The Bravest Man in Metal Tracks Down Other Brave Men in Metal And Presents: Harv’Tallica
I’m not going to lie: Metallica are still one of my favorite bands. Sure, aside from Garage Inc. I could hardly tell you what they did in the ’90s, but if it weren’t for them I wouldn’t be here. Whether that’s a good or bad thing depends on your opinion of me, but I’m willing to bet that most of your relationships with metal would have been a lot more fleeting, if not completely non-existent, had you never heard Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and/or …And Justice for All. They’re also an immensely amazing cover band and, yes, I even liked St. Anger, a fact that has been on public display as a finger-pointing matter ever since I wrote this.
As you’re well aware, Metallica have also achieved pariah-like status in the cooler-than-thou world of metal. Saying you’re a fan of the band these days is akin to walking through a school yard with your cock hanging out (thank you Greg Giraldo, R.I.P. and for the penis-dangling record, I like Death Magnetic too). However, there are pockets of motherfuckers out there who still proudly fly the Metallica flag. One of them is Exhumed guitarist/vocalist Matt “Harv” Harvey.
It was during an excessively rowdy, drunken night in a hotel in Richmond, VA while on tour with the band last summer that I first heard the words “Metallica are my favorite band” emerge from Harv’s mouth. I did a bit of a double-take and held that statement up to Matt’s usual, yet inhuman, excessive alcohol consumption capabilities. Alcoholica, indeed. In spending subsequent amounts of time on the road with Exhumed, I not only heard said comment repeated, but paid witness to vociferous discussions on the topic and figured I had to let the man speak his peace (while sober) because he’s obviously thought about this a lot more than I have.
Exhumed have a new album titled Necrocracy coming out sometime soon and they’ll be doing a California tour with Phobia this month, but for the time being, let’s talk Metallica with Harv’tallica.
So, I’ve heard you say on different occasions that Metallica are your favorite band. I’ve heard other people say this as well. What I’m wondering is if in saying this, you’re speaking of the entirety of the band’s career or, in being an underground death metal dude, just the first four records? On the other hand, I’ve met people who said Metallica were their favorite band but based that on the Black Album and, incredibly, didn’t even know the first few albums existed. So, when you say Metallica are your favorite band, how deep are you talking?
I love the first five records. I feel like the first one and the fifth one both have some filler on them. I completely love the Black Album; it’s a little bit over-long and if they’d just chopped off a couple songs it’d be an absolute ten out of ten. One of the best zings I’ve ever gotten was when Exhumed were in Arizona. We were on the Cannibal Corpse tour hanging out and everyone was totally wasted, and I was like, “Dude, the Black Album is totally better than Kill ‘Em All,” which I still hold onto…
What?! That’s crazy talk, man. Sorry.
[laughs] …And my buddy Adam goes, “See, this is why we like Impaled better.” That was one of the best zings I’ve ever been nailed with! I think the first five are all amazing, they all totally rule. I think between Load and Re-Load, there’s one great album in there. It’s sort of like Use Your Illusion I and II, or even the Beatles’ White Album. Like with most double albums, you can just get rid of half of it. I think the transition that they made… I wouldn’t consider Load or Re-Load metal albums; I think they’re pretty good rock or hard rock albums. The weird thing is during the Load and Re-Load era, they became that mainstream rock band whose singles were their best songs. I think all of the best songs off those records are the singles. I think even “The Unforgiven II” might be better than “The Unforgiven,” which is pretty crazy. And I thought Garage Inc. was great, even though there are definitely some serious misses on there. But then again there are some serious hits on there too. I even really like the Bob Seger cover. I don’t care. Fuck it. Especially being a touring musician, it’s a highly relatable song. I like the original and I like the cover. I thought the album was really fucking good.
Then, St. Anger, not really that much [laughs]. There are a couple songs I can deal with; the song “St. Anger” had some good bits and “Invisible Kid” had some good bits, but the rest of the album was pretty tough. Like you said, I think if they had shortened the songs and turned the snare down, even just that would have been a huge help. Some of the riffs aren’t too bad, but they just drive them into the ground for like a minute…
A minute?! Nah, way more than that, man!
[laughs]… And not letting Kirk solo was a completely terrible decision. Even though his leads are pretty awful nowadays, not letting him solo was the dumbest thing they could have done in a long series of dumb decisions.
On Death Magnetic they made whatever attempt to go back to not only the classic style, but also that sequencing formula of fast song, epic song, doomy song, ballad with an instrumental second to last and another basher to end it all. What were your thoughts not just on the record, but the way they tried to slot themselves back into that formula?
