired system.

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Clash have never featured a metal band on the cover, but it feels like Metallica transcend the metal genre as cultural touch points of rock ‘n’ roll. What do you think it is that sets Metallica apart from the metal scene and elevated you to the status of being so universally accepted?

Mmm. That’s a great question. We’ve always hated any kind of rules, or any attempt to categorise or box us in any way. We don’t like boundaries and limits. And I think right away… heavy metal has the impression that it’s a bit punk, like ‘Fuck the world,’ and ‘We’re us, we’re doing things our way”, and that’s fine, until you don’t fit into their way. You know, cutting your hair or not wearing a leather jacket, or whatever. Doing a ballad: that was one of the things that set us apart right away. I remember almost getting in a fight with a fan in San Francisco. This was about ’89, because ‘Justice…’ had just come out, and we had done a video for the song ‘One, and the guy said: ‘Fuck you, you sell-out motherfucker. You did a video for MTV, and blah blah blah…’ (Laughs) I felt the need to defend us! It’s like, ‘Why do I need to justify our art to you?’ So, that to us, it disappointed us. It disappointed us that fans would get angry at you for being an artist, or doing what you feel you want to do to explain yourself to the world, or to connect with the world.

And that they would limit you?

Very much limit you. What does ‘sell-out’ mean? As soon as you play a show, maybe you’ve sold out? I don’t know how extreme you go with that. So, we instantly said, ‘You know what? We’re rebels within rebels here, so let’s not worry too much about anybody. If we’re doing what we honestly think is going to help us as people, help us as a group of guys creating together, we’re gonna do it.’

Clearly, for a band to continue you have to be successfully viable, but you’re not necessarily going to be that unless you do things that are going to reach out to a bigger audience anyway. So, for that fan to be able to continue buying your albums, you have to progress through success to be able to record them!

Well, my philosophy is evolution is supposed to happen. You’re supposed to change, you’re supposed to grow, you’re supposed to experience life, and there are certain personalities that don’t think that, that feel very safe in a confined little… When there’s no unknowns, it’s safer for them. Creating the same album over and over – there’s plenty of bands that do that, but we’re not happy with that. And there’s a fault to that as well – we’re never satisfied. (Laughs) But that is kind of the drive that keeps us going. What is your best record? It’s the next one. What’s your best gig? It’s the next one. And that’s always kinda been at least in my head.

If you feel like outsiders naturally anyway, does that mean the decisions you make are fearless, thinking ‘Fuck it, we don’t care what happens,’ or is there an apprehension of ‘Is this too different? Are people going to like it?’

Yeah. You know, I hate doubt. “Doubt killed the warrior,” as they say. There are practical things that come into play at times, and then sometimes they don’t. (Laughs) It’s like, ‘We want to do this. We don’t care how much money it loses. This is something that no one has done, and we’re at a point where we can do it, and we’re able to experiment and push boundaries of what a band is supposed to do and not do.’ We love that part, and we have made some pretty silly risky adventures, like making the Through The Never movie, doing festivals, inviting a very wide net of different eclectic types of bands – the Orion festival – doing an album with Lou Reed, playing a gig in Antarctica – there was plenty of people hating that idea.

Apart from the people in Antarctica, though?

(Laughs) Yeah. The penguins didn’t really care so much. But yeah, we’ve made some silly and costly adventures, but there are no regrets. We tried it, and who else was going to try it?

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On the flip side, do you feel like there are compromises that have to be made along the way as well to be accepted by the mainstream?

It is interesting, because we have created our own mainstream, is what I believe. We’ve been extremely honest with ourselves, including the compromising part. There always has to be some kind of compromise – especially when you’ve got four guys in a band. You’ve got two guys that are really driving the thing – Lars and myself – and when we don’t agree, there has to be a compromise. But, as far as doing something that doesn’t feel right, I’m sure there’s been a few times that it’s happened – the ‘Load’ and ‘Reload’ era, for me, was one of those; the way that was looking, I wasn’t 100% on with it, but I would say that that was a compromise. I said, ‘I’m going with Lars’ and Kirk’s vision on this. You guys are extremely passionate about this, so I’ll jump on board, because if the four of us are into it, it’s going to be better.’ So I did my best with it, and it didn’t pan out as good as I was hoping, but, again, there’s no regrets, because at the time it felt like the right thing to do. So, even thinking that I need to compromise a little bit for the integrity of the band to go forward, I’d do that. But, as far as the mainstream goes, I think we’ve been so honest and open about what we want and what we don’t want. You know, this is our fucking party. (Laughs) You’re invited! Everyone’s invited! Be a part of the acceptance of this and the adventure, and if it starts to get personal and you don’t like it, you can jump off at any point, because there’s always hopefully going to be someone who enjoys that enthusiasm about creation, and there will always be a seat for that person.

Heavy rock has always been the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Do you think kids are looking for something different outside the norm?

Absolutely. And, you know, it’s in every music form. Even if you get raised in a rock family and you go jazz or you go classical, that’s rebellion. It doesn’t have to mean rock, but there will always be a rebellious part of maturation in a teen when you reach that ‘I need to be different from my parents.’ I think it’s a natural thing that’s supposed to happen. I’ve got three teenagers myself and it makes sense that they want their own music, they want their own career, they want their own path, and that’s what’s supposed to happen. For me to wrangle them in and force them to listen to Venom or something, it doesn’t make any sense, you know? Even though they’re forcing me to listen to some of their stuff! (Laughs) I love that they love music. And they have their own – you’re supposed to have your own. So, rebellion is, I think, a great and natural evolution of humans growing up.

Upon the release of your last album, ‘Hardwired… To Self-Destruct’, you admitted that it was a very angry album. With metal being a suitable vehicle for the release of anger, which do you think came first for you: were you an angry person drawn to metal, or did playing metal naturally bring out your inner anger?

Oh, being angry, for sure, came first. Just because of life happening as it did for me as a kid. Music was a way to express my anger. There were other bands doing it for me until I could do it myself – Black Sabbath and some of the heavier bands is what I loved, and punk rock too; they were expressing anger and it felt good to be a part of that. But anger has kinda been this part of me that I’ve tried to embrace, I’ve tried to hide, I’ve tried to do everything with, and it is just a part of me, so I celebrate it, and it’s a good tool to use in music.

It’s lucky to be able to have that outlet, too, otherwise you would probably explode.

Absolutely, yeah. Very true. And, I tell you, there was no plan B. (Laughs) This was plan A and it was going to happen. It’s a good thing I met up with Lars and we did what we did and things came about… I mean, I still don’t believe what’s going on. It’s unbelievable. I couldn’t have dreamt this better, you know? (Laughs) To be 54 and still be playing, creating music, and enjoying touring, and having a healthy, awesome family, and having people that enjoy our creation.

