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Metallica are touring Asia in January 2017. To mark the occasion, here is a 1993 Metallica press conference attended by Martyn See, that was published in BigO #90, June 1993. Pictures by Alex Ortega. In addition, there is another Metallica interview, by Dawn Eden, that was published in BigO 143, November 1997 (click here).
The vibes leading up to Metallica’s concert on April 13, 1993 at the $ingapore Indoor $tadium was cursed. When news of the Jakarta riots hit the streets on the day before the concert, concerned watchers had a field day playing sociologists and psychologists - wrestling with that rusty theory that heavy metal causes violence and praying for some divine solution to end all anxieties. Time and again, concert promoters had to reassure the public by highlighting the strenuous security meaures. Once more, the old battle-line was drawn, only now more focused and threatening, between a civil society and rock ‘n’ roll. Martyn See meets Metallica to build some bridges.
[In April 1993, in one of the biggest shows that Indonesia had ever hosted, it ended with a riot that saw angry fans - (reportedly) many of whom were trying to get into the concert for free - burning cars and destroying public property, as well as sustaining countless physical injuries while fighting with the police. (click here)]
At the band’s press conference, a journalist told me that the Indonesian authorities had tried to hush up the incident. The riots weren’t just the effects of heavy metal but a deeper social problem of income disparity. Many fans just couldn’t afford to pay the high ticket price.
Instead, heavy metal and the images perpetuated by the music became a convenient whipping-boy for all to analyse and dissect. The sound of our police patting themselves on their backs in after-concert press reports were so loud that no one remembered to tell them that young metal audiences are also school-going, line-toeing citizens in need of some release. The only difference is, Elton John is not their poison, Metallica is…
If there’s anything that Metallica are guilty of, it is their immense popularity. Forty thousand fans reportedly turned up for the group’s opening night performance in Jakarta, quite a baffling phenomenon considering that up until their last self-titled album, Metallica had almost always worked the fringes of popular mainstream, avoiding MTV and making no concessions to radio.
Where other major metal acts of the ’80s thrived on conventional appeal - poster-boy posturings, maudlin power ballads, upfront hip-strutting titillation, the members of Metallica simply kept their heads low as they banged their chords, churning out colossal slabs of grooves that swirl in the cranium long after the song is gone.
Sure, heavier and groovier bands can out-thrash them today but Metallica was the first metal band in the ’80s to have their T-shirts worn and epic songs played by fans in jam studios all across the region.
They were a mainstream entity thriving on underground appeal. The name “Metallica” itself was an awesome weapon in a word-of-mouth milieu, conjuring up some Orwellian lordship of all-consuming doom. Singer James Hetfield’s admission that playing speed riffs in the early days was really a reaction to the poser scene in LA has not stopped fans from dubbing the band “speed metal gods”.
Their 1983 debut, Kill ‘Em All, arrived at the end of a heavy metal slump following the extinction of ’70s dinosaurs such as Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Younger brothers of the bell-bottom generation outgrew Stairway To Heaven and turned instead to Seek And Destroy. Metallica did less to revive the traditional HM genre than to harness darker emotional forces in pushing high-velocity decibels to new extremes. When 1986’s Master Of Puppets was released, the group became the biggest rock act that radio had not cared to play.
Metallica’s perseverance in the last 12 years was sustained by the band’s calculated avoidance of elements that might detract from the music. For instance, despite garnering the nickname “Alcoholica” in the mid-’80s, the members’ heavy drinking habits have yet to cloud their long-term interests. Besides, this is the same band who fired original guitarist Dave Mustaine for excessive drinking in 1982.
While strong personalities in bands can break up bands, Metallica members thrive on equal time in the spotlight. In the $ingapore show, bassist Jason Newsted even got to hog the limelight with a protracted solo.
If Lars Ulrich seems to have created the impression as Metallica’s spokesman, it is just because the drummer and founding member genuinely loves to chat. He relishes interviews and press conferences, staring long and hard out the window before turning to the mircophone to give quasi-philosophical discourses on rock ‘n’ roll cliches.
