It's all about being clown with the metronome," says Metallica frontman James Hetfield of the band's ninth and newest album, S&M. (You can cleanse your mind of those dirty thoughts: It stands for "Symphony and Metallica.") The live two-disc set captures the two shows Metallica played with the San Francisco Symphony last April, for which renowned conductor Michael Kamen arranged original Metallica "compositions" into music for a ninety-something-piece orchestra. Metal band and symphony functioned as one for some magical moments on pieces such as "Devil Dance" and "Of Wolf and Man," causing season-ticket holder Francis Ford Coppola to walk out, a player from the brass section to flash the horns of the devil and Metallica fans to experience their first formal intermission. The usually quiet James Hetfield, a Harley-riding hunter, sat to talk about conductors, harpists and the dreaded tuxedo.
First, the burning question: Did you wear tuxes?
JAMES: We weren't going anywhere near any tuxes. That would be too comical. It would have looked like we were making fun of the orchestra and ourselves. We wore what we were comfortable in, and they did the same. Besides, I think "the wearing of the tux" is in their contracts --because we told them, "After intermission, if you guys wanna take your tie off, loosen up, undo a few buttons girls, hike your skirts up --you're very welcome to." But none of them did. I think their director told them not to, like, "You have a position to uphold." I guess we do, too.
Who came up with the idea of pitting Metallica against an orchestra?
JAMES: Maestro Kamen came to us with the idea almost two years ago. He'd done projects with other rock people, like David Bowie, Eric Clapton and Pink Floyd. He wanted to get a little more extreme, so he chose us. I'm sure there's something more extreme -- he could have picked, like, Graveworm -- but I think we were a pretty good choice. We said, "Hell, yeah." You don't pass these things up. It took two years to pull together -- from the initial idea to deciding which orchestra to picking the songs.
Was he a Metallica fan?
JAMES: Kill 'Era All was a Kamen favorite. No, no. We contacted him [in 1990] to put the string section on "Nothing Else Matters." We didn't really know who he was, but he'd done stuff with bands like Queensryche. He likes rock, and he likes pushing the envelope of classical music. He's a bit of a rebel, so he fits in right with us.
What was the biggest obstacle to making Metallica symphony-hall-worthy?
JAMES: It was getting the timing down. There's a lot of parts in our live shows where we'll pause in a song, hang there, then start the rift up when it feels right. We couldn't do that here. We had to be in beat with the orchestra, from the first note to the last. Michael had to count me in on each song. Onstage, he'd be spinning around trying to find me. I had already screwed up in rehearsal, and the orchestra ended up starting the song without us, so the first night was pretty terrifying.
Did Metallica commune with members of the orchestra?
JAMES: We ran up in their area whenever we felt the urge. We all got along great -- until you knocked someone's music off their stand and they got mad. They're trying to concentrate on the music, and you're sweating on them. It's like, "Get away from me, you perspiring man."
So there were players who found you distasteful?
JAMES: As expected, some were very rigid and were just there because it was their job. They didn't get us. We're not exactly in time when we play, but we're from the heart. It doesn't have to be perfect. It's better when it's not. So some of them had a hard time playing along with us, and some actually listened to what we were playing and followed us instead of the little dots on the paper. But the harp player was definitely into our music. When we were going over material from the show in the studio, you could hear all the individual tracks, and he was free-forming stuff, ad-libbing, adding his own little things. He cut loose.
Do you think the regular symphony audience got it?
JAMES: We were very adamant about season-ticket holders coming to see this, to see what can happen when a rock band and a symphony get together. But there are people that don't enjoy rock music. They're musical elitists. There were some seats empty after the intermission, but at least we got in their face for a half-hour. There were also a lot more Metallica fans than expected. We were hoping for fifty-fifty, but it was more like eighty-twenty. But our fans were extremely respectful. Once the orchestra walked out there, they got this huge roar. I saw the faces of the orchestra members just light up -- jaws dropping, like, "Whoa! I'm a staaah!"
Before doing this, did you ever go to the symphony?
JAMES: Like, "What do you guys want to do tonight? Drink beers and headbang, or go see the orchestra?" What do you think?
Well, listening to Bach could be a hidden Metallica bonding ritual.