Q&A: Lars Ulrich

The Metallica drummer on why Axl Rose is like Bill Clinton, and how his band resembles abstract art

Lars Ulrich Credit: Neil Lupin/Getty Images via Redferns

There's been a lot of arguing going on for all 23 years of the fucking band,'' says Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich. ''But now we're having fun.'' If you've seen the tell-all documentary Some Kind of Monster, you know what Ulrich is talking about. The power struggles, alcoholism and childish bickering that nearly destroyed the world's biggest metal act have given way to a new-and-improved Metallica, thanks to the arrival of bassist Robert Trujillo and a forty-thou-a-month shrink. In the film, Ulrich also elucidates his love for fine art, and we meet his toughest critic: his dad, Torben, a jazz writer, pro tennis player and spitting image of Gandalf from Lord of the Rings. On August 16th, Metallica will kick off the final leg of their theater-in-the-round U.S. tour in St. Paul, Minesota. ''We've got four front rows,'' says Ulrich while vacationing in Italy. ''And playing in the States in the summer, that's pretty good shit.''

Your dad seems so cool. What music was he playing around the house when you were a kid?
His passion, his love, his main thing was jazz. So out of his room came a lot of Miles, Coltrane, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman, Sonny Rollins. Copenhagen was the jazz capital of Western Europe at that time. But he also played the Doors, the Stones, the Beatles and Muddy Waters. When I started playing my first rock stuff around '73, like Deep Purple and Uriah Heep, we'd start bickering. He'd say it was square and the drummer was too white.

Did you go to clubs as a kid?
Yeah. A place called Montmartre — I was dragged there a few times. But a lot of musicians spent time hanging around my house, like Sonny Rollins, Ben Webster and Dexter Gordon, who was my godfather.

How many beats per minute can you play on your double kick drum?
I don't know, but drumming-wise, I'm close to the best shape I've ever been in. I've been stepping it up alot this year, running. I quit smoking. When we're sitting there in the 15th minute of the third hour playing ''Dyers Eve,'' I've been really, really good. Turning the 40 corner, it feels good to say that.

Does Rob Trujillo scare you onstage? He's freaky.
I have the option of looking away [laughs]. When he's doing his sumo-wrestler-Satanic-crap walk, I can just turn my eyes over to [James] Hetfield. If he's doing his war face from hell, I know I can always go over to [Kirk] Hammett — there's a little more lukewarm love over there. But Rob's been awesome. At the end of the Nioneties, Metallica was like a military operation: Things got a little too fucking anal, and Rob's helped us loosen up. It's all good.

Does it piss you off that you can't get drunk with Hetfield anymore?
Me, Kirk and Trujillo can still throw down. believe me. We can also do it when James is around. There's no issues. James has been an angel with that. He doesn't preach, or police, or get up in everybody else's shit.

You used to drink a lot onstage. Where did you pee?
As long as you don't piss on something that's plugged in. I haven't touched alcohol onstage since New Year's '83-'84, somewhere in upstate New York with Anthrax. None of us could play. But Kirk usually pisses in a bottle in his little booth, and I go and pee on a road case. There isn't a road case I haven't peed on yet.

What's your favorite drummer joke?
What has three legs and a cunt on top of it?

Um
A drum stool!

Best prank you ever pulled?
I love the Cult, but when we had them with us for the whole summer of '89, one unnamed band member had a girlfriend who brought around goldfish in little bowls. One day the bus driver forgot to turn on the A.C., the fish basically boiled, and the girl fucking lost it. So for the show in Portland, we bought out the local pet store and for two minutes rained goldfish on their set. The unnamed member and his horrified girlfriend were trying to pick up the flopping fish. Their drummer, Matt Sorum, started eating them.

Sorum played with Gn' R. You toured with Gn' R. How much of a freak is Axl?
I haven't heard from the guy in 12 years, but Axl was two people. You were truly left wondering what the fuck was going to happen next. When he was in a good mood, he was the sweetest guy, and when he forgot to take his medicine or decided to go off, he was kind of a freak. He was the last person I've ever seen, though, besides maybe Bill Clinton, that when he walked into a room every single person was drawn to him. That's a rare thing.

What painting best embodies the spirit of Metallica?
Great fucking question: I'm leaning toward some of those big Jackson Pollocks. When I think of Metallica, I think of energy and movement; a path that's always wavering and moving all the time. I'd pick Pollock's Number 32, from 1950.

Who's the best drummer alive?
Jon [Theodore] from Mars Volta. We did three weeks of dates with them in Australia in January. They were so awesome, and Jon's the best drummer I've seen in ten years. He plays with fire and energy, the weight of somebody like Phil Taylor from Motörhead but also Elvin Jones. I wanted to quit after I saw him play. ''I'm not following that little fucker.''