There’s going to be a whole new generation of angry and disenfranchised people in the world right now due to modern politics and society in general. Do you think more people might be looking towards rock now to vent their frustrations?

Well, I think it’s healthy to be able to find something you connect with and it’s able to help express whatever is going on in you instead of hiding it, whether it be anger or fear, or… I mean, it’s all fear-based. (Laughs) I instantly turn to anger because that’s familiar to me; other people turn to other things to mask their fear. But anger has been an energy that has been negative but mostly positive for me, so far.

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Music was a way to express my anger… It's a good tool to use in music.

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You and Lars first connected after he put an ad in the local paper in search of musicians with similar tastes to play with. It must have been so difficult to find like minds with common interests at that time, compared to today, when the Internet is an immediate portal to connect similar personalities.

It’s unspoken now, really. It’s just so easy to connect. Back then, it happened because it needed to happen. I mean, if we were to have Facebook or Instagram, we’d have connected as well. But, you know, the newspaper worked just fine. We thought that was pretty remarkable, that you could throw an ad in the paper; you’d look under ‘H’ every time for ‘Heavy metal’. ‘Oh, there it is! There’s that same guy – I’d better call him.’ (Laughs) But when you’re on a mission, the roadblocks are part of the journey, and things getting easier now, I’d say now the tough part is probably there’s so many options. Back then, here’s the option that was there: Lars was there, and that was it. That’s where I lived, and that’s that. I couldn’t connect with some guy in Norway and form a band or something like you can now, but I think maybe there’s so many choices now it makes it more difficult.

There are a lot of presumptions today, too, where people come into music and almost expect that end goal of success immediately, whereas perhaps Metallica never saw that end goal and it was all about the journey and trying to do what you enjoy?

Well, our goal was to not work. (Laughs) That was it. That was the first goal. ‘Let’s not have a job, because my job sucks, and I hear you talking about your job and it sucks. I work in a factory, you’re delivering papers – let’s not work. That would be cool. And if this can help us not work, I love doing this!’ I’m sure there’s plenty of challenges out there that people don’t understand – convenience has become the norm. There will be challenges, you know? If it’s meant to be, you’ll face those challenges and attack them, whatever it is. The kids these days have lots of choices, like I was saying, and if you think it’s easy and then it becomes hard, there’s a challenge right there. I think hard work is a really great character builder.

In the past, it was also easier to connect with like minds because you could tell what they were into by what they wore, which was a badge of their identity. But today, it’s quite possible that a kid who’s wearing a Metallica T-shirt has never heard a note of your music. What are your thoughts on how your iconography has been adopted as a fashion motif?

(Laughs) Right. Well, let me tell you that when I designed the logo on a napkin in our little rehearsal room in Norwalk, California, never would I have thought it would be like Maytag or Volvo or something. The barbed logo, the name, it’s almost household. Never would I have thought that. But in our silly thinking back then – you know, ‘We’re going to conquer the world and that’s it. We want our logo on everyone’s body at some point – it makes a good tattoo!’ (Laughs) I love graphics, graphic designing. If I wasn’t in a band, that’s probably what I would have been doing. I was loving designing T-shirts and logos. My mom was a graphic designer and decorator, so it made sense that I liked the art part as well, so I get to do both in this. And merch puts a big smile on my face. When I see some kid out on the street with his parents and he’s got a Metallica shirt on, whether he’s heard of us or not, it’s a statement, you know? It is a statement, so I love that.

In the wake of ‘Hardwired…’ you talked about how its sound was inspired by thoughts about previous albums, and I wondered whether your looking back into the past brought back any other memories that are feeding what your next move might be?

It’s pretty interesting, because being so close, being in the picture, I don’t really get what people hear about the connection of old stuff to this. It’s just us writing the next record, and it feels right, and it feels good.

Do people project too much of their own subjective feelings of your old albums on your new ones?

You know, it’s a free society. You can explain what you need to explain or make up what you want about everything, but everyone has an opinion, and it’s very heard now. (Laughs) Researched or not, it doesn’t matter; freedom of speech is pretty important. We take all that with a grain of salt, and at the end of the day, if it feels good to us we do it. This record felt good and we put it out. We’re not interested in re-doing what we’ve done in the past – embracing the past, celebrating it, enjoying that we had done that, but trying to recreate it is not interesting to us.

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There’s an existing pride in what you’ve already done, so why revisit it?

Yeah, and I think we always ran from that; we were always afraid of getting lazy, resting on your laurels or something like that. You start phoning it in after that, and we don’t want to do that.

There are a lot of bands that do, whose new records are just an excuse to tour again.

Yeah. We’re still wanting to prove something to ourselves, I guess. (Laughs) I don’t know what it is, but the next one’s going to be better. As a lyricist and a guitar player, I’m looking for the ultimate riff, the ultimate guitar sound, the ultimate lyric, the perfect rhyme – all of that stuff still, and it’s still a quest.

When you come up with something that feels good and along those lines, is that what psychs you up for a new project?

Yeah. As an artist I know I am very insecure, and when I write something good I feel good about that, and when someone else likes it I feel even better. There’s a part of me that gets angry that I need other people to tell me I’m okay, you know? (Laughs) But then there’s another part of me that knows we’re good and I know I’m on the right path and I’m doing the right thing. This is a good life and this is meant to be. Going on tour and making people happy. I get to watch people enjoy themselves through music!

Well, you’ve got the perfect vantage point.

It’s really cool, you know? There’s all those people looking at just the four of us, but I get to look at a lot of people out there, and it’s all different. Everyone enjoys their music in a different way or lets loose in the way they feel. You know, ‘Wow, I’ve never done this before,’ and it’s like, well, you’re just kinda dancing. Seeing people let loose and enjoy.

It must be quite overwhelming.

Not really, no. Because I can focus on… There are eyes out there that I go back to every song, or, ‘Hey, I can rely on some energy from this person,’ or, ‘This person is a little stuffy. Let’s go over and throw some shapes over here.’ (Laughs) It is interesting to get reactions from people. For us, someone standing there going, ‘Fuck you,’ is it good or is it bad? I don’t really know, but, you know, you blow him a kiss and you see what happens. (Laughs) See what comes back!

If you spy a dickhead in the audience, that must be helpful for when you’ve to sing an angry song.

Oh, that’s always fun. I just throw a handful of picks at him and then he gets swamped. But there’s all kinds out there. We see from 70-year-old ladies to 10-year-old girls in the front row, and it’s amazing. Never would I have thought. Back in the ’80s it was long-haired sweaty dudes with leather jackets, and now there’s a multitude of different ethnicities and careers and body shapes. You name it, it’s transcended all boundaries, really. Even seeing flags from Iraq or Iran, it’s amazing. It’s so cool that there’s no boundaries, that we get to express ourselves and not worry about political stances or religious or whatever. We’re creating stuff that’s hopefully accepted everywhere.

