Lars Ulrich On St. Anger

Don’t Mess With Lars

  • By Don Zulaica
  • Originally published December, 2003

Don’t tell him he should have stuck with tennis. Don’t bother with the “sell out” or “why’d you guys cut your hair?” cracks. The whole long-winded Grammy speech deal? He’s heard it. Alcoholica? Yawn. And you want to pass around free copies of an unfinished song on the information superhighway – he’s got your Napster, right here.

For those who associate Metallica with the Black Album (1991) and everything after, perhaps a quick refresher is in order. This is a band that actually stared in 1981, was unapologetically ignored by radio, and vilified by the non-metal press in its early history. MTV wasn’t aware of their existence until a video for “One,” from And Justice For All, surfaced around 1989. Of course the Black Album made them a bona fide industry unto themselves, but there’s a tireless work ethic, a drive to evolve, and a sense of family that, through all the ups and downs, has always been there.

The band has toured relentlessly to get where they are, from the most putrid clubs to the largest stadiums and festivals. They have endured the death of one brother, Cliff Burton, and the departure of another, Jason Newstead. They work hard. They live hard. If they haven’t seen it all, they’re getting close. And the guy in the picture above, like him or not, is a survivor.

You want a piece? Bring it on. And as Junior Soprano would say, come heavy…or don’t come at all.

Raw Space. St. Anger is a jugular-ripping return to Metallica days of old, in more ways than one. If ’90s releases like the Black Album, Load, and Reload were about meticulous production and shorter songs, St. Anger was to be about the vibe, the whole vibe, and nothing but the vibe. Its origins go back to the spring of 2001, when the band was busy renovating their San Rafael rehearsal space into a full-fledged headquarters. Jason Newstead, who held the bass chair for 14 years, had left to pursue other interests.

“After we dealt with the initial shock and the stuff that came in the wake of Jason leaving,” Ulrich explains, “we went back and started playing music in a place called the Presidio, which are these old army barracks in San Francisco, where we basically just set up the rawest of the raw.

“The whole thing kind of goes back to the late ’90s, and no disrespect to the Plant [recording studio] because that was a great place for us for a while, but we did four records in four years, from Load up through S&M at the same studio. It just became kind of assembly line. Every time when we loaded in, the drums were set up on the same ‘X’ on the floor that they were for the last record. James’ cabinets went into the same ISO booth. Nobody was actually thinking creatively, it just became about repeating what was going on last time. ‘Here we go again.’

“So after going in and mixing the S&M record, [producer] Bob [Rock] basically said, ‘Look, if we’re going to work together again, it’s got to be under different circumstances.’ And the model that he came up with, he’s always had a great affection for U2 and the whole Brian Eno kind of thing of, it’s not about the studio, it’s not about any of the technical elements, it’s not about any of that type of stuff, it’s about the vibe. It’s about being creative with what you have. Bob really wanted what he called ‘raw space.’ Where it doesn’t become about acoustics or any of that type of stuff. It’s as far away from that as possible because through the end of the ’90s, we really felt that we were being enslaved by all that. The surroundings, the luxury. Everything became about perfection and comfort and all this type of stuff and we just needed to get away from that.”

As if a higher power had heard the concerns about perfection and comfort, the band received more big news in May of 2001. James Hetfield announced that he was “going away for a while” to attend five weeks of alcohol rehabilitation. Lars shakes his head like the concerned best friend he is, “We left the amplifiers running and left the board on, you know what I mean? ‘I’ll see you in five weeks.’ Then as we went along, we realized he wasn’t coming back in five weeks.” Five weeks turned into five months, and then five more months. When the guitarist returned to the then newly-completed San Rafael headquarters in early 2002, the band underwent group therapy with Phil Towle. “We spent about two-and-a-half months at the dining room table in the kitchen at headquarters and spent that time just talking and reconnecting and working stuff out. Then on May 1st we walked into the studio and plugged in.”

Metallica, The Jam Band. Previous albums had seen Metallica compartmentalize writing and recording into two tidy, separate packages. After a song was written and recorded in demo form, many months would pass before going into the studio proper, leading to a common problem: recreating the spirit from the original epiphanies. Not this time. If St. Anger sounds rawer on first listen, it’s no accident. The songs are the product of months of jamming, with the early weeks at the Presidio (with Bob Rock handling the bass duties) hatching parts of ‘Some Kind of Monster,’ ‘All Within My Hands,’ and ‘My World.’ The headquarter sessions that began in May of 2002 saw more of the same.

“I think what we do is we have a tendency to always look for ways to challenge ourselves,” he ponders. “It had become too easy. We were really at the point where we needed to alter our creative setup, I think for our own survival. And in the wake of everything that then became kind of flushed out in that year and a half where Hetfield was away, and all the things that came to light in terms of who we were and our relationships with each other, our ways of doing things, all this type of stuff - that all started when Jason left. His departure forced us to take a look at ourselves, and this way of making this record was really a vital part of the big picture. It was really time to make sure that the record had that kind of organic under-produced feel to it. It was really important for us.”

