Aug 08, 2023

Greg Fidelman: The 72 Seasons Interview

Producer Greg Fidelman has become a vital part of the mapping process in getting songs from development to the proverbial finish line. Since working on Death Magnetic as an engineer and mixer for Rick Rubin in 2008, Fidelman has ascended to the role of producer on all subsequent albums and trusted counsel on live projects. Before his Metallica days, Fidelman engineered and mixed a plethora of artists, ranging from Johnny Cash and Neil Diamond to Slayer and the Red Hot Chili Peppers. A quiet, fastidious person whose true comfort zone lies in the studio, Fidelman has the unique ability to offer an overview of how 72 Seasons came about.

Steffan Chirazi: Where was your head during the period between James entering rehab and March 15, when the pandemic was officially declared?

Greg Fidelman: The timing of the pandemic was odd in relation to where the band was at. James had gone away to get his life together, and we were going to do this Disney project, “Nothing Else Matters” for the Jungle Cruise film. I think I was meant to fly out to HQ two days before the lockdown. And you already got the sense [that things were changing].

So, flash forward a few weeks, now we’re in the pandemic, and at that point, I think it’s going to blow over in four weeks or whatever. Me and Sara [Killion], my engineer, were scheduled to go to Germany after the Disney thing to work on another record, and that obviously also had gotten postponed. So, an idea that I had with those guys – not Metallica – was for them to “rehearse remotely,” and [I could] hear what they were working on and make some comments. It certainly felt more productive than not doing anything.

I was talking to Lars on and off during this time, and that piqued his curiosity. And then, as the pandemic started to get a little more real, we realized this was not going to blow over, and that project that I’m discussing had to go away.

SC: And we’re talking, what, May 2020?

GF: Something like that, yes. You started to see these little Zoom collaborative things popping up, and James, I think, instigated the “Blackened 2020” thing. He said, “Hey, I did an acoustic thing, just me and my acoustic guitar. I want to see if the guys are interested in trying to make something out of it. How could we do this?” So we figured it out; I did a little more research.

James was already a little more set up for that kind of thing at his house. At Lars’s place, he got his drums mic’d up, but he can’t play his drums and operate the rigs, right? So Layne and Myles were staying at the house with him during the early time of the pandemic, those guys are pretty technically savvy, and I talked them through it. We got a lot more sophisticated as time went on, but this first one? I think it was a combination of a Zoom call, a FaceTime call, and one headphone on and one headphone off. It was kind of crazy, (but we) got them to record. Lars played drums to it, great.

I did the same thing with Kirk and Rob. We released [“Blackened 2020”], and everyone loved it. It was fun! We all definitely had fun, and it started the ball rolling.

SC: Did any of the early “out-of-slumber” online pandemic “shows” help the creative process move?

GF: As these things started happening, we did the research [into the logistics]. If you’re down the block? Doable. If one guy’s in Hawaii and the other guy’s in Denver, the time it takes for the connection to get there makes it almost too much to play together.

SC: No delay pedal necessary.

GF: No, no delay pedal necessary. I had a little list of these tools that could help us, pieces of software, and what have you. We connected with some really good, really smart people and brainstormed with them. Like, what can we do to get this as close to our normal experience, which is sitting in the same room and doing it?

SC: Did you enjoy that challenge?

GF: With hindsight, I recall the situation a little bit more fondly than [we viewed it] at the time. I don’t think I’ve used foundational language quite at that clip like I did when we first started doing this. Things that, just from a technical standpoint, are so easy and literally automatic now were painstakingly complicated and confusing at first.

SC: Give us an example.

GF: At one point, we ended up with two band members working on the same song at the same time. Not really playing together like they would in the room, but they could still hear each other talk; they could hear me talk. Jason Gossman [the band’s sound engineer on the road and in the studio] was involved. Jason was handling James’ rig or Kirk’s rig or Rob’s rig, and I was handling Lars’ rig. I had multiple screens: Lars’ house, my house, the Zoom call, everyone’s faces. I think I’m hitting start on Lars’s machine, and it’s not working! It’s not working. Those simplest kinds of things. Like, “All right, here we go… I don’t hear anything! Why is he not hearing anything?” The first thing you think of is whether the connection’s bad. No? Oh, it’s the wrong computer.

SC: So it was the classic pandemic era, “being on Zoom calls wondering why the audio isn’t working for the 500th time”? Your mic and headphones are on, and you were experiencing that on a grander scale?