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Clash have never featured a metal band on the cover, but it feels like Metallica transcend the metal genre as cultural touch points of rock ‘n’ roll. What do you think it is that sets Metallica apart from the metal scene and elevated you to the status of being so universally accepted?

Right off the bat, I’d have to say it’s the music. The music remains youthful and energetic, even in this day and time. I mean, our music doesn’t age. When we go out there and play to a bunch of stadium shows in America, we see so many younger people. James will say to the mic every night, ‘How many new people are here?’ and sometimes more than half of the people would be people who had never seen the band before. And so, I think it’s the music, really, that’s stood the test of time, and, by proxy, us.

Ultimately, it’s the music that people buy into, and they’re either going to like it or they’re not.

Yeah, and I think with us – I imagine with us – if you’re a fan who hears something, a certain song, and they’re like, ‘Whoah, I like that song; maybe I should look into it a little further,’ and then they end up discovering our entire catalogue, and then, all of a sudden, they discover, ‘Wow, I didn’t know it, but I’m a Metallica fan!’ And I hear that so much; people who incidentally become Metallica fans, or don’t expect to become Metallica fans, or whatnot. And, usually, I hear that more often with people who are older or people who are musicians of another genre who are just totally into their genre deep, like a jazz musician who just listens to jazz music and then all of a sudden might hear one of our songs and go, ‘Hey, there’s a degree of complexity there,’ and then look a little further and go, ‘Hey, is that Elvin Jones on drums?’ because a lot of that fast jazz stuff is just as fast as speed metal.

You’re a band that like to do things differently, do things your own way; has that led to any compromises you’ve had to make, either musically or industry-wise?

Well, I mean, musically we try not to make any compromises. Musically, we try to follow our gut instinct and just kind of go with what sounds the best to our own ears. There are eight ears between us, and we try to play with what tickles our eight ears the most. (Laughs) And so, musically, I don’t think there’s very much compromise there. There certainly has been compromises in the industry, because the industry has changed so much. I mean, you have to make compromises just to survive. The whole switch from it being a physical, CD-driven industry to a total digital streaming, downloading industry, I mean, there are compromises you have to make just to keep up with the times.

By following your instincts and constantly evolving, Metallica’s development was often held in contempt by the stolid metal scene who resented your growth. Did you ever feel confined by what metal should be?

Yeah. I think for a long time we felt very comfortable within those rules – we definitely helped set some of those rules, for sure – but I think after a while, just because of our own creative urges and our own musical curiosity, we decided to push those boundaries some time around the ’90s with ‘Load’ and ‘Reload’. We decided, ‘Let’s really see what the band is capable of sounding like.’ And then, once we did those albums, it seemed like we were able to do just about anything we wanted to. And from those albums to a real extreme, which was ‘S&M’, and to another extreme, which was ‘St. Anger’… It’s hard to draw a thread from ‘Load’ to ‘St. Anger’, but there is one. I mean, there are lots of threads, but that’s just one common thread that connects those two albums.

What is it that drives you, then, to do those different things? What is it that keeps things fresh and innovative for you?

Playing different stuff on my guitar. Playing different songs with the band. It’s fun for us to play different songs. I mean, it’s great to play our catalogue, and we’ve played our catalogue a lot, but it’s also great to play different chord progressions, arrangements, guitar solos, whatever. I’m at the point in my life now where I really need to hear more complex chords, just in my off-time listening, so I find myself listening to a lot of jazz-based stuff and a lot of classical stuff. I crave musical complexity – but that doesn’t mean that I can’t appreciate an open power chord, because I just love that too, and I will always, always love that. Finding other ways to relate certain feelings inside of us has always been the creative challenge and the creative goal.

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Rock was always the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Do you think in this day and age with so many options out there, kids will still turn to rock music to rebel?

Well, it’s just so diluted; there are just so many bands, with so many different flavours. And there was a point where anyone who was a fan of rock, our attention kinda moved together. If there was a major rock release, everyone who was a rock fan knew about it and anticipated it, and when that album came out, it was an event. You just don’t have that now. It’s so diluted, the way information comes in. I mean, one of my favourite artists has had an album out for two months and I didn’t even realise it. I feel like I’m a victim of the very thing we’re talking about right now. I had to run out and buy the CD. It’s just hard now to have any sort of sense of community in any type of musical genre, because everyone is just so divided. It wasn’t a celebratory event that it used to be; now it’s just kinda taken for granted. Also, when I say it’s diluted, there’s just so much to pick from. There are so many bands.

And they’re not necessarily all following the same kind of ethos, whereas back in the day they were maybe more tuned to the same thing?

Back in the day, you know, in the ’50s there 10 or 15 rock bands that really signified rebellion and anti-authority. In 2017, you have 1.5 million of them. Where’s the rebellion and anti-authority in that? And, hey, I’m not saying I’m any different – I’m part and parcel to that too; I’m in a band – I’m just commenting on the way it is. I think for music to be really rebellious and anti-authoritarian these days it has to be hard to listen to. When we first came out, when heavy metal first came out, when punk rock first came out, it was all really hard to listen to for a lot of different people.

Because it was so abrasive.

Yeah. But, for me, it was like a choir of angels; it spoke to something super deep inside that said, ‘Yeah, I want more of that, because that’s how I feel inside, and this is like a mirror of how I feel inside.’ I think there are bands out there, it’s just that part of the reason that they’re viewed as rebellious or anti-authority is because rebellious and anti-authoritarian people get behind them and support them, and it becomes a movement or a community. That’s less likely to happen now, because everything is just so scattered.

I would also worry that this generation is going to be more disenfranchised and angrier than previous generations, and I wonder if you think whether there might be a resurgence in heavy rock music as they look for outsiders to be singing to them?

Yeah, or maybe it would be something just so great as something as radical as human interaction, (laughs) instead of convenient screen interaction.

That would be a novelty!

It’s become a novelty, which is a shame. I mean, who knows? It’s going to take something that just resonates with everyone, causes people to just sit up and walk out of their houses or rooms or whatever and go down and see clubs and hang out together and see concerts and start a movement, you know? Movements just happen – you can’t really just start one – but you can form a group or something. But, I tell you, I hear stuff here and there that I think is the future.

We’re not losing hope yet.

I’m not losing hope yet. I know that there’s this kinda weird Afro-punk thing going on that’s really interesting sounding to me – especially some of the stuff that’s coming out of the New York area right now. It’s really interesting stuff.

There is a fire burning somewhere that’s eventually going to take hold.

I’m not worried about that fire burning out; I’m just worried about whether it gets channeled into great music or not.

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I think for music to be really rebellious and anti-authoritarian these days it has to be hard to listen to.

