METALLICA: COMING OUT OF METAL

March 12, 2009 – 4:24 am

Towards the end of 2008, Metallica released their ninth studio album, Death Magnetic. Back in 1997 when the group released ReLoad, Dawn Eden had caught up with the band and faced guitarist Kirk Hammett at a press con in Sausalito. At that time, the musical detour the group was taking included dabbling with Irish music and collaborating with Marianne Faithful. This article was published in BigO #143 (November 1997).

Metallica are sooooo busy finishing ReLoad that their scheduled in-the-studio press conference is switched, at the last minute, to the villa-style hotel just down the waterfront of this picture-perfect coastal town of Sausalito, California. While the journalists are waiting, crowded into a one-bedroom bungalow, a PolyGram publicist slips an advance tape of six ReLoad tracks into a boom box. I’m relieved, because I need to get Graham Gouldman’s Sausalito - written in his pre-10cc bubblegum days - out of my head, “You gotta GO there, everything GROWS there/When you get high on a mountain, it SNOWS there…”

As Re-Load’s title suggests, the new cuts show the band confidently continuing the direction they took on Load. Whether or not you approve of that, their playing and singing abilities grow ever more impressive.

First is Fuel, a sexually-charged rocker that lifts the riff from the Yardbirds’ version of Train Kept A-Rollin’. Fixxxer has a slow, minor-key groove, not unlike early Deep Purple (!). Bad Seed unfortunately has “album cut” written all over it, with the embarrassing chorus, “I’m choking on a bad seed…” Don’t ask whose seed… Martini, despite its loungey title, is an acid-rock cocktail, soaked in reverb, sung in close two-part harmony.

Unforgiven Too has a familiar title and a familiar theme. With its suave, upfront vocals, this love song is the closest thing they have to a power ballad. Lastly, there’s the truly astonishing My Eyes. Are you sitting down? It’s a sparsely-arranged, Irish-style folk ballad, in 6/8 time, complete with hurdy-gurdy. You could almost say it’s their Spinal Tap-style Stonehenge song, except it’s less self-indulgent and more folky. It sounds completely serious and, as far as Metallica go, utterly unrecognisable.

After a couple of hours’ wait, I and four other writers are ushered into the hotel’s dining room, where Kirk Hammett appears. He’s got that nerdy-cool look, buttoned-down and bespectacled, looking even more ‘50s now that his crew cut has sprouted Dagwood-like wings on the sides.

The journalists introduce themselves by their names and countries - “Rebecca, Singapore;” “Cheyenne, Indonesia;” “Mia, Korea;” “Dawn, Hoboken…” After Kirk asks the Hongkong reporter how things are there now that it’s been transferred to China, he settles in for the barrage.

You came here straight from the studio. How’s the album going?

“It’s going along. We have two weeks left.” Nervous laughter all around.

So, you’re satisfied with the way it’s sounding?

“So far. But we have two weeks to screw it up.”

Do you see the music you’re making now as being groundbreaking commercially or artistically?

“Y’know, I don’t have that sort of perspective. We just make the music that we can make, and it’s up to everyone else to make those decisions. I can only just try and make the best music…” He switches pronouns. “We can only try to make the best music that we possibly can, and not really worry about whether or not it’s groundbreaking or revolutionary or anything like that. Who knows? I think that the standard of quality on this album is pretty high. I think it’s a really, really strong album. It’s a lot stronger, I think, now than it was two years ago, when we started recording it.”

Two years ago?

“Well, the songs are two years old. We started recording the drum tracks two years ago, but then we came back last summer and started finishing it.”

You guys have a lot of guts putting an Irish-style folk ballad like My Eyes on your album. Who wrote it?

“It was pretty much James (Hetfield)’s song. The funny thing about that song is that it’s gone through a metamorphosis. It used to be a heavy song - a ballady song with a heavy middle eight. Now it’s just totally mutated into what you heard. It’s something that just kinda happened, because we weren’t really happy with it when we started playing it. So we messed around with it a bit and brought in all these different instruments, and now it sounds great.”

So you’re hoping listeners will be able to appreciate that as just a great song, metal or not.

“Yeah, that’s usually our intention; we hope that the fans can open up their minds and ears and listen to it as a song, not as just a song that’s not metal. A lot of people will just skip over that song because it doesn’t have a thunderous beat or super-heavy guitars, but they’re not really giving anything a chance there, and I think this is one song that they should give a chance to. Because it’s a really great song, and it has a really great melody.

“Again, I believe it’s a really strong album. It’s not even really about selling ‘units’ anymore. I just hope that people can digest it the same way that we digest it as a band. These songs mean a certain thing to us, and I hope that comes across to the fans.

“This album is a lot different from Load, but it’s also a continuation of Load. If people say this album isn’t a sellout, well, I have news for them. Load and ReLoad were written around the same time. The more melodic stuff and the stuff that people complained about were on Load. In comparison, if people listen to this album and say, ‘They didn’t sellout this time,’ it’s all crap, because they all came from the same source, they all came from the same time period. So I think that’s either gonna really confuse people, or it’s gonna answer a lot of questions for a lot of people and maybe put people at ease.”

