His band has sold more than 100 million CDs worldwide and debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 200 chart a record five times. The latest one, Death Magnetic, sold one million copies in three weeks in the United States alone and is now nominated for several Grammy awards. So why is Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich rushing backstage in Phoenix before the opening show of the band's new world tour to chat with some three dozen fans while keeping up a busy schedule of media interviews?
"The Zeppelin mystique and that Kiss thing about 'who are these larger-than-life comic book characters' didn't interest me," says Ulrich. "It's OK to sit and talk about what you do. You choose to answer the questions you want, and the ones you don't want to, you come up with a silly, smart-ass or sarcastic comment and find a way around it."
Nearly thirty years after Ulrich and singer-guitarist James Hetfield founded Metallica in Los Angeles, they still keep their fans updated on the band's inner workings through documentaries, fan web sites with video, and meet-and-greets before each show. Ulrich admits this kind of fan access sometimes has led to Metallica airing too much of its laundry in public, such as in the film Some Kind of Monster, which showed the band bickering during group therapy sessions — but he says he wouldn't change a thing. To warm up for their new tour, which stops by the Oracle Arena on Saturday, December 20, the band invited fan club members and friends to attend two free intimate rehearsals in San Francisco and Phoenix.
As with its backstage persona, Metallica tries to foster intimacy onstage, too. On this tour, the band — including guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo — plays in the middle of the arena with the crowd surrounding it on all sides. The show starts with a dizzying laser display as eight silver coffins hang from the ceiling above the band. There's a healthy dose of the pyrotechnics that crowds have come to expect — and which gave Hetfield third-degree burns in a 1992 accident. Older hits like "Enter Sandman" and "One" are played alongside several tracks from Death Magnetic. The new album took the band back to its thrash metal roots, showcasing Hetfield's trademark snarl and machine-gun rhythm guitar, and fans have responded well to the new songs performed live.
Ulrich draws from his experience as a teenager lucky enough to penetrate the inner circle of some of his favorite bands at the time: Iron Maiden, Motörhead, and cult heavy-metal band Diamond Head. "I was extra keen and extra fanatical, but I always got in there," says Ulrich. "I always appreciated when bands you idolized made you feel special by letting you be part of what they're doing, so I've always tried to do that to the best of our ability, but sometimes the numbers get hard. You want to go sign autographs in a record store, but 2,000 people show up, and it can be overwhelming. You do the best you can."
Despite its populist leanings, the band has faced criticism for flying around on separate jets during their European tour last summer, with some critics suggesting they were turning into Deep Purple — a touring behemoth composed of musicians who no longer even talk to one another. Ulrich says this image is wrong, and that Metallica is generally travelling together on this North American tour. "We're flying home a lot after shows, so we're travelling together," he says. "People have a tendency to focus on something that can be perceived as negative. The reason we travel separately a lot is we want everybody to be comfortable, not that we don't want to hang out together."
During European tours, Ulrich prefers to stay in a Copenhagen hotel and take private jets to shows. If Hetfield would rather sleep in another country, Ulrich is fine with it. "It's about giving each other space and freedom to be comfortable in that crazy touring bubble," he says, adding that if band members are content, they're more likely to tour longer and be more productive. "It's an investment back in the band."
As for his relationship with singer Hetfield, which seemed strained to the breaking point in Some Kind of Monster, Ulrich says it's never been better. "He's more than my best friend," he says. "He's as close to a brother as I've ever had. We're partners in a gang."
Which is all the more remarkable for two people without a lot in common besides Metallica and being passionate parents, by Ulrich's own account. "It's a great thing that we've all experienced parenthood at the same time," says the drummer. "It's not like one guy has a bunch of kids and the others run around strip clubs every night. Everybody is on the same page."
It seems the band formerly known as Alcoholica has dialed down the partying significantly these days. At 44, Ulrich now focuses his time on his three boys and relationship with Danish actress Connie Nielsen. "I've got a great girl, I've got three beautiful kids, I don't need to validate who I am anymore through that kind of partying or pursuit of being accepted or noticed," he says. "I can drink like everybody else, but mostly red wine, not vodka tonic like it used to be."
After another successful album, Ulrich faces the inevitable question: how much longer will Metallica go on? Don't expect a definite timeline from the Dane. "I think right now, the future looks great, certainly from a mental point of view," he says. "The great unknown is the physical point of view. Creatively and in terms of getting along, this band can go on forever, but at some point the necks and the legs and the backs might break or give out. I just don't know if it's possible to do this twenty years from now."
Ulrich already has his own plan for life after Metallica, and it involves Hollywood, currently the playground of his girlfriend. "I'd love to sit down for six months and write a movie," says Ulrich, admitting that he'd leave the acting to his girlfriend. "There's no shortage of things to do. I'm not scared about what's going to happen on the other side of Metallica."
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