Being in a band is hard, or it isn’t hard. It’s not usually both at the same time, but it’s rarely stable and doesn’t seem to be too predictable. We’ve been in the band Oneida — the same band! — together for 25 years. We’ve learned a few things. But learning is a lifelong occupation or you end up an embarrassment, so off to school we went this summer: to learn How to Be a Band. Our instructors? Metallica, of course.
In November of 2021, the streaming platform Masterclass started offering “How to Be a Band”; but it wasn’t until about a month ago that we were able to watch it for free, because we weren’t about to pay for a subscription.
Bobby Matador: I don’t want to be in Metallica. I never did. I don’t hate them, and I have some tangential brushes with them, going way back, that are actually pretty formative — like the “Fade to Black” lyrics scrawled on what seemed like every surface of the psychiatric hospital where my older brother was living in the late 1980s — or 20 years later, the “Fade to Black” lyrics scrawled across every surface on the binders of a troubled seventh grade student of mine (making his other teachers really nervous). That looks like a pretty limited set of experiences, now that I write it down.
Kid Millions: My expectations for this course were beyond low. I hoped, perhaps uncharitably, that it would veer into self-parody like their 2004 documentary Some Kind of Monster often does. Metallica is a great band to make fun of, because they take themselves and their music so seriously that it’s embarrassing to watch, like a band of doppelgängers going about their business in counterfeit, grotesque ways. In that sense, experiencing Some Kind of Monster reflected my own silly vanities. But they’ve grown up a lot since 2003 (thankfully). Their vulnerability draws in fans, gets them paid well, and Satan bless them for that. They also live in a bubble of adoration, so their perceptions get distorted. I wondered as I watched the Masterclass, who is the audience for this? Is there a band in the universe who will shell out $180 to watch this thing? But my default is credulity — you just have to talk to me and I’m feeling warmth and enjoying your company… so in that sense, the dudes of Metallica, sitting around a camera and just spouting off the dome (they clearly did not prepare) was going to work on some level with me.
Full disclosure: I have a six month old baby, so I didn’t think to take any notes until Kirk Hammett talked about “Building a Rock Solo from the Blues.” The band dynamic made me wonder if Lars and James actually know that it’s not KURT Hammett. I swear Lars says “Kurt” at some point, but my guest pass (thank you, Emily!) has lapsed, so I can’t confirm it.
Bobby: Episode 1 is an introduction to your instructors. They use words like “family” and “gang” — and I don’t think I heard “team” at all — so far, so good! Honestly, it’s all pretty trite, but still resonant for someone who’s been doing this a long time. They each deliver a few bromides intended to “inspire,” but the only guy who says something that anyone might actually need to hear is Trujillo — consistently my favorite instructor — who offers as introductory advice that “[there’s] one thing for students to understand: what kills creative flow, what kills creativity.” This actually feels applicable to anyone in a band, a universalism that is a useful reminder: pay attention to flow. Right on, Rob. Onward we go…
Kid: I LOVED ROB. He’s so thrilled to be in the band, and he’s such a deep player. I wondered what it would be like to be part of that rhythm section though. Hmm — I should go easy on the Lars-busting.
Bobby: Whaaaaaaat the fuck are they doing starting with a songwriting lesson? The first actual lesson, titled “It All Starts with the Riff,” is bizarrely prescriptive — I don’t wanna write a fucking Metallica song!
Kid: I gotta say that I thought this section would be useful to a beginner. They advise going for drama, using dynamics, building something, then breaking it down. Lots of Oneida songs have one section and one dynamic: LONG and LOUD. But you’re gonna find tons more variation on Oneida albums than you’ll find on Metallica albums. Who cares, because Metallica won the money and adoration thing.
Bobby: I guess for a Metallica fan, the next episode, “Deconstructing ‘Enter Sandman,’” could be genuinely valuable and interesting — hey, how did these dudes put this music that I love together? Great topic for A FUCKING METALLICA DOCUMENTARY. Worthless as guidance. I mean, there’s some good thoughts and advice sprinkled here and there, like the point that important creative moments can happen quickly and instinctively, and you want to be tuned in to those moments — sure, totally true. One essential nugget drops in this episode: In some pretty hilarious archival footage, the band is showing off their newly-arrived Black Album and you hear someone yell, “none more black!” — and so I decided to keep track of Spinal Tap references. This will not be the last.
Kid: There are too many levels to their Tap references. It’s an Ouroboros.
Bobby: The first useful episode, number 4, is one of the longest. Titled “Navigating Egos and Giving Criticism,” it’s subdivided into mini-lessons (excellent pedagogy, gentlemen!): “Talk It Out”; “Understand the Personalities in Your Band”; “Compromise with a Common Goal”; and “There’s No Wrong or Right.”
Tempted as I am to take shots at a lot of the therapy-speak that drips from every moment (“If I light your candle with mine, mine’s still burning” HAHAHAHAHAHAHA), I gotta admit there’s a lot of hard-earned lessons that get passed on here. Working with the same group of people for decades is complicated and exhausting, and when you add in the weirdness of musicians, endemic lack of sleep, moments of powerlessness, drugs/alcohol/egos/etc, the monumental nature of what they’ve achieved — staying productive, solvent, and comfortable in themselves — is really impressive. Still, though, archival footage from the late ‘80s again offers the funniest lines (“Why do we write such long fucking songs?”).
