James Hetfield: The Guitar World Interview
V WILL ROCK U James Hetfield returns to his roots, picks up his original Flying V and vows once again to kill ’em all.
With his black work shirt, black jeans and big, black motorcycle boots, James Hetfield looks a little like a garage mechanic working the graveyard shift at a funeral home. His thoughts, like his outfit, are dark. “The theme of our new album is that we’re all gonna die sometime,” he says with a cruel little chuckle. “Just like the poles of a magnet, some people are drawn to death and others are repulsed by it, but we all have to deal with it. Lyrically, it started as a bit of a tribute to [Alice in Chains singer] Layne Staley and all those who’ve martyred themselves in the name of rock and roll. But it grew and evolved from there.” Given the morbid nature of Metallica’s ninth studio album, Death Magnetic, it is ironic that the recording represents something of a musical resurrection. While the 10-song recording does not slavishly imitate the group’s late-Eighties triumphs like Master of Puppets or …And Justice for All as rumored, it is not afraid to hark back to those glory days. Jammed with adventurous song structures, devilishly complex instrumental breaks, whiplash tempos and numerous guitar solos, Death Magnetic is the aggressive, old-school thrash epic longtime Metallica fans have been dying for. It is, in Hetfield’s words, “more alive and has more lift” than anything the band has done in a long time. The Het is many things, but he’s no pussy. He’s the Fonz of metal—one those rare dudes that radiates an imperturbable, unflappable “cool.” But over the past few years, even Metallica’s singer and master rhythm guitarist has wrestled with his share of uncertainty. “Yeah,” Hetfield says, “The road gets cloudy. Life gets cloudy. The whole ban on guitar solos on our last album, was kind of a…” Falling short of calling it a “mistake,” it is clear that James has some misgivings about his band’s previous studio effort, St. Anger. Featuring repetitious, grungy drop-C riffs and a surprising absence of shredding from the band’s virtuoso lead guitarist, Kirk Hammett, the controversial 2003 release was Metallica’s least successful studio outing. “I wasn’t a big fan of not having any solos on the album,” Hetfield says. “Being a singer, there are very few songs I listen to just for the solos, but the solo is the voice for a little while. And not having that element on St. Anger was somewhat—I don’t want to say ‘boring’—but it made the album pretty one-dimensional. Either the singing was on or the riff was on. Or that snare sound was on,” he says laughing, referring to the distinctive tuning of drummer Lars Ulrich’s kit, which became the signature sound of the album. At the same time, the frontman defends the validity and sound of the work, which he feels directly reflected his state of mind following his much-reported stint in rehab. “We tore Metallica down to a bare-bones skeleton, and it was not unlike what I went through in my personal life. During that period I was breaking down and rebuilding. St. Anger is exactly what it had to be and needed to be. With our new album, we’re back into our earlier mode, where the songs are more of a ride. It’s a lot more fluid.” Helping the band get back on track are superstar producer Rick Rubin, (noted for his productions for Johnny Cash, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Slipknot and Slayer, among numerous others) and bassist Robert Trujillo, who took over bass duties for the group in 2003 (longtime bassist Jason Newsted quit Metallica in early 2001 to pursue other projects). The result, Hetfield explains, is a work of new “power, excitement and clarity.”
As for his fabled rhythm playing, it’s never been harder, faster or more precise. Warming up to the topic, James, who is often said to have the best right hand in metal, says, “I’d much rather talk about guitar playing. I hate it when people ask me about my lyrics. I always feel like telling them to just go and read them,” he says with a laugh. So with that, we begin our conversation that encompasses life, death and James’ “eternal quest” to get the world’s greatest guitar sound.
GUITAR WORLD How would you describe this record?
JAMES HETFIELD I guess I would say that it’s a look backward—taking the essence of our earlier style and playing it with our current skills. It’s impossible to completely regain your innocence or virginity. When we recorded our first albums, we had no regard for authority or for the way things were supposed to be. We’d walk into a studio and we’d play what we knew and that was that. Some of the engineers would complain and say things like, “You can’t hear the vocal,” or “You can’t hear the guitar…what’s that sound?” And we’d say, “That’s us! Record it, please.” [laughs] We tried to capture that attitude again. It’s one of the reasons we chose Rick Rubin to produce the album. He’s good at capturing the essence of the artists he works with.
GW Rick is great at taking classic artists like Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond and helping them recapture what made them great in the first place.
HETFIELD Yeah, presenting them again and giving them another chance to speak. Especially Johnny Cash. Johnny was totally screwed by his record company and kind of disappeared. It’s like, “Come on, Johnny Cash is America. This has to rise to the top again, somehow. Gotta fly the flag!”
GW The new album references the past, but it has its own character.
HETFIELD I’d like to think every one of the albums has its own unique and distinct sound. Some might be harder to listen to. Listening to St. Anger is somewhat of a chore for me. [laughs] It’s cool because it’s raw and in your face, but it has just one dimension. You know, “This is anger, and here it is.”
To read the rest of this interview, pick up the December issue of Guitar World, on sale now!