It’s rare that a band arrives at a newly fascinating moment 35 years into its career, and yet here Metallica is. The mighty metal quartet’s most recent album, Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, its first new studio LP in eight years, debuted in late November to the third-highest sales figures of the year, behind only efforts from Drake and Beyoncé. Sales aside, the 77-minute-long Hardwired has been hailed as a return to classic crushing form, particularly since it follows 2011’s jarring collaboration with Lou Reed, Lulu, which, well, was an admirably risky experiment. So, as the band’s voluble drummer Lars Ulrich says, “It’s been a pretty good couple weeks to be in Metallica.”
But Hardwired — which Ulrich says he, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett, and bassist Robert Trujillo will support with a U.S. tour in 2017 — comes into the world at a complicated, confusing time, especially for a band, like Metallica, whose music is so much about damnation, tension, and aggression, and especially for a band, again like Metallica, that’s always prided itself on its populist appeal. It’s easy to listen to the convulsive songs on Hardwired (excepting perhaps the ones concerning the Cthulhu Mythos) in the context of what’s going on in this country. Hearing Metallica singing about paranoia and the abandonment of reason sounds apt right now — a fact of which Ulrich is keenly aware. “The goal wasn’t to make an album that gauges the temperature of America in 2016,” says Ulrich. “That’s never been the point of Metallica. But if suddenly what we’re doing has some added resonance — stranger things have happened.”
Over two phone conversations, first from his hotel room in Toronto before a show, then during an airport layover in Europe, Ulrich, 52, talked about what he sees as Metallica’s purpose these days, avoiding political conversations with his bandmate Hetfield, his legacy as an anti-Napster opponent, and feeling inspired by, of all things, Moonlight and Manchester by the Sea.
Every time I’ve listened to the new album, I couldn’t help but hear the same feelings that are prevalent in the culture — so much of Metallica’s energy is adversarial. Do you feel like the band’s music has renewed currency?
That’s hard. If you break down what Metallica does in its simplest form, it’s write — or at least try to write — fucking great rock songs. Once you go beyond that and into more specific social or political relevance, I get uncomfortable. We’ve never been a preachy band, and we try hard to not do any interpretation for people before the music comes out. When you listen to our music, it should fit your needs, not our needs.
Even if the listener is Paul Ryan? You’ve done philanthropic work around affordable health care, and he’s trying his best to gut Medicare. He’s also a Metallica fan. Are those things at all hard for you to reconcile?
I lived through Some Kind of Monster so I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing. And I’ve had to sit there and answer questions like, “How do you feel about the U.S. military using your songs to torture prisoners?” I mean, as much as that makes me squirm, when you hand those recording master tapes to the FedEx guy and then the music goes out into the world, you’ve gotta let it go. Whether people like it or hate it, you just find a way to deal with it. So if Paul Ryan likes Metallica, hallelujah, it’s fine with me.
I know that James Hetfield has described himself as being somewhat conservative politically, and before the election, you’d jokingly suggested you might move back to Denmark, where you’re from, if Donald Trump was elected president. Do you and James ever discuss politics?
I swear to you, I talk to James Hetfield about most things on this planet, but I don’t think I’ve ever willfully had a political conversation with him. We’ve spent 35 years together, and obviously we’ve been in the same room when the conversation went toward politics, but James and I sitting down in a room and discussing our particular views on something like affordable health care? Never happened.
Doesn’t it seem weird to work with someone for 35 years and never talk about politics?
The thing you’ve got to understand is that Metallica is made up of four people from four different places who took four very different paths to where we are now. The one thing that unites us is the love of the music that we’re playing and that all four of us felt like outsiders trying to figure out who the hell we were. We didn’t come together because we were questioning this in the culture or that about politics. We came together because we were all a little lost and trying to get a sense of belonging to something bigger than ourselves. I’ll sit and talk politics with you all night, but I don’t necessarily feel the need to do it in an interview. Metallica is a collective, but we’ve just never been the kind of band to sit down and say, “Okay, what’s our common view of the world?”
Well, what’s your view of the world these days?
I grew up in a functioning social democracy. I grew up on affordable health care in a country where the word “we” is more popular than the word “I.” So trust me I have my opinions about this stuff, but I don’t really need to shout it from the rooftops. Maybe one day I will, and there are times when it’s difficult not to. I’m stunned about how truth and facts have become obsolete, and how if someone sees something they don’t like, they just say “the media made that up.” But I get plenty of shouting done about this stuff in my personal life.