Politically-correct times in the United States have meant pressure on artistes to equate hipness with a political standpoint. Still, Metallica remains avowedly apolitical. Not that the four members are indifferent, claims Ulrich, but he maintains that their music should never be a vehicle for personal political agendas. Try telling him that One is anti-war and And Justice For All is an indictment of the legal system and he hits you back with a treatise on the beauty of lyric interpretation.
To some, speed metal’s sonic barrage is a cold, unfeeling accompaniment to equally clinical pronouncements on the state of the world. True Metallica fans, on the other hand, know that at the heart of the band’s metallic crunch is an emotional centre. Lyricist James Hetfield writes songs that explore darker nuances of the human condition, and they are couched in a debilitating world which the author never identifies. He avoids the palpable by replacing words like war or legal system with emotions of pain, anger and despair.
By subscribing to basic human frailties, one can say that Hetfield’s ruminations transcend both political and cultural barriers. However, this stance is fraught with contradictions when you pit One’s imagery of pain and misery suffered by a war casualty against soldiers in the Gulf War stenciling “Metallica Kill ‘Em All” logos on their bombs.
Multi-platinum success has meant a rapid expansion of the group’s fanbase which now, in Hetfield’s description, includes “bankers, girls who like the lyrics, people who are hunters who like the songs about that lifestyle”. The bulk of Metallica’s followers, however, remains teenage cynics weaned on soul-searching and embracing the music’s aggression as a realist’s escapism; the songs act as both an escape valve as well as a re-initiation into reality.
On top of their fraternal kinship with angst-ridden youth is just the fact that Metallica can truly ROCK. When one sees the throbbing mass of 7,000 fans headbanging and swinging throughout the entire two-and-a-half hours at the Indoor $tadium, any denial of Metallica’s prowess is plain impossible.
In a recent speech, [Minister for Information and the Arts] Brigadier General George Yeo referred to the Elton John concert as a cultural event, and I guess that pretty much qualifies Metallica too as cultural emissaries in their own right. And why not? In the following excerpt of the press conference, Lars Ulrich and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett took on exactly the said roles as they politely and gingerly debunked myths of rock ‘n’ roll.
How much has [producer/engineer] Bob Rock changed the sound of Metallica? [Bob Rock worked with Metallica from 1990 to 2006.]
LARS ULRICH: I think he enhanced what was already there in our songs. I think he realised that we weren’t happy with the way our previous records sounded in terms of the attitude - not the songs but just what ended on tape - was not the best Metallica performances and we needed somebody to really elevate us to the next level. Bob really helped us not just with the sound and in bringing the best performance out of us. And we needed someone to bounce that off us ‘cos in the past, we had been our own critics and when we thought that it was good enough for us, then it would stop. But Bob really pushed us and elevated our performance to a higher level.
Do you feel that your songs and lyrics are poetic?
KIRK HAMMETT: Poetic?
Yes, poetic. Like, like… modern Shakespeare? (laughs)
KIRK: Well, I don’t think James reads any Shakespeare or hasn’t lately. When you look at poetry, it’s all in how a person interprets it, y’know. What one person considers poetry might mean another completely different thing to the next person. It’s all up to personal interpretation.
LARS: You’d find us hard-pressed to praise our own material that way but I’ve heard people refer to it from poetic to other words like that so if those are the kind of words that people wanna attach to us, we’re not gonna stop them.
Your music is emotional. What are you angry about?
LARS: I think that’s one of those youth and rebellion rock cliches that the press likes to bring forth. Angry… I’m not sure that’s the only word to describe the kind of emotions that fuel what we do. There’s this certain kind of energy and things that’s created when four of us start playing together when you put us up on stage in front of an audience. And I think that the word “angry” is far too limiting.
I think that if you put the word “fear” in there and maybe… oh, energy, uncertainties, frustrations, things about reality that goes on inside your head that you don’t quite understand. If you have all our five albums under one umbrella, then those are a part of the best descriptions.
