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Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich on art, tennis and how rock’n’roll ruined his life… (Not really.)
The following is a reprint of a cover feature that ran in K1715 on March 31, 2018.
Lars Ulrich sidles up, disconcertingly hunched and conspiratorial-like, as if he’s about to whisper a juicy secret in Kerrang!’s ear. There’s also a glint in his eye and mischief in his grin that says a joke might be coming imminently too. And as it transpires, in preparation for our interview, someone within the chain of command on the Metallica drummer’s ‘team’ has informed him about our new look, and how we’ve lined up a series of world exclusive cover stars, each representing core, iconic artists from different eras of the magazine’s past, present and future.
“Kerrang! is relaunching, huh?” he begins, teeing himself up for the punchline, as his smirk struggles to keep from breaking into a full-blown smile. “So, like, which cover am I, ‘The Ancient Dinosaur’ one? ‘…and representing bands from the 1950s and before: Laaaaars Ulriiiich!’”
“Not exactly,” we hastily assure him. But it’s already too late – he’s lost in amusement at the idea and laughing hard, pretty much setting the tone for the duration of the conversation. Because Lars is evidently in chipper form today. We join him in what looks and smells like a repurposed old changing room, in the backstage area of Unipol Arena, Bologna, the setting for the first of Metallica’s two-night stands in the city, and the latest stop off on their WorldWired Tour in support of 2016 album, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct.
Facetious as he’s being of course, the topic of identity and one’s sense of self in the public eye is on his mind.
“Everybody has a different version of you,” he explains. “On your journey along the way, you learn how to renege on fighting the fact that there’s you, and then there’s everybody else’s you.”
It’s a fair point. Because Lars Ulrich: Metallica drummer is just one aspect of Lars Ulrich, the man. Throughout his 37 years in the spotlight, he’s been the bolshie young thrash kid, he’s been the millionare metal star, he’s been the evil Napster villain, he’s been the Some Kind Of Monster anti-hero, and he’s been the radio DJ guy. In private, he’s also been a dad, a husband and an ex-husband, a few times over respectively. In 2017 he was even knighted in his native Denmark. And later this year, in June, he’ll be a recipient of Sweden’s Polar Music Prize with Metallica – the music industry’s equivalent of a Nobel Prize. Throughout it all however, one thing that’s remained constant, is that Lars Ulrich is an ardent music obsessive, with a passion that’s burned brighter and sustained longer than most people manage by the time they’re in their 50s. It was such passion that led to the one-time future tennis pro turning his life on its head and letting metal consume him whole, when he co-founded Metallica in October 1981 with James Hetfield. It was that same passion which later helped fuel the recording of Garage Days Re-Revisited, an EP of covers by their favourite bands in 1987, the impending reissue of which ostensibly allows for an audience with the drummer today. Say what you will about Lars – he insists he really doesn’t care – but no-one can deny his love of music.
‘Rock’n’roll ruined my life… (not really!)’ he dutifully scribbles on a piece of paper upon request for tongue-in-cheek use on this very cover.
“Promise me you’ll include the ‘not really’ bit,” he swifty follows…
It would be all too easy and a gross oversimplification to say that Lars Ulrich was born to do this. Rock’n’roll isn’t a lifestyle that everybody is cut out for, after all. Certainly not for as long and as hard as he and Metallica have lived it. But that’s far too romantic a notion for the palette of the man who lounges on a sofa before us with a cup of tea in his hands. He’s minded of his youth, and the pressures to succeed in his father Torben and grandfather Einer’s footsteps, to become a professional tennis player.
“I’m very much a realist and I’m easy with accepting the consequences of my choices,” he argues. “I don’t sit and ponder, ‘What if I stayed with tennis and ended up having a career-high ranking of 4,211 in the world in 1982?’ A couple of weeks ago I did a father and son interview with my dad for the biggest magazine in Denmark, and that was an interesting few hours [of reflection].
“But this is my life, I’ve been doing it since I was 17, and music has always played a significant part in it. Even growing up, it was all I’d ever known thanks to my dad listening to [Jimi] Hendrix, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, and to jazz greats like Miles Davis, Sonny Rollins, Charlie Parker, Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane.”
As the well trodden terrain of his story goes, Lars relocated from Copenhagen to Los Angeles at the age of 16 to knuckle down and take the next phase of his tennis training seriously. But it wasn’t long before his discovery of the city’s music scene would turn his head, and tennis’ loss would be rock and metal’s immeasurable gain. And he still recalls the spark that lit the fuse vividly.
“I went to see Yesterday And Today [later known simply as Y&T], playing a show on, like, a Wednesday evening, at the Starwood in LA in December 1980,” he begins. “I remember the band were having a great time. There was this vibe and energy thing between them and the audience. It was pretty chill, and I remember thinking, ‘This looks like so much fun.’
