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JAMES HETFIELD, JASON NEWSTED AND MICHAEL KAMEN - THE SYMPHONY SESSIONS 1999


The First Rehearsal 

It was two days before Metallica's shows with the San Francisco Symphony. The band and symphony were meeting for their first full rehearsal at the Berkeley Community Theater, and the scene was a little chaotic. Scattered throughout the space were power cords, mic cables, road cases, roadies, camera and lighting technicians, 100 symphony members and, well, Metallica. 

Despite the mess, conductor Michael Kamen (who wrote the orchestral scores for S&M and who has worked with Pink Floyd and Bob Dylan in the past), the symphony and Metallica were doing their best to impose some creative order onto the somewhat unruly proceedings. Not an easy task, given that although Metallica and the symphony were playing the same song at the same time, the two groups of musicians were largely unable to hear one another. 

During a break from rehearsal, Rich Simon caught up with Jason Newsted, James Hetfield and Michael Kamen, and asked them how the band's latest experiment was going. Simon met with Hetfield again in October of 1999, during the mixing of S&M. 


Part One 



Addicted To Noise: How do you guys feel? 

Jason Newsted: It's the first day, and it's going a lot better than I expected, actually ... with so many people doing all this different crazy stuff all at once that they're not familiar with ... We heard the first 50 pieces on tape —their pieces that are going around and within our compositions. It's really something different. I didn't realize it was going to be that colorful and have that many dimensions. They're not just copying riffs of ours, they're all over the place. 

James Hetfield: It's a little confusing if we have them in our monitors. 

Newsted: You can hear when you get a couple feet away, but otherwise when we're out there jamming, just in our little element, we can't really hear the orchestra. 

Hetfield: They're doin' such wacky time signatures and countermelody that would just mess your head up. It's better to just let them do their thing, and we'll listen to it later out at the [recording] truck. 

Newsted: They hear everything so different than we're used to hearing. It's just twos and fours so much in basic rock 'n' roll ... And the things that they learned are exactly the opposite of that, with weird timings and different textures and stuff like that. It's a pretty cool thing, actually, that [we] can work together at all. People came in smiling and wanting to meet us, and it was great camaraderie, and that's cool.

Addicted To Noise: Are you guys pleased with the way things are sounding? 

Newsted: I think tomorrow it will be a lot easier to judge, once we get this first day out, because this is a big, big day. It's the first time with everybody hearing the sounds. 

Hetfield: This is the first time we're doin' a gig without any monitors. We've just got these ear things, and so this is new technology mixed with new sounds, so there's potential for huge shit to go wrong, but that's what's kind of fun, actually. 

Newsted: And potential for huge shit to go right and just knock your head off, too. 

Hetfield: There'll be moments, man. 

Newsted: It's a very, very different trip. 

Addicted To Noise: The production is enormous ... 

Hetfield: Well, that's what we wanted. We wanted plexiglass bleachers for [the symphony], so we could put lights underneath everybody, and pyro[technics] and shit, and, you know, the pyro didn't fly. 

Newsted: Stradivarius? Poof! 

Hetfield: Yeah, 1800s, passed down from their grandparents. 

Addicted To Noise: Is there a favorite song that's working out? A sound that you envisioned? 

Hetfield: I'm enjoying doing the new stuff, just because it's fresh and new, and there's excitement about not having played the song in front of an audience before ... But "[Call of] Ktulu," —the instrumental — that's one of the songs that was written kind of like a heavy-metal orchestra ... We tried to make it epic and grand, and now it is, now we got the orchestra to do it. I think hearing "Ecstasy of Gold" —which is an intro tape we've used forever, from Ennio Morricone —to hear them play it live is gonna be quite awesome. Sending shivers! 

Addicted To Noise: Is there room for improvisation, or are the arrangements really tight? 

Newsted: They have to be exact, right on, exactly with counts, and where we usually let stuff hang —where James will do a vocal thing and take some time and ask questions or whatever it is —those don't get to be there anymore. It's pretty much rigid. 

Hetfield: It's really like playing in the studio with a click track in your heads ... except you've got the guy doing it manually. You have to go by the maestro click track. For everyone to know where they are on paper ... They're reading a book, you know? They're not listening to the jam ... If it's not on paper, they don't fucking do it. They really have to watch [Kamen], and it's hard for me to get one, two, three, whatever the fuck he's doing [with his baton], a little Christmas star or whatever he's doin' ... 

