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Musicians on Musicians: Phoebe Bridgers & Lars Ulrich

2020's poet laureate of hushed heartbreak explores her metal side. 'It's one of those influences that isn't very obvious,' she says
Yana Yatsuk for Rolling Stone

P hoebe Bridgers was in grade school in Pasadena, California, when she heard Metallica’s music in the PlayStation 2 game Test Drive: Off-Road Wide Open. “I was a kid in the early 2000s, so it was kind of a gift when a band that you just got into has an entire catalog already,” says Bridgers, 26. “You get to go back and listen to everything.”

Though Bridgers has credited artists like Elliott Smith and Tom Waits as influencing her deeply emotional folk-rock sound, she’s been less vocal about her fandom for Metallica; she’s the kind of fan who can make an impassioned case for 2003’s St. Anger. “I think of Metallica as being a pop band,” she says. “A lot of metal is just metal to be metal — but Metallica write real songs.” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich, 56, was excited when Bridgers reached out for a conversation, delving into her catalog, even her previous bands Einstein’s Dirty Secret and Sloppy Jane. The talk flows so easily, in fact, that nearly two hours had passed when Ulrich finally looks at the clock. “I could sit here and talk all day,” he says. “This is supercomfortable.”

Bridgers: You have great fans, but you also have fans that are pretty entitled and have ownership over you and are like, “These are the real Metallica records.” What do you make of that?

Ulrich: The difference now, compared to back in the day, is that everybody’s got an opinion. In the mid-to-late Nineties, it was like, “We played a show four days ago in Bumfuck, Somewhere, and the set list is posted online. The whole Napster thing 20 years ago, when we woke up in the middle of that shitstorm, was the first time where we were not universally the good guy. That’s when I conditioned myself to stop paying attention [to online commentary].

Bridgers: The Napster thing is so interesting to me because we’re sitting in 2020 and somebody who doesn’t play music at all is making all the money on streaming. Now it’s legal to steal records. I know it must’ve been so traumatic to get torn apart, but in retrospect, are you ever just like, “Fuck that, I can’t regret having that stance”?

Ulrich: It was the strangest fucking summer. Because I was most on the front lines, it left me kind of shell-shocked. It really started more as a street fight. It was like, “Wait a minute, one of our songs is playing on a bunch of radio stations in the Midwest?” It was a song we hadn’t released yet. So we started tracing it back, and it was like, “Napster, what the fuck?” The environment we were brought up in was if somebody fucked with you, we’d just go after them. And then all of a sudden the lights came on, the whole world was watching.

It left certainly a pretty crazy taste in my mouth, especially because everybody was my friend: “You’re doing such a great job. We support you. What can I do to help you? Call me.” And then, as soon as I was out there and I looked behind, there was not a single person behind me. Obviously, I had the support of the band, but it was really weird. How do you view social media? How do you use it to get your shit out there and to communicate with your fans?

Bridgers: I always end up on the devil’s-advocate side of social media. Maybe it’s just that I have a lot of older friends who think it’s stupid, and I feel like I end up just being like, “But look, this kid made up a dance to one of my songs.” Does Metallica have TikTok dances?

Ulrich: There’s definitely some out there.

Bridgers: I think that’s great. Same with streaming. It’s nice to have a direct line. If my friend puts out a song that I think is rad, I can post it on Instagram and direct fans to them. It’s just this constant window into my views on music.

Ulrich: In the few interviews I’ve read, you talk about how comfortable you are expressing everything that you’re thinking. And I can relate to that because I love talking music and creativity and process, but then you find yourself sometimes forgetting, “Wait a minute, this can be held against me three months from now, when this comes out in Rolling Stone.” But you seem like you’re really comfortable always articulating your thoughts. Is that a fair read?

“I used to literally follow Motörhead around,” says Ulrich. “I saw 68 Motörhead shows. I would just drive behind their tour bus on the I-5, and it was like I was sort of on tour with them.”

Bridgers: Yes, I think that’s a fair read. I’m so stoked at the beginning of press trips, but then I will totally cringe if I did three interviews in a row and I see myself answer the same question in the exact same way with the exact same anecdote. You can just sort of spiral and drive yourself crazy, and you’re like, “Am I an asshole?”

Do you ever do a really in-depth interview where they do a whole paragraph of how you entered the interview, and you’re like, “God”? Someone described me as a “goth VSCO girl.” A VSCO girl means somebody who’s “basic.” It’s so niche — it’s a type of Instagram filter — like posting photos of the sunset. When I read that, it made me want to quit interviews for years.

My least favorite thing is when you can tell the interviewer doesn’t give a fuck or they get five things wrong about you in the question. Do you know what a “punisher” is?

Ulrich: Hit me.

Bridgers: A punisher is somebody who doesn’t know that they’re brutalizing you. I think a fan is the most common kind of punisher. You’re having lunch with your close friend, and someone comes up to you and just puts a phone in your face. Part of the punishment is that it’s a sweet person. He or she tells you what records of yours they like, but then talks for-fucking-ever. And you’re just getting punished. And I can’t imagine how much you’ve been punished over your lifespan. Do you have superfans who’ve come to so many shows that you know them on a first-name basis now?

