Metallica's Lars Ulrich And James Hetfield Are In It For The Long Haul | KUOW News and Information

Metallica's Lars Ulrich And James Hetfield Are In It For The Long Haul

Nov 18, 2016
Originally published on November 18, 2016 5:05 am

Lars Ulrich is the son of a Danish tennis pro — and he might have actually had a promising career in that sport himself. But at age 9, he saw something that would change his direction forever. He was at a tennis tournament in Copenhagen with his dad, and the hard rock band Deep Purple had invited all of the players at the tournament to their show.

After the performance, young Ulrich was hooked. "I'd never seen a racket like that before," he tells NPR's David Greene, before noting the unintentional tennis pun. Ulrich got a drum set, and when his family moved to L.A., he placed an ad in the classifieds, looking for musicians to form a hard rock band.

Guitarist James Hetfield answered his call. "Lars was there with a hodge-podge drum kit that was three different colors and he had two cymbals that were cracked and fallen over," Hetfield says. They tried playing some songs, but at the end of the session, they weren't too confident about the band's future. "We just looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, we'll um, we'll call you,'" Hetfield says.

Despite their shaky start, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist-singer James Hetfield gave it another go — and ended up creating one of rock's biggest bands, Metallica. In the early '80s, their aggressive sound and punk-rock attitude stood out in the West Coast metal scene. "In L.A. at the time, everything was about hair and makeup and how you looked and the costumes," Ulrich says. "And so I said, you know, leather jackets and smelly t-shirts and dirty jeans."

Hetfield and Ulrich have been making music together for more than 30 years, and today, they're releasing their 10th studio album, Hardwired...To Self-Destruct. The two of them still write most of Metallica's music together, pushing one another to experiment with their instruments. "This is not a traditional, singer-songwriter sitting down with an acoustic guitar and then three hours later comes a song," Ulrich says.

"I'm a frustrated wannabe-drummer and he's a frustrated wannabe-guitar-player and singer," Hetfield jokes. "So I guess that's how it works out so well."

That partnership has not always been easy. In 2004, Metallica produced a documentary, Some Kind of Monster, that exposed deep tensions in the band, especially between Ulrich and Hetfield. "At that point, we had been together for just about 20 years and we had never really had a conversation about how we were feeling," Ulrich says. So they brought in a performance coach ("I think that's the word he prefers," Ulrich says) to help the band work on communication.

"That movie was super therapeutic for all of us," Hetfield says, adding that it helped him view his reactions to conflict with more clarity. And perhaps it shouldn't be surprising to hear two of the best-known rockers in history speak gently about emotion — after all, Hetfield says, "Music is all about emotion."

In that film 12 years ago, rock fans saw Metallica close to imploding. But the band has worked through its issues. "We realize now that there's nothing creatively or nothing practically that's worth damaging that relationship over," Ulrich says. "And — dare I use the word — empathy shows up occasionally in this band now. Like, 'Wait a minute, I wonder how he's feeling about this!'"

For these two 50-something dads, getting out on tour can be tough –- and harder on the body than it was 30 years ago. "You know, there's tennis elbow," Hetfield says. "But actually, I must say, there's headbanger's neck."

But the two persist through the aches and pains. And to those who still find their music a bit hard on the ears, Ulrich responds with a fun fact: the music of Metallica is now officially in the Library of Congress. "So take that, mister radio-throwing, not-have-your-coffee-yet guy," Ulrich says. "You're disrespecting national treasures here."

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Let's begin this story with a warning. You may want to be ready to turn down the radio or, depending on your taste, turn it up. David Greene is about to tell us the story of the heavy metal band Metallica.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

So this story actually begins in Denmark. There was this son of a Danish tennis pro, and he may have actually had a promising career in that sport himself. But then he saw something that would change his direction for ever.

LARS ULRICH: I was 9 years old. There was a tennis tournament in Copenhagen, and all the players got invited to the Deep Purple concert. And my dad dragged me along. I'd never seen a racket like that before. Or...

GREENE: A racket both in terms of tennis and music (laughter).

ULRICH: There you go. Very good.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGHWAY STAR")

DEEP PURPLE: (Singing) I love it, and I need it. I feed it.

GREENE: Young Lars Ulrich was hooked. He got a drum set. And when the family moved to Los Angeles, he put an ad in the classifieds.

ULRICH: Drummer looking for other musicians to form, you know, hard rock band. And lo and behold, James Hetfield called, and it was not an immediate connection.

JAMES HETFIELD: Lars was there with a hodge-podge drum kit that was three different colors, and he had two cymbals that were cracked and falling over. And, you know - tried to play a couple of songs and then we just looked at each other said, yeah, we'll call you, you know.

(LAUGHTER)

GREENE: Doesn't exactly sound promising, but these guys, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitar-singer James Hetfield gave it another go and created one of rock's biggest bands, Metallica. In the early '80s, their aggressive sound and punk-rock attitude stood out in the West Coast metal scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SEEK AND DESTROY")

METALLICA: (Singing) Searching, seek and destroy.

ULRICH: In LA at the time, everything was about hair and makeup and how you looked and the costumes and all that type of stuff. And so I said, you know, leather jackets and smelly T-shirts and dirty jeans and...

GREENE: Smellier, the better.