Each one of those albums deals with different things but they all deal with human emotions of some sort. People always say now that you make so much money and being so successful, how do you still keep fuelling that fire or whatever and, believe me, it’s not any harder than it was 10 years ago. All you gotta do is to turn on CNN or MTV or get a wake-up call in the morning and there’s plenty of things that can stir your emotions the wrong way.
KIRK: Money does not cure anger in the first place, y’know. I think anger is too general a word.
I saw you on the American Music Awards recently. After years of resisting MTV and keeping out of the mainstream, why the euphoria?
LARS: I think it’s because we genuinely feel that we’ve been able to turn the tables around and that these people are kinda sucking up to us now. We are the ones who get invited to be on these TV shows on our merits. We sold “X” millions on our five records but the point is these people are now coming to us.
And the mainstream in America is different from five or eight years ago. The mainstream pop audience now in America is much more out in the left-field; the bands who are selling millions of records are Metallica, Pearl Jam, Nirvana. That’s very different from 1988 when it was Bon Jovi, Europe, Def Leppard, y’know what I mean. That’s why you find that all these people come and suck up to us, you can either run away or say, hey, wait a minute, we’re here on our own merit and we haven’t changed. It’s just that people are coming to us, so it’s kinda cool.
KIRK: On that side of the music industry, there’s always been a large number of intelligent listeners whom the record company never catered to and are finally realising and tapping into. That’s also why radio and TV are broadening the format and pretty much opening up their minds. And that’s what you see nowadays as far as these bands are being more accepted by the mainstream.
Do you think that you are the answer to the intelligent alternative?
KIRK: I don’t think we are the answer to anything. (laughs)
LARS: A lot of people in the press have made us out to be that alternative, especially up to the middle and latter part of the ’80s. We were being hailed in the press as being that intelligent alternative, that we were writing lyrics that dealt more with reality than most of these other bands who were dealing with make-believe and pretence. so what we are doing is the same course that we’ve more or less been on for 12 years. It’s just that what we were doing then wasn’t so fashionable.
The kids over here really go for your music. I mean, parents are really worried with you guys coming here. What were you guys like when you were teenagers?
LARS: Juvenile delinquents! (laughs)
KIRK: I can’t even remember that far back. Uhm…
LARS: Well, I was 12 inches shorter than I am right now… No, I think that this is another of those myths or cliches that the media love. As far as what I know of these other three guys, none of us were real bad-boys-of-rock-’n'-roll types when we were young. I mean, I had a fairly normal upbringing. I travelled a lot, my parents were very culturally open-minded people, blah-blah-blah, there wasn’t any kind of stories that would make for great press like “he ran away from home and he was fighting against the establishment” - all this kind of crap.
It was a fairly normal upbringing, a lot of music around when I was growing up, blah-blah-blah. What is it that leads to this is the fact that there’re certain things stirred in you that don’t have to do with the negative things in your upbringing. For me, it was just the love of music and I think this is also true of the other three guys who wanted to play music on a daily basis and try to make a living out of it.
I think there are certain bands who will sit and feed you the answer that we’re out to rebel against the world or certain bands who will go more in a political direction. For us, it really starts and ends with a love of music.
KIRK: That’s basically why I started playing the guitar. It’s because I love the music. One cliche that a lot of people tend to perpetuate is that ‘they got into music to become richer or to get the girls or whatever’ but basically, it was the love of music and I think it still shows to this day.
LARS: As far as the other point you are making about the parents, you gotta first understand the appeal of the music, rock or whatever, is escape. It’s just a place you get away from the frustration and the daily grind - work, school, bad relationships - you go lose yourself in music just like a 40-year-old would lose himself in front of the TV watching baseball or something.
KIRK: It’s a distraction from everyday life. There’s nothing wrong with that. If the parents are worried about the concert, what more can you ask for than to know that your child is safe?
LARS: Yeah, safe in a Metallica concert? (laughs) We employ some of the best security people.
Kirk Hammett (left) and Jason Newsted.
