After catching the show in Cape Town, Chopper Charlie and griffin sat down backstage with James Hetfield, frontman for Metallica before their stadium show in Johannesburg to chat about their South African tour, the new album, crazy fans and some pretty darn unique pre-show rituals…
Thanks for the opportunity. First off, do you get involved with who the opening acts are, like Van Coke Kartel in Cape Town?
It really depends. If we're doing a long tour, then yes. Absolutely. We want to be hanging out with people that we like or that are going to have the crowd fired up. We want good bands.
When we're doing one-off things like this, we pay less attention to it. But I do like to go out and watch whoever it is, just to see what it's like. We didn't have too big of a say on this one. A lot of times there are contests that give chances for younger, local bands to get up there in front of a lot of people which is always a dream come true.
You've written some of the most defining riffs since 1983 and keep doing so with every new album. Do you ever think about the scores of youngsters sitting in their rooms across the world, learning to play music through Metallica?
Oh absolutely. It's mind-blowing to think about it. You know, I still do it. Sit in my hotel room and play like someone's in their room playing. I'm inspired by Toni Iommi and Michael Schenker and lots of different guitar players. And for me to be that same kind of inspiration to someone in the next generation down or more generations down is a blessing.
Do you sometimes come up with stuff that doesn't fit into the Metallica sound but could fit somewhere else, perhaps in a side project?
Everything I write is intended for Metallica and it is Metallica. I mean, I'm in Metallica and it's what we are, it's what we live and breathe and when I write something it's always intended for Metallica.
If Lars or whoever else goes 'hmm, it's not that good' then it's not Metallica and so be it. It's not meant to be. We want to make the best stuff possible and it's all four of us who have a say in that.
There's tons of material. I don't take it personally any more when I write a riff. God, there's 750 riffs that I have for this next record and we can only use 20 of them or 25 of them so I'm okay with that.
Any news on the new album. Is there an update? We read that Kirk is saying it's going quite slowly, as did Lars. Can you reveal anything else?
Can't tell you anything.
We've got on record that there are 750 riffs already written so…
Haha, yeah there are 750 riffs and we're still going through them. We've gone through a lot of 'em, gone through a lot of the riffs. A lot of the time it's been good for me to step back. You know, I've written them, they're all out there and Lars can sift through and see what he can feel through it because we want it to be as powerful as possible.
So between shows that we're doing we go home and we write. Shows like here and we've just come from Australia, we're doing Japan – we've kind of done little dots around the world this year
We come out here, we get inspired by the family that we meet out here and we go home and hopefully get some of that onto the record.
You've worked with Rick Rubin on the previous album, 'Death Magnetic'. Any ideas yet of who it will be this time round?
Don't know either. I mean, Rick's great but we wouldn't mind working with someone else. We've enjoyed working with everyone we've worked with previously so who knows? I think once the material is more together, we'll be able to feel who's needed.
Did digital music formats and distribution platforms change your approach to writing music?
I think we're a lot more open to it. You know you write three songs or four songs and you can put them out, if you want. I mean it's free, it's completely open for whatever we feel like doing and now, especially in the United States at least, we have full control of our own masters and we own all our own music. Finally. And we have our own record company.
We can distribute it, like the extra songs from 'Death Magnetic', 'Beyond Magnetic', those four songs that we put out. We were like why not, why just have them sitting there? Let's do something with them, let people enjoy them, it's not any fun having them sit somewhere.
Let's move on to the 'Through The Never' film, due for release in September. What can we expect? How will it be different to a live DVD or concert?
Why is it different? Well, there's kind of a back-story to the whole thing. One of our managers wanted to do a 'Best Of' concert. I guess for some of the fans who have not seen 'Master of Puppets' or 'Ride the Lightning' or the Destruction Scene from 'Load' or Doris crumbling from 'And justice for all…' or any of those stages.
So we've taken it to another level, to a huge arena kind of feel where all of these props are huge and then we started talking about a movie. You know, why don't we film this in 3D and well, why don't we make the movie first and then tour the stage?
But building the stage, practicing on it and all of these things were like… oh my God. Tough trying to make it look comfortable when we haven't even played on it before.
We talked about making the film the first priority, not so much the crowd. The cameras are the main focus, we wanted the point of view of us.
There's also a storyline, there's an actual narrative that's happening. So it's about a runner at one of our concerts and he gets sent out on a mission and all these tragedies, all these trials and tribulations take place. He has to go collect something for the band and we experience the things that he runs into out there.
