Lars Ulrich on the Most Underrated of Metallica and What Makes a Great Drummer

“You kind of sit there, 20 years later, with the combination of bemusement and horror on your face and go like, ‘What the fuck were we thinking?’” Photo: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

You have to give Lars Ulrich credit: You can never accuse him of not following his gut. “I try to give you the truth of the moment,” says the Metallica drummer and co-founder over the phone. “I sort of learned over the course of hearing myself talk over the years that truth can change along the way. Like, sometimes I’ll be asked [imitates a ‘music journalist’s voice’], ‘Hey, remember in 1998 when you said that?’ and I go, ‘Really? Did I say that? Okay, fair enough. I’ll own up to that.’ But I reserve the right to change my mind along the way.”

Lars, impeccable writer impression aside, is an otherwise good sport when it comes to assessing his current truth about his very famous band. (For example, he still doesn’t care about your feelings about St. Anger’s snare sound.) The Hall of Famers’ latest release, August’s S&M2, entails two live performances from last September that, 20 years after the original S&M, reunited the metal legends with the San Francisco Symphony to perform Metallica songs side by side to open the city’s new Chase Center. While the first S&M felt like a dare to bring metal and classical musicians together, S&M2 — which ended up being the final Metallica shows before fellow co-founder and guitarist James Hetfield reentered rehab — was about casting a wider net. This go-around, Lars also realized that many of the younger new symphony musicians grew up on Metallica. “[During S&M], we were in our mid-30s and we were by far the youngest people onstage,” says Lars. “Now the Metallica members are in their mid-50s, more comfortable within their own skin, more confident in these types of adventures. We’re not the youngest people onstage anymore.”

Lars ran though with Vulture his own take on Metallica, S&M2, and what makes a good rock drummer.

Most classically written Metallica song

We’ve done three or four instrumentals? “The Call of Ktulu,” “To Live Is to Die,” “Orion,” and “Suicide & Redemption.” I don’t know if I can break it down beyond those four, but “The Call of Ktulu” probably has got some more orchestral elements in there. I guess they all do. But those four obviously are closer to anything [and are] probably [more] classical than the “Enter Sandman”s or the “Sad But True”s of the world. I guess some songs of ours have kind of lighter and darker shades of color in them.

The first record was basically written by James and me. The second record, Kirk [Hammett] and Cliff [Burton] joined with these incredible ideas and a whole new approach, especially Cliff. He was much more schooled in the classical world than certainly James and I were, and he would sit and talk about Bach. I’d occasionally hear members of Deep Purple talk about Bach, but I didn’t really know that much about the classical world; the world that accompanied my sort of non-rock experience was much more the jazz world. I was much more familiar with, you know, the Dexter Gordons and the Ornette Colemans and the Sonny Rollinses and the Miles Davises of the world.

The Deep Purples, the Black Sabbaths, the Led Zeppelins, the Iron Maidens — a lot of those bands would sort of go on these musical journeys. All of them would have instrumentals. And I guess there were just certain pieces of music that we came up with that we felt sort of suited itself better to nonvocal and non-lyrical, and more of a moodier kind of approach where the coloring would be done by different melodies and so on. But I don’t have a recollection of, at that time, that we would sit down and specifically say, “Ooh, look at us, we’re treading into the classical world.” It was more, “We can go into the instrumental.”

Hardest Metallica song to translate into S&M2

The songs that were picked, one of the criteria, or the primary criteria, was that they could translate into that kind of collaboration that they could be embellished with an arrangement either by Michael Kamen [conductor during S&M] or by Michael Tilson Thomas [current SFS music director]. I guess it goes back to kind of a “chicken or the egg” answer. If the song didn’t work well with a classical interpretation, then we didn’t pursue it.

There are certain songs, “Creeping Death” or “Fade to Black,” that didn’t make either of the projects. There were some of the ones from the first go-around that we felt didn’t age that well for the second project. Chicken or the egg. There was nothing that was forced at that level. Looking at the list, or thinking about what the different songs were, there wasn’t anything that was sort of like, “Fuck, we got to make this happen.” It all came together fairly effortlessly or else it sort of got sacked along the way. And of course, anything that got sacked along the way, you have a tendency to kind of forget about happily.

Geekiest Metallica song for drummers

It’s gotta be around Puppets or Justice. At that time, I was really into experimentation, and I was really into coloring the sound with crazy drum patterns, crazy drum fills, and crazy-weird time signatures, and all kinds of super-sideways stuff. I guess the geekiest of those songs would probably be something like “… And Justice for All” a song like “Blackened” or “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.”

“The Frayed Ends of Sanity,” we never played live because it was just such a crazy undertaking. And then a few years ago we did a Metallica by Request tour. Every day we were playing like 18 songs that the fans voted on. We weren’t changing the votes or doing any of that crazy shit. I think we were supposed to play in Helsinki and the fans had voted for “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.” We had like two weeks or something to learn this song. You kind of sit there, 20 years later, with the combination of bemusement and horror on your face and go like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” the way we used to write these songs. We didn’t know anything about time signatures. We didn’t know anything about counting. It was just the way the drum parts spoke to each other. Some of that stuff just became so headstrong and so cerebral, almost mathlike.

There would be probably two [drumming] phases. The first phase was really the first four albums. I was really interested in having the drums color the songs, having the drums be very much a lead instrument, and being aggressive and about all these crazy patterns and time signatures. But then we felt like we sort of took that as far as we could. From [1991’s] The Black Album forward, it became more about trying to set up some grooves, put some swing and some bounce and that kind of stuff, trying to support the guitar riff rather than lead the guitar, so it’d be kind of a different thing. And I think in the last 20 years, I’ve been just more interested in sort of having some balance and trying to put what I guess I would call “air drumming moments.”