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How would you try and find like-minded people in the past? How would you connect and find each other back then?

All the people I knew back then who were a part of our small, little underground group of hard rock/heavy metal friends, I met almost all of them at record stores or at nightclubs seeing local bands who were trying to sound like all the bands that we were buying import albums of. It was like a grass roots movement. We all started buying these records from this record store in Berkeley that had import records. There was this movement in Britain, all these great hard rock bands, and we were being influenced by them – just a whole bunch of us – and we started bands that were trying to play like that. That attracted other like-minded people, and that’s how the San Francisco heavy metal scene started. It wasn’t any different than the early-’60s when people like Eric Clapton or Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were going down to their record store and buying blues albums and listening to this stuff and being influenced by it and becoming musicians and forming these bands that were playing blues covers, but no one knew from the outset that they were blues covers, and it was fantastic. Well, the exact same thing happened in San Francisco. We went down to these record stores and we were buying all these records from Britain and Europe that were these hard rock bands that weren’t like anything that we had heard around us, which was like KISS, Aerosmith, Van Halen, Journey – that kind of stuff. This was next level, and you needed to concentrate a little bit more and commit yourself a little bit more on first listen to listen to these bands, but once you got it, you really got it. And, for us, we were just guitar players who were looking for other cool things to do and play, and when we discovered these bands, it was great because we just learnt how to play listening to these records – I mean, along with all the usual American stuff that was happening at the time. And then we formed bands – I formed Exodus and we were playing new wave and British heavy metal stuff. And we weren’t the only ones; there were other bands out there who knew about these records we were buying, and knew about these bands in Britain. And then Metallica came up, and they knew about the exact same bands that we knew about, and so there was an instant bond there.

It’s like seeing all these ripples in a pond emanating out from one drop.

Exactly. But, the funny thing is, it was still such a small scene in Britain at the time, and we still managed to get news of it and hear it, and then all of a sudden open up our ears to it. I remember the import section at Rasputin Records in Berkeley; it was something like Tuesdays and Fridays that the import records would come in, so me and my friends would go there twice a week and see what new imports would come in, what new bands.

When you got new records, would you share them with friends, or were you protective about your new scores?

Oh yeah, are you kidding me? You’d get the album, and then the first thing you knew is we would fire off numerous cassettes to all our other friends. That was the first thing. And also so we could play it in our cars!

I think the blues scene of the ’60s was more fiercely protective of their discoveries – they’d find a gem of a rare blues song, learn it while keeping it to themselves, then perform and not tell anyone it was a cover.

Yeah, it wasn’t so much like that. It was more, ‘You gotta hear this! It’s so great!’ Everyone was looking for that next discovery, and the cool person was the person who had the next coolest thing, but they would only give it out song by song.

Once upon a time, what you wore was a badge of identity, and let people know what music you actually listened to. Today, however, if somebody is wearing a Metallica T-shirt, they may not necessarily be fans of the band – the iconography has been adopted by popular fashion culture…

Yeah, it’s the same as a Ramones shirt. Just because a person has a Ramones shirt, doesn’t mean they’re into the Ramones or even know what punk rock is; it’s just kinda of like a trendy hipster thing that they’ve seen other people wearing in magazines.

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Do you see that as a great reflection of the status that Metallica holds, or merely a by-product of it?

It’s just a by-product. Eventually, if you’re around long enough, it’s just bound to happen that way. Just because they have a Metallica shirt doesn’t mean really much of anything other than they have a Metallica shirt these days. Whereas back then, in 1984 if you had a Metallica shirt, you were a part of a very, very special, unique group of people who only knew about Metallica and who only liked Metallica.

I think it’s a compliment also to the pride you take in your aesthetic; your iconography itself stands out, and can mean something to people too – they’re also buying into the visual side of it.

Well, the name says it all. Really. I sincerely believe that a part of our success is our very name itself. Seriously. You see a name like Metallica and you have a pretty good idea of what they hell you’re gonna be getting.

It feels like the influence of metal in fashion is ripe at the moment, with Vetements, Supreme and Versace all drawing influence from the genre. Do you think that is a saturation point of metal as a genre, or is it just the fashion industry looking for something new and interesting to play with?

I think it’s both of those, and also a generational thing, too.

Coming round again, you mean?

No, no. I think all these younger designers grew up heavy metal fans! (Laughs) That’s my opinion; I don’t know if that’s a pure fact, but I think a lot of them grew up listening to either the same stuff that we grew up with, or grew up listening to Metallica, Slayer, and whatnot, and recognise the fashion potential, or are taking it into that area. Me, myself, for years and years and years now, I have always kept my eye and my nose in fashion magazines, and now on fashion websites, and so I see… First it was punk rock that was the thing that a lot of designers started to emulate, but now I could see that the rock/hard rock/heavy metal thing might be a good diversion from the over-saturation of that punk rock look.

I think that’s a good point about designers; they grow up reading magazines and see people that they think looks cool, and it sticks in your head until maybe you want to recreate it. ‘I want to make a T-shirt that’s as cool as the one that I saw so-and-so wearing 20 years ago.’

I mean, my whole wardrobe is based on trying to recreate how musicians used to dress in the late-’60s and early-’70s. My entire wardrobe! And, I also love the way R&B artists dressed in the ’60s, and I love how a lot of reggae guys used to dress in the ’70s, so that’s what I try and emulate.

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Clash have never featured a metal band on the cover, but it feels like Metallica transcend the metal genre as cultural touch points of rock ‘n’ roll. What do you think it is that sets Metallica apart from the metal scene and elevated you to the status of being so universally accepted?

Well, overall, I think the music is pretty unique. I mean, whether it’s the vocal – you know, just the vocal presence that Hetfield has; there’s sort of a custom signature to that. Which is important, like AC/DC, or even like a Led Zeppelin or a lot of the classic bands; you know it’s Metallica. The other thing is arrangements with Metallica tend to be different than other kinda heavy metal or hard rock bands. There is always a groove. One of the things about the new record, and I think the records that tend to do well for Metallica, is that there is an element of groove, which I think is very important, but then it’s heavy at the same time. A lot of what we do tends not to be so pedestrian, you know? Like, we’re not afraid to have a nine-minute song within multiple seven-minute-long songs that will take you on a bit of a rollercoaster ride. There’s a lot of dynamic range. So, I think the arrangements can be kind of interesting, and in a way sort of progressive without being overly progressive – like, without being “prog rock”. So, there’s a lot of little sneaky ingredients to the band which I think separates it from a lot of other metal bands. And then there’s always melody, and that’s very important. I find in recent times there’s quite a bit of heavy metal that isn’t so melodic – I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying that it’s just kinda something that’s sort of happened in the last 20 years. I feel melody is important. I think it’s a challenge to write great melodies, and I’ve always been a fan of great melodies. Because melodies can take you back to Motown, new wave… It’s just a part of composing music. Great songs, I think, have great melodies, and that’s something that Metallica is pretty good at.

