AUSTIN, Texas — How’s this for a funny T-shirt slogan: I waited two hours for a Metallica interview at the South by Southwest Music Conference, and all I got was the lousy new guy.
It turned out, though, that bassist Rob Trujillo offered a new perspective on metal’s biggest band. Or at least he seemed like a fresh source to somebody who has interviewed the other three members at one point or another, and who twice sat through the “Some Kind of Monster” documentary (in which they all talk too much).
Seated at a table at the Four Seasons hotel in Austin, wearing a Black Flag T-shirt, the former Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne bassist — who replaced Jason Newsted in 2003 — alternately talked like he’s still just another longtime fan of Metallica, but also like he’s now a fully integrated part of its creative process.
“For me personally, being the newer member, it’s a great honor to actually play the old thrash style of music in this band,” he humbly stated at one point.
He was referring to the classic, full-throttle sound on the group’s latest album, “Death Magnetic.” The disc came out to strong reviews last September. (The band’s gig at the SXSW fest in March was mainly a plug for the “Metallica: Guitar Hero” video game.)
Talking more in-depth about the fuel behind “Death Magnetic,” though, Trujillo took his due credit. In fact, he said he played an especially vital role when guitarist Kirk Hammett frequently missed sessions for the record since his wife gave birth twice during its inception (nobody would accuse Metallica of rushing an album).
“Traditionally, Kirk has always been the middleman (since) he’s a very peaceful man,” the bassist explained. In Hammett’s absence, “I sort of got thrown in that mix.”
The mix he’s referring to is the notorious clash of egos between Metallica’s co-founders, singer/guitarist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich. Their constant bickering over creative matters was at the heart of “Some Kind of Monster,” and while the movie showed them working out their troubles through group therapy sessions, Trujillo said, “There are definitely times there’s still that tension.”
“The key thing is you really gotta let those two head-butt within reason. That’s the magic of what happens in the band. There’s a certain energy that bounces off the two of them, and you’ve gotta let that flow and then offer suggestions or butt in when it’s really necessary. The difference is nowadays, the band has figured out a way to defuse anything that could potentially be more destructive.”
Trujillo said he has come to appreciate the creative side of Hetfield, even if it is somewhat tempestuous at times.
“James Hetfield to me is so special in terms of writing riffs and melodies; he’s just an amazing musician,” he said. “Sometimes, if there’s a part he’s not picking up right off the bat, he gets a little impatient. That’s where you get a little nervous. That’s where you’ll see a chair fly.
“But to me, that’s all about the passion of putting a song together, and that’s one of the beautiful things about this band. There’s a lot that goes into this. There’s a lot of challenge in what we do, it’s not the easiest thing learning riffs or trying to develop a part in a Metallica song.”
Adding to the challenges during the making of “Death Magnetic” was the presence of uber-producer Rick Rubin, who has crafted albums by everyone from Johnny Cash and the Dixie Chicks to Slayer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.
One thing Rubin did was “push Metallica outside its comfort zone,” Trujillo said. He did this physically by having them record in a grimy part of Los Angeles instead of its own comfortable music spaces in San Francisco.
“The other guys might disagree, but I think the fact that someone like Lars Ulrich had to go to Van Nuys, Calif. — which is very industrial and not glamorous, so you have nothing else to do — I think the angst came out of that. It served as a great creative ground.”
Rubin also instructed the members “to step back and treat the situation as if we were a new band trying to win over new fans,” Trujillo recounted. That wasn’t entirely a hypothetical scenario, either, since the 2003 album “St. Anger” was largely panned by critics and fans alike, and the band’s 2000-2001 stand against the file-sharing site Napster was even more unpopular.
Regaining lost ground by going back to the thrashier sound of earlier albums “feels right for me personally,” Trujillo said. “The direction — in terms of being progressive, and challenging ourselves again — is very exciting. And it seems that our fans have picked up on it. They’re excited about the guitar solos again. The guitar solos had taken kind of a breather there for a couple years. They’re back with a vengeance. And the riffs are back and in your face again.”
One thing about Metallica that’s not a throwback, though, is the way the band goes about touring. Since all of the members are dads now, the band generally performs for a week or two, then takes a week or two off.
Trujillo said we should not feel shortchanged, though.
“It extends the tour cycle a little longer, but it balances things out well,” he said. “We’ve been playing tighter than ever. The new songs are great fun to play live, and we’re playing a lot of the old stuff, too. It’s almost like we’re playing a lot of the old, a lot of the new, and just a little bit of everything in between.”
15 SONGS METALLICA SHOULD (AND SHOULDN’T) PLAY
Metallica has been reaching a little deeper into its 25-year discography on the current tour, sporadically mixing in older tunes it infrequently plays. It’s doing this even with a batch of excellent new tracks, plus the usual list of must-haves (“Master of Puppets,” “Creeping Death,” “Whiplash,” “One”). Many diehard fans would agree, though, the band could still dig deeper and do it more often — and perhaps weed out some overplayed tracks. Here are some suggestions.
1. “Trapped Under Ice”
2. “The Frayed Ends of Sanity”
3. “Hit the Lights”
5. “... And Justice for All”
7. “Metal Militia”
8. “Leper Messiah”
9. “Phantom Lord”
10. “Disposable Heroes”
1. “Nothing Else Matters”
2. “Sad But True”
3. “Harvester of Sorrow”
4. “The Unforgiven”
5. “Fade to Black”