My Week With Metallica - Part 1
At the tail end of 2010, Metallica's drummer Lars Ulrich called my mobile. He'd read a review I'd written of the band, found my number and wanted to have a talk.
Here now, for the first time online, is the story of what happened next.
By Marcus Teague
Metallica headline the 2013 Soundwave festival, beginning next week in Brisbane.
"Marcus”, he drawls. “How'd you get so cool? You’re tall, you’re an awesome writer…”
Lars Ulrich's voice trails off from the back seat of our limo cab. It's 4am, Saturday 20th November 2010. We've just left the Metallica End of Tour party and we're now on our way to notorious Melbourne rock dive Cherry Bar. For reasons absolutely more to do with drunken bravado than common sense.
I don’t know.* "I don't know", I reply. "It's probably similar to being in one of the biggest bands in the world."
Zipping through the cold, empty streets of Melbourne we arrive outside Cherry and wobble down the appropriately named AC/DC lane. Lars holds his hand out for a stamp like the rest of us and we file into the tiny, dimly lit backroom. Half-populated by Metallica crew and support band members, the other half all reedy, faux rock types and their platinum blonde partners, a gaggle soon forms around the drummer like flies to the zapper. I stand back with the rest of us; Steffan Chirazi, editor of the Metallica fan club magazine So What!, Barbara, Lars' tireless PA and Allen Bickle, the drummer from support band Baroness. A glance into the front bar reveals a vision of torn denim jackets and skinny jeans, dancing and posing to the kind of music being made by the people in the back. Returning, I offer my company drinks. Foolishly, my own has been laid down in front of Lars and when I look back the somewhat drunk drummer has poured it into his own glass. OK then. This is the lay of the land.
Exactly a week prior I had received a call from Lars Ulrich, out of the blue. "Hey Marcus this is Lars from Metallica. How you doing?" I wasn’t sure. A month beforehand I had seen the band's first Australian show of the World Magnetic tour in Melbourne, and had written a review of it for TheVine. I liked the band's show a lot, but I had singled out Lars as the night's potential achilles. I wrote that, "Lars has the hardest task here. His nemesis? His younger self. Ulrich clearly now struggles with some of the decisions he made on the kit when he was in his youthful prime, things that the older body doesn't want to do." To be clear, I did add that "what he does achieve is formidable". Although I also said that he looked at times like a "gurning elf". He was calling me, no doubt, to offer personal retribution.
I was wrong. Lars loved the piece, thought it the kind of unique perspective on his band that—he said—he hadn't read about in a long time. And so, would I be interested in hanging out with the band over the last four days of their World Magnetic tour, (which after two and a half years circling the globe, was conveniently due to wrap up in my hometown), and then write it up for the Metallica fan club magazine? "Sure." I said. To Lars.
It’s the following Thursday, the first day of the Melbourne shows, and I'm sitting in the foyer of the Grand Hyatt. I've waited for half an hour with no sign of So What! editor Steffan Chirazi nor anyone from Metallica. "What's the difference between the Grand Hyatt and the Park Hyatt?" I enquire at the counter. "It's more boutique" she says. "And up the road". I hotfoot it uptown to find Steffan patiently waiting amongst the deep couches, red marble and gold encrusted overwhelming boutique-ness of the hotel. Immediately we're led into a waiting Tarago van, a bevy of accents and a journey through the money end of town before descending into the bowels of Rod Laver Arena.
