BACKSTAGE AT THE SUMMER'S BIGGEST TOURS WITH METALLICA, DAVE MATTHEWS AND OTHERS
EVERY MOTHERfucker is lead vocalist tonight," Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich said as he slid behind the kit on July 7th at Atlanta's Georgia Dome. He wasn't kidding: Hours after discovering that lead singer and guitarist James Hetfield would not be able to play due to a waverunner accident the day before, Metallica tore up their usual set list, junked the lighting cues and invited opening acts from the Sanitarium tour --Powerman 5000, System of a Down, Korn and Kid Rock -- to participate in a historic round-robin jam session before 45,000 of the faithful.
It was probably the only jam session of the summer to employ 180 crew members, thirty-six semi trucks and a phalanx of strippers. It was like Metallica karaoke, only better: Propelled by Kid Rock guitarist Kenny Olson, "Seek and Destroy" careened into a twirling, razorsharp, double-time binge that was far looser than usual and became a showcase for Ulrich's spring-loaded drumming. Guitarist Jason Newsted, who handled many of the vocals, grabbed a fan to sing "Master of Puppets," only to gong him quickly when it became apparent that the fan had no rhythm. Kid Rock proved he's a better singer than most critics give him credit for: He did a convincing reading of Hetfield's ballad "Nothing Else Matters" (and laughed when he flubbed the words), came back to add turntable effects to "Fuel" and sang an absolutely blistering version of Bob Seger's "Turn the Page." The entire building handled lead vocals on "Enter Sandman," which benefited from the aggregate power-chord crunch of guitarists from four bands.
The show, one of eleven minifestivals held through the end of July on the allegedly vacationing metal band's summer schedule, came just days after a fan fell to his death at the Sanitarium stop in Baltimore (see story, Page 28). Ulrich said the events of the past week had rattled the band but that the goal tonight was just to put on a great show: "We just did the old Metallica thing, one for all," he said of playing without Hetfield. "You try to give everyone a sense that this is a shared problem -- we definitely wanted the audience to know that we would need help, not just from the other bands but from them. And everybody in the place stepped up."
Did this show make you think about how regimented these arena tours have become?
Lars: Absolutely. It all becomes so fucking tethered to the lighting cues and the video cues and the production cues. We talk about that a lot, about not becoming a slave to the stuff that surrounds the music. Sometimes I'll be like, "Why don't we play this?" And the band's into it, but we hear that the lighting designer needs three days to reprogram the rig. We struggle to find the right balance between music, the spontaneous thing, and the show. I like those moments like tonight, where everything comes out of what you're doing right now. I'll be making up the set list ten minutes before, and somebody'll see it and go, "We haven't rehearsed it." I'm like, "Good. Fucking rehearse it in front of the kids." These moments, they teach you that if you have faith in yourself and faith in people around you, the spirit of that can carry the whole thing.
Were you thinking about some of the accidents at rock shows recently --the fan falling to his death in Baltimore on your tour, and the Pearl Jam tragedy in Denmark?
Lars: It hasn't been the greatest week for hard-rock concerts. That was probably way in the back of my mind tonight. It was much more important to me that the crowd was with us and the other bands were with us, and it turned into a very cool moment, something truly great. Part of the reason was because everybody knew it was a one-off -- a unique moment that can never be repeated.
So what do you think of the reaction to these accidents?
Lars: The thing that's fucked up about it is, the mass media has an undertone of blame in there. At the level of a band like Pearl Jam, at the level we do these tours -- not to pat ourselves on back, but this is about as good as these type of operations can run. It's not like you sit there and it's fucking badly organized, not like people don't think about security. This is a fucking ugly reality of what happens when you put 100,000 people together. You can turn it around and say that if the events had been lax, maybe the number would have been eighty instead of eight. This can happen in political rallies, sports events -- which it obviously does. This week it's rock & roll.
How did this tour come together? Were you involved in building the bill?
