My Week With Metallica - Part 1
Over a delicious—and deliciously free—lamb, roast vegetable and salad dinner, Steffan backs up Lars' words, encouraging me to act natural here. Move around freely. Observe as I see fit. Which is all well and good to say, but; as a journalist, my natural state is one of rules and restrictions. Don't ask this. Don't go there. Time’s up. So to suddenly agree that I should shadow some of the most high profile dudes in the history of music and popular culture seems absurd. Especially if Thom catches me.
But on this advice, I take off on a solo orbit. Though it's maybe just me and what I'm there to tune into, the sense of family here is immediate. I mean, it's an obvious statement -- you'd need it to be for a production on this scale. But you so often forget that giant touring bands are essentially small, transient office blocks, lugging their fax machines and computer cords and chairs and accounts and dirty laundry around the world. Just so that at some point, four (or so) guys can run about with guitars, punch the air and thank the fans for coming. At the pointy end it's a noble, fleeting, artistic pursuit. But when you go deeper, also incredibly ordinary.
In this particular case, everyone's employers happen to walk amongst their midst. I poke my head into the band's dining room and find Lars having dinner alone. I ask to join and he responds by happily pushing a plate of chicken and salad across the table. I thank him for asking me along on the tour and he shrugs it off like it was no big deal. Which it isn't, I guess, mostly. We talk about his feelings on ending this colossal undertaking. “Looking back on the last couple years, it's been such a positive experience”, he decides. “On every level you can conjure up. In terms of the record, the tour, the fans, the vibe. I don't think we've ever done anything in Metallica that's had such an overwhelmingly positive feel to it. So I think rather than getting all emotional and melancholy about it ending, it's more like, celebrate the triumph! Celebrate the end of this chapter”.
We carry on talking about writing and music and pretty soon he's quizzing me about myself, mentioning the trouble he's having with his shoulder at the moment and all the while listening intently whilst wolfing down a plate of pasta and tomato sauce. Multi-tasking. His assistant Barbara soon joins us, and when Lars leaves to go warm up, she talks of how fun it’s been traveling to cities across the globe. Cities like this one, that "seem beautiful" at face value but will remain unexplored.
The arena itself lies somewhere far off down a hallway. I can hear the sound of guitars being played behind a door marked 'Tuning Room'. Thinking it's surely not, I find Steffan and ask if it's cool to go inside. He says follow me, and I head inside to find a rehearsal room set up with the kind of instruments and recording gear that would make even the most jaded guitar store pony-tail quiver. Kirk and Rob are in front of us holding their respective instruments, trying to work something out. I feel like I may as well have walked in on them trying on ladies underwear, such is this an obvious sanctuary. They fiddle for a while before departing, leaving me with the room's "Pro Tools guru" Mike Gillies and another quiet guitar tech.
Gillies sits in here every night on tour, recording and mixing the show on the fly, which the band then post online immediately afterwards. (He’s also worked on a bunch of their studio albums.) As such he's recorded—and has access to via a series of hard drives scattered around—every Metallica show and song on file. Ever. Meaning that if they're fiddling around with an old tune, one of the band members can just say "Oh we should do this like the second night in Frankfurt, four years ago", and Mike can bring it up immediately. This seems insanely excessive, but, I concede, entirely useful. A theme emerges.
Before too long the band return and start jamming on some stuff. I won't lie -- it's exciting having Metallica play three feet away from you, in a space the size of your living room and with just a couple of techs for company. The band are in a playful mood. Lars feels like he doesn't need to rehearse something. "Too boring?" jokes Hammett, "Too many notes?" Rob chimes in, "Too many words?" Towering tour manager Dick Adams pokes his head through the door and taps his watch. The band were due on five minutes ago. It's slightly hilarious to think that above our heads, an arena of paid up Metallica nuts are nervously fingering their camera phones and we’re here picking chickpea shells from our teeth and ogling lyric sheets.
I've been in rehearsal rooms of all sizes, and the thing is, away from the filter of amplification and natural reverb (and pyro explosions), rooms like this are a great leveler. Metallica sound mostly fantastic in here, no doubt. But the drums are tinny, Hetfields voice sounds small and unfocused, and Rob's bass is lost in the mix. So, a lot like most bands then. If it weren't for the metronomic riffage coming from Hetfield's guitar and—especially—Hammett's astounding fretwork, this could be a Thursday night down at your local space. Though you probably don't have access to recordings of songs you played in Tokyo five years ago. Nor Tokyo.
