Hard hitting Dane – meet Lars Ulrich
Lives: Berkeley, CA
Family: Wife, three children
Career: Drummer and co-founder of the American heavy metal band Metallica in 1981.
Between 1998 and 2002, he ran a record label and made his acting debut in HBO movie Hemingway & Gellhorn in 2011.
In early October, Lars Ulrich, the Danish drummer in Metallica, was in the California desert. Music legends Neil Young and Paul McCartney were playing to a crowd of 75,000 people at the Desert Trip festival. Ulrich was in one of the front rows, together with his American wife, Jessica. Young sang many of his own classic songs out there in that dark, warm desert night and then took to the stage with McCartney to play the Beatles “A Day In The Life” together. Ulrich loved it.
A few weeks later, Ulrich himself was on stage alongside Neil Young at the Shoreline Amphitheatre in Silicon Valley. Metallica had been invited to play at the 71-year-old rock legend’s annual charity concert, the Bridge School Benefit. Those two October nights in California represent the very essence of Ulrich’s life. The spellbound fan in front of the stage and the world star on it.
Ulrich could be described as the driving force behind Metallica – and not just because of his drumming. For the band’s latest album, released last November and their first in eight years, his excellent preparation was once again a vital ingredient. He spent his 2014 summer vacation listening to ideas from Metallica’s extensive recording archive. A few guitar riffs here, a few interesting jam sessions there. Then Ulrich and Metallica set about putting together a series of new tracks and recording them at the band’s home base, “HQ,” which is located in San Rafael, a 15-minute drive from Ulrich’s house and which overlooks San Francisco Bay and the city’s skyscrapers.
“If you want to record an album or write some songs, you just have to get on with it,” Ulrich says. “The songs won’t compose themselves. Sometimes you just need to get down to work. So the band meets at nine in the morning and we get going and do some jamming. Everything we think of doing is recorded. We actually have so many ideas that the only downside in the creative process is that it can be a little hard to figure out where to begin.”
And having your own studio isn’t always conducive to the process. “There’s nobody who will come knocking on our door and say, ‘Kim Larsen is coming on Thursday, so you need to be finished and out of the studio by midnight on Wednesday!’” says Ulrich. “The hardest thing has been reaching the finish line.”
The prolonged process did, however, have some benefits this time. “I sat and listened to the ‘finished’ album over a weekend,” says Ulrich. “And then I met up with the others on Monday morning and said, ‘Hey, we’re really missing an opening track!’ So we wrote and recorded “Hardwired ... to Self-Destruct” in four days, and got an album title into the bargain.”
Hardwired... to Self-Destruct is an extremely hard, heavy and no-nonsense record. In many places, it sounds like the band’s best work since they made their international breakthrough with Metallica, better known as The Black Album, back in 1991.
And although it’s the band’s first album in eight years, they haven’t been idle during this time. First they spent three years touring with their previous album, Death Magnetic, then they recorded the album Lulu with late rock legend Lou Reed. They also made the film Metallica Through The Never, performed a tribute medley to the inspirational Ronnie James Dio and ran their own Orion festival, as well as going on various tours in between. And there’s been time spent with their children and families, a factor that led the band to record Hardwired... to Self-Destruct close to home. “We were never in any doubt that we would make the album at home and not down in Los Angeles like last time,” Ulrich says. “You can easily make an album in a cozier or more controlled working environment.”
Metallica came to San Francisco at the beginning of 1983 and Ulrich has lived in scenic Marin County, north of the city, since the 1990s. His passport and citizenship are still Danish, but he is very passionate about San Francisco.
“It’s a brilliant city. It feels like the future is being created in the San Francisco region, with the entire tech world here. It’s an exciting place to live and I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else in America,” he says.
As you walk down the short main street or along the idyllic waterfront in Ulrich’s small local town, where the sun warms a beautiful October day up to 21°C, you don’t necessarily think of hard, heavy metal music. And as you go further along the beautiful winding road to his house in its idyllic location, you don’t necessarily think of thunderous, heavy, thrashing drums. But everyday life for Ulrich, now 53, is not quite as rock ‘n’ roll as you might expect. He’s the father of three boys, 9-year-old Bryce, 15-year-old Layne and 18-year-old Myles who has started college here on the East Coast. A typical workday starts with getting the kids up and off to school. Ulrich then drives to HQ for album recordings, ideas meetings, band meetings, business meetings or tour preparations.
“I’m a family man who gets up at quarter to seven in the morning to make scrambled eggs for the kids,” he says. “I drive them to school and then head off to the studio. Then there’s pick-up after school around 3 or 4 after which the rest of the day is mostly spent chauffeuring the children around the suburbs to all the kinds of things kids go to. Karate, baseball, playing bass and sports matches. My everyday life is probably not all that different from other dads in their early 50s who are active and engaged with their children.”
Ulrich has been married and divorced a couple of times. His children are from two different mothers (both of whom live in the area) and his job sometimes keeps him apart from his children for long periods. In mid-November, for example, he was off around the world again, from airport to airport, city to city, interview to interview, promoting the new album.
