Obey Your Maestro: Metallica, Cliff Burton, and metal's classical heart

Ahead of Metallica's S&M2 album, Lars, Kirk and Robert dig deep into the influence of classical music on the world's biggest metal band

Obey Your Maestro: Metallica, Cliff Burton, and metal's classical heart
Nick Ruskell
Cover photo:
Tom Barnes
Live photos:
Anton Corbijn, Brett Murray

Possibly the coolest things about being in Metallica, reckons Lars Ulrich, is the opportunity it affords to do “big, crazy projects”. It helps keep things interesting if you can break out of being all “album-tour-album-tour”, answer the door when opportunity knocks, and see where it takes you. A movie, your own festival, an album with Lou Reed… If it feels new and pioneering, if everyone digs it, it’s worth a try – even if you don’t know what the results will be like at the other end.

Right now Lars, at home in San Francisco – “Where it’s fuckin’ 200 degrees,” he informs us, before adding a withering laugh, “but I guess that just shows global warming isn’t real, right?” – is doing post-match analysis on two such projects. A couple of days ago, he and the rest of “the fellas” in Metallica – frontman James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo – filmed a show in an empty venue to be shown in drive-ins across America this Saturday night (August 29), an attempt to see what can be done in the “new world order” live music needs to find.

The other thing on the band’s plate is, of course, S&M2. Performed and recorded on September 6 and 8 last year, the sequel to Metallica’s 1999 team-up with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra is finally being released as a live document this Friday (August 28). Featuring classics from the first time around, a new raft of orchestra’d-up songs, full-on classical pieces (Alexander Mosolov’s Iron Foundry and part of composer Sergei Prokofiev’s Scythian Suite), and a brilliant reimagining of late bassist Cliff Burton’s legendary (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth on an upright bass, part two is even bigger, bolder, and more daring than the original. Played to just shy of 40,000 fans across two nights, it may be a world away from and have come about under very different circumstances to their socially-distanced drive-in recording – where, according to Kirk, “Everyone was masked up apart from us when we were recording and we had to do COVID tests every other day beforehand” – but both embody the band’s spirit of saying ‘yes’ to the biggest of thinking.

“It kind of came about accidentally, with the opening of this new state-of-the-art arena here in San Francisco, the Chase Center,” explains Lars. “They were kind enough to reach out to us and ask if we would be part of opening it. We started thinking about what we could do to really make the event special and make it ultimately about San Francisco. Not just, ‘Hey, here’s Metallica opening the new arena,’ but to really celebrate San Francisco, the Bay Area, Northern California, all the great things the city stands for. Then someone went, ‘Oh shit, it’s 20 years since S&M O.G. from ’99.’ So we were like, ‘Fuck, let’s do a new version of that.’”

And a new version it was, on every front. For one thing, Metallica have three more albums of material from which to build a set than they did in 1999, so alongside knockouts from last time like For Whom The Bell Tolls and the magical version of The Call Of Ktulu, there’s newer stuff like Moth Into Flame, Halo On Fire and The Day That Never Comes. For another, with the passing of conductor and, as Lars puts it, “instigator” of the ’99 concerts, Michael Kamen, in 2003, the project was this time helmed by Michael Tilson Thomas, the orchestra’s Artistic Director, who Lars credits with “going further and pushing more”.

“It’s important that this isn’t a diss to Michael Kamen, but I think his vision [in 1999] was more to unify the different worlds of classical and rock, and the approach was maybe a little more traditional,” Lars muses. “I think that Michael Tilson Thomas was more up for pushing it a little. If Kamen said 20 years ago, ‘Let’s do a classical piece,’ I don’t think we would have been open to that. Or if he’d said, ‘Let’s highlight one of the members of the orchestra,’ I don’t know if we would have been open to that. So the circumstances all the way around met for casting the net wider in 2019 than 20 years ago.”

The landscape now compared to the landscape then is noticeably different, of course. In 1999, rock and classical music were not easy bedfellows. There had been dalliances, certainly, such as Deep Purple’s 1969 live album Concerto For Group And Orchestra, while Michael Kamen himself had worked with artists like Pink Floyd and Eric Clapton, but things were a long way from Nightwish making every album with an orchestra as a matter of course, or a band like Bring Me The Horizon appearing at the Royal Albert Hall and bringing a string section onstage at a festival, as they did at London’s All Points East last year.

Growing up, Lars remembers classical as being “grandpa’s music” – respected and present in his life, but not his bag as much as rock or jazz. For Kirk Hammett, it was a more interesting thing, including a stint learning classical guitar. In fact, despite being the last member of Metallica to play with the SF Symphony, it’s Rob Trujillo who was the first to play with an orchestra – albeit in the 1970s.

