Metallica got their start in the East Bay community of El Cerrito in the mid-Eighties after relocating from L.A. to play with bassist Cliff Burton. They went on to become one of the biggest rock bands in history. In February, they played for a packed stadium the night before the Super Bowl in their adopted hometown of San Francisco. Metallica have in many ways become synonymous with the Bay Area — not only because of their pivotal role in the creation of thrash metal but because of their prominent place in the region’s musical and cultural community.
Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich was recently asked by a group of student curators at the University of California, Berkeley, to organize an event that touched on the creative process and explored what being from the Bay Area means to artists, business leaders and thinkers. A small number of tickets were sold to students for $5 each. The “Front Row” event that followed on campus Wednesday night was a diverse evening of panels featuring two members of Metallica, Primus’ Les Claypool, Ulrich’s octogenarian father Torben, Zen Buddhist and actor Peter Coyote, and many others. For several hours, the group discussed everything from art to philanthropy. Here are 11 things we learned.
Ulrich’s love of the Bay Area long preceded his Metallica days
Ulrich sometimes visited Berkeley as a teenager when his father came up for tennis events from Southern California. “My Dad took me to Berkeley when I was about 15,” he said. “I was running all over Telegraph Avenue to Tower Records and Rasputin and Blondie’s Pizza. A lot of my cultural horizons were shaped just around these corners.
“When I was here in 1981, I was walking around Telegraph Avenue. There was this crazy-looking metal dude walking down the street with a boom box on his shoulder and Motörhead was blaring out of it — it was playing ‘Overkill.’ I became friends with a lot of people here and became sort of infatuated with the whole Bay Area scene. It really made me want to go to Los Angeles and start a band. When James and I wanted to get Cliff in the band, we came up here in a nanosecond because this place honed my outlook on the world.”
One of the places where Ulrich spent time during those visits was People’s Park, home of the free-speech movement
“It was sort of everything that Berkeley represented in terms of individual expression and counterculture,” Ulrich said. “This is in the thick of stuff that has been brewing for five decades. In Metallica, we talk all of the time about how proud we are to represent the Bay Area to the world — that the Bay Area has shaped who we are.”
Ulrich is willing to literally have his commitment to free speech put to the test
During the event, Berkeley’s Student Labor Committee was staging an on-campus protest against unfair treatment of subcontracted workers. Before starting the forum, Ulrich opened up the stage for five minutes to anyone who “wished to be heard.” One protester accepted the invite, followed by two fans that took selfies with Ulrich before the audience. Later in the evening, another protester was tackled by security while trying to rush the stage, and several others were escorted out of the building.
Ulrich and Hetfield never felt like they fit in Los Angeles
“We felt like misfits because we weren’t playing music with a look,” Hetfield said during a panel dedicated to music. “It was from our heart. When we did come up and play here, we connected with the fans because that’s what they came to see, hear and feel. Cliff asking us to come up here was the greatest gift ever.”
A design firm owned by one of Ulrich’s “buddy parents” created the artwork for Death Magnetic
One of the panelists who wasn’t a recognized name was graphic designer David Turner, co-founder of the design firm Turner Duckworth. The company has worked with giants like Amazon and Coca-Cola. Ulrich and Turner met when they were “buddy parents,” and Turner Duckworth later crafted all the artwork for Death Magnetic. “Turner and Metallica are an odd combination that has yielded some interesting results,” Turner said. “There’s a trick we learned in art school — you do a lot of sketches that have to do with an idea. So we did a bunch of sketches about death and magnetism. Then you sit there and pray and hope something.” The artwork was later featured on the Death Magnetic album cover and also adapted into a coffin set piece for Metallica concerts.
Ulrich’s father Torben is still robust and healthy nearing age 90
“This is my dad, Gandalf — he is 87 years young,” Ulrich said with a laugh when introducing his father. “He is actually holding me up right now.” Torben Ulrich stood throughout his presentation and on several occasions pretended to skip rope.
Ulrich once made a strange experimental film with his father
In 2002, Ulrich and his father collaborated on an hour-long film, Before the Wall: Body and Being. In 2016, the drummer is still unsure exactly what it meant. “I have no idea what you’re talking about!” Ulrich joked after his father showed short clips and tried to explain the film, which involves a strange commingling of tennis players, the pentatonic scale, sound experiments with Ulrich’s drum set and a Bob Rock cameo. “It’s not easy in a short time to explain all of it,” Torben Ulrich replied.
Ulrich is friends with Salesforce CEO Mark Benioff, who is worth close to $4 billion, and the two share a passion for philanthropy
Ulrich chatted up Benioff on why business success should be paired with altruistic outreach. “Nothing is more important than the health and future of our children” Benioff told Ulrich. “If your kids don’t get off to a good start by the time they’re five years old, they aren’t going to have a good life.”
Ulrich is very familiar with TED Talks; Les Claypool, not so much
When Ulrich was reaching out to other musicians to participate in the evening, he told them the night would unfold like a TED Talk. Some didn’t get the reference, including Les Claypool of Primus. “You said it was like a TED Talk, and I had no idea what that meant,” Claypool said. “I told my manager that Lars was doing a TED Talk, and he laughed at me because I didn’t know what it was. He pointed me to the Internet, to something besides Craigslist where I spend most of my time.”
Hetfield finds thinking about creativity detrimental to actual creativity
Maybe all of that talking in Some Kind of Monster did set Metallica back. Hetfield shared his thoughts on how he taps his creative spirit. “The more I think about the process, the more difficult it becomes,” he said. “The more I try to figure it out, the more it becomes like a formula. I would rather just shoot from the hip and feel rather than try to think my way through or overanalyze it.”