When James Hetfield pounds out a thunderous rhythm guitar part, it sounds like he's wielding the hammer of the gods. But when it comes to songwriting, he brandishes the same skinny ballpoint mortals use. Granted, Hetfield is hardly your typical songwriter. From Kill 'Em All to master of Puppets to the "Black Album," his and drummer Lars Ulrich's elliptical compositions have been painstakingly built by
piercing together instrumental riffs and adding doom-laced lyrics and venomous vocals over the finished structure. It's difficult--possibly blasphemous from a metalhead's perspective--to imagine gravel-throated Hetfield gently crooning with a jumbo acoustic in his hands.
But if their latest album, Load, is any indication, Metallica's modus operandi is changing. Encouraged by producer Bob Rock, Metallica loosened the tight Hetfield/Ulrich songwriting partnership, drawing more liberally from guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted's riff libraries than ever before, allowing the band a surprising level of stylistic diversity. The sonic shadows of Motorhead, Black Sabbath, Soundgarden, Neil Young and Tom Waits all lurk in Load's rich metal grandeur. Inspired by moody crooners like Leonard Cohen and Nick Cave, Hetfield digs deeper into his own psyche for lyric ideas, trying on a number of vocal attitudes and singing more melodically, while retaining his trademark growl. Hammett atypically plays a healthy amount of rhythm guitar on the album, but James likewise steps into Kirk's turf with edgy solo excursions on "The Outlaw Torn."
That spirit of discovery extended to gear as well. Hetfield's established medium of EMG-equipped ESP Explorer through Mesa TriAxis preamp still accounts for the lion's share of the core rhythms. But James also picked on a reissue '52 Telecaster, some old Stratocasters, a '63 Gibson SG and a Gretsch White Falcon, and dialed up fat gains through a Jose Arrendondo-modded Marshall while sucking super-clean tones through a Roland JC-120, Fender Twin Reverb and Matchless Spitfire.
Despite his ready-to-lunge stage persona, Hetfield comes across as mellow and personable while waiting for rehearsal to start on the eve of the new album's release, just weeks before Metallica is scheduled to headline this year's Lollapalooza tour. But when Hetfield knows he's got your number, or when a subversive thought comes to mind, that famous evil grin streaks across his face like lightning in the California sky.
Do you ever write songs the good old-fashioned way, just strumming an acoustic?
That's happened a couple times. I wrote the riff to "Ain't My Bitch" on an acoustic, but it doesn't really matter what kind of guitar I'm using. I know what you're saying--you mean strumming away and doing something complete right there. There are a couple tunes that have come up that way. "Momma Said" and "Nothing Else Matters" were written like that.
"Hero of the Day" has that troubadour quality.
That's all Kirk's riff. He came up with a lot of the riffs on this one. His riffs are taken by Lars and I and twisted to fit into whatever's needed. It's pretty much the same procedure as before: Lars and I go through riff tapes of all the stuff that Jason, Kirk and myself put down. Lars is very involved in constructing songs, or re-constructing the songs--what should go here, what goes there. The thing that was different and much cooler about making Load was that instead of putting riff number five with riff number ten, it was more a case of jamming on a great riff and seeing what came out naturally.
Do you mean finding where the song wanted to go melodically?
Or what are my hands going to do next. Or where is Lars going to go with the drum beat next. So the songs helped write themselves in a way. That's why I feel a lot of them are more natural-sounding. On And Justice for All there was a lot of shit that was forced together, and our challenge was to make it work. Now we're challenged to see if we can write in a regular way.
The four of us have never really written all together. I didn't know if that would ever work--too many hands in the pot, or too many distractions. But it did happen with "Until It Sleeps." That wasn't on a riff tape. We were just goofing around between drum tracks, jamming and loosening up. Bob pushed "record" and a couple days later we had the song together. That was a first for us. That's why that one's a little extra special. Bob initially wanted us to do a lot more of that, because when we goof around before getting down to serious playing, we do stuff that's really different than what we normally play. Bob was like, "Why can't you guys write songs like that?" He'd get all mad because when it comes down to writing, our attitude is, "Okay, serious face on, boys." Bob also wanted us to capture more of that live looseness and feel on the record.
