Metallica Plugs In Live From San Francisco for an Epic Stern Show Return
“We’ll get up at 4 o’clock in the morning any time for you guys,” drummer Lars Ulrich tells HowardAugust 12, 2020
Heavy metal’s most celebrated act returned to the Stern Show on Wednesday as Metallica rocked out remotely from its base of operations in San Francisco. Lead singer James Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, lead guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo spoke candidly with Howard about everything from drunken wrestling with Exodus and studio shenanigans with Ozzy Osbourne to the likelihood Metallica stays together until 2050. The fearsome foursome also delivered epic renditions of three songs and in doing so became the first band to perform live for Stern Show listeners since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Before dusting off their instruments and diving into the music, though, the Grammy-winning rock legends turned whiskey purveyors reflected on their earlier days in the industry when they approached both music and life with a far different attitude.
“Back then you’re just 18 years old. You’re just fueled by being an outsider, by … this hatred and this fierce belief in who you are,” Lars told Howard, adding, “Thirty-five years later, it feels awkward to sit and talk about that, but you can’t deny that when you were 18 you were full of spunk and venom and wanted to fuck the whole world, you know?”
“The first half of your life is causing destruction and the second half of your life is maybe cleaning a bit of it up,” James agreed.
The band didn’t always appreciate their contemporaries in the ‘80s and early ‘90s, but as they grew more comfortable in their own skin they discovered both a desire to experiment and an eagerness to collaborate with a variety of artists. They’ve now worked with everyone from hip-hop icons Ja Rule and Swizz Beatz, who joined them on the “Biker Boyz” soundtrack, to fellow Stern Show veteran Lady Gaga, who shared the stage with them at the 59th Grammys. Howard recalled watching behind-the-scenes footage of the band rehearsing “Moth Into Flame” with Gaga and was curious what inspired them to perform with a pop star.
“After a while, you kind of get mature about it all and realize we’re all in this together, you know?” Kirk told Howard.
“I just respect her as an artist,” James continued. “She was there for two hours before we even got there, working on her moves and thinking stuff up. She is extremely creative and a fearless artist.”
“Lady Gaga, in particular, she loves metal,” Lars added. “She was telling me that ‘Metal Militia,’ which is this deep cut on our first album “Kill ‘Em All,” was her favorite song back in the day.”
The band also famously collaborated with rock luminary Lou Reed on “Lulu,” a 2011 album based on the century-old works of German playwright Frank Wedekind.
“It was the coolest,” Lars said of working with Reed. “And it was right in this room—right where we are here. Lou stood right between James and Kirk. It was an incredible summer.”
Not every hardcore Metallica fan appreciated seeing the band team with a proto-punk poet, of course, but to Lars subverting the expectations of “square metal dudes” was part of the charm. “The memories of that I’ll always treasure,” he said. “It was incredible. I wouldn’t change a thing.”
Ultimately, Lou was less free-flowing in the studio than his experimental music catalogue might lead some to believe. “He had his own kind of set of rules, right? When we were playing some song and I stepped on the wah pedal, he instantly ran up to the microphone and he said, ‘No! … No wah pedal! No guitar solos! No!’” Kirk recalled with a laugh.
The band’s next lesson in contrast is “S&M2,” a San Francisco Symphony-enriched concert album arriving Aug. 28. Howard looked forward to the release, as he greatly enjoyed seeing Metallica share the stage with the New York Symphony in 1999, but he wondered if rehearsing with an orchestra was painstaking.
“Two rehearsals,” Kirk said.
“They just sit down and play what’s in front of them, so there’s not a lot of rehearsal with the orchestra,” Lars said.
Howard wondered if the band ever felt intimidated.
“I think the first go at this, yes. We were really insecure going in thinking, ‘Wow. We’re playing with real musicians. Let’s just jam,’ and they don’t jam,” James said. “But the second time I think we were a lot more confident, a little more loose with our attitude toward it, and actually more creative.”
The music landscape has also evolved considerably since the band’s first symphonic collaboration. “Back 20 years ago, the four members of Metallica were the four youngest members of the stage,” Lars said. “Last year, we were all in our mid-50s and probably half the orchestra were younger than we were.”
“A lot of those dudes grew up on hard rock and even Metallica,” he added.
Unfortunately, the coronavirus pandemic has made collaborating more difficult and in-person concerts downright impossible. It’s been a point of frustration with the band.
“I hate the part that we can’t just go out and tour. That sucks—not being able to reach our audience and having to cancel shows—that’s super disappointing and that just plain-out sucks,” Kirk told Howard.
Somehow, they’ve turned lemons into lemonade. Lars, for example, spends more time with his sons Myles and Layne, two musicians in their own right who recently released a quarantine cover of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.”
“They’re amazing musicians,” Howard said. “I was quite impressed with them.”
