Lars Ulrich talks about his life as Metallica’s drummer the way other people talk about entire generations. More than as specific moments — a concert here, an album there — he thinks about the band’s career in decade-long periods. Ten years of this, 15 years of that.
Spending 37 years in the same band has that effect. Metallica is barreling through the back half of their fourth decade together, and on the heels of performing with Lady Gaga at the Grammys, just announced their first U.S. tour in eight years. Before leaving L.A. for Metallica’s home base in the Bay Area, Ulrich took some time to chat about the motivation for heading back out on tour, what Metallica represents at this stage in his life, and a whole lot more. This interview has been edited and condensed.
So, I guess the first thing I’d want to ask you: Why now? Why is this the point that you guys wanted to tour the U.S. again after it had been so long?
We did two [U.S.] stadium shows last year — one in Minneapolis and one in San Francisco — and both of those went so well. Playing stadiums again in America, everything just sort of cycles. You play some arenas, you play some festivals, you do this, you do that. And you never take [it] for granted. So when we played those two stadium shows last year and both of them sold out in 12 seconds or something like that, it gave us enough confidence that we could do it. We haven’t done a stadium tour in America in 14 years, so it just gave us enough confidence to say, “Let’s give it one more shot.” So we dedicated the summer of 2017 to stadiums. We’re really psyched about getting back out there and not only hitting a lot of spots in the States and Canada that we haven’t done before, but also getting a chance to do it in the stadiums is really fucking cool.
Is the idea of getting back out on the road a little bit daunting?
If you look at the dates, you’ll see that we don’t do more than two weeks at a time. We’ll do two weeks, then we’ll go home for a couple weeks. Then we’ll do two weeks, and we’ll go home for a couple weeks. That way, it never feels like it’s so long that you’re going to fall off the deep end or that you’re afraid of losing what’s left of your sanity or whatever. We basically just do two-week increments. It’s a way to keep it feeling fresh, so we don’t burn ourselves out.
How do you guys get around for those stretches?
Generally, you’re sort of encased in a small metal tube with a pair of jet engines on it, and you just fly from one place to the other. What we do a lot is called “basing” — not that kind of basing, but basing in cities. We’ll play the West Coast usually from home. Or if we’re out on the East Coast, we’ll stay in New York for a couple weeks. That way you can kind of keep a hotel room, keep your family out there. Then you fly to the show and fly back. It’s a way to stay as calm and as sane as possible in the middle of all the madness. A lot of times in Europe, we’ll stay in London or Paris or Copenhagen. We pick cities that we enjoy being in. That makes it all somewhat tolerable.
I can’t imagine, doing it for as long as you guys have, what the idea of driving from place to place would evoke in you again.
We were never really that comfortable with tour buses going back to the accident. [Ed. note: the 1986 bus crash that resulted in the death of bassist Cliff Burton.] We actually started flying almost straight after the accident because I don’t think any of us could really sleep on tour buses. So we’ve basically been flying since like ’88 or something. It’s kind of what we do, and it’s part of how we get around.
Most bands that have been around for 37 years don’t have to play “Battery” every night, or even a few times a week. Just that physically taxing element of it: Are there songs that you’ve had to throw out? And are there things you’ve had to do to take care of your body to make this even possible?
There aren’t songs that we’ve thrown out yet. I don’t know if that’ll ever happen. We’ll have to see. I don’t know if I want to say we’re living on borrowed time. I don’t want to be that drastic. We’re very well aware of that part of it, and along with the two-week [schedule] that I told you about, we try to do every preventable type of thing we can to make this sustain itself mentally and physically as long as we can. We’ve got a couple guys that travel with us that massage us, they stretch us, they warm us up, they work us out. They take care of the physical needs and the aches and the pains and all that. We’re very lucky.