It sounds completely weird, but it actually works really well and the 3D stuff is not just something stupid, like me pointing into the camera. There's some serious depth to it and there's some destruction and insanity happening. We wanted it very, very intense.
Sounds intense. Very. Onto something quite different… Lars might have been a pro tennis player if music did not come his way. What about you?
Well, if I wasn't going to do music I was going to try to be in music for the rest of my life. There's no doubt about that. I love it so much and it saves my life daily and it got me through my whole childhood really, so I'd try to be in a band or I'd be working in a studio or I'd be writing something about music but it would always be that.
The only other thing that I really love is graphics and I love drawing and designing and coming up with all the Metallica logos, the Ninja star and stuff like that.
I think it's in my blood as well. You know my grandfather on my dad's side was a musician and my mother was a graphic designer.
So I get to design our t-shirts and play in the band. Nothing better than that.
There were different playlists for Cape Town, with old favourites mixed up with newer stuff. Who decides the playlist on the night? Is it democratic, is there some method to it?
It's pretty democratic but before we head out on tour we actually need to rehearse and it's nice to rehearse the songs you're going to play, so we kind of get together and decide. Is it a stadium? Is it indoors? Is it a small venue? Have we been there a lot? All of these things come into play.
You don't want to be playing some obscure stuff at a big stadium in Johannesburg, it just doesn't make any sense. You want to play some stuff that's pretty solid, that people can grab onto, sing along to, get behind and it looks and feels amazing. You kind of want to have the family feel at a venue like this.
Engaging with fans and communicating with the Metallica family throughout the show is obviously integral. Has this always been part of the Metallica vibe?
Yes, that has been there from the start. At the beginning, the first few gigs I remember being just the singer and not knowing what to do. It was just this shy kid up on stage and saying to the guitarist 'hurry up, tune your freakin' guitar!'
Then I saw, there was this punk influence, where between the songs it was just talking. You're just talking to the crowd like "hey, what are you doing?" or 'hey, I've seen you at another show' or something like that.
It's so much more personal and it's like wow, that makes total sense. Or you're just up there telling jokes or something. And it's just like, I'm not this high and mighty thing up on stage and you're the peons. Work together in this and I'm going to just say what's going on up here, and as crazy as it might sound, I'm just going to be myself.
Does this mean you still get nervous up on stage, even after all of these years?
Oh absolutely. Yeah totally. But it's a good nervous.
Do you have any rituals you do before hitting the stage? Like doing forty push-ups or something?
Yeah, there are rituals. Got to eat some meat before the show! I get stretched out before the show. Certain lozenges that I take that my friend Tom Jones turned me onto.
Then, the little bandana in my pocket you see on stage… I do a few yells into it to save, in case my voice gets lost. That sounds really stupid, I know, but I've always got a yell in my pocket!
Brilliant. We'll try that sometime. How was the South African experience so far? How did you like the crowd?
Really cool. We don't get much time here in Joburg. We're in and out. We get to spend more time in Cape Town. But we're playing a stadium here. It's like our people.
I was a little disappointed that in Cape Town we couldn't fill the stadium and they divided it up into two smaller things. I was a little annoyed, but at the end of the day we had a blast!
It was a lot of fun to be indoors and play at one end. We haven't done that since… I can't remember when. We've always been in the round or something when indoors so it was a lot more fun. I didn't have to cover two sides or four sides of the stage.
We're blessed to even be invited back here.
The stage setup for Metallica. Do you get very closely involved with the design of that pre-tour?
Oh yeah. The default notion is that we want to be as close as possible. How can we do that? And obviously at stadiums, it's harder because you've got safety to think about. Safety is another number one concern for us.
We don't want people getting hurt whatsoever, so a lot of times it takes barricade after barricade and that separates us. We don't like it, but it's there for safety's sake.
We get closer by visuals so video always works really well for us. Facial expressions are a big part of our live show. You see every cold sore and every zit!
You've been in South Africa since Tuesday. What have you guys been up to in between shows?
The guys have been surfing. We've been tourists, we've been kicking around the beaches. The weather has actually been really nice, your winter so far, and a lot of Trujillo's surfer friends have been going 'dude, it's normally not like this' so we've been having a good time.
One last question, which country would you say has got the craziest fans?
Well, kind of depends on what you mean by 'crazy'. Like legitimately, certifiably, lock-them-away, white jacket crazy? It seems to be wherever there's like a big sports or soccer or rugby mentality, that's where we get the crazy people but it's crazy everywhere really.