Lars Ulrich: Married to Metal – Rolling Stone
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Lars Ulrich: Married to Metal

The Rolling Stone Interview with Metallica’s drummer


Lars ULRICH of METALLICA performing live onstage in DONNINGTON PARK, UK on August 26th 1995.

Mick Hutson/Redferns/Getty

When you get the guided tour of Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich’s hilltop home, in Marin County, Calif., you can’t help thinking of the opening line from Nirvana’s “Serve the Servants”: “Teen-age angst has paid off well.” It’s not just the indoor racquetball court, the home movie theater, the playroom with a pool table and a CD jukebox or the matching pair of very real and possibly working cannons that greet you at the front gate. It’s the view, from Ulrich’s outdoor patio you can see the San Francisco San area in all of its sun-kissed glory: Alcatraz, the hills and streets of the city, a glimpse of the Pacific Ocean on the far side of the Golden Gate Bridge and — on a clear day, according to Ulrich — all the map to San Jose.

“You should see the other guys’ houses!” Ulrich howls when teased about the fruits of his heavy-metal labors. Singer and guitarist James Hetfield has “the biggest hunting lodge in the universe, with dead deer coming out of every wall and rifles hanging everywhere,”Ulrich saps. Lead guitarist Kirk Hammett’s house “is just Kirk. lt’s got these long corridors with the rarest editions of the ‘Frankenstein’ movie posters illuminated with spotlights and big ceiling paintings of thunderstorms.”

Ulrich, Hetfield, Hammett and bassist Jason Remsted [“he just lives out in the middle of fucking nowhere”] have come by their spoils honestly. Mettallica’s first four albums — Kill ‘Em All, Ride the Lightning, Master of Puppets and … And Justice for All — have each gone platinum-plus. The band’s monster break-through, Metallica, has sold more than 12 million copies world-wide. But, says Ulrich, the year of kick-back time that the group enjoyed after its exhaustive 1991-’93 world tour [more than 300 shows in 37 countries] is over. Since last October, he and Hetfield, the band’s main songwriters, have been doing 40-hour weeks in the studio, honing riffs and writing songs for the next album.

“We basically ran out of excuses,” Ulrich says. “I’d done as much scuba diving as I could. As for James’ hunting, I don’t think there were any elk or deer left in the Western Hemisphere. It was time to make a record.”

Metallica have also emerged battle-scarred but content from a legal collision last fall with Elektra Entertainment When Robert Morgado, chairman of Elektra’s parent, Warner Music Group, rescinded a renegotiated deal offering a joint partnership between the band and the label (and, importantly, giving Metallica control of their recording masters), the group filed suit to leave Elektra. The company sued back.

A nondisclosure clause in the final settlement (the band is back on Elektra) prevents Ulrich, an irrepressible motormouth, from providing any juicy contractual details. “I wish I could — it’s burning inside me,” he says, laughing. But, he adds, the band wasn’t bluffing with that suit. “We were fucking prepared to take it all the way. They didn’t understand that. We had the resources.”

Born Dec. 26, 1963, in Copenhagen, Denmark, the son of Danish tennis pro Torben Ulrich, Lars Ulrich has always had that kind of bullish energy and scrappy attitude. As an aspiring drummer in Los Angeles, where his family moved in 1977, Ulrich networked vigorously with other metal fans in the city’s anti-poodlehead underground, including James Hetfield, with whom he formed Metallica in 1981. It was Ulrich who made the pitch to Brian Slagel, a local fanzine editor, to include Metallica’s first recording, “Hit the Lights,” on Slagel’s groundbreaking Metal Massacre compilation album. When Metallica issued their 1982 cassette demo, No Life ‘Til Leather, Ulrich did the tape copying and mailing.

Today, it’s Ulrich who most closely monitors the band’s business affairs. “There’s enough of a trust between us that I deal with most of the smaller things,” Ulrich explains. “We spent every day of the last 14 years together. There’s a point where I know that the issue is so big that I have to take it to James and the rest of the band.”

At 31, Ulrich has come a long way from the early Metalliwars, when the band slept on floors while on tour and subsisted largely on a diet of hard liquor and Hamburger Helper. But he insists: “I really feel comfortable with this age thing in rock & roll. I don’t feel like just because I’m in Metallica, it has to be a totally youthful thing. This unwritten rule in rock where you have to get out when you get old — fuck that. We can keep doing what we’re doing without letting age get in the way.”

So what kind of house were you living in 10 years ago?
Me and James were living in a house together over in El Cerrito, which is about 45 minutes from here. It’s the house where we wrote both Master of Puppets and Ride the Lightning. It’s still there; we still drive by it.

