When most bands start focusing on death, writing about “The End of the Line” or “My Apocalypse,” it’s generally not a good sign. When that follows a behind-the-scenes documentary that showed lots of infighting, seemingly unraveling to the point of breakup, there would normally be reason for worry.
Of course, Metallica isn’t most bands. Death becomes them.
“Life is good for Metallica right now,” says singer James Hetfield, with a smile. “A lot of good things are happening - quite opposite of what they were in the ‘St. Anger’ time. All the work and effort that we’ve put into our relationship since then has brought a lot of fruits of labor - this album, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Grammys, feeling good.”
Also adding to the era of good feelings is their latest album, “Death Magnetic” (Warner Bros.), which is shaping up to be their most successful in more than a decade, ending 2008 as the seventh-biggest seller of the year and landing the band four Grammy nominations, and their current sold-out tour.
“There’s been such a rebirth in this band on so many levels,” says drummer Lars Ulrich. “Right now, we feel stronger than we ever have. We still feel like we have one foot in relevance and that we still have a lot to give, so we’re continuing to focus on playing.”
As the band’s upcoming induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame confirms, Metallica thundered its way into rock royalty 25 years ago with its debut “Kill ‘Em All” and, despite lots of high-profile ups and downs, hasn’t relinquished its position since.
How do they stay relevant?
“When all else fails, call Rick Rubin,” jokes Ulrich, name-checking the producer of “Death Magnetic.”
But Hetfield takes the question seriously, adding “making music that connects with people and then playing the songs live and not splitting it out, but making it a part of your live set, your work.”
“We’re road dogs,” he says. “Live is our thing. We’ve gone on the road from the beginning and pounded and pounded A, B and C markets to get a huge following. It came from our underground tape-trading following. Going out there and bringing it to the people and bringing the new songs into the set, making the audience a part of the song is a big deal for us. The more they have to do with the song, the more of an evergreen I think it will stay.”
Ulrich adds that enjoying playing together is also important. “What happened to some of our records in the ‘90s was because of internal friction,” he says. “There was a lot of compromises and when things get compromised and watered down, it loses some of its singular vision. So when you have a bunch of guys who really get along and share one particular vision, then it sort of ups the ante on the relevance side.”
Guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo say relevance comes with the intangibles. “We still care about the music,” Hammett says. “I’m still very, very passionate about music.”
Trujillo says they still have fun. “Once the guitars get strapped on ... it’s hilarious to be around these guys when we’re in the rehearsal room. It’s like being in the garage and a teenager again. There’s still that magic and that passion toward hard rock and heavy metal in this unit.”
Ulrich says the band’s entire career has been a surprising outcome from his initial reasons to start Metallica when he was a teenager. “I called up James Hetfield because I wanted to be in a band so I could basically play along to all my favorite new wave and British heavy metal songs on record,” he says. “At that time, we never even considered writing songs, making records, performing, touring or even having a tape of any of this stuff. That’s all the added bonus stuff to playing along to my favorite records.”
For Hetfield, he plans to put all the past strife with Metallica’s members, present and past, behind him to enjoy the moment.
“The fact that we’re relevant today - we’ve got an album that’s doing really good, we’ve got Grammy nominations and we’re being inducted into the Hall of Fame - is unbelievable,” he says. “We’re in a good space. We want everyone to celebrate that fact. This is Metallica’s moment. Let’s celebrate.”
WHAT METALLICA MEMBERS BANG THEIR HEADS TO
Metallica is set to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame April 4, along with Run-DMC, Jeff Beck, Bobby Womack and Little Anthony and the Imperials.
But with so many complaining that heavy metal is underrepresented in the Cleveland museum, who would the band members add if they had the power?
James Hetfield (singer) - “Motorhead. Lemmy is rock ‘n’ roll.”
Lars Ulrich (drummer) - “Deep Purple. You say Led Zeppelin and Black Sabbath, you also have to say Deep Purple.”
Kirk Hammett (guitarist) - “Rush. They’re a great band that took rock to a different level in terms of songwriting and technical proficiency.”
Robert Trujillo (bassist) - “Jethro Tull (the band that famously beat out Metallica for the first best hard rock/metal performance in 1989). Just kidding. I love UFO. I know Kirk’s a huge fan of them, too. A band like that should be recognized.”