Two days before the album release, he and Metallica were in Germany on a Wednesday afternoon for a global online interview with their fans. Later that night, Ulrich landed in London in a private jet. In between, he had a stopover in his hometown, Copenhagen, where he took part in a live TV show from Copenhagen Central Station and a talk show, Natholdet, in a television studio on Amager, a few minutes’ walk from the defunct Sweet Silence Studio. It was here, in the early 1980s, that Metallica recorded their second and third albums, Ride The Lightning and Master of Puppets. The first time they were in the city, Ulrich and the band stayed in a friend’s small apartment out in the suburb of Brøndby from where they slowly made their way by S-train and bus out to the studio at the opposite end of town. The second time, however, they were able to afford a couple of hotel rooms close to the studio. Now, 30 years later, a couple of American assistants follow Ulrich around on his promotional tour, along with some local record label people. One of them places a chilled soda and a fresh tray of sushi in front of him as we sit down after the end of the TV recording. It’s after 10pm and time for the last interview of the day.
We start with a question about the reason for Metallica’s longevity. This prompts Ulrich to consider his response, as his fingers hover over the sushi tray.
“Um, yeah... when it really comes down to it, we would rather be in Metallica than not be in Metallica. And after 35 years, it’s what we know. It’s still an exciting, enjoyable and safe place, but at the same time also a challenging place.
“We’re good at making Metallica. We’re good at being Metallica. And we don’t make albums that often, so we don’t feel that our creative batteries are running low. It still feels like there’s a lot left to give, and theoretically we could go on for hundreds of years.
“The problem isn’t the willingness, the creativity or the outlook,” he continues. “The problem will be the physical aspect: the shoulders, knees, spine, neck.
Everything else is perfectly fine. And we have some good vibrations in the band. The best years in the band have been the last decade.”
The soda is open, but Ulrich hasn’t yet managed to pick up his chopsticks and sink his teeth into the maki rolls containing crispy tempura prawns. He’d rather talk about the band’s continued drive and its artistic motivation.
“A little motto-like thing we have in the band is that ‘our best release is still ahead of us.’ We’re always striving to make the best album.
“If you’re creative in music, you don’t think about whether you need to make a record or not. It’s just the next challenge that lies ahead of you, and I can’t imagine a day when that will no longer be the case for Metallica.
“But it doesn’t get any easier being in a band as you get older, and it doesn’t get any easier making records as you get older. You really have to put in the time, resources and effort to make it work. And we do that too.
“We primarily make our albums for ourselves but our fans trust that if we’re satisfied, it will sound like Metallica. And so hopefully, it’s something that they, too, will want to embrace.
“On my flight over here three or four days ago, I sat on my own and listened to the new album for the first time since we made it. I just sat there and looked out the window and listened to the whole album in 80 minutes and thought, it sounds OK, I’m happy!”
Ulrich is less happy about his infrequent visits to Copenhagen in recent years, but the band is heading back there in early February to kick off a European concert tour to promote Hardwired... to Self-Destruct.
“Copenhagen is something that’s in the blood and I fall right into the rhythms here,” Ulrich says. “There are quite a few things that don’t change much. I was just doing some TV inside Copenhagen Central Station. I don’t think I’ve been in there for over 30 years, but it was exactly the same as when I was last there in 1986. Maybe there’s one more McDonald’s compared with back then, but otherwise not much has changed.
“But there are also some exciting new things in the city and I’m trying to keep up with them as best I can. For example, I’ve been out to new places in Kødbyen and Nørrebro. When I was growing up, Nørrebro wasn’t a place to hang out or spend a nice evening, but today, it’s one of the loveliest places to visit.”
Nørrebro is also home to 58-year-old rock journalist and lecturer Steffen Jungersen. He has been following Ulrich and Metallica for over 30 years and is the man about whom Ulrich has said, “When Metallica has made a new album, there are two people I listen to: one is my father, the other is Steffen Jungersen.”
“Lars has always been very dedicated and there’s no doubt it’s his drive that has kept Metallica going for so many years,” Jungersen says. “Lars has always been curious about music. A curiosity that other musicians at his level might have lost. And he is still passionate about his work and everything to do with it. The whole band – and Lars in particular – have really put a lot of effort into Hardwired... to Self-Destruct. You can hear how committed he still is.”
Jungersen adds that the same commitment will be on show at the four concerts at Copenhagen’s new Royal Arena, where the band plays in February. Ulrich himself played a part in the choice of venue for these concerts. “Yes, ahem, I must admit that it was probably on my radar that they were building the new arena out in Ørestad,” says Ulrich. “So I asked our Scandinavian promoter whether he could make sure we that we could inaugurate the new arena when it was ready to open. And now we’ll soon be out there with the scissors, cutting the red ribbon. And yes, I invited myself – you have to be allowed to do that once in a while!”
Text: Jens “Jam” Rasmussen
Published: March 16, 2017