Was it a manic heavy-metal bachelor pad?
Every cliché that you could muster up. Me and James each had a bedroom. Dave Mustaine [who left the group in 1983] slept on the couch. Dogs running around. We had the old garage converted into a rehearsal room with egg cartons. It was the refuge, the sanctuary for everybody in the neighborhood. People would come over and live there, hang there. It was a lot of fun — when you’re 19.

The thing is, I’m not scared of the fact that we’re all over 30 now. I’m not intimidated by it. Because no matter what, we still go out and play, and we still fire up in the same way. When you’re 18 or 19 years old,you have that gang mentality in your band. It’s this tiny little situation. Nobody can stray outside of it. It’s the thing you do when you’re 18,19, 20. And that’s 10, 12 years ago for me.

That’s also 10 or 12 years ago for your audience. What’s the difference between the fans who came to see you then and the crowds you play for now?
If anything, we’re getting to the AC/DC/Van Halen level. The audience is a lot more general than it ever was but without losing too many of what we call the Metallifanatics, the Metallibangers. Obviously there’s been a lot of changes in what people refer to as the mainstream-rock audience. But I think there’s also a lot of fans who don’t care as much about this alternative stuff. For two and a half hours, they want to forget and loosen themselves up instead of listening to messages and heavy, serious things.

That’s one way in which we’re really different from a lot of the newer bands. Live, when I see these other bands, I don’t see them bond very much with the audience. With the classic rock bands that I grew up on and respected, like Aerosmith, Iron Maiden and Motörhead, there was a thing where the audience and the band became one. In the new school that doesn’t happen as much.

Do you think the newer bands are too self-absorbed?
It seems to be part of an attempt at coolness. I look at Eddie Vedder, and he really lets himself go. So you can’t say that he’s not emotional. But he lets himself go in a kind of selfish way, without necessarily bringing the people around him into what he’s doing. I’m not saying that’s good or bad. I’m just saying that when you talk about the old school, that was one big fucking hug! A total shared experience. And these days it seems like it’s the band, then there’s the audience.

Have you ever been in a mosh pit?
Yeah, I have.

Did you enjoy it?
Yeah. But I’ve also been in a mosh pit in my living room. It’s not something that has to happen at a show. I run around in a circle in my living room listening to the guitar solo in [Deep Purple’s] “Child in Time.” I can get just as much out of that.

In the mid-’80s people talked about Metallica in the same breath as other underground metal bands like Slayer and Megadeth. Whom do you consider to be your peers now?
Peers are anybody you respect and admire, if I understand the word correctly. AC/DC, Thin Lizzy, Motörhead.

I mean bands that are going now. AC/DC started two decades ago, and Phil Lynott of Thin Lizzy is dead.
The only contemporary band I think of as a peer is Alice in Chains. They sit on a pedestal for me, pretty much above everybody else. They’re like a ’90s Black Sabbath. There’s something about the riffs, the looseness. It’s not boxed in, it’s not square. Sometimes when I listen to some of our earlier stuff, I get this vision in my mind of a square. Alice in Chains’ sound has a lot of round edges to it.

One bizarre thing about the new generation of hard-rock bands is how they’ve redefined the acceptability and coolness of heavy metal. Metal used to be a bastard genre. Now you have Black Sabbath and Kiss tribute albums.
Ten years ago when you thought of heavy metal, you had this vision of Rob Halford of Judas Priest wearing more spikes than you can find in the entire Castro area of San Francisco or Motley Crue wearing more makeup and hair spray than you could find at the Elizabeth Arden factory. Bands just started slowly shedding the clichés.

I trace most of what’s going on today back to 1976 in England, when the punk movement started. Most of today’s metal scene is inspired by that — when all the bands in England said, “Fuck the excess, fuck the grandeur.” It was brought back to a minimalist approach of people wanting to do their own records, not caring about sellable images.

We picked up on a lot of that. Bands like us and Slayer started selling records. We were appealing to the kids in a way that everything didn’t need to be so prefabricated and product oriented. With us it was constant touring and constantly being in people’s faces. And it showed all the people in the high-rise buildings — the record companies — that there were kids out there who wanted more than what they were getting through FM radio.

Last year you declared war on your record company by suing to get out of your contract. Did you see any irony in having started out as the ultimate Diy metal band and ending up entangled in corporate politics? After all, the title of your first album, Kill ‘Em All, was really a euphemism for “fuck the industry.”
But my vibe is, this is the reality of where we’re at now. And why pretend it’s otherwise? For the last 10 years, our thing has been very pure, very clean, very straightforward. But there comes a point where you have to realize that you’re taking it up the ass, and I don’t like the feeling very much. Kill ’em all or not kill ’em all, this is what it feels like, and we have to see it through.

