10 Questions for Lars Ulrich | reviews, news & interviews
10 Questions for Lars Ulrich
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.
Thinking of where the band are at now, St Anger felt like you were climbing back up from somewhere, and it’s a really interesting album because of that. Death Magnetic, you were up there, you were back, and seeing you on-stage then in 2008, James in particular seemed rejuvenated. Has that pretty much carried on?
Well within this band now there’s a very positive energy flow, everybody’s very content. Metallica’s not the primary thing in our lives, so it’s quite a bit more fun. It’s a place we go now and enjoy ourselves, rather than over-think or squeeze every last drop out of it that we can, which I think is what we did in the Nineties. So it’s a much looser kind of thing. Everybody’s found the right way to get along, and the right balances. And we take it much less seriously, and our eyes are much more wide open than they were, in terms of sitting there and appreciating all of the good will that comes our way. Just two months ago we were out in China, and Malaysia, and Indonesia, and all these crazy places. It’s like, “Oh my God, 50,000 people showed up in Singapore!” The way it continues to reach new audiences is pretty insane.
How does it change the music, now that Metallica’s a life that you visit, in a way, rather than one that consumes you?
We haven’t written any music in five years. I’m not sure exactly how it changes the music…I can tell you that it sometimes…I don’t know, we’re just about to get seriously into the writing, and certainly we’ve got inspirations from all over the world, and lots of fun stuff that we can draw on, and so we have a lot more experiences, and we’ve been out of our comfort zone for so long, it’s really lots of stuff to bring into the studio. But I don’t know exactly. We’ll have to see how it pans out, in terms of the music. I think probably the most difficult part about the music is that we’re so prolific. There’s so much of it, that nailing it down to 12 songs is the most difficult thing. James Hetfield, every time he picks up a guitar, he practically comes up with the greatest riffs anyone’s ever heard, just while he’s tuning it. We can be quite overwhelming sometimes, so we’ll have to do the best we can, in terms of balances. There’s certainly a lot of inspiration to draw on.
Talking about your comfort zone, what did you think about Lulu, your album with Lou Reed (pictured middle with Metallica)? And what did you think of the reactions to it? I must admit that that’s the one Metallica album I don’t have, so I have no opinion - except that, I saw Lou Reed that year, and the first two or three songs he played turned out to be from that album. And they were fucking good songs.
Yeah! I can’t figure it out, so the best way is to not even attempt to figure it out. I don’t know what the answers are. I know what we do, and I know what we enjoy. Are you telling me that if Lou Reed called up and wanted to write an article with you that you wouldn’t want to be in the same room as Lou Reed, and see what happens? So whether people enjoy it…I think that there are perceptions, and within the hard rock world we’ve fought a lot of people who box you in. I think there’s quite a conservative undertone, in the way something has to look this way and sound this way. I think a lot of people were surprised that Lou Reed doesn’t sing with a bluesy rock voice, and that he recites and talks. That’s his style, that’s the beauty of it. He’s a poet, he’s a writer. It’s not David Coverdale, you know, or Robert Plant. What did you expect? He’s talking over Metallica, playing riffs. What did you expect, him to start singing - seriously? It comes more from ignorance than anything. But that’s okay. I’m not going to sit there and fucking tell people what they should or shouldn’t think. Ultimately, it’s not going to stop us from doing it. I heard the first track, “The View” - one of my kids actually played it in the car about a month ago, and it sounded insane. But really, really, really out-there good - really weird, and exactly what you would expect Metallica and Lou Reed to sound like. So I’ve got no issues!
Talking of that rock conservatism, you’ve got very liberal tastes in music. Does Metallica still fulfil most of your musical dreams (Metallica pictured in their Eighties early days, with Ulrich second left, and bassist Cliff Burton, left, killed in a tour bus crash on September 27 1986)?
It fulfils pretty much all of them. After you’ve played with James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Rob Trujillo, where are you gonna go? There are no musical ambitions left, other than to continue to enjoy what we’re doing, and cherishing every moment of it. I don’t sit there and think, “Oh my God, I’ve got to do this with my life.” Every gig we do, I don’t want to sound too cheesy, but it’s kind of a blessing, and it’s fun and it’s great. And I get my fill of all the other things, movies and art and all that, through other sources in my life. But musically I’m very content with Metallica.
Rob’s been saying his idea of the next album is a little bit thrashier, a little bit more hard and fast - have you got any idea of how you’d like it to go?
Well I think that’s the standard answer - “The next album’s going to be heavier.” What do you want, the next album’s going to have nine fiddles on it, and it’s going to be a square-dance album? Of course, what are you going to say a year out. I don’t have a particular notion of it, other than I can tell you that Death Magnetic is a pretty good starting place. Because Death Magnetic is still a pretty good sounding record.
- Metallica: Through the Never is in cinemas now
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