Every so often the crowd lets out a roar, seeming to suggest that everyone’s heroes have entered the arena – but on second thought, no. It’s just a stagehand with a James Hetfield haircut or a Kirk Hammett lip stud placing beverages or towels atop amplifiers, or something. This goes on for a tedious hour until finally the boys make their entrance, strutting like gladiators into the Coliseum, to everyone’s delight!
After picking up their axes and being introduced by an emcee who looks a bit too much like The Addams Family’s Uncle Fester, Metallica launches into its first number, a semi-acoustic unplugged presentation that confounds the audience with its low-decibel ambiance. We have a relatively clear view of Lars Ulrich, between a camera operator and a pillar. Hard as it might be to imagine, the man once known as the ultimate double bass, speed metal tub-whacker is actually playing with Pro-Mark Hot Rods, reducing his drum part to an unclear background chugging. What’s more, he seems to be struggling with the beat, not quite catching the groove, looking a bit out of sorts, his face flushed.
This is not altogether surprising to this reporter. The day before, while sitting in the resplendence of Ulrich’s living room overlooking the San Francisco Bay, the drummer let it be known that he hadn’t sat behind the drums and barely even twirled a stick for the last three months. “It doesn’t interest me that much,” he says. “Drums as a solo instrument just bore me. I want guitars, I want songs, I want the emotions that come with that.”
Ulrich has changed. Gone are the boastful ways that once earned him a reputation as every journalist’s bad boy, who made good copy but conducted in-your-face interviews that left writers quivering. Instead, the 34-year-old is calm, relaxed, professional to a fault. Today Metallica is one of the biggest bands on Earth, a fact that he embodies with confidence, though that wasn’t always the case. “You’re talking to a guy who actually kept taking lessons all the way up through our third record because of what I felt was my inability as a drummer,” he confesses while pulling on a Camel filter. “We were touring all over the world and selling millions of records, and I was still taking lessons because I felt inadequate as a drummer.”
Metallica is the only band that Ulrich has ever played with, and he admits that he approached his career “ass backwards. I basically formed this band when most people would say that I couldn’t play drums, especially the people I was playing with. [laughs] I got a drum kit, then skipped the whole thing about learning how to play. It got to the point where I realized I couldn’t play and then had to go back and learn. That’s not something I necessarily recommend, but I think you should never suppress enthusiasm.”
And enthusiasm is one quality Ulrich has never lacked. When he formed Metallica 17 years ago, the young man was on a mission to introduce a new sound – speed metal – to the rock-and-roll masses in the U.S. It worked, and to an impressive extent, Metallica is single-handedly responsible for resuscitating the metal genre during the ’80s. That’s a statistic that should make Ulrich proud but doesn’t. Not anymore, at least. In his eyes, ’90s heavy metal has made a mockery of itself. When Ulrich picked up the torch, metal was about pure rebellion. Today it is about conforming to strict stylistic standards.
“The problem is that heavy metal is probably the most conservative music there is,” he says, spitting out words that unmistakably leave an acrid taste in his mouth. “The way it’s supposed to be, the way people want it to be, the way the fans expect it to be, what you’re supposed to look like, how you’re supposed to live, how you’re supposed to come across, all these things about how it’s supposed to be. I take great joy, great pride in challenging that as much as humanly possible.”
You see, Ulrich isn’t the only one who has changed. His whole band has grown up. It’s difficult to describe the type of music Metallica makes these days. It’s certainly got a raw edge that continues to draw die-hard Metallica devotees. But it incorporates elements that at one time might have seemed laughingly uncharacteristic on a Metallica album – acoustic guitars, harmoniums, hand percussion, Celtic—flavored melodies, slower tempos, straight, plodding 4/4, and on and on.
“When people don’t let change affect them, they are blocking a natural biological process, and they’re robbing themselves of some incredible experiences,” Ulrich explains. “I think that as I become more open-minded in my way of thinking and to the nonmusical things in my life, that affects the music that I’m always creating.” It also has affected his drumming. Listen to Metallica’s last two releases, the twin albums Load and Reload, and you’ll hear drum tracks that are free of the progressive rock pretensions upon which Ulrich originally based his style. Now he just wants to groove your stinkin’ ass off, so to speak.