The interesting thing was the way the whole thing finally came together. I went out to New York in early December. We were at the level where we were doing depositions for the court case. I was sitting there when Robert Morgado was depositioned — him nervously smiling over at me. It was quite funny being in a room with 12 lawyers. And me sitting there after sleeping three hours, still drunk from the night before, with my shades on, not having showered in a week.

You must have brought a special aroma to the proceedings.
There was definitely a comic element to the whole thing. It came to the point where our lawyers would report to [co-manager] Cliff Burnstein, Cliff would call me up, and then I would tell the other three guys in the band what was up. It was silly and a waste of time. How about if the people who can make these decisions get together in a fucking room, sit down and slug it out?

So one morning me and Cliff and Peter [Mensch, co-manager] sat down with [Warner Music U.S. chairman and CEO] Doug Morris. We said, “All the people who can fix this are in this room. We don’t need to deal with lawyers, with the food chain. Let’s talk this through.”

We went back and forth for about two hours and came to an agreement that everybody felt comfortable with. I pulled my hand out, [Morris] shook it, and there was the deal. Of course, three months later, it’s still being argued on paper — the fine print, 2,000 pages worth of clauses that nobody gives a fuck about.

How did you end up becoming the business head in the band?
More through default than anything else. Fourteen years ago when we were sitting around making our No Life ‘Til Leather demo tape, I was the one who went out and bought all the tapes. I was the one who sat down and copied them. I was the one who sent them out to people. That’s where it started. Somebody had to do it.

We’ve been more in touch with those business things around us because we didn’t want to get fucked. A lot of people think saying you’re on top of what goes on around you businesswise means you have ulterior motives. But it’s a defensive mechanism. Anyone in the ’90s who’s in a rock band and hands their whole lives over to somebody else, that’s just fucking ignorance.

What was your state of mind regarding Metallica 10 years ago — where you thought the band was and where it was going?
I can never remember ever thinking about the future much. I was always so caught up in the present. Where I come from in Denmark, this whole American thing about goals is not a big thing. You’re taught very early on in America that you have to have goals. I never bought into that. We were always real comfortable in the present, in our little world, continuing with blinders on.

But if you had a band meeting, what did you talk about? Surely you were interested in having a career.
There was an unspoken and fairly innocent — or ignorant — feeling that sooner or later, people would open up to what we were doing. Not that we would make it easier for them. But when we were writing the songs for Justice and Puppets, we knew that sooner or later, people would start getting it. In San Francisco, New York, Chicago, it was happening. But in Wichita Falls, nothing. And we knew early on that the right way for us was the constant barraging and touring. Not this stuff now where bands say, “Oh, I gotta go out and play 40 dates. I can’t handle it anymore, I gotta go home.” We did these two-year tours and kept on pushing it in people’s faces.

Was there a gig in a Wichita Falls-type place where you remember thinking that you were making that connection?

In 1988 we were on the Monsters of Rock tour with Van Halen, 17th on the bill or whatever, and I was hanging out with Cliff Burnstein in New York. He said, “Let’s go up to the office of your booking agent,” who was Marsha Vlasic at ICM. She pulls out a tour schedule of dates being held for us headlining arenas. I look down at the first two weeks, and Indianapolis is there. Now, Indianapolis was always this joke between me and Cliff, about how in Indianapolis they just don’t get it. That was the barometer. Lo and be-fucking-hold, we go to Indianapolis, and there are 9,000 people there. I remember thinking, “Wow, maybe all those people in Middle America will get it.”

Speaking of goals, what kind of values did your parents try to instill in you? As a professional tennis player, your father certainly had career ambitions of his own.
I grew up in as open an upbringing as you can imagine. Americans would call it spoiled. But I was very independent I had nothing tying me down. At the same time, anything I wanted I had to get it myself. It’s 1975, and I want to go see Black Sabbath. As far as my parents were concerned, I could go see Black Sabbath 12 times a day. But I had to find my own means, carrying the paper or whatever, to get the money to buy the tickets. And I had to find my own way to the concert and back.

From that point of view, I was left alone a lot. But in terms of culture, there was always shit going on around the house. My dad was always around music. He was hanging out with Sonny Rollins, Don Cherry, Dexter Gordon. Dexter Gordon was my godfather. I used to play with Neneh Cherry when we were little kids. Her stepfather, Don Cherry, lived like six houses from where we lived in Copenhagen.

Those types of people were always around. Even though tennis was his main source of income, my dad was also writing about jazz in the papers in Copenhagen. Miles Davis and Ornette Coleman were always playing in the stereo around the house. Later it was the Doors and Jimi Hendrix.

Did you travel with your father on the pro-tennis circuit?
I was probably around the world five times before I ever went to school — and places that I haven’t been with Metallica, like South Africa. I have pictures of myself with my parents at the Rolling Stones concert in Hyde Park [in London, 1969]. From that point of view, it was a pretty open upbringing.

