25 Years of Mandatory Metallica - Broken, Beat, and Scarred? Hardly! - An editorial
25 Years of Mandatory Metallica
Broken, Beat, and Scarred? Hardly!
By Michael D. Vogel (All Rights Reserved)
Original Interview Oct 2008
Photos - Anton Corbijin
There Is No Substitute
The dream is always the same – a sleek sports car flying down the Pacific Coast Highway, the crashing surfing pounding the beach below. The music is pulsating out of the speakers; the searing guitars, the pounding drums, the thick rhythm of the bass and the unmistakable vocal roar. The songs may be interchangeable but one thing remains a constant – the band, Metallica! And for a quarter century, they have been just that, a constant! As my head begins to rock back and forth and my fingers tighten their grip on the steering wheel, I realize today is no dream. So, it’s off to the legendary Cow Palace in San Francisco for an intimate evening with Metallica and a few hundred of their closest friends and family. And the only thing between Los Angeles and the city by the bay was a lot of asphalt and several hours of rockin’, Metallica-style.
Before the Bay Area party got underway, Rob and Lars, with a few scattered responses from James as he was moving from point A to point B backstage, sat down to discuss all things Metallica, including how the band has managed to stay relevant in the ever changing rock landscape over the past 25 years, working with Rick Ruben, Death Magnetic, each other and of course, being an election year, a little bit of politics too.
One would think most bands would be slowing down a bit after a quarter century, but not these guys. If anything, to commemorate their silver anniversary, they have only sped things up. “When we first started, says Lars Ulrich, “all I wanted to do was play my favorite cover songs. I had no aspirations of writing music or making records, mostly because I couldn’t imagine it – it just didn’t exist. All that existed for me was playing my favorite songs from bands like Motorhead and Iron Maiden. If we were lucky we could do that in a club somewhere one night a week and maybe get a free pitcher of beer out of it.” But that could only last for so long. “After about six months, we started writing our own songs. Everything was always done in increments and I could never see past the next thing we were working on. I just wasn’t a goal-oriented person. It was literally all about playing music, getting drunk and chasing girls. So, although we have all worked very hard over the past 25 years, this whole thing still constantly blows me away.”
The Year Of Metallica
By all accounts, 2009 will be another tour-de-force year for Metallica. And much in their take no prisoners approach, the Metalli-cats kicked off their 25th year by placing yet another feather in their cap of music history by simultaneously topping the music charts around the world with its first album in five years, Death Magnetic went to No. 1 in the United States and Britain, as well as such countries as Argentina, Canada, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and drummer Lars Ulrich's native Denmark. (On a side note this is Metallica’s 5th consecutive #1 album, beating the previous record of 4 consecutive #1 albums by U2, the Dave Matthews Band and The Beatles.) Defying the rules seems to be a Metallica thing, as Death Magnetic was released worldwide on a Friday, as opposed to a traditional Tuesday. In doing so, the new album sold in excess of 490,000 copies – and that’s just covering a three-day span. Currently, the album has already crested the first illustrious platinum plateau, with sales continuing to climb each week. The lead single, “The Day That Never Comes” immediately shot up the tri-fecta of Rock radio’s Billboard airplay charts. And if that wasn’t enough, the heavy metal masters have been nominated in their first year of eligibility for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. To be eligible for inclusion in the Hall's 24th annual ceremony, acts must have released their first album or single at least 25 years prior to nomination, meaning this year's contenders each made their professional mark in or before 1983. – so, if you are following along in your home study guide, that’s 25 years of Mandatory Metallica!
For about the last year, the band has been relentlessly traversing the globe showcasing both old and new material. If their itinerary hasn’t been full enough, they will soon be embarking across the United States in order to do what they do best – play it live and loud! All of this activity merely comprises the latest installment in the career of a group who has played Woodstock, had their music incorporated into one of today’s most popular video game franchises and has rocked out alongside the San Francisco Symphony, among others.
Let There Be Lights, Sounds, Drums And Guitars!
