The Cover Story

Metallica: “In the past every single thing had to be fought over… now the band is a safe space and everyone is very protective of it”

Eleven albums and four decades into being the biggest metal band of all time, Metallica are showing no signs of slowing down. In fact, things are changing for the better. With new LP 72 Seasons waiting in the wings, we find the legendary thrashers taking stock of what’s important, what’s left to achieve, and why their music will live forever…

Metallica: “In the past every single thing had to be fought over… now the band is a safe space and everyone is very protective of it”
Luke Morton
Tim Saccenti

“British Telecom, fuck…” chuckles Lars Ulrich, as he and Kerrang! battle against the trials of transatlantic phone calls, having finally managed to connect his home in San Francisco with K!’s London HQ. The drummer jokes that this period of faffing around is “the calmest 10 minutes I’ve had all week”, but he’s not wrong, with a Herculean press drive filling his calendar, as the world readies itself for the biggest metal album of the year.

It’s been seven years since Metallica’s last record, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, and while the band might be grizzled veterans at making award-winning, millions-selling music by now, their upcoming 11th full-length 72 Seasons was created under entirely new circumstances thanks to a certain global pandemic.

With the band booking in weekly Zoom meetings to stay connected and communicate ideas, the first attempt to collaborate remotely was the acoustic version of Blackened – dubbed Blackened 2020 – recorded in each musician’s home studio in April 2020. Before long, conversations turned to creating something more substantial...

“When the full lockdown was in effect, I was pretty fuckin’ frustrated,” remembers guitarist Kirk Hammett, speaking from his home in Hawaii, those feelings still fresh in his mind. “It felt like our hands were tied. I remember having a long conversation with Rob [Trujillo, bassist] like, ‘What are we gonna fuckin’ do?! We can’t lose this time! How’re we gonna make this time up?!’ But then Rob said something to me that really fuckin’ resonated. He said, ‘Stay positive, stay creative,’ and I took it to heart.

“I went through a ton of riffs – I’ve got so many musical ideas it’s just confusing,” he laughs. “I tried to maintain a normal work schedule for myself. As a result, I was able to finish two tracks for [solo EP] Portals, work on my technique, work on things about my guitar-playing that I’ve always wanted to work on, and I really felt like I seized the moment and made this lockdown time really, really work for me in a positive fashion. I feel very fortunate that I was able to do that. Lockdown affected a lot of people in a lot of ways; some people it affected them in not the best ways, and I could have easily been one of those people, but I did not let that happen. I stayed positive, stayed on point, and stayed productive and creative.”

Gathering all of the riffs together from jams, tuning rooms, soundchecks and various hotel rooms around the world from recent years, the four horsemen started sifting through hundreds of ideas that could theoretically make one cohesive whole. A simple enough premise, but, even with the joy of Zoom, being hundreds if not thousands of miles away from each other presented a challenge they hadn’t encountered before – they couldn’t actually hear each other in time. With producer Greg Fidelman in LA, and the rest of Metallica spread across the West Coast, Lars describes the situation simply as a “clusterfuck”.

As the months went by and the world began to change, the band met in November 2020 for an All Within My Hands benefit broadcast, which marked the first time they were actually in the same space working on new material. Very much a stop-start process from then on out, with members meeting up before going back to their families again, and fulfilling some previously cancelled shows in 2021, slowly but surely, a record came into view.

“Sometimes, there are more direct or obvious visions that are laid out in front of you, and other times it’s more instinctual and unspoken,” Lars says of the process. “When we made [2008’s] Death Magnetic, it was the first record with Rick [Rubin, producer], and the process was very much about talking about what we’re doing, who we were, where we’d been and where we were going – there was a lot of conversations about identity and direction. Each record is always its own journey and its own entity, this record was almost like we stumbled into it.”