Behind the scenes, arena shows are dramatically plain affairs. Hallways of fluro lighting, officious looking boxes, staff and instructions laid about with all the rockstar affects of a hospital waiting room. Steffan takes me in a loop of proceedings, and I do my best to remember names while being introduced to the key crew members responsible for my survival over the next four days. Thom, the head of security who looks like a cross between Kerry King from Slayer and a disgruntled UFC Champion (and who would tell me days later, that—as an ex-NFL player—he won't flinch at flattening stage invaders), and the mystically-named 'Bean', who is 'Dressing Room Coordinator' and also the mother of the "baby" that Kirk Hammett savagely booted into the audience two nights previous in Sydney. (Or so worldwide media has claimed: the child—who is not a baby—was inconveniently hidden from Kirk's view by a giant beachball that he booted off stage (see clip below). It hit the child, she fell, was fine. That management had to then release a statement and accompanying pic of Hammett and the kid smiling together, goes some way to hinting at what scrutinized air we're currently ingesting).
After getting a rundown on who might hold the precious backstage passes that will allow me to—as I'm thinking—not have my larynx ripped out by Thom should I graze on the wrong bag of chips, I'm led to a comfy lounge-like area outside the bands dressing room. A six-seater brown leather couch faces a large LCD TV, beyond which lies a makeshift—but plain—dining room for the band. And then the actual members dressing rooms. It's all comfortable in passing but obviously transient -- like a quiet corner of IKEA. Outside the dressing room door sits a smaller table with a guitar and show programs to be signed. "For the promoter", says a sign above it. The band aren't present, so while Steffan disappears to try and find me the right pass, I wander out to the main dining area, where clusters of black clad and variously hirsute crew members are scattered across a dozen or so cafeteria-like tables.
After eyeballing rooms of serious looking silent types and passing a series of lockers smattered with photos of family members, kids and other childrens ephemera, I round a corner to the band's dressing room and come to face to face with James Hetfield. He's currently in conversation with Steffan about...soccer. The breathtaking thing about meeting super famous people face to face is, not their fame, but that you've seen their image so many times previously that the real thing seems false. Off. Like a waxwork figure come to life. So it is with Hetfield, who—and I'm not the first or last to say this—is powerfully intimidating in close quarters. It's the way he stands; like a gunslinger -- chin jutted, arms laid across his chest like ship ropes, his milky, ice-blue eyes able to bore through your inquisitive local villager's face. One thinks.
"James, this is Marcus", Steffan offers as we shake hands. "He's the fly on the wall for the rest of the tour". Hetfield looks me up and down. "Big fly". I pretend to look down as if it's my crotch he's addressing, he chuckles some, and we're off discussing—of all things—the recently released Jackass 3D movie. Which (probably to our mutual but unspoken embarrassment) all three of us have seen. Hetfield thought much of it was funny, but didn't go for the more "disgusting" stuff, and I then find myself asking the emotional force of Metallica, whose genre-defining musical achievements I could never quite force my teen guitar fingers to play fast enough, if he thought the exploding dildo sequence was hilarious. He did.
Bassist Rob Trujillo exits the dressing room, shakes my hand warmly and carries on to the cafeteria, presumably passing Kirk Hammett, who now appears with his own plate of food and also shakes my hand before disappearing into the band room. (Over the course of the weekend Rob and Kirk will scan as the laid back Yin to Lars and James’ more forthright Yang. This ‘ships in the night’ sequence seems appropriate.) Hetfield welcomes me once more before following Kirk. We didn't talk music or Metallica once. This, I think, is important.
Finally, compact and with the leaned hunch of someone who's been coiled behind a drumkit for the majority of his physical evolution, a beaming Lars Ulrich strides across the room like the centre of attention he's clearly used to being. He slaps me on the shoulder whilst shaking hands and tells me how it good it is to see me. Physically Lars is completely disproportionate to his outsized persona; all intense looks of concentration and charismatic introductions emanating from his slight frame. I've been invited here by him and this meeting makes it purposeful. "All this is your playground", he gestures while smiling. "You're our guest. Have fun".
*I do know -- Lars put me in this position himself. Something easily surmised in close quarters is that Lars has the addictive quality of deferring to others -- for a great talker he's also a gracious and complimentary host. The rub is that to be in that position, one must be put there by Lars.
Continued next page: Dinner with Lars; band practice; pretending I'm in Metallica.