The Tuning room “can sometimes be the first time during the day when we are actually in each other’s head space,” Ulrich admits. “It’s the preshow meditation, the closest we get to that.” There has been a Tuning room – or trailer, if it’s an outdoor-stadium gig – at each stop on every Metallica tour since the late Nineties. On a good day, Metallica will spend an hour or more in there: warming up old, rarely performed songs, playing Thin Lizzy or Iron Maiden covers. They also jam and record the results, improvising rhythms and guitar lines compiled on so-called “riff tapes,” the traditional raw materials for Metallica’s songwriting. Most of the rapidly changing parts in the 10 long songs on Death Magnetic – a stunning combination of jigsaw-guitar composition and live-rhythm-track assault – came from Tuning and Attitude sessions.
There was none of that on the group’s early tours with bassist Cliff Burton. “It was drink before you go on,” Hetfield recalls with a growling chuckle, sitting on a couch in the band’s dressing room in St Petersburg a few hours before the show. “Courage in a bottle. ‘Oh, shit, we’re on in 10 minutes? Where’s the vodka?’ Glug, glug, glug.” By the early Nineties, the band had rebounded from Burton’s death in 1986 – in a tour-bus crash – with a new bassist, Jason Newsted, and the multiplatinum success of 1991’s Metallica, which has sold 14 million copies in the US alone. But there was exhaustion on the road. “We were sick of each other,” Hetfield says. Instead of a toast, “it was, ‘Meet you onstage.’ ” Even now, Hetfield says of the Tuning room, “We need it, for sure.” St Petersburg turns out to be a good example of what he means. Twenty minutes before showtime, a scrap erupted in the dressing room between Hetfield and Ulrich over the length of the set list. “James only wants to play two hours on this tour,” saysTrujillo, who was there. “He said, ‘We went over four minutes the other night.’ Actually, a couple of people timed the show, and their times were off. Lars was saying, ‘Are you saying I’m lying to you?’ ‘No, but are you?’ ” Trujillo, whose linebacker build and bass-maniac act in concert belie his mellow temper offstage, says, “It was really uncomfortable.” “Lars and I were on the verge of getting teenage for a second,” Hetfield concedes later with a thin smile. “We got snippy with each other. I could see he was overwhelmed. He could see I felt the same way.” So the band adjourned to Tuning and Attitude. “We got in there, and I could tell, ‘We’re not vibing yet. We’re not looking at each other.’ But all it takes is one smile” – Hetfield makes a demon-wolf face – “and you get one back. ‘OK, it’s cool.’ ” “What bugs me about that movie is people still think we’re that,” says Hammett. He is talking about Some Kind of Monster, the 2004 documentary that covered every hard, bleak turn in the recording of Metallica’s 2003 album St Anger: Newsted’s unhappy exit in 2001; the heated arguments between Hetfield and Ulrich, who together started the band in 1981; the blazing egos and deep hurt revealed in the band’s sessions with therapist Phil Towle; the near end of Metallica when Hetfield abruptly entered rehab to quit drinking and didn’t return for nine months. That film, Hammett complains fiercely, “is not us anymore.”