Rock Around the Doc: Metallica in Therapy

It took two years and more than a million dollars in group therapy for the macho icons of hard rock to save their band Metallica. But first they had to save themselves.

By Hara Estroff Marano, published July 1, 2004 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

When filmmakers Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky began following the six-time Grammy winners in early 2001, they thought they'd capture the making of Metallica's tenth album, St. Anger, and call it a day. Instead, they found a band on the verge of a breakdown. James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich and Kirk Hammett were creatively deadlocked, emotionally depleted, in one case dangerously inebriated and about to lose their bass player, Jason Newsted. Metallica agreed to experiment with group therapy led by enhancement coach Phil Towle and to keep the cameras rolling. The surprising result, Metallica: Some Kind of Monster, hits theaters in July. Editor at Large Hara Estroff Marano spoke with Hetfield, Ulrich, Hammett and Towle about rage, the rocker mystique and a quieter type of headbanging: therapy.

I'm impressed by the risk you took. You guys had a crisis, you dealt with it, you got to the underlying issues, you survived and you did it publicly. The film and the psychotherapy seem intertwined.

Lars Ulrich: In retrospect it seems like there was a crisis, but it unfolded in a very organic way. We were anticipating our friend Jason Newsted's departure from the band, and our managers asked if we'd be interested in having a guy there who could calm things down in case furniture became airborne. Jason, our bass player, sat down and said, "OK, I'm out." We spent the next 8 or 10 hours dealing with that. And as we started chipping away with Phil, we were introduced to different ways of looking at things. It felt new, really comfortable and challenging. When you spend 20 years avoiding intimacy with people you're around 24/7, and the opportunity to connect finally arises, you jump at it. Then the cameras started showing up. The path that this band had taken many years earlier was to be as accessible to the fans as possible—allow them to partake in some of what we were doing. It's a little ironic that we spent so much time trying to connect with our fans but could never actually connect with each other. In some ways, the cameras acted as a truth-instigator. They were insurance that we would not bullshit each other.

James Hetfield: I'm very proud of the film, too. There's still a part of me that doesn't want to give away our innermost fears—our big fear of intimacy. I still struggle with this every day. But I know this has the potential to help other bands and other people, to just blow away that mystique of the rock idol who leads the perfect life.

A lot of men think that if they open the door to their feelings, they'll get sucked down a hole they'll never escape from. Were you ever afraid that the band would lose the magic or its edge?

Lars: I never thought that, because it happened so naturally. Phil opened that door. It was amazing to sit there with people who you'd spent over half your life with and get to know them for the first time, get to love them for the first time.

James: I know that we created some type of spark with our negative energy, and I know we can do the same with our positive energy. We've used a lot of energy going nowhere. But as far as losing my edge, I feel I'm sharper than ever.

Some people see therapy as a sign of weakness, but you guys make it into a source of strength. Do you think people have it all wrong?

Kirk Hammett: Yeah. This is a train I should have caught a long time ago, and I instantly recognized that. Doing something for your mental health through therapy is just as good as going to the gym for your physical health. I've always been open-minded, so opening my mind up to therapy never really was a problem. It was getting my foot through the door.

James: Whether people look at us as a bunch of freaks or a bunch of pioneers doesn't matter that much to me. The fact is that we're doing it, and getting a lot better at just letting go of what other people perceive. All therapy is about communication, and you're using the therapist as a backboard or mirror. If you can face your fears, you're going to be a stronger person.

Lars: If anything, when we talked about how people would perceive what we were doing, we were proud. We were ready to shout it from the rooftops—to let people know that we were connecting, and feeling comfortable about the new language and the new set of tools Phil helped us with. Therapy is kind of like a think tank for your brain: how you connect with yourself, with the people around you.

Several months into group therapy, James walked out one day for what turned out to be nine months of rehab. What made you decide to go into rehab?

James: There were really two me's. There was James of Metallica; everywhere I go I'm associated with that. Then at home I was trying to escape it. But a lot of what helped me escape out there, or feel more comfortable with being this guy in Metallica—my lack of boundaries, all the drinking, the screwing around, the wreckage I left on the road—eventually made its way home. My wife, strong person that she is, put a stop to it.

Lars says he always felt you were softer than you allowed yourself to be. Was alcohol a prop for the macho stuff?

James: I agree with Lars. And it was a lot more than just alcohol. What does "macho" mean? To me it meant: "Here I am, back off, keep your distance." That worked really well for me, because keeping people at bay was a survival technique from childhood.

Control is a big theme in the film.

James: I didn't perceive that I was controlling—a controlling person never does. Lars and I had a lot of issues because we were both controlling. We both saw in each other what we didn't like about ourselves.

Lars: James and I had two years together before we met Kirk. We appointed ourselves coleaders of the band. The only thing we agreed on was suppressing the other guys in the band.

Kirk: That's a control freak's perspective. When you're fighting over control, the only one in your sights is the one you can't control. I clearly recognize that everything is not meant to be controlled. My personality has always been very laid-back. I've always been an observer. It takes me longer to process things. I think if I threw myself into that quagmire of trying to control everything, this band would self-destruct.

James makes clear that his control issue had to do with an underlying fear of abandonment. Was there, for you, some underlying fear speaking through control?

Lars: As an only child growing up in Denmark, in a very safe community, I ran around by myself from a very early age. My parents traveled a lot, and I would be home by myself. Locking the doors, locking the windows was how I controlled everything in my surroundings, because I was autonomous in them. I don't trust the path in front of me if it's steered by other people; I'm not sure I'm going to be safe. I'm working now on learning to accept that when things derail, my life doesn't get turned upside down.

