The Metallica drummer, Danish immigrant, former tennis wunderkind, art aficionado, and undeniably one of the most famous dudes named Lars in the world, has long held a tattered reputation within the metal community. If you've never seen the phrase "It should've been Lars" applied when a metal icon passes, I'd like to know which rock you've been taking up residence beneath. Ulrich has been quoted as saying that he thinks the metal community "is so fucking serious and up its own ass," an accusation said metal community then hurled right back at him. His drum skills are routinely savaged, and he's generally been deemed an "asshole" so many times that Googling the phrase immediately brings up a smorgasbord of his own gaffes and Reddit threads titled "Why do people hate Lars Ulrich?"
Or, in other words, I fully expected Lars Ulrich to be a prick. As I walked up to the swank Tribeca eatery his publicity team had chosen for our meeting, I wondered: just how much of an asshole is this guy, and has he mellowed at all in his middle age?
To my surprise, Ulrich didn't come off negatively at all; if anything, he was extremely pleasant, his answers thoughtful and considered, his manner familiar and warm, even as we sat surrounded by publicists and in full view of anyone else who happened to be walking by. He didn't blink an eye when a man on the street stopped to stare, or seem perturbed when the man snapped a few quick photos. The impression I got from him was one of earnestness, and thoughtfulness; he listened intently to my questions and squinted in concentration as he answered, and despite his reputation for ego, seemed quite self-aware and even humble, especially when we talked about what it's like to play in Metallica as your day job. He's very aware of his position in the world; as he told me, "For people that really work, saying that Metallica is a job—that's kind of insulting."
True, you can't really get to know much at all about a person during the course of a half hour coffee date, but from what I saw, despite his sometimes antagonistic relationship with the metal community at large, Lars Ulrich's bad reputation is more than a little undeserved. Despite his tight black turtleneck and flashy Italian leather boots, the person I spoke with was someone entirely uninterested in bullshitting; whether that's the result of a no-nonsense Scandinavian upbringing or a lifetime surrounded by ass-kissers, I couldn't say, but it's certainly served him well—even if the fans don't get much of an opportunity to see him that way.
"I'm Danish, and Danish people don't mind being contrary," he explained. "I mean, I don't want to be contrary for contrary's sake, but I think I'm very transparent and open. And making records at 52 doesn't get any easier, trust me."
At that point in late September, he was in the midst of a whirlwind press tour, and had been dealing with interviews and photo shoots all day (a flurry of activity that culminated in a triumphant Webster Hall show several days later). His band was poised to release Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, a new record that's already reeled in better reviews than they've enjoyed in decades, their first full-length in eight years, the masters for which were locked down tighter than Fort Knox in a hurricane—but Ulrich couldn't even give me an honest opinion on it.
That's couldn't, not wouldn't. When we spoke, the album was still hot off the presses—like, the-producer-flew-home-three-days-prior hot—and the sleekly-attired drummer seemed a bit shellshocked even thinking about it. At that point, he hadn't had time to fully process it, or to even to really parse Hetfield's customarily dour lyrics (that this time go right ahead and proclaim that "we're all fucked!" a point that's hard to argue right now). All he could really tell me about it was that he was proud of the album, pleased that it had passed his "car test," and happy that the fans seemed to like what they'd heard of it. "There's definitely an X factor—the four of us in a room together, somehow it works; the planets and the stars align, and and we've got to be careful not to overthink," he told me.
"James and I took a car ride up the 101 about three weeks ago and I listened to the record front to back in one car ride. It has to survive a car ride front to back. The car test. That's like a given, that's 25 years old now. And, it's great. It gets you to where you're going a little faster."
It's true that Hardwired… to Self-Destruct has stirred up quite a lot of genuine excitement and curiosity—more than one would perhaps expect from a band that arguably passed its prime multiple decades ago—but that reaction is part and parcel of the curious dichotomy of Metallica. For every metalhead who swears up and down that the band lost its relevance after Cliff Burton died (or even before that), there are others who still worship the band's output, even their dicey mid-90s era and generally lackluster recent albums. For some, the memory of how they felt the first time they heard Master of Puppets or saw the band play "Orion" is enough to sustain that love; others demand more, and are usually left disappointed. Metallica in 2016 is not the same band they were in 1986 (or 1996, or 2006) and they do not make the same albums now that they made then.