You’re an art collector, and I know this is maybe apples-to-oranges, but our art critic, Jerry Saltz, wrote about how a Trump presidency could be galvanizing for artists. Your band has the number-one album in the country, and presumably you’ll go on tour and play to tens of thousands of people every night. Do you feel any responsibility to nod to the wider world? Or is it fair to assume the notion of addressing the political situation — even with the size of the platform you have — isn’t something Metallica would feel comfortable doing? I mean, you guys were out on the road at the end of the ’80s playing shows that climaxed with a statue of Lady Justice crumbling to pieces. So making some sort of political statement is not totally out of character for the band.
I’m looking out over the skyline of Toronto right now. Last week I was in Germany, France, Denmark, England. A couple weeks before that, I was in Colombia, Ecuador, Costa Rica, Guatemala. Everywhere I go, I get asked a lot about this stuff. Obviously it’s important that artists in any time go out there and do the best they can with the abilities they have. Sometimes the music connects in certain ways with people because of how the planets align or whatever, and sometimes it doesn’t. Art serves whatever function people need it to serve. So when we go out to tour the United States — which we’ll start doing in May of next year — for us it’s just a matter of leaving it all out there on the stage. We’re not here to heal you. It’d be self-important for me to say that. I think it’s pompous when bands go that route.
Sorry, I don’t mean to harp on politics.
By all means. I’m actually enjoying talking about it.
So then about what you just said: There are musicians, I’m thinking of Bruce Springsteen, who do take explicit political stances, calling Donald Trump a moron, for example. Are those artists overstepping a boundary?
If Bruce Springsteen felt that, then he should say it. I totally support his doing that. The thing is, I’m not an American citizen. I pay taxes here, but I can’t vote. So I have this strange thing about commenting on this country’s politics. I have nothing but love and respect for Bruce Springsteen — I just finished reading his book a few weeks ago. But it’s not for me to say he should or shouldn’t do what he wants to do.
I’m fairly certain that Bruce Springsteen, and U2, who I know you’re a fan of, think hard about what their function is at a given moment in time and feel a responsibility to address that moment. And then there’s a band like the Rolling Stones, who currently exist to have a good time, deliver a good show, and make a lot of money. What’s the point of Metallica in 2016? Is there any larger purpose?
U2 is the band that I most respect and that most inspires me to want to continue being in a band. But there’s a difference between saying music is healing and saying we’re healing. I’m not saying music isn’t or shouldn’t be healing. I’m just saying that it’s difficult for me as a person to say something like, “Metallica is going to be touring the country at a difficult time for a divisive United States, and here’s our opinion about that.” I’m in a band with three other guys. If you’re Sting or Neil Young or Bruce Springsteen, you’re speaking for yourself. And one of the things that makes U2 great is that these are four guys from the same neighborhood in Dublin who’ve all known each other since they were 12 years old. They’re all chiseled from the same stone. Metallica’s situation is different. So what’s Metallica’s purpose? Playing music and giving a sense of identity and belonging through that music.
OK, I’ll stop pestering you about politics for a minute. I’ve seen a lot of people refer to Hardwired… to Self-Destruct as the band’s best album in 25 years. Is that a weird compliment to get? I could imagine it being frustrating to feel like your band is competing with music it did a quarter century ago.
Look, it’s better than having people say the alternative. I just find the good in what people think about the band. I don’t sit there and go, “Wait a minute. What does that say about [2008’s] Death Magnetic or Lulu?” To me, success is more about having the freedom to do whatever we want than it is any particular outside opinion about our music. But I’d say that the most significant thing that [Death Magnetic] Rick Rubin did when he produced our last record — and this was a major wake-up call to the band — was that he encouraged us to appreciate our past. I’d always had the blinders on, only looking ahead and thinking the past wasn’t something you should stop to look at. But Rick said, “You can look at your own work and be inspired. Master of Puppets was a great record. You don’t have to avoid sounding like that out of some principle.”
Aside from earlier Metallica albums, Hardwired, to my ears, draws pretty obviously in places from bands like Mercyful Fate, and “Murder One” is a tribute to Lemmy from Motörhead. Are those musical touchstones what you’re listening to these days?
The music you just mentioned is embedded in me. I’ve heard enough Mercyful Fate songs that I could never hear another one again and I’d still be able to draw from that band. I don’t sit down and put on a Mercyful Fate album much, though. I have three kids, so a lot of my musical experiences in 2016 end up coming from them. We have a computer set up in the kitchen and my son will put on some Tony Williams thing that he’s been listening to. There’s a lot of jazz played around the house. Everything from Miles Davis to Weather Report to, you know, great jazz drummers like Max Roach or Elvin Jones.
I can’t quite imagine Max Roach’s influence filtering into Metallica.
