Hong Kong-bound Metallica on the secret to playing your age
Thrash metal veterans aim to keep it fresh with album Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, even if they are ‘not 30 any more’ and need to ‘tour age-appropriately’, according to frontman James Hetfield
Metallica frontman James Hetfield didn’t have the highest of hopes. Sprawled on a battered sofa in a backstage production office, Hetfield was preparing to head out before an audience of 20,000 at California’s Shoreline Amphitheatre, not far from the heavy-metal band’s headquarters.
The size of the crowd was no cause for alarm. Over the 3½ decades since he formed Metallica with drummer Lars Ulrich, Hetfield and his bandmates have played more arenas and stadiums than they can count. In 2014, Billboard put the group on its list of the 25 highest-grossing live acts of the past 25 years, an accomplishment driven in part by the runaway success of the group’s self-titled 1991 work, known as the “Black Album”. (Current US sales : 16 million copies.)
A Metallica show involves volume – lots of it – but as part of singer-songwriter Neil Young’s annual all-star charity concert, the band were set to play acoustic on a bill with the likes of Willie Nelson and Norah Jones.
“It’s hard, man – there’s no power to propel me,” Hetfield says shortly before Metallica go on stage. “When you’re playing powerful music, it moves you. Acoustic is the opposite of power; it feels kind of lame. But it’s a good challenge. And we like being challenged.”
This week, Metallica – whose other members are guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo – are putting themselves to the test again with the release of Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, the band’s 10th studio album since they debuted in 1983 with the thrash-metal classic Kill ’Em All. And they are undertaking a world tour in support of the album that calls past Hong Kong’s AsiaWorld-Arena on January 20.
Due out on Friday on Metallica’s own label, Blackened Recordings, the record follows 2008’s well-received Death Magnetic, which repaired damage the band did to its reputation in the early Noughties – first with St. Anger, an album that offended fans with its lack of guitar solos, then with Some Kind of Monster, a documentary that captured the group’s childish infighting.
But where Death Magnetic proved that Metallica could tap into the primal energy of its influential early work, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct seeks to position the band towards the future at a moment when many of their idols and peers are flaming out.
In the past year, Van Halen played what might have been their final gig with singer David Lee Roth, Motörhead’s Lemmy Kilmister died from cancer at age 70, and the ailing Brian Johnson quit (or perhaps was fired from) AC/DC. Black Sabbath are nearing the end of what they are calling their farewell tour.
And though a reunited Guns N’ Roses have made millions visiting stadiums, the hard-rock band who famously toured with Metallica in 1992 performed no new material. “Unfortunately, they’ve turned into somewhat of a nostalgia act, which to me is kind of sad,” Hammett says.
In contrast, here are Metallica – all four members are in their early fifties – with a fresh batch of blistering, densely composed songs that take up modern themes like global warming, artificial intelligence and the illusory nature of internet celebrity.
“I don’t want to think we’re trying to stay young by writing new stuff, but it makes us feel relevant,” says Hetfield. “It makes us feel like we’re still progressing.”
Which isn’t to say they refuse to look back. For Death Magnetic, the band’s producer, Rick Rubin, encouraged the musicians to relax their “perverse fear of repetition”, as Ulrich puts it, and revisit the headspace they were in when they made Master of Puppets, the benchmark 1986 album recently selected for inclusion on the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry.
This time they thought about “the simplicity and aggression of Kill ’Em All,” according to Hammett.
Ulrich says that, to some degree, those references to the past are inevitable.
“Any piece of carpet you lift up, you find an anniversary,” the drummer says – and, indeed, while Metallica were working on Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, the group were also assembling deluxe reissues of their earlier albums, which Metallica now control after the expiration in 2012 of the band’s lengthy deal with Warner Music Group.
But Hardwired doesn’t sound weighed down by history; it’s leaner and more immediate than Death Magnetic. “At some point, a few of the songs were getting a little long-winded,” Ulrich says. “So we tightened the reins.”
The first studio album Metallica has released through Blackened, Hardwired reflects the band’s increased control over their business too. “We’ve always considered ourselves to be outsiders,” says Ulrich. “We never wanted to be dependent on anybody for anything – or to owe anything to anyone.”
With traditional music sales having withered (and streaming subscriptions not making up the loss), record companies “want you to pay for all that stuff”, Hetfield says, scoffing. “They want you to chip in your merch. Doesn’t make sense.”
Careful planning is what will allow Metallica to keep functioning as its members get older, they say. On the road, the band plays shows in two-week increments rather than staying out for months, so people can get home to see their families.
“The best thing about Metallica is that we all four have kids who are more or less the same age, spread from eight to 18 or something,” Ulrich says, evaluating his band in a way no one outside it likely would. “It’s not like two of us are hardcore dads and two are bachelors out there lighting the candle at both ends till three in the morning.”
“We’re not 30 any more,” Hetfield says. “We all have needs out there – shoulders, throats, backs. It’s about touring age-appropriately.”