However, the album they've just released—which was positioned as a sort of bridge between ...And Justice for All and the Black Album—by and large holds true to that promise. It's the best and most immediate that the band have sounded in years (and is light-years better than Death Magnetic). It's still got its self-indulgent moments—most of the tracks are too long, they waste a lot of space on big dumb 90s grooves, and Hetfield's vocals are way too clean and prominent in the mix—but it's also got actual thrash metal songs like "Atlas, Rise" and "Spit Out the Bone" that boldly reference the band's initial NWOBHM influences, adding a snarling edge that the fans have been missing for quite awhile now.
It's hard to say what shifted between the release of Death Magnetic (or the generally reviled Lulu experiment) and Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. Eight years have passed, but as always, the core lineup itself has not changed in a very long time; "new" bassist Robert Trujillo joined Metallica when I was 15; I'm nearly 29 now. Original members James Hetfield, Lars Ulrich, and Kirk Hammett have weathered a colorful variety of storms, many of their own making (remember Napster? Lars does) but still, almost improbably even now, they've come out ahead once again.
I suppose it all goes to show that, even 30-odd years in—after multiple lives' worth of death and fame and fortune and controversy—you just can't keep a good band down.
Noisey: So, I heard your new record today.
Lars Ulrich: Tell me about it. How is it?
It's pretty sick.
It is sick! Thank you.
I took a bunch of notes, as you do, and the first thing that popped into my head when I heard "Atlas, Rise" was Diamond Head. It sounds like you guys were looking back to your roots on that one.
I've done like five interviews for the new record, and I have no idea when people ask, 'What are you doing?' It's like, I have no idea! I'm sure six months from now, or a year from now, it will start turning into sort of a narrative for me. But I don't have one yet. That's why I'm interested in hearing other people's opinions.
OK, well, to me, it sounded to me like a mix of that NWOBHM influence with a potpourri of everything else you've been doing over the past million years. I loved how fast it was, with the aggressive thrash vibe and the solos. It's very metal, which is I suppose what people have been bugging you to put out for ages.
Hence the name Metallica [laughs]. Listen, to me, either it's good, and it connects with people, or it's not great and people don't connect to it. All the rest of it—that's getting into the particulars. I don't have enough distance; we finished mastering the record two weeks ago, and Greg left on Thursday of last week, so it hasn't even been a week yet. So, I'm just happy when people dig it. I've played a couple of songs for a few close friends and they seemed to dig it. I haven't gotten a narrative of it together yet; I did two radio interviews on Friday 'Tell me about the new record! What does it sound like?' And I'm like, 'Umm….I'm pretty sure it sounds like Metallica. Beyond that, who the fuck knows? I don't know.'
The one thing that we did was that we sort of allowed ourselves a little—so, one breakthrough on the last record, Death Magnetic, was when Rick kind of us sat down and encouraged us to be a little bit more forgiving of ourselves about letting our past work inspire us. And so, if you hear Diamond Head or other things like that in there, then, that certainly sounds right. I think there were a few years where we were really trying hard, maybe too hard, to kind of continue to do something different, and reinvent our sound. Then Rick came in on the last record, and said, 'It's OK to acknowledge your past, it's OK to be inspired by your past, it's OK to embrace your past.' And so that's been a little bit more the M.O. on Death Magnetic, and the new record as well.
You're allowed to be Metallica. At this point like, how important are those outside opinions to you? You've weathered so much through the years, that it's not like you're really delicate flowers anymore.
