For Metallica guitarist and singer James Hetfield, the band—even in its earliest days, when they made the decision to leave Los Angeles to cut their teeth in San Francisco’s music scene—was only interested in heading in one direction: forward, and on to the next thing on the bucket list.
“We were asked, ‘What was plan B?’” he told Apple Music’s Zane Lowe. “It's like, 'Well, plan B was making plan A work.' As simple as that. There was no other plan: It was 'We're going to do this. And if it doesn't work out, then whatever happens, happens.' But honestly, that's what happened throughout our careers. We don't know what's happening next. We'd let the challenges come to us, and then write about them, use them as what they're supposed to be, which is experiencing life. Yeah, there was a goal, but our goals changed—'oh, our goal is to get a tour bus.' And, 'Okay, now we got that. Now we're going to go on tour with a bigger band.' And then this, and then that. And the slow, constant climb up.”
In a far-reaching conversation about four decades of Metallica, Hetfield, drummer Lars Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo walked Lowe through their formative experiences, their highs and lows, their favorite memories of making music together, and their origin story, which began with Ulrich placing a classified ad in search of like-minded rockers on the rise. He and Hetfield hit it off, as they were both driven to make the dream happen at all costs, even if it meant picking up and leaving town to do so.
“When we were down here by ourselves in LA, we were so contrary to everything that was going on, on the Strip and the clubs,” he remembered of their early years. “We were just fueled by the contrariness. When we went to San Francisco, that was the first time that we belonged to something. There were people up there that were like us; there were people up there that were listening to the same music, that felt like we did. And there was a whole collection of misfits up in San Francisco—especially in the East Bay—that were sort of like all the same ilk as us. It was the first time I think we felt that sense of belonging to any place.”
Hammett joined the band shortly after its formation, and Trujillo came into the fold in 2003. (Cliff Burton, Metallica’s founding bassist, died in a tragic tour bus accident in 1986, then was replaced by Jason Newsted.) Trujillo recalls entering the orbit of Metallica as a member of Suicidal Tendencies, an act that opened for them on tour, in the months leading up to the recording of their self-titled 1991 LP, commonly known as the Black Album. To celebrate its 30th anniversary, Metallica released The Metallica Blacklist, an enormous, 53-track tribute to the record that features covers of its songs from a wide and compelling array of artists, from Elton John and Miley Cyrus to Flatbush Zombies and Phoebe Bridgers.
“These are songs that all of us are used to hearing a certain way, and then all of a sudden it's like an explosion of all these different types of versions, and I'm amazed,” Hammett said of the Blacklist. “There's been cover versions of Metallica songs since the Black Album came out,” added Ulrich. “Earlier, we were playing with Miley, and Elton John was on a Zoom call,” said Hetfield. “And he says, 'Nothing Else Matters' is one of the most beautiful melodies and love songs written.' And I was like, 'No way, there's no way this man is saying that! He wrote “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” and “Candle in the Wind,” come on! Are you sure?' A huge compliment, and I will take it for what it is.”