The first time I met Lars Ulrich was in my apartment in Laurel Canyon. He was there with his friend Heavy Metal John, an L.A. metal superfan who’d drop by now and then to tell me about some unknown metal band he’d seen at a club in the middle of nowhere, then leave with an armful of the 8x10 band photos the record companies sent rock journalists, which we usually filed in the bin.

John asked if he could bring a buddy, who turned out to be Lars—possibly the biggest fan of Saxon, Diamond Head, and Iron Maiden in the United States. He told me he’d started a band and that they were rehearsing in the garage of the house in Orange County where he lived with his dad. I remember thinking, as Lars rummaged through my desk for anything related to his beloved New Wave of British Heavy Metal, how un-L.A. he looked. Admittedly it hadn’t been long since he’d moved there from Copenhagen, Denmark. Nor was it long since he gave up a career in professional tennis for rock.

He told me later, when Metallica were mega, that he’d “felt lost” in L.A. back then. And, thinking about it, Metallica didn’t exactly fit the mold of early-’80s glam and hair metal. So it made perfect sense that they would leave Southern California and set up their GHQ on the outskirts of San Francisco. It was the shows they played there, and kept on playing, that built up a solid grassroots fan base that just wouldn’t stop expanding.

—Sylvie Simmons, 2024


Metallica. You know the story. Those that don’t are doomed to have me repeat it. Early ’80s, a metal brat and a friend not ashamed to look like Frank Marino come crashing out of the Ulrich family garage in tree-lined Norwalk, California, and into the L.A. metal scene proper, only to be kicked in the corner by a battalion of stilettos. Not that there’s anything wrong with stilettos, nor makeup nor spandex nor hair spray, for that matter; all have been a better friend to me than any dog I’ve known. What was wrong, in the metal sense, was the behavior of their wearers, sheep-like, rolling over, submitting themselves gladly to the businessman’s shears that snipped and smoothed and Tomwermanized them into harmless, nice, Ken-doll perfection. No place in the pen for a band that thought the music of Diamond Head godhead, for a drummer who once threw up on Lemmy’s hotel carpet, for a band from L.A. who were loud, fast, obnoxious, young, and didn’t care...

Metallica—in those days just Lars Ulrich and James Hetfield—came out of that corner fighting. First a track on the legendary first Metal Massacre compilation album, next—after recruiting a bass and guitar player—the even more legendary No Life ’Til Leather demo tape that circled the world on the metal underground, and finally—with a permanent lineup, Kirk Hammett and Cliff Burton—real genuine actual albums. Kill ’Em All in ’83, Ride the Lightning in ’84, and the new one, Master of Puppets. No significance to the title, according to Lars Ulrich, who’s sitting with me and a cup of tea at his British record company’s Carnaby Street headquarters, although Metallica did manage to get where they are today—the biggest beyond-thrash band ever; over half a million sales on their last album, and even more expected now with the full weight of a big-name manager and a big-deal record company behind them—by pulling all their own strings.

James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett play guitar and stare at each other
Staring contest! Rockers, they really are just like us. Photo via Getty

And here we are. The serious Metallica interview. No “Metal up your ass!” slogans, no “Alcohollica!” logos, no “how-about-the-one-where-we-put-that-thing-in-Cliff’s-bed-and you-should-have-seen-his-face” anecdotes, no mention of anything over 10 proof. “I’ve been listening to Rush lately,” says Ulrich. That explains a lot. “I quite like them...”

Master of Puppets doesn’t sound like Rush. Neither does it sound like your standard demon-possessed-food-mixer-making-nuts-and-bolts-and-small-animals-milkshake thrash. “There are things that surprised me and also will surprise a lot of people when they hear them,” says young Oilrig, “especially ‘Orion,’ the instrumental.” Nine minutes of ever-changing, mind-provoking weird-and-wonderfulness. “Cliff came up with a very different-sounding piece to anything we’d done before. To me it sounded like a Swedish folk song!” Why not? “And we really liked listening to it and playing it, so we just based the whole song around that middle part.