“Before this show, I hadn’t played with an orchestra since I was 16,” he laughs. “When I was in school I played bass in a couple of musicals, with an orchestra as part of that. That was the last time I’d played with that many players! We did Guys And Dolls, so there was acting onstage and singing, and I was playing in the orchestra pit.”

“I’ve become a fan of the orchestra from seeing them perform for the last 20 years”

Hear Lars Ulrich discuss his relationship with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra by clicking above

Robert’s father played flamenco guitar, and taught the skill to his son (Google it – he shreds). Kirk, meanwhile, found the rock/classical music interface through a less direct back door. Deep Purple guitarist Ritchie Blackmore, a huge influence on the young axeman, was noted for adding elements of classical and folk music to Purple and Rainbow’s palette, and even further into those waters was German wunderkind Michael Schenker, of Scorpions, UFO and his own Michael Schenker group.

Michael Schenker was – still is, actually – awesome. Had he been American, he would have beaten Eddie Van Halen to the punch of being the guitarist who changed everything. Technically gifted to an insane degree, he also came at it from a completely different angle than most rock’n’roll players at the time.

“When I started playing guitar, I’d look to people like Michael Schenker,” Kirk remembers. “The first composer I was drawn to was Strauss, and later on, I loved Bach, Beethoven, Mozart… German musicians have had a huge influence on me! They embrace a different type of scale – modal playing, which is a different scale based on the tones on a guitar. Schenker used that so effectively that it made him stand out, because everyone else was playing the same blues scales. But he was doing crazy arpeggios and things. My ears perked up, and I wanted to play like that, so I learned all the scales he was using.”

This rubbed off in a useful way. If you’re looking for a pro-tip on how to write and arrange riffs like Metallica, try this: write a riff, then another using the same notes in a different order. Repeat. This, Kirk says, though not studied or a hard and fast rule, but it is a classical method of dealing with music and melody.

“That’s how we’ve done things since [1984’s second album] Ride The Lightning,” Kirk reveals. “And that’s what classical composers have done for, like, 600 years! It’s not like we sit down and decide to do it that way – we just naturally started doing that when we were jamming. It was a way of making one riff into five riffs. In guitar circles it’s called Riff Mining.”

For Lars, the crossover early on was more subtle, and continues to be to this day. It’s less of a technical bit of learning, he says, but more a load of simpler things that catch your ear and rub off on you more quietly and less obviously, whether that’s hearing classical fingerprints in Deep Purple and Scorpions’ music, Cliff Burton literally bringing Beethoven records over, or playing with an actual orchestra.

“Deep Purple, who were a huge influence on me, would always sit there and talk about classical music, or Ritchie Blackmore would talk about Bach, or Cliff would talk about it,” he says. “These threads are out there, and they exist, so obviously all these things don’t live in all separate worlds with separate inspiration and points or origin. [But] I can’t sit there and tell you that if you listen to the fourth song on [2008 album] Death Magnetic, in minute four, that section was inspired by the orchestra… It’s much broader than that.”

In fact, it wasn’t actually until work began on the first S&M shows in 1999 that Lars witnessed live classical music first hand. Thanks, as circular serendipity type stuff would have it, to Michael Tilson Thomas.

“Well, what happened was that when we did the first project in ‘99, although Michael Tilson Thomas was not involved, he was the musical director of the San Francisco Symphony,” tells Lars. “He and his husband are very inviting, and at least half a dozen times every season I’d get a, ‘Come down and check out this [Gustav] Mahler piece we’re doing…’ So I’ve become an avid fan of the orchestra from going to see them perform for the last 20 years. But before that, not so much (laughs). First of all, there was no email at the time, so there weren’t any invitations in the inbox! But post ’99, I’ve been a very regular attendee, thank you very much, of the orchestra and their performances in San Francisco.”

One thing you may not have considered about the fall of the rock/classical Berlin Wall over the past two decades is the effect it’s had going the other way. An orchestra has a turnover of people, as players retire or go elsewhere and are replaced by newer blood. With the lines between genres “melting together a bit more” as Lars puts it, and playing classical music not being (quite) so much of an elitist thing anymore, it’s natural that the orchestra should feature players who grew up with a foot in rock.

“It’s important to note that 20 years ago the worlds of classical and rock were further apart than they are now,” he says. “Young people are not just hearing one thing. Thirty years ago, if you were a metal kid, then you’d be, ‘Fuck this, fuck that, fuck these guys,’ but it’s not that black and white or extreme anymore. One of the main differences between the orchestra now and 20 years ago is that the orchestra skews quite a bit younger than it did then, and quite a few of the younger musicians now have come up through less of a traditional classical path, and maybe had more of a broad musical journey. So rock music and Metallica have been a part of their path. To be able to have players in the orchestra who have a different understanding of what Metallica does – or ‘what we have done’ may be a better way of saying it – it brings us all closer as collaborators.”