The album's guitar tones aren't so black and white. There are a lot of nice textures in between the crunch riffs and lead work.
That was definitely uncharted territory for us. In the past it was always either a clean or dirty sound and that's it. Clean and crunch. Isn't there something in the middle? [Laughs.] We discovered that on a few songs. But in the heavy metal rule book, it's either got to be shimmer-clean or completely heavy crunch. On a lot of our other albums, when the drums were done, I'd do my three rhythm tracks and that was it. That was the solid base, and then we'd put shit on top. It was like the building of the house. Now we thought, "Do we need all that shit underneath? Do we need all that rhythm stuff going on while some other thing is happening? No, we've heard the riff, we know what's stuck in our head. Let's get rid of it and let something else take over." A lot of times that was a big battle in the mix. Certain parts were so cool that everyone wanted to do their thing on it. "Here's the breakdown jam part and, wow, we've got this organ here, this clean sound, this bass thingy. Who's gonna take control of this part?" Trying to have them all in at once won't work, so it's down to what's best for the song.
But we did concentrate on guitar, especially in writing the basis of each song--starting with a big, fat, great riff and then having the other guitar do something that takes it a little further. That was a little difficult at the start, especially for me. I can come up with counteracting parts, but you can still tell that it's me trying to be loose. We called those "the martini tracks" because I'd have a couple martinis and try to do the rhythm tracks on the right channel. The guys were like, "It's still you playing a different part. Why not have Kirk play it? He's a guitar player, isn't he?" Yeah, Kirk goes "wheedily, wheedily, wheedily," but he does play the rhythms live. Don't set your clock by him, but. ... These songs needed the looseness that Kirk added. He played through my rig, but you can still tell it's him playing. No matter how much I say, "No, you're playing it wrong" and "Get it totally precise," it's his hands, his interpretation of it, and that's that. It worked out pretty good.
Are you a harder rhythm player than Kirk?
Definitely. His attention span is a little less intense than mine. When I want to be precise about something, I really am, even when I'm trying not to be. Maybe that's the German in me--"It's got to be precise!" It's hard to escape. That's how I play. So when we wanted it looser, Kirk stepped in. But having different sounds, playing different guitars and playing through different amps absolutely makes you play differently. Bob is like Guitar Center. He's got so much shit. He had all his gear at the studio, and his setup was out there. You walk in there and go, "Whoa, what's that?" and "Oooh! Can I plug this into that?" Playing different guitars really made us play differently, which was gmat. It was absolutely enlightening. An example: I sat down to do some little guitar digs on "King Nothing," and Bob says, "Here, play this Strut." I went to play this thing and it's like, "Fuck, this is hard! I can't play this thing!" I'm used to my Explorer. I've got two fuckin' knobs and the neck's set up perfectly for me--it's really easy to play. So I learned a few things on the record, and just getting to fiddle around with so many sounds was a lot of fun.
Did any of those guitars emerge as new favorites?
Well, I love picking the Tele, which is on "Ronnie" and a couple other songs.
"Bleeding Me" has that really nice open-string riff at the beginning. It sounds like there's a Uni-Vibe.
There's a Roland VG-8 on the organ setting that was mixed in. On that song we actually had 14 amps on at once.
You know that's total overkill.
Absolutely. We love it.
Do you tend to know exactly what your songs are about, or do you write more from an undefined state of mind?
I've got so many notes and little shit that I write down every day. Some of those lines are really important, and I'll just take one and move on from there. Sometimes there's more than just a line and sometimes there's nothing--there's a song title and you just go, and that's the beauty of it. I do have an idea of where I want to be, but I'll end up somewhere else, which is even cooler. But you can't get to that spot unless you travel the other road. You might be all frustrated, and then one line will just open up so many doors and you just go. That happened a lot more on this record. There was less subject matter-- y'know, here's the tide, here's the subject, you link them and all of that crap. This time a couple songs had titles, but most of them were just working titles. It worked out really good, and it's much more satisfying than when you do it that planned way. All of a sudden there's something there. It came out of your squeezed brain and you're proud of it. If you name the song after it's written, you name it based on what the song means. It means this--okay, there's the title. It's pretty fuckin' easy, but it took us a while to understand that! We'd always start with a title like "Master of Puppets" and then ask ourselves, "What does that mean? What does that suggest?" and work from there. It was crazy, but it worked.
