When Edwin Outwater listens to Metallica, he doesn’t merely hear the most successful American metal band of all time. He’s also reminded of an iconic 20th century Russian classical music composer.
“That dark lyricism is so much of what sets Metallica apart from other bands, and Shostakovich,” he says. “Also, Shostakovich can get really aggressive and kind of thrashy as well.”
It makes sense that Outwater, a symphony conductor from California who is currently the music director of the San Francisco Conservatory, was tapped to oversee last year’s collaborative concerts by Metallica and the San Francisco Symphony at the new openly Chase Center. The shows, which will be released Friday as the live album S&M2, were a sequel of sorts to performances in 1999 by Metallica and the symphony conducted by the late Michael Kamen, in which they played dramatically revamped renditions of songs like “One” and “Master Of Puppets.” S&M2 marks a return to the same expansive sound, mixing up classics like “Nothing Else Matters” with newer songs such as “Moth Into Flame.”
When I mentioned Outwater’s Shostakovich comparison to Kirk Hammett during a phone interview earlier this week, the Metallica guitarist swiftly concurred.
“I’ve listened to Shostakovich, and it’s really super dark. And then it gets really super intense, really at the turn of a dime,” he said. “When I think about those factors, I mean, heavy metal does that as well. There’s an intensity, there’s a moodiness, and an intensity of emotion. And heavy metal, we’re able to shift that emotion within the next beat, or within the next measure. And classical music can do that, too. You can’t really do that in pop music, or the blues. Even jazz music, you can’t actually do those switching things that quickly. Classical music can do that, so can heavy metal music, and that’s one thing that really shares, is the dramatics.”
For Metallica, the S&M2 shows were the final performances before an audience, pre-pandemic. Now, one of the world’s biggest stadium-rock bands is trying to figure out how to navigate our present, confusing reality. On Saturday, there will be a new Metallica concert — likely their only performance of 2020 — presented as part of the Encore Drive-In Nights series, which takes place at drive-in theaters across the country. (Tickets are available here.) In the meantime, the band is also having regular conversations about when they might resume touring again, though Hammett adds, “I have to warn you, and I have to warn everyone: It’s going to take a long time, and no one’s going to tour until it’s safe.”
In this interview, Hammett discusses the S&M2 album and shares his thoughts on the future of Metallica’s live tours.
The strength of these albums is that even with the orchestra element, it still sounds like Metallica. It would be easy for it to come off as a pretentious, Spinal Tap-style move. Did you have any examples of rock bands playing with symphonies as examples of what not to do?
Well, we knew from the first album that there needed to be a balance, and finding that balance was a trick. With the first one, there wasn’t much of a precedent. The only precedent, really, that we can really think of that was similar, was the Deep Purple album. A concerto written for the London Philharmonic, but that was written in collaboration, and for symphony, and it was different on that behalf. And so there wasn’t really a band out there that was going out and playing balls out heavy metal, and an orchestra coming in and wrapping themselves around a heavy metal band.
We started hearing some of the string arrangements that Micheal Kamen was doing, just kind of like rough demos of string arrangements. We started thinking, “All right, this might be something really, really cool.” And then when we started rehearsing with the orchestra, it made us feel a lot better, because it started to make sense. With this album, we had the luxury of experiencing all of this once before, and knowing that it’s really just a balancing act between the symphony and the band, so that we still come across as a heavy metal band, and the symphony still comes across as a symphony.
Michael Kamen passed away in 2003. Was it strange not having him around this time?
Yeah. To a certain extent, it was a given that this was kind of like an unspoken tribute to him. Because it was his initial inspiration to do this in the first place. It wasn’t us.
A link between both S&M albums is that they start with “Ecstasy Of Gold” by Ennio Morricone, who passed away earlier this year. Metallica has used that as their walk-out music for years, and it always sounds awesome. How did you hit upon that?
We can’t take credit for that. The credit for that goes to Jonny Z, our first manager. I remember he suggested it, and it was tried out, and it was very effective as an intro. The epicness of it, the dark quality of it, the heaviness of it without having a lot of crunch, and the heavy metal guitars, and the heavy beats. But there is a heavy mood to it, and a real, real dark theme to it. And when it stops, you’re kind of left with a feeling of anticipation. I think that’s what’s so great about it, because it really just doesn’t fade out, or come to any sort of positive resolution. It just stops.