Case in point: symphony bassist Scott Pingel, who made a contribution to S&M2 that beautifully illustrates what these projects have grown into. His idea was to play Cliff Burton’s iconic (Anesthesia) Pulling Teeth bass solo on an upright bass. As an idea of anyone trying to bring such a thing to the table, Kirk Hammett had some reservations.

“He wanted to play us his interpretation of Cliff’s solo,” he recalls. “Whenever I hear [someone say] that, I’m always kind of sceptical, because I sat in front of Cliff night in, night out watching him play bass. So whenever I see people attempting that, it’s a weird thing for me.”

But Scott was invited down to Metallica’s HQ anyway to show them what he’d got. And you have to imagine the pressure there: selling Metallica your version of a song that’s almost verboten to do, in a way they’ve never heard it, on an upright bass you’re running through guitar pedals to get a heavier sound, as they sit and watch you. However…

“After he played that, our jaws dropped,” grind Kirk. “It was one of the best interpretations I’ve ever heard, and he brought it to a new level.”

“What a beautiful statement and arrangement,” adds Rob. “That’s the beauty of this thing. It gets crafted on paper as an idea, and then it comes to life.”

“When Scott came [in] with this credible version that blends his approach to his instrument with what Cliff wrote 37, 38 years ago, it was such an incredible moment,” says Lars. “It was insane to see how the fans took to it and how great it came out.”

“What was really cool was that you could tell these musicians were excited to be part of something like this [as much as we were], and for them it’s also something very different,” notes Rob. “You catch them smiling or headbanging or waving at you, there’s a connection that we had with them. That was really cool.”

“Cliff Burton brought a lot of orchestral arrangements to the band early on”

Click above to hear Rob Trujillo discuss why Metallica and classical music melds so well

All of this once again raises the old question of why, despite the lines that may have existed between them in the past, metal and classical music work so well.

“The music of Metallica lends itself very well to orchestrated arrangements,” says Rob. “I believe that Cliff Burton brought a lot of that to the band early on, and if you think about how James composes a lot of the guitar arrangements and the harmonies, that already there is just a platform for great orchestration.”

By way of example, he points to a song Metallica wrote, before he was in the band, especially for the original S&M show.

“I heard No Leaf Clover, and I was really impressed with that song,” he recalls, “because the balance was really, really strong between the orchestra and the riff and the melody, and then it was sort of consolidated into this nice arrangement. And I thought, ‘Man, they did it again. These guys always like throwing curveballs out there and pulling it off.’”

Kirk has his own theory as to why it all fits together so well, one that goes back way further than even rock music.

“A lot of the moods of rock are similar to classical, like darkness especially,” he suggests. “I genuinely believe that generations ago musicians were looking for something like heavy metal, but it just hadn’t been created yet because the technology wasn’t there. So they had to opt for different things. Like, Russian composers were super heavy, and that’s why there’s two classical Russian pieces in the set. It was a way to draw a line between what we do and heavy classical music.”

Whatever the reason, S&M2 is Metallica once again trying something, fully grasping the nettle, and making something new, forward-thinking, thrillingly adventurous and masterfully executed out of it. And so we come back to Lars’ original point. Beyond the detail, beyond the whys and hows and histories and intellectual considerations that can explain the reason Metallica-plus-orchestra-equals-success, the important thing about S&M2, about anything Metallica take on, is that it’s part of a bigger picture of adventure, pioneer spirit and trying to do something that’s genuinely never been done before.

“Doing projects like this makes it fun to be in Metallica,” he asserts. “There’s always a moment where you sit and wonder if it might not work, but that’s kind of part of the dare. And you can’t help yourself – you have to fuckin’ look at it and turn over those rocks and see what happens. We’re just so curious and I’m very proud of the fact that we always respect that curiosity and protect it from ourselves or talking ourselves out of it. All these things help us as musicians and makes Metallica more interesting to us and to other people also. But you never really know, but you learn to trust along the way.

“It inspires you to keep going, it inspires you to continue to want to connect and create music. Doing all these things – movies, S&M, whiskey, doing this, doing a collaboration with someone – this all just fuels you to stay creatively connected and inspired and just want to be in a band. All these deviations from the path forward are super fun, and it makes you come to a more traditional Metallica thing like writing and recording an album with new spunk and recharged batteries.”

And then, he sums up the most important part of all.

“You feel inspired to continue feeling good about being in a band.”

Metallica’s S&M2 is released Friday, August 28 – pre-order CD, vinyl and limited edition deluxe boxsets now.

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