We also have a guy that travels with us to make sure we eat the right things. Everything that we do in terms of our resources and that stuff, it’s trying to put ourselves in a situation where any [problem] happening is less likely. … I mean, the Stones are still out there. They’re in their early 70s. McCartney, Neil Young, a few people — once you get into that age bracket, you just don’t know. And like you said, a lot of these guys, their stuff isn’t as physical as our stuff. So we just don’t know what’s going to happen. But obviously working out, eating well, getting good sleep, and all that shit is a pretty primary part of what’s going on out here every day.
It’s almost like being a professional athlete.
It’s definitely more like being athletes. You set yourself [up] for all the jokes. And I’m the first one to fucking joke with them. People come backstage, and we’re drinking these nasty fucking protein shakes. People want a fucking Jack and coke or want you to shoot fucking speed into your eyeballs or whatever. It’s pretty far from that and has been pretty far from that for some time. Now, it’s just about being in tip-top physical shape and going out there and delivering the best show you can. Listen, I’ll still have a glass of wine or a glass of champagne. But it’s not quite what it used to be.
Yeah, the “Alcoholica” Smirnoff ad is far in the rearview mirror.
That it is, yeah. [Laughs]
This is decade four. What is Metallica to you now?
[Laughs] That’s a great question. Metallica is … what I know. Metallica is what I do. Metallica is really the only consistent thing in my life other than my family. I’ve been doing this since I was 17. It’s the only band I’ve ever been in. It’s my creative outlet. It’s where I go and seek refuge from all the rest of the nuttiness in my life. Metallica used to be the main thing in my life. Now, Metallica is sort of the place that I go from 8:30 in the morning to 3 in the afternoon when we’re making a record down in the studio between school drop-offs and school pickups. Metallica is two weeks on the road to run away with a rock ’n’ roll circus and sweat and play music and meet the fans over some sort of civilized dinner. So it’s almost like — I’ve joked about it — Metallica is that giant man cave down in the basement where you get a chance to run away and still fulfill what’s left of your rock ’n’ roll dreams.
When you talk about that big man cave that Metallica’s become, I’d say it’s no secret that there have been times when that wasn’t necessarily the case, where it wasn’t a refuge as much as it was something else to be worked on. When did that change, that it became that place to get away again?
I think that the saving grace for this band is that we all four more or less had kids at the same time. All four of us started changing our worldview in terms of prioritizing family, prioritizing kids, putting the band secondary, more or at less at the same time. Call it ’98 to 2003, give or take a couple years. It wasn’t like two guys become parents and two other guys were still sitting doing blow for fucking three days in a row or whatever in hotel rooms around the world. We all sort of shifted our lifestyle choices at the same time. I’m pretty sure that has a lot to do with the fact that we’re still a functioning band. It all gave us something additional to talk about, and it all gave us kind of another unified vision [of] how to look at the world.
It also seems like you’re making choices now that are just for fun. The stuff you did on The Tonight Show, or playing with Lady Gaga [at the Grammys]. What’s the genesis of that? Who gets in touch with who? Why do you want to do it?
I was sitting next to her at a dinner here in L.A. like six weeks ago, eight weeks ago. We had just gotten the offer for the Grammys, and we had talked a little bit about getting a female collaborator to sing a song with James. We felt some of the stuff on the new album would lend itself to a dual he-she type of interpretation. And I found myself sitting next to her at a dinner a couple months ago.
We were sitting there, and she was talking to me about her metal roots. And about Metallica’s role in her youth and her Jersey upbringing, and I just thought, “Fuck it.” So I asked her. I said, “Listen, come sing with us at the Grammys in a couple of months. It would be so cool since it seems like metal is kind of in your DNA and in your blood.” And she said OK. It was really that simple. There weren’t like 50 managers or 50 minders or advisers or that kind of shit involved. It was very organic. And she just has this kind of purity about her. She’s just supereasy and supercool. It’s not this divaesque thing with 500 walls and shit you’ve got to get through. She’s the real deal. It’s really cool.