The two most underrated drummers in rock, to me, are the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and AC/DC’s Phil Rudd. The amount of swing and bounce that each of them contributes to how you hear a Rolling Stones and an AC/DC song is completely unappreciated and unrecognized. In terms of “air drumming moments,” you know, there are so many incredible ones from both of those guys. And Elvin Jones and Lenny White would be probably the first two that come to mind [in terms of jazz drummers]. Also Jimmy Cobb, who played on [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. The thing about jazz drummers is that they were so much at the mercy of what they were being asked to play. Sometimes it’s hard. You can’t not appreciate the more big-band dudes.

Another guy I would put on the lesser-known list is the first drummer in Iron Maiden. His name was Clive Burr. On the first three Iron Maiden records, he was a very simple drummer. He would do sometimes just these pretty simple snare rolls and stuff, but they were so “air drum” in terms of just, you know, you’re listening to a song and then comes this supereffective but really simple snare roll, and he would just look like the master of this. And I guess over the last 20 years or whatever, I’ve been more into that style of drumming where simple is better. All that shit from the ’80s of “Who’s the better drummer,” “Who’s the faster drummer,” and “Who’s the more technically able drummer,” and you would always sit there and try to measure your manhood — I gave up on that so long ago. I’m just more interested in making the songs sound good.

Metallica song you never want to hear again

There’s a song called “Eye of the Beholder” on the Justice album. Wherever I hear that song, it sounds kind of like — I guess we don’t want to be super-disrespectful to it — but it sounds really forced. It sounds like you put a square peg in a round hole. It sounds like it’s got two different tempos. There’s kind of a 4/4 feel in the intro and on the verses, and then I think the choruses are more like in a waltz tempo. It literally sounds like two different worlds rubbing up against each other. It sounds very awkward to me. I’m not a huge fan of that song.

I guess the asterisk is that, to me, we did the best we could each moment. So of course, sometimes you sit down and go “Huh?” or “That could have been better” or “That was a little awkward” or “That feels a little silly or easy” or “That feels over-thought-out” or whatever. It goes back to that whole thing about the past is the past, and I don’t spend a long time back there. And there’s not really much I can do about it [laughs] and honestly, I don’t listen to them. I don’t listen to a lot of Metallica music. Part of it is because I’m sort of overly analytical [about the details]. It’s basically almost impossible for me to listen to a Metallica song without going, “Okay, how are the sonics, how’s the mix, how does the guitar sound? The vocals are too loud, the bass is too boomy.” It becomes this exercise in analytics. When you hear your favorite band — like if I listened to Rage Against the Machine or something, I just fucking let myself go. But when Metallica comes on it’s like, “Huh?”

Part of 2004’s Some Kind of Monster documentary you wish wasn’t cut

The basic structure for collaboration of any kind is trust and when to trust the people you’re working with. You sort of learn to step away. We trusted Joe [Berlinger] and Bruce [Sinofsky], who were directing. There were times when some of the stuff was hard to watch, and there were times when it was like, “Whoa, was this too transparent?” but we trusted their gut. There was no direction from the band or the manager or anybody going, “You know that thing that happened on Tuesday, make sure nobody ever sees that, and make sure that film gets burned.” There was none of that. We stuck with it, and I’m proud that we stuck with it.

Your kids’ favorite Metallica songs

I don’t know if that’s ever come up. I don’t think I can answer that! The Metallica Guitar Hero game I guess was, what, ten years ago [2009]? They did enjoy playing that. There were some of the songs that connected; I think “Sad But True.” They use words like “sick” — “that’s a sick song.”

Most underrated Metallica album

The counterquestion to that would be “By whom?” [laughs]. It’s hard for me to separate the record itself from the process and the time and place of making the record. So much of what I think about a record of ours, I just think about what we were going through, where we were, what my memories are. It’s hard for me to listen to someone say [does his music journalist’s voice again], “Oh, listen to … And Justice for All versus listening to Reload.” I can’t listen to these records without putting myself in the spaces I was in. What were we doing? What were the moods? What were the daily ups and downs?

But if the most underrated records, i.e., the least appreciated records, are Load or Reload, then I would say I’m fine with that because I think those are pretty decent records. When I hear songs from either of those records, I’m pretty happy with what I hear. So that means that if the other stuff sits north of that, then that’s a good bar to have. I’m okay with that. I think the longer answer is, I’m pretty much okay with anything and any way people rate any of the things that we’ve done. St. Anger, maybe, is more of a polarizing record. Some people had a hard time with the sound, the brutality of that record. If you have to kind of put them all into a sound bite: Justice, the album without the bass on it. St. Anger, the album without the snare. All this stuff, I’m very okay with any of that. I’m proud of the fact that if nothing else, all these records represent the vision of the moment. We were protective of that vision and we fulfilled it.

Then 10 or 20 years later, you can kind of sit back and go “Huh?” or “What were we thinking? What was that about? Why did we make that choice?” or whatever. Generally, I don’t spend a lot of time being analytical. I’m much more interested in what’s calming [laughs], and I’m much more interested in the next record or what the possibilities are for the future. I would say I spend more time in the future, maybe even to a fault, not enough time in the present, and definitely the least amount of time in the past. I even have a standard answer when people go, “What’s your favorite Metallica?” Before they finish that question, I would say, “The next one.” If I’m not more excited about the next one, what’s the point of making it?

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Lars Ulrich on the Most Underrated of Metallica