Lars, there's a very intense scene after James comes back from rehab where you accuse him of controlling even when he's not there. He leaves every day at 4 and asks you all not to even listen to the music in his absence. You say, "Fuck, this is a rock-and-roll band!" What does that mean to you? No rules?

Lars: You end up in a rock-and-roll band so you don't have to play other people's games. It becomes a lot about moods and about moments more than about living by a clock and checking in or checking out. When you leave a studio, you don't necessarily stop thinking about what you're working on. Rock and roll represents freedom from those boundaries. What if you have a great creative thought at 3 or at 9? Then what do you do with it?

Anger, frustration, rage—those are things that a lot of your teenage audience connects with. How do you think your fans react when they see you guys wrestling openly with your feelings?

James: For me, connecting with people has never been easy. Now I realize that the more I connect, the easier it is to be me. The more that people know about my troubles, the easier it'll be to connect with people. I put myself out there, and if people choose to stomp on my heart or to embrace it, that is up to them.

Lars: I have no control. If you line 20 Metallica fans up against the wall, you're going to get 20 completely different reactions. Some people really connect with what we've gone through, others couldn't give two shits about it. I've just given up on trying to figure out who does what.

Kirk: If anything, they're going to see that we're just normal human beings, not these rock gods. The film really shows that we are mammals just like everyone else.

Metallica: Some Kind of Mammal?

Kirk: Exactly. Somewhere along the way I got seduced by the mythology of being a rock star. It happened when we started traveling all over the place and making money. After a while, I disconnected from the reason I did it in the first place, which was to express myself. I was a victim of that myth of being in a rock band for 15, 18, 20 years and having any sort of behavior instantly justifiable. You do whatever you want to do; everything you ask for is given to you. A hot tub backstage? Poof, it's there. A private plane to take you to Las Vegas for a day off? Poof. It became really empty. It was hurting my relationship with my wife. I got into a vicious cycle of wanting to medicate with more booze and drugs. As soon as I stopped doing all that, a lot of the depression went away. The therapy helped me see clearly why these things were happening to me.

James says in the film that he was looking for excitement but wound up doing the same things over and over again.

Kirk: No matter where you launch yourself from, you're going to land in the same spot—waking up feeling poisoned and depressed.

James: I had to reach extremes to balance life out for me. I wasn't able to assert myself to express my feelings. James was the guy who could take the pain; he could endure anything. So I would build up all this anger, and it would pop out as rage or depression—and the way I'd deal with that was drinking, partying, screwing around on the road.

Acting like a rock star.

James: Our whole attitude in Metallica was based on the anti-cliché, anti-image, anti-rock star, and eventually our lack of communication turned us into those things. We started to believe what was going on; we started to not keep each other in check. The machine was just rolling, and we forgot that there were humans attached to it—and we have feelings. Now we're a band almost obsessed with our health. We're eating a lot better, working out and doing silly things like sightseeing in towns we've been to a hundred times but only stumbled around in from bar to bar. Instead of naming every strip club in every town, we can now name the museums. Family has become a huge rock, a foundation in my whole life. I've really been searching for family my whole life. I felt that mine was taken away at a young age. Sometimes it's overwhelming, going home after being on tour, where everything is done for you—your toothbrush is sitting here, food is waiting, shoes are lined up for the show. I've got three kids who are needy and wanting things. I'm the kid out here, and when I go home, I'm the adult.

You guys gave up control to a completely different process. Why did you give it up, and what did you get back?

James: I gave up a lot of self-created insanity. We gained better friendships and new insight into each other's creativity.

Kirk: We're all participating in the songwriting and in every decision, when and how we're going to tour, what the schedules are going to be like, right down to artwork. This is the new Social Democratic Republic of Metallica.

Does this new process make the music better, or is it just the making of the music that's better?

James: That is an awesome question. We're trusting our intuition a lot more and being able to rely on each other's intuition. Before, intuition would always turn into control. "Well, I feel this," just because you feel that. It used to be so dreadful I would fear it. Now we look forward to going in the studio and writing. Every idea that gets put out there gets tried. In concert we're firing on all four cylinders. And when we're not, that's OK. We know that relationships don't always peak at the same time.

Kirk: Everyone's tuned to the same wavelength. We all reap the benefits and consequences together.

In the film Lars says that Metallica has proved that you can make aggressive music without negative energy. What made the difference?

Lars: The previous creative experiences were rooted in negative energy because we were always fighting and power-playing. Once we bottomed out in the summer of 2002 and the relationship started healing, the St. Anger album was created from a place of intimacy, communication, love—the whole nine yards.

Now that you've opened up the creative process and seen that you can get something back for giving up control, would you view the Napster (an online file-sharing system) challenge the same way?

Lars: It was never really about downloading for me, that was the big myth. It was about control. We're definitely control freaks, and I'll be glad to stand up and say this. I would probably treat that issue differently if it appeared on my radar for the first time in 2004. I don't think I would feel as much need to counterattack.

Is therapy something you'd recommend to other bands?

James: There are a lot of newer bands that already embrace this style of communication. Maybe we're a product of the '80s, a little bit closed and selfish. But bands these days are taking care of themselves not only physically but also mentally. I feel that therapy is a safe place for people who don't know how to communicate.

Kirk: Definitely. The Beatles would probably still be together if they'd taken the approach we've taken.