Lars Ulrich: "We've Always Been Fiercely Independent and Controlling"

Metallica's outspoken drummer talks embracing the Web and metal's new-millennium surge

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Rolling Stone caught up with Metallica at their Record Store Day signing event in northern California late last week. Drummer Lars Ulrich dialed us up to discuss the event and chatted about recording with Rick Rubin, bonding with his kids over Guitar Hero and learning to love the Web.

You went through four boxes of Sharpies signing autographs on Record Store Day. Can you talk about that marathon meet and greet?
I think the intense energy and all the love carried us through. I didn't even take a pee break! It's probably the longest we've gone for as long as I can remember. We used to be like, "Where's the beer? Fire up the Misfits!" It would be a lot more reckless. Now it's more personal and less about you and your beer needs. It's funny. You're at home chilling out in your backyard, being a parent, and driving your kids around town and you conveniently forget. At 9 a.m., I spent ten minutes wiping the shit off my nine-month old. At 12 p.m., I was in the dog park cleaning up dog shit. Then you get into a car drive down to Mountain View and go, "Holy shit!" By 2 p.m., they're saying how amazing you are. It's easy to forget in your own little bubble.

What did you take away from the fans this time?
I would say the main thing is that it continues to reinforce how varied metal fans are; how difficult it is to define who they are. You are talking about fans that cross all lines of age, gender and cultural backgrounds — it's not categorizable. You see parents there with their kids who say they finally found something in common through Metallica. I walked away totally humbled, whereas in my twenties and thirties there's these big black holes. I didn't remember walking away with that feeling.

You signed a lot of Guitar Hero controllers. Is that cool?
It's fucking way cool. Our kids love playing Guitar Hero and Rock Band. It's awesome. There's something really positive coming out of video games. It's so cool to sit there and have your kids talk to you about Deep Purple and Black Sabbath and Soundgarden.

What made Metallica want to be part of Record Store Day?
It was a no-brainer for us. It took three seconds to decide to do it. The record store has been such a huge part of our lives. When I was twelve, fourteen years old in Denmark, the record store was the Holy Grail and the guy who worked there was my hero. I would go two to three times a week and get Judas Priest, Accept, Triumph; this guy was like a God to me. In America it was places in San Francisco like the Record Vault where we'd sell our demos, T-shirts, hang out.

How would you feel on the day the last record store in America closed?
I'd do my best to try and be there playing "Fade to Black" as the last song, but I don't think it'll come to that. iTunes? I'm there as much as everyone else, I'm not against that. If you look at vinyl, fifteen years ago CDs came out and yet it continues to make more of a comeback. I don't think you'll be able to kill the record store, at least not in major cities. I'm worried about the smaller cities. I'm against these soulless megastores. You were one of the first artists to sue over copyright infringement and voice concerns over aspects of downloading. Eight years later, with bands like Radiohead embracing the Net and yet charting, how has your stance changed, if at all?
We have FLACs and MP3s for sale. It was never about downloading per se. We have the Vault where you can download shows from twenty years ago for free, full-on and it's been there for years. You can download recent shows days after they happen for cost. Back in the day there was a much bigger question about "on whose terms?" We said, "Wait a minute, it should be about the artist." Then all hell broke loose and we sat on the sidelines for a while. We've always been fiercely independent and controlling; sometimes to a fault. That's why we exist and why all these people show up.

And as far as the next record goes ...
You know, this is our last record under contract with Warner, so we're looking at how we can embrace everything.

Like a 360 deal with Live Nation?
Mmm, we've never sold ourselves that way. No disrespect. We want to be as free a players as possible. We've been observing Radiohead and Trent Reznor and in twenty-seven years or however long it takes for the next record, we'll be looking forward to everything in terms of possibilities with the Internet.

What can you say about working with mad genius Rick Rubin on this upcoming album?
Mad genius? You've heard then. [Laughs] It's been a great year, and it's been a lot of fun — a chance to re-invent the wheel again. It's great to have someone who sits there and throws things in your face. He's not very methodical; it's all about the vibe and the moment. We were interacting and playing off each other more. There was little method to his madness, but you learn to trust him and roll with it.

Have you thought about the climate into which you'll be dropping this new album? What is the state of metal today?
I think you saw. Metal is fucking alive and well and doing better than it has in many years. It seems like most of the metal in the Seventies and the Eighties is still revered. It seems like most fourteeen year olds are into Deep Purple, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, as opposed to some alternative, grunge and especially the rap-rock of the Nineties. When you've been around a while you tend to disregard cycles, but there is a resurgence way deeper and more penetrating into the fourteen-year-old mindset all over. It's unbelievable.

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