Every day I’d wake my parents up when I got home from school. I always had to wake myself up in the morning and bike myself to school. I’d wake up at 7:30, go downstairs, and the front door would be open — 600 beers in the kitchen and living room and nobody in the house. Candles would be burning. So I’d close the doors, make breakfast and go to school. I’d come home and have to wake my parents up.

Didn’t it seem strange to you, considering your own adolescence, to be playing the songs on Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets, knowing Hetfield’s own troubled family history and the kind of lyrics he was writing?
That didn’t start creeping in until the last album. I really believe that the stuff we were talking about on Lightning and Puppets was more about fears and situations that anyone could imagine having. Like [the song] “Ride the Lightning.” One thing I was always affected by in this country was capital punishment. The idea that some guy would actually have to take a walk, sit down in an electric chair and know he’s innocent — that shit scared the living daylights out of me. Or James and I would sit on the couch in our old house on Sunday night and watch these TV preachers, things that ended up in “Leper Messiah.”

It wasn’t until the Black Album [Metallica, so nicknamed for its all-black cover] that James felt confident enough to really let some of the things from his upbringing come out. He never talked a lot about that. I knew his mom had died. But I never knew about the Christian Scientist stuff he went through until a couple of years ago. It wasn’t a secret, but the relationship we had in those days was not one of heavy confession. Sometimes, here or there, we would talk when we were really drunk. But in the last year me and James have probably become closer than we ever have before, and those things are easier for us to talk about.

As someone who was born in a country that still has royalty, how would you describe yourself politically?
I consider myself pretty open-minded. I can’t break down my politics into a particular party. There’s more to it to me than just Republican and Democrat. A core problem in American politics and society, to me as an outsider, is that everything in this country gets broken down into a basic choice. It’s yes or no, Republican or Democrat, black or white, gay or straight. It’s all either/or. Where I come from, there’s, like, 13 political parties. There are so many more answers, ways to look at things.

If you want specifics, I sit on the fence about certain things. Like the death penalty. I’m totally against it. The fact that one guy in this country has ever been executed I feel is wrong. But then again, how would you feel if someone came and raped, mutilated and totally fucked up three of your family members right in front of your eyes? How could you look at that person and not want him dead — hung, drawn and quartered? It’s hard to be that yes or no about it.

On abortion, I’m totally for choice. In a contemporary society, people should be allowed to choose what they want to do with their bodies. That’s so simple. How anybody could question that boggles my mind.

But some of the politics stuff … every time I think I have an answer, I find I have doubts. That definitely comes from being European. Most Americans will jump on an issue — “Do you like this or that?” “I like this.” End of story. If someone asks me a question at a band meeting, everyone else will immediately give their opinion. I’ll go into a 15-minute drawn-out discourse.

Looking further down the road, what do you think the chances are that Metallica will still be around in the year 2005?
The chances are very good for one very simple reason: We only drain our creative side once every three or four years. If you look at the history of rock & roll, most bands are only good for so much creative music. There are a few exceptions, like the Rolling Stones or Rush. But Ted Nugent did, like, five records in three years. We’ll do five records in 15 years.

So what is the next Metallica record going to sound like?
You’re the first person that’s asked me that! I don’t know. I’m dealing with it 40 hours a week right now, and I haven’t taken a step away from it to evaluate it. But it seems like we’re going in the direction of something less formulated, less staccato, less [pauses] locked in by barriers.

By what’s usually defined as the Metallica sound?
Yeah. We’re heading into a dirtier, looser thing, not so tied into the idea of “Here’s the mighty guitar riff.” It’s so corny when you say “bluesier.” I like the word greasy. When I listen to the last record, certainly compared to Justice, it’s as loose as we’d ever been. But I still hear a tension, a staccato thing that we’ve always been a slave to. We’ve done that. It doesn’t have a lot of soul in it. The human spark gets put to the wayside.

Most people would not describe Metallica’s music as soulful. Everything you do sounds like it’s in overdrive.
We’re not stuck in any one place. I can listen to Muddy Waters and Oasis. And James and I will sit there and listen to Thin Lizzy. We don’t sit and listen to Slayer records all day. That’s not where we get our inspiration from. Sooner or later there comes a point in your life when you get comfortable enough where you can loosen up and not give a fuck.

Do you have an album title yet?
No. Way too early.

Well, do you have any goofy working titles? You know, the kind bands come up with to keep themselves amused during recording?
The working title we had for the last record — you don’t get much stupider than that. Three of us were getting divorces. And we were sitting there getting real down on ourselves. When we wanted to cheer ourselves up, we looked at each other and said, “You know who we’re married to? We’re married to metal!” And that became the running joke on the last album: Married to Metal.


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