Metallica‘s greatest struggle in making Hardwired … to Self-Destruct – the group’s first album in eight years and 10th overall – was knowing when it was done. “This was the first record where we had no deadline,” Lars Ulrich tells Rolling Stone. “Deadlines are always good because it makes you end things. The last song we wrote was ‘Hardwired,’ and we wrote and recorded it in a week. All of a sudden, it was, ‘Holy fuck. We can do that in a week!’ But we had to kind of force the end, because I think we could have kept going.”
The record they ultimately signed off on is a full-on metal onslaught – no ballads, simply 77 minutes’ worth of outsized, whiplash-inducing headbangers. Songs like “Dream No More” and “Here Comes Revenge” boast the muscularity and directness of Metallica’s Black Album, while more complex numbers like “Spit Out the Bone” and “Atlas, Rise!” harken back to the bridge they built between pugilistic prog and New Wave of British Heavy Metal songcraft on …And Justice for All. As a whole, it continues the course they set on their last album, Death Magnetic, of creating a raw sound that straddles the straight-ahead heavy metal they grew up on and the thrash sound they helped pioneer.
Ulrich and James Hetfield approached the album’s songwriting methodically, sifting through more than a thousand riffs for the strongest ones and making up for the 250 or so potential riffs that disappeared when Kirk Hammett lost his iPhone. The making of the record, Ulrich says, was just a matter of soldiering forward with the best ideas. Now it’s the first new full-length the band is putting out on their own Blackened Recordings label.
When the drummer speaks with Rolling Stone, about a month before the album’s release, he says the process of creating the record was all still very fresh for him. “I’m still trying to figure it all out myself,” he says. But he was nevertheless willing to parse just how he and his bandmates made it to this point.
One of the album’s standouts is the closing track, “Spit Out the Bone,” which just seems to roll through many different, thrashing ideas at hyper-speed. How did you get everything to fit in that one?
That was just an adventure, man. I have versions of that song that are two to three minutes longer. We just kept going and going and going. That was also the first song where we went, “Wait a minute, is there too much of a good thing here?” And then we started peeling it back. It was one of those where you just keep going to different universes and different modes and areas because it was super fun. It was like this journey. Old-school Mercyful Fate–type stuff was kind of the inspiration for that.
I can hear Mercyful Fate, but also influences like Killers-era Iron Maiden. Is that something you were going for?
Sure. I think there is definitely more of a New Wave of British Heavy Metal thing on this record. It’s just a lot of banging riffs and rockin’ kinds of moments, as well as some straighter, simpler drumming. So definitely.
Another prominent influence is Motörhead. “Murder One” is basically a tribute to Lemmy, using song titles as lyrics. You’ve told me what a big fan of his you are, so did you and James collaborate on those lyrics?
No. That was pretty much James. It was right when Lemmy had passed in December, and we all dealt with that loss in different ways. James had never really written a song like that or about anybody. At first, I was a little taken aback by its directness or its bluntness, because James has a tendency to write very indirect lyrics. Most are very abstract. So it was odd for me in the beginning just how direct it was, but then a couple of things got tweaked and I fell in love with it.
Speaking of abstract lyrics, who is “Moth Into Flame” about? That song seems very pointed at a celebrity.
Aren’t you sneaky? [Laughs] You know what? I made a decision neither to deny nor confirm that. I’ve been asked about it a couple of times, and I know what it was inspired by, but if James wants to talk about it, that’s his thing. Obviously it’s a very relevant thing and I think in today’s culture of celebrity and idolization and all those blurred lines, it’s a very relevant song. But I’ll let him answer that one day if he wants to [laughs].
How else did James surprise you with his lyrics?
He really went into his own world and dealt with all of that. The thing about him is he has the tendency to change lyrics a lot as he goes along from the first time I would hear it. You have to know not to attach yourself too much to them. He could have a bunch of words in February and then in March, half of them are changed and in April a quarter of them are changed. It goes through these different processes.
On Death Magnetic, I sat with him through probably 80 percent of the vocals. I’d give my feedback. On this record, I was not like that. I know him well enough to know when he wants me to get involved and when he wants to figure it out on his own. This time, my sense was he was more in his own world. Even at times where I could sense that he was struggling, I know when to hold myself back. I did that a little more than usual this time.
To write the album, you listened to hours and hours of riffs. How did you and James determine the direction of the album, as in how you wanted it to sound?