Hooks are very important; creating something that people are going to remember.

Yeah, catchy hooks, but then you might have a catchy hook and some crazy odd-time riff at the same time. There’s a rhythmic quality to this band. James, I don’t know if you know this, he was originally a drummer. He grew up as a drummer, and I think that that’s evident in his rhythm guitar playing, and also in his grooves, so it helps also to add a certain secret ingredient to the music that Metallica makes. The other thing is that Metallica, we like to challenge ourselves, whether it’s with an orchestra or making an album with Lou Reed, and so there’s this kind of weird love/hate relationship with the Metallica fans that they have, I think, for the band. There are times when they are just totally pissed off, and then there are times when they are just totally in love. And it’s literally back and forth.

I find that crazy.

Yeah. It’s like, some fans didn’t like ‘Load’ and ‘Reload’, but then they liked ‘Garage Days…’ It’s like, then ‘St. Anger’ happens and they don’t like ‘St. Anger’, but then they like ‘Death Magnetic’, or they didn’t like the Lou Reed album, but then they liked the EP ‘Beyond Magnetic’. We’re very fortunate, because everyone seems to be pretty excited about this new record, which is good.

That must be a relief?

Yeah. I mean, we’re not making albums necessarily for the fans…

No, you would drive yourselves crazy if you were trying to second-guess what it was that the fans wanted.

We laugh at that a little bit, because, you know, in some of the interviews we’ve done with some of the metal magazines… I remember a journalist saying, ‘Yeah, I had an argument with another metal journalist and he was saying that Metallica made a more thrash-oriented record on purpose to win over the thrash fan base,’ and that’s just so not true. We just do what we want to do.

You mean, you didn’t all sit in a room and say, ‘You know who we have to win over? Thrash fans’?

Yeah, we’re just having fun, and, at the end of the day, when we put on our instruments, it’s like we’re teenagers again. Really, for me, nearly 15 years in the band, I still laugh at this, because in a lot of ways I see sort of an innocence to Lars, James and Kirk when we’re in the room and we put the instruments on. We start jamming Thin Lizzy, or sometimes there’s a bit of Maiden in there, or Judas Priest, Sabbath – we start playing around with different things, and the smiles just start getting really cool, and just the attitude and the vibe… So, we genuinely enjoy being creative and having fun and making music. It’s not like, ‘Oh man, I don’t have any ideas’; the problem we have is we have too many ideas. Actually, this album is all Hetfield riffs. These are all James’ ideas. We had so many ideas just with James’ ideas alone, we didn’t really have to dive into too much of our stuff outside of that, because we had some really solid ideas and riffs. And it’s great to have, because you know that there is a good chance there’s going to be a succession of albums post-‘Hardwired…’ And even now, with a new producer – with Greg Fidelman, who we really enjoy working with… Again, Greg is versatile too; he made a lot of records with Rick Rubin, and a lot of records on his own, so he’s worked with everyone from Red Hot Chili Peppers to Johnny Cash to High On Fire and Slayer, so kind of a nice assorted list of different types of musicians. Even recently, I heard he was doing some recording with Santana. So, we like that. We like people that aren’t one-dimensional, that have interests in a lot of different styles and different vibes, and that are really focused on the art of making great music, recording great music.

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Rock was always the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Do you think in this day and age with so many options out there, kids will still turn to rock music to rebel?

It can be, for sure. It’s interesting, because obviously our generation of musicians, how we grew up – the trouble we got into, or our friends got into, being misfits in a way, not always fitting in – everybody has their story, but I believe that our music was always an escape. I had a lot of different types of friends. I actually had friends that were like jocks and surfers – I mean, I’m a surfer – but I grew up around a lot of the skateboarders in Venice, California, and the whole Dogtown movement. That’s where Suicidal Tendencies came from. Back then, there were a lot of backyard parties with these punk bands, so there was a whole scene, which I don’t see existing anymore in that part of the world. So, I feel like, you know, I was a part of that because I was going to the parties, and I was witnessing all that energy. And then, at the same time, I had cousins that were turning me on to the music they liked, that were older – whether it was Parliament/Funkadelic, or ZZ Top, or Black Sabbath and Motorhead. Those were my cousins that were turning me onto this stuff, so I was like a sponge. Now, in this day and age, my son, he’s a bass player, and with my kids I have tried to get them to understand and embrace different styles and appreciate it all the same way. And I remember my kids at three- and four-years-old slam dancing to Bad Brains. We’ll be driving along the Pacific Coast Highway in Los Angeles and I’ll be like, ‘Hey, let’s listen to some Miles Davis,’ and we’ll throw that up. Again, no rules. And now that my son has just turned 13, as a player I see him embracing the different styles and being open, and I feel that it’s the youth that are going to change things in the future. It’s important for young people to learn to play instruments now, and if that’s an opportunity for them to rebel and be creative through their art or their music, I think that’s the best thing ever. It’s like, my wife’s an artist, I’m a musician, I grew up skateboarding, my son’s a skater, my son’s a bass player who writes – writes really and performs – and my daughter’s an artist, an incredible artist, and I’m glad that they’re going that route, because I think for their generation and that step forward, it’s going to be impactful. Times are changing. A lot of kids are just staying in their rooms and they’re on their computers all day, they’re not getting out as much, they’re not climbing trees and getting outside and being physical. I see that happening more. Not even embracing art or film or music so much, it’s just like video games. I do the best I can to keep them engaged.

I love how proud you are that your son is a bass player. Like, if he’d turned around and said, ‘Dad, I’m going to be an accountant,’ you’d have screamed, ‘Nooooo! You’re such a disappointment!’

(Laughs) You know, I don’t push my kids into anything they don’t want to do. My son started out as a drummer. We have a bass in literally every room in the house, and he started playing bass on his own at about age eight. And then I taught him a C-major scale, and the next day he had it down. I taught him a blues scale after that, and it just sort of escalated to Jaco Pastorius bass solos, you know? That’s him wanting to do it and putting in the time and the energy, pretty much. Again, that’s a good thing for me, of course. I love that. I would never force any of that on him, but it’s always nice when your kids can follow what you enjoy, and you have a connection there. And it’s even better when they’re better than you – that’s what I think every parent hope for, for their kid to step up and be better.

I would also worry that this generation is going to be more disenfranchised and angrier than previous generation, and I wonder if you think whether there might be a resurgence in heavy rock music as they look for outsiders to be singing to them?