With how much you guys have played and how long you’ve been doing this, I’m sure it gets mind-numbing after a while. I mean, how many times would you guess you’ve played “Creeping Death”?
I can tell you. I think it’s right around 1,800. We’ve played just under 2,000 shows. When I put together the set list, I have all these crazy show statistics that I sit with. I’ll sit with all the songs and how many times we’ve played it, and how many times we’ve played it in that specific city we’re in. So I can always change the set list and make it more special. If we’re in Baltimore, and we’ve never played “Wherever I May Roam” in Baltimore, it’s like, “Oh, I can put that in, and that’s special to Baltimore.” I have a little printout of that shit every day, as fucking pathetic as that sounds. So I can tell you we’ve played “Creeping Death” around 1,800 times, give or take a few.
Is that no. 1? In terms of the time you’ve played it …
“Master of Puppets” is no. 1.
OK, and how many times is that?
I think it’s maybe at a couple hundred more. “Master of Puppets” is no. 1, and if I had the sheet in front of me, I could read it off to you. The top ones, obviously: “Master of Puppets,” “Creeping Death,” “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Fade to Black,” “Seek and Destroy.” Those are probably the top five.
I’ve always said that live Metallica and studio Metallica are two different songs. The songs live have this different life force to them. Would you say there’s one quintessential live Metallica song?
I would say this: The one song we never rehearse is “Seek and Destroy,” and that’s one song we always play live. So I would say that makes it the quintessential live Metallica song because it’s only ever played live. “Seek and Destroy” is basically in every show, and that’s the song that kind of has the most life. It’s always different, there are different raps, different things. It’s loose; it’s crazy. It’s a little loopy. So to some extent, it is the quintessential live Metallica song.
You were closing with that for a while, too, which speaks to that idea.
Yeah, it was the show closer for probably around a decade or so, which is pretty crazy.
That’s just crazy, the way you talk about your career, the stretches of time. “Oh, it’s been 15 years of this and 10 years of that.” And in that vein: With the way that people consume streaming music now and the way it comes to us, is it strange to you that 17 years ago you were so involved in the online music conversation, and now that entire world has become what it has?
You’ve got to remember that the whole argument 17 years ago wasn’t whether you were pro or con streaming. The argument at that time was, “Whose choice is it?” If we want to give our songs away for free, shouldn’t that be our choice? That shouldn’t be somebody else’s choice. That choice was taken away from us. Listen, it’s always been about getting the music to the fans in whatever way we feel should be the right way. If we wanted to give it away, we would give it away. So obviously, I’m a big proponent of streaming. I’m a big proponent of digital. I’m a big proponent of all things internet and communication and so on. But we’re the ones leading the cavalry on it, not some other company that does it without our permission.
Before you go, I wanted to ask: As you’re about to start this stretch of playing big venues — and this may be a stupid question — but is there a show that sticks out to you? Is there still one that was like, “Holy shit”?
The first time we played in Moscow in 1991. We played that crazy show. You can see it on YouTube.
I’ve watched it many times.
We played to like half a million people. There’s 25,000 to 50,000 Russian soldiers there. There’s Sikorsky helicopters hovering over us. It was just crazy fucking madness. Nobody knew what was up, down, [or] sideways. There was this underlying sense of chaos to the whole thing. It was so cool. And when you watch the video now, it’s so crazy. It’s like pandemonium. But it’s one of the greatest shows we’ve ever played. There was an energy in the air that day that was unparalleled.
And when you do that, when you have that in your memory bank, what do you get out of playing Soldier Field this June?
Another chance to come and hang out with our friends in Chicago. The way I view the world now is basically on a horizontal plane, rather than a vertical plane. That was one experience, and here’s a different experience. But it moves horizontally, so this is just different. I think I used to view the world much more vertically. It was, “How do we better that?” I don’t think we need to better it anymore. We just need to continue to reinvent and to change it, but your goal shouldn’t be to better it. The goal should be to have another experience that may work on a horizontal plane.