I follow the band into the hall, where headset-wearing security dudes are bustling about like worker ants. Longtime band photographer Ross Halfin is leading Metallica on a series of mugging hallway poses, snapping his way through to a brightly-lit alcove of white lino and roadcases. The band pause next to steps descending to a black curtain and the sound of 15,000 people now chanting to the band's traditional intro theme, Enio Morricone's 'The Ecstasy of Gold'. Lars is joking about pissing on Halfin as the photographer tries to get a shot off whilst lying on his back underneath the group hug, before James, Kirk and Rob head out through the curtain. We're waiting for Lars to follow when he yells at me and Steffan, "Well go on! I'm fucking going out last". What? "Go, fuck, go!"
I stumble with Steffan down the steps, through the curtain being held back for us and out into a vast, heaving dark ocean of burning purple light. A static roar infiltrates everything, all I can see are snatches of faces illuminated by speckled camera flashes and silhouettes of hands, all pegged back by security just enough to reveal a clear black gauntlet to the stage. I smell dry ice and deodorant. Completely disarmed, I float as if on rails to some position by the side of stage, overwhelmed by the sudden transition from minutiae to massive. In shock at the sheer ferocity of sensory overload; hysterical fans with pinched faces are roaring, grasping for anything they can reach. Kirk holsters his guitar, Lars clutches his drumsticks and both run on stage to meet James and Rob in the middle and the opening crack of 'That Was Just Your Life'. Cue lasers, everything. Weeks ago I wrote in my review of Metallica's intro: "if there are seven wonders of the musical world - things to "must see" before you die - this classic entry is one of them." This then, is irrevocably imprinted on my DNA.
Metallica play well tonight, though I'm most taken with the theatre of it. The forest of kids bouncing up and down. The coffins descending from the roof. The sweat. I'm standing next to four Aussie surfer-looking dudes, one of whom claps me on the shoulder every so often and yells, "How good is this?" The set culminates with the house lights on for ‘Seek and Destroy’ and a blizzard of black beachballs raining from the roof. But then, while birthday boy Kirk waves to the crowd, up behind him march a posse led by a huge, bearded stagehand dressed in the same Snow White uniform worn by the kid in the so-called "child kicking" incident. Retribution. Kirk is cream-pie’d, Hetfield leads the crowd in singing Happy Birthday to the guitarist, whom then yells into the mic, "I can't f**kin' think of a better f**kin' place to have a f**kin' birthday than f**kin' Melbourne!".
While the band are still throwing out guitar picks we walk through the backstage area and into a waiting van. As we make the short trip through the city and then turn into the hotel's entrance, a swarm of black clad fans peel off from the driveway wall expectantly. They see we're not the band and retreat. Inside the lobby, James suddenly arrives in a dressing gown (already), Rob too, and they disappear into the elevators. Feeling buzzed and only just begun, Steffan and I try for the bar. It's closed. We begrudgingly concede the night.
Outside I talk to a few of the superfans about how they found out where the band was staying ("Friends of friends") and whether they've done this kind of thing before ("Oh yeah. Last time they were here"). I tell them that the band have probably gone to bed. Right on cue, Kirk, newly showered, arrives to sign autographs. Turns out the Aussie dudes I was standing with are professional surfers of various stripes. They've been taking Kirk and Rob to a series of breaks along the East Coast of Australia during the tour, and despite it now being nearly 1am, they’re about to chaperone the pair down to Torquay tonight in order to get up early for waves.
As Metallica's minders discuss distances to the petrol station, miles on the odometer and other, I suppose, extremely important things for ferrying millionaire rockstars around unlit foreign clifftop roads, I steal away from the scrum and by the cathedral next door. Its black spires are framing a full moon, and it provides an elegant buffer to my busy mind, blurred with images of the arena, the practice room, Lars' head, gold handrails on red marble and an endless buffet unfolding infinitely.
Words & phone photos (& gallery): Marcus Teague (@marcusTheVine)
This story first appeared in Volume 17 / Number 4 of the Metallica fan-club only magazine So What!. Reprinted here with permission.