[Laughs] Listen, any artist—and I use the word loosely—any creative person, whether they're a musician, or a writer, or a poet, or a painter or a filmmaker, obviously, if given a choice, would rather people appreciate what they're doing rather than not appreciate it. Now, it's 2016; everybody's got an opinion. Certainly we appreciate that. How much you take those in is something I'm pretty good at. You know, if David Fricke or some of your peers or yourself say, 'Ew, what the fuck!' then that's different from a 17-year-old commenting on some Internet site about 'Metallica sounded better when James Hetfield was drinking' or some other nasty thing, you know what I mean? This is the kind of nonsense that people write. Obviously everybody wants a good review in Rolling Stone, you know what I mean? So, it kind of balances.
But so far, it's been overwhelmingly positive. I mean, there's always always one out of 25, and obviously we still have a bounty on our heads from 15 years ago, 'ugh, fuck Metallica!' and all that, but that's less and less a part of the picture. I think as you get a little older as an artist, and as you get better, you also have—you know, the hardest thing is that the new technology and your experience affords you more options. And when you have more options, it can be harder. And sometimes when I sit there and think about being young, crazy, and full of spunk in my 20s, I don't remember thinking a lot. You just did it. Now everything's like, 'OK, is that better, or is that better? Wait, which one's better? Those two? We can also slow it down. Wait, we can change the keys right there. No, we can do this…we can put an overdub." And before you know it, you're sitting there with fuckin' 17 options, and you get sort weighed down by all the options. And so it's been nice in the last month or so to hear that there's still hope for people. It's a pretty good record—I'll take that!
You mention getting older, and it's funny to think that there's people didn't want you guys to grow up— there's still that thought that they want you to be 18-year-old thrash kids again.
You can't help 'em with that! But it's just a part of rock n' roll, especially a part of harder rock n roll that's a little bit odd, you know?
It's a heavy metal thing too—that 'the demo's always better' type of thinking. People want you to stay frozen at that moment when they first discovered you, and when you change, and progress—well, you know better than anyone what the reaction to that can be like.
We've battled that at different levels for the better part of our whole career. I mean, when we put "Fade to Black" on Ride the Lightning, there were a lot of people in the metal community that were losing their minds. And it's been a part of our thing, because we've just never wanted to conform to the way it's supposed to be. I mean, that was one thing that was part of the hard rock/heavy metal aesthetic that just wasn't really for us, that we thought was a little silly, and so we tried to steer clear of that to the best of our ability. And obviously, there may have been times when we may have strayed a little too far, but rather that than conform and never challenge yourself. You know, there's always somebody in hard rock who says, 'Play Master of Puppets again!' or 'Why'd you cut your hair?' or why this or why that. It just is what it is.
Do you think metal is an inherently conservative genre? Not necessarily politically—because obviously growing up in the 80s you know all about that—but just in terms of how fiercely some fans tend to cling to their idols and their past works.
I would say that the one thing, as I get older, is that I just don't see anything in black and white anymore. So, obviously, I would say there's a conservative strain through some of it. For every conservative band, and I don't want to name any names because I don't want to be disrespectful, there's still a Mastodon, or a Kvelertak, or Slipknot, other people that challenge and do cool, weird, new shit. There's always new and different things, there's always new hybrids that happen. A lot of the stuff that we grew up on in the 80s, the swords and sorcery, all that kind of that kind of medieval stuff, that just wasn't for us. And I guess our attitudes were a little punkier. For every Diamond Head, for every Judas Priest and AC/DC thing I loved, I also loved The Ramones, and I loved The Sex Pistols, and I loved The Clash and I loved Anti-Nowhere League. There was always a little more of a punk-y kind thing that we embraced, which you know Motorhead who really influenced us was the epitome of.
Right, the ultimate crossover.
How did you feel when you heard about Lemmy?
I was devastated. I saw him at his birthday party, and even though he was frail, he was present. And I knew he was sick, but I didn't know that he was that sick. So he passed two weeks after I saw him at the party, and I didn't expect it to be that fast.