“When the music showed up, it felt like it was going in its own direction,” remembers Kirk, fondly. “It felt like everyone got out of the music’s way and just let it unfold, which was a first for us, because a lot of times we’ve felt like we needed to manipulate the music to what we think it should be conceptually, but there was none of that this time. The riffs showed up, they came together, and we just got out of the way. And that’s the way I like to work – I like to let the music just take off, and I’m merely a guard rail to keep it on track.”

As Lars explains, there were no specific objectives or “locker room pep talks” about direction, offering that it was instead “pretty loosey goosey” as far as planning goes. Surrounded by such uncertainty in the outside world, it almost felt like they had to be more intuitive, to not overthink things, and, as Kirk says, let the music flow.

“It started taking shape, but there wasn’t a goal in mind,” says Lars. “I have a wary relationship with goals because I think a big part of what you’re doing when you’re creating has to come from the heart, from the gut, or whatever body part it comes from. If it gets too heavy or cerebral then it gets a little forced, and there have been times in the past where we have tried too hard. I think Hardwired… and this record was very much about making the songwriting process as organic as possible.”

“This is hands-down, 100 per cent, the most friction-free record Metallica has ever made”

Lars Ulrich

This freeform, goalless way of working, and the extra time afforded to the band during the writing and recording process, gave the music and its creators more room to breathe, and instil a very different dynamic than they were used to.

“I don’t think there was any point in the last two years of making this record where anybody raised their voice or there were any arguments or conflict,” begins Lars, almost surprised by what he’s saying. “Obviously when you’ve been together 40 years, there are bumps in the road (laughs), and those have been well-talked about in the past and well-documented in movies and the rest of it, but what I can say is that this record was void of any of that. This is hands-down, 100 per cent, the most friction-free record Metallica has ever made.

“Ultimately, we love what we do so much, and we care so much for what we have, that as we journey on down that path, we become more protective of it. We don’t wanna do anything to fuck it up, so if there’s anything that’s brewing, we just steer clear,” he continues. “We’re much more empathetic now and maybe have more trust in each other and more trust that every disagreement doesn’t have to turn into an argument. In the past, there wasn’t enough trust or belief in ourselves or the big picture that every single thing had to be fought over, and that’s just not the case anymore.

“It’s a different environment than it’s been in the past. The best thing about being in this band is that it feels like a safe space and everybody’s contributing to that – everyone is very protective of it.”

Metallica are no strangers to darkness. From the all-consuming nature of drug addiction on Master Of Puppets to the horrific isolation of One to the suicidal feelings spread across Fade To Black, theirs is not an oeuvre of celebration and happiness. But 72 Seasons might be their darkest yet, set against the aforementioned backdrop of great human suffering and uncertainty, it’s a high-octane glimpse into the headspace of a band trying to fight their way through.

“It’s so cliché, but the music is a reflection of our emotional, mental and spiritual states,” says Kirk, practically wincing at his use of the phrase. “I can’t get around how it can’t be! We’re a band that likes to work a lot, and by locking us up, how’re we gonna get rid of this energy we have collectively? We put it into the music. That’s why a lot of the music is so friggin’ energetic. There’s no ballads because no ballads showed up, bro. No music showed up that was nice and tender and sensitive, nothing like that. It’s about getting these feelings out in such a cathartic way.”

Indeed, there are no ballads. For its full 77-minute runtime, 72 Seasons rampages by at blistering pace, a band clearly with no desire to show off their sombre chops, instead choosing to harness the raging inferno within.

Yet, this pummelling metal-up-your-ass madness is just one reflection of the record. Look closer and you’ll see one James Hetfield, bearing his innermost thoughts across a dozen tracks, writing some of the most exposing and vulnerable lyrics of his career. In October 2019, the frontman entered rehab for the second time for issues surrounding addiction, and has explained previously the concept behind 72 Seasons is about those formative 18 years of your life, and how they ultimately inform who you are forever more. James himself was raised in a strict Christian Science household, and his parents divorced when he was 13. At the age of 16, his mother would die of cancer.

