James Hetfield: Iron Man

Originally published in Guitar World, November 2009

In his most revealing interview, James Hetfield opens up about Metallica, Dave Mustaine, his marriage and his troubled childhood… and shows why what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

There is a scene in the 2004 Metallica documentary, Some Kind of Monster, where drummer Lars Ulrich petulantly voices his dissatisfaction with James Hetfield’s post-rehab approach to recording. Specifically, Ulrich is unhappy with the guitarist’s edict that all work on the group’s then-forthcoming album, St. Anger, must end at four in the afternoon so that the singer can spend time with his family. “I realize now that I barely knew you before,” Ulrich says. It’s a throwaway line, but one that resonates with Metallica fans. After all, since the band released its debut record, Kill ’Em All, in 1983, Hetfield had developed into the archetypal metal frontman, an intense, uncompromising performer of feral charisma. His free time was filled with loose women, hard drinking, southern rock and hunting. To his audience, he was a bulletproof icon of head-banging good times. They felt that they really knew this man. And they were entirely wrong.

Sitting on a plush purple couch in his office at the band’s California base of operations, the Hetfield of today punctuates his mild West Coast drawl with the occasional nervous laugh as he answers questions with the considered candor of a therapy veteran. As evidenced by the critical and commercial success of the band’s 2008 album, Death Magnetic, a Hetfield minus guns, booze and simmering “issues” has done nothing to blunt Metallica’s edge. As Metallica return stateside on the second leg of their world tour, Hetfield gives Ben Mitchell this candid interview, in which he proves that he is far from a self-pitying celebrity poster boy for clean living, even when discussing the more painful details of his remarkable history.

GUITAR WORLD What was your childhood like?

JAMES HETFIELD I grew up in suburban L.A., pretty middle-class. Our house was great. I could walk to every school I went to—elementary, middle school and high school, all right near by. Dad was a truck driver, owned a trucking company eventually. Mom was a stay-athome mom. She was an artist—she painted and she did some graphic design stuff. It’s funny: I remember being at home alone a lot. I had two older half-brothers and a younger sister. It was difficult in the house, definitely. I was just trying to put myself in my dad’s shoes—when he and my mom got married she had two teenage boys—and how difficult that must have been. I remember being a loner and seeing my sister get in trouble a lot. She was a very rebellious, loud type of child. I saw what the consequences were for her actions, so I went the other way. I was covert, and I got away with stuff—which didn’t serve me well.

GW You were raised in the Christian Science religion?

HETFIELD That was very interesting, yet very alienating for me as a kid. Now, being older, I can understand the religion a little bit more: the power of the mind allowing positive thinking to heal you, trying not to acknowledge the illness…things like that. But not going to doctors, basically ignoring all that medical intelligence…that didn’t make much sense to me. I think that now in my life they work well together: yes, there is the power of the mind, but there’s also knowledge that we’ve learned. Someone breaks his or her arm, you go get it set at least. That was not even allowed. I couldn’t go to health class as a kid—you’re learning about how your body functions, things like that. I wasn’t allowed to learn that. I would have to leave the classroom and go stand in the hallway or go to the principal’s office. It was more like a punishment. My parents were trying to make me better in a way by keeping me away from that stuff, but it was very much the opposite. My dad split when I was 13. At that point I just said to my mom, “I’m not going to Sunday school any more. Make me.” That was it.

GW What do you remember about the divorce?

HETFIELD It was very confusing for me, as a kid, to not know what was going on. It was kind of hidden. That’s a big character defect that I still carry—I think everyone’s hiding something from me. Dad took off, and for months and months we had no idea that he wasn’t coming back. My mom said he was on a business trip, and then she finally told the truth. I felt the fear of being the man of the house, too, and not knowing what to do, feeling like I didn’t learn enough from my dad, that he wasn’t there for me… All that stuff just started piling up. I felt a lot of hatred toward him. He didn’t even say goodbye. I have no idea, really, what was going on between the two of them. It could have been something completely horrible where he had to just leave or else. But they were both extremely religious, and to me that goes against divorce. Abandonment. So I had abandonment issues.

And then my mom passed away about three years after that. I attribute it to a lot of the discomfort with the divorce and the turmoil there. It was very traumatic.

GW Presumably she wouldn’t have treatment for her illness?