It seems like he didn't let anyone to know to what extent he really was sick, and that reads a bit like him doing a service to his fans; he didn't want us to worry about him, because he was that larger-than-life figure. As someone who's very, very well-known in this community, do you feel any pressure to project an image of strength and vitality like that, to not talk about getting older?
Well, I'm sitting here eating chicken breast and salad rather than pizza and McDonald's. Today it's a six-hour day. Ten years ago it was an eight-hour day. 20 years ago, it was a 12-hour day. Do you know what I mean? I don't mind being upfront about that. You know, I'm proud of my humanness. We've always been transparent, and tried to be on the same level and be approachable to the fans. I don't have anything I'm hiding. In the 70s and stuff, bands like the Led Zeppelins and the KISSes of the world, and I don't want to be disrespectful because I appreciate them, but there was something about the mystique element, that larger than life thing, and those times are long gone. And I think nowadays, you may as well embrace it, rather then kind of run away from it. That's what we try to do with our social platforms. And we try and be as transparent as possible.
And very human too; you've always been a very human kind of band.
Yeah. I mean I've always told my truth, even if it was just at that moment. That whole thing about party lines—i think we've run a pretty clean ship over the years. My head rests on my pillow fairly easy at night, there's no big weird shit or deceits or anything. It's always take it or leave it, here we are. There's always been times where—for some reason, with Metallica, there's always something people complain about. You probably know the list yourself, whether it's the lack of bass on this album, or 'why'd you cut your hair' or 'why'd you go classical' or 'Kirk Hammett and his fuckin' black nail polish' there's always something. It's part of the journey. I mean it's been 35 years.
It's like middle-aged person that you've created. Metallica could buy a house.
So you don't have any regrets?
Of course I have regrets. I mean, I'm not a person that lives generally with that approach kind of approach to life. Ultimately, you try in any situation to do the best you can with the situation. No, I don't have regrets. Take the Napster thing. We didn't know what we were getting into…it was a street fight. It started off as a street fight. Like, who the fuck are these people? Like, fuck them! This is a back alley brawl. Right ,and then all of a sudden, it was like the center of the world stage. That was a little like, 'Whoa, how did that happen?' But I've said this many times before, that is how we roll. We just do, rather than think. Metallica, as a whole, has a very impulsive side to it. And I like that, and I hope that a majority of our fans appreciate the impulsivity—rather than if everything is guarded, and that every step is over thought and over contrived and meticulously planned. But there have been a couple of times where we've been like, 'Fuck, we should have thought of that a bit more.'
It's got to be tough when people are watching you all the time. That's got to be the weirdest fucking thing. You're just a dude that grew up tape-trading, and made a bunch of records, and now you're straight up famous. Does that ever freak you out?
I guess I just don't think about it that much. I guess we have had kind of a pretty good ride with that. So it's like, we're famous enough to sort of get the doors open that we need to get open, but we're not so famous that you and I couldn't sit here. If we were really up there, then this wouldn't be possible. A guy comes and takes a few pictures, but then he realizes that it's not going to get him that much to get a picture of the drummer from Metallica eating some chicken, and then he wanders off and that's fine.
Do you still hope to bringing in new fans or win over naysayers with this new record, or are you more interested on making your existing fan base happy?
I mean, we are all aware kind of aware of the fact of how wide the net is cast. And like I said, most things that I see in the world is in grays, so it's pretty easy with this stuff. So 40-year-olds, 50-year-olds, 30-year-olds, 20-year-olds, teens, it's fine. We don't go out of our way to do one thing more than the other. I think that there still there seems to be a rite of passage for 13 and 14-year-old boys and in lots of places around the world. There are still a lot of young kids. When I occasionally check our social media—two million Instagram followers or something like that, I should know the numbers—I can tell that a lot of them are younger, which is cool. So I think we got a pretty good balance. There are certain places like in Scandinavia, they're really young and there is like fourteen-year-old girls down in the front row. Sometimes parents bring their kids, or kids bring their parents. It's fun.
