Metallica's ninth album and newest live recording, S&M, is not an ode to women in leather corsets, whips and chains or any other such expected metal fare. It instead stands for "Symphony and Metallica." The legendary Bay City quartet teamed up with conductor Michael Kamen (a man who scored Mr. Holland's Opus, worked with Pavarotti and helped orchestrate Pink Floyd's The Wall) and the San Francisco Symphony last spring to play two nights of Metallica compositions reworked by Kamen. Now, the choicest cuts of both nights can be found on the double-disc S&M, as well as an ensuing DVD. The string section furiously plucks and bows alongside Metallica in metal classics like "Enter Sandman" and "Master of Puppets," as well as four new numbers exclusive to the S&M album.
Singer and guitarist James Hetfield discusses the pros and cons of playing alongside 90-plus instruments, musicians who can actually read sheet music and an audience who keep their shirts on.
Virginmega.com: People often say metal and classical music are at opposite sides of the spectrum, but there really are a lot of similarities: the pomp, the dramatics and the loud/quiet dynamics.
James Hetfield: Especially in our world; we were always trying to write such epic style pieces, especially on Justice For All, our pieces were really long and took you through these whole long mazes of sounds. So now, a song like 'Call of Ktulu' has come full circle. It's like the ultimate complement to that song to play it with a full orchestra because we were trying to be orchestral ourselves. The symphony also completes new songs like 'Outlaw Torn' and 'Bleeding Me.'
Virginmega.com: Were any of the symphony members Metallica fans?
Hetfield: Definitely, the harp player. We met him at the first rehearsal, and we knew he was into our music when he rolled up sleeves and there were a bunch of tattoos. He introduced himself, 'Hi I'm the harpist,' and we were like, 'Get the f**k outta here! You're one of the stage hands.'
Virginmega.com: What about the other symphony players? Do you think they fully appreciated the Metallica experience?
Hetfield: Some didn't enjoy it as much as, say, the harp player. Others loosened up and I think they understood us. But we like to jam, f**k around, and they don't. Even at rehearsal, they play for an hour and fifteen minutes then bows are down, even in the middle of the song. It's like union break time. We were like, 'But what if it's magical at that point? Something amazing is happening?' Well, it's gone. It's just two different worlds. We made it work the best we could. We had to bend, and so did they.
Virginmega.com: Metallica is legendary for their almighty live shows. I heard that on the first night there were problems hearing the orchestra over the band.
Hetfield: Afterwards, friends came up and said, 'You couldn't even hear the orchestra.' But there were a lot of firsts going on in that place: we were not playing with any amps, we had ear monitors and Lars [Ulrich, the drummer] was playing behind Plexiglas so he wasn't overpowering the orchestra, which was all acoustic. But our soundman, Big Mick, we call him Full Roar for a reason. He turns those faders up and doesn't stop. He didn't know what to do with the orchestra. His main thing was to make us sound good, which he did. The next night, his main goal was to put these other 90 members on stage into the mix. We knew it wouldn't sound perfect, that's why we mixed it and put it out on CD so you can get a full perspective. On DVD, we're going on different levels so you can hear just the symphony or just the band.
Virginmega.com: Would you do this again?
Hetfield: I wouldn't want to make this a regular touring thing. We are doing two more shows for promotional purposes, one in Berlin and one at Madison Square Garden in New York, so at least we'll spread the disease a little bit, but not overdo it. I want this to remain a special San Francisco thing. But the scores are already written, so you can put it in front of any orchestra.
Virginmega.com: If you did an album the other way around, like Metallica plays classical favorites, could you guys pull it off?
Hetfield: What, like us playing my favorite Bach piece? Not really. But as a joke I did a whole set list of Metallica songs with orchestra innuendoes. There was Mozart Breath instead of 'Motor Breath,' Wolfgang Man instead of 'Of Wolf and Man.' I think there's been enough rock musicians doing stuff like that - Yngwie Malmsteen, Dream Theater. It doesn't really interest me. It's a little too rigid.
Virginmega.com: I know part of the challenge in playing classical music is the tradition, discipline and ability to fully read music. Do you know how to read music?
Hetfield: I did when I was about six or seven years old. My mother saw me banging on the piano once and mistakenly thought I was the next child prodigy, so she put me in some old lady's house after school to learn. It really stunk. It's one of those things when you blurt out, 'Hey lady, your house smells funny.' I would have rather been out playing football with my buddies, but now I thank her everyday for that because it developed my ear, and she made me sing at rehearsals as well, so I had to sing in public. I did read music for a while, but as time goes on, you forget things you don't use. I wish I had kept up with it, but it's not really necessary for us. It's all by ear. That's how I learned to play guitar, off playing records.
Virginmega.com: In Metallica terms, you guys really turned this album around fast. It's only really been six months from the performance to the release of the CD.
Hetfield: Yeah, mixing a song in two days is the quickest we've done anything. It's difficult enough with the four of us, four tracks, there's enough arguments there, but with 90 tracks. We mixed the orchestra, then mixed the band, then combined them and tweaked it from there. Two days for one song was really, really pushing it. No one got any sleep. But in the Metallica world, you don't get any sleep. If you enter, beware.
Virginmega.com: You and Lars both have kids ...
Hetfield: Not with each other. We dated for a while, but discussed kids and it just didn't seem like a good idea.
Virginmega.com: Okay, what I was going to say is how are you balancing the roles of father and rock star?
Hetfield: I don't know yet. Whether we have kids or not, the touring schedule is so grueling, we're at the point where we can dictate our own schedule. It takes two weeks to warm up on the road, so we don't just want to go home. You've got to take advantage of that machine running smooth and powerful. So you're out for a month or two at a time. It's also not so bad to bring the family out.
Virginmega.com: You used to leave the task of interviewing up to Lars. Are you more comfortable with this process now?
Hetfield: It's in my contract [laughs]. I just got more comfortable with it. There was a point around Ride the Lightning where I felt that I was being misquoted, I didn't understand the press game. My remedy was just not to do it. It was the worst thing because then they make up shit. It's always better to sound like your own idiot than someone else's.