Their latest offering, Death Magnetic, is their most incendiary album to date, which rocks and rolls like a ship in a monsoon! The album is filled with such soon to be Metallica classics as “Cyanide,” “The Judas Kiss,” and “Broken, Beat & Scarred” among others. The new record manages to showcase both Metallica’s varied metal sound as well as James’s kerosene-charred vocals. In short, it’s the type of record that sounds great blasting from your stereo, whether be at home, the office or in the car. Nope, once you throw “My Apocalypse” in your CD player, you will be powerless to do anything other than slam your bones into the wood paneling of your bedroom and laugh at the neigh-sayers who predicted the bands demise. Plain and simple, the Bay area quartet’s 10th studio album cranks it up way past “11”. The tunes they create are reminiscent of their early beginnings but most importantly they accurately capture the essence of every head-bangin’ metal head on this planet. Just take every element that makes rock and roll great – loud screaming guitars, piercing vocals, a heavy bass line and pounding drum -- throw them into a giant musical blender, and what you get is the hellified creation known as Metallica.
Show Your Scars
The blood sweat and tears that has encompassed the band after the release of 2003's St. Anger -- the tumultuous making of which has been well chronicled in the documentary 'Some Kind of Monster' -- Metallica were practically done for. “There’s a lot of passion invested in the music Metallica creates, so there’s always going to be a certain level of tension. When you’re putting a song together – it’s not always a bed of roses. What the band has learned from the St. Anger period, is instead of an all out war, differences are now dealt with and managed in the appropriate way, without taking it to the next level. Just like in any relationship, you just have to power through.” offers Robert Trujillo. The inner band battles and individual struggles of each member, and their subsequent triumphs, including sobriety, have culminated into what James Hetfield described as a "near-death experience." In fact, it's that which has inspired the band's new album, Death Magnetic. “Metallica is very grateful to still be around because of our near-death experience with St. Anger. A lot of Death Magnetic, within the lyrics, has to do with that near-death experience. The reality of it, but also the gratitude that comes afterwards with where we are now, remaining together and being able to do what Metallica does best -: create music.” Rob complemented these sentiments “in the past 5+ years, there have been several children born into the Metallica family, which have really helped to bring us together as a band. When you can share the common experience of changing diapers, that can’t help but bring you closer, not only as a band, but also as a family.” Lars further elaborates that “in the last couple of years, since we bottomed out, there has been a rebirth and reawakening as well as a re-appreciation that amazing things are still happening to us.”
To Infinity And Beyond
Even though it was their first album in five years, Death Magnetic claimed the premiere spot on the Billboard album chart, proof of Metallica’s everlasting popularity. Lars attributes their longevity to maturity. “The difference between then and now is, when you’re younger, you never really slow down long enough to take in the experiences life is throwing at you. But when you get into your 40’s and look around at what you’ve accomplished, it can all be quiet over-whelming and at the same time unbelievable.” Rob adds, “Death Magnetic is a launching pad for what Metallica is going to do in the future. In the same sense, it’s like the band has re-united with a lot of the old flavors and energy. The new music is like a painting; there are a lot of dynamic moments with a lot of attention to detail which helps demonstrates the work ethic within the band. We are all very focused and firing on all cylinders.”
King Of The Hill
So how does a band stay atop the mountain for twenty-five years? While running through the halls in between rooms and other obligations, James stopped and explained it this way. “Well, without trying to figure out why, the great thing for us to do is be honest and enjoy it. If we try and figure out why it is then we become focused on that. Honesty is a large part of that -- recognizing that yes, we're artists and we have to do this for ourselves. The fans will come if you're honest. If you're writing for somebody else, it's not going to work. It seems there are a lot less career bands than there used to be. Without sounding grandiose, there's a belief and a hope that Metallica is able to fly the flag for heavy music and keep it alive, and hopefully inspire more bands to get out there and do it.”“ But Lars can't understand why the seminal Bay Area thrashers haven't been overtaken by any of the young hot new crop of metal bands. "I was thinking the other day about how everyone expects us to continue to release albums that define the genre, everyone expects us to 'save' metal. And that's a lot of pressure, really." "Why hasn't anyone dethroned us yet?" Ulrich continued. "We support all the great new metal bands, take them under our wing, but people still want us to carry the whole genre on our backs. I'm 44 years old, I've got three kids!"