Ulrich: Oh, yes. There’s so many that we started calling them the “Metallica family.” We actually came up with this idea called the “Black Ticket”: You buy a ticket for the whole tour and that will get you into every show.

Bridgers: That’s epic.

Ulrich: And I can relate to that because back in the day, when I moved to California, I used to literally follow Motörhead around; I saw 68 Motörhead shows. I would just drive behind their tour bus on the I-5, and it was like I was sort of on tour with them. And then obviously Lemmy — who, by the way, you’ve obviously referenced in one of your songs [“Smoke Signals”].… Did I hear that right, “Singing ‘Ace of Spades’ when Lemmy died”? That was very cool. I used to do that and follow bands around and do all that kind of shit.

Most of our fans are a part of the extended family. I would say, if the worst thing that happens to me in my life is I have to take a selfie with somebody or sign an autograph, then I’m doing pretty well. You really got to tell me the story behind the Lemmy reference in “Smoke Signals.”

Bridgers: It’s a true story. I was on a road trip with my drummer, and we were listening to the radio. They were talking about how Lemmy passed away [in 2015], and I was like, “Lemmy was alive?” I was like, “Oh, my fucking God. It’s crazy that he was alive this whole time.” So he died twice to me. I just sometimes always assume those people who are famous for living hard aren’t around anymore, and it was just a weird mindfuck. We spent the whole road trip screaming along and making playlists. I listen to a lot of Motörhead, a lot of Metallica. I have dabbled in the Slayer world. And then, weirdly late for me, I got super into Nine Inch Nails.

Ulrich: You can’t deny Trent and his talent. It’s insane.

Bridgers: It’s one of those musical influences that I feel like isn’t very obvious in my music, but hopefully with this next record, it will be. I kind of visited it with Punisher, but not that hard. I also have an apathetic voice, and I feel self-conscious that when I scream I sound like musical theater. I don’t have a metal-style “Aaaah” scream — I just have a [sweetly] “Yeaah” when I sing loud.

Ulrich: Let that be a good thing. Let’s talk about writing. Obviously, there are three different elements to my ear: lyric, melody, and the musical accompaniment. What usually comes first for you?

Bridgers: I sit down with a guitar, and then I’ll float around and try to find a melody; it comes weirdly at the same time. I feel like I write very carefully. There’s nothing that I hate more than looking back two days later and being like, “That’s dog shit.” So I try to save myself from that by being deliberate, and I almost write in order.

One of the craziest things I’ve ever seen is in the Metallica documentary [Some Kind of Monster], when your therapist [Phil Towle] slides over [and suggests] lyrics. I was like, “Oh, my God.” I did listen to mixes with a therapist once, because she was like, “You’ve got to show me what the fuck you’re so anxious about.”

Ulrich: It was a very transitional, experimental time. We’d been a band for 20 years, and we realized we never had a fucking conversation about how we’re feeling, what being in Metallica is doing to everybody. It was just this fucking machine. And then [James] Hetfield had to go away and deal with some of his [substance abuse] issues, and then that opened up this whole thing.

It was a difficult time with Phil. And as easy as a target as he is to make fun of, whenever I get asked about it now, I find myself defending him. He did save the fucking band. I think you and I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to each other if it wasn’t for him.

Bridgers: Also, St. Anger is a great record. It might have been the first Metallica album I heard.

Ulrich: That record had a very, very different makeup. For those couple years, everything was about being open with each other, about the spirit of no rules. I’m happy we did it. …

We’re three, four weeks into some pretty serious writing. And of all the shit — pandemics, fires, politics, race problems, and just fucking looking at the state of the world — it’s so easy just to so fall into a depressive state. But writing always makes me feel enthusiastic about what’s next. It’s like, “Fuck, there’s an opportunity here to still make the best record, to still make a difference. To still do something that not even turns other people on, but turns me on.”

“One of the craziest things I’ve ever seen is in the Metallica documentary, when your therapist suggests lyrics,” says Bridgers. “I listened to mixes with a therapist once because she was like, ‘Show me what you’re so anxious about.’”

Bridgers: I always fall into a depressive episode after I finish something that I’m proud of. I don’t get out of bed for, like, two weeks because my favorite part of life is being in-between something or in the middle of tour or in the middle of making a record.

Ulrich: Did I read the other day that you’re starting a label, Saddest Factory [an imprint owned by Secretly Group, home to Secretly Canadian]?

Bridgers: Yeah.

Ulrich: I’m psyched that you’re doing it. I hope it goes better than what I did. Back in the late Nineties, early 2000s, I had an imprint through Elektra Records. One of the ones I put out was the least-selling record.

Bridgers: Yeah, I definitely have nightly panic attacks that it’s too much to take on, but I think for the most part, the imprint part of it is nice because I just have had such a great experience with [the label] Secretly Canadian. I don’t have [label people] coming into my session telling me that I need to speed shit up, which I really appreciate. But yeah, there definitely is a lot of work and I’m terrified every day, but it’s going to be fun.

Ulrich: If I hear anything, I’ll send it your way.

Bridgers: Yeah, send shit my way! I’m going to try to beat your record of least-sold Secretly Canadian albums.