In 2001, when the members of Metallica agreed to let a documentary film crew chronicle the making of the album that would become St. Anger (Elektra 2003), the result was the illuminating rock doc Some Kind of Monster.
It is in Monster that the world gets its first glimpses of bassist Robert Trujillo's 2003 entry into the exclusive club that is Metallica. Trujillo, a long-haired anachronism at a time when guitarist/vocalist James Hetfield and drummer Lars Ulrich had trimmed their signature tresses--although guitarist Kirk Hammett still wears his long--took a spot so well established by former bassist Jason Newsted, that when Newsted left (producer Bob Rock played bass for St. Anger), it seemed as though a vacuum had sucked the position into space and that Metallica would have to make do as a trio. Despite his surfer dude personality (the dude actually does love to surf) and the fact that he cut his teeth on hardcore punk music--he played in seminal Los Angeles band Suicidal Tendencies--Trujillo made the rocking rhythm position his own and showed fans and his new bandmates that he was worth every penny of the million-dollar signing bonus they offered him.
Trujillo's sonorous, smoky voice is as deep as some of his bass lines, probably a result of size and genetics as well as a friendship with Mr. Jameson (one of Trujillo's nicknames is Whiskey Warlord). Calling just hours before a show at Madison Square Garden on the World Magnetic Tour behind Metallica's platinum-selling 2008 release, Death Magnetic (Warner Bros. 2008), Trujillo explained why the new album runs the rock gamut of metal, hard rock, ballad and thrash and why, after more than 20 years, Metallica is becoming less easily defined ... and why that's a good thing.
"It's always been an interesting dichotomy, the music of this band. There were those years where people were saying, 'Wow, Metallica's playing with an orchestra. Now Metallica's writing three-minute songs with two chord changes.' I think a lot of it has to do with Rick Rubin [who produced Death Magnetic]. He has reunited Lars and James to their thrash years. One of the things that he said when he first came on board was, 'Imagine yourselves back in the early days. What head space were you in when you were being free? How were you arranging songs in the Master of Puppets years?'"
Metallica took that mantra to heart and it became the blueprint for Death Magnetic. They recaptured the same creative energy that flowed through the music as far back as 1983's Kill 'Em All. Initially, the band may have been afraid to reunite with those early, thrashy elements; those sky-high levels of success would be difficult to exceed. But at the end of the day, it wasn't about that. It was about having a good time and making the best possible music that 21st century Metallica could make. And it worked. When Death Magnetic hit the Billboard 200 at the top, Metallica became the first band ever to have five consecutive No. 1 debuts.
"I don't know if [the album] sparked a new flame or rejuvenated or fueled one, but there seems to be quite a buzz," Trujillo said.
And the buzz is all about the new album.
"People aren't just interested in the old material, they seem very fond of the new stuff as well. The scary thing is I feel like, you know, what we have to offer beyond Death Magnetic is even more exciting. We're developing as a live band. I feel we've grown. As writers, too, just creatively kind of collaborating. I think there's a lot of positive things in the near future. Beyond another record, we'll see. But right now, we feel good, we feel strong."
And while much of the draw fans have to the new album is a result of having Rubin at the helm--Trujillo said they've tapped him for their next album as well--the pull they feel to the band during a live performance is due in large part to the band's captivating frontman.
"This is the album where James really got his juju back," Trujillo said. "It was like walking on a tightrope with him when I first joined in 2003 with St. Anger and was coming out of that whole transition."
At that time, Newsted had left, Rock had been sitting in on bass, the band had a $40,000 a month "performance enhancing coach" in the studio and Hetfield was headed for rehab. With Death Magnetic, Metallica gave new meaning to the old saying, "what doesn't kill you makes you stronger."
"There's a lot of fire in James now and he's a joy to be around. He enjoys playing music again and having fun. We're up there on stage breaking out jams from the Kill 'Em All record, playing stuff that hasn't been played in a very long time. We're embracing the past and having fun with the present but also looking at the future. The magic is there and the inspiration to create music that hopefully will remain relevant."
Relevancy doesn't seem to be an issue for Metallica fans. During a show, when Hetfield asks, "How many of you guys are seeing us for the first time?" thousands of hands shoot into the air. The youngest haven't left grade school behind yet, the oldest are their head-banging parents and grandparents. And it would be a safe bet to suggest a number of those seasoned fans are hard-working family men and women for whom both the music and the members of Metallica strike a chord. Those fans waited patiently during the long five-year space between St. Anger and Death Magnetic. But for a change, it wasn't infighting that kept Metallica out of the studio. Blame it on the kids.
"We had five children born during this time," Trujillo said. "I had two kids, Kirk had two children and Lars has a baby boy. Between kids being born and the kids that were already born and school schedules and getting break time after two years of touring, there was a lot in that mix."
And as any parent knows, taking care of the kids can be as exhausting as any job--even if your job is about as cool as it gets.
"I'll get home to California and get off a plane at four in the morning after touring, and I'm up at seven taking the kids to school. When we start to tour together, James always says, 'OK, we're back on the road. Now we can sleep.'"