By Greg Pratt
In two hours and 25 minutes, METALLICA’s James Hetfield is going to go in front of 21,000 people in Vancouver, BC (at GM Place) and exorcise his demons. But right now he’s taking a second between interviews in the labyrinthine backstage of the night’s venue, which looks just like the countless back-stages across the world where Hetfield came of age. He’s not screaming, he’s not running around; he’s just standing, silent.
When introduced, our handshake doesn’t quite meet up; we fumble to get it right; we wait a minute while the room we’ll be chatting in is cleaned up; we sit, and as I take a look at James, the years show on his face. This isn’t James Fucking Hetfield, Metallica monster. This is James Hetfield, human. It’s a reminder that James Hetfield is fallible, and James Hetfield is a really nice guy and James Hetfield is not some kind of monster, at least not anymore. He’s not larger than life, although he is really big.
Music critics are, as we know, also fallible: I recently placed the band’s newest disc, Death Magnetic, at the top of my “worst of the year” list for this publication; now that a few months have passed, I’d throw it in my top five for the first four songs alone. The band has come back after much internal strife and shocked the world with an album that is as angry as they’ve ever been, despite the fact that Hetfield is all smiles when we sit down to chat with him.
BW&BK: How are you feeling about the album?
Hetfield: "Amazing. Very, very surreal still. Thinking that, you know, we were just about to break up or yell each other into not wanting to be with each other anymore and then we come out stronger than ever and put together an album that feels like we’re alive again."
BW&BK: It must feel great to sit back and hold the CD and just say, Fuck, we did it.
Hetfield: "(laughs) It does feel good. And obviously, getting some positive response back, it helps, man. No matter what, I don’t want to speak for all artists, but at the end of the day the artist says, We’re doing this for us, I’m doing this for me, but yes, it feels good when someone else says you did a great job. It’s human."
BW&BK: Your lyrics… Lars says that he was surprised and a little bit sad about your lyrics, that you still have so much anger in you. How do you feel about that?
Hetfield: "I feel happy about that (laughs). I’m glad that I do. It’s fuelled my life. Along with other things that fuel my life now, as well. But you know, we’ve all got our thing. We’ve all got our defect, of sorts, that we’ve hung on to, that seemed to work for us, or we’re wanting to shake or work on; there’s still some there. As far as anger goes, it’s not just anger anymore, for sure. I get to display it in my work. Lars, his defects come out other places (laughs), where people aren’t reading them, I would guess, but we all have our stuff that we work on. I’m able to express it. That’s one of the easiest things for me to express, so that’s kind of where and how it goes."
BW&BK: Is there a lot of happiness inside of you that doesn’t get expressed as much?
Hetfield: "Absolutely. It’s getting more and more. It’s easier to do that. Possibly tonight when you see on stage, it’s all goofy, seeing four guys smile so much, but it feels good to be up there and really know that this is why we were put on Earth, I believe, to be together and to create music and create a fun live show where people can let loose."
BW&BK: Do you ever think there’s going to be a time when you’re too old to do this? When does it stop? Why does Metallica stop?
Hetfield: "Sure. Why? It stops because… (long pause) Well, death doesn’t stop it, pyrotechnics don’t stop it, people leaving don’t stop it. Yeah, what does stop it? Bus accidents, all that, I don’t know. I think when Lars and I decide to not do it or we don’t feel it or something happens to one of us then it probably stops. But that doesn’t mean the spirit of Metallica or the love for it stops. Writing music will always be a part of me and my expression."
BW&BK: James Hetfield… there’s the James Hetfield persona. Onstage, you’re a mean motherfucker…
Hetfield: "(laughs) Really?"
BW&BK: Talking to you, you’re a nice guy, you’re smiling lots. Where’s the onstage persona come from?
Hetfield: "27 years of playing live and growing up in Los Angeles, disliking the music scene. I think a lot of the persona did develop out of where we came from. The speed, the intensity, the loudness, we wanted the attention. Growing up in Los Angeles playing with all the glam bands when the scene was all about looks, hair, whatever, and we were certainly not about that, we wanted music, we had to play louder, faster, for people to notice us. And you know, along with your normal mannerisms that’s part of what you develop, and it’s your sword up there, it’s your shield, it’s your everything, you’re able to hide behind it, you’re able to go further than I would just sitting here talking to you. I think it’s taking your body, your voice, your soul, your being to a higher elevation. When you get on stage, there’s something. I certainly wouldn’t do the things I do up there in front of my family at Thanksgiving (laughs). I wouldn’t. The music and the people take me somewhere. It’s like the Olympics for us (laughs). You go farther."
BW&BK: Do you need it?
Hetfield: "I do. It sounds like a new addiction, and it’s not new. It’s just clearer that it’s somewhat of a healthier addiction (laughs). Being on stage, it is… (pause) I feel bi-polar up there. I go from just mean, crazy monster to “Nothing Else Matters,” where I’m trying to reach into people’s souls and connect. So there are a lot of extremes up there, and depending on the song, it takes you there."
BW&BK: Some Kind of Monster: now that it’s had a bit of time to sit, any regrets?
Hetfield: "I watch it every night (laughs)."
BW&BK: It’s two-and-a-half hours.
Hetfield: "Yeah, I get off stage… (laughs). No, no regrets. No regrets. I would say it’s probably one of the best things that… it was a very big gift that was handed to us at that point. The making of a record and we started to… it turned into something else. It turned into the disintegration of a band, of friends, of a long-term career. It filmed us when we didn’t want to be filmed (laughs), it filmed us when we really wanted to be filmed… it was there, and it’s been an amazing mirror for us all. We learned a lot about ourselves and each other. There’s a lot of freedom now because of that. It has exposed our ugliness to the world so it’s made us stronger. Also, when someone tries to hurt you with something, something about your album or this or that… you can’t hurt me. You’ve seen me in the corner, crying. You’ve seen Lars yelling at me while I wanted to kill him. You’ve seen all of the ugly, dirty laundry. It’s given us freedom, it’s given us a lot more friends, because they see us as humans now, and it’s given us a lot more respect, I think."
BW&BK: People put you on a pedestal. And it showed the human side.
Hetfield: "Yeah. And like you were saying, they want that stage persona. They think that’s you, so when you meet them at the airport you should jump on the luggage carousel and scream at them, “Fuck you!” Now they know a lot more of us. And along with that comes some psychoness, where people think they really know you. But it is nice to be known, and people can say, “He’s with his family having dinner and I’m not gonna go bug him, I remember in the movie he said it kind of bugs him and if he gives me the ‘hi’ sign I’ll come over.” So it has connected us with the world."