Lars: We're supposedly in the middle of a year off, which we're obviously not doing very well at. I finally figured out the difference between a year on and a year off: In a year off, they come to you, you don't go to them. We were just sitting around enjoying time off this spring, and somebody came and said, "You guys interested in doing something?" It started out as us doing all speedways, NASCAR tracks, and we were interested because it was something we'd never done before. Then it turns out that people were like, "Oh, the NASCAR track here has some fucking driver's-ed thing, and the NASCAR track here is not all that psyched about Metallica and is really only available to the George Straits of the world." So all of a sudden these fifteen NASCAR dates went to stadiums. Then it became a different beast. We sat there and said, "OK, who should we invite?" We started with the coolest people we have respect for. Korn. Bobby [Kid Rock] played with us for three weeks over the winter, and it fit like a glove. So all of a sudden we've got Metallica, Korn, and we got Kid Rock, and this thing became kinda huge. Then came System of a Down: There's something really new about them. I think they bring something different to the plate. A lot of these younger bands just seem like offshoots of what everybody else is doing. System has a weirdness, a chaotic, almost jazzy, fucked-up energy. Like Coltrane or Miles, just weird shit in there.
You mentioned the phenomenon of young copycat bands. What is your sense of the climate in rock right now?
Lars: There are guys that will always mix something together from really unique, different situations, and that is what ends up sounding original: The Korns of the world; Kid Rock, who's taking these great diversified things and putting them together. In hard rock, you've got Korn; then you've got twenty-five bands that all sound like Korn. They're getting airplay right now, but where are they gonna be in six months?
You're saying that the labels are working stuff for the quick hit, not developing longterm talent?
Lars: Because of the way people have access to information, that means shorter attention spans. When people have shorter attention spans, you've got to grab 'em quicker. Ten, twenty years ago, the idea was you'd put a record out, put the band on the road, then put another record out there. Nowadays, it's more about "Throw a bunch of shit on the wall and see what sticks." Out of ten records, one will do good and pay for the losses of the other nine. But there are still exciting things out there. Eminem's got something realty exciting, a rapping style that's all his own. I think it's good that every day on TRL it's Britney Spears and Backstreet Boys, and fucking Eminem is also in there. I always have great respect for artists that truly don't give a fuck. That is, to me, the spirit of rock & roll. There are so few artists that are pure all the way to that level. People like Axl Rose, Liam Gallagher a few years ago. Obviously Jim Morrison. It's not manufactured; it's true danger. And true danger is such a rare thing.
Speaking of true danger, you're appearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee next week to speak out against Napster.
Lars: I'm looking at it as sort of the pinnacle of the whole fight. Getting the issue before the U.S. Senate is an amazing thing. I've said many times that we're fighting this on two fronts. We're fighting it legally, through the court system, and then in the public arena, trying to get the information out there, trying to get people to understand. After the Senate thing, I'm kinda ready to give it a rest. I'm Napstered out.
Do you think you've done that awareness-raising part of it?
Lars: We're definitely dealing in baby steps here, OK. It's one small fucking step at a time. What I've learned is that this is not a thirty-second sound-bite issue. And we can't even talk about it until we get past the "Ha ha ha, Metallica need the money" jokes. What's the issue about? It's about choice, everything this country stands for. I should have the choice to decide what happens to my music. If somebody else wants to put their music up on the Napster Web site, be my guest, God bless you, more power to you. The same way that I should have the choice not to. How can you argue with that? You start getting into cliches: Information's free. And CDs are sixteen bucks. Well, fifteen years ago, when CDs came out, they were fifteen dollars, so they've gone up a buck. That's probably the lowest level of inflation of any commercial product out there.... And is it information, or is it property? Should property be free? When I bought my Suburban a few months ago, and it was $51,000 and I thought that was expensive, does that give me the right to just steal it? If I have a right to free music through my computer, well, what about the guy who doesn't have a computer? Should we remove the cash registers from Tower Records? How's this gonna work?
Do you enjoy touring as much as ever?
Lars: It's just such a weird bubblelike existence. It doesn't have any resemblance to anything else. And as I get older, it just becomes increasingly weird. It's like when you're twenty-two years old, all you want to do is get fucking laid, get drunk and play music. But it's like, I'm thirty-six. I want balance in my life. The best thing about Metallica's situation is, we're finding the right balance. We toured for three weeks over the winter, and we're touring for three weeks in the summer; it's sorta like that's the model for the next ten years. It's almost like we're at a point now where we don't need to have a record out to tour. We can go out and tour, do these quirky projects, then go away for a while. Do you know what I mean? It's sorta like a Grateful Dead thing: We can do whatever we want, whenever we want.