The Doctor Is Now In
Switching producers can always be a difficult thing and chemistry is very important. “Rick Ruben is not a musician or an engineer”, Rob states, “but a song doctor, looking for us to embrace the past to create the future. In doing so, he took us out of our “Rick is pretty well known as the phantom producer -- he shows up when he feels he's comfort zone and put us in a place that creates a lot of tension. We were out in an industrial part of LA, nothing glamorous, in the heat if the summer with no where to hide.” Mr. Hetfield further commented needed. It seemed to fit in perfectly with where we are as a band. After having so many people around us doing so much work in the studio -- enhancement coaches, management getting involved to make sure we're staying together -- this album was the exact opposite. There was no one else there. We were able to take responsibility for our own band and step up and say, "OK, here's the schedule. We’re going in." Rick Rubin's not going to hold our hand through all that. Rick's the producer that doesn't care about any of that stuff -- he's not going to hold hands or mediate fights. He's going to show up, listen to a song and tell you, either ‘this is good or this is not so good.’
When you're able to brandish the kind of musical firepower that Metallica has unleashed for more than two decades - 10 uncompromising albums, marking an unprecedented reign as the greatest hard rock band in history - you learn a thing or two about where to aim. With a plethora of rock staples, what song do the guys want to be remembered by? Lars offered this pragmatic response: “I feel that any of our records represents the best of what Metallica is capable of at any given situation. A lot of people have spent a lot of time with our music, there’s a familiarity element there, part of a life growing up – a shared element between the band and the fans and amongst the fans themselves. Although some of our songs have been better received than others, that a decision that is left for the fans who buy our records and their particular preferences. So I think our entire body of works stands up for itself and I leave it to our fans to decide which song is their individual favorite. “James was more direct, “I would say 'For Whom the Bell Tolls,' 'Sanitarium' and 'Enter Sandman.”
The Politics of Metallica
Being an election year, the subject cannot be avoided in most conversations, even mega-rock stars! There are those other mega-rock stars like U2, The Clash and Bruce Springsteen who like to vividly express their views through their music. But don’t ask James about politics…” Politics is a dangerous place to venture into and my opinion, just because our band is popular, is no better than any others. But as a father with three children, I want the world to be the best it can be. Everyone wants security, safety, a sense of feeling grounded, and I believe that it's time to focus on America -- on internal issues. Policing the world has gotten us spread pretty thin. We need to focus at home.” Mr. Trujillo was a little more practical about it. “Politically, I think the country just needs to come together. There are a lot of people hurting out there right now. We want our fans to want to buy our albums and come to our shows, and do it all for a fair price. And in doing so, give them an opportunity to forget the outside world, at least for the moment, and just have a good time and rock out!”
The band members, who truly refer to themselves as brothers - and mean it, emerged from the other side of their journey with their musical compass intact. Death Magnetic is an album that will invariably draw comparisons to some of their best work, most notably their classic 1983 opus Kill 'Em All, and 1986's Master Of Puppets. Monumental in scope, the new album also recalls - by its tremendous power - the groups 15 million selling self-titled masterpiece known as the Black Album. Although this is clearly a work that couldn't have been made twenty years ago or even a decade ago, Death Magnetic and the bands revitalized attitude fits the Metallica canon like a glove. And through it all though, one thing remains a constant - Metallica is the band that just wants you to remember that you can never rock too hard so have fun and always “Keep On Rockin’!”
Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “Do not go where the path may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail. “ – no words could be truer in summing up 25 years of Mandatory Metallica! ^m^
Michael Vogel spends his days thinking up new ways to do things. Voice your thoughts on that time-wasting habit at www.linkedin.com/in/michaeldvogel