James Hetfield on addiction, rehab, and channelling the anger with Metallica



By Steve Newton

Reno, Nevada, isn’t the ideal place for a man battling addictions to be, but Metallica main man James Hetfield seems up to the challenge. When he calls the Straight from a tour stop in the renowned party town, the newly rehabilitated rocker makes it clear that he wasn’t about to rejig his band’s concert schedule just to avoid temptation.

“A true addict can find his drug of choice anywhere,” Hetfield relates, “no matter what it is. So I have to keep a vigilance and awareness of where I’m at, and just take care of myself, respect myself in that way. I know it’s not a fair trade trading in that drink for all of the consequences I have to face.”

Three years ago, while preparing to record Metallica’s latest CD, St. Anger, Hetfield booked himself into a drug-rehab facility–or, as he calls it, “college for my soul”. In a handwritten letter to fans posted on his group’s Web site (www.metallica.com/) in March 2002, he explained that, besides parenting, recovery was “the most difficult and challenging thing I’ve ever attempted”.

And those struggles couldn’t just be stuffed in a drawer and left at the clinic.

“Coming out of rehab, I was fearful of just picking up the guitar,” the 40-year-old explains. “I was wondering ‘Can I play again? Can I write again? Do I even want to be in this band?’ All of it scared me, you know. I was very fearful of falling off the wagon right away, and I wanted to stay on the straight and narrow. But the more I played, man, the more open to creativity I was. There was a lot more energy going towards writing, and a real newfound love of playing on-stage.”

Hetfield claims that on Metallica’s current tour–which hits GM Place on Friday (March 26)–he’s giving “120 percent” in concert. These days he’s doing it without the inspiration of long-time bassist Jason Newsted, who called it quits before the recording of St. Anger, giving Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, and lead guitarist Kirk Hammett more to worry about than just their frontman’s personal problems. Surprisingly, the band’s producer, former Vancouverite Bob Rock, stepped in to handle all bass duties on the CD. The former Payola$, Rock & Hyde, and Rockhead guitarist is much better known for his six- than his four-string capabilities.

“I never really experienced him in the Payola$,” says Hetfield, “but we went into the studio not knowing who was gonna play bass, and not really worrying about it. All we knew was that we had something good whenever Bob Rock came into the room and picked up the bass.”

Although Rock did a commendable job of delivering the bottom end on St. Anger–which recently won the Grammy for best metal performance–he wouldn’t be the one to take the formidable Newsted’s place permanently. The band recruited former Suicidal Tendencies and Infectious Grooves member Rob Trujillo, but not before a number of prominent players vied for the job, including ex-Marilyn Manson/current Perfect Circle bassist Twiggy Ramirez, Scott Reeder from Kyuss, and Hetfield’s old friend, Corrosion of Conformity guitarist Pepper Keenan.

A few other established bassists also hungered for the hallowed membership in Metallica. “I can’t really remember their names,” Hetfield notes, “but there was the guy from the Cult, the guy from Jane’s Addiction, the guy from Nine Inch Nails. We didn’t want to hold major long-line auditions to the public, but there were eight that really came in, and we gave them a big-time shot. We had a list of things we needed in a bassist, and Rob hit more of them than the others did.”

According to recent reviews posted at the group’s Web site, the quartet’s current set list favours material from Metallica’s self-titled 1991 release and before, with the inclusion of just one or two cuts from the appropriately named St. Anger. Although the CD has sold more than four million copies since its release last June, its low-fi approach caught plenty of listeners off guard. As Rock explains from his Maui home, it caused a lot of radio programmers in America to turn their backs on the band.

“They were surprised and pissed off,” the producer says, “and it scared the hell out of them. But I wanted to make an anti-metal album in the metal format. So it sounds a little garage-y! It’s about the riffs, and it’s about playing.”

It’s also about deep, raw emotion.

“I’m madly in anger with you,” Hetfield bellows on the raging title track, setting the tone for the fury-driven disc. “It was a pretty darn good title,” the singer agrees with a chuckle. “St. Anger summed up a lot of the things, but in a good way, you know–being able to get rid of the anger that I’d been carrying around like sacks of sand for my whole life. You know, I would just stuff it down, and then at the end of the day use whatever I needed to satisfy myself. And that was crap.”

Hetfield’s recent trials and tribulations are chronicled in Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, a new documentary about the band that premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It was directed by Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the duo behind the Paradise Lost films, which tell the ongoing story of a trio of youths convicted–unjustly, by all accounts–of three grisly child murders in Tennessee. (See www.wm3.com/.)

Metallica has been very supportive of the “West Memphis Three” and Berlinger and Sinofsky’s efforts to expose their plight, but having the filmmakers in his face right after rehab didn’t thrill Hetfield. “It was very invasive and frustrating for me,” he explains, “and I let the camera know that quite a few times. For me, privacy is important. I’ve really got no problem talkin’ about my struggles in life, you know, my character defects of sorts, but just getting breathing space and ‘alone time’ is somewhat important to me.”

in & out…

James Hetfield sounds off on the things that enquiring minds want to know.

On being a fan of current Metallica bassist Rob Trujillo’s former band, Suicidal Tendencies: “We actually did some shows with Suicidal, and Rob–and obviously [vocalist] Mike Muir–really stood out in that band. Oh, man, those dudes are serious about what they do.”

On the decidedly lo-fi production on St. Anger: “The production itself was a product of what we were and how we felt, and that’s all we need to say about it. Those songs had such an edge, lyrically and musically, that if it sounded like …And Justice for All or something really polished, it wouldn’t have worked.”

On long-time Metallica producer Bob Rock’s contribution to St. Anger: “On this record, he wore many hats. You know, he was the father figure, he was the organizer, he was the bass player, he was the producer, the engineer. And he was the trusted, dear friend, you know, to sit and cry to.”

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