HETFIELD No, no, definitely not. She wasn’t interested in finding out what it was, even. We watched my mom wither away. My sister and I would look at each other, and we couldn’t really say anything. My brothers were old enough to understand this and finally said, “Something’s really wrong. Let’s get her some help.” But it was much too late. She died of cancer. I had to go live with my older brother, David, for a while and leave all my friends halfway through 11th grade. He was fairly well off and established, and he had a wife. Dealing with me and my sister kind of put his life on hold. My sister didn’t last that long—she was too much trouble. They found my dad, and she went to go live with him. I wanted nothing to do with him. It took a long time to get back in with my dad and forgive him, as well as embrace the concept of unconditional love between a father and son. But still, there were tons of questions that were left unanswered when he passed away. A lot of the stuff I had to go through in therapy revolved around childhood and my reality versus their reality.

GW When was the first time you took any medicine?

HETFIELD When I was living at my brother’s house. I had this massive headache. I used to get migraines all the time as a kid. I didn’t think there was any relief or any help for that. Prayer didn’t seem to be working for me and that was the only prescription in my house—that or reading the Bible. I remember my brother giving me some aspirin for the first time, and I was freaking out: “What’s it going to make me feel like? What’s it going to do?”

GW What age were you then?

HETFIELD Probably 16 or 17. I’d gotten no shots, none of that stuff, which I’m kind of glad about. Who knows what was being shot into kids back then.

GW By this point you were learning guitar?

HETFIELD My mom took me for piano lessons, because once when we were at a friend’s house I started beating on the piano. She thought I was going to be a virtuoso. [laughs] I took three years of piano lessons at an old woman’s house that smelled horrible. I realized quite early that music was a great communication tool. I liked being alone. I liked being able to close off the world, and music helped a lot with that. I’d put on the headphones and just listen to music. Music would speak my voice, and it connected on so many levels. It made perfect sense that I would want to express myself that way. It was all about Kiss and Aerosmith. The first concert I went to was Aerosmith and AC/DC at the Long Beach Arena [July 12, 1978]. I also loved Ted Nugent and Alice Cooper—a lot of the edgier, harder American rock that was of that time. I didn’t get into other stuff until I was introduced to Lars two years later.

GW How did you meet Lars?

HETFIELD When we first hooked up I was in high school playing guitar with a friend of mine and trying to get this band, Phantom Lord, going. Lars had placed an ad in the paper, looking for musicians. We answered the ad and met up with Lars at a little warehouse somewhere. He set his drums up, and he wasn’t very good at all, but he had the motivation and the knowledge. He had the drive and the aspirations that I did.

GW Culturally, how different were you two?

HETFIELD Extremely. There were some different smells coming from him. [laughs] The stigma of being European is that everyone here thinks that they don’t manufacture soap over there and no one bathes. Going to his house was definitely a different vibe: very friendly, very open. My house was very elitist, very closed off if you didn’t believe in our religion. We didn’t have a lot of houseguests. Lars’ house was the exact opposite: very hippie, very “come on in.”

GW Apparently, Lars had a pretty impressive record collection.

HETFIELD I wouldn’t say he was spoiled, but as an only child he had a lot of records. I walked into his bedroom and I could not believe it. I had my little stack; he had a whole wall in his bedroom filled with stuff. He’d just go to the record store and say, “I want to check these guys out.” I could not afford that. But, man, I came over and started recording everything I could from him.

GW Were you shy back then?

HETFIELD Very. I was very withdrawn. I didn’t trust the world whatsoever because of what had gone on as a child. The drinking helped me break out of that a little bit, but at the end of the day it was worse. I’d dug a deeper hole for myself.

GW Was there a feeling that Metallica became your family?

HETFIELD Yes, yes. There’s no doubt. I was searching for people that I could identify with. I couldn’t really identify too much with my family, and, basically, as a child my family disintegrated right in front of my eyes. There’s a part of me that craves family and another part of me that just can’t stand people. At the end of the day I feel like this lone wolf, but, you know, I do feel that I need family. But not all the time.

GW Were you glad when [early Metallica guitarist] Dave Mustaine was asked to leave?

HETFIELD I don’t know if “glad” is the right word, but it was definitely necessary. It’s obvious that he had the same drive as us; he went on to do great things in Megadeth. But with him in the band, there was me, Lars and Dave all trying to lead things, and if we’d stay that way it would have been a triangulated mess. The way things are in Metallica now—the character dynamics, I mean—Lars and I are on one side of the scale, and Rob [Trujillo] and Kirk [Hammett] are on the other. They’re great “idea” people, but they’re also very good about letting someone else do the driving. They’re not really driven by their egos, while Lars and I are the other way. That’s what I’ve been told. [laughs] So back then, Dave had to go.

GW In his scenes in Some Kind of Monster, Dave seems fairly unhappy about being let go.