GF: Yes, on a grander scale. I mean, it got hairy. But like I said, with some distance from the experience, I’m fond of what we were able to do. Flashing forward, I started going through riffs, helping Lars go through the ridiculous amount of ideas. It was hard to even begin sifting through them. So me and Lars would listen to riffs together, and we’d categorize them really quickly. It’s a fast riff, it’s a slow riff, it’s a “picking patterns,” it’s metal. And then give it a grade.

SC: So was it 10-15 seconds, and if a riff grabs you, it’s in?

GF: Yes, it was fast. Sometimes the recording was 15 seconds long, sometimes the recording was a minute, and sometimes we’d have to go further to determine a few things. And then, we’d shorten that idea to a piece that we liked.

SC: How many riff ideas did you listen to in that initial selection process?

GF: The first process was over 300. Then there was another run, and we went through things that were recorded either at an HQ rehearsal or, more often, in the tuning room during tour rehearsals. Then after that, Kirk sent me, I don’t know, 700 things…

SC: 700 from Kirk?

GF: Yes. And Kirk was honest in saying, “I can’t do this. I know that’s going to be a bummer, man, but I could use your help.” So when I told Lars how many Kirk had, Lars was like, “I’m not trying to get out of this, but why don’t you go through and knock it down halfway? Just the things you think are promising… split it in half at least. It’ll take us a month to go through that together.” So I did that. Then once me and Lars had our pile of A-list riffs, I guess I’d call it, we’d pick 10 or 12 for a day.

Now at this point, I’ve had a couple of guys from the Bay Area visit his house on days when Lars wasn’t around [to set up additional equipment – ED] because everyone was still totally isolated. I could tell them via Zoom that he needed headphones “over there” when he’s at the drum set, there needed to be an iPad over by his hi-hat so I could see him, and he could see me. I needed to be able to hear him talk to me regardless of whether I had Pro Tools open or we were recording. We set up this crazy thing, and it worked. And then we would record! “What’s the beat that works with this? I like this one. I like that one.” We’d do a bunch, literally ten ideas, we’d go through a whole process which I won’t get into here, and then we’d do ten more. That was sort of step two, just Lars, me, and Jason.

SC: There are three other people you have to keep things moving with as well, so how are you handling that side of it?

GF: We were communicating. We had a once-a-week call with all of us on it to talk about life, really, not just this. This would be something that usually came up at the end of the day. The guys know Lars is good at this, and they trust him. We started sending the guys these snippets, just riff and drums, and then collectively, we’d talk about which ones we wanted to try to take. At that point, we hadn’t done two people at once. I think we started doing sets of 12 ideas for everybody before thinking, “Let’s try to do something with James and Lars at the same time.”

SC: Would you say that the 2020 Helping Hands Concert, when you were all back here at HQ for the first time, was maybe the point when everything really came together?

GF: That is 100% accurate, and that’s by design. I didn’t go to the drive-in gig. I did go remotely; I was on a laptop screen somewhere in that parking lot.

But when the idea of doing the All Within My Hands benefit show came up, I was like, “Look. No one’s played together for a while. We need at least a week or so of rehearsal for that. They need to set this room up; it’s going to be a crazy setup. What if we show up a week early and stay a week later? Show up, the first thing we do is work on these songs, then show time. Then everyone leaves us alone, we have a day off, and then we have a couple more days, and we can work on these songs.” That was the plan, and it worked out oddly well. All the little things that you didn’t expect to come out of this ridiculous pandemic situation that we found ourselves in.

For these rehearsals, pre-the All Within My Hands broadcast, several things happened that haven’t happened with these guys since God knows when. It was the first time we showed up in the room where we already knew how to play 10 or 12 songs, albeit roughly. So, 10 minutes into the first rehearsal, we’re going through the cycle of the first song that we wanted to work on. I’ve worked with them many times. Getting started is difficult, and then if you really want to look at it from a little bit further back, this also was the first time they were in a room with James to work on the stuff since he had gone away for a little while. And because we already had this music, you didn’t have time to get hung up on all the weird mental things, probably myself included. It was just like, “Hey, I hear the guitar. All right, let’s work on this one. It’s in E. Do you remember this one? Here’s the riff.” And it literally just started happening.

Photo Credit: Jeff Yeager

SC: One of the things James said was that he wanted a more collective vision of the music. He wanted everyone to be involved in it. Was that a point you remember being explicitly made to you?

GF: Well, there were a couple of moments at some of these writing sessions, rehearsals, whatever we call them, where he verbalized that pretty specifically. So that’s for sure. Even when we were doing Zoom stuff, I remember it starting. It wasn’t that we weren’t going to do those things; we were. But we were going to naturally gravitate to that later in the process. So, we definitely got to that stuff a little earlier.