Poring over the lyrics, there are clear themes of depression, inescapable darkness, temptation, division, and a desire for redemption, which could be read as the result of a time spent soul-searching and confronting hidden demons.

Rather than wallowing in misery, however, Lars sees positivity in James’ words.

“It’s about the contrast between the darkness and the light,” he muses. “When I take a step back and look at the lyrics or the subject that James brought to the table this time, it very much feels about both sides of that and the interplay between the two. It’s coming to grips with a lot of elements of self-discovery and about one’s own vulnerability and trying to be as transparent as possible.”

“James sees the lyrics in a positive manner… he’s singing about hope”

Kirk Hammett

“I don’t think the lyrics are dark, I think they’re extremely positive in the fact that he’s shining a really bright light on some really dark subjects,” continues Kirk. “He’s bringing it out into the sunlight for everyone else to see, and that isn’t necessarily a bad thing, he’s doing everyone a huge service by approaching subjects that are so friggin’ taboo that no-one will fuckin’ touch because they’re so personal, but James has the courage to do that. He’s putting his neck out there and showing himself to that world, and it takes so much to do that – it’s a very courageous thing. His lyrics are intensely positive, intensely bright, and they bring all this stuff up to the surface. I think that’s an important perspective to have, rather than going down the rabbit hole. He doesn’t want that. He’s already done that for everyone. Think about it, it’s heavy shit.”

Looking at the landscape of heavy music, this is a refreshing take. Every day we’re inundated with nihilistic bands, bathing in the shadows and screaming into the void about the sorry state of human existence.

“Let me tell you right now, looking at the negative side of things is the easiest fucking thing in the world,” Kirk jumps in, noticeably more riled than the chilled surfer dude we’ve been talking to thus far. “People can go to the negative in three seconds, but to go to the positive, it takes a little bit more effort, and as time goes by, you’ll realise it’s worth the fucking effort just to be positive and pick up everyone’s wellbeing.

“I know this is how James sees the lyrics; he sees them in a positive manner. It’s not like he’s King Diamond or something, talking about ultimate finality, or some of this death metal stuff, that’s not what James is singing about. James is singing about hope.”

Eleven albums into a four-decade career, and all four members circling their 60s, you might think that Metallica often sit around the fireplace ruminating on their legacy, but that couldn’t be further from reality. For their motormouth drummer, there is still more fuel in the tank and far more left to accomplish. Pointing to the likes of Paul McCartney, Deep Purple, The Rolling Stones and Bruce Springsteen, Lars says their continued careers at the highest level are not only inspiring but “indicative of what’s possible”.

Well, as long as they’re physically able to, anyway.

“The spirit in the band is to go long, and headspace-wise we’re all really, really enjoying this,” Lars continues. “It feels like in the past five or 10 years, we’re better at understanding our own boundaries and limits and how much we should push ourselves. The spirit is positive for a good run still ahead of us, but knees, necks, backs, elbows, throats and all that stuff we’ll have to see (laughs). Fingers crossed on these fronts because we do take a beating when we go up onstage!”

But what else is there for Metallica to do? They’ve headlined pretty much every festival on the planet (and are booked to play the upcoming megafest Power Trip in California this autumn), they’re the only band to have performed in all seven continents, they’ve sold over 125 million albums, and have their own line of beers and whiskies. They even just purchased their own vinyl pressing plant.

“I don’t have a checklist, like, ‘Okay, we still haven’t played a gig on the moon so let’s try to figure out how to do that and get Elon Musk on the phone,’” laughs Lars, “there’s not a bucket list in that sense. To me it’s about continuing to re-up it. The years ahead is about finding the right balance of not falling into autopilot and continuing to challenge yourself.”

While Lars admits he doesn’t consider the notion of legacy in any meaningful way, Kirk does have some thoughts on the future of Metallica’s music, even when they won’t be here to see it.

