Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich has seen “This Is Spinal Tap” and its comical tale of a has-been metal band overstaying its welcome. He has laughed, and he has learned from it. Though irrelevance or self-parody has threatened the mighty, three-decade-old Metallica on its way to selling 100 million records, the joke is not on him or his band - yet. When it is, Ulrich says, “Hopefully we can do what Soundgarden did and kick it in the head and walk away.”
Metallica will reach its 28th anniversary later this year as a band that has transcended its heavy-metal origins and endured a roller coaster ride full of controversies (suing Napster), tragedies (the 1986 death of bassist Cliff Burton) and near breakups (documented in the 2004 movie “Some Kind of Monster”).
The quartet of Ulrich, James Hetfield, Kirk Hammett and Robert Trujillo now stands as an entertainment brand that ranks with U2 and the Rolling Stones. Like Bono or Mick Jagger, Ulrich has become an international man of wealth and status; he recently sold a 1982 Basquiat painting from his vast art collection for $14 million and signed off on a business deal between Metallica and the popular Guitar Hero franchise to create a video game devoted to his California quartet.
It’s a long way from the fall 1981, when Metallica was started by two shaggy headbangers with almost nothing in common: Ulrich, a tennis-playing, upper-middle-class bohemian from Denmark; and Hetfield, a California misfit reared in a strict religious family.
The mismatched pair bonded on their love of British new-wave metal, overcame Ulrich’s inability to keep his cymbals upright while playing the drums, and forged a sound that revolutionized hard rock. Through the ‘80s, Metallica’s brutal, brazen brand of speed metal blasted through the underground and turned them into mainstream stars. In the ‘90s, they cut their hair, started experimenting with different styles of less-frenzied music and momentarily lost their mojo. In 2000 they sued Internet file-sharing site Napster and alienated many of their fans, then released “Some Kind of Monster,” which showed them at their most self-indulgent and vulnerable, with a $40,000-a-month performance “coach” hand-holding them through the recording sessions for the album “St. Anger.”
But the band recovered with last year’s “Death Magnetic,” cut with comeback guru Rick Rubin in the spirit of its hard-and-fast ‘80s albums. Though not quite matching those standards, especially as Hetfield’s lyrics have focused increasingly on vague postrehab bromides rather than the political and personal venting that defined the band’s classic era, the quartet is playing as ferociously as ever. The only controversy surrounding the album has been a technical issue, revolving around a highly compressed mix that pumps up the loudness of the record to favor radio airplay at the expense of clarity.
But then again, Metallica has never done anything at low volume, as Ulrich emphasized in a recent interview.
Q. “Death Magnetic” was portrayed as a conscious return to the style of your ‘80s albums. Do you agree?
A. It didn’t start that way. We just wanted to make the best record possible. We had a weird taboo relationship with our early records that we felt scared to revisit because we’d be in some way cheapening them. Rick (Rubin) made us feel pretty good about doing that: going back and not copying, but trying to put ourselves in the same head space as much as possible. ... Rick felt that none of our records had ever captured the frenetic energy that we get in a live situation. Our records always got watered down in execution. He wanted us to play together, lock in with each other and play with energy in a really connected way instead of overdubbing and being all perfect.
Q. Rubin has a reputation for really badgering bands about writing and rewriting songs. How did he work with you?
A. We needed someone to be a pain ... If there is one area where we probably have been at our worst, it’s been self-editing. In the ‘90s we fell into a trap that everything we wrote was great because we’re so cool. We wrote a lot of songs, 30 songs, and 10 made it on this record.
Q. How do you respond to accusations that the record was botched in the mixing process and sounds distorted?
A. A Metallica record is too loud for people?
That’s a statement in itself.
The irony of that. Welcome to the world of digital recordings, compression overload, MP3s. People are moving in a different direction, and things are becoming more linear, less dynamic. We can’t put out records for every niche in our fan base.
We attract such a diverse group of people, we can’t please everybody. Metallica has made (its) career out of doing what we need to do for ourselves. ... I love the way the album sounds. Rick pushed it as far as he needs to go. Did he push it too far, farther than some people wanted? Absolutely. In a world of compression, maybe it’s too hot for some people.
But there is some perverse beauty in knowing that a Metallica record is considered too loud.
Q. Did you read the reviews of the record? Do you care?
A. We read the reviews. If an artist of any magnitude says he doesn’t read reviews, I’d say 99 percent of them are lying. We follow criticisms and evaluations of what we do without necessarily affecting what we do.
You can read reviews without altering creative process, without turning into a parody. ... (But) we made a bunch of Top 10 lists. There is so much goodwill and positive energy. It’s the best-received album since the “black” album 200 years ago (the self-titled 1991 album). It’s doing as well or better than anyone expected.
Q. The band was perceived a lot differently around the time of the Napster suit. What’s your take on that whole situation now?
It’s difficult, very difficult to sound-bite it.
Napster is irrelevant to some fans, but a big thing to others. A few years ago it was a bit of a mind (warp) with Napster. We didn’t see it coming. ... We were reduced to five words: Band that went after Napster. But that was eight years ago. Now the only time it surfaces on my radar is when it comes up in an interview. There are still occasional misinterpretations of the thing. But I think some people get it. It wasn’t about money. It was about protecting our right to release music as we see fit. I don’t regret any of it.
Q. “Some Kind of Monster” documented your troubled relationship with Hetfield. Has your relationship with him changed since then?
A. It’s gotten a lot better since then on the road.
He was wary of being on the road. He went out in 2003-04, and not only survived it, but didn’t regress or fall into any of the old traps. That was a big thing for him. He has a much calmer energy about Metallica now. Things are pretty mellow around here. People are appreciative of what we have. It’s the Metallica baby factory. We have 10 kids between the four us, all ages 10 and under. That’s brought a different balance to the band.
Metallica is no longer the most important thing for all of us. Finding the right balance with our families and each other is. Metallica is probably more a place of refuge, a place to have fun.
It’s made the band more of a frigging picnic.
Q. But for a long time anger was a necessary ingredient in Metallica’s music. How do you maintain that when things are so settled?
A. That’s the $64,000 question. “Is it necessary?” I would answer back. I don’t have the answer. If we can spit out a record like “Death Magnetic” 27 years into a career, it can’t be that bad. I was listening to (the 1988 Metallica song) “Dyers Eve” the other night. Incredible lyrics, but James isn’t that guy anymore. I think there is such validity in what is coming out of him now. It doesn’t necessarily succeed or fail on whether his anger can get up to “Dyers Eve” level. There are enough other things that work to keep it from being comical.
Rubin would tell us if it gets comical. I know there are 5 or 10 out there who feel it’s comical, but the majority feel there is something left.
Otherwise, I hope we’d be the first ones out of here.