We didn’t do that much this time around. On Death Magnetic, we spent a long time, a lot of hours and get-togethers, discussing direction. Rick [Rubin] is very much in favor of meetings and talks. It was really good for us to sit down and do an assessment of who we were, what we thought about ourselves and where we’ve been and where we wanted to go. We had struggled a lot over the years with trying to find the right balance between the future and the past. There were times where we specifically tuned our backs on the past, out of fear of repetition or retreading ground.
When we picked up on Hardwired two years ago, there were no talks. I spent the summer wading through this iPod [of riffs] to the best of my ability. Then I sat down with James and said, there were, like, 30 or 40 ideas on this iPod out of 1,500 that I think could be the cornerstones or blueprints of songs. Then we just started going through them. Unlike Death Magnetic, we just started jamming and playing. It was almost like we were continuing where we left off with Death Magnetic. What was different, like with “Spit Out the Bone,” is we started trimming it and making it leaner and thinner, more concise. Rick encouraged us to go further and make it longer and crazier and more ridiculous.
The closest thing this album has to a ballad is the intro to “ManUNkind,” which has a sort of “Remember Tomorrow” thing with the bass and guitar. Did you purposely avoid lighter music?
No. There were no conversations like, “Let’s not have a ballad.” It was just about the good material rising to the top. The less-than-good falls to the bottom. Of course, I’m aware of what you’re saying, but it wasn’t a conscious or contrived or cerebral thing.
Which songs are you particularly proud of on Hardwired?
I haven’t decided on that yet. I’m still tripping on it as a piece of work or as a musical experience – I know that’s a very un-2016 thing to say – but I like the beginning to the end, all 80 minutes if anybody still has an attention span. It’s quite a beating [laughs]. I think it may be the most consistent record we’ve made.
With Death Magnetic, we had 14 songs, and we felt there was a clear line in the sand with the first 10 and the last four. So 11, 12, 13, and 14 were not worthy of being in the same company as the first 10, so we held those back and shared them a couple of years later [as the EP Beyond Magnetic]. The one thing we felt about this material is that we felt the consistency from beginning to end was unlike any batch of songs we could remember. Even with “Lords of Summer” as number 13, at one point we thought about putting it in with the first 12, and then we felt the consistency was so high that we would want to share all of them. I love the consistency about this one. It’s very high, at least for us. Obviously nobody’s going to sit there and think that song nine on Load is as good as one, two or three or song 10 on the Black Album. I think that this record is deep, and I think there’s a consistency that runs deeper than usual for us, so I’m pretty psyched about that.
How do you account for that consistency?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. When you have conversations about this type of stuff, you have to throw in the word “luck,” the words “X factor,” something about the planets aligning or some synchronicity. I don’t know. It’s just the luck of the draw, isn’t it?
Did Kirk Hammett losing a phone full of riffs set you back much?
There’s no shortage of material. The hardest thing about the creative process is the amount of material we have. I know that sounds somewhat ludicrous, but it’s true. We have so much material, and everybody’s so prolific, it’s the process of wading through it to get to the best stuff.
It’s like, “Here’s 1,500 ideas. Now can we take number 47, because it sounds like the foundation of something? We can do this and that to it and now it’s really good.” Now, if we’d taken Number 48 instead, and done the same things to it, it may have ended up very close to as good. For as much as you can tell a story like, “It’s 2 o’clock in the morning and lightning strikes” [laughs], that sounds very poetic in an interview, but at the end of the day you just gotta go down to the fucking studio at 10 o’clock and put your time in. I don’t like to use the word “work,” but you gotta put your time in. At the end of the day, it’s just 10 or 12 rock & roll songs. This is not trying to crack the code on cancer or figure out a way to contain malaria. It’s a bunch of rock & roll songs, and obviously it means something to people but you gotta sometimes take a step back and just go, “OK.”
The hardest thing for us is sometimes we get sort of overwhelmed by the amount of material we have. So riffs disappearing and so on, that’s OK. We’ve got enough of ’em [laughs]. It’s OK if they disappear into the ether.
What was the most difficult song to get right in the studio?
We had to use one of the preproduction rehearsal takes of “Now That We’re Dead.” When we started tracking it, you just start thinking too much about what you’re doing and it starts getting too tight. On the other hand – and I know this sounds sort of odd in harder rock – but we still try to find the right balance between vibe and feel and the overall groove of our music. Sometimes some of this stuff is a little better when it’s looser around the edges.