I think the problem that they’ve had ever since the Black Album is that they’ve become victims of their own success and there’s no way they can do anything without it being contrived. St. Anger was their attempt at being uncontrived and as anyone who’s seen that movie knows, it was still really contrived. I definitely feel like it’s a good step in the right direction for the band, but I do feel like it’s hard to really pick out a single song that I think is good all the way through. There are certain ideas that just smack of “Oh, the same guys that made up St. Anger made up this riff.” You don’t know which Metallica you’re going to get. I thought that the first song had some real moments of brilliance; there’s that dual guitar rhythm thing and a Hetfield solo that’s awesome and made me feel like I was a kid, riding my bike, listening to my walkman thinking that I’d be taking off and flying into the sky or whatever.
But it’s hard to say that there’s any song on there that’s completely solid all the way through. I liked the album. They still had that same stupid snare drum from St. Anger, but at least they tuned it right. Kirk tried to play some solos, and again, it’s more of a step in the right direction than an actual success. Some of the solos on that album are like, ‘Dude, where’s the guy that…’ I mean, even the guy who had really tacky solos on the Black Album? How come he didn’t show up? Let alone the guy who was shredding on Ride the Lightning when he was out to prove how good a guitar player he was. Instead, it’s just a guy who’s recycling his least imaginative old licks and just sort of throwing shit out there. I like the record – I wouldn’t say I dislike it – and there are moments where it’s like, “Yeah, that’s fucking Metallica, right there! Damn, yes! Awesome!” and the next riff it’ll be like, “Yeah, fuck, whatever.” And I think the whole return-to-form idea seemed kind of calculated and not necessarily natural.
Like I said, they’re victims of their own success and everything they do is going to be so contrived and so under the fucking microscope. I couldn’t imagine the pressure on those guys, not just from their 20 million fans or whatever, but they have a roster of employees counting on them, they have a record label waiting for the biggest record of the year, they’re constantly being filmed for stupid DVDs and all this shit, how do you ever allow something to just happen under those circumstances? I’m not saying that makes it OK to not make good records. It’s just interesting to see the results of being in that situation where people they never know and will never meet — as well as people they’re going to be interviewed by — are going to be analyzing their songs riff-by-riff… it’s like, what the fuck!? That sort of scrutiny is only reserved for the most successful, important and influential bands.
Just to get off on a tangent and to say something I think is important…there are a lot of fucking Metallica haters out there and that’s fine. But there are these contentious Dave Mustaine idiots who are all like, “Oh dude, they didn’t even write those riffs. Dave Mustaine wrote them.” A) No, he didn’t; and B) just the fact that who wrote their songs and every single thing they do and have ever done has become so vitally important that there are people talking about which riffs Dave Mustaine contributed to some song from 25 years ago to me only reinforces the fact that they’re the single most important band to ever play heavy metal. Whether or not you like them or not there’s a significance to what they do. I’ve almost gotten into fist fights with people about this stuff and it’s like, “Jesus Christ we’re talking about some other band’s riffs.” And I hate to be that guy and it sucks, but when dudes start saying that stuff and they’re wrong, it gets really frustrating because I know which riffs Dave Mustaine wrote; I’m that nerdy about it. I get really offended and am like, “No, you fucking idiot. Fuck Dave Mustaine!” but it’s pretty crazy and I can’t imagine what those dudes must go through in just writing a riff.
When the topic comes up, what reaction do you get when you tell people Metallica are your favorite band? And how and why do you end up defending a band to the point that fights almost break out?
[Laughs] It depends. Usually, when I say they’re my favorite band people assume that I don’t like the Black Album and that I’ve never spent any time listening to Load and stuff. That’s the guy I was in high school and honestly I wasn’t even really paying much attention to them when the Black Album came out because I was way into Cause of Death or whatever. They weren’t even really on my radar. It was like, “Oh wow, Metallica has a new song – who cares? There are no blast beats or growling, this is dumb.” But I kind of rediscovered them in ’97.
Some people are like, “So does that mean you like Load?” and I’m like, “Yeah, it’s a pretty good record. It’s got some good tunes on it.” Those people end up being pretty surprised. In terms of getting into arguments and stuff, usually it’s with people who don’t know I’m in a band or if I’m at a show somewhere or just at a bar and you hear some idiot running their mouth and they’re wrong. It’s like, “No, these are the riffs Dave wrote. No, he was credited on this song. No, he did not write any of the riffs in ‘Disposable Heroes.’ I don’t know why you’re talking about stuff that was published in Power Metal in 1986.” And then there are the people who are like, “Well, Kirk stole those riffs from Exodus.” And it’s like, “No he didn’t. Kirk wrote those songs when he was in Exodus. Those are his riffs, none of those songs are on the first Exodus record anyway, and neither is anything Kirk wrote on that record.”
