LOUDNESS, LOYALTY AND PUSHING METALLICA THROUGH THE NEVER
In just over three decades, Metallica has written ten studio albums. They’ve won nine Grammy Awards and were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2009. They were the first band to see five studio albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, and they’re a SoundScan top five best-selling music artist, with close to 54 million albums sold in the U.S. alone.
The Greatest Feeling on Earth begins with a dream. It’s accelerated with passion and enhanced by determination. Lars Ulrich says he came to the United States to do one thing: he wanted to play tennis.
“I was foolish enough to believe I could play tennis in America at a competitive level. That lasted about 12 minutes or so when I landed here. And so, I just threw myself head first into my other passion, my hobby lurking in the wings, which was drumming and music,” Ulrich says.
“I was never particularly career-oriented. I never thought of myself as being goal-oriented. I never looked at it as, ‘I want to be a full-time musician,’ or any nonsense about being a rock star. I just wanted to play music. I wanted to have fun and hang out.”
Ulrich’s story of finding music shares many similarities with millions of new musicians around the world.
“I’m an only child, and I was a kind of a loner when I was a kid. Being in a band gave me a sense of belonging to something that was bigger than myself. I always loved the gang mentality of it, the strength in numbers and feeling like I was part of something with other people,” Ulrich says.
Within a few months of meeting James Hetfield through a musicians’ want ad in the newspaper, hanging out with him, listening to records and playing around on riffs and drum patterns, Ulrich says he began to see music as something he enjoyed on many levels.
“I thought, ‘Maybe we can do this for six months or a year.’ And it just built from there,” says Ulrich. “I guess it clicked around the fall of ’81. I spent that summer in England hanging out with a couple of bands, spending some time with Diamond Head and Saxon, and kind of following Motörhead around. I got so absorbed into the music culture that I figured it was where I wanted to park myself for the foreseeable future.”
With his passion for music in full bloom, Ulrich worked two jobs, and began saving for the drum kit he had been thinking about for some time.
“I was a cashier at a gas station and an L.A. Times newspaper delivery boy. This was the first year of Metallica, and I made enough money to buy a drum kit. I was super psyched.
“We went on the road in early ’84, and the drums were stolen before a show somewhere in Boston, which was kind of crazy. James lost prized gear. Everybody lost prized gear. When you’re 20 years old and ready for whatever, you don’t get stuck in those type of things. But, looking at it now, having my own first drum kit made me very proud.
“So, the only drum kit I ever bought was stolen, and I spent the rest of the year on rental kits. When we hooked up with our management, Q Prime, in the fall of that year, I told them that I was interested in Tama. I sort of hooked up with Remo, Zildjian and Tama at that time.”
Q Prime had signed Rush to their record deal at Mercury about a decade earlier, so it should be no surprise that Ulrich soon consulted with Neil Peart, who at the time was the most visible Tama endorsee.
“My conversation with Neil Peart was awesome,” Ulrich says. “Tama always had the reputation for making the sturdiest drums and hardware, stuff that holds up night after night and gig after gig. Metallica gigs are pretty physical undertakings and I’ve never had a single worry about Tama gear. I think I’ve been playing Starclassics since they came out maybe 10 or 15 years ago.
“In a live situation you just want consistency. There are so many factors that you can’t control in a live situation, what you really need is dependability. To me, that’s Tama. They’ve got a really nice, crisp attack in the top and they’ve got the size in the bottom and the weight. They just work.”
Ulrich’s signature Tama snare drum features a bell brass shell covered in diamond plate, which he says delivers thunderous crack to cut through the mix.
“My signature Tama snare drum is coming up on two decades,” says Ulrich. “Bell brass snare drums, I mean, they’ll stop a train. They’re so durable and sturdy. I go through two or three snare heads during a show, and the snares are super consistent from one to the next.”
For cymbals, Ulrich says he’s been playing the same sort of cymbals his entire career. And he’s been with Zildjian since the beginning.
“Now they’re called the A Series, but back then they were just the regular Zildjians. Over the years they’ve added a little bit of sheen to them. I play medium and medium-thin 17, 18 and 19” crashes. Very straightforward. I think I’ve had the same cymbal setup for at least over a decade. Again, it’s about dependability and durability,” says Ulrich.
“In the studio when you’re micromanaging this stuff, they just have a different crispness to them. I’ve never played any other cymbals, but when I hear other guys that play different cymbals, I just think that Zildjian cymbals sound crisper and punchier.”
Ulrich says he began his career playing wooden sticks, and loved the feel, but ended up breaking a dozen or so every night. A conversation with Matt Sorum led him to try alloy sticks, which he says break every couple of weeks.
“I played wooden sticks up through the ’80s and early ’90s. They were just too undependable, and when you’re playing some of the fast songs and some of the super crazy songs it’s just really, really difficult to change sticks.
“I used to play a 2B in my left hand to get a little bit more weight out of the snare hit, and a 5B in my right hand to make it a little bit easier, especially on the fast songs. So we sort of designed a happy medium, and I’ve been playing those drum sticks for just coming up on 20 years now.”
Not surprisingly, Ulrich says he has been playing Remo heads for about two decades as well. He says he’s always played a coated Ambassador Reverse Dot head on his snare, but has experimented with tom heads for different sounds and moods, but always Remo.
“The main thing for me is, I don’t want the gear to get in the way of the experience in a negative way. So, by using Tama, Zildjian, Remo and Ahead, I just know that it’s always going to work. I appreciate the relationships I have with those guys. There’s loyalty in both directions. They support me and I support them,” says Ulrich.
“I’m not some super-demanding guy. I think I’m a pretty easy client in the way that I like what I like and I don’t change things too often, so it just works on all fronts. Maybe I’m a brand loyalist, but all these companies have treated me great all these years.”
In 2013, Metallica released its second film, an IMAX concert movie titled Metallica Through the Never, which tells the tale of a heroic roadie who battles evil in a rush to retrieve a bag for the band. The band’s first film, Some Kind of Monster, documented the process—and tensions—of recording the band’s St. Anger album.
“We had always wanted to do a Metallica concert movie. Increasingly, for Metallica, it’s about having sort of different ways to express yourself and communicate with the audience, and I think that it’s making music—we love making music. We love being in the studio but it’s also—it can get sometimes a little one-dimensional, so [experiencing a different creative process] keeps you from going on autopilot. Film, I think, is an interesting way for a band to communicate with the fans.
“We had all the creative control. We produced it ourselves. We financed it ourselves. Every frame in that movie comes directly from Metallica in one way or another. Every single thing that’s in there is us,” says Ulrich.
“It’s been a crazy, huge experience. It’s been a lot of fun. It’s been a little overwhelming—even bewildering at times, to be honest with you—but making movies is a very interesting creative process and we loved it. We made two movies and now we’re fired up and ready to get back in the studio—that I can tell you.”