Metallica Raise Hell Again
Bassist Robert Trujillo on the heavy metallers’ blazing new
album, high ambitions, and why they’ll never get old
They’re just a few hours away from kicking off their first show of the new year in Asia at Beijing’s Le Sports Center in China, and it seems like we’ve caught Metallica at their playful peak before the gig. The American metal legends’ bassist Robert Trujillo is talking about what they’ve done differently on their 10th studio album Hardwired… to Self-Destruct (released in India by Universal Music India in November 2016) when drummer Lars Ulrich shouts loud enough to be heard over the phone, “Pedal to the metal!” Guitarist Kirk Hammett completes the sentence, “… and let it roll!” as he tries to pass on half a pancake to Trujillo, who is in splits by now. The bassist says, “He was offering me a bad pancake. I had to turn it down, because that’s the bad pancake.”
Trujillo never really got around to answer what Metallica—a band whose name has become exactly as synonymous with heavy music as they wanted when they burst out in a vapid hair metal scene of the Eighties in Los Angeles – did differently on Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. But we can suppose that it was more of a return to an angrier, relentless brand of thrash metal that recalls seminal works such as … And Justice For All (1988) and Metallica (1991). Trujillo classifies it as a “fun” record for the band, who spent nearly five years working with the likes of super producer Rick Rubin and recording engineer Greg Fidelman (Black Sabbath’s 13 and Lulu, Metallica’s own weird project with the late great Lou Reed in 2011). The bassist adds, “It feels like Death Magnetic was sort of a launchpad and this is the second phase of the journey.”
In an exclusive interview with ROLLING STONE India last month, Trujillo talks about touring plans with Hardwired…, going to the Grammys and performing their rager of a title track “Hardwired” (nominated in the Best Rock Song category) and their time in India.
How are things in Beijing? It looks like you’re in Asia after a while.
It’s been great. We went to the Great Wall of China yesterday and we were in Shanghai just before this and we had a wonderful time there. It’s been, like a combination of performance of shows and concerts along with seeing some sights. Very nice.
Everything sounds good. We’re just starting, we’re just kicking this thing off. It starts here in Asia and we’re going to get across the world, overseas and hopefully back to India and make it happen. So, it all starts now, in Beijing!
A lot of the shows you’re playing after this are more or less sold out—that’s got to be a killer feeling, right?
It’s a good feeling to know that people still care about Metallica. The album seems to be connecting with a lot of people, so that’s great.
At any point during the eight years between Death Magnetic and Hardwired… to Self Destruct, did you feel the band was slacking? Or is all time taken off very much necessary, according to you?
You gotta understand, you’re talking about the eight years that we spent touring Death Magnetic and also you’re talking about the time we spent making a movie. We made a 3D film called Through the Never (2013) which took two years. And then we also made an album with Lou Reed (Lulu) which took a year. We only concentrated specifically on the recording and most of the writing (Hardwired…) in the last two years.
So, the eight years you’re combining the touring of Death Magnetic, some other projects too. We haven’t had time off, actually. It’s been kind of nonstop, really. We even toured during that time and did our own festival called the Orion Festival twice. We’ve been quite busy.
Hopefully the next album, we can get on it without interference, but sometimes you’ve gotta do what you gotta do. I feel our experience with Lou Reed and our experiences during the time off, we did it as a band, so we became better, you know? It helped us make a better album and be a tighter band.
“It’s a good feeling to know that people still care about Metallica.”
And it definitely feels like Metallica is going full speed ahead right now.
Yeah, there hasn’t been a break for a while. Well, not really a break. Couple of weeks here and there. But we enjoy this, to come here to Beijing or just to China and to see the world and play sold out shows. The new music is really special, so we’re enjoying ourselves. This is really the beginning of our new album’s tour cycle, so it’s very exciting for us.
You have co-writing credits on “ManUNkind”— what was your contribution like, to match the flow of the album?
That was a piece that I had prepared and I had intended to be a full instrumental and then James (Hetfield, vocalist) really liked it. He plays a bit of the melody line and he thought it would be really cool and Lars felt, ‘Hey, let’s make this an intro’ because it’s a different universe than “ManUNkind” itself. If you listen to the intro, which was really inspired by Cliff Burton (Metallica’s bassist, who passed away in 1986 following a bus accident) for me, it was a piece of music that had a lot of inspiration from my fallen heroes in music and in life.
