2011 marked Metallica’s 30th anniversary, and the original thrash metal progenitors weren’t going to let it go by quietly. They’ve been plenty busy, having just released a four-song EP of rough-cut outtakes from 2008’s Death Magnetic sessions called Beyond Magnetic. We caught up with Lars Ulrich in New York just before the National Board Of Review gala, where he was getting ready to present the Best Documentary award to Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky, the directors of Metallica’s seminal 2004 expose, Some Kind Of Monster, for Paradise Lost 3: Purgatory, the third installment of a documentary series chronicling the legal and cultural fallout from the trial of the infamous West Memphis Three, all three installments of which prominently feature Metallica’s music.
The idea [with Beyond Magnetic] was basically that we had four songs from the Death Magnetic sessions and we wanted to give the 25,000 members of our fan club a 30th anniversary gift. And because of YouTube and because of camera phones and recording devices and so on, the allure of live recordings and all that has somewhat diminished over the years. And we don’t have anything laying around or left over from back in the day, so the only thing that we had laying around were these four songs from Magnetic, so we gifted them to members of our fan club. And the response has been so positive and so overwhelming that somebody called up and said, “Why don’t you put those out on a conventional CD?” And were like, “You know what? Sure.” We don’t over-think this kind of stuff very much.
When you’re young and full of spunk you want control of every element of what goes on. As I get a little older, it sort of is what it is, and I don’t feel like I have a particular kind of ability to really micro-manage every one of these details. It’s okay. The whole Napster thing and all that stuff that came in its wake is not something we sought out to begin with. I never considered myself to be the poster child of that type of stuff. But obviously you still have your positions, and I have a 13-year-old and a 10-year-old. I see how they interact with this type of stuff, and so on, but I can’t say that I am vigilant about any of that stuff. I can’t say I was ever vigilant about it. It was really initially a more of a self-serving kind of thing. It was like, someone f__ked with Metallica, so we f__ked with them back. [laughs] It was more of a street fight kind of position than some sort of global issue.
I can’t say that I’m precious about it. I mean, I don’t have one way to do things. To me rules are made to be broken. I’m always open to whatever’s best for the track, taking the particular situation at hand. Obviously, I think we made a bunch of records in the ’90s where the drum tracks were very good, very technical. But what we are doing now on Beyond Magnetic is a little more about capturing a vibe.
I usually feel like I’ve regressed. [laughs] I’m like, “Why can’t I do that anymore?” You know, when I heard these songs a couple of months ago, I thought that it sounded really exciting. I thought there was a really good, lively vibe — it’s a bunch of guys just playing together, and it sounded really full of energy and spunk and liveliness. And that was kind of the whole thing on the Death Magnetic sessions was to try to keep all that energy as preserved as possible. The one thing I’m really proud of with the Death Magnetic album is just how f__king lively it sounds. How it doesn’t sound careful, it doesn’t sound stale. It doesn’t sound, kind of, too cerebral — it’s just physical. It’s just lively and full of spunk and full of people that are playing music with each other, in a room, you know? That was kind of what we were going for with Lu Lu [the recent Metallica/Lou Reed collaboration].
Those guys [the new crop of speed-metal drummers], I think they do something that’s so … that’s not the stuff that I do. Not just not what I do but also not what I’m interested in doing. Their stuff is so technical, and I totally respect it, I admire it, but I’m much more interested in kind of more traditional things, like songwriting and groove and attitude and vibe.
I can’t say that I necessarily sit down to practice, like “I’m going to play and practice so I can get better.” What happens is that I just sit down and kind of play to just more stay in shape. You know, Metallica was up to two or three months off last year, and I would sit down, I have an iPod next to my drums so I can play along to all kind of crazy stuff, and try to see if I can land in the same zip code of some of that stuff occasionally. But I can’t say that I sit down to necessarily practice to sort of get better. For most of my stuff, it’s about listening and about interpreting stuff that I’m listening to. So all the kind of sitting down and, you know, “Now I’m going to do thirty-second-note paradiddles standing on my head — you know what I mean? I don’t do that kind of stuff so much. For me it’s more about the regimen of staying in shape, running every day, eating healthy, you know, being on top of that side of it.