Newsted: And there's different patterns for different time signatures. So people know when he does the one, two, three, four, that's 4/4 or whatever, and then he does the different count for six, a different twirl, and they know it's 6/8, just from the hand movement of the baton. Each one is a different pattern for a different time. 

Hetfield: When he does the pentagram, that's when I come in. 

Addicted To Noise: It sounds like you guys are learning something. 

Newsted: That's what I was looking forward to the most. 

Hetfield: Yeah, we're learning stuff that's not necessarily what's necessary or works in our world, but it's cool to know how other musicians attack music. 

[Kamen enters.] 

Michael Kamen: Man, that was fun! I just heard a bit of the orchestra. It was amazing stuff going on. I'm flying blind ... 

Newsted: You can't hear anything in your monitor —what's going on with us, really? 

Kamen: Not really. I mean ... I'm so relieved every time there's a vocal. 

Newsted: Check that out! That's fuckin' wacky! 

Kamen: It is the lame leading the blind here. I am not sure where I am at any point, but I am certain that ... what I have on paper represents what [Metallica's] doing. I'm sure that finding the Rosetta Stone ... was similar, because we're on an archaeological expedition here, aren't we? 

Newsted: Uncovering the truth. I like that, dude. 

Addicted To Noise: It seems like this is the meeting of where music is intellectual and places where it's purely emotional. 

Kamen: Well, it's an interesting concept. But orchestras are made of a hundred people who have a real emotional bond with their instrument, and the music that they play is deeply emotional ... What we are relying on, without question, is a deep, deep, deep training, because without that, they wouldn't have the competence to just keep playing, despite the fact that they can't hear the result ... They know that the soloists are 10 times louder than they are, but they can't actually hear what James is singing, they can't hear what Jason is playing ... but they can feel it. They know there's a huge barrage of sound and a great deal of energy pushing it out of the front. We've just worked out what seems like a very minor detail: the drums are in some monitors ... They're sitting in a little speaker next to [some symphony members], and they've basically taken the rest of the band out of that speaker, so the speaker is a click track to them. They're hearing a kind of drum set, but they're hearing it like it was really distressed. 

Newsted: Very scary. Very scary. Very scary. 

Kamen: So, they're in time now. And as we rehearse, it'll get better and better. 

Hetfield: As long as they're in time with Lars. 

Kamen: Absolutely. You're all in time together, whatever time that is. 

Hetfield: So, we can't hear the symphony, but when I'm up there, and I feel something vibrate and rumble, I know that something's right. 

Kamen: He knows there's a different kind of rumble ... There's an incredible energy to sharing a stage with a hundred other musicians. They're not sticks of wood. There's a few Stradivarius in there and some great instruments, but they're human beings, and their vibe is with us. Their force is with us.

Addicted To Noise: Is part of this about turning younger people on to this kind of music, people who would never think of going to the symphony? 

Hetfield: There's a time for people to try new music. You never know when that time's gonna be ... You're not really searching for, 'Oh, I'm gonna try listening to classical now ... OK, it's not working.' That's not how it happens ... It's like going to school, and you gotta learn math, and it just doesn't work. And then, later on, you're interested in it. When you're interested in something, it makes you want to learn it really, or enjoy it, at least. 

Newsted: It's cool to show that there doesn't have to be any rules — when two worlds are so far apart that they have their own strengths —but then not to be any rules for either one of them as this hybrid is created together. And then, there's been so many crisscrosses and hybrids and things in the past 10 years, of all musics. This is a really extreme one, right? 

Addicted To Noise: In the early days of metal, you have Yngwie Malmsteen and guys like that who are classically trained, and they plug in and suddenly it's metal, so it doesn't seem that far off. 

Kamen: When I was a student, one of the things that we used to fuck around with all the time in school as composers and modern musicians was strange time signatures. We only played with it. We were messin' around. These guys do it for real, and they eat, sleep, and drink this stuff. I mean, that song, "Master of Puppets," they don't know what the time change is. 