It’s sort of weird because you end up defending people who don’t need you to defend them whatsoever, but the mentality of someone just trying to take away from what someone else has accomplished just really bugs me. I get to the point where I have to say something. It’s like if you go somewhere and someone is saying some racist or super-homophobic stuff, just ignorant shit, and I can’t keep my mouth shut, especially after I’ve had a few beers. I feel like I’m Batman witnessing a bank robbery – “I gotta stop this!” [laughs] There so many arguments that I’ve heard, like the “Who’s more metal now?” I don’t care who’s more metal now, this isn’t a pissing contest. That’s why Metallica cut their hair and did all that shit because they were tired of hearing all that shit like who’s more “whatever” than they are. Who cares? Are the songs good? Do people like them? Do 20,000 people every night show up at their gigs, have a great time and sing along and know every single word by heart? That sounds more important than some sort of unmeasurable, “how metal are you” bullshit. Who fucking cares?
For the longest time I’ve held the belief that Metallica are the greatest cover band in the history of metal, if not the whole of music. Thoughts? Agree or disagree?
Absolutely! I agree 100%. Their covers are awesome because they’ve got the balls to make the song their own. I love “Helpless” by Diamond Head. I love the original, I think it’s great, but the Metallica version is almost like its own song because they just chop off all the stuff that they wouldn’t do, I guess you could say. They have the confidence to say, “Yes, we love this band and they’re is one of our main influences, but here’s what we would have done if we had written the song.” That takes some fucking balls, and to be right and to do it effectively is awesome. And with all that shit about who’s more metal, you know what? Fuck you because without Metallica no one would have ever heard of Diamond Head, Holocaust or any of those bands. There would be like three dorks with their patch jackets and record collections talking about how great it was. But thanks to them, those bands… I’m sure those dudes bought cars with the money they got.
I’ve talked to people who’ve interviewed and/or hung out with them and the guys from those bands made a shitload of money because of Metallica. King Diamond and Hank Sherman made tons of money because of those King Diamond covers. It’s pretty awesome because not only do they do it effectively musically, but they give back to the community. I’m sure Kevin from Angelwitch is like, “C’mon dudes, can’t you just do ‘Sweet Danger’? I really need a fucking car! Budgie? Really?! Dammit!”
I think they rule at doing covers and the covers they pick are awesome. Not only do they play them well, but they reveal themselves as guys with cool fucking influences. I got turned on to Diamond Head because of Metallica, for sure. I only ever heard of the NWOBHM because of Metallica. They’ve done more to promote all those bands than Iron Maiden and Def Leppard combined, who are both from that scene and became hugely successful. Steve Harris doesn’t hang out talking about Samson and Witchfynde and shit. When Metallica play covers it’s amazing for metal in general and it’s something that I appreciate because I learn about good bands.
Napalm Death is probably the second best cover band in metal and it’s the same thing. What they did for Repulsion is the reason those guys are still playing one-off shows to this day. If it wasn’t for Napalm, no one would know who the fuck they were. Scott Carlson has told me that almost all of their fans found out about them through Napalm.
What I’m getting from you is that you look at Metallica being your favorite band as more than some dudes who wrote a bunch of good songs. It appears to be an all-encompassing totality which I guess helps when discussing and considering some of their missteps. What would it take for this favorite band status to be usurped? Can you see it ever happening?
It’s been so long now that I don’t think it’ll ever happen. I go through jags where I’m listening to them daily, then I’ll go through stretches where I put them on once a month or whatever. I mean, it’s still there, and like all kids who got into metal in the 80s they were the first heavy band I heard. There’s a reason why they’re the first band everybody heard; because they’re fucking great! Sometimes shit is successful because it’s good. Sometimes shit is just a flash in the pan, but Back in Black, Led Zeppelin IV, Master of Puppets, Machine Head… those records are objectively good and that’s why they’re played on the radio every day. That’s it. There’s nothing more to say. You can say you’re tired of “Stairway to Heaven, but you can’t say that the song sucks. You can say you’re tired of “Enter Sandman,” but when you see a football stadium ready to kill because they’re hearing that riff, it’s like, “this is a good fucking riff.”