ULRICH: The smellier, the better.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER OF PUPPETS")

METALLICA: (Singing) Obey your master. Master - master of puppets...

GREENE: So Lars, I got to tell you, some people listen to our program who are just waking up. And...

ULRICH: (Laughter) Good morning.

GREENE: For our listeners who aren't big metal fans and might be wishing they could throw the radio at the wall right now, how would you try and bring them in and tell them that this is the kind of music that...

ULRICH: Well, I would first say that I would like everybody to know that the musical excerpt you just heard is now officially in the Library of Congress. So take that with you, Mr. Radio-throwing, not-have-your-coffee-yet guy. You know, you're disrespecting national treasures here.

HETFIELD: Breaking things doesn't help, really. Come on.

GREENE: Save your radio.

HETFIELD: That might feel good for a second, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "MASTER OF PUPPETS")

HETFIELD: It's so easy to decide what I don't like. And my kids, you know, obviously, they're DJs sitting in the shotgun seat in the truck. And they're playing some stuff that I'm not into. But I look at them, and I see joy. And I see them connecting with something. And how can I deny that? There's something I can find in there that's good, and it usually is the passion.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "MASTER OF PUPPETS")

GREENE: James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich the founders of Metallica have been making music together for more than 30 years, and they just keep cranking it out. Today, they're releasing their 10th studio album, "Hardwired...To Self-Destruct."

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "ATLAS, RISE!")

GREENE: These two guys still write most of the band's music together, pushing one another to experiment with their instruments.

ULRICH: This is not a traditional sort of singer-songwriter sitting down with an acoustic guitar and then three hours later comes a song.

HETFIELD: I'm a frustrated wannabe drummer, and he's frustrated wannabe guitar player and singer. So I guess that's how it works out so well.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ATLAS, RISE!")

METALLICA: (Singing) Right on me - die as you suffer in vain. Own all the grief and the pain.

GREENE: Now, the partnership has not always been easy. In 2004, Metallica produced a documentary that exposed deep tensions in the band, especially between Lars and James.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SOME KIND OF MONSTER")

HETFIELD: Can hear you.

ULRICH: So I...

HETFIELD: No, when you say - you're telling me what to play right now. You're telling me, you should play with - what Kirk's doing. And I'm telling you it's stock.

ULRICH: Dude, fine.

GREENE: The film crew had full access to the therapy sessions.

ULRICH: At that point, we had been together for just about 20 years, and we had never really had a conversation about how we were feeling, what was sort of going on. So there was a performance coach, I think is the word that he prefers.

GREENE: Not group therapist?

ULRICH: Over therapist - either way is fine. So he was brought in to try to facilitate some communication.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "SOME KIND OF MONSTER")

PHIL TOWLE: What do you - what's it like to be you?

ULRICH: It's frustrating.

TOWLE: Like, angry? Like, fear?

ULRICH: It's just frustrating. OK? I don't know.

HETFIELD: That movie was super therapeutic (laughter) for all of us. And...

GREENE: You saw some faults that you saw in yourself. I mean...

HETFIELD: Oh, there's no doubt. To actually watch myself disconnect or get so wound up and pissed that I leave the room and then I slam a door and, you know, that's my statement and how childish that is - and so learning a lot about myself through that.

GREENE: It's amazing. And maybe this is unfair, but to be talking to two of the most well-known metal rockers in history in this gentle way about emotions, it's really fascinating.

HETFIELD: Well, I'll tell you, music is all about emotion, I tell you.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "MOTH INTO FLAME")

HETFIELD: You know, when we're onstage and we're performing, I'm looking at people transform in front of me. And, you know, one guy might just be standing there with his jaw open going oh, my God, look at the lasers. And somebody else is just losing their mind in a mosh pit, just bouncing off each other, sweating on each other and sharing all of their bodily fluids (laughter).

GREENE: So 12 years ago, rock fans saw this movie showing Metallica nearly imploding. Now do these guys still have issues?

HETFIELD: No, no, no, not at all. We're brothers. We love each other. We hate each other. I mean, I've known Lars longer than most of the people in my life except for some family.

ULRICH: We're awesome, yeah. We realize now that there's nothing creatively or nothing practically that's worth damaging that relationship over, so we back off now. And - dare I use the word - empathy shows up occasionally in this band now. Wait a minute. Like, I wonder how he's feeling about this.

GREENE: For these two 50-something dads, getting out on tour can be tough. I mean, it takes them away from family and, well...

Is it harder on the body than it was 30 years ago?

ULRICH: Let me confirm that for you, yes. Yes, it's much harder on the body than it was 30 years ago.

HETFIELD: You know, there's tennis elbow. I don't know if there's guitar finger or whatever, but actually, I must say, there's headbanger's neck.

(LAUGHTER)

HETFIELD: Headbanger's neck.

GREENE: That's a diagnosed syndrome then (laughter)?

HETFIELD: It is now. I just did it. I just did it. Dr. Hetfield has just now (laughter) diagnosed headbanger's neck.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "MOTH INTO FLAME")

GREENE: James Hetfield and Lars Ulrich from Metallica - their new album out today is called "Hardwired...To Self-Destruct."

INSKEEP: David Greene with Metallica on MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "MOTH INTO FLAME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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