So, How Was Your 2020? is a series in which our favorite entertainers answer our questionnaire about the music, culture and memorable moments that shaped their year. We’ll be rolling these pieces out throughout December.
Metallica had booked gigs all around the world, including several summer festival headliners in the U.S., but Covid had other plans for 2020. After the group canceled its tour dates, it donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Covid relief organizations through its All Within My Hands charitable foundation, using money it raised from streaming video of past concerts. Eventually, the band members figured out how to play together again — creating a socially distanced, acoustic rendition of “Blackened,” regrouping in person for a newly filmed concert that they showed at drive-in movie theaters, unplugging again for a charity livestream, and releasing their S&M2 album, among other activities. Drummer Lars Ulrich also revealed to singer-songwriter Phoebe Bridgers in a Rolling Stone interview that Metallica had already begin writing music for a follow-up album to 2016’s Hardwired … to Self-Destruct.
In between his commitments to Metallica, Ulrich has found creative ways to stay busy during a year of quarantine. He played cinematographer to his sons, who jammed out a heavy version of the Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby.” He and his family members took turns picking classic movies to show each other. He helped out in a local food pantry. And he found creative ways to fill his time, whether watching Ken Burns’ epic docs or reading Matthew McConaughey’s memoir, Greenlights. Here, he tells Rolling Stone about the things that got him through 2020, as well as his hopes for 2021.
The album I listened to the most in 2020 was:
The first Rage Against the Machine album. From my worldview, there’s nothing that seems to put things more in perspective than Rage Against the Machine. The music, themes, lyrics, delivery — everything seems to be so spot-on and relevant to the daily craziness that shows up whenever you unlock your device. I think it’s the perfect soundtrack to the 2020.
My favorite TV show to stream during quarantine was:
I’ve done a deep dive into the world of Ken Burns. I spent a considerable amount of time in Vietnam, spent a considerable amount of time with the history of jazz, spent a considerable amount of time with Country Music. If I get “Lars Time,” or the luxury of streaming something, I like to find the balance between turning off my brain, but also just learning something, and I love history and I love how Ken Burns dives deep into some of these subjects. And if you’re going to take something on like the history of jazz, then you’ve got to be respectful. So that’s been my favorite.
But there have been so many great documentaries all year and I just I love documentaries. There’s a great one called We Are Freestyle Love Supreme on the incredibly creative and gifted group of people that get up and freestyle, and that’s sort of the origin of where Lin-Manuel [Miranda] and all the rest of that crew came out of. I loved the doc on Mike Wallace called Mike Wallace Is Here. I loved the one on Halston, the David Crosby one. There’s one on Laurel Canyon. There’s a great one on the Band called Once Were Brothers. There was a great Russian one called Citizen K made by Alex Gibney and one of the Bluebird Cafe in Nashville. I don’t sit there and keep up on too many of the TV shows or any of the watercooler stuff that people talk too much about. But any of the things I just talked about are super cool.
The song that will define “2020” for me is:
Thin Lizzy’s “Cold Sweat.” In the first few months of lockdown, if we were up late at night having a beverage or in a social mood around a cast of characters that we’re in isolation with here, Thin Lizzy was often the late-night soundtrack to that. And the song “Cold Sweat” is definitely the one that’s gotten the most spins in this household this year. Actually, even at dinner about two days ago, [my son] Layne pulls out an iPhone and we start to jam along to “Cold Sweat.”
The viral video I kept coming back to in quarantine was:
I’d say the viral video I’ve seen not only most in quarantine but the most in the last five years is the one of Lin-Manuel visiting the White House. It was the White House Poetry Jam in 2009. He gets up in front of the president, the first lady, and a whole room full of dignitaries and starts talking about how when he thinks of the original hip-hop, there’s nobody that defines hip-hop more than Alexander Hamilton. And people were literally in stiches, thinking it’s like a comedy skit — and this is five years before it opened.
He performs the opening two verses and choruses of the opening song. And afterwards, people are giving him a standing ovation. Five years later, Hamilton is the biggest thing on the on the planet. But in terms of me being infatuated with creativity and the process of creativity, it is just the most mindfuck of a clip.
The old-favorite album I returned to for comfort this year was:
Alice in Chains’ Dirt. It’s so inspiring. I think it’s crazy just how transparent and courageous the lyrics are, and it’s a cohesive piece of work. It still sounds as raw, transparent, honest, and courageous to my ears as ever before. I think in the earlier days I was just listening to the music and the riffs and now, hearing the vocals, lyrics, and themes, what an incredible record. It just still sounds so timely. It sounds literally like this could have been made last week.
The old-favorite movie I returned to for comfort this year was:
There were a lot. I’m looking forward to watching The Godfather Coda, which is the new edit of the third one. So the last two movies I’ve seen this week were Godfather I and II, all six hours’ worth over two nights. I mean, Al Pacino, what is this? Does he have ice running through his veins? Did they, like, literally do some sort of transfusion and replace his blood with ice? It’s just unbelievable when he sits there at the end of number two [spoiler alert] and stares out over Lake Tahoe after he’s put everybody who’s ever double crossed him away. It’s just crazy. Listen, I must have seen Godfather 2 at least 20 times in my life. Never a dull second. It’s maybe the best 60 hours of ever spent. So we’re looking forward to the Coda.
