Lars Ulrich's head is spinning. Just hours before our conversation, the drummer debuted a thrashy new Metallica rager, the breakneck-paced "Hardwired," in a Facebook Live broadcast and announced that the group would be putting out a new LP, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, this fall. The record, which contains 12 new songs representing over 80 minutes of music over two discs, will be the first Metallica album since 2008's Death Magnetic and first full-length since their 2011 collaboration with Lou Reed, Lulu. But there's a catch: The album at this moment is still a work in progress.
"Rob [Trujillo] is still downstairs right now redoing the bass and one of the verses on one of the songs," Ulrich says. "People go, 'What do you think of the record?' And I don't even know because it's not even done yet. It's been kind of a mindfuck this whole week."
In addition to some extra recording, Metallica have been rehearsing this week for their Minneapolis concert on Saturday. Ulrich says it wasn't until Monday that he and his bandmates played "Hardwired" together for the first time, since they recorded it instrument-by-instrument. Nevertheless, he's happy with the reception the song has gotten so far. "I've been getting lots of cool texts from lots of buddies today talking about how much they're digging the new song," he says during an in-depth chat with Rolling Stone about the new LP. "It's a good time to be alive."
"Hardwired" is only three minutes long. Is the album as a whole more concise?
A little bit. That's actually the last song we wrote for the record. We started this album by throwing different ideas around. The shape of it, as a collection of songs, didn't come into focus until we were deep into it. At that point, the songs were getting tighter, shorter and leaner.
A couple of months ago, we were sitting there taking stock of the record and thought maybe we should write one more fast, little crazy song, and that became "Hardwired." It just kind of happened. I think James [Hetfield] and I wrote and recorded it in less than a week, which, for us, is basically a nanosecond [laughs].
What was the process of going through the song ideas like early on?
We record everything we do. When we started the album, I had an iPod with over 1,500 song ideas, jams and riffs on it, and they each have a number. I went on some really long road trips and listened to that for hours and hours. I'd write down, "'912' sounds like a good idea." [Laughs] Then James and I started connecting the dots about a year, year and a half ago. That's when the songs started taking shape.
When was it that the songs took shape?
We wrote most of the songs in the fall of '14 and the spring of '15.
When you made Death Magnetic, your producer, Rick Rubin, helped you figure out what the LP should sound like. What were your goals with Hardwired?
Originally, we wanted to continue where we left off. Since Death Magnetic, we've been on a roll: We did the Lou Reed stuff, a Ronnie Dio–Rainbow medley, a Deep Purple cover and obviously the movie took two years. [Hardwired … to Self-Destruct producer] Greg Fidelman has been working with us full time since then. We haven't had time to sit down and assess what we're doing.
So it wasn't until farther into the process that we took stock of what we were doing and asked what we were trying to say with the album. That's when things came more into shape and became more coherent. But we didn't work with a mission statement.
What did Greg Fidelman bring to the table as a producer?
He's basically become the fifth member of the band when it comes to the studio stuff. He's a great bouncing board and he pushes us to make things better. We're always seeking embellishment and improvement in our songwriting. We listen to a song and go, "That's cool, but could the mix be better? Should we change the drums up in the bridge? Should we change the key?" It's labor intensive and methodical. He'll sit there during this and challenge us. James or I will be leading the cavalry on a particular song and say, "That's really great. It works." And Greg will sit there and go, "Ehhh." And we'll realize it's not good enough.
When you're writing and you're in it with a song, you can get high on the energy of the moment. Sometimes that energy can mask what's going on. It's like a drug where you get false perceptions. We may be feeling good and vibing and not arguing and two days later go, "What the fuck were we thinking?" Greg is always the voice of reason.
You've said that the songs on Hardwired will sound "less frenetic" than those on Death Magnetic. What do you mean?
Most of the songs are simpler. We introduce a mood and we stick to it, rather than songs we've done where one riff happens and we go over here and then over there and it becomes a journey through all these different soundscapes. The songs are more linear. And by "less frenetic," I mean there are certainly less starts and stops in the songs. It cruises along a little bit more than the last record.
Earlier this year, when we spoke about the Kill 'Em All and Ride the Lightning reissues, you said you felt a "crossfire of energies" between those and the new LP. Did the reissues spill over into Hardwired creatively?
I can't say that there was a magical moment where we're listening to "Metal Militia" and wrote a song. But we did play Kill 'Em All in its entirety at the Orion festival in Detroit in 2013. That was the first time I really got into that record. Early on, I was dismissive of that record because Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets may be a little more intellectually stimulating and challenging – they were deeper records – and it wasn't until 2013 when we played it that I realized Kill 'Em All had a cohesiveness. It had its own thing with the speed, but it's simpler – the songs are longer but not quite as progressive. It's a world all its own. And I think there are some elements of that that rubbed off into this. I'd say there's a trace of residue from rediscovering Kill 'Em All that crept into the songwriting.
You're still finishing up the new LP. What's left to do on it?
Not much. We have all but one of the songs mixed and done. In the last two or three days, Greg was going to mix the one called "Spit Out the Bone" – working title "CHI" – and all of a sudden Rob showed up in the control room yesterday to work on it. So what the fuck do I know? It's pretty much done. We should have that last song mixed this weekend.
I noticed that the bonus disc of the deluxe version of Hardwired features a demo of a song called "CHI." When did it become "Spit Out the Bone"?
We only finished titling these songs the day before yesterday. Up until, like, 48 hours ago, they were still known as "CHI," "Tin Shot," "Plow," Sawblade," whatever all those crazy working titles were. Now that the track list is out and people are talking about the songs, I have to think, "Which one's 'Spit Out the Bone'?" James and I are still like, "Huh? Oh, 'CHI.'"
"We would rather people hear the recorded version of a new song than a live version on some shitty iPhone recording from 900 rows back."
One new song title I see a lot of Metallica fans speculating about online is "Am I Savage?" They think it has something to do with your cover of Diamond Head's "Am I Evil?"
[Laughs] Well, it shares the word "am," the word "I" and the question mark. So three out of four. But no, there's no direct correlation.
But, in an abstract way, "Am I Evil?" is part of the reason I'm talking to you today. If it weren't for that song, you wouldn't give a shit who I was or what I do. So obviously there's a very thin, abstract line there. But there's no direct correlation to "Am I Savage?"
Will you be playing "Hardwired" or any other new songs in Minneapolis this weekend?
We are, what, 52 hours away from answering that question? [Laughs] Let's put it this way: The chances of playing a song from the new album have increased since we shared a new song with the world. But one thing we realized when we were making the album is that we put a lot of time and effort into making these songs good and, given a choice, we would rather people hear the recorded version than a live version on some shitty iPhone recording from 900 rows back. So read into that what you will.