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St. Vincent, Ghost, Royal Blood and Rodrigo y Gabriela discuss covering metal classics for the Metallica Blacklist

Metallica Blacklist Artists
(Image credit: C Brandon/Redferns; Jo Hale/Redferns; Daniel Boczarski/Getty Images; Harry Herd/Redferns)

On The Metallica Blacklist, 53 acts try their hand at reinterpreting one of The Black Album’s 12 tracks in their own voice. Here, four artists – St. Vincent, Ghost’s Tobias Forge, Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr and Rodrigo y Gabriela’s Rodrigo Sánchez – discuss how they did it, and what Metallica means to each of them.

St. Vincent – Sad But True

Why did you choose to cover Sad But True

St. Vincent: “I think every person has an internal BPM, their own kind of natural tempo. So I thought about doing a faster tune, but then I thought, You know what? I think my natural BPM is this, like, swamp-stomp Sad But True BPM. And as far as adding the programmed drums and the instrumentation, I just sort of asked myself, ‘Okay… how would Skinny Puppy cover Metallica?’” 

You play several guitar solos in your version. The first one is more of a blues-based lead, which isn’t the type of thing we typically hear from you. Was it fun? 

“It totally was. With that first solo I was like, ‘Okay, I need to do right by Kirk and pay homage to his choices.’ And so I learned his solo and then did my own take on it. Whereas the second solo, I just said, ‘Well, what would I do? What’s my natural instinct on this?’ And that solo, it’s all me.”   

How did you approach the song from a vocal perspective? 

“It’s interesting inhabiting the lyrics of the song, because they’re, like, full-throttle, hands-around-your-neck lyrics. And so I had to find my way into that. Because I don’t have a low Doberman growl like James Hetfield does. I had to think about it: how can I portray menace in this that isn’t coming from a deep baritone place?”  

How did you get turned on to Metallica? 

“I was living in Dallas in 1991, ’92, and I think somebody was moving or something, and a box of CDs fell out on the sidewalk in front of her house. And in that box was Nine Inch Nails. Pet Shop Boys. Depeche Mode. The Black Album. Somebody had cool taste. I feel sorry that they lost their CDs, but, hey, good for us, right? And I started listening to The Black Album, and then it was on the radio, on MTV… I think there’s videos like Enter Sandman that just stick with you forever.”  

So The Black Album was actually the first Metallica record you ever heard? 

“It was. And then I started playing guitar and I got asked to join a metal band. But all the guitar spots were taken so they said, 'We need somebody to play bass.' I was like, 'Okay, I’ll do it.' Even though I didn’t play bass. But I figured it out, and we started covering For Whom the Bell Tolls. Which is a pretty sick bassline. So I started digging into the catalog that way. But I’ve been a fan since I was 10 – ever since I heard The Black Album.”

Ghost – Enter Sandman

How did you approach your cover of Enter Sandman

Ghost’s Tobias Forge: “We had performed that track when Metallica got the Polar Music Prize [Sweden’s biggest music award] in 2018, so it felt like something we knew how to do. But when it comes to covering other band’s songs, I try to find something that isn’t in the track in its original state. 

“And honestly, I find that difficult in a lot of Metallica songs because I feel they are pretty fully fleshed out. But with Enter Sandman, I could hear a piano. I could hear the vocal melody speaking in a way where you could build another chord sequence underneath. Which, you know, I can’t really do that on Of Wolf and Man.”

You definitely make it your own. 

“It wasn’t without a wee bit of anxiety. But the biggest part of that was the way I felt two or three years ago when we did that performance. Because that was on live TV and it was in front of Metallica and it was in front of the [Swedish] royal family and a lot of the elite in Sweden. So that felt like the big weight.”

Metallica have been huge supporters of Ghost. What has that meant to you? 

“Their support has been key. Ever since James started pushing the band about 10 years ago, from that moment on we definitely rose to bigger fame. We performed on their festival [Orion Music + More], and we also did some touring together with them when they were doing Sonisphere. 

“Eventually they asked us to support them on an entire tour. So I’d say that we have had a mentor/student sort of relationship. It feels, you know, like the most Miyagi of dojos – you get the hand of the sensei on you.”

Royal Blood – Sad But True

As a two-piece band with just bass and drums, tackling a Metallica song must have presented a bit of a challenge. 

Royal Blood’s Mike Kerr: “I think whenever you’re a two-piece and you try and do a cover, there’s always something pretty integral missing from the track. But with Sad But True, there’s such a sort of primitive aspect to the song. It felt like, ‘Yeah, we can do it with just the two of us and you won’t kind of miss the saxophone,’ you know?”  

How did you handle interpreting Kirk’s solo on bass? 

“Usually when I do solos I integrate them into one bass part, rather than overdubbing a lead. On this track, because of the nature of what it was and because the original solo is so epic, I decided to do a complete overdub. And it was so fun, especially because the changes that sit under the solo are just so wild and mad that it brought out some pretty cool parts.”  

Do you remember the first time you heard Metallica? 

“I was on a school trip – I guess you guys call it a field trip, which sounds like a boring journey to a field. But a friend had The Black Album on his cassette player, and there was just something badass about it. It felt like something I shouldn’t be allowed to be hearing, particularly with how young I was.

In 2015 Lars joined the band onstage at your gig at Slim’s in San Francisco to play drums on your song Out of the Black

“We’ve known Lars for years – he was a fan right from the beginning. Every time we came up his way we’d always hang out. So yeah, we were playing this small club show and right at the end, very spontaneously, Ben [Thatcher, Royal Blood drummer] invited him up. So I was riffing out with Lars, and Ben was out in the crowd just hitting a cymbal. It was great.”

Rodrigo y Gabriela – The Struggle Within

You incorporate every aspect of the song – the drums, the vocal, the riffs, the bass, the solo – into your acoustic guitar parts. How did you approach the arrangement? 

Rodrigo Sànchez: This is not the first time we’ve covered a metal track. Last year we released an EP [The Mettal EP] with three covers, and [Metallica’s] Battery was one of them. We had an idea of how we wanted to do this one because of our experiences through the years of playing some of these metal anthems with acoustics. For example, using a slide on the vocal lines, which detunes the notes similar to what you find in the normal voice. And Gab’s guitar, she has a massive sound, like a kick drum.”   

You replicate Kirk’s solo note-for-note on acoustic, which is no easy task.  

“Coming from the metal world, we know how important solos are for the fans. So I knew I was going to do that. And I started out playing thrash metal tunes on guitar, and I spent my first 15 years as a musician playing metal. So I have all these techniques quite settled in my bones. Also, I’ve known this song from forever. So I don’t think it was that complicated for me to transcribe that into acoustic.”  

You’ve covered Metallica songs on acoustic before. What is it about the band that is special to you?  

“I play guitar because of them. When I was 10, Kill ’Em All came out, and my older brother introduced me to them. The first riff I played on guitar was Seek & Destroy. Metallica is the reason I became a musician.”

Richard Bienstock

Rich is the co-author of the best-selling Nöthin' But a Good Time: The Uncensored History of the '80s Hard Rock Explosion. He is also a recording and performing musician, and a former editor of Guitar World magazine and executive editor of Guitar Aficionado magazine. He has authored several additional books, among them Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, the companion to the documentary of the same name.