HETFIELD He’s an amazing, talented person. Maybe just part of his character is having a chip on his shoulder. If I got kicked out of Metallica I would have one too. Ron McGovney, our first bass player—very big chip on his shoulder. They can’t accept that they’ve accomplished so much. Lars says that in the movie when he’s talking to Dave. He says, “Can’t you see what you’ve done?”

GW Cliff Burton died in a tragic accident in 1986 when Metallica were on tour in Sweden. Did seeing your mother pass away make it any easier to cope with Cliff’s death?

HETFIELD It’s never easy. You don’t get used to it, especially at that age. And with the mindset that I was in at the time, I was drinking so much just to drown out any feelings. That was another part of Christian Science: there were no funerals, no grieving period where you’re able to cry and get support. It was just, “Okay, the shell is dead, the spirit’s gone, so move on.” When Cliff died there was a funeral, but I didn’t feel the vibe. I just drank harder.

GW Lars said that before the accident you and Cliff had become close, and one of the effects of the tragedy was that you and Lars became close afterward. Would you agree with that?

HETFIELD Yes. Cliff and I really identified with each other. We liked a lot of the same stuff, same music. He was into more southern rock, Lynyrd Skynyrd—stuff like that, which I love. He loved being out in nature, hiking, camping, shooting guns, drinking beers. He and I identified with each other.

GW What do you remember most about the accident in which he was killed?

HETFIELD It was so cold. We were in Sweden in the winter. I would sleep in the back lounge for a little warmth. I would have been right next to him. You know, I don’t dwell on that. It is what it is. We survived for some reason to carry it on. We certainly do miss Cliff. So many things could have been different.

GW Do you think you toured again too quickly after Cliff died?

HETFIELD I think we did everything too quickly after that: getting a bass player, touring. We went straight back out. That was management’s way of dealing with the grief: “Just play it out through your music.” Now it feels like there wasn’t enough grieving or enough respect paid and enough of just dealing with each other and helping each other through it. We went out on the road and took a lot of it out on Jason [Newsted] once he joined. It was more like, “Yeah, we have a bass player, but he’s not Cliff.”

GW Did you like Jason?

HETFIELD Yeah, I did like Jason. There was a real “up” vibe with him. Real childlike, not childish. The things we liked, the things we enjoyed, writing together…it was fun. Then we started to have bigger fame, resentments were created, and things changed with all of us.

GW Lars claimed that a possible title for 1988’s …And Justice for All was Wild Chicks, Fast Cars and Lots of Drugs. Was that an accurate picture of the band at that time?

HETFIELD Well, we all had our battles back then. We all had our vices that were growing hugely. Yeah, we were fighting demons. At one point it turned from fun into destruction. It started to take us over. We had just done Master of Puppets, toured with Ozzy and started to headline our own shows. Suddenly things were available to us—parties, you name it. We got sucked into that. That’s how it was supposed to be. I don’t recall which of us was married, but I certainly wasn’t, so it was okay for me to indulge. It was fun. You have to do all that and learn that, Well, that’s not what music’s about. It was like the bonus track that starts to take over the whole record, you know? [laughs]

GW Taking drugs didn’t interest you, though?

HETFIELD Thank God it didn’t interest me. I was afraid of drugs. Maybe the Christian Science upbringing was responsible for that, but it was also because, while I was in high school playing in my very first band—the aptly titled Obsession—I smoked pot for the first time. I remember thinking, Wow, this is great. Then I smoked five joints one evening, went in to jam and, man, it hit me so hard. I freaked out. I thought we were playing the same song for half an hour. I did not like it.

GW What was Lars like when he was doing cocaine?

HETFIELD Oh, man. Talkative? Even more so, if that’s possible. The typical shit. I did not like being around him when he was on that stuff.

GW Were you fun to be around when you were drunk?

HETFIELD Definitely not. I would get pretty violent. There’d be the happy stage and then it would get ugly, where the world is fucked and “Fuck you.” I’d start out as clown and after that I’d be the punk anarchist who wanted to smash everything and hurt people. I’d get into fights, sometimes with Lars. That’s how resentments would get released—by pushing and shoving and throwing things. We have two very different personalities. He wants to be the center of attention all the time, and that bothers me, because I’m the same way. He’s out there charming people, and I’ll be intimidating so people will respect me that way.

GW Does that hold true now?