No, no. I don’t necessarily listen to music to help make a Metallica record. Film is probably the thing that inspires me the most. I see films almost daily. But even then, it’s not like I see something and go, “We better get in the studio, I have an idea now!” It’s more like I’ll see Manchester by the Sea or Moonlight and feel inspired because they were such fucking great pieces of work. When it comes to actually creating new Metallica music, it’s mostly just the band working on things and constantly asking ourselves, “Is this just good enough? Or can it be better?”
What makes one Metallica riff better than another?
When you’re writing an article, how do you pick the words? It’s just what you do.
It’s maybe a little different, since words have specific meanings and sounds don’t.
It’s hard to intellectualize. We’ve been doing what we do for 35 years, and we’re pretty good at being Metallica. It’s just instinct, I guess.
What movies have you liked lately?
Paterson is really good. Some of Jim Jarmusch’s other films were a little cold for me, but this is his best work in decades. I loved it. I even rewatched the back half of it as soon as I’d seen it. They start talking about Jean Dubuffet; I don’t think I’ve seen a movie before where Jean Dubuffet was a topic of conversation. I was like, “This is right up my alley.” And I’ve seen Manchester by the Sea twice already. I saw Elle.
What’d you think?
I loved the French setting and Isabelle Huppert is fantastic. The rest of the cast is fantastic, too. Maybe it was too long. I felt it emotionally peaked maybe 15 minutes before it finished. But I liked it.
I was talking to a colleague about Metallica the other day, and he mentioned that you’d been proven right about file sharing and streaming music. You took so much flack for being the most high-profile opponent of Napster back in the day. Is there any part of you that feels vindicated that things you predicted, like file sharing throwing the economic balance of the music business even further out of whack, have turned out to be true?
No, I don’t walk around feeling good about it. It was never about money for us anyway. People were saying back in 2000, “Oh, Lars is being greedy.” That was totally wrong. It was about control. If an artist wants to give their music away, it should be their choice. That’s what I was arguing, and Metallica took a hit, because it got spun as us being against the fans. That was a hard summer, and it’s passed. I don’t take any glory in being “right” about anything.
Do you think the streaming music business as it currently stands is good for musicians?
Obviously we’re dealing with a set of royalties with streaming that’s different than it was during the heyday of the music business, but this stuff hasn’t settled. I stream music as much as anybody, and the thing you have to remember is that a company like Spotify isn’t even profitable yet. They have to figure it out too. I think if musicians keep speaking up for what they believe in and if the companies engage in a real dialogue, then we can get to a place where the different parties feel fairly compensated. But in 2016, if artists want to get their music to listeners, streaming is a huge part of how you do it. The difference between now and the Napster days is that the artists at least get to choose if they want their music available online. But who knows where this is going? Maybe in 20 years, Metallica will be able to send songs directly into a transistor embedded in fans’ skulls.
Another thing you’ve gotten flack for, which I find hilarious, is your drum sound. Online you can find people criticizing the sonics of your snare and other minutiae like that. People aren’t picking apart other drummers in quite the same way. Why do you think you get that kind of attention?
There is a peculiar element of hard-rock fans that are very conservative and want the status quo. On St. Anger I changed the snare sound and it pissed everybody off. I don’t know why people care so much. I have nothing but respect for the drum community, but when drum magazines ask me all these detailed questions about my equipment or something, I feel stupid because I don’t know the answers. I’m not some crazy drum collector. I ultimately don’t mind if other people get caught up in analyzing the sonics of my drum sound … as long as I don’t have to get caught up in it.
Metallica has been around long enough that it’s lived through a lot of very different cultural eras. When you were on stage playing to a cultish audience of heavy-metal fans at the beginning of Reagan years, did that feel qualitatively different than, say, playing alt-rock-influenced music during the Clinton years? I guess my question is about whether or not the outside world makes its way into a Metallica concert? Is the stage a vacuum except for the band’s music?
I’m not sure. That’s a great question. When we started out, the type of music we were playing was so far out of mainstream that we were oppositional by default. Then eventually by the ’90s things started moving to the left and the underground became mainstream. I don’t know, Metallica has always been in its own bubble. Maybe it’s a big bubble, but it’s a bubble.
And it’s solely an aesthetic one?
I could talk about Metallica and the culture and politics with you for hours and not settle on one answer. But when you ask, “Does Metallica exist in a vacuum?” — We’ve always just tried to be the best Metallica that we could be at any given time. I’ll be honest, and I know it sounds strange given what we’ve accomplished, but we still feel like outcasts. A journalist was really pushing me on that when I said something similar to him recently: “How can you be serious? Metallica is the mainstream.” I can’t explain why we still feel like outcasts, but we do. I feel like we’re hovering off in the shadows, occasionally waving to everybody and saying, “Hey, over here! Listen to us!” I felt like that 35 years ago, and I feel like that in 2016. We don’t belong to anything. And that’s the way we like it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.