And then it goes into this really cool, powerful, almost semi-mathematical song (“ManUNkind”). I’m really happy that it’s in there and I’m very happy it fits with the rest of the songs.
Hardwired… has got this whole theme of mental anguish and I think that’s something that metal bands need to do better, rather than just going on and on about politics and religion. Do you agree?
Yeah, I think with us, we always want to keep it positive and want the message to be positive but we also want our fans to take their own sort of view of lyrics. Metallica lyrics are often times open for interpretation. That allows the listener to be creative and to create their own positive message with the general message. It just so happens that Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, as I would say, is really suitable with the general concept of the times we’re in today.
“Hardwired” as a song… when you say someone’s hardwired, they could be hardwired to be negative or positive or to be passionate. In this case, maybe with our lives, if we make a mistake—that we forget the keys to the car or we lose them—we go, ‘Man, you’re hardwired to self-destruct’. You can use it so many different ways and that’s the general vibe and you can have fun with it.
But at the same time, in these times, in the world we live in, it does make sense, in putting it in that [global social and political] context.
Metallica missed the best Metal Performance nomination at the Grammys, but have “Hardwired” in the Best Rock Song category—does that feel odd? Or at this point, you’re completely okay with people calling Metallica rock music?
The thing that you have to understand is that “Hardwired” was the first single from the album and that was nominated because of the timeline. The nominations of the Grammys happen to coincide with the release of the single, but not with release of the album. So you’ll have to wait until the next Grammys all the nominations for metal and whatever they are.
Then next year, we’ll have the album sent in for nomination. So we’ll be around for the Grammys next year as well. That confused me too, at first. I was like, ‘How could this album be so good and get nominated for one song?’ and then I was told, ‘Well, that’s because it was the only song available at the time for nomination’. So there’s still another year of nominations to go (laughs).
But you know me, I always think that Metallica is not just a metal band. We’re a great rock band and I think that all styles are important. If they want to classify “Hardwired” as a rock song, that’s great. We’re competing with other styles of music, and to me, that’s kind of interesting in itself to be a part of.
You’re also performing at the Grammys—what is that going to be like? Any musicians you hope you run into and fanboy over?
I don’t know, we’ll see! It could be a really interesting experience. I’ll see where it takes us. The last time when we played with (Chinese pianist) Lang Lang at the Grammys [in 2014] was really a neat experience. I’m glad they’re going to have us back, a couple of years later. You see a lot of interesting people.
The last time at the Grammys, I had a great time. I met Stevie Wonder, Joni Mitchell… Sammy Hagar was hanging out with me. It’s an interesting environment where you can meet a lot of your heroes. I even shook hands with (actor and 30 Seconds to Mars frontman) Jared Leto (laughs). It’s nice to meet interesting people.
It’s always neat to meet your heroes. It was just like, ‘Okay, these are two icons for me and I grew up listening to them, how lucky am I?’ It was great, so we’ll see what happens this year. It’s a mystery. I’m looking forward to it, it’ll be a lot of fun.
You’re 52 now—and still the youngest in the band—what’s the one thing you guys all discuss which makes you feel young?
Kirk and I love surfing and whenever we’re on tour and we can go surfing… like we were just in Costa Rica, Puerto Rico and also Ecuador and the Galapagos Island, and it was great, you know? We went to South Africa, Australia, New Zealand, Japan, France—it’s nice when you’re into a sport like surfing and you can also still play music and enjoy both in the same experience. As long as you don’t get hurt.
We all have the things that we enjoy, our passions outside of music. One of the things that’s always interesting to me is whenever the band gets together at our rehearsal space—we call it HQ, headquarter —we put on our instruments and it’s really like being kids. It’s like being young and crazy and jamming and feeling the energy, being able to play the music. It makes you feel youthful and that’s one of the qualities of being a musician in a rock or metal band—you really feel connected that’s actually youthful and invigorating in terms of the energy that you feel and it’s really special. Between surfing and music, I feel young enough and yet at the same time, it’s a matter of keeping yourself healthy and taking care of our bodies and listening to what’s necessary for the transitions in our lives to make us better musicians or physically better to keep playing and doing what we do.