HETFIELD No. I think I’ve learned to turn that off. That part of things—Lars’ attitude—would bug me so much, because we were this band that was so anti-L.A., anti-Hollywood, and Lars was out there posing. Guns N’ Roses to me were part of the enemy, and Lars was out there with them, posing up a storm. Lars is that way. He will be infatuated with certain people in his life and need to get into them. He likes learning things from people who have that something, and Axl [Rose] had that.

GW Was it difficult to record “Nothing Else Matters” [from 1991’s Black Album]?

HETFIELD At first it was. I didn’t even want to play it for the guys. It was so heartfelt, so personal to me. I thought that Metallica could only have these songs about destroying things, head-banging, bleeding for the crowd—whatever it is, as long as it isn’t about chicks and fast cars, even though that’s what we liked. The song was about a girlfriend I had at the time, and it let me get some other feelings out. I certainly did not think it was a Metallica song. When the guys heard it they were amazed at how much they, I guess, related to it. It turned out to be a pretty big song on that record.

GW Did it feel like a big turning point?

HETFIELD I would say so. That opened the door even further and gave us carte blanche to play many different styles of songs. It touched a lot of people.

GW What do you remember about the 1992 tour with Guns N’ Roses?

HETFIELD Man, it was the excess tour. “Hey, you going to the after party?” Axl spent tens of thousands of dollars on those parties. There were hot tubs backstage. It was very extravagant, which was so un-me. I’d go back and drink their beer and shoot pool; that’s what I’d do. By the time they’d come offstage I’d be gone so I didn’t have to hang out with them.

GW You came across as this taciturn mountain man.

HETFIELD A lot of it had to do with me proving my manhood to myself and a lot of the things that I felt my dad didn’t teach me—like working on cars, hunting, survivalism. Things like that. I really felt that I had to go and learn those things and prove to myself that I’m okay, that I can do it. My dad was like that.

GW Do you still go hunting?

HETFIELD Nowadays it doesn’t feel necessary, killing things just to kill them. I’m not against hunting, but it doesn’t seem as necessary as going 150 miles an hour in my car now. [laughs]

GW What changed your mind?

HETFIELD We went hunting in Siberia. This was just before I went into rehab, when I fell off the wagon majorly. I’ve got a wife and kids at home, but I was like, “See you later, I’m going to Siberia.” I went out on the Kamchatka peninsula, hunting grizzly bear on snowmobiles in four feet of snow. You fall off the snowmobile, you’re done. I saw a bear print and it looked pretty human [to me]. I saw something in that that didn’t make much sense to me. We were in this four-foot high chicken shack in the middle of nowhere, four-hour helicopter ride out of this shitty little town, drinking vodka. There was nothing else to drink. That was the end for me.

GW Were you uncomfortable with the band’s new image for Load [1996]?

HETFIELD Most definitely. Lars and Kirk drove on those records. The whole, “We need to reinvent ourselves” topic was up. Image is not an evil thing for me, but if the image is not you then it doesn’t make much sense. I think they were really after a U2 kind of vibe—Bono doing his alter ego. I couldn’t get into it. The whole, “Okay, now in this photo shoot we’re going to be Seventies glam rockers.” I would say half, at least half, the pictures that were to be in the booklet I yanked out. The whole cover thing, it went against what I was feeling.

GW What didn’t you like about the cover?

HETFIELD [laughs] How can I put this? I guess when I talked about the resentments of being left out of the bond that they had through their drug use—Lars and Kirk were very into abstract art, pretending they were gay—I think they knew it bugged me. I love art, but not for the sake of shocking others. I think the cover of Load was just a piss-take on all that. I just went along with the makeup and all of this crazy, stupid shit that they felt they needed to do.

GW A lot was made of the haircuts at the time. Was that a group decision?

HETFIELD [laughs] It wasn’t like we went in together and went, “Hey, can we get a deal on four haircuts?” It just slowly happened, with age, thinning hair. Long hair just didn’t feel right anymore.

GW Musically was that the first time Metallica was unsure?

HETFIELD I would say so. That whole period. Why do we need to reinvent ourselves? A lot of the fans got turned off quite a bit by the music, but mostly, I think, by the image.

GW Were you uneasy about Kirk and Lars kissing in the photographs?

HETFIELD Totally. That’s why they did it—for the image. I’m the driving force behind their homosexual adventures. I think drugs had something to do with it too. I hope. [laughs] There are many times in our career that people have jumped ship, and that’s going to happen. It’s more hurtful to hear “Okay, people are stomping Metallica records because they’re suing Napster.”

GW It seemed like Lars led the Napster thing.

