5 things we learned about James Hetfield from his candid interview with The New Yorker

James Hetfield
(Image credit: Mick Hutson / Future)

James Hetfield's willingness to share his struggles with addiction and anxiety in recent years has been striking – an effort to reach out in the spirit of openness and honesty to help others relate, just as his music with Metallica has done for decades. And in The New Yorker's new profile on the band titled The Enduring Metal Genius Of Metallica, there are candid conversations with Hetfield that continue to cast new, sometimes complex, light on the man and the musician.

The piece features input from all current members of Metallica, as well as friends and peers including Anthrax's Scott Ian, but here's five of the highlights we learned about Hetfield.  

1. He's open about his struggles with addiction

I believe the addiction to fame is a real thing

"I think everyone searches for that sense of presence," Hetfield notes about his ongoing recovery as an addict and the solace he often finds from music when he gets 'in the zone'. "I searched for it in the wrong medicines for a long time. I just wanted to turn my head off," he admits. "That worked until it didn't work. Finding a new god that isn’t alcohol . . . yeah, that's what I'm still workin' on."

The challenges are ongoing for Hetfield, who entered rehab again in September 2019. On the road with Metallica he reveals he has a trusted support network of people around him and is mindful of the trappings of the past – including the prices of fame. 

"My body is tired, but my mind is still going. What do I do with that?" Hetfield reveals. "I just ask people in the crew, or friends, or my assistant, ‘Hey, can you just sit down and watch TV with me?'

"I believe the addiction to fame is a real thing," he adds. "I've got my little recovery posse on the road to help me out. We’ll say a prayer before going onstage: 'James, you're a human being. You're going to die. You're here doing service. You're doing the best you can.' That is helpful for me."

2. He doesn't look back on Load and Reload 

We’ve always been very organic. Load and Reload felt different to me

Metallica cut their hair and went for a looser sound for 1996's Load and its 1997 follow-up, Reload. But it seems that, on reflection at least, the band's creative process changed too much for Hetfield at this point. “We’ve always been very organic. Load and Reload felt different to me,” he observed in the New Yorker piece. “Felt forced.”

Clearly he still enjoys playing some of the albums' songs live, and he's actually a little kinder to the controversial album that followed them… 

3. He's less critical of St Anger 

“Eh, it’s honest,” Hetfield tells The New Yorker writer Amanda Petrusich about Metallica's, er, interesting 2003 album. 

“You might not identify with it, or you don’t like the sound. But that’s where we were, and that’s what we put out. It’ll have its time, maybe,” he laughs. “Maybe not!”

4. He's candid about the trauma of his teenage years

We watched her wither to nothing

Hetfield's parents Virgil and Cynthia were devout Christian Scientists and met in church – and their religious beliefs included the rejection of traditional medicines. The consequences of that would have devastating effects on the Hetfield family.

"When my dad was up there reading from the Scriptures, he was getting tears in his eyes," Hetfield reflects on his early sense of disconnection with the religion. "It moved him. I didn’t get it. I thought something was wrong with me.” 

Virgil left when Hetfield was 13, and two years later Cynthia developed a form of cancer and refused medical treatment on the grounds of her religion.

“We watched her wither to nothing,” says Hetfield. “She had religion around her, inside her. She had practitioners coming over. But the cancer was stronger.” 

She passed away when Hetfield was 16. “I thought she cared more about religion than she did her kids,” he reflects. “It wasn’t talked about, either—if you’re talking about it, you’re giving it power, and you want to take power away from it. So admitting that you’re sick, that’s a no-no. We just saw it happening.” 

The shadow it cast upon the musician's life would manifest in a number of Metallica songs through the years. “There was nothing solid to stand on,” Hetfield looks back in the interview. “I felt extremely lost."

5. James Hetfield is still searching for peace

Maybe that’s a lifelong quest, the search for family

Hetfield's disarming honesty comes to the fore when he's talking about the subject of belonging – and touches upon internal questions others will surely be able to relate to

“Will I ever admit that I found it? Will I ever allow myself to be happy enough to say I found it?" he ponders. "Maybe that’s a lifelong quest, the search for family. When my family disintegrated, early on in life, I found it in music, I found it in the band. 

"I remember Lars being the first one to buy a house and have friends over, and I was, like, ‘Who are these people? You didn’t invite me! You’re cheating on me with another family!’ Obviously, our fans have become a kind of worldwide family. But at the end of the day they say they love you and you kind of go, ‘Ok. . . . what does that really mean?’”

  • Read the full New Yorker feature here 

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Rob Laing
Guitars Editor, MusicRadar

I'm the Guitars Editor for MusicRadar, handling news, reviews, features, tuition, advice for the strings side of the site and everything in between. Before MusicRadar I worked on guitar magazines for 15 years, including Editor of Total Guitar in the UK. When I'm not rejigging pedalboards I'm usually thinking about rejigging pedalboards.