So, putting the two of them together, it’s sort of like your White Album.

“Yeah, exactly. It’s just that we cut it in half and decided to put one out in ’96 and one in ’97.”


Lars Ulrich (left) and James Hetfield (right)… with Marianne Faithful (centre). Picture by Tony Smith.

Did all this experimentation come about because you were sick of the old Metallica sound?

“It’s not that we’re getting sick of the old Metallica sound. I personally love the old Metallica sound. It’s just that we don’t want to retread old ground. Metallica’s all about progressing forward and trying out new things, keeping it fresh and creative and exciting. The only way to do that is to continue to try new things and explore. That’s why we’re slowly breaking out of the metal genre and exploring other things like Irish folk music.”

When you went in to record ReLoad, how was your musical state of mind different from when you went in to record the classic Black Album?

“It’s been five years, so we’re a little bit more mature personally, as well as musically. We started listening to a lot of very different types of music. I got heavily into blues and jazz. Bringing in these influences after not recording and not writing songs after five years definitely changed the mix, changed all our ways of thinking, and I think that’s basically why this album sounds so different.”

Like with your using the Train Kept A-Rollin’ riff on Fuel?

“Right. I never really realised that, but it is very similar. The jazz and blues thing is very subtle. If we didn’t think of it, it would take someone with a very trained ear (BigO!) to catch on to it, but it’s definitely there. But, I mean, we’re just different people now.” He smiles. “Can’t you tell by our haircuts?”

What do you think about when you’re onstage?

Hammett thinks for a moment. “How my dog is doing? What I’m going to eat after the show? See, we’ve been doing it for so long that when we go onstage, it’s just a natural action, it flows naturally. There are certain times when we concentrate intensely, and then there are certain times when it just flows. I find myself thinking of other things when it comes really naturally. It’s like bike riding. When you’re going up a hill, you’re intent on climbing the hill. But when you’re going down a hill, you’re coasting and then you can think of other things. Like whether or not you’re gonna be hit by a car or something.”

What have you been reading lately?

“I read the autobiography of PT Barnum, which is totally amazing. And I’ve been reading this collection of short stories called Pure Evil, by a bunch of horror authors.”

Why has politics disappeared from Metallica’s songwriting?

“It seems like when we started doing it, a lot of people in our genre started doing it, and we wanted to distance ourselves from that. Plus, now our political beliefs are so widespread. I’m left of centre, James is right of centre, Lars is a fence-sitter, and I don’t know what Jason’s political beliefs are. So we never agree on anything. Plus, James’s lyrics took an extremely personal turn, starting around The Black Album and even more so during Load. That’s fine with us.”

What would Cliff Burton think of what Metallica is doing now?

“If Cliff was still in the band, we probably would have recorded Load a lot sooner. He was very melodically inclined. He listened to a lot of melodic music. And this was back in ’84, ’85, ’86. You know, everyone was listening to heavy metal thunder 24 hours a day. He would put on the Eagles, or Creedence, or Velvet Underground, or Simon & Garfunkel. He had the most eclectic tastes of all of us, in the beginning. If he was still alive, it would have only been a matter of time before we would have gotten more melodic.”

A reporter from Indonesia ventures, “Your new short haircut…”

Kirk interrupts. “It’s not new! I’ve had it for three years.”

The reporter continues, undaunted. “Have you guys considered having long hair again?”

“If I wanted to do that,” replies the bored rocker, “I’d just buy a wig.” Kirk becomes increasingly exasperated as the reporters rapid-fire stupid hair questions. BigO remains on the sidelines.

Did you guys have a vote on that?

“Noooo!”

So you just decided one morning when you woke up…

“No one decided anything!”

Did you do it together?

“No, we didn’t do it together! Jason cut his hair in, like, 1991. Then I cut my hair in ’94, and Lars and James cut theirs in ’95.”

BigO returns. “When you first cut your hair, was it great to walk around and not be recognised?”

His scowl disappears. “It absolutely was. No one recognised me. I could go to nightclubs, I could go to record stores, I could go to bars, all in complete anonymity. It was the best thing in the world. Then the album came out and all of a sudden everybody recognised me all over again.”

A Hongkong journalist asks what newer bands have caught Kirk’s ear. He gives the same answers he gave Kerrang! when they asked him the same a few weeks back - Radiohead, the Prodigy, Alice In Chains. Then he tosses an unexpected olive into the mix. “I listen to a lot of bossa nova, myself.” He laughs embarrassedly.

Are you disappointed that you weren’t asked to contribute to the new Lounge-a-Palooza’ compilation?

“No… well, yeah, kinda. One of these days, I’m gonna do a lounge version of something.”

Which song of yours do you think would go best in a lounge format?

“I haven’t thought about it yet. But I really like bossa nova, and I’ve started listening to Patsy Cline and old Johnny Cash.”

Johnny Cash? Looks like Metallica may have to get their black clothes out of mothballs after all.

  1. One Response to “METALLICA: COMING OUT OF METAL”

  2. I’ve only just read this (a mere ten years after it was posted), but thoroughly enjoyed it. Thank you!

    By Bruno MacDonald on Apr 23, 2019

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