We put these songs together in a very basic way on the Zoom calls. They all had to be really developed beyond that here [at HQ]; sometimes, it didn’t make the record, and some of the stuff severely changed. The song that ended up being “72 Seasons”? That song, up until four days before we tracked the drums, was pretty different. Some of the parts in that song that are probably the most memorable didn’t even exist yet. So, in those moments, I think the default for Metallica is for Kirk and Rob to fall back a little bit because Lars and James are really good at this. They’re really fast, and they have a language that most other people don’t even understand. But James would say, “I’m stepping back. Kirk, what you got? Come up with something, come on, what you got?” And then maybe sometimes he’d sort of “produce” or coach it, “Why don’t you look at it this way? What if you did something lower? What if you did something higher?” These kinds of things. So that was definitely part of the process, the push to be more collaborative than they have been in the past.

SC: Did this new attitude make you feel more invited to be forthcoming?

GF: Sure. I think every band is like this, and these guys especially can be tough on you. Sometimes you’re not sure if they don’t want your opinion because they don’t like your opinion, or if they don’t want your opinion for some other weird reason, or if they’re having fun ganging up on you! So sure, for this one, I felt more comfortable asserting myself, but it’s been a long run now with them, and this is the first project that I’ve worked on with them that I was involved with from the first thought of doing it. And to make your point, I suppose them being more receptive and more welcoming with their overall approach to both the project and even each other had something to do with it from their side and probably mine too.

SC: What have you observed about each of them since March 2020?

GF: I’ll start with Lars. He could still get excited like a 12-year-old kid could, and I totally have that in common with him. I think the other guys do as well, but early on, during the foundational parts of putting this record together with him, it was a lot of fun you get to act like a teenager again! And we all want to do that. But he also has a really methodical, highly structured, organized way of working as things get closer to the finish line.

SC: He’s a dialectic individual.

GF: Yes. I’m sure he would agree that he easily gets obsessed about some things along the way. I think the way our relationship has developed, it’s almost like I can make fun of him when I see that happening; it’s my way of telling him that he’s doing that. It’d be great if he’d stop. Sometimes he does, sometimes he doesn’t, but it’s almost like brothers, you know, just teasing each other the whole way down. But the closer you get to the finish line, he’s good at being able to funnel into the final stage.

One thing that stood out for me on this particular project was that James had a never-ending supply of really great ideas. And James is a mercurial person, so sometimes he’s silly, sometimes he’s funny, sometimes he’s quiet and focused, and you’re almost not sure if you should or shouldn’t interject. He’s a lot of different things. On this record, taking from what you said earlier about him wanting it to be collaborative… I had vocal ideas that didn’t resonate with him, and in the past, that’d probably been the end of it. But on this particular record, I think more often than not, we would at least try it. And I’m happy to be defeated if I have an idea that doesn’t work. Sometimes we would try stuff, and some of those things are on this record. He was a lot more open to and welcoming of these kinds of ideas. And doing vocals is a pretty personal thing; he’s in the booth, the control room, we’re talking, I’ve got his lyrics, he’s telling a story, and I’m trying to understand what he’s saying. And on this album, he seemed to want to stretch it a bit more.

Kirk? You know, Kirk’s energy is so bubbly and fun. I don’t know if I ever see Kirk in a serious mood while we’re working. He’s always pretty happy and having fun. I made the comment about Lars having the energy I love of a 12-year-old listening to riffs. Kirk is that way with music as well, but he’s also still that way about guitars, amps, and pedals. So sometimes, if things aren’t going well, I’ll say, “Why don’t you try the other guitar? Try the Mummy!” I don’t know how many guitars Kirk owns, but probably more than anybody. And he still responds. He gets more creative and productive when what he’s got in his hands is fun. I definitelyI see that in his spirit and the way he plays. Kirk is also very generous; I don’t know how else to say it. He will write a riff, and then he wants everyone else to take it and make it their own. There’s no riff-hogging.

And Rob? Everyone says this, so I don’t want to be redundant, but Rob is just one of the nicest people you’ll ever get to meet. He also works hard, man. No disrespect to the other three, but Rob does his homework; he always comes in prepared. And at the same time, he is always an open book and always ready to try something else. We probably had him do some of the songs three times with overdubs. We’d change the parts, or there wasn’t enough movement in this part or too much movement in that part. Rob was excited, always into it, and always up for the challenge. Some of these songs are a little hard to play. And for some of the songs, like “Lux Æterna” or something, the part itself isn’t challenging; it’s doing it for four minutes! And he’s into it. Take a song like “72 Seasons.” He plays part of it with a pick, which he doesn’t do that often. He has to play like James plays, in respect of really steady, really fast, really authoritative, and no note should be an apology. Every note has to be a kick in the ass. And I don’t know how many times we played that part. He was just super engaged and always happy to try it again and try different ideas, different notes, and whatever was needed.