Newsted: When we showed it to him the first time, and he started telling us there's five time signatures in one seven-minute song, we were kind of like, 'Oh, we just know it like chika-chicka-chicka-chicka ...' 

Kamen: That is a mark of really being able to express yourself. The good news is that you don't know that you're breaking a rule if nobody tells you you shouldn't break that rule, so what they're playing is nothing short of amazing. But it is very much like the craziness that high school students fuck around with ... 

Hetfield: Well, that's what it was.

 

Part two of the interview took place in the garden behind Plant Studios in Sausalito, Calif., during the mixing of S&M. 



Addicted To Noise: So, do you think this project is a success? 

Hetfield: Oh, definitely, definitely. It was really a learning experience for all of us. You get the symphony mixed within itself, and then you get the band mixed within itself, and then you add the two, and then you're fighting for space. A lot of times the guitar has to take a back seat to some of the symphony stuff. I'm not saying that's bad, but we are kind of a guitar band. But the whole idea is to get the symphony in there. We've done plenty of other live albums —we want the symphony in there, and we want it to be heard, and mixing is quite difficult. 

Addicted To Noise: Is there one song that's harder to mix than the rest? 

Hetfield: "Fuel," a lot of the faster ones. It's always been really hard for the four of us just to mix the four of us. Now you've got 94 [people]. And it's actually easier because you're not so worried about, 'Well, after Lars comes out of the room, you know the drums are gonna be louder,' and I walk in and I gotta go turn the guitars up. Now we're more concerned about the overall song, because there's so many variables in it. So, it's not such an ego game. You got the orchestra kinda playing mediator there. 

Addicted To Noise: What else have you learned from working with the symphony? 

Hetfield: Well, that we don't really need a glockenspiel at the next gig. There's a few instruments that aren't our favorites, but there's others that you just, as soon as you walk in, you go, 'You gotta turn them up.' It's usually French horns, which just sound awesome. They're one of my new favorites. But, for me, percussion. Timpani and bells and stuff like that has always been very cool to me. So every time I'm in there, I'm like, 'Turn the timps up,' or the tubular bells, or some kind of percussion thing. The other thing that surprised me that was very cool was a lot of the harp work. They were saying how unconventional this guy was ... the guy with all the tattoos underneath his tux. But he was playing with a pick a lot of the time, and usually harpists don't. They usually just pick it with fingernails or fingers. 

Addicted To Noise: Was it a guitar pick or fingerpicks? 

Hetfield: I think it was a guitar pick. So, he was doing huge sweeps ... You've got your main four sections, the percussion, the strings — usually high and then low strings —then you've got your horns, and you can ride all the different things, and certain songs sound better with big horns. You sit and you solo just the strings, and you go, 'Well, that's an awesome melody. Let's turn that up.' But then you go to the other horns, and, well, that's even cooler. 

Addicted To Noise: That's probably one of the toughest parts. Picking what comes up when and where. 

Hetfield: Right. That's what [Kamen's] doing live. He's mixing the orchestra. But here, you really get a chance to manipulate it a lot. 

Addicted To Noise: So, everything was going to tape, and being sent to the house at the same time. 

Hetfield: Yeah, and then into our ears, the ear monitors. I mean, there was so much going on, it was not only just the intense feeling of trying this for the first time in front of an audience. But you have all the video and the film cameras, and you know you're going to tape —it was quite nerve-wracking. Plus, you gotta look cool, as well, on the video, and pretend you're not freaking inside. So, you tell a few jokes onstage, and then it kinda relaxed the whole bit. 

Addicted To Noise: You guys pulled it off. 

Hetfield: In my eyes, we did. You know, you ask a few of the people, they might have completely hated it. There were a lot less symphony people there than I was expecting. I was hoping to have a few more of the regulars. But there were a few that were there —that weren't there after the intermission. [laughs.] I think it was a little too much for some of them. 

Addicted To Noise: Sensory overload. 

Hetfield: It was, man. 'Cause, I'm sure, out in the house, it's more of a spectacle. You can't expect to hear exactly what's going on. You're getting more of a feel. You know, 'Oh, the horn passage was excellent,' over your wine. It wasn't like that. It was the whole vibe of the whole thing. And whether you liked that or not, that was depending on your openness to take punishment, I guess. 