What you said about the totality, I think that’s the thing that keeps me coming back to them and makes me think that even though their records certainly aren’t as good as they were in the past, that on a certain level they’re still the same dudes. Like when they did that full day Metallica 30th anniversary party in San Francisco and they had Death Angel and Armored Saint playing with them and Biff from Saxon coming out and singing “Motorcycle Man” with the band and stuff like that. Y’know what? That’s cool. They’ve got billions of dollars and whatever the fuck else, but at some level they’re the same dudes who hung out at Lars Ulrich’s mom’s house listening to records after playing their set of covers. They still do cool shit. When the Black Album came out, they played right up the street from my first apartment and they caused a humongous traffic jam in San Jose because they played for free in the parking lot of a Tower Records. And when the Oakland Raiders had the AFC championship game in Oakland, they just showed up in the parking lot and played. Who does that? You don’t see the Rolling Stones do that. Or even to a certain extent you don’t see Megadeth or Slayer doing that. They just do shit because they think it’s cool.
And yes, sometimes shit they think is cool really isn’t all that cool, but they just do it anyway. Even back in the ’80s with the whole no-video thing. You look at Megadeth, who were jumping on every possible shitty movie soundtrack – I mean, they even have a song on the Super Mario Bros. soundtrack. That just sucks, man. That’s not metal, that’s not underground, that’s not doing it on your own terms. That’s scraping for any kind of potential attention and advancement just to further your own career. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s not as admirable as the biggest band in the sub-genre waiting to make a video and doing it their way because MTV wasn’t going to play the video they wanted to make. I think that’s pretty fucking cool; to have that integrity and confidence. It’s like that line from The Departed or whatever: “I don’t want to be a product of my environment. I want my environment to be a product of me.” So, to be able to exude that is fucking impressive.
This a question that’s 100% unanswerable, but it’s one that everyone has an answer to: What do you think would have happened if Lars had died in the bus accident instead of Cliff?
Well, I’m going to kind of split up my answer here. I doubt that the band’s direction would be significantly different had Cliff lived. Cliff’s contributions were more embellishment than the meat and potatoes of the band’s sound. Not to take anything away from the guy; he was incredibly talented and definitely played an important role in the band’s musical development. However, the key word in the preceding sentence is “development,” as opposed to foundation. The dominant musical element of the band has always been Hetfield’s percussive riffs, powered by Lars’ angular drumming funnelled through his arrangements and editorial filter. Burton was a part of that arrangement team, and indeed he helped them achieve my favorite results. But essentially …And Justice For All wasn’t too far off the mark set by Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets.
The Black Album could be said to have surpassed the efforts of the “classic” lineup, certainly in terms of album sales, if not metallic “tr00ness.” In interviews before his death, Burton had already predicted the band’s transition to slower tempos and more accessible arrangements, so the idea that the band would’ve remained thrash metal had he survived is laughable. Cliff’s specialty was not only using the bass as a lead instrument like on “For Whom The Bell Tolls” and “Anasthesia / Pulling Teeth,” but creating moody and almost psychedelic atmospheres like the bridge in “Orion” and the intro to “Damage Inc.” which are elements that are lacking from Metallica albums post-Burton.
Now, had Lars died… this is a tougher one not only because it hasn’t been discussed to death, but because his musical contributions have always been more part of the writing process rather than something particularly quantifiable. Ultimately, I think that without Lars the band would have become less focused and the song writing would have suffered. Of course …Justice is the band’s least focused song writing effort of the “classic albums,” aside from a few of the more meandering arrangements that plague the lesser tracks on Kill ’em All, Death Magnetic and the entire St. Anger album. It’s also worth noting — and a lot of metal fans hate hearing this — that Lars is the most “tr00” dude in the band. His record collection full of NWOBHM rarities was a huge part in creating Metallica’s signature sound. Both Hetfield and Dave Mustaine have confirmed in interviews that they were turned on to tons of new sounds through hanging out with Lars during the band’s infancy. I also think that, love it or hate it, Lars has a very distinctive drumming style that is integral to the band’s sound – his syncopated accents on the upbeat, even his often awkward one-handed drum fills and his dogged adherence to straight-time beats under odd-time guitar riffs. If Metallica had any other drummer, it just would sound weird. I can’t really imagine anyone stepping in and replacing the guy; just like Jason Newsted could never replace Burton. Burton’s sound was less integral to the overall Metallica-ness of Metallica, and it ended up working out. Had the band gotten a different drummer from the beginning, I could see them actually having a harder time breaking out of the thrash metal scene because so many great drummers of that era like Tom Hunting, Dave Lombardo and Charlie Benante were more speed-oriented. Lars wasn’t; he was song-oriented and his less-is-more approach served the band incredibly well through the 1990s.
Exhumed go on tour with Phobia starting this week; get dates here.