“As compared to the last album, I think I’m surprised how each member of the band goes about playing their individual instrument. I think all of us have really progressed as musicians over the last couple of years. We always take the attitude that we can never stop learning, and we’re always interested in soaking up as many influences and learning as much about our instruments as we can.”

You read right! And they practice too, “a lot, by ourselves. Where me and James live, we have a sort of rehearsal place out in the garage. We’re still a garage band! And I enjoy playing my drum kit by myself. If we have considerable time off, we still take lessons. Kirk is taking lessons right now, and last big break we had I took some advanced drum lessons. Why stop learning, if you can keep expanding?”

And why learn at all if people think you’re just turning the amps up to 10 and making a racket? Do they think people don’t take them seriously enough as musicians?

Lars Ulrich plays the drums
Lars gives a not-so-subtle facial hint to his admirers. Photo via Getty

“I think there are two aspects to what we do: The whole thing around the music and the songwriting—if some of the people who are into what we’re doing could spend four days with Metallica in the studio, they’d be surprised at how seriously we take what we do.

“And then there’s the other side, which is Metallica on tour, which is like: We’ve done the recording, we’ve done the songwriting, all that shit is behind us now, we’re going to play the same songs every night for the next six months and just have a lot of obnoxious fun! I hope with this album people will start taking the whole musical side of us a lot more seriously than they have in the past.”

Hell, you don’t think they’d have let any old thrash band play the mighty Castle Donington festival in England above Ratt and Bon Jovi on the bill, do you? Seeing them up there among so many bands who were little more than pop bands tarted up with ostentatious solos going through the crowd-pleasing motions, it struck you that here was a rare metal beast, trying to please itself and nobody else.

“That whole thing goes back to when we started. When I got the band together, I just wanted to play, and it was really exciting just trying to be in a band. It was never ‘Let’s make it big!’ or anything, it was simply a way out, a way of escaping the daily boredom. It was just a lot of fun to do.

“Just getting a band together and a full lineup is the first accomplishment, then you get the songs together, you do a demo, you do an album—the whole thing has just sort of progressed naturally over the course of the last four years. We’re playing to a lot more people and selling a lot more albums now, but I think it still holds the basic ingredients it held back then, which is we’re playing the music we want to play, writing the songs we want to write, approaching the whole business in our own way. And the good thing about it is our business people see that Metallica left alone is doing okay, so there’s no need for them to interfere or try to change it.

“We’re doing it for ourselves. Another way we differ from a lot of bands is they just do one thing. With us there’s big extremes, and we cover a lot of ground within that too. I don’t feel we’re tied down to one particular thing. Take a band like Judas Priest. The last six or eight years they’ve just sort of been doing one thing. I think we’ve managed to expand and go in all sorts of different directions.

“We like playing fast, we like playing slow, we like being melodic once in a while, we like being unmelodic, we like to throw a little bit of intelligence in there. I think we try and avoid as many obvious things as we can, because that’s a lot more of a challenge for us.

“One thing with this band,” says Ulrich, “which is probably why it works, is there are four people who are very, very different from each other and have very, very different outlooks on things. Four strong, individual characters. We just take all our different influences and ideas and characters and somehow, somewhere, it all just sort of comes together and creates this whole Metallica thing!”

The latest Metallica thing was recorded in Denmark and mixed in L.A.

“Recording in Denmark had absolutely nothing to do with me being Danish!” Lars denies it was a cheap way to get to see his relatives. “On Ride the Lightning we found the best studio we could afford in Europe—we wanted to record in Europe—which just happened to be in Copenhagen. This time, with three American guys in the band, it was like, ‘Let’s record the next album at home!’ We didn’t want to record in San Francisco,” that being home, “because then you have all your friends hanging out, so we thought L.A. would be a good place to do it. But me and Fleming [Ramussen, engineer] spent a week looking at the L.A. studios and none of them measured up to Sweet in Copenhagen. A lot of the L.A. studios to us seemed really corporate, business-like, secretaries everywhere, and a series of hit acts coming in to do singles. And we were going to be in the studio a long time, so we wanted a place we really felt comfortable in. So we said: ‘Back to Denmark!’”