“At the same time,” he continues, “I was starting to realise that if I wanted to really get anywhere playing tennis, I would have to spend eight hours a day on the court and there was this grind in front of me that didn’t have quite the same allure anymore. It wasn’t like the next morning the roof opened and a lightning bolt came down, but over the next couple of months the tennis thing fizzled out and music started taking over.”
As his chances of a career as a pro sportsman faded, the teenager’s love of metal rapidly blossomed. He’d read about bands like Saxon, Iron Maiden and the NWOBHM scene in magazines like Sounds and its then-fledgling offshoot, Kerrang!.
“Most of what I know about heavy metal now came from that world,” he says. “It was how you’d communicate and it was the first place I saw the words Diamond Head, Angel Witch, Tygers Of Pan Tang and the list goes on…”
Metal gave the young Lars a place of solace and comfort in a city where he left lonely and isolated. He’d dream of this exotic other world he’d read about, filled with likeminded fanatics. So much so, he ended up spending the summer of ’81 travelling around England, crashing on the floor of the apartment shared by Diamond Head’s singer and guitarist, Sean Harris and Brian Tatler, and later striking up a friendship with late Motörhead legend, Lemmy Kilmister. “Being in the rock’n’roll environment just kinda turned me on,” he says of those pivotal rites of passage.
A few months later he was back in LA and he’d caught the bug so bad he put an ad in the local paper, Recycler, looking for “other heavy metal musicians” to join his quest, and once he met James, the rest was pretty much history. But it was in large part down to the drive, determination and sheer force of will the drummer displayed in making things happen.
“When you’re 17, you have these fucking blinders on,” he recalls with a smile. “Nothing fazes you. When James and I started this thing, nothing slowed us down. Even in the wake of the horrific accident that took Cliff [Burton, the Metallica bassist who tragically died at the age of 24 in a bus crash while the band were on tour in Sweden on September 27, 1986]’s life, no matter what situation we were in, this was always going to move forward.”
The young Lars saw an opportunity to create and be a part of history, because he was so steeped and immersed in the mythology of metal, and he was living and breathing every moment of it. It gave him an identity, it gave him a place to call home and he was in it for life.
“We were all outsiders, alienated, ostracised and disenfranchised,” he explains. “So, you’re trying to figure out who you are, what your place is in all of this while you’re growing up and you’ve got your gang. There’s one way, there’s this uniform, it’s a brotherhood and a collective: you live together, sleep together, play together, drink together, and you fuck together. Those years were crazy. It was a lot of fun and I’m grateful for the memories.”
Then, after millions of records, endless touring, worldwide fame and over two decades of doing it harder, faster and better than anybody, came the inevitable crash.
The Lars Ulrich who speaks to Kerrang! today is a very different man from the one he refers to in many of the stories from his past. The 54-year-old has lost none of his passion, but he does bear some scars from a huge chunk of his life being lived in the arrested development of rock band reality. Much of that was laid bare in 2004 documentary, Some Kind Of Monster, which shadowed Metallica as they made their eighth album, St. Anger, nakedly exposing a group of grown men experiencing something of a collective midlife crisis.
“It was a point in time and it was all documented,” Lars says laughing about it all fondly now. “We were, like, 20 years in when we realised we’d never had a chance to figure any of that stuff out. We had that first meltdown in front of all these cameras; 18 months or whatever, where we had just reached this point of implosion after 20 years. It’s also coming up on 20 years ago, which is pretty interesting.”
Though at the time some of its most infamous scenes made for almost comic amusement and derision, the humanising effect and the band’s ownership of its raw, emotional honesty has paid off in the long term. Especially following the 2001 Napster controversy, when Lars filed a lawsuit against the file-sharing site for copyright infringement, making him by his own admission “the most hated man in music for about 15 minutes”. The early ‘00s weren’t always kind to him in retrospect, and it would be understandable if he felt somewhat betrayed by the thing he’d dedicated his life to elevating him to the status of public pariah, but he remains typically stoic and unbowed by the experiences.
“Well, I’m always up for a dare!” he chuckles about it all. “I think Danish people by nature are always like, ‘Okay, let’s shake the foundations and fuck some shit up.’ We’re quite comfortable being contrarians. And you have to really work well to be able to compartmentalise things. I can literally turn my feelings off to the point where I become like ice. It’s really weird. I can just go like, ‘Nothing, nothing is going to penetrate me.’ Especially around the Napster time, people were saying some pretty nasty shit. The way you deal with that is you basically become immune to it. When you’ve been in the public spotlight for almost 40 years that has its uses.”
It all comes back to that point about perceptions and reality. Who someone thinks you are, doesn’t have to be who you are, if you don’t let it. Lars knows this better than most.