“We have too many ideas! As long as that’s going on, we can still move forward no matter how old we are.”
What’s the one thing you discuss that makes you feel old?
At the same time, shows… you come off stage and your neck’s hurting, your back’s a little sore, your knees might be sore. That’s why you have to condition yourself, but at the same time, you have to accept that it is physical and sometimes you realize it’s not as easy as it used to be. Sometimes, you’re like, ‘Man, I can still do this!’ It just depends on the show. I think a lot of it is in the head, you know? I think yes, there is something that happens to you as you get older and yes, there are challenges, but there are ways to rise above that and stay strong and keep going.
We always say, ‘Hey, [for] the young bands, it’s great and inspirational’. It’s nice for us to do great things because I think it shows and it inspires young musicians to also do big things. It gives them something to work for. ‘Let the old guys show ‘em how it’s done!’ That’s how we feel about Black Sabbath. You go see Black Sabbath and they’re out there, they’re still tearing it up, sounding heavy and it’s a beautiful experience because they’re great songwriters. That’s what we hope and think that we are—great songwriters.
I’m sure some fans are still asking where “The Unforgiven IV” is. That’s something you don’t force, right? Or is the The Unforgiven series pretty much over now?
I hope so (laughs). I hope “The Unforgiven III” was the final chapter of The Unforgivens. I like where we’re at right now. It feels like a new beginning. It feels like Death Magnetic was sort of a launchpad and this is the second phase of the journey and I love the fact that our producer Greg Fidelman did such a tremendous job with the sound of this record. I’m really proud of the way it’s produced and the tone on the bass and the power of this record.
I’m looking forward to doing another one. It’s kind of… feels fresh. We’re excited. It’s not like, ‘Oh we just made this album, what are we going to do for the future?’ I feel like there’s inspiration to play these shows and do more music. Record, write, keep it going.
Then what’s the most ambitious undertaking for you guys now that you’ve got so much out of the way?
I think and believe that there’s more to come. I already feel this between myself and Kirk—we’re eager to contribute as well and I think that there’s some excitement here. It’s really pretty simple—it’s the energy that you feel. Sometimes you feel it and sometimes you don’t. I think we’ve clicked into something special right now and the feeling is right. That’s tough, actually. To be in the band for so many years I’ve been in the band for almost 14 years and the band’s been around for over 30 years—and to be able to say, ‘Wow, we can still make music and have fun’ and there’s no shortage of riffs… It’s not like we’re going, ‘Oh my gosh, I can’t write any riffs! Where’d it go?’ Whatever, that’s not the case. We have too many ideas! We’re blessed. As long as that’s going on, we can still move forward and exist no matter how old we are.
I gotta finish up here, so what I wanted to say is that I feel energized and feel my performance, in terms of learning, still to this day, even with singing backup vocals—there’s a lot of backup vocals on this album—the challenge is great for me personally and it makes me excited for being in this band. I like that the fact the sounds and production for me were a different experience for me with the band. It kind of paves a new road for the future. Let’s have fun touring these shows, playing these songs and get back in the studio and make more music and enjoy life.
Of course, I have to ask about India. (Their 2011 show in Gurgaon had got canceled at the last minute, leading to vandalism by disgruntled crowds). It got us a lot of infamy—how do you look back on your time here?
Well, you know, I thought it was a fascinating experience. India is an incredibly beautiful place. There’s so much magic there, so much inspiration, just between the culture and the music, the people and the beauty. I can’t wait to go back and I do hope we go back. Our situation that happened there, it got really dangerous. The production, I guess there was some production issues with the local production, in terms of the barricade itself? There was a malfunction.
You can’t have that when there are that many people, that kind of energy, for an area to malfunction. It’s very serious. People can die. So hopefully we can get back to New Delhi and do it right and really have solid structure and get back to India and play a great show. I love that place and I’m so inspired by the energy and the magic of everything that India has to offer.
We’re looking forward to it, let’s make it happen, okay? (laughs).
Metallica performs at Rock on the Range in Columbus, Ohio on May 21st, 2017. Details here.