‘F**k, how does this go again?’ - Lars Ulrich on 35 years of Metallica
Lars Ulrich is still raring to go - after 35 years of up and downs, crises and feuds (remember Napster?), Metallica are getting hardwired all over again
Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich, James Hetfield and Robert Trujillo from Metallica. Photograph: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Getty Images
Lars Ulrich, left, gives evidence at the Napster hearings before the US Senate Judiciary Committee
It’s a night for riffs and the air in New York’s Webster Hall is thick with them. Metallica are more accustomed to playing arenas, stadiums, racecourses and domes in Antarctica so this 1,500-capacity venue is a cosy fit. They’re in New York to start plugging their 10th album Hardwired . . . To Self-Destruct and the hardcore fans inside the venue can’t believe their luck.
They throw out Master of Puppets, Enter Sandman, One and For Whom the Bell Tolls. They lob in covers of Breadfan and Whiskey In the Jar. They play Orion in memory of former bass player Cliff Burton who died 30 years ago on this very day in a bus cash in Sweden. They introduce Hardwired and Moth To A Flame from the new album. It’s a good night’s work.
The next day, the four band members are camped out in various rooms in the Electric Lady studio on the promo grind. In the case of the dude in the baseball cap hunkered down in front of a wall of vinyl records, there are many things on his mind including Brexit (“I was in England the morning after Brexit and you could feel this collective f*cking shock.”), hygge, longevity, fart jokes, the Top Hat venue, mortality and sustenance (oat pancakes made with egg whites and fat-free Greek yogurt).
First, though, Lars Ulrich is recalling the night before.
“We’re a little under-rehearsed at the moment so the biggest challenge was at soundcheck when we were sorting out the setlist. Kirk said ‘hey, it’s the 30th anniversary of Cliff’s passing so let’s play Orion.’ Dude, we haven’t played Orion in years.
“Yeah, muscle memory kicks in, but when you’re soundchecking and you’re thinking ‘f**k, how does this go again?’, it’s a different matter. How you get through these gigs is down to confidence. The soundcheck was tough, but when we walked out onstage later, it was ‘yeah, it’s just us together, how hard can it be?’”.
Of course, the drummer is also here to talk about the new album. “The simplest way of looking at each of our records is that it’s about wiping the slate clean each time. We’re very lucky now: we don’t have anyone to answer to, we have our own label, we have the resources to do what we want to do, we just go in and start. “As long as we can make a record that has its own identity and come up with some killer tunes, we’re good. You can dress up what we do with energy and fancy musicianship and intros and outros, but a verse, bridge and chorus is the core of it. If you can get those to work, all the other stuff writes itself. If you can nail what we call the cycle, you have a song and the rest can build around it.”
Ulrich says the new album comes at an interesting time of life for himself and the others. “One’s own mortality definitely shows up as you get older and our best songs and James’ best lyrics are about vulnerability and disillusionment and the duality of our lives. I’ve three kids and one of them is off to college and has left the nest, which is a little what-the-f**k and surreal.
“I realise that there is a very significant chance that I’ve lived more than half my life even though I feel I’m only getting started. As a person, I may have peaked. Isn’t that a little odd to think about? My peak may be behind me.
“When I’m in San Francisco, I feel very much my age because I’ve my duties as a parent and husband and all of that. Then I get together with the band and I feel young again. Within a couple of hours, you’re sitting there telling fart jokes like you’re 25 again. That doesn’t happen in my normal life, I can tell you.”
It’s not just on the family front that things have changed for Metallica.
“Twenty years ago, it was a whole lot simpler for us. We went album-tour-album-tour. Now, there’s kids and families of course, and there’s also festivals and we make movies and we do covers and we collaborated with Lou Reed and all this different stuff. Occasionally, though, you have to stop, go back and tune in again to just ourselves. It’s not about making a new record to sell records; creating new tunes is one of the funniest parts from all the possible options we have to do with our time.”
War with Napster
What has also changed is the process of getting that music to the fans. This brings Ulrich back to Metallica’s run-in with Napster in 2000 when they sued the file-sharing site for copyright infringement and Ulrich found himself under attack for his stance.
What hurts him now looking back is that none of his peers stepped up or had his back in public.
“When I was in the thick of it, I’d be contacted every f**king day by a musician saying ‘we’re with you, you’re so courageous, thanks for doing this, we’ll help you, we’ll take the hits’. The next day I’d go out and throw myself into the fire again and look over and every one of those people were nowhere to be found. That was a real mindf**k and made me feel really disillusioned.
“We didn’t know what we were getting into. As far as we were concerned, it was a street fight, a scrap, a back alley brawl. These people are f**king with us so we’re going to f**k them up. A good old-fashioned fight. But a lot of people were quicker to take the temperature of the public and decided on the safe side. A lot of those people who told me how awesome I was were cowards and that was kind of screwed-up.”
Sixteen years on, it’s a vastly different landscape when it comes to technology. “The issue was never about technology or if Napster were good or bad or any of that kind of stuff,” says Ulrich. “It was about choice. Was it Napster’s choice to put our music up there or was it Metallica’s choice to give our music to Napster? With Spotify, Apple Music and all the rest of them, it’s clear. If you want to be there, you give them your music. We love Daniel (Ek), we love Spotify, we love all this stuff. But in 2000, there was none of that.”
It strikes you that one of the best things for Ulrich about being in Metallica these days is it gives him the opportunity to do other things too. He talks enthusiastically about the band’s involvement in the Billions TV show, his love of film and how much he digs acts such as Savages and LCD Soundsystem.
And when we get on to the subject of Ireland, Ulrich's enthusiasm goes into overdrive. “We’ve played Ireland a lot. We’ve played racetracks and stadiums and fields. I mean, I can go right back to the Top Hat. Ireland for me is always tranquil and lush and green. We haven’t played the Point in a few years because we can’t get all our stuff in - so it’s more of a challenge. The first thing I do when I land is go for a run and breath in the air and have a f**king good time.”
- Hardwired . . . To Self-Destruct is out now on Universal Music. Read our review here