You mean just the uncertainty in the world today? It seems there is a lot of frustration. We are going through a transition and there are a lot of differences, and it’s sad to see, and our kids are experiencing that right now more than ever. You know, it’s important for us as parents to help guide them through that and find positive ways for them to enjoy life and not get caught up in the violence and the anger, and whatever it is linked to. So, these are challenging times. I always say when your kid has a big smile on their face, that’s the best thing ever. And me as a parent, that’s what I try to have in my life: kids with big smiles on their faces. And not even just my kids – friends’ kids, nephews, nieces; I’m always trying to bring happiness to them so they can enjoy life and hopefully not get too engaged in the negativity in the world, because it is out there. Part of what we do, even as a band with our kids, is we get them with us on the road sometimes. They travel, they come to the shows… It’s important for them to see other countries, other cities, the diversity, the culture; that’s very important. My kids have been to China. They love Asia – Japan, Hong Kong… It’s just important for them to experience that, because I think a lot of it is just not knowing. You hear too much in the press or from opinionated people who have not experienced the world. I think, all in all, people that tend to be on the creative side are usually a little bit more open to cultures and embracing the artistic spirit and creative spirit and the history of other countries and other places and bring it into your own life – whether it’s the architecture of your house, or the interior design, or your art, or your music, you know? It’s important.

By following your instincts and constantly evolving, Metallica’s development was often held in contempt by the stolid metal scene who resented your growth. Did you ever feel confined by what metal should be?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because I know what you’re talking about, and I know that the Metallica fan can think in a confining way – and I don’t mean that in an insulting way; I mean that, in a way, sometimes it almost feels like they want to own us and every creative move that we make. Sometimes it’s not ever good enough. But, again, going back to what I was saying where it’s like we really do what we want to do and what we feel, and I think that’s what makes this band really special: challenging ourselves and not being confined, you know? And, again, just playing from the heart and being passionate. And, hey, sometimes it’s not what people are going to like so much, and sometimes it is, you know? The Lou Reed album is a classic example of that; Metallica fans kinda hated that album, but then you had people like David Bowie and Ian Astbury from The Cult, who thought that it was the best thing ever.

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Metallica fans can be ultra supportive, and they can be ultra negative, and there can be a certain amount of frustration and hate in that mix, and you just have to keep moving forward and enjoy life.

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How great is it that you even get to do that, though, right?

Exactly. How great, and how fortunate. A lot of times it’s just, you know, an artist like that asking us to be a part of something. We’re not always going to go out there and pursue situations that we don’t know are possible. The Lou Reed situation was something that came from him, that he wanted to do, because he enjoyed playing with us. I mean, we’ve jammed with Ozzy, we’ve jammed with Lemmy, and a lot of people from Rob Halford to Ray Davies, and Long Long, who’s an incredible Chinese pianist with a total classical background. So, we’re not afraid to do that. We welcome it, we encourage it, and when we get asked, usually we jump on board. We don’t have that fear or the insecurity of not feeling that we’re good enough or able to collaborate with other people; we welcome it, and we look at it as a challenge and we just give it our best.

Was there a point with Lou Reed where it felt slightly more challenging than the rest?

It was challenging. Lou was a character, you know? He had a certain type of personality that you could either let it get under your skin, if you wanted to, or you could kinda look at it like, ‘Man, this guy is super cool. He’s ballsy, he doesn’t take any shit.’ In a way, I feel like he opened some doors for us. He’s all about improv and capturing a moment of magic, first takes and stuff like that. So, with that said, I know that I learned a lot from him, and there was definitely some classic magical moments in that session that are just too hard to explain, where the stars aligned within a song and a creative moment. Again, that’s something for us internally that we digest and we appreciate, and if people feel the same magic, that’s totally awesome, and if they don’t, well, that’s okay too; they can always go back and listen to what they like about this band. And, again, there’s always going to be another record, there’s always going to be another song, and we seem to win our fans over again – and the metal community, too. The metal community, sometimes they want – and I think it’s anything, not just metal; in art and music in general, there are times where there’s gonna be an audience that doesn’t want you to succeed. There’s going to be people that want failure. There’s a lot of focus on negativity right now, and watching people fail and enjoying it, which is kind of an unfortunate thing. Again, we go in with the attitude that we do the best we can, and if it works, it works. Fortunately for us, we have a fair amount of momentum in a positive way, and it’s just like, ‘Well, I guess it’s that time for us. Enjoy the ride,’ because you always have to keep your feet planted firmly planted on the ground – you never know when it’s going to change. And life’s like that: you always got to appreciate what you have and where you’re at, because it could all change.

I do appreciate that there are people that take change seriously, but, at the same time, if you genuinely like a band, then cut them a bit of slack. There are bands I like whose development I love, and there are others I wish would remain the same – it’s all subjective.

It is subjective. I’m the same way. That’s part of the journey. When I have a problem – and I think I can speak for the other guys in the band – is when you do something creatively outside of that situation, whether it’s a film or art or anything. We’re all creative individuals. We have other passions, and with those passions, you’ve got to let it out, you’ve got to create. And it’s okay to do that, but always expect to be judged, and always expect to be judged in a negative way, because nine times out of ten, that’s generally what the people do these days. And, you know what? Metallica fans can be ultra supportive, and they can be ultra negative, and there can be a certain amount of frustration and hate in that mix, and you just have to keep moving forward and enjoy life. Again, I feel making music, art, creativity as a whole, is magic. I feel that magic on stage now with this band more than ever. When we go out there and James says, ‘For how many of you is this your first Metallica show?’, oftentimes it’s half the crowd. And these are stadiums in North America, where things had gotten a little bit slower. We’ve always tended to do well in South America – especially Mexico City – and in Europe, and then in the States, they’re more fickle there, so it was really incredible to play the large venues in the States and realise just in the last few years that the audience has grown, and there seems to be a lot of love for what we’re doing, at a time when it’s very difficult for live bands. It’s not quite what it used to be; it’s tough for live rock bands. In a way, I feel to have a rock band in the Top Ten, an album that’s had this kind of success, it’s a bit miraculous, because it hasn’t happened in a very long time. Real instruments, you know? But, at the end of the day, we’re having fun, and that’s all that we can ask for: that we can enjoy what we’re doing, making music, and, again, appreciate this journey.

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Clash have never featured a metal band on the cover, but it feels like Metallica transcend the metal genre as cultural touch points of rock ‘n’ roll. What do you think it is that sets Metallica apart from the metal scene and elevated you to the status of being so universally accepted?