So much has been written about the tortuous Black Album sessions, drum take … after take … after take, but this changed as well. “We were jamming,” Ulrich excitedly states. “We weren’t even doing takes because we weren’t recording songs that existed. It’s not like we would sit there and play these jams and go, ‘Okay, there’s something. That part and that part work together. Now let’s record those two parts next to each other.’ We’d just do that in Pro Tools. We’d take that part and that part and marry them. So what you’re hearing on the drums is probably 98 percent of the stuff off the floor, as it was the first times it was happening. So there were no ‘takes.’ There were four hours of us just playing. I’d start [sings a beat], and then James would start coming in [sings similar guitar riff], and then Hammett would turn on a frigging vacuum cleaner effect or something [laughs], and we’d sit on that groove for ten minutes. And then Bob would play something, and it would just build. It was that kind of thing. It was completely free form.”

Pro Tools and Pro Tude. And for those of you who think that Metallica is an anti-technological band, they sure aren’t when it comes to Pro Tools. “The great thing about Pro Tools is it’s endless,” he says. “You don’t have to stop and change tapes. So the next day we’d all sit there and we’d each have a pen and a pad, and for three hours we’d go, ‘Between 47:50 and 48:12 is really cool.’ Literally, that’s how we did it. We’d never done that before. Some people have criticized that using Pro Tools has that kind of pieced-together thing, and that may be so, but it retained the complete organic feel of the first time the music was experienced, the first time we experienced something in a collective setting. We felt that for us and for what we had been through before, that was such an invigorating thing because we had never even dared to go in that direction. And then all of the sudden we found ourselves not only going there, but doing it, executing it, and feeling really good about it.”

All of the discussion about the new album, new energy, and band rebirth, just when you’re starting to believe that Lars is taking something like the jamming approach a little too seriously – he turns sharply, examining, second guessing with more than a healthy amount of self deprecation.

“Ten years from now,” he wonders, “who knows how I’ll feel about it, but in that moment it was the right thing. We had to do it that way, because of what we’d been through for 20 years, and the last 12 months. We had to do it that way, for us. Still when I hear the record, I read comments, and I keep waiting for myself to question the way the record sounds. There’s always this interesting honeymoon that you have with your own material, where you finish making a record and then somewhere between finishing making that record, there’s a period of time until you sit down and you hear it and you start going, ‘Huh?’”

He furrows his brow for emphasis, “Where it goes from ‘Yeah! This rocks, dude!’ and one day you put the record on or you hear it on the radio and you sit there and go, ‘Hmm.’ [quizzical look] That’s the honeymoon. So we finished this record seven or eight months ago, and I’m still waiting to go, ‘What was that about?’ Whenever I hear it, it still feels so alive and so real to me, and I’m so psyched about that. Ten years from now I might be sticking my fingers down my throat, or that could happen next week, but so far, so good.

“I remember on And Justice For All, it was literally a couple of months after we finished the record, we were on tour and I remember me and Hetfield were in a hotel room in St. Louis - I have a clear vision of us around this round dining room table listening to ‘Harvester of Sorrow’ going, ‘What the f**k’s with that?’”

Bounce. Even a cursory listen to St. Anger brings out some distinct similarities to 1989’s Justice – the through-composed passages, sharp angles, and double-bass blasts. But there’s something bubbling under Lars’ groove, a newfound depth that he found while listening to some younger contemporaries.

“I’d started over the last few years kind of opening my eyes to different things, in terms of some of the younger guys that came maybe a little bit more from an R&B background. Some of the metal guys, John Otto, David Silvera, Jon Wysocki, some of those guys that definitely have some different stuff going on with the right foot. I started talking to Bob a lot about interpreting what these guys were doing, and Bob got me to listen to some James Brown, a lot of funk, stuff that had never been on my radar. So sharing that, as we sat down and started playing together, it brought us a lot closer. Because I could sit and start [a groove], and he’d start egging me on, and then he’d start playing bouncy funky lines and it would start inspiring me to do stuff with my foot that was different from what I had done before.

“I’m really interested in musical lineage. I love music history, I love rock history. I’m very interested in where things come from, all that type of stuff. But some of these younger guys started doing this stuff that had more bounce, and obviously the rap elements, but I never really made the correlation to some of the R&B music. Parliament, Sly Stone, or even something like Weather Report. I never figured out the correlation between John Otto and these guys, when they do stuff that has these bounces. Where I came from, it was about weight. It wasn’t about bounce, it was about weight. And now all of the sudden, it’s opened up my eyes to a whole different thing.”

It makes songs like St. Anger’s title track all the more striking. The double-bass flurries in the opening go into the simplest 4/4 beat, but there’s a palpably different swagger. Lars remembers when he started hearing the bounce, around the time of Limp Bizkit’s breakthrough album Significant Other.

