Metallica's master of puppets takes Glastonbury

Get ready for Glasto's headliner with an archive interview with James Hetfield on purging, Miley Cyrus, and hair crimes

Music Q+A
James Hetfield
James Hetfield Photography by Ross Halfin

If you played Metallica’s “Master of Puppets”, “Blackened” or “Creeping Death” to a bunch of angry teenagers back in the 80s, there’s a good chance they would shout “FUCK YEAH!” in your face and start spontaneously smacking their heads against an armoury of air guitars. If you were to play these tracks to the same people in 2009, you would probably be greeted with a nostalgic “FUCK YEAH!” whilst their kids banged their heads against a wireless Guitar Hero controller in the background. The music industry may have changed, but Metallica have somehow managed to outlast grunge, Britpop and their metal contemporaries to remain one of the world’s most revered and highest-grossing rock acts. Sure, there have been a lot of dodgy haircuts, line-up shuffles, stints in rehab, dubious albums, a crusade against internet music piracy, and a car crash documentary in the interim, but, as lead singer James Hetfield explains in this exclusive interview, the whole point of making heavy metal is to get an extreme reaction. And if you happen to sell 100 million albums in the process, so be it. 

Do you write songs to purge yourself?

James Hetfield: Yes, I’m a purger. I definitely use this for therapy. This is me getting stuff out of my head, and the fact that people can relate to it makes me feel better about myself. I’m not as insane as I think I am. But, as they say, if you think you’re insane, you’re not.

Did you first start playing metal to piss your parents off?

James Hetfield: When you’re 18, you always want to do something that your parents hate, but I had to find out what they hated before I could do that. Now, as a parent, I’m trying to like everything my kids do, so they’ll have a really hard time trying to piss me off.

So you’re a big fan of Miley Cyrus then?

James Hetfield: Absolutely. She’s my favourite.

Really?

James Hetfield: No.

Does it feel weird trying to tap into a teenager’s mind when you’re in your 40s?

James Hetfield: Dude, there’s still a kid in me that I have to parent every day, but I’m trying to help him grow up. I got stuck at a certain age, and this business does not encourage you to act like a responsible adult. My maturity is delayed quite a bit.

“I could’ve died thousands of times...the drinking was an accepted escape for me and everything became about the drinking, the drugs and the womanizing. Eventually, like any addiction, it took over”

Alcoholica was one of your band mottos – were you ever worried about slipping into a Spinal Tap-esque existence?

James Hetfield: When you’re in a band you don’t want to be like Spinal Tap, but stuff happens man. I could’ve died thousands of times, I was a blackout drinker. The drinking was an accepted escape for me and everything became about the drinking, the drugs and the womanizing. Eventually, like any addiction, it took over and gigs were just the way to meet the chicks or find the dude that had the drugs or whatever. It’s a sucky hole to fall into man, until you fall in love with music again, it’s tough to get out.

Do you miss the James Hetfield who drank and shagged his way around the world?

James Hetfield: There are times when I romanticise it. Life seemed a lot more simple back then. I could just put on the metalli-brow and everything would go away, people would stay away from me. But dude, we’re still addicted to the stage. There’s no better feeling in the world.

Are you totally at ease in front of 100,000 people?

James Hetfield: When you play a show for 20 people, it’s way more nerve-racking. I sometimes think, ‘Why are all these people here?!’ I just wrote some stuff that was stuck in here (points at head) and had to get it out. When I see a 60-year-old dude in the front row I think, ‘You’ve got grandkids here, you can’t really like this song that I’m screaming in your face!’ and he’s smiling back, loving it. It’s like, ‘Is this one big Punk’d episode?’ 

You’ve rocked a few hairstyles in your time. What’s been your worst hair crime?

James Hetfield: There are whole websites about Metallica’s hair. It’s awesome. It used to drive me crazy but it’s funny to see now. I would say mine was the ultra-mullet. The ultra-mullet was totally shaved sides, shortish on top and super-long at the back, more like Billy Ray Cyrus. It was my roadie look.

Was that your attempt to move with the times as metal got less popular in the 90s?

James Hetfield: That was a movement spearheaded more by Lars (Ulrich) and Kirk (Hammett). The reinvention of Metallica around Load and Re-Load, certainly the pictures, was very difficult for me. If it was going to work, we all needed to get into that vein. It was not a comfortable place for me but as a team player I kind of went along with it.

“When I see a 60-year-old dude in the front row I think, ‘You’ve got grandkids here, you can’t really like this song that I’m screaming in your face!’ and he’s smiling back, loving it”

Why didn’t you stick to your guns?

James Hetfield: I did but there wasn’t a real ally. I was kind of an island to myself. Mullet Island.

Mullet Island!

James Hetfield: Ultra-mullet Island! People were like, "Whoa, guys, what the fuck are you doing?! You don’t even have long hair any more, oh no, what am I going to do?!"

Do you think the image change and the Napster case alienated your original fanbase? Did you manage to win them back with last year’s Death Magnetic?

James Hetfield: I don’t know. Alienating people is not our quest, but sometimes moving forward too fast freaks people out. We learned early on that you can’t placate people, we just gotta do what we feel honest about, even if it looks ridiculous ten years later.

Do you find it strange having to still play songs you made in the 80s?

James Hetfield: Sometimes you feel like Ozzy who’s played “Paranoid” for the two billionth time, but playing “Seek and Destroy” is still fun. Although sometimes the lyrics make me bang my head against the stage, like ‘We have to destroy the world with our heavy metal’. Some of the lyrics from Kill ‘Em All are just awesome man, they’re beyond silly. Now it’s gone full circle and all the kids are like, 'Yeah! Metal!'

What is Metallica’s contribution to rock’n’roll?

James Hetfield: We took the riff to another level. As you get older, do you ever think ‘my fingers can’t play this fast any more’? (laughs) It’s easier! I don’t know why, but the faster I play, it feels more comfortable. I’ve heard some rumours about why your right hand is as fast as it is… (laughs) years and years of doing that to myself, yeah, oooh yeah. Well you know, someone’s gotta do it right! I wouldn’t attribute it to that, though I’m sure it didn’t hurt… actually, sometimes it hurt! Playing fast came out of a challenge between Kirk, Lars and myself, like, ‘What do you mean you can’t play that fast? You pussy!’

Guitar Hero Metallica has just come out. How good are you at your own game?

James Hetfield: Pretty sucky. I thought it was going to be a piece of piss when I got it. I think Guitar Hero is a glorified tennis racket in front of a mirror. That was my Guitar Hero, playing along to Michael Schenker. But if it inspires a kid to go and buy a cheap electric and become the next friggin’ Richie Blackmore then that’s great.

I just saw a paparazzi shot of you coming out a Prada shop with a shopping bag…

James Hetfield: I’ve seen that picture. When you get off stage do you ditch the metal t-shirts and get into a Prada suit? Oh yeah, then I get into my Bentley, and off we all go to Nobu! Nah, I just got caught holding my wife’s bag one day…

Oh right, it was your wife’s…

James Hetfield: Um, yeah, sure.

See Metallica this weekend at Glastonbury Music Festival

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