“People think we’ve moved into the rock star league and all that shit.”
—Lars Ulrich

A clever ruse. There the band would have to stay in the studio and behave themselves, three-quarters of them not speaking a word of Danish!

“After you check out the Danish beer,” Ulrich shakes his head, “it’s very easy! Me and James would go out drinking. In late November, early December they have something called Christmas beers, which is just an excuse for everyone to drink their Christmas sorrows away. It’s twice as strong as regular beer. Every time we went out and drank these Christmas beers, James would start trying to talk Danish—completely pissed out of his face! Which all made for good fun.” None of which you will get to hear about as this is the serious Metallica interview. Back to business.

“Last album we all lived in a room the size of this office,” average shoebox, “and we had to take buses back and forth to the studio, and we ate really bad. This time,” thanks to success, “we were able to live in a nicer hotel, get a car and drive around, and it just made the stay a lot easier for them. Because when you’re living rough you start missing home more.”

I’d miss home too if I got chauffeured around town in a Cadillac, which is the treatment Metallica were getting in L.A. recently.

“Wrong!” yells the Great Dane. “It was only a Lincoln! And it’s what the record company rented—we didn’t order it! People think we’ve moved into the rock star league and all that shit.”

Cliff Burton plays bass
D-Trump’s got nothin’ on this guy. Photo via Getty

Still they are stars for all that; kind of brings a lump to the throat when you recall that only a few years back they were just another four fans, trying to grub backstage passes off the likes of myself. Does it feel odd, I ask him?

“It’s kind of satisfying, in a way. It just feels like to be able to become a major worldwide act by just staying ourselves and having control would be really great. All of us are still, in a way, fans. We always have been, and it’s great hearing new records by bands we like. I think the difference now is we’re not as narrow-minded as we were four years ago when it was Motörhead, Deep Purple, Saxon, Iron Maiden, and that was it.

“Now I don’t think you’ll find many people playing such an extreme variety of music that we listen to. It’s funny, when you’re driving with somebody, people start apologizing for playing something that’s remotely different from what we’re doing, and they don’t realize we probably listen to more stuff that’s different from what we do than similar stuff.”

Like what, for instance? “R.E.M., the Cult, Kate Bush. And the other side of that would be Discharge, GBH, and a lot of stuff in between.” And what stuff it is too! “Sisters of Mercy, U2, Eagles, ZZ Top, Queen, Roxy Music, Thin Lizzy, old Sabbath, Iron Maiden. Even Rush! If you’re going out for a night of heavy drinking or something, you put on something obnoxious, like the Misfits. At other times, I’ll listen to Sade...”

While you’re contemplating that one, I’ll pose one of those usual journalistic-type final questions for Lars to ponder upon. The old What Have Metallica Done For Music question:

“Well, in heavy metal you have all the different aspects, from the AC/DC steady blues-metal to Iron Maiden, sort of semi-progressive, metal, to Rush, full-progressive, to Judas Priest, all leather and stuff.” Give this man a job! “And Metallica, when we first started, it was like a new branch of the tree. There had never been anything like we were doing in America. The closest was we had obvious ties with Motörhead back then, with the energy and the sort of obnoxiousness, but we were playing fast, I think, in a different way. We were adding aspects of Diamond Head and how they wrote their songs, how they looked at each song as being completely different from the next one, and they had really long songs. We fused it together, threw in the odd ‘X’ factor, and it’s Metallica. I think we’ve done our bit for metal!”

Originally published October 1986


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