Well, I appreciate that, thank you. That’s not something that I think much about, so obviously you end up mostly having that dialogue in an interview on a daily basis. I guess part of what sets us apart is that we don’t think about ourselves being apart. I mean, you just do rather than think. You try to not be too conscious of what you’re doing, you try to not be too cerebral, you try to not be too contrived, and so our whole approach really is about the impulsive and the momentary rather than overthinking it and over-planning and moving it all around so it fits a particular message or aesthetic or approach, or whatever. So you do find yourself in interviews and afterwards having to intellectualise it or try to describe it, and I always feel a little uncomfortable about that, because if you take that too serious, then it can read quite…


Yeah, and it can also read like you’re quite full of yourself. ‘Well, let me tell you what sets us apart from all the rest of them…!’ And so, you know, my standard answer is that it’s our good looks and our charming personalities. But obviously, on a more serious note, all of us are sort of misfits in our own way. The thing we share is that we’re all loners, and all of us have had different experiences in… You know, a lot of bands like U2, they all grew up in the same street or in the same neighbourhood and all went to the same school or whatever. We come from four completely different backgrounds, completely different ways of looking at things, but the one thing we share is that we were all ostracized to a degree. We were all loners, we were all trying to figure it out – it felt that music gave us a sense of belonging to something much bigger than ourselves. So, that’s the one thing that we share, and I think that as a band we still kinda feel that way. We’ve never really felt like we were part of any particular genre. We’ve always felt like we were a little bit autonomous, and always the ones kinda hovering on the edge, rather than in the middle of everything, and I guess 35/36 years later we still feel that way. Maybe even more so than before, because I think we’re probably a little more able to understand what’s going on around me more. You know, when you’re 25-years-old you don’t really sit down and try to take it all in. As you get into your later years, you’re a little bit more aware of what’s going on around you. When you’re 25, you never fucking slow down long enough to take any of it in. But I still feel that Metallica as a band is quite autonomous, and just kinda live in our own little… I never feel like a sense of belonging to anything, and I think ultimately that probably keeps us always searching for something, and that probably then keeps us musically hungry, and keeps the creative curiosity always like it needs to be fed all the time. And, ultimately, I guess that’s what keeps us with one foot in relevance 35 years later: we still feel that our best years are ahead of us, rather than behind us.

If you feel like outsiders naturally anyway, does that mean the decisions you make are fearless, thinking ‘Fuck it, we don’t care what happens,’ or is there an apprehension of ‘Is this too different? Are people going to like it?’

I mean, the ‘fuck it’ kinda thing, I think that’s not necessarily a part of our vocabulary – it’s not like you sit and you’re defiant to that point – but I do think that in the musical landscape of 2017 that there is so much uncertainty and there is so much lack of… Thirty years ago, when we started, there were formulas and particular ways that you were doing things. Now, none of that exists anymore. So, part of the creative endeavor now is also to figure out what to do with the music: how do you get it out there, how do you share, how do you connect with your fans; all that kinda stuff. So, we do basically what we feel is the best. We feel that we know our fans and our fan base really well, and we try to just make that connection to them as uncluttered and as open and as direct and as welcoming as possible. And so, it’s not so much like ‘Fuck it! We’ll defy everything and conventionality,’ because ultimately we make music and we just want the people who are interested in hearing that to have access to it the best way that they can. In 2017, we are our own record company, we own our own recordings and masters, we run all that ourselves, and in the wake of that comes an ability to be quite free and never having to answer to anybody, and it’s kind of a cool thing, but it never comes from a place of defiance; it just comes from a place of… Increasingly for me, I feel that everything is about connecting. That’s kinda been my go-to word for the last year or two. It’s like, I feel like it’s just all about connecting through music, connecting through a live experience, connecting through sharing a love for a particular music or energy, and still, that’s kinda the primary thing that fuels us.

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We still feel that our best years are ahead of us, rather than behind us.

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It must be exciting too; if you’re constantly just following your instincts, then you can never be wrong, because you’re naturally doing something that you believe in.

Yeah, I guess. I mean, if you start introducing the word ‘wrong’, then at some point you’re bound to introduce the word ‘right’, and if you start looking at things as right and wrong, then I think you’ve already lost a little bit. You know, when I was growing up, there was a kinda philosophical approach I was introduced to pretty early on called the either/or mentality, which is that if you look at everything as either/or – like right or wrong, black or white, yes or no, Democratic or Republican – then you’re limiting yourself too much. So, I try to interject that absence of that into everything I do. Most of the time, I feel the answers lie somewhere else than in yes or no, or right or wrong. I see a lot of greys – I see them staring into these grey walls. So, for me, the answers often are in-between and intertwined in all that kind of different thing, so when you ‘wrong’, then that precludes that there’s a ‘right’ somewhere, and that’s not the path that I choose to follow.

Those judgements are also not necessarily a decision that you make.

You know, you try to adhere to your instinct. The interesting thing is that when you’re 24-years-old, you never seem to think, you just do. Then, as you get older – and this is not about whether you’re in rock ‘n’ roll, or you’re a writer, or whether you’re an artist, or whatever – it’s just ageing gracefully – or maybe not gracefully – on this planet, as you get older and get more experiences and so on, you start having more options. When you’re young, it’s usually there are never any options because you’re very instinctual. So, as you get older, that instinctive approach gets a little more difficult, because you kinda sit there and you go, ‘I want sparkling water,’ and that’s my instinct, but then all of a sudden, well, there’s also still water, or I can have a cup of tea, and then all of a sudden you get into all these options, and then you’ve got to circle through those, and then you go, ‘Well, I should just go with my original thought,’ which was sparkling water. But that kind of thing shows up in the creative process; that kind of way of thinking shows up in the ‘What do you do with the business side of it?’ and ‘How do you get your music out there?’ So, you try to protect the instinct, but sometimes you gotta take some other turns in order to… Because it’s just part of… you know, I’m 53, so as you get older on your creative journey, you have to sort of try to protect the instinctual part of it, and that doesn’t get any easier as you get older, that I can tell you.

Rock was always the ultimate symbol of rebellion. Do you think in this day and age with so many options out there, kids will still turn to rock music to rebel?

For me, it’s never been about rebellion. I grew up 15 minutes from here – as you can tell, it’s a fairly comfortable, civilized society fueled by social democracy and people taking care of each other, and so on, so there wasn’t a lot to rebel against growing up here. My parents were my best friends, but I was an only child, so I was more of a loner, and I felt more like an outsider, but I wasn’t like the James Dean, Rebel Without A Cause, kinda stuff. But, when I came to America when I was 17 and hooked up with James Hetfield and a lot of the people that I ended up connecting with, a lot of them had no relationships with their parents, or contrary relationships with their parents, and very contrary relationships with authority, contrary relationships with The Man and all that kinda stuff, and I felt that there was more of that kinda classic rebellion type of thing. But I think it’s also why James and I function so well together, because we really are very different from each other, and we complete each other in ways. And so, I never had that kinda wild… You know, Danish people can be a little contrary, and they can test you, but for me, that was never anything to rebel against, so the choices that I made and the rock ‘n’ roll that really attracted me, that was more about the energy, more about the connection, the inclusiveness and that type of stuff. Obviously I’m a student of rock ‘n’ roll history and I love rock ‘n’ roll history and I know all of it, but for Metallica, it never felt like it was a lot of the finger to authority type of thing. We wanted to be left alone and we wanted to do our own thing, but that whole posture thing of ‘Fuck off’ to everybody? Sure, when you’re 21-years-old it’s fun to flip the camera off or wear ‘Fuck you’ T-shirts or whatever, but 36 years later… you know, you go through different phases. The one thing I can tell you is that when you’ve been doing it for as long as we have, there’s never kind of one thing, because today is different than yesterday, and tomorrow will be different from today, and certainly when you’ve been around for decades, the one thing when you try to be true to the moment is that you’ve gotta kinda be open about the different dynamics that are at play at different times in your life. And they can change. And they should change. And obviously, also, I think that when you become a parent… Up until you’re a parent, generally – and again, I think this goes across all cultures and all forms of whatever you do for a living – when you’re young, you prioritise yourself, and when you become a parent, then you don’t prioritise yourself. I mean, it’s really that simple.

