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Metallica’s Lars Ulrich on the 30th anniversary of The Black Album

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FOR a hard-rock god, Metallica’s Lars Ulrich is remarkably down-to-earth.

When we chat this week, the drummer at home in California and me in London, there’s no middleman from his management team connecting the call.

Ross Halfin/Supplied

Rockers – from left, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett, Lars Ulrich and Jason Newsted[/caption]

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Lars Ulrich says: ‘We had been loners, inspired by a lot of British hard rock but completely ostracised from the American mainstream’[/caption]

When I answer my phone at the appointed hour, a voice simply says: “Hi, it’s Lars.”

“Oh, hi — I didn’t expect you,” I reply somewhat stupidly. “I thought I’d hear from someone else first.”

Ulrich, 57, laughs at the notion before explaining: “We’re still waiting to turn professional.

“Forty years in, having someone call ahead to announce that I’m on the line is something we’re striving towards.

“It’s on the to-do list, trust me.”

Ulrich — son of a Danish tennis pro, superfan of British heavy metal from a young age — is eloquent, gracious and, as anyone who has seen him play live will attest, a force of nature.


With singer-guitarist James Hetfield, he is the co-founder of an American music monster. But he still bears the psyche of an outsider.

He says: “If you told me 40 years ago that, in 2021, I’d be doing an interview with The Sun, I’d be thinking, ‘How f***ing crazy is that?’ So this is a victory in itself, thank you very much.”

Before we discuss Metallica matters, Ulrich pays respect to the late Rolling Stones lynchpin Charlie Watts, one drummer to another.

“It’s a great, great loss,” he affirms.

“He was the glue that held it all together. “When Mick’s up front swaggering along, he’s listening to Charlie’s drumming and the way he gets a song going.

“I often wonder if it’s possible to still be doing this in your seventies, maybe even your eighties. Charlie set the bar for me and I always looked to him to lead the way.

“The Stones have always been one of my favourite bands. Every time they’ve been to California, I’ve seen them — and that’s at least ten times.”

It is also worth noting that Anglophile Ulrich is a Chelsea fan who watched Charlie Cooke and Peter Osgood on TV as a boy growing up in Copenhagen.

With the boys in blue winning this year’s Champions League, he says: “There is no greater pleasure in my life than to wind up my friend Stefan, who is a Spurs supporter.”

Charlie set the bar for me and I always looked to him to lead the way.


Lars Ulrich

We move on to the primary focus of Ulrich’s call, the 30th anniversary of The Black Album, a game-changer that turned Metallica on to a mainstream audience across the planet.

To celebrate, there is a slew of reissues including a sparkling remaster of the original LP as well as outtakes, riffs, demos, rehearsals and live performances.

There is an astonishing 53-track covers album too, The Metallica Blacklist, which finds artists such as Miley Cyrus, Biffy Clyro, Phoebe Bridgers, Dave Gahan and Chris Stapleton interpreting their favourite tracks.

Ulrich calls the project “fing awesome” and draws my attention to four cracking versions of Sad But True by Sam Fender, Royal Blood, St. Vincent and Jason Isbell. “You wouldn’t believe they’re all the same song,” he enthuses.

The Black Album is the acquired name of Metallica’s self-titled fifth LP because of the all-black sleeve with a just-visible logo and snake.

The line-up is Ulrich, Hetfield, Kirk Hammett (guitar) and Jason Newsted (bass).

In the preceding decade, the band were doing pretty well but mainly in their thrash metal orbit.

This time out, with the help of producer Bob Rock, they slowed things down, made the tracks shorter, the sound bigger and produced an FM radio-friendly classic.

It bore the hook-laden, nightmarish beast Enter Sandman, which Ulrich knew should be the opening track from the moment he heard its monumental riff.

“It had to be the first thing people heard of the next phase of Metallica,” he says. “When James’s dark lyrics came together, it felt right.”

Ross Halfin

Ulrich says: ‘we released a record and the bass wasn’t loud enough for some. The Black Album got complaints for its shorter songs’[/caption]

Other tracks include live staple Wherever I May Roam as well as epic power ballads Nothing Else Matters and The Unforgiven.

With welcome candour, Ulrich says: “We had been loners, inspired by a lot of British hard rock but completely ostracised from the American mainstream.

“We existed in our own little bubble which had nothing to do with the rest of the world.

“The idea that, ten years after forming, we could have a US No1 album for four straight weeks was preposterous.”

Sometimes these f***ing songs just happen and it’s best to just make sure you don’t f them up.


Lars Ulrich

Ulrich talks of their open-mouthed disbelief as the album’s phenomenal success began to sink in.

“You remember fax machines?” he asks me. “Well, we’d get faxed every morning.

“We’d wake up to this barrage of statistics. ‘The album is No1 in Finland for the third week in a row’, or, ‘It’s gone platinum in Spain after a month’.”

Back then, Ulrich couldn’t comprehend the magnitude of Metallica’s achievement but today he says: “Obviously the record’s got incredible legs and now you and I are talking about it 30 years later. It’s crazy.”

He puts a lot of it down to “the energies of the universe and the aligning of the stars”.

“If you ask Mick Jagger about the creation of Jumpin’ Jack Flash, I doubt he has some satisfying cosmically analytical answer. Sometimes these f***ing songs just happen and it’s best to just make sure you don’t f them up.”

In 1991 — a defining year for hard rock, blessed with important releases from Nirvana, Guns N’ Roses and Pearl Jam — Metallica were “fortunate to be riding the wave”, Ulrich maintains.

We had been loners, inspired by a lot of British hard rock but completely ostracised from the American mainstream.