Addicted To Noise: What was it like to listen to these tapes and hear this Metallica music being played by the symphony? 

Hetfield: It was fucked up ... Michael Kamen just basically beat a bunch of chords and feels over our music, and then we heard it, and we're going, 'Ooh. Whoa.' And then, we're looking at each other going, 'Well ... " We didn't really want to say, 'That's fucked up, man.' We just kinda were testing each other, going, 'That's interesting. Hmm. Is this gonna work?' We weren't ready to throw in the towel, but it was, 'Whoa. That is different. Really different. You know, that steps on my melody.' You can't think of it as your song and your thing. It's like, here's a piece of music, and you're going to be playing it with some other musicians. So, once we realized, we kind of gave up our rights to the song in a way. You let the other things happen, and, actually, it turned out great. It really did. Beyond our expectations. 

Addicted To Noise: How will this stuff affect future Metallica music? 

Hetfield: I guess what I've learned is that a lot more than one melody can happen at the same time. And when you sit and you go, 'OK, well, here's a piece of music and I've written a vocal phrase or vocal melody for it,' and that's it. That's the phrase. And now, you kind of second-guess yourself —' Whoa, maybe I can come up with something cooler,' a counterpart for it or something else. 'Cause a lot of the melodies [Kamen] came up with are awesome, completely awesome. It's like, 'Fuck! I wish I wrote that. Fuck! Why wasn't that there?' But so many melodies — if you got too many, it is complete overload. At the end of the day, the vocal's gotta be the main melody. I guess just coming up with more vocal melodies than just the one. Maybe try and get a lot more different sounds. 

Addicted To Noise: Will some of the stuff that, say, the strings were playing find its way back into your vocabulary when you're playing live now? 

Hetfield: Boy, I kind of doubt it, but we'll be thinking of 'em, you know? You never know. It might affect my guitar playing in a way. I might really fall in love with some melody, and actually, if it doesn't really affect the song, if something's really not happening in the song, well, one guitar can go do this thing, now. Possibly. That's a good question. 

Addicted To Noise: Will you work with the symphony in the studio again? 

Hetfield: We're not afraid to now, obviously. I think when we first did "Nothing Else Matters" [from the "Black Album"] with Kamen ... I think we were a little afraid to have any other musicians in the studio. Especially schooled ones. So we sent the tape off to him, and it came back with some stuff on it. I don't think we're as afraid to have other musicians in the studio now ... as long as they're cool and in their own world. I wouldn't rule any of that out. We gotta — I can't wait to really get some new, new Metallica, the four of us, material out there. It's been so long. 

Addicted To Noise: Have you guys been writing some new stuff?

Hetfield: We're gonna start working on that next year some time. The Garage album, now this — I can't wait to get some new stuff out. 

Addicted To Noise: You guys have been doing a lot of experimentation on the last few albums, getting away from the earliest Metallica sound — which is controversial. 

Hetfield: Yeah, right. Oh, it absolutely is. 

Addicted To Noise: Are you gonna keep going? You've got those two records, you've got a record with the symphony. The next thing you guys could do is put out a bluegrass record and it probably wouldn't surprise anybody. 

Hetfield: I've said it before, that the experimenting is fun, but at the end of the day, you know what you do best, and it's play heavy, heavy music. I mean, people's idea of heavy music is quite different ... You know, you got your "Bleeding Me" or your "Outlaw Torn" ... which I think are probably some of the heaviest stuff we've done. And because it doesn't have the speed or the more aggressive lyric, or whatever, they don't consider it heavy. We're obviously not gonna go backwards. There's no rear-view mirror in the Metallica van. We're goin' forward. Whether we take some of the older stuff with us or not, you just don't know. Obviously, the beauty of writing is that you open your mind, and you start playing, and that's what you got ... 

Addicted To Noise: Are you ever afraid that you're challenging your old-school fans too much? 

Hetfield: [laughs.] We know they're tough, man. We love them for being that tough, too. But this is stuff we gotta do. There's no disrespect to anyone, but this is for us, you know? And we love that fans follow us through thick and thin. And they kind of get off on that experimental vibe, I think, too, and the exploring new territory and no U-turns, you know? But, if they wanna hear the old shit, we really do still sell Master of Puppets.

 

 

 

 

 

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