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Edwin Outwater: The Conductor Behind Metallica’s ‘S&M2’

The artist opens up about the unique collaboration, what he took away from the experience and teases future work with the thrash metal giants

David Britto Feb 21, 2020

American music conductor Edwin Outwater.

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For metal giants Metallica’s second iteration of their epic collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony, S&M, hits like “Master of Puppets” and “Enter Sandman” received orchestral arrangements all over again. As the band thrashed their way through on stage, one figure stood out for his precise movements, symphony conductor Edwin Outwater.

As seen in the film S&M2 — which captured the September 2019 concert but only released in India in January — the sequel to S&M saw Outwater keep the 70-odd members of the symphony on their toes throughout the performance. 

Outwater – who was tapped in May last year to be part of S&M2 – grew up around the music industry. He says, “My grandmother was the personal manager of [American jazz singer] Ella Fitzgerald and my father worked for Warner Bros. Records.” Growing up in Santa Monica, the conductor was into a lot of rock and jazz music before he got into classical music which he puts down to the public schools in the beachfront city for having “an excellent classical music education program.”

The artist admits that he did enjoy listening to Metallica from time to time, but it wasn’t until he was chosen for S&M2 did he take a deep dive into the band as well as heavy music. He says about his findings, “The Big 4 [American metal outfits Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer], earlier stuff like [British bands] Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden as well as modern thrash bands like Power Trip who I really like!”

S&M2 and Metallica weren’t the first band he’d work with, however. The maestro has been tapped for with American rockers Cheap Trick’s Sgt. Pepper Live concerts in 2009, U.K. experimental rock group These New Puritans and French singer-songwriter Woodkid at the 2016 Montreux Jazz Festival. “I’ve also worked with [British musician] Seal and quite extensively with [American singer-songwriter] Ben Folds,” he says.

Ahead of preparing for S&M2 ask Outwater if he revisited the original 1999 S&M conducted by the late Michael Kamen and he says, “Absolutely! I wanted to know what went well and what we could do better. It really was the starting point for all of us.” Outwater was also the one who decided to include Kamen’s arrangement for the soaring “Outlaw Torn” off Metallica’s 1996 album Load to be part of the setlist. “It featured the orchestra really well,” he says.

Before rehearsals for the gig began Outwater was in constant communication with recording engineer Greg Fidelman and Bruce Coughlin, who arranged the new songs. “Greg would communicate with the band and I talked to Lars [Ulrich, drummer] and James [Hetfield, vocalist-guitarist] on the phone once directly before we met in person.” According to Outwater, Ulrich was heavily involved in putting together the setlist for the show.

One of the standout moments in S&M2 comes when Hetfield performed the rock ballad “The Unforgiven III” off their 2008 album Death Magnetic with just the orchestra backing him up. “He [Hetfield] listened to around eight different versions until Bruce created one he was happy with,” says Outwater. According to the conductor, information flowed well between all parties even though communication was mostly remote. He says, “The final rehearsal period was the week before the show, and there was a lot to do: sound, getting used to the unusual [circular] stage setup, rehearsing [the classical piece] ‘The Iron Foundry’ with Metallica and getting used to each other.”  

Elsewhere during the concert, San Francisco Symphony bassist Scott Pingel paid tribute to late Metallica bassist Cliff Burton by performing “(Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth” off the group’s 1983 debut album Kill ‘Em All. It was reported that Pingel pestered Outwater to include the song as part of the show. The conductor says, “He did! And I’m glad he did. Absolutely a highlight of the concert.” He adds, “And the looks on Metallica’s faces when he ‘auditioned’ for them at Metallica HQ were priceless. They were blown away.”

Outwater tells us that since working on S&M2, he’s been inspired by Metallica’s work ethic and willingness to take risks even 39 years into their career and that they aren’t the sort to rest on their laurels. He says, “They were all four a total delight to work with.” The conductor adds, “When the ingredients are right and everyone is willing to work and work together, there’s nothing more fun than these collaborations!”

2020 will see Outwater as busy as ever as he continues his work with the San Francisco Symphony and also has rock collaborations in the pipeline with the likes of Ben Folds, Los Angeles outfit Airborne Toxic Event and American musician Trey Anastasio (from psych-rock veterans Phish). “Maybe even some other Metallica related projects, which are currently secret,” the conductor adds.

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