“Thanks, man. They’re really passionate. We have a little studio jam room at the pad and they’re fucking in there like 14 to 16 hours a day,” he responded. “When I gotta go in there and practice or warm up, I practically have to throw them out of the room.
James lives in Colorado now and said the canceled tour gave him time to engage with his community on a deeper level than he could when he was constantly on the go. He said the relationships he’s forged there also help him maintain his sobriety. “I think that romantic lone wolf mentality, it doesn’t work for me, but I do need my space and my time and I have found that,” James said. “But I’ve built an amazing community of people and friends that I can lean back on that I’ve never had really before.”
Howard commended him for opening up about his support structure.
“I’m tired of pretending to be something more than human,” James responded.
The rocker isn’t in Colorado at the moment, of course. He and the band are in their Bay Area headquarters doing their best to protect against COVID-19.
“When we were rehearsing last week for three or four days in here, I rehearsed all four days with my mask on the whole time,” Lars said.
“We got tested practically every other day, something crazy,” James said.
“I think there’s maybe 25, 30 people here. All our great crew and everybody who helps out and makes Metallica happen,” Lars continued. “We feel safe and, you know, we got a bubble here, and it’s cool.”
The band got together not only to perform for the Stern Show but also to record a concert for drive-in movie theaters across America. “I guess I can let the cat out of the bag here. Yesterday, we recorded a special hour-and-forty-five-minute set that’s coming to [300 drive-ins],” Lars said. “It’s an experiment to see what other cool new ways we can connect and bring music to fans all over the country.”
“Selfishly, it’s really for us to get together and jam—because we miss jamming—and then hopefully bring some joy to people … and they can be safe in their car,” James added.
Howard was impressed Metallica remained eager to make music and perform. He wondered if they, like the Rolling Stones, would play together well into their old age.
“Could you guys see yourself at almost 80 years old still doing this?” Howard asked.
“I can,” Kirk said.
“If physically, if the knees and the elbows and the necks and the throats and all the rest of it hold up, I think definitely,” Lars agreed, saying he’s inspired by the Stones and aging artists like Ringo Starr.
Regardless of what the future brings, James, Lars, Robert, and Kirk were absolutely ready to rock Wednesday morning. They started off their mini-concert with an electric sitar-filled rendition of “Wherever I May Roam,” the fourth single off 1991’s beloved “Black Album.”
“Good lord, I love it,” Howard said after they finished. “I love it.”
“Wow. That sounded great,” co-host Robin Quivers agreed.
On deck was “The Unforgiven,” Metallica’s smash-hit about Hetfield’s relationship with his parents.
“I’m grateful that I wrote it because it does tell a bit of a journey and how, just like a tattoo for me, they change with time,” he told Howard. “And this is just a good reminder of that, that’s all.”
Before performing the song, the band spoke candidly about their childhoods, how bands like the Ramones and MC5 influenced them, and how learning instruments improved their lives in ways they couldn’t imagine.
“Guitar playing calmed me down as a teenager. I was so angry and confused and frustrated, then I discovered music and guitar playing and it was instant relief,” Kirk told Howard.
The first song Hammett learned was Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze,” which he still remembers to this day. The band performed a few bars from it as well as the intro to Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway to Heaven,” which James said was his gateway to axe grinding. Eventually, they wowed listeners with a classic of their own: “The Unforgiven.”
“Wow, that is ridiculously fun to watch you guys do that,” Howard said after the performance. “Lars hits those fucking drums, man.”
“You’d think they were hammers, not sticks,” Robin laughed.
For their final tune, Metallica performed a stripped-down version of “All Within My Hands.” The song originally appeared as the hard-nosed closing track of the band’s 2003 album “St. Anger,” but they later crafted a softer take for an acoustic-only benefit concert put on by Neil Young.
“It was a great challenge for us,” James said. “We [thought], as a joke, maybe, ‘Why don’t we take one of the songs from ‘St. Anger’—one of the angriest albums and nosiest and most obnoxious sounds ever—and turn it into something a little different?’”
The band brought in employee and Goodnight, Texas singer-songwriter Avi Vinocur to sing backing vocals on “All Within My Hand.”
“What a beautiful song,” Howard said after they finished.
“If you could hear the O.G. version of that I don’t know if you would use the word ‘beautiful,’ Howard,” Lars said with a laugh. “It’s angry and nasty and fucked up. In the original, James is just singing, ‘Ahhh!’ for the whole outro.”
Before signing off, Metallica thanked Howard and the Stern Show crew for helping them put on an unforgettable quarantine performance.
“I know there was some technical things that had to be ironed out to make this happen and … everybody on our side was talking about how awesome your team was and it’s so fucking cool we could do this,” Lars said. “We’ll get up at 4 o’clock in the morning any time for you guys.”
“Thank you so much for letting us be the first to play,” James added.