I think $ingapore is a bit wary of heavy metal performers. They do view them as frightening people. How do you feel about that?
KIRK: That’s just a cliche and a stereotype that’s been tagged on the music because that’s what a lot of bands try to portray. That only goes for certain bands. We never really go out of our way to be threatening or…
When I saw your pictures in the papers I was a little frightened… (laughs)
LARS: Whoa! Ha! Ha! We’ll hand out valium tonight…
KIRK: We’ll shave next time we come here, OK?
LARS: The point Kirk is getting into is that with any form of entertainment or whatever, you do get stereotyped - there’re certain politicians who give all politicians a bad name, there’re certain sports figures who give most sports a bad name; there’re certain people in rock music who give all of rock music a bad name.
We’ve been lucky enough to not be associated with most of these negative things and I think the people who look into what we do realise this. We are not going to sit here and pat ourselves on the back and say we’re positive but we are different from bands who dwell on some of these rock ‘n’ roll cliches like satanism or promoting violence.
We always totally shy away from that on the public platform and the lyrics and the subjects that we deal with are things that we would like to think make people think a little bit more and deal a little more on reality. The truth for a lot of people is a frightening thing and we are not trying to make that scarier but we are saying this is what reality is, take it or leave it but you can’t run away from it.
KIRK: We are normal people just like everybody else, y’know. We try to put that image across and I’m sorry we look too frightening. (laughs)
LARS: But you should see some of these other bands!
A lot of people here seem to have a negative attitude towards slamdancing and moshing.
KIRK: You know, it’s weird but I just discovered while being in Jakarta that everyone has their own different notion of slamdancing. I was talking to an American in Jakarta and he told me that in Jakarta, slamdancing is full body contact type of thing - face, fists, elbows - which is a lot different than normal slamdancing that you see in America or Europe. For the most part, slamdancing or moshing was just another form of getting into the music and it wasn’t meant to be violent.
LARS: It might be a slightly extreme form but it’s just another form of release. I think that the minute any kind of performer sits and dictates the limits and rules of how an audience can interpret in getting into the music, you are scrwed to begin with. We don’t have an agenda for how people are supposed to react to what we do and if certain people enjoy the more physical aspects of what they find in our music, we can’t help it.
To the untrained eye, it might look rough and violent but believe me, it’s somethin’ that not many people get hurt. You know, the minute you put five or 20,000 people in the room, it’s just the sheer volume of people that anything can happen. It happens at political rallies, it happens at demonstrations, at sports games, y’know. Just like the singer from Van Halen once said, ‘The more people you put in a room, the temperature goes up and intelligencegoes down’.
The fact that people always point at rock ‘n’ roll bands and go “Oh, look what happens the minute a rock ‘n’ roll band comes into town” is just an unfair portrayal of the whole thing. So slamdancing is just another form of peoplegetting into our music so we are not gonna advocate or stop it. It’s just there, end of story.
Recently, I read a wonderful description of a Metallica fan by James in an interview. He says something like, “A typical Metallica fan is someone who is very stubborn, with a fuck you attitude, a little afraid of their surroundings too, looking into themselves and saying, ‘Wow, I don’t fit into anything so fuck everyone else’.” So I’m sure that kind of feeling from a typical Metallica fan must come from your past and the nature of your past. So how do you feel about it now that Metallica have to deal with a nature of music that deals with teenagers?
LARS: We pretty much live in the present. We’re 12 years older now than we were when we formed the band and things happen. You become different people and you deal with things differently and I think we’re very adaptable to where our instincts take us. I think, a lot of heavy metal groups are really false.They are 35 years old and they are trying to get this image of being 18 years old and they’re standing around in these black T-shirts and then the minute the photo session is over, they take off their T-shirts and put on a suit an tie. We’re just goin’ with the flow and where it takes us, it takes us.
Do you guys car about anything else besides music? Maybe the environment…
KIRK: Yeah, but that’s more of a personal sort of thing. We have our own personal agendas.