SC: Going back to James’ vocal performance, which is a massive thing on this record. Do you think having time and space by himself, rather than doing everything “in person,” allowed him to find the courage to explore and put himself out there a little more? No one wants to make the pandemic a good thing, but without the space it forced, do you think he would’ve been able to get to that place?

GF: I know what you mean. You don’t want to make the pandemic a positive thing because it was not. But a silver lining is okay, right? There’s a silver lining all over this record with regards [to the impact of] that particular situation, and this was definitely one of them. There’s no question that when he’s sitting in his studio room in his house, or wherever it is that he does this – that’s got to be a very different experience for him than being on this stage [or in the studio]. It’s a place where you could just do anything, be out of key, and who cares?! For him to be able to go through his recorded ideas and be like, “I’m gonna send that to Greg, I’ll send that to Greg, I’ll send that to Greg,” there’s got to be something about that process that helped.

Some of the ones he sent me would be his first version of an idea. Then with a few changes, but he still didn’t love it. Then he’d have tried something else, and something else again… So they were all very related, but it was like a trail of breadcrumbs from where he started. And many times, the first idea was the best idea. It’s the first time that I’ve had that experience with him where they were his own personal recordings that I was going through to make up what I thought was the first version of a song. And then we’d do it here in the booth, but we were always able to listen to the demo vocal. Sometimes there’d be multiple demo vocals because two were good.

We talked earlier about how the first rehearsal didn’t have all the weird things first rehearsals can have because no one had the time to think about that crap. This was something that not only worked, but it sticks and can be done again. [Where we went] could get a little surprising, but it was a pretty slick process on this one overall. There wasn’t a lot of stuff that we needed to do again and again, like, “Try that chorus line again. It’s too scratchy or not scratchy enough or whatever.” Kirk came in and re-did a few solo bits. Rob came in and did some bass fixes. I think he redid the intro to “72 Seasons,” but that’s the last process, and on this particular record, that was pretty quick and good. So, I was mostly prepared. We did the “Lux Æterna” thing quite ahead of everything. I knew that was coming.

We did have a two-week technical issue at HQ which shut the studio down, and to say we slid in without any stress to the finish line would not quite be true. But we made it, and there were no urgent disasters or freaking out or anything.

SC: You’ve lived with this record like no one else has. You’ve listened to it so many times as a producer, and you’ve heard it now as a fan. Is this final 72 Seasons album what you expected to happen when you first started conceiving the next Metallica album with Lars in riff school?

GF: I think the answer to that is odd because of the way that it started out of the pandemic, it was in this chaotic, weird space, with all this weird new technical remote stuff. It’s heavy, dirty metal. When we were working on riffs, some early conversations were had about if there is such a thing as a “Metallica ballad.” That’s a conversation that we did have along the way. I think I always championed that idea early on, and I was astonished at the lack of response I got from my query.

SC: You asked them why there isn’t one?

GF: Yes, and I think early on, we had worked on a couple [of songs] that you probably could categorize as that.

SC: This is the first time I’ve thought about the fact that there’s not a ballad on the record. That’s very interesting.

GF: I thought about it. I’ve certainly had conversations, and there were a couple of songs you could say maybe fell into that category from the early workings. Some of those are from the Zoom demos. You have a group of songs, you start working on them, and some of them bubble to the top. Some of those that bubble to the top are surprising, like, “Why didn’t we like that one before? It’s killer now.” And some of the ones that you had high hopes for just didn’t go anywhere. It’s not worse. It’s just not better, while all the other ones are better than they were, so now this one is at the bottom.

When we did Hardwired…To Self-Destruct, and this is a well-known story, we did the whole album. At the very, very end, we needed another song. Which was the song “Hardwired.” There’s a little short period of time there where I thought that was going happen with this, except it was going to be the ballad. It just never happened, and when I would bring it up, I got the, “Nah, not into it.” To try and talk an artist into doing something they’re not interested in doing is – I mean, you’ve already lost that battle. There are a lot of great heavy metal records that I love that don’t have these kinds of songs on them, and 72 Seasons is just gonna be one more of those.

SC: So the final question for this conversation: do any of these riffs that didn’t quite make it go back into the general riff library for consideration in the future, or is this it?

GF: I think there’s gonna be a small pile of riffs that will probably make it to the next bin if there is one, for lack of a better term.

SC: Can we get an exclusive and ask you to hum one?

GF: No, hahaha…

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