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By following your instincts and constantly evolving, Metallica’s development was often held in contempt by the stolid metal scene who resented your growth. Did you ever feel confined by what metal should be?

We have had an at-times slightly tumultuous relationship with the metal community because we have never wanted to play by the rules that were set, and so, within that world there is – and it’s important that I choose my words carefully here – there can be a preference for sameness. There can be a slightly conservative creative approach, which is that people play it safe rather than take risks.

They prefer familiarity?

Yeah. There are particular aesthetics and stuff – you know, the album covers are supposed to look this way, and you’re supposed to look this way and act this way and have this certain kind of attitude or demeanour about you and all this type of stuff, and we’ve always found a lot of that stuff really silly, and we found a lot of it stifling and limiting and really almost suffocating, so very early on… I remember when the second record came out, ‘Ride The Lightning’, and there was acoustic guitars on it. There were members of the metal community that were infuriated about the fact that there was an acoustic guitar on a Metallica record. So, there has always been this dichotomy about we’re sort of leading the cavalry, but at the same time, we’re not leading the cavalry the way that a portion of that world wants us to lead it, and so we’ve always been somewhat at odds – somewhat at odds, not at odds – and there’s occasionally been some friction there. You know, ‘They cut their hair,’ or, ‘They do a photo shoot in Saint Laurent jackets,’ or whatever. It’s like, who gives a shit? That’s what we’re doing today, and tomorrow we’ll do something else. And so, it’s that kind of one-track approach that, for me as a person, has never been… You know, I’m really interested, I’m really curious, I’m really up for whatever – ‘Let’s try this,’ ‘Let’s try that,’ ‘We tried that, didn’t like that too much…’ You gotta get out there and live, and if you don’t live then you suffocate. You only get one life, and all the rest of it, so it’s like our time on the planet is way too short to have that much willful limit of your own options. So there has been times where that has created a little bit of a friction within the more conservative elements of the hard rock community, yes.

I remember vividly as well you do the pre-Internet age. You got together with James through an advert in the paper, which was the means for connection at that time. Now, it is so different because you find like-minded people in the click of a mouse. How do you remember finding like-minded music fans at the time? How did you connect then, compared to now?

I mean, whatever means are available at any time. Back then, obviously a lot of it was word of mouth. You seek out. Things happen at a record store, you go to a concert, you have a particular T-shirt on and somebody else comes up and says, ‘Hey, I know that band,’ or whatever. When I was here in Copenhagen, there was a record store literally five minutes from here, which was where I was the first time I heard Motörhead, the first time I heard Iron Maiden, the first time I heard Judas Priest. It was all in this record store. There was a guy there who sort of helped guide me, or whatever, and I met a few people, but there weren’t that many around. You know, the thing is, even when I came to America when I was 17, there was hardly anybody into the kind of stuff that I was into, and so it was a very lonely journey, and most of us felt like we were living in our own worlds. Pen pals; we would send demo tapes and cassette tapes around. That was how you connected. Obviously, at any given time, you’re always sitting there utilising whatever means are available, so it’s easy to sit 30 years later and go, ‘Fuck, that was so weird,’ but back then, you just wrote some dude a letter, then you went down to the post office and put a fucking stamp on it, and off it went. Two weeks later, the response would show up in the mail. But you didn’t sit there and go, ‘In 30 years from now, at the click of a button…’ You just dealt with it.

You mentioned band T-shirts. Once upon a time, what you wore was a badge of identity, and let people know what music you actually listened to. What’s your take on how the iconography of Metallica can be seen on people that may not listen to your music?

I mean, I appreciate it. I take it as a cool thing. Again, it’s not really something that I do much with, other than in interviews – people go, ‘What do you think…?’ In my daily life, it’s not something that you really sit there and… I guess, when I think about it, the fact that people know who Metallica is is a cool thing. To me, it’s like you make a record, and at some point you take that record – I’m exaggerating here for effect – and you put it in a FedEx envelope and you send it to somebody, and then we release it and you give it to the world. When you give it to the world, then you’re done with it. People can do with all of it whatever they want. So, obviously, as an artist, I believe that 99.999% of artists, in their heart, will always appreciate the recognition, will always appreciate a positive response to whatever art they create rather than a negative one or an indifferent one, but once you give that piece of art to the world, then you also, I believe, lose the right to tell people how they have to interact with that, or how they relate to it, or what they do with it. ‘You gotta listen to it this way,’ or, ‘These lyrics mean that,’ or ‘This is supposed to do this,’ or, ‘You can only wear the T-shirt if you’ve been to three concerts.’ Do you know what I mean? It’s like, fine, okay. So somebody wears our T-shirt that doesn’t know our music? Who gives a shit? It’s like, whatever. I believe you lose the right to say anything. Once it’s out there, it’s fucking out there, and so my approach to all that is if people wear our T-shirts and don’t know who we are, that’s fine; it’s free advertising. It makes no difference to me. To me, increasingly – and going back to the yes or no thing – it’s not ‘Do I like it?’ or ‘Do I not like it?’, it’s also, ‘Can I retain the right to be indifferent to it? It doesn’t mean anything.’ When hard pressed in an interview, it’s fine, you know? It’s fine. Get a tattoo, wear a shirt; it’s all good, thank you very much. I’m glad that anything that we do retains some sort of place in popular culture. That’s awesome. And, again, more because if Metallica can help connect people together through music, through iconography, through film or videos on YouTube or whatever, it’s great, because I think human beings by nature want to feel connected to other human beings. And so music has a tendency to be a great catalyst, and if Metallica can be a part of that, then I’m a happy guy.

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Words: Simon Harper
Photography: Tom Fletcher
Artwork: Jesse Draxler
Creative Direction: Rob Meyers

Metallica wear Saint Laurent by Anthony Vaccarello throughout.

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