LARS: You have four guys in this band with different personal beliefs from each other so we have always made sure to keep Metallica not as a political platform ‘cos it would be just one big argument. What unites Metallica is the music and if four of us are gonna sit down and talk about politics, it would be one big fist-fight between the four of us. We’re politically very different from each other. I also think we don’t want to be in a band and play music to try and get our own personal political opinions across.
And if you do spend too much time talking about political things, it can turn into a strange kind of self-promotion. We do have views and worries of our own, about things that go on around us but it’s not our place to sit and dictate to our fans what they should think about abortion, the death penalty or the environment. If we advocate anything, it’s that people should go our and then inform themselves of the issues and then make up their own opinions just as we do.
Nobody tells us what to think so we wouldn’t want our fans to sit there and say, ‘Well, Kirk Hammett thinks this about the environement or Lars think sthis about the death peanlty so I’m gonna think that way too.’
KIRK: There’s also the danger of politics overshadowing the music. And a lot of it is trendy also. I don’t know how much of it is heartfelt or sincere.
LARS: I think that if you really believe in some of these causes, you should donate, get involved in these causes and not tell anyone about it. That’s the purest form of giving. You always read the newspapers, so and so gave $25,000 to this and this charity and all of this is self-promotion ‘cos this guy is giving money so he can get his name in the newspapers.
It’s hard to believe that you don’t have a political platform when you got And Justice For All. I see that as a political album. One is pretty much an anti-war song and sometimes you contradict yourself by…
LARS: You answered your question. We didn’t set out to write One as an anti-war song. it’s a song about the thoughts and emotions that go through this guy’s mind who is in this situation. If you interpret that as an anti-war song, that’s the beauty of it. We don’t tell you what to think about it and you’re free to interpret it anyway you want to. And especially the way James writes lyrics is that they’re written in a metaphorical way so that one guy could interpret one way while the other guy another way. Fade To Black, for instance, is a song that has been talked about a lot in America. Every week we hear different people coming up and telling us different interpretations of that song.
Is there a danger of Metallica becoming more commercial?
LARS: It’s not a danger to us! Whether it’s one or 11 million who bought the album, the songs still sound the same when it was recorded. So the songs don’t change even though more and more people are listening to it. To me, I look at it the way that being commercial is really pissing less people off. You can also say that your music appeals to more but you can also flip it the other way and say it turns less people off.
The minute that you have songs that are obviously shorter and sipler, there’s a chance that you would turn less people away from listening to them. And the minute you record your songs till they sound better as opposed to And Justice For All which didn’t sound very appealing, then you also turn less people away. We know we didn’t sit down and do this deliberately, it was just the next creative thing to do for us. The only thing we hadn’t tried yet.
KIRK: We’ve lost fans ever since the second album came out. You will always put out an album that’s not gonna be liked by some people for one reason or another. People say we were washed up when we put out Ride The Lightning ‘cos we had a ballad in there. And it’s the same song and dance with the subsequent albums. People find different reasons for not liking you anymore and there’s nothing you can do about it.
LARS: And also just the fact that more poeple like you turns certain people off. Yeah, it’s a fact! They want their favourite band to be just this small little band that no one else knows about. The minute you sit down and think about how people are gonna react every time you put out a creative thing, then your head is gonna start spinning like that guy in Scanners and you’d just go stupid. We have always managed in our creative process to avoid thinking about how people will react and it has done us a lot of good.
What do you think of the supposed link between heavy metal and violence?
LARS: Yes, there are certain bands who sing about violent things. Does that mean all the fans of that band are violent? Definitely not. There’s always an exception to every generalisation that you set down - there’s always gonna be some idiot who’d pick up on some violent aspect of a lyric and then go out and perform that feat for himself. But these cases are few and far-in-between. And I don’t think that heavy metal is more prone to that than any other forms of entertainment.
Note: Martyn See is a $ingaporean filmmaker and the current Executive Secretary of Singaporeans for Democracy. He wrote the above commentary and interview for BigO #90, June 1993. He can be reached at singaporerebel.blogspot.sg.
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