How Metallica’s Lars Ulrich Landed a New Gig: Soundtrack ‘Thunder’ Drummer
Late last year, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich worked on a recording that was incredibly unusual for him. He pummeled his kit for two days, generating militaristic rattles and big, tribal rhythms. As he played, he watched footage of Ben Affleck and Oscar Isaac yanking money out of the walls of a drug kingpin’s mansion and racing down beaches in pickup trucks while being shot at, and within a few weeks, he heard his drumming incorporated into the score of the film that became Netflix’s recently released Triple Frontier. Other than a one-off guest shot drumming for heavy-metal boogeymen Mercyful Fate and a couple of jams with other bands, it marked the first time Ulrich has recorded outside of the sphere of Metallica.
“I have no interest in playing with anybody else other than Metallica,” Ulrich tells Rolling Stone. “But occasionally when there’s an opportunity to do something that’s just out of the wheelhouse, for me, I guess subconsciously, I always think, ‘If I go do this, it’ll be an experience that will be interesting and then I’ll have another point of view to give to Metallica.'”
He got involved with Triple Frontier — a movie about five ex-military men attempting to rob a Colombian drug lord — last fall when director J.C. Chandor called him out of the blue with the offer of drumming on the movie’s soundtrack. They’d met in 2013 after a screening of Chandor’s All Is Lost at the Mill Valley Film Festival. Ulrich was curious about the movie and asked the director a question during the open-audience Q&A. “When I met him after the screening, he said he recognized my voice,” Ulrich says. “It turned out he knew Metallica quite well and we stayed in touch.” Chandor told him that composer Rich Vreeland, who works under the name Disasterpeace, was working on the score but that he thought Ulrich’s playing “would contribute, embellish, elevate or add another layer,” according to the drummer.
“I think the word he kept using was ‘thunder,'” Ulrich says. “”I feel that your drumming has this thunder to it, and I would love to add some thunderous drums to the score.'”
“For the score I wrote a lot of rhythmically diverse music, but what we found we needed at times was a strong, steady pulse to glue things together better,” Vreeland tells Rolling Stone.
Chandor sent over an in-progress edit of the film, and Ulrich liked what he saw. “I must admit, I can be a little bit of a film snob, and action movies are not exactly my cup of tea,” he says. “But this film had a depth to it, and a couple of what I’d call ‘unconventional layers,’ such as the dialogue. It had a different kind of creative energy flowing through it. I started talking to Rich about it, and I knew it was going to be different. That’s what why I wanted to do it. To me, just repeating anything that I’ve done with Metallica or whatever would not be that interesting.”
Shortly before Christmas, he holed up in the studio at Metallica’s Bay Area headquarters and worked through the scenes. Greg Fidelman, who produced Metallica’s last LP, Hardwired … to Self-Destruct, produced the session, and Sara Killion and Kent Matcke, who recorded that album, engineered it. Vreeland came one day, and Ulrich — who was ultimately credited as “Featured Score Percussion” — worked only with his team in the studio. On both days, Ulrich worked out patterns and beats to play and the dynamics of the composition. “It was hitting hard and hitting softer and sort of imagining there was a ‘thunder’ button to make things louder or softer,” he says. “It was awesome.”
“When J.C. suggested a collaboration between the two us, it was a bit of a curveball for sure,” Vreeland says. “I didn’t really know what to expect having never met him before, but J.C. spoke very highly of him and we got on great. I flew out to Metallica HQ and we threw some ideas back and forth while eating protein pancakes. But mostly I wanted to let Lars and his producer Greg do their thing.”
At the time, Ulrich was working with a score Vreeland had made himself, and after he was done, Vreeland worked with orchestral musicians to round out the rest at L.A.’s Capitol Studios. “I was more concerned about the rhythmic element rather than the melodic element,” Ulrich says. “I was playing more to the pulse of the scene.”
The drummer didn’t go out and buy albums of military marches for fear of overanalyzing or intellectualizing the music and instead trusted his gut. “J.C. just asked for weight and thunder,” Ulrich says. “So I grabbed those words and latched onto them for inspiration. Then you sit there with your eyes closed and try to create the sound of thunder on your drums. It’s a little abstract.”
“I only got to be in the studio with Lars for a few hours, as we had to record right in the middle of crunch time for delivering the score, but it was a really fun, surreal day,” Vreeland says. “Metallica HQ is an amazing place, kind of like a studio, hangout space and museum all in one. Seeing the rafters full of handmade banners from fans of every corner of the world was truly awe-inspiring. The amount of love and positivity they’ve brought into the world with their music is just staggeringly cool and I’m really grateful I got to meet and work with Lars.”
Ulrich used his standard kit for most of the recording and would move the floor toms around or experiment with things like mallets. “Obviously I’m not going to start playing Metallica songs with mallets, so we were going for different sounds,” Ulrich says. “We were talking about whether we should bring in timpani, but now you can take a floor tom and put it through a processor and it starts sounding like a timpani. Sometimes I would add a floor tom or two and move the sizes of the drums around a little bit.”
“You sit there with your eyes closed and try to create the sound of thunder on your drums. It’s a little abstract.”
As he experimented, he found himself playing with his full physicality. “When I’m in the studio and tracking, I try to put as much of my diminutive Danish frame into it as I can,” he says. “Drums obviously can be an incredibly physical instrument, where the delicate elements are completely stripped away sand sometimes it’s fun to go crazy. I have a saying for that, which is, ‘It sounds like you’re throwing the drum kit down a staircase.’ Sometimes you gotta just roll with that and get fucking nutty and extra primal.”
Ulrich’s philosophy about music in movies is that it should enhance a scene in a way where you don’t even notice it. “When I saw the movie the second time and the fourth time, I started realizing the intricacies of what Rich was doing with the score and its true brilliance,” Ulrich says. “About eight years ago, I had a fairly sizable [acting] part in a movie with Clive Owen and Nicole Kidman called Hemingway & Gellhorn and when you do something like that, you walk away going, ‘You don’t know fucking shit.’ With this, it felt like eight years ago, where I was watching it with the music and thought, ‘I really don’t know shit.'”
When he watched the finished movie with the score added, he still found himself getting into the plot. (Spoilers ahead.) As Affleck, Isaac and the others in their squad encounter one mishap after another — a helicopter crash, nosy villagers, a steep incline that takes out a pack mule — while trying to transport the money to the getaway, he found himself rooting for them. “When they ran away from the money [in the end], I was like, ‘Bro, you put yourself through so much and now you’re going to leave the money behind?'” Ulrich says. “Then at the end, when [Isaac] gets the coordinates [to the money’s location] that was obviously a happy moment. The whole thing resolves in a pretty cool way.” (During that scene, Metallica’s Master of Puppets instrumental “Orion” kicks in on the soundtrack.)
Ulrich is grateful for the entire experience, and especially to Vreeland for allowing him to drum on the soundtrack. “It should be said that Rich was completely egoless, which is a great quality,” Ulrich says. “The director will sit there and tell the score guy, ‘Now some two-bit drummer from a hard-rock band is gonna come in and throw his stuff all over the score.’ Some guys may not take that that well. It takes a lot of confidence in yourself and your abilities and your work to be collaborative.”
Now that he’s made one score, Ulrich hopes to do it again. Maybe next time, if the movie were right, he’d even want to come up with his own composition. “I started thinking what it would be like one day to make a score for a film only out of drums and rhythmic instruments,” he says. “It would not have a score or any kind of melodic instruments — just rhythms and pulses and beats. You can go so many places in how you manipulate the sound. It would be super fun.”