Lars Ulrich

“Music fans across the US, Europe, Japan, Australia wanted their rock’n’roll a little harder, a little edgier, a little less packaged,” he says.

“And record companies wanted it looser, more authentic and transparent.”

Ulrich recalls the competition emerging from the northwestern corner of the US: “A lot of stuff was coming out of Seattle — Alice In Chains and an up-and-coming band called Nirvana.

“There was a big shift. Bands that had been way, way outside the mainstream were embraced by the mainstream.”

To clock the significance of the Black Album, you need to know more about the years leading up to it, here through the prism of Ulrich.

Born in Gentofte, Denmark, in 1963, he is the son of tennis ace Torben Ulrich, who I’m told “is 92 and better than ever.”

His grandfather Einer was also Danish national champion, so a career in the sport beckoned for the young Lars. But he soon realised he wouldn’t be continuing the dynasty.

Ulrich says: “Part of the reason I embraced music so much was the realisation at 16 or 17 that tennis was not me. I didn’t have enough focus.

“At that time, in the wake of Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe, loads of American parents wanted their teenage kids to be a tennis players.

Early on, Metallica were surrounded by British people — the crew, the tour managers, everybody.


Lars Ulrich

“In Denmark, I was ranked in the country. But when I came to America, I wasn’t even in the top ten on the street where I lived. That was a mindf***!”

He was particularly scarred by six months at a Florida tennis academy, which he calls a “surrobootcamp” requiring eight hours a day practice.

Ulrich says he “drifted into the music consuming my non-tennis life” and that his dad “was more than all right about me forming a rock band”.

He was an avid reader of UK music paper Sounds just as “the new wave of British heavy metal” exploded and he devoured journalist Geoff Barton’s interviews with bands such as Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Saxon and Girlschool.

He cites Diamond Head as a “significant influence on Metallica”. Their song Am I Evil? has been played live by Lars and co hundreds of times.

“Then I got into Tygers Of Pan Tang, Angel Witch, Raven, Venom, all these great bands. “I’d just relocated to Southern California from Denmark and was playing a fair bit of tennis but that music spoke to me.

“There was a connection I’d never felt before. “When Sounds arrived in the mailbox, I’d read interviews with Diamond Head or Sledgehammer and think, ‘Holy s**t, I want to do that!’

“British heavy metal was this crazy thing that made me start a band. It’s that simple.”

Part of the reason I embraced music so much was the realisation at 16 or 17 that tennis was not me. I didn’t have enough focus.


Lars Ulrich

In 1981, Ulrich started looking for like-minded souls and two months later he met James Hetfield, he of the imposing physique, full-throated holler and guitar-shredding antics.

“Early on, Metallica were surrounded by British people — the crew, the tour managers, everybody,” he says.

“One of the biggest takeaways from those years was the ‘get on with it’ mentality.

“The best thing about being in Metallica is being in a gang and the accolades that come the band’s way are always the primary driving force.”

He laughs at moments along the way that created a stir: “When we put acoustic guitars on Fade To Black from the second album, Ride The Lightning, there was a lot of controversy.

“A few years later, we released a record and the bass wasn’t loud enough for some. The Black Album got complaints for its shorter songs.

“And — shock horror! — we got haircuts for the Load album.” Ulrich focuses on the lead-up to The Black Album and the reasons for their change of tack.

He says: “We’d put out four records over eight years and on each of those, the songs got longer and longer, more progressive, more self-indulgent.

“The last song on (1988’s) And Justice For All was Dyers Eve, which is the five craziest minutes of music that we’d created up to that point. There was no place to go after that so, over the course of summer 1990, we all felt it was time to try something different.

“To keep doing the same thing would kill us creatively. We needed a reset. “So we sat down and tried to force ourselves to write simpler songs, focus more on riffs, the backbeat of the drums, setting up grooves and swagger.”

‘Band v producer’

Cue the hiring of Canadian producer Bob Rock, noted for his flowing blond locks and forthright opinions.

Ulrich says: “Bob had just finished a Motley Crue record (Dr. Feelgood) that had a great, great sound so we talked to him and he was up for it.

So began a long and fruitful association — but it wasn’t all plain sailing, as the drummer reports: “When we were in pre-production for The Black Album, Bob wanted to change one of the chords. I remember James looking at him, clearly thinking, ‘Who the f are you to sit there and suggest that?’

“It seems ludicrous 30 years later because we’re all about experimenting but then we’d only made a bunch of records with Flemming Rasmussen, who was more of an engineer.”

When Rock proposed various embellishments, Ulrich says it became a case “band versus producer”.

“Everything that had fuelled Metallica gave the middle finger to producers, record companies, the business, so we were hesitant about working with him. As we started understanding that Bob was trying to help us fulfil our ambitions, it settled down.

“He brought in words like ‘soulful’ and got James to open up as a singer.

“But I still didn’t know if we’d see him again when we walked out of the studio after a year spent making the album.

“Only when we had the experience behind us did we become best friends and carried on working together for 15 years.”

With that, the endlessly engaging Ulrich realises our chat has overrun and he is keeping people waiting.

In 2021, he can be happy that The Black Album has achieved mythical status . . . and that Metallica are still “riding the wave”.

Ross Halfin

The band’s Jason Newsted on bass[/caption]

Ross Halfin

Metallica’s Kirk Hammett shows off his guitar skills[/caption]

★★★★★

Metallica – The Black Album (30th anniversary reissues)

Ross Halfin

Metallica – The Black Album (30th anniversary reissues)[/caption]

★★★★☆

Various artists – The Metallica Blacklist

Ross Halfin

Various artists – The Metallica Blacklist[/caption]

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