Do you practice the time-honored gibberish-singing technique to craft vocal ideas?
Oh yeah, and it's ugly. If I were somebody else I would not listen to it. There are the "wah-na-na-nahs" and the parts where you know a certain vowel sound has to happen. Sometimes it helps you write lyrics. You know you've got to look for words that have an auwl sound in them. "Let's see, 'owl' does work, let's write a 'howl' or ..." If I was one of the other guys I would shoot me! But it has to happen--the Metallica scattin'. It absolutely helps, especially for Lars when he's constructing songs. Back on Ride the Lightning we wrote "For Whom the Bell Tolls." I knew what the lyrics were in my head, and I knew what the singing was about, but nobody else knew. So they recorded this instrumental thing and thought, "This is boring." Then I sang it and they go, "Whoa, this is a great song, but if I knew where the vocals were I could've done this or that." So for everyone's benefit it's good to know where the vocals are going to go.
Otherwise it might just be a bunch of riffs without a real sense of the drama--where the peaks and valleys are.
We weren't too concerned about peaks and valleys back then. We were straight line--boom--go for it.
Did you become a singer by default, or did you really want to sing? I imagine some of those syncopated riffs must be hard to nail down while you're vocalizing.
Maybe some of that singing/playing thing started when I was forced to take piano lessons as a kid. Doing the two-hand thing gets your brain thinking a couple different things at once. In the early days, singing was just something that I had to do, because I couldn't let all those lame guys sing for us. I'm gonna do it. But then that guy's not playing the riff right--give me the guitar back! It was a battle for which thing I wanted to do. People would say, "Your band's not going to do shit unless you have a front man. You've got to have a singer out there who's got his hands free to do stuff," to throw the fucking sign or whatever. Originally I was just going to do both until we got a singer or a rhythm guitar player, but it became very natural for me. A lot of these new songs I didn't sing and play at the same time, because the lyrics came together later. So there's my challenge again. I've since learned to sing and play them at the same time, which is a little more important right now than getting the vocal really intense or playing the riff perfectly. A lot of times the riff will give up a little bit so the vocal can really grab you.
Speaking of vocals that grab you, I understand you're been listening to a bit of Tom Waits and Leonard Cohen.
And Nick Cave--they're great lyric guides. Writing lyrics grabbed me more this time. I was always the lyric guy, but I never really wanted to like other people's stuff, you know? [Laughs.] So I let my guard down a bit and discovered that there's some fucking amazing shit out there. I can get past the music--maybe I hate the music--but man, these guys write some intense stuff. What intrigues me about Tom Waits is that from the song's first line you are there. You are with him wherever it may be--some dingy dock somewhere. How the fuck does he do that? He's just so full of character. We're trying to incorporate some of that into the songs, in the Metallica way, taking people somewhere and getting them into a mood. We always tried to do that, but this time I've helped it a lot more by the lyrics.
"Momma Said" is almost like Harvestera Neil Young or "Tangerine" from Zep III.
It was a song that I wrote on the road in my hotel room that no one was supposed to hear. That was for me. I wrote it on an electric, but I always envisioned it as an acoustic song. It's got a little country thing in it, as I wrote it right at the time I was big, big into country. I'd been thinking maybe I could sell it or collaborate with some country guy. It's definitely not my style. No one was supposed to hear it, but it leaked out and I guess people were taken by the openness of it. "Momma Said" is one of those songs where I have a strong idea of what I want before we go to record, and I don't know if Metallica can do what I want with it. But then we all get together with ideas and it comes out good--Metallica style. The first time we put it down, it didn't really work so good. It was a little too rock or a little too metal-ballady. The drums were too rocking. I was like, "I've got a middle way with the guitar now, can't you have a middle way with the drums? Do you have to be either pounding or super light?" We recur the track, and Lars played with some brushes and I played acoustic. We jammed on it and it was done. That was also a first for us, to go back and redo a song, but it needed to be done.