I'm not particularly driven, I don't sit there looking at the numbers like I used to; it's kind of a different thing. Ten or 20 years ago, you were in this game: you were playing by a particular set of rules and you're always trying to figure out your place in it. Nowadays, you're not really playing by those rules anymore. Now, the music business is much more corrupted, and much more unpredictable, and much more to a degree like the Wild West. Nowadays, it's not, 'What everyone else is doing?' It's what you are doing, are you doing the right thing for you? It's a little more chill than it used to be. I sat down about a month ago, and I asked, 'What are we going to do with this music?' You know, you don't necessarily fall into a way it's supposed to be. What are we going to do with it, how are we going to share it? We made a video and put out the first song, and that happened in two days. We shot the video on Tuesday evening, and tweaked one or two things on Wednesday, then it was up on our YouTube on Wednesday morning. How's that for fucking turnaround?
That's pretty punk.
Thank you! That's what we are, a couple of lost punks at heart. But nowadays, it's about what works for you, you know? It's not 'where does it fit into the business and industry,' all that nonsense.
Do you remember the point when you first realized that Metallica was your job?
I've told this story a couple of times—so, in 1986,when we played on a show on the Ozzy tour, our manager Cliff came to Hampton, Virginia. And we had kind of a sit down in the back of the tour bus before the show, and he looked at all of us in the eye and said that we've made enough money to buy houses. There was this awkward silence, and we all kind of looked at each other like, 'Really? We can actually make a living out of doing this?' That was kind of one of those 'Wow' moments. I understand that this is what I do for a living, and to a degree it's my job; I mean, it's what we do, and we're very lucky. You could also argue we're very good at it.
What I really want to know now is, why you guys keep doing it? You've done everything; you don't need to do this, but here you are.
It's really fun. It's still fun. Hopefully, the day it's not fun, if it doesn't feel right, if that day comes—it doesn't feel like it's imminent, though, the bigger issue is more the physicality of it. I mean, I really like playing music with these guys. I couldn't imagine playing music with anybody else. Why do we do this… that's a good question. Writing songs with James Hetfield and hanging out with the Greg Fidelmans of the world —it's fun! Here's how I look at it. The real job, to me, is the domestic responsibilities of parenting, of fatherhood. That feels—not like a job in a bad way—but that feels like it has a purpose. Metallica feels more like a mancave— it's more a place of escape. Metallica is a place where all four of us go, and kind of decrease in age, and decrease in kind of how we interact with the world. And it's a little looser. My life is very structured at home—kids and homework and dinners at 7 PM, and driving the kids to school and picking them up, and organizing rides and baseball, bass lessons, and five hundred fuckin' playdates, and all that kind of stuff. Then you go on the road with Metallica, and you get to sleep in. I came here last night, saw a couple of friends, had a glass of champagne, woke up this morning, went to a few photo sessions, sat here with you and talked about myself for the past hour. That's not a bad day, right? So not that that's a better day or a worse day, than taking the kids to school and doing all that, but it's a nice alternative.
Maybe that answers your question. Sometimes when I'm doing interviews, it's like self therapy.
I guess you've been asked everything at this point, huh?
I guess I have over the years. Yeah. But I feel like I'm always in a different place mentally. Like if you and I talked tomorrow, I might give you slightly skewed answers depending on my view tomorrow, my outlook on the world tomorrow, what kind of mood I'm in, you know what I mean? Today, between 3 'til 5, these are my truths. Tomorrow, between 3 'til 5, there might be other truths. Who the fuck knows.
Here's my last real question then. At the end of the day, would you rather die on stage, sort of like Lemmy did, or ease out?
Ease out. I don't want to be disrespectful to Lemmy, but... I would rather ease out.
Do you know where you want to be buried?
I don't want to be buried. I haven't figured that out yet, but I suppose I should. No matter where I go in the world, I always feel Danish, I'm still holding onto my Danish passport, so at some point, there's going to be a homecoming of some sort…either in an urn, or I don't know, maybe that's a little TMI! But we'll see. I'll keep that one on the backburner for you.
Illustration by John Garrison
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey; she's on Twitter.