10 Questions for Lars Ulrich | New music reviews, news & interviews
10 Questions for Lars Ulrich
Metallica's drummer on their new movie, and metal maturity
In their new, semi-fantastical concert movie Metallica: Through the Never, the gas-masked marauder who hunts the band’s fictional roadie, Trip, through a nightmare landscape, pictured below, is less cinematically memorable than Metallica themselves. Director Nimrod Antal gets his cameras up amongst them on-stage, as their muscles and eyes bulge and mouths gape, revving up the fans with how much they get off on this music, too.
Metallica have been metal’s most important and respected band for much of their 32 years. Debut Kill ‘Em All (1983) combined speeding guitar athleticism and pummelling heaviness, poles they’ve moved between ever since. They pioneered thrash-metal; as drummer Lars Ulrich explained, “We took the riff structures of AC/DC and Judas Priest and played them at Motorhead speed.” But Metallica (1991), the so-called “Black Album”, was cleaner, harder, punching through to a level of mass popularity they’ve never left. Even their previous cinema release, Some Kind of Monster (2004), detailing the breakdown of singer/lyricist/rhythm guitarist James Hetfield in particular, hasn’t derailed their position as metal’s Berserkers-in-chief. Nor did their last album, Lulu, an unlikely and widely derided collaboration with Lou Reed. They are, though, undeniably different men from the teenage outsiders who met in California in the early Eighties (Rob Trujillo, bassist for the last decade, excepted). The music, too, has inevitably lost its initial unhinged excitement, for more controlled, even mature mayhem.
Ulrich, 49, is an anomaly in metal, and maybe even in Metallica, which he founded with Hetfield in 1981. The son of a Danish tennis pro, he moved to California in 1980 to further his own tennis future, but a passion for New Wave of British Heavy Metal bands like Saxon, and his bond with Hetfield, set him on his true path.
He’s on the edge of exhaustion when he meets theartsdesk, curling up in his chair in a discreetly plush old hotel in Mayfair, London. Five weeks into promoting Through the Never, he hasn’t stopped since his plane touched down the night before. Still, he talks with typically energetic emphasis about movies, and a metal band in middle-age.
NICK HASTED: The way this film looks to me is that the world outside has turned into a Metallica album - which is a rough place to be!
LARS ULRICH: That’s a nice analogy. Obviously if you’re going to cut away, that’s not a bad place to cut away to, that kind of post-apocalyptic nightmare. Obviously we’re not going to cut away to The Sound of Music and the rolling hills of Austria. So - I like that analogy! I’ve heard a lot of analogies the last 5 weeks, I can tell you, and I haven’t heard that one before. We were thinking that we wanted a narrative, we wanted a setting that was interesting and that was parallel to the Metallica concert, and when Nimrod wrote that treatment, obviously it was a bit puzzling on paper, but as we got more and more into it, and started hearing his vision of it, we bought into that world, and that it would be a great place to counterbalance the concert. And mixing the two worlds was always going to be the hardest thing. But obviously when you cut away from a concert, you want to cut away to a dynamic that is not particularly contrary to what’s going on on-stage. And we were so keen on giving a different spin to the concert movie genre that it was just trying to find a way to get a story into it, and give it a new twist. I didn’t grill Nimrod on, “What are the connections to Metallica songs…” People say to us, is the puppet connecting to “Master of Puppets”, is the horse connected to “Four Horsemen”? It’s not quite that easy and simple. And certainly in the writing stages, those references never came up. But what we wanted to do was make it ambiguous enough that it’s open to personal interpretation, so you can figure it out for yourself. I think any analogy is a good analogy, and I’m certainly not going to sit here and tell you it’s right or wrong.
As far as the concert part of the movie, are you happy for people to finally be able to see the whites of your eyes?
Well we wanted people to get close. The marching orders were, most concert movies tend to be shot from the outside looking in, and we really wanted to try to shoot up on-stage, to get that immersion kind of thing where you’re with Metallica rather than watching Metallica from the outside. Because there are so many movies from that faraway view, and, “Here’s the scale of it.” We wanted to get you really, really close. And it seems like we’ve succeeded.
It shows how much the fans and you really get off on and have fun with these songs of pain and death and anger and self-loathing. You can really see you’re having a ball up there.
32 years in, we do have a lot of fun, and we do get off on doing it, and we appreciate the good fortune that comes our way, and the ability to do it. And there’s a very different temperature to the band these days than there was back in the day. We don’t take it quite so seriously as we used to, and so it’s a looser kind of a vibe. I like to think that we’re in better shape, and so it works better on all fronts.
And thinking of that different vibe, James [Hetfield, pictured left] said years ago that “mental anguish is what I like.” Is that something that just doesn’t run out in Metallica, in the music at least?
“Mental anguish…” I don’t think it’s so much about mental anguish. I don’t think you’re limited to express yourself one particular way, this particular thing is about interaction, so, “mental anguish” - sure, when you’re creating songs and writing lyrics, there’s a lot of that type of stuff that still shows up. But when you’re 32 years into a career - you know, I’ve had to answer for a few things I said 5 years or 10 years ago today, and I try to make it a point to always say the truth in the moment. But Metallica is a beast that continues to move along, and has a life of its own, and you’ve got to just understand how it morphs. So, mental anguish? Sure, but not limited to mental anguish! [laughs]
That would be a hard life…your previous movie, Some Kind of Monster, is a different beast altogether. Did you get the sense that that changed how fans felt about you - getting to see the four of you in such an intimate and vulnerable way?
I don’t keep stock of what people think of us. Now that everyone can express themselves through the anonymity of the internet, I don’t follow that so much, and also I don’t need that kind of validation, so I’m not looking to see, “Oh my God, they think this way…” We’re much more content now as people and artists, much more insular, in a way. Because we’ve survived so much. What I do know is that there were a lot of people who thought that that movie was too transparent, that there was stuff in there that they shouldn’t see, and that that kind of access was a little much! A lot of people in the movie world loved this film, because there was this organic, dramatic arc to it, but a lot of people in the music world felt like, “Oh my God, it’s too much.” But 32 years in, people have so many different opinions and ideas and images, I can’t keep track of it any more. And so I just stop paying attention.
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