Lars laughs, “It was like, when I heard something that was new and different, at first I hated it on principle. That’s how I grew up. I hate anything I don’t understand. And then after a while it would get into maybe a little bit of jealousy. Like, my first thing with Limp Bizkit, I remember we came back from Europe, we had been gone for three months or something - Limp Bizkit was the biggest thing in America. But nobody had heard of Limp Bizkit before we left for Europe, right? So all of the sudden it’s like, ‘What is this? I don’t understand it, I hate it!’ And then it went to the next level of like, ‘Well I’m actually kind of jealous because these guys are stealing our thunder a little bit,’ right? And then six months later I’d sit there and go, [humbly] ‘It’s actually quite good.’ And then I’m listening to the drums and I go, ‘Wait a minute. The secret weapon is actually the drummer. Okay, Durst is great, great respect and all that. But this has got some different s**t in it.’ Then I started getting a little more into this whole new concept of beats and patterns, and just left behind all the drum fills and that kind of stuff.”

Enter, The Crab Walker. As St. Anger was being completed and Ulrich was feeling the bounce a little more, the next issue was finding a new touring bassist who would fit into the family. Robert Trujillo had held down the low notes opposite Zakk Wylde in Ozzy Osbourne’s band, and had moshed with Mike Muir in Suicidal Tendencies, as well as their thrash-funk side project Infectious Grooves. There were auditions, but there was an immediate impact when Trujillo plugged in.

Lars flashes an evil smile, “The major revelation was just that Rob is a way better bass player than pretty much anybody else out there. And the other revelation was, when I think of what we’re doing, and because of the questions about the histories of our own abilities, I always had this thing about ...”

He assiduously pauses to find the right words, “[Band manager] Cliff Burnstein and Bob Rock both had always told us, not necessarily that we’re really great musicians or any of that BS, but more like, what we do is quite hard to do. To us, it’s kind of second nature because it’s what we do. When other guys came in to audition, and we’d just fire up, I realized that what we do - and please make sure you understand what I’m saying, I’m not saying that we’re particularly great musicians or that our ability is on some other world or any of that crap - I’m just saying what we do, in our own little niche that we’ve carved out is not so easy for other people to just lock into.

“I heard people like Cliff Burnstein and Bob Rock say that, and I think I’ve always felt a little bit of an underachiever as a drummer in terms of ability. Not so much in terms of understanding or in terms of feel, but in terms of just sheer technical ability. I would always see these guys who’d sit down and go brrrrrrrrr around a drum kit, and they can do backwards paradiddles mixed in with thirty-second-note flams in 5, standing on their heads, do you know what I mean? I’d go, ‘I can’t play drums.’ Of course I’ve realized I have a few strengths. But I’ve always had an incredible amount of insecurity with the real technical side of drumming, the ability element of it.

“So we realized that what we do in our own little piece of the puzzle, is not so easy for other guys to lock into. Rob was the only guy who could really lock into it. He’s got a really good ear. He’s a very fast interpreter. He can hear something, or see it, and [snaps fingers] boom, it just goes. Other guys have to practice it 50 times. He’s incredibly gifted. I think we rehearsed three or four songs, and he’s like, ‘That’s all I’ve really listened to.’ And I’d say, ‘Let’s try a couple other things.’ And then we played a couple of the basic riffs in ‘Sad But True’ and so on, and I was just stunned at the amount of time it took him to turn that around. It was minutes, literally. And then we were just jamming on ‘Sad But True’ and it felt like we’d been playing it together for a hundred years. So he has an incredible effortlessness with it. It’s very easy, or at least it appears that way.”

But it’s not just the fact Trujillo is a monster player - Lars shakes his head when asked about his stage presence. “When he gets into all this sumo f**kin’, all that s**t, and all the crab walks - that’s awesome. The amount of energy and strength and weight that’s in that, he was just head-and-shoulders above the other guys.”

Wherever They May Roam. Where do they play? Anywhere they damn well please. Although the band was enjoying some vay-cay at press time, as you read this Metallica is tearing through South America and Europe, with some Australia dates to follow in January. The spring of 2004 will see heavy Stateside dates with a second European leg in the summer, and then the road dogs will finish up back in the U.S.A. in August and September. Wherever they do roam, their legacy - more than 20 years strong - is impressive. Even if Lars deftly dances around the subject.

“I appreciate the good words about the legacy,” he reverently replies, but immediately (and effortlessly) turns the praise back at the bands and drummers that keep him inspired. “When we hang out with a lot of these younger bands, when Limp Bizkit or Disturbed or Sum 41 or Korn or any of these bands sit there and praise you to the high heavens, it’s pretty cool. Mainly because I still in my own twisted mind consider most of these bands to be our peers. I sort of conveniently associate myself with all those bands instead of with Aerosmith and AC/DC and Van Halen, because I think in some ways it keeps us fresh.

“And okay fine, we can all get off on being appreciated, but at the same time, when I sit there with John Otto and he’s going, ‘You’re the reason I’m playing drums.’ I look back at him and go, ‘Well, you’re the reason I’m still playing drums.’ And I don’t think he really believes it! I think he thinks I’m just throwing it back at him. That’s what’s weird with some of these younger guys. We sit with the guys in Korn, and I tell them, ‘You guys are the coolest band in the last ten years.’ And they go, ‘You guys are the coolest band in the last 20 years.’ It’s fun that they all still care about us, and it’s really fun that when we ask them to come support us, they do it, because it’s really inspiring to have bands open for you that you really care about.”

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