Loaded Questions

When talking to Metallica's vocalist and founding guitarist James Hetfield, the first thing that strikes you is that he seems a lot nicer than the guy behind that famously abrasive shouting and those furious, cathartic lyrics. From 1983's Kill 'Em All ("There is a feeling deep inside/That drives you fuckin' mad") through the band's controversial sixth album Load ("Ain't gonna waste my hate/I think I'll keep it for myself"), Hetfield has been raging against everything from the grade school kids who ostracized him because of his strict Christian Scientist upbringing to the sweeping injustices of man's inhumanity to his fellow man -- all perfectly complemented by some of the loudest, heaviest, and most unrelenting music in rock and roll history.

But this guy on the other end of the phone -- he's Winnie the Pooh compared to the rabid grizzly bear heard on album and seen on-stage.

This is disappointing for an interviewer. It would be a lot easier to pose the tough questions demanded by Load if Hetfield bristled with anger or babbled on in love with the sound of his own voice like drummer Lars Ulrich, who does most of the band's interviews. Instead, Hetfield considers each query carefully before giving a long and thoughtful reply. A sense of humor even emerges as he speaks, the unexpected joke escaping from beneath the surly facade.

"Somewhere in Scandinavia there was a guy who held a sign up that said, 'Load of Shit-Poptallica,'" Hetfield begins with a throaty laugh as we tackle the question on the minds of many Metallica fans. "But he was at the concert, right? So it's like, 'Who's the dick here?'"

You've heard the complaint before, leveled at artists ranging from Peter Gabriel to R.E.M.: After coming to virtually define their particular genres, they make an album that takes a sharp left turn toward the mainstream or embraces elements of other, radically different sounds, thereby causing a painful schism in their core cult following. What gives this tired old story legs in Metallica's case is the extent to which the band connected with a community no one else cared much about -- devoted fans of "real metal" -- and elevated the possibilities inherent in the genre, showing that it could be smart and musically sophisticated while still being as heavy as uranium.

The formerly unified fans of this San Francisco-based band are now divided between the righteously betrayed and the apologists who justify surprising moves such as the country licks on "Mama Said" and the mopey, vaguely Cure-style hit "Hero of the Day" by saying, "Hey, these new tunes really sound heavier in concert, man." (But almost no one is foolish enough to defend obvious marketing ploys such as last summer's headlining stint on Lollapalooza, the Andres Serrano blood-and-semen cover art, or the silly "alternative" hair cuts, eye makeup, and Anton Corbijn photos.)

Typical of the emotional anti-Metallica rants was this one posted on America Online: "This was the band who got it all started for me," wrote a fan with the log-on Perrin55. "I remember coming home from rough days at school back when I was in junior high, popping in Master of Puppets, and spending hours trying to imitate Lars's awesome drumming on my pillows. My entire eighth-grade yearbook page was dedicated to them. Lars was my hero. And then, when Load came out, it was just like they had become exactly what I hated about '90s metal: BORING. We're not talking about the same band here."

Many fans believe that with Load, the fashion-savvy, ultra-ambitious contingent in the band (Ulrich and guitarist Kirk Hammett) won out over the no-nonsense, real-metal contingent (Hetfield and bassist Jason Newsted). But Hetfield chortles that deep, rolling laugh when this theory is proffered.

"There's a little truth to that, but it's not so cut and dried," he says. "I'm somewhere in the middle there. I love what we've done, and I don't want to stray too far from the heavy and the really aggressive. But I want to explore some of the other sides to us too. A lot of the stuff on the records -- most of the melodic things, a lot of the ballady stuff -- that's me too. It's not cut and dried, like, 'Kirk's the fashion guy.' Everything bleeds together, and that's what makes a band a band.

"It goes through changes all the time," Hetfield continues. "Early on in our fifteen years it was me and Lars against the other two, and later on, it's them against us. You always have those conflicts, and they're great, because they spur a lot of energy. There's a lot of mental games that happen, but they keep you strong. Tension works."

Indeed, the tension in the studio when Metallica started the process of recording a followup five long years after 1991's so-called Black Album (titled Metallica) resulted in a bounty of 30 songs. Even at the maximum of 79 minutes, the Load CD could include only fourteen tunes. So the band will reunite with producer Bob Rock soon to record the rest for an as-yet-untitled seventh album -- what Hetfield says is essentially Load, Part Two -- to be released before the end of this year. But first there is the headlining tour of America.

Word behind the scenes at Lollapalooza '96 was that the reason the traveling festival was playing a shorter list of "B" cities and odd venues far off the beaten path was that Metallica was saving the prime stops for its own tour. "So fucking what?" Hetfield snorts in response, flashing a brief glimpse of the grizzly before delivering a calmer explanation.

"I got presented the idea that Lollapalooza was gonna be different this time," he says. "It wasn't gonna degrade itself playing the amphitheaters because it was starting to turn into something wrong. The idea was to make it more of a traveling event, where people actually had to get into their car and go somewhere instead of just walking down the street. That was the interesting part for me, but it did backfire on us a little bit. Our fans don't really give a shit about traveling out to some field in the middle of nowhere. But it was just another challenge for us to do what we're not supposed to."

Whatever the motivations of Hammett and Ulrich, Hetfield maintains that his driving goal is still to "fuck shit up," even if that means tearing down the conventions of the genre he loves. Part of metal's original appeal was that it offered a liberating freedom from the rigid order of his family's religion, he says. Then, as Metallica became the biggest metal band in the world, he started to feel trapped by the sound he helped define. "That was kind of ridiculous," he says. "More and more I'm discovering there are no rules in music, especially with the last record."

Yet with the change, with the alienation of the cult, has come a broader audience -- the "mainstream" rock fans commingling with the hardcore purists. And Hetfield finds the new mix of fans at the band's shows inspiring. "I think nowadays it's not so difficult for some guy in his leather jacket and long hair to stand next to some guy with green hair and a pierced face who's standing next to the guy with his tie on who just came from work," he says. "They all understand why they're there, and it's for the music."

But the debate is about whether the music is Metallica at its best. Veteran fans say, "No way," but plenty of new listeners and critics who discovered the group with ... And Justice for All seem to like it just fine. Load, however, is often just so underwhelming and too damn slow; its "new directions" come off like half-hearted detours or pointless frills piled on a previously streamlined sound. The prospect of a sequel with more of the same instead of an album that actually breaks new ground while maintaining the old drive isn't promising.

But I'm not ready to write off Hetfield just yet. I'm compelled to ask if he can really tell any more if Metallica is just going through the motions like so many other dinosaur rockers, or whether it's still in this game for the right -- that is, wrong -- reasons. "I definitely used to wonder why certain bands went on and on," Hetfield says. "It could be Blue Oyster Cult, say, and you see 'em in some little club now, and it's like, 'What the fuck are you guys doin'?' But it looks like they love what they're doing, so who am I to say stop? If you love what you're doing, then who else can say anything different, really?

"As far as my music goes, if I don't wanna hear what I've just played, I'd probably say it's about time to quit. When there isn't any drive to explore or even play together, then it's really time to quit and maybe go on and do your own thing. But I think it's still a scary thought for us that Metallica might end one day."

Here Hetfield pauses and poses a question not unlike the one his alienated fans are asking. "It's like having a family," he says. "How do you tell your family that they suck?

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