“You become a character,” he explains. “I look in the mirror when I’m brushing my teeth before I go to sleep and I have a fairly good connection to what I see there and who that is. So when you read other people are saying this or that, I can’t relate what I read or hear to the person that I know. People look at you with different intent and that’s fine because you can’t control what people think. When you accept that, it sort of becomes okay.”
That explains the impressively self-possessed person he’s become despite the shitstorms he’s fended off down the years. It explains the sense of humour and the self-awareness. It explains why he’s never turned his back on the thing he loves most, even when it might have been easier to feel hurt and walk away deflated and defeated.
“I would say I’ve never lost that sense of being a fan,” he beams proudly. “I think I have a lot of passion for life and a lot of passion for living. If you open your eyes and take it all in, all of this and playing rock shows, that doesn’t douse that fire. There’s a perception that the more famous you get the less you need that, but why would you stop?! I don’t consider myself any less turned on by the things that turn me on than I did 10, 20, 30, or 40 years ago.
“I absolutely still have this crazy thing about music and art in general,” he continues, fired up. “When something speaks to me I’ve got to shout about it from every rooftop, to envelope myself in it and share it. Ultimately, when all of this is gone, none of it means anything. The basic human need and function is to connect with other people. Nobody wants to be lonely or alone, you just want to connect with other people.”
Spend time in his company and it’s hard not to be swept up by his enthusiasm and energy. That his passion is still so strong is testament to how truly and deeply he loves what he does. It’s also completely rare. The music business can be a shitty one at times, and it’s not uncommon for anyone who’s spent any great length of time immersed in it to become jaded. It begs the question of how Lars Ulrich has maintained his energy for discovery. And it’s probably the only time the drummer is absolutely stumped.
“Um… good question,” comes his delayed, time-buying response. “I guess probably the ability to separate all this maybe? All of us in Metallica have done a really good job of keeping checks and balances. We allow ourselves to grow, we allow ourselves to experience and to continue on this journey, and despite all the 20,000 people, the honours or the platinum discs, it doesn’t mean you stop caring. When I hear a great song or see a great film it turns me on. It’s a great question and I’m not sure I have a soundbite answer for you, but that hasn’t changed. “I don’t think that our personalities have really changed that much,” he adds, still trying to nail why he’s remained as passionate as he has. “Given the circumstances, we’re fairly normal people – given the circumstances! We don’t have major basket cases in this band. The DNA and the wheelhouse, or whatever you want to call it, is intact. Within the realm of rock’n’roll, we got lucky.”
Back home in San Francisco, Lars has a room (“the library”) entirely dedicated to housing his extensive record collection – though he has everything digitally, too. When he’s not on tour with Metallica or attending to related business matters, he often finds himself digging into the vaults and picking out an old favourite. He bought a new record player recently, especially for it. He’ll pour himself a glass of wine, stick something on and settle in. And he’s still championing new bands through his weekly Beats 1 radio show on Apple Music. That thirst and passion for music is almost like his lifeblood.
“There’s a lot of great music out there,” he smiles. “Much more so than I’ve really imagined. But you gotta take the time, and sometimes in your life you don’t take that time. There’s tons of great bands and I take everything in.”
He listens to new music all the time on his daily run, or when he’s in transit. Don’t make the mistake of asking him what he’s been digging lately though, or you might be stuck for several hours listening to tales about everybody from Royal Blood to Pulled Apart By Horses, Dark Times, Horningbarna, Baby In Vain, Turbowolf or Cobbled Dreams. “There’s a lot of great younger bands,” he says excitedly, “I could go on all day.”
He still goes to shows too, is a regular Glastonbury Festival devotee (“I like to disappear on those hallowed grounds”) and tries his best to live pretty much the same kind of life he did as the wide-eyed kid who first moved to LA. He’s not much different from each and every person reading these words. He just happens to be the drummer in Metallica.
“The days of being on the front row, headbanging along, nine vodka and orange juices down are gone,” he says laughing. “I like to see shows further back and take it all in now. I’m very curious by nature. So I love to see what everybody’s doing. But my wife and I went to see [Radiohead frontman] Thom Yorke play some solo shows a couple of months ago and when we got there, she bailed straight to the front and dragged me along. It was fun.”
All in all it feels cruel to think that all those years ago, this was the guy the music world made public enemy number one. Of all the people to demonise for defending the rights of artists and taking piracy to task, the one who understands what it’s like to be a fan better than most seems like an unfair target.
“It was a little odd, yes,” he nods, “Especially because – for the record – I’m actually a really nice person (laughs).”
Maybe we did get that secret after all. Remember it the next time someone suggests otherwise, because you heard it here first. Lars Ulrich: really nice person…
The Kerrang! Chart
The ultimate new music countdown – every Friday!
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