Kid: Honestly, I was watching this section and feeling lots of admiration and empathy for the path they’ve taken. I am able, with a high level of compartmentalizing, to have compassion for these dudes who struggled with heavy alcoholism, self-destruction, and overwhelming success, to own their sensitivity and love for each other along with the process of making music. I truly admire these guys. I would hug them if I could. But when they make a new album they are probably spending 1 million dollars. Oneida’s newest album, Success — OUT TODAY! — cost about $3,700 and we recorded it in about two days.
Bobby: Hey, woah, that doesn’t include the evening spent recording vocals! Speaking of which, Episode 5, “Writing Lyrics” — what? Why? Who the fuck wants to write lyrics like Hetfield?
Kid: I feel like our friend James does know how to write a “universal lyric.” His advice is to “keep it vague” — I might add, “and grumpy.” I think a listener will fill in the details missing in the text — and that’s how you get stalkers! I wouldn’t know, because I think the only person who has listened to my lyrics closely is my wife. I love you, Sarah! Thank you!
Bobby: When we come back for episode 6, “Deconstructing ‘Master of Puppets’” I finally realize these guys are all wearing the same clothes the whole time. THIS is how to be a band: spend one day filming a Masterclass series. True applause from me here. Also, props for the kind-of-funny discussion of “heaviness,” in which everyone laughs for maybe the only time in this series of lessons. It’s not that funny, though, except the earnest moment when one of the band insists “the knobs don’t just go to 11, they go to 12.” Another one for the Tap tally!
They do seem so fucking sincere when they talk about their own music, as they do in Episode 8, “Exploring Dynamics: the Song ‘One.’” So I guess I’ll hold my tongue a little bit out of respect.
Kid: “One” made an impression on me in high school. My memory was that the video would cut to the band wearing all black and playing in a white room. I was wrong! They should have done that. And all the film dialog they overlaid on the music? So dumb, such a bad idea — and it was still a hit! Was that a “Creative Risk” (cf. Episode 13)?
There’s a moment in Episode 9, “Performance Techniques,” that endeared the band to me, even though it’s the most basic piece of advice to give to aspirants. It’s the concept of the BIG NOD. When there’s a change coming up in a tune, look each other in the eye, and even if you’ve played the song thousands of times, you still give that smiling nod to each other and the change happens together and all is well in the world. I’ve set things up so that I don’t really look up at all. I’m not proud of this. I’m so sensitive that if I see someone leaving the audience to get a beer (or to go home, let’s be real) it actually hurts and I get thrown off. I know it’s ridiculous! Jane and Showtime, our guitarists, are proponents of the BIG NOD and will occasionally bring Bobby into this essential on-stage practice. So yes, if you come upon a new part in the song, even if it comes after 4 or 8 measures, give that BIG NOD. You can smile too.
Bobby: I think our instructors might disapprove of the smile.
Kid: In the same episode, Lars talks about how clued in he is to James’s feelings. He sounds like a psychopath: “Everything I hear and feel with the music — it’s completely connected to James and his guitar. I always know where he is. I know where he’s looking, I know what he’s feeling and thinking.” Is Hetfield a captive in Metallica? Should Oneida call someone? Lars is an essential member of Metallica in all things save drumming, so he stirs in an insistent, proprietary energy to overcompensate. But without Lars, there is no Metallica.
Bobby: Episode 13, “Securing Your Band’s Future,” contains no advice on controlling your own publishing, by the way, which is a scandalous omission. Then Episode 14, “Taking Charge of Your Creative Destiny” — woah, that is some big talking there. I like the ambition. I also like that they return to the motif of trust (in yourself, in each other, in your music), and also to the role of time — stay patient, be in the flow, and accept the intervality of progress and accomplishment. They also advise that we “take creative risks” – hey, would that include Building a Rock Guitar Solo From the Blues? – and then Hetfield drops my favorite line of the whole series: He uses the example of making Lulu with Lou Reed as a risk, and just kinda mumbles through the line, “This was so not on my list of things to do in life…” I’m fucking dying.
Kid: Lulu is amazing.
Bobby: The series ends with an “exclusive performance” for students. I didn’t watch it. Kid, did you?
Kid: I got halfway through! I wanted to see Lars play the drums. Clearly there’s something special about Lars’s playing, otherwise I wouldn’t be here trying to make fun of him. Metallica is singular among their metal contemporaries, in that the drumming isn’t awesome. It’s serviceable. Metallica is three virtuosic musicians alongside a dude who makes things really interesting. It’s loose as hell, and that’s fun. Big ups to Lars. I wanted to watch “One” but I never made it that far. Which, by the way, they performed without the “Fifth Member” — in the Metallica course, that’s the audience. Funny, Oneida plays a lot of shows without the “Fifth Member” — but we have five dudes in the band, so our audience is the “Sixth Member.” Looking forward to meeting that person!
Bobby: Oh, the final tally on Spinal Tap allusions was three — the last being Hetfield announcing, “I’m just as god made me.” I can relate.