A new hobby I picked up in quarantine was:
Getting Covid tested. I got the test at least 30, 40 times. We go into these [Covid] bubbles. Obviously, we did the drive-in [concert screening] last summer. We did a livestream a few weeks ago. We’ve done a couple of songwriting escapades … I’m obviously being silly.
A new hobby? I guess there’s very little in my life that I associate with the word “hobby.” I guess I’ve done quite a lot of biking in quarantine. For me, growing up in Denmark, biking was a mode of transportation. It was something that got you from point A to point B. What I’ve done in quarantine is go from point A to point A, the long way around. I was literally biking around San Francisco with various members of my family, which I’ve never really done. And it’s interesting. I’ve lived in San Francisco for coming up on 40 years. There are definitely parts of San Francisco that you see differently when you see ’em from a bike rather than through a car window. So it’s been great over quarantine to see different parts of San Francisco and the Presidio and different elements of this great city. So that, I would say, is the true hobby that I’ve never really encountered before.
The best book I read this year was:
I read Matthew McConaughey’s book [Greenlights]. He’s just a great storyteller and he’s great with anecdotes. Is there anything cooler than getting on his frequency? It’s fun, and when you’re reading the stories, you can hear his voice as you’re reading it. There are people that write with ghostwriters and people that don’t. So obviously, often the people who don’t with ghostwriters, like Springsteen, a couple of years ago when his book came out, you feel like you’re just having a conversation with him. I would say Matthew’s book had that same quality.
The celebrity I’d most want to quarantine with is:
I guess for me, it would be [New York Times film critic] A.O. Scott [laughs]. If I could just sit and blabber on and intellectualize over movies past and present with A.O. Scott, that’s something that I think I would never grow tired of. He also has that sort of right balance between the personal elements, a more universal critical element, self-deprecating, funny, and humorous enough, but at the same time serious in the right places. And as a critic, I think he’s probably, at least as far as film is concerned, my absolute favorite by a long shot. In terms of writers whose style I appreciate and who I feel sort of an emotional connection to in the worldview department, to be able to sit and to do detailed deep dives into classics within that, I think that that would be that would be a good time.
Something positive that happened to me that nobody noticed was:
A chance to grow what’s left of my hair again. I think I went eight months without a haircut, right?
The biggest hero of 2020 was:
The healthcare workers and the first responders who have put their lives on the line to help and roll up their sleeves and get in and help people affected by this terrible disease and pandemic obviously are the true heroes. And the selflessness of that. I don’t think we can beat the drum, no pun intended, loud enough for that whole group of people, which is obviously millions, millions, millions strong worldwide, and it doesn’t seem like they get still enough overall collective appreciation for putting their lives on the line and for the shifts and marathons they’ve put themselves into.
A word or phrase I never want to hear again is:
I try to compartmentalize things that annoy me, so I guess I’ll leave it at that.
The thing I’m least looking forward to in 2021 is:
I can’t think of a single thing that may occur in 2021 that I’m not looking forward to. I guess it ties into the previous answer: I only think good thoughts or primarily think good thoughts. I am an eternal optimist, I guess.
I’m 56, as you and I are talking. But I’m going to turn 57 [on Saturday]. And since I still feel like I’m about 16 years old at best, that part of it is … I accept the spinning of the planets of the universe, and I love having more experiences under my belt, but there’s still this part of me that feels like a 16-year-old that is sort of at odds with the fact that when people ask me how old I am, I just sit there and forget. I don’t carry it around with me. But in 2021, if I’m going to answer how old I am, truthfully, I’ve got to say 58. That’s just odd to me, because I still feel like I’m a fucking kid. There’s a disconnect to that. I really only think about this stuff when I’m being interviewed.
The thing I’m most looking forward to doing when the pandemic is over is:
Take a guess. Yes, you nailed it on the head, dear reader. Yes, it’s sharing music in a live setting with an audience and, the fellow band members. We’ve shared music in an isolated setting and in a Zoom setting and a streaming setting, but I look forward to sharing in the live setting obviously, more than anything.
What are we, 38, 39 years into this ride, and we haven’t played a live show in 16 months? That is definitely the longest [gap] and I can’t wait to get out there and play and get sweaty and get beat up and connect with the other three guys and connect with the audience again.
My biggest hope for 2021 is:
I think human beings as a species have this innate and often underappreciated ability for survival. Obviously, that’s been tested in the last year, but my biggest hope is that we will get over this madness and that…. There’s so much division, so much that separates us, and I guess as being the eternal optimist — cue the last 16 questions — that everybody will just continue to work on coming together and celebrating the things that we all share rather than the things that divide us.