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Cage the Elephant on Covering Metallica’s “The Unforgiven”: “It’s Almost Like Their ‘Stairway to Heaven'”

Guitarist Nick Bockrath talks Metallica's legacy and the process of covering the thrash legends

Cage the Elephant Metallica cover
Cage the Elephant (courtesy of RCA) / Metallica in 1991 (courtesy of Elektra)
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    Cage the Elephant were among the 53 artists to participate in the just-released covers compilation The Metallica Blacklist. Each act covered a track from “The Black Album,” with all proceeds from the release benefitting a charity of the artist’s choice and Metallica’s All Within My Hands Foundation.

    For their contribution to The Metallica Blacklist, Cage the Elephant took on the epic ballad “The Unforgiven.” Proof of the song’s universally captivating arrangement, Cage make it sound like their own song while preserving the grandeur and dynamics of the original.

    In an exclusive Q&A with Heavy Consequence, Cage the Elephant guitarist Nick Bockrath discussed the experience of covering “The Unforgiven,” the impact of “The Black Album,” and the legacy of Metallica.

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    On hearing Metallica’s “Black Album” for the first time and the impact it had on him

    I remember “Enter Sandman” and “Sad But True” being some of the earliest riffs I learned on guitar. I probably played the “Enter Sandman” riff a zillion times in my bedroom. I also grew up by a university and I remember seeing kids wear Metallica shirts, and even before consciously digging into the music, just the artwork was so cool and intriguing to me.

    On the decision to cover “The Unforgiven” for The Metallica Blacklist

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    We were all unanimously leaning towards it as a band — it felt like one we could pull off and also have fun and kinda make it our own. It’s such a musically dynamic song with explosive peaks and valleys so I think that really spoke to us.

    The almighty Cliff Burnstein [Metallica’s longtime co-manager] thought it was a good choice for us, too!

    On the recording process for their cover of “The Unforgiven”

    It was really fun! We recorded it earlier this year at Blackbird Studios a few days before we did the “Bread and Roses” Livestream show from there. It was amazing just to all be back in a studio working together. The music all came together really naturally. Everyone brought their thing to the table and we all really love how it turned out.

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    Kirk [Hammett]’s playing on that record is so melodic and absolutely iconic, so I was personally very reverent to playing those lines but also in a way that sounds like us. For example, I play the main riff on pedal steel guitar in the chorus; there’s great Matt [Shultz]/Matthan [Minster] vocal harmonies; real tubular bells; cool keyboards … it was really fun getting to experiment with the instrumentation and I think speaks to how good the original written parts are!

    I love how that song has really standout acoustic and electric guitar parts. I think in a way this song must have made them even more internationally received. Every culture in the world has some sort of acoustic folk music… and not saying this is a folk song by any means, but in a way, the familiar sound and feeling of an acoustic guitar is almost a worldwide, even playing field that speaks to everyone. It just added a whole new dimension to their sound and catalog, and people obviously loved it! It’s almost like their “Stairway to Heaven” with the beautiful first half and then it just explodes into electric guitar-solo heaven.

    On other favorite Metallica tracks outside “The Black Album”

    “Master of Puppets” for sure! I vividly remember hearing it for the first time in a skate video (the “Plan B” segment in “On Video Summer 2000” to be exact!) and was totally in love with it. I love the twists and turns the recording took; it was almost like a few chapters in the same song and I hadn’t heard anything like that before. The middle section with the guitarmonies was the coolest thing I’d ever heard. I started getting more and more into music that had really epic instrumental passages in them because of it.

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    On the legacy of Metallica and their influence on the music industry

    They are legends! Hands down one of the best to ever to do it and true innovators. We’ve been so lucky to play shows with them around the world and it is so absolutely powerful to witness what a universally loved band they are. What an amazing and powerful thing to connect with so many generations of people around the globe through the music, the attitude, the art, everything about it! That’s magic. Not only are they still relevant 40 years into being together, but they are still out there SLAYING shows! Very few bands have accomplished that… it’s extremely inspiring!

    Thanks to Nick Bockrath for taking the time to answer these questions. You can purchase The Metallica Blacklist via Metallica’s website or Amazon (CD and vinyl arrive October 1st).

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