HETFIELD He is the figurehead for the band. He likes talking, he likes being out there. I’m extremely proud of what we did. It had to happen. No artist would stand up except some of the rap artists. We were abandoning the rebel attitude, and, man, there couldn’t be anything more rebel than that.

GW In a 2001 interview with Playboy magazine, you said Lars is a bad drummer.

HETFIELD He will admit that. And I’m not a very good singer, but something happens when we play together.

GW Did you see therapy as being unmanly?

HETFIELD Definitely. Even [producer] Bob Rock introduced a little time-out meditation thing before playing. I just said, “No way! Fuck you guys. Have you lost your mind? Let’s just rock!” I was not open to it whatsoever.

GW What changed your mind?

HETFIELD My major crash—my wife throwing me out of the house. My wife said, “You’re not coming back until you sort this out and get some therapy.” It was not just the drinking but all the other crap that goes with it: the disrespect, doing whatever you want whenever you want. I had to grow up. I had a family.

GW When was this?

HETFIELD This was during St. Anger. We were starting to write over at the Presidio [former San Francisco military base, closed since 1995]. Then at one point during therapy I realized how much my life was fucked up, how many secrets I had, how incongruent my life was, and I was disclosing all this shit to my wife, shit that happened on the road during all those times.

GW Women?

HETFIELD Oh yeah. Women, drink, whatever it is. That brought up a lot of fear for the other guys, you know. [laughs] Like I’m this whistle blower, and then all of a sudden, their wives are going, “Wow, isn’t it terrible, honey that he did that? You wouldn’t do something like that would you?” “Oh, hell no!”

It did stir up the mud—and the water was very thick with mud at that point. I think it was part of what saved Metallica, without a doubt. It had to come to an end in a certain way. My wife stood up and told me, “Hey, I’m not one of your yes men out on the road. Get the fuck out.”

GW What was your reaction?

HETFIELD My life is over. But fear is a pretty huge motivator, and it motivated me, having all these issues with abandonment and losing a group, losing people in my life.

GW And it looked like you were going to lose your band and your marriage.

HETFIELD Both of them at the same time. So that was it. I thought, I’ve got to get it together or they’re both going to go away. And then what?

GW When did you move back in?

HETFIELD My wife was pregnant with our third; she’s my little angel, Marcella. My wife needed me there, and I was able to be there at the birth, which was amazing. I cut the cord and all that very bonding stuff. Yeah, my daughter pretty much glued us back together.

GW What do you think of St. Anger now?

HETFIELD It’s more of a statement than a musical piece of work. We had to make St. Anger. The guy who worked with us, [life coach] Phil Towle, said, “All this work you’re doing right now is not for this record; it’s for the next one.”

GW Was Bob Rock upset when you decided to have Rick Rubin produce Death Magnetic?

HETFIELD I hope so. Not in a mean way. We both know that it got too comfortable. It got too easy. And you need to go explore. Maybe there wasn’t the tension anymore. Bob was a fifth member, a father figure. Maybe we felt scared that we couldn’t go do a record without him. But I hope he misses us, because we certainly miss him.

GW Did you find touring sober difficult?

HETFIELD At first it felt great, but scary at the same time. Mostly it was, “What do I do now?” But how many hours have been wasted sitting in a bar somewhere talking to people you’ll never see again? So I went sightseeing, did the stuff you would have done if it was your first tour. The guys were very respectful.

GW At this point, what do you and Lars have in common?

HETFIELD Besides children and family life, we’re very into art even, though it’s completely different kinds of art. I like Kustom Kulture art, religious art, doing stuff for the band. He’s very into abstract art, stuff you have to make your own mind up about.

GW Do you love Lars?

HETFIELD I do. There’s no doubt that we were put together on this journey for a reason. We hooked up and, like my wife and I, opposites do attract, and it’s a never-ending battle. We’ve got this chemistry that works even though resentments get in the way and we can’t see it sometimes. There’s an agitation, a friction, a spark that just happens.

GW Is that something you could have said 10 years ago?

HETFIELD I could still say that back then. It’s a different kind of love. We wouldn’t get our families together and go to Hawaii for a week. But, man, when something happens on the road, someone’s challenging Metallica or our ability, we will cling together like there’s no tomorrow. We will stand, have each other’s back, and fight to the death.

Thank you for reading 5 articles this month**

Join now for unlimited access

US pricing $3.99 per month or $39.00 per year

UK pricing £2.99 per month or £29.00 per year 

Europe pricing €3.49 per month or €34.00 per year

*Read 5 free articles per month without a subscription

Join now for unlimited access

Prices from £2.99/$3.99/€3.49