“If you look at the history of rock’n’roll bands, we should have broken up a long time ago, but we haven’t!” Kirk smiles. “The reason why we have not is that we’re a true brotherhood, I truly believe we’re stuck with each other. And the music is the most important thing, not the four of us, it’s the music! We will die. We have an expiration date, but the music doesn’t. The music will live on.

“A song will sit there for years and years and years, being listened to and waiting to be discovered. A hundred years from now, someone could discover Seek & Destroy like, ‘Whoa! What’s going on here?!’ And no-one’s going to give a fuck about the four of us! People 50 years from now are not going to give a fuck about James, Lars, Kirk and Rob. They’re going to think about fuckin’ Enter Sandman like, ‘Wow! Who’re those guys? Long-haired guys? Enter Sandman is cool.’ That’s how I see it. I see legacy as an ego trip that is kinda futile.”

“We have an expiration date, but the music doesn’t. It will live on”

Kirk Hammett

There is some time for reflection, though. As the album title alludes to, those first 72 seasons of your life will dictate who you become. For some of us, we look back on our childhood as the last time we were truly free, experiencing the best of what life had to offer before real-life ground us down into desk-worshipping shitmunchers. For others, our early years are best left in the past, and each tomorrow is a better day than before. Even within the ranks of Metallica, it’s a mixed journey, but ultimately based around the discovery of a shared passion that still exists to this day: heavy fucking metal.

“I had a very dysfunctional childhood. By the time I was 18, my head wasn’t really screwed on straight, I had already been so exposed to so much bad stuff,” says Kirk. “I grew up an inner-city urban kid who saw way too much, way too early, so you know, I hate to say it, but I was already damaged goods by my 50th season (laughs). A positive spin on that, for me, is that I heard music during those 72 seasons that was super formative. I grew up with a lot of Bay Area music, a lot of soul, funk and R&B, rap music and salsa music, a lot of jazz and classical music. I didn’t seek out hard rock until I was 12 or 13 years old, and I thought to myself, ‘I do like that band KISS, I do like Led Zeppelin, I do like Pink Floyd…’ Then I was off.

“When I was 15 years old I discovered the New Wave Of British Heavy Metal, then finding out about Judas Priest and Motörhead, and then the first Iron Maiden album came out… all that stuff happened within my 72 seasons! Musically I was so informed and shaped during that time, that’s the music of my life right now. I love all types of music, but I love to the depths of my soul playing heavy, aggressive, energetic music that’s dark. It mirrors what my 72 seasons were like, and it enables me to go there without actually going there. And I think that’s a healthy thing.”

“I grew up in a tennis-playing family and I always felt in my mind that’s where it was gonna go, but when I came to America I realised that it’s just not going to happen,” says Lars, walking a very different path in his teen years. “Growing up in Denmark and being ranked in the top 10 in the country of tennis players, then in Los Angeles not being one of the 10 best tennis players on the street that I lived on was such an unexpected mindfuck.

“Jumping into music and all the bands that I was listening to – Iron Maiden, Diamond Head, Tygers Of Pan Tang – [I thought] maybe playing music could be fun, and the bar was always, ‘Look how much fun these bands are having playing clubs in England or putting out one song on a compilation album.’ That was the goal. As James and I started making music, we realised there were more people out there looking for something similar to what we were looking for, which was to lose ourselves in heavy music. Nobody knew at that time, because of the way the world was wired, but there were millions and millions of other outcasts and misfits and disenfranchised loners like ourselves all over the world who were searching for the same thing.”

And now here we are, some 40 years later, with those outcasts from the Bay Area plugged in to a global audience of millions, speaking messages of hope and light in the pitch-black darkness of existence. Metallica’s trajectory is the stuff of legend that – thanks to the way music works now – can never be repeated, one that transcends generations, yet is still fuelled by the piss and vinegar of the teens who started it back in 1981.

So, with that in mind… Lars, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self, at the end of his 72 seasons?

“Enjoy the long hair. It’s going to go away in your 30s and that big Danish forehead is going to be the prominent visual you carry with you for the rest of your life!”

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