With “Now That We’re Dead,” we recorded it and everything kept getting tighter and precise, and all of a sudden you go, wait a minute, I think we just beat all the life out of this thing [laughs]. We went back and listened to the preproduction floor takes – almost like the last rehearsals – and it’s like, “Hey, wait a minute. There’s a completely different vibe there. It sounds like a living, breathing entity rather than something put together by a drill sergeant.” [Laughs] So we went with a version that was a little bit looser.
Yeah, there’s a little more swing in the rhythm on this one, compared to Death Magnetic.
We definitely try. We’re definitely a little more aware of that on this record than the last one.
Why did you split the music into two CDs, if it’s enough to fit on one?
I just think it’s a good record to hear spread out. There’s almost 80 minutes, and we just thought it would be a good thing to split it up.
Like an intermission.
I like that, “intermission.” That’s good.
When you first announced Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, you said you were putting out a bonus disc with “riff origins” on it. Then you changed it to include your Rainbow, Deep Purple and Iron Maiden covers, as well as a bunch of live tracks. Why did you switch it up?
The whole thing came together so quickly. It was literally like we sat around the table in the kitchen at HQ, and it was like, “What are we gonna do?” Another week or two later, it was like, “Let’s announce it along with the Minneapolis show.” We just jumped into it so quick. So we knew we needed some bonus stuff for some deluxe versions and the knee-jerk reaction was to put out the demos and some riffs. Once we sat with it, we realized there was a lot of material to put out. We have our own record company, so we have our own thing now. From the Deep Purple thing to the Dio/Rainbow thing to the Maiden thing, there was a whole pile of stuff that we had never really made available on our own. So we wanted to get some of that stuff out on our label.
And listen, the demos and riff things, that’s all fun, but that’s not going anywhere and maybe will be appreciated even more later, five years from now or whatever. So we decided we’ve got so much other cool stuff to share. Maybe we’ll hold it back for a little bit.
Do you like having your own record label?
Honestly, it’s a lot more work. You have to make these decisions on your own. Everything we’re doing just continues to be about being as autonomous as possible and not having to rely or depend on anybody. We have our own vinyl press, so we make our own records. If the world destroys itself, we’ll still be standing with our little record press not having to depend on anybody else [laughs].
We’ve always considered Metallica to be independent in its own world. Let me confirm again that it’s a lot more work, even though we hire more people. We have an insane amount of people to run and manage all this. But somebody still has to run and manage the people. It falls back on the band members to keep an eye on all the people. These are good problems to have – to still be successful and have people giving a shit and so on, but certainly, the workload is probably higher than it’s ever been. That’s a very good problem to have in 2016.
If “Hardwired” was the last song you worked on, were you considering calling the album something other than Hardwired … to Self-Destruct?
No, we didn’t have a title. There we a couple of other things we were looking at but Hardwired … to Self-Destruct was always the one. You have to follow your instinct.
When you get older you sometimes question your instincts. I never used to question my instincts in my 20s or 30s. Sometimes now I sit there and go, “Am I doing the right thing?” Like with the running order: I had a running order of the songs and I’ve always had the sequencing of the records throughout our career very early. Even in the writing stages sometimes. But in, let’s say, the eighth inning, I was like, “No, I think that’s wrong, and I should swap these two songs.” And then a week later, I was like, “What the fuck was I thinking?” That’s why there’s a different running order on the vinyl than the digital and CD; you have to turn in the vinyl sequencing six weeks before the CD. I learned I always gotta stick with my instincts. It’s just because I’m a fucking old man that I sit here and sometimes question my instincts. That’s just part of growing older. I don’t recall ever being weighted down by options when you’re young.
What are your touring plans? At your Webster Hall gig, you said you’d see New York at an outdoor venue next year. Does that mean you’re doing a stadium tour?
People can put that all together for themselves. We’re still in the process of putting it all together. Right now we’re doing an Asian run in January and then we’re opening the new Royal Arena in Copenhagen, Denmark. Then we’re doing Lollapalooza in South America and a few other things.
We’re still finalizing our U.S. plans for now. At this point, I don’t want to say too much until it’s completely dialed in. But we are definitely going to cover all of the U.S., and we look forward to getting out and doing a proper U.S. thing again. Obviously we’ve played a lot of one-offs and stuff, but we haven’t really done a U.S. tour since 2009, so we look forward to that.
Go behind the scenes of Metallica’s raging ‘Moth Into Flame’ video.