"The mind is the enemy most of the time": James Hetfield talks about overcoming anxiety and finding faith in his creativity

James Hetfield of Metallica performs live on stage at Olympiastadion on May 24, 2024 in Munich, Germany
(Image credit: Mark Wieland/Getty Images)

"I'm so grateful it doesn't shut off," says James Hetfield of his desire to keep playing music, even when he's off the road. "Whether it's just an escape from life or whatever it is, I love my little music room basement. I've got a computer and a few guitars and a little rig set up. It is my soul-nourishing place to go in there and just play, and write."

The Metallica legend checked in with The Metallica Report podcast for a rare interview as the M72 world tour gets back underway, and as is often the case with the big man when he does speak publicly these days – he's candid about his fears as well as hopes as a musician.

My faith and where it comes from is strong

"My faith and where it comes from is strong," he says of his lyric writing. "And just like when you're onstage and you don't know what you're going to say, that sacred moment when you walk up to the mic and you say what you're supposed to just then. Trusting that moment, trusting the moment the lyrics will be there when they're supposed to. 

"The lyric journey is kind of its own thing," adds Hetfield. "Music, yeah, it's a collaboration of all of us. Then lyrically, I can freak out, like I don't know what to write about. Then I just start somewhere and it ends up going somewhere else. You start somewhere then, oh that kind of sounds like this story or that sounds like this character or whatever. Then you have the metaphor of what does it mean. There's a deeper, vaguer attachment to something else that hopefully everyone can relate to so it's not just about my struggle with darkness or whatever. There's definitely a theme there but [it's] being able to riff off of that and go to other places. So yes, trusting that it will find its uniqueness."

But Hetfield admits he's well aware that faith and confidence in his creative process can be undermined: "The mind is the enemy most of the time," he notes. "And just trying to avoid that overthinking and then just stream of consciousness – just be connected to a higher power or whatever you want to believe in. That what's supposed to come through me is supposed to right at that time, and not will it to happen."

By now you'd imagine Hetfield knows the Metalica back catalogue off by heart ahead of a tour. Then you remember just how demanding his role is physically and mentally as the rhythm guitarist, vocalist and frontman for the biggest metal band on the planet. He's well aware of that pressure too.

"Over the last month I will say the normal thing happens when I start to doubt myself, I start to feel insecure that we're too old and we can't do this blah blah blah – all that bullshit that everyone tells themselves before they go into something that they care about, that's important. 

These fears can manifest themselves in Hetfield's dreams.

"Having the nightmares of, I'm the only one who cares about what we're doing here – where is everyone?" he recounts. "I show up at the gig and everyone's goofing off and there's 200 people backstage and where's my stuff? Where's the setlist? What songs are we doing?

"And then typical things of, oh the guitar neck is made of rubber and there's only to strings on it, and where's my roadie? The cord won't let me get to the microphone – silly stuff like that that has to happen, and I don't freak out over it."

Instead Hetfield trusts the process that's served him well.

You have that balance of anxiety and faith

"You practice, and it comes back pretty quickly. It's part of the cycle – it still is. You have anxiety buildup and don't let it get the best of you because you have that balance of anxiety and faith, and as soon as you get up there it's gonna be good."

Hetfield's acceptance that things don't always go to plan onstage is reflective of the personal growth he's made in recent years.

"There's no reason to feel self-conscious about something that goes wrong at the show. It's like, hello! It's happen. Let's deal with it. And the old me of fear, anger, shut down and blame, or whatever – why?"

Check out the full podcast interview above. For Metallica's summer tour dates visit metallica.com

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.