I have to think that you can’t hear that song now without immediately feeling the anxious excitement you experience before a show.
Absolutely, completely Pavlovian. There are times when I’ve heard that song, we have not been on stage, and all of a sudden I feel my adrenaline flowing. And then all of a sudden I’m thinking, “Oh man, am I stretched out enough? Am I warmed up enough? Is my guitar in tune? How’s my guitar sound?” And I’m just sitting there at the kitchen table.
These S&M shows took place in September 2019, which was the last time you played before an audience. Now you have this special drive-in show coming up on Saturday. How is that going to work?
We filmed the actual drive-in show about two weeks ago, at a secret location in Northern California. And it was the first time that we had gotten together since the S&M shows. It was really important for us to be able to come together and play that particular show, because we needed to just get some sort of semblance of, if we’re going to go forward in the future, how that was going to look with the pandemic going, and all of these safety protocols. We adapted this whole safety protocol so that we were able to work at HQ, and rehearse without us having any fears of being infected, or infecting other people. What that meant was getting tested for Covid, literally every other day. That week of rehearsal, I got tested for Covid five times.
It also meant that our entire crew had to have face masks on. A double face mask, which was a paper mask and an N95 mask, [plus] a face shield, and a raincoat, and gloves, and sanitize, and just spray our guitars. That was while we were rehearsing. While we were filming, we were the only people in the whole place without masks on. Everyone else had masks on. And everyone, from the crew to us, had been tested, and quarantined as well. We were able to do that, and do that successfully without any health flare-ups, or any obvious sort of potential of getting infected. So that kind of set a precedent for us moving forward. It gave us hope, knowing that with all this that’s happening right now, if we need to, we can still get together and function as a band.
Not to give too much away, but what should people expect on Saturday?
Full balls out, Metallica show. We’re filmed playing outside, and it’s everything you should expect to see from us. We walk out on stage and play our music. It’s just the 2020 version. If anything, it’s a document of us playing in this time. And it’s also an opportunity for us to just put something out there for the people who are bored, and for Metallica fans who need something to do. I know I’m constantly looking for something to do. And so this is our way of going out there and just giving people something.
Looking ahead to 2021 and beyond, have you guys been talking about what touring will be like? There’s so much uncertainty for fans and musicians alike.
We’ve been talking about it a lot. And it’s a constant thing, because I mean, this whole entire time we’ve had dates. And once we hit a certain pandemic milestone, it seems like, okay, now we have to cancel these dates. A couple of months pass, we hit another milestone in the pandemic, and now we can’t play these dates. It’s really, really frustrating, because every two or three weeks, we’re in a different spot. The whole world’s in a different spot, every two or three weeks, and no one is at the same place at any given time.
We’re hoping that maybe if Europe can get it together, then maybe we can start playing some festivals in Europe in the summer. But I don’t know. No one knows. Maybe we’ll be taking temperatures. Maybe there’ll be a saliva test, I don’t know.
I have to warn you, and I have to warn everyone: It’s going to take a long time, and no one’s going to tour until it’s safe. I can only talk for us. We’re not going to tour until it’s safe for our fans. Until it’s safe for our fans, we’re not going to expose them, or take the risk of anyone getting sick and getting infected. We don’t want to be responsible for any sort of irresponsibility of that type.
In the meantime, have you guys talked about the next album?
Yes. We have weekly check-ins, and the dialogue has been steered towards what we’re going to be doing in the immediate future. And I’ve been using this time to go through all my musical ideas that I’ve come up with. In the last three or four years, it’s over 600 ideas, it’s taken me a couple of months to go through it all. But they’ve been sent into the big musical idea bank, and we’re starting to talk about going through all that stuff, and exchanging ideas, and just starting to get the ball rolling towards creating some new material. There’s a lot we can do remotely, but I really think that we all need to be together in the same room, to really create some really, really, really great songs and music. The magic really happens when we’re all in the same room, breathing the same air, even though that can be deadly.
S&M2 is out tomorrow on Blackened Recordings. Get it here.