Q&A with Phil Towle, Metallica's Performance Coach
By Peter Rugg
These are familiar times. In May 2003, early hype was going around that Metallica’s St. Anger was a return to form after a decade of mediocrity. Then the album came out and took a shit on everybody’s chest. These past few weeks have been the same, except it looks like the band’s new album, Death Magnetic, might actually be good. Phil Towle said this would happen.
Towle was Metallica’s performance coach during St.Anger’s recording. The footage of their excruciatingly awkward therapy sessions would later be the most fascinating part of 2004’s Some Kind of Monster. The documentary of the band’s near-implosion was better reviewed than the resulting album.
Before getting called in to save the band and get paid $40,000 a month doing it, Towle lived in Leawood and worked as a performance coach for football teams like the St. Louis Rams. He sold his home in 2006 to move to Northen California. We got Metallica’s therapist to give us his review of Death Magnetic and to talk about how the James Hetfield-Lars Ulrich relationship is the greatest love story of all time.
What’s your relationship with the band right now?
Phil Towle: I’m friends with the members of the band. I spoke to Lars just a couple of days ago, and we keep in close touch. There’s no professional contact at this point in time.
When you first started working with Metallica, you said the results wouldn’t be seen until the next album. Now that you’re listening to the new album, what are the results?
I think they’re in better shape to be successful creatively. And the music sounds like it to me. I feel their power. I feel their confidence. I don’t feel them as tentative. I feel they’re strong in their message musically and lyrically. It’s all visceral to me. They feel like they’re having fun and doing something they enjoy doing with each other. They feel to me like they enjoyed this project and enjoyed playing this music, and they did a great job.
Where is this band psychologically compared to where they were when you met them?
I feel where we were before was in the process of construction. And there is great pleasure one ought to get out of the reconstruction phase. But it’s different, like if you were rebuilding a house and you get to look at the foundation, and as you rebuild in the various different stages you appreciate what’s done, and in the end the end product is what they’re celebrating more now. They’re celebrating what they’re capable of doing. Although I’m real curious already to see what they’re going to do with the next album.
Do you like any of the new songs?
The music I like from Metallica at best always touches the core of my heart. James has been coming out and saying the whole issue of Death Magnetic was rescuing the band on the verge of falling apart so a lot of lyrics are about how close you can be to death. And then resurrection, if you will. The album itself to me honestly portrays how they look back on their near-death experience. I love “The Day That Never Comes.” I think that reflects all the aspects. I don’t have one song as a favorite as much as I feel the overall impact: I think they’re very honest now, I think they have retrieved some of their innocence, and they’ve integrated their innocence with their maturity and growth and psychological awareness. They’re playing like people that care about each other, and their audience. This album is going to touch people. They’re going to say it’s great they made a comeback, but it’s not that they’ve now regained their grove, it’s that they’ve realigned their souls with their creative expression.
What about compared with their old stuff?
I see the Lars/James relationship as a love story. I saw it when I first met with them. When I was doing psychotherapy I saw it with couples. I have a tremendous respect for love as the most driving force on the planet, suffocated though it may be. And I saw the love story between the two of them. Basically they needed to be respected and loved and they needed to exercise that love like all couples do. When issues aren’t dealt with, love gets replaced by resentment and negativity. So I like the songs manifesting the love issues. I appreciate “Nothing Else Matters” for that reason – when they play that song, and people light their lighters. These guys play heavy metal music that reaches the core of human angst. When James wrote “Enter Sandman,” he courageously invited the alienated of our society and in each of us to openly express our fears and insecurities and alienation. He captured the hearts and souls of that part of us that wasn’t able to talk about our hurt or had trouble expressing that. When people can come out and talk about the secrets of their pain, that’s a love story. When the audience responds to Metallica it’s out of love, and it gets misconstrued as a battle cry for rebellion or hate. It’s really a battle cry for mutual understanding.
So what was blocking that relationship before you worked with them?
Too much energy was going into unnecessary tension. Creative tension is caused, I think, by wrestling with how to get one’s passion fulfilled. But when you are battling with each other in unnecessary conflict and suffering side effects from that, and trying to medicate yourself in different ways … the creative energy is compromised by unresolved tension. Lars and James started this band. This is all about them getting together and producing something that would be a natural expression of what they wanted to accomplish – their ambition and what was inside of them creatively. The difference between then and now is they have clearer minds, spirits and emotions and ought to be able to access their creativity in a way that uses their full strengths.
Yes. There’s an edginess associated with heavy metal music that is overrated. You don’t need to be throwing chairs through hotel room windows or destroying yourself. You don’t need to be destroying yourself with drugs and alcohol or debauching to be a great talent. When we give ourselves permission to use extreme measures, when we use a certain amount of edginess appropriate to creativity, but surrender ourselves to it … then often times success is a real bitch. We aren’t prepared for the degree success taxes us as human beings.
In that environment, did you ever feel a therapeutic responsibility to say, "Look guys, for your own mental health maybe you should just retire?"
I don’t think anybody should ever break up, or artists should stop painting. You have to write about what you’re going through and be authentic about it, and you can use your artistry as a means of cleansing. But it can’t be an excuse to go to such extremes you destroy creativity. And the lifestyle that comes with trying to be successful requires you to accompany creative success with personal growth.
With the football teams, you can measure success in yards earned and Super Bowl trophies. Since music is more intangible, how do you know whether you helped Metallica?
We were measuring success in terms of making sure the band regained itself. Some people say the band was saved because it was headed for destruction. Management was justifiably concerned the band was imploding and would die a death many bands do. And their personal behaviors were self-destructive, and their ways of interacting were self-destructing. Once you’re on the other side of that, now you can start measuring objectively as much as you can in the artistry of it all. Albums sold: popularity. Of course, selling albums doesn’t necessarily mean they’re great. We can argue forever subjectively whether someone’s a real talent. Celebrity doesn’t mean they’re a talent. To me they are now in a position to make a positive impact on our society.
You know, a lot of Metallica fans, seeing that documentary, thought your work with them was just proof the band was adrift and weak. That it was the least "metal" thing they could do.
I think people are taking a snapshot. They listen to a cut from Some Kind of Monster and they don’t like the sounds and compare it to what they’ve heard before, so that becomes a failure to them. To a performance coach, that’s part of a process. The members of Metallica are better band mates, better human beings, fathers, not because of what I did but what we did on a consistent basis over those months and years. We took time out over the course of those months and years to explore our personalities. So I don’t take a snapshot. I look at it as what it was during its time and serving its purpose.
So what else can you look at with Death Magnetic and say that process is still going?
My impressions are they know how to work in the studio more effectively. They know how to collaborate, how to assign and keep roles. We did a lot of collaborative exercises like sharing lyric writing, because from my perspective, whether they knew it or not, it builds a sense of equality.
Given your background in psychology, do you think people have a point when they say the album cover looks like a vagina?
Well, … I hadn’t thought about it that way. I’ve talked to a few people about the cover. People seem to like it. It looks like a crypt to me. Psychologically, the most important thing is why do we see it the way we see it. Why do I see it as a crypt? Am I influenced by Death Magnetic? To me it doesn’t look that way but maybe it’s because I’m coming up on 70. That’s the wonderful thing about art.