Interview with Lars Ulrich from Metallica: Masters Of Orion

If you can name it, think of it or experience it, chances are Metallica’s already done it 20 years ago. Now 31 years into their existence, the most influential metal and hard rock band since Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin set the blueprint are once again diving headfirst into a project the scope of which I’m not sure even they realized when they started out: The Orion Music + More Festival.

It’s a massive undertaking. Not just putting a festival together and including other aspects and experiences with music, but doing it your first year out on the scale Metallica are doing it, bringing in bands like Avenged Sevenfold, Arctic Monkeys, The Gaslight Anthem, Modest Mouse and everyone else we have detailed in our special feature to support them as they, in turn, play the black album (or, more properly, Metallica) and 1984’s Ride The Lightning in their entirety at Bader Field in Atlantic City. Seriously, imagine the size of the ducks you’d need to get in a row to make the whole thing not completely implode.

But, as drummer Lars Ulrich laughs, that kind of risk is kind of Metallica’s thing. It’s the same impulse that’s led them over the years to continually push the limits of their genre, to experiment with production techniques, incorporate other influences, collaborate with the likes of Lou Reed, to make documentaries, to make 3D concert films like that to which Ulrich alludes here, to do all this stuff and realize these visions where so many others either don’t have the resources or are simply too chickenshit to make them happen. Not every experiment is a success, but staying honest to these impulses is what’s allowed Metallica to endure into their fourth decade while too many others to count have either stepped aside or been rendered irrelevant by falling into formulaic repetitions of doing what’s expected of them over and over again. In triumph and defeat, Metallica have remained awfully human for a group of dudes who also happen to be the biggest rockstars in the world.

I could go on—there’s a lot to say about a band with a 31-year legacy—but you get the point anyway. Checking in from backstage in Lisbon, Portugal, having most recently played Oslo, Norway, is Lars Ulrich:

How was Oslo?

Oslo was awesome. Oslo is great. There are pockets all over the world where there’s just something – we’re fortunate enough to have, obviously, a connection on a global level, but there are certain cities where, for some reason, it’s like five percent more. That’s not saying anything about everyplace else, but for some reason, I don’t know what it is—something in the water or whatever it is. I think we’ve played more in Oslo than in any city in Europe in the last five years, and it just really connects up there. A lot of young kids.

You look down, and along with everybody else, it’s 10 year olds and 12 year olds. It’s pretty phenomenal up there, for some reason. The other thing that’s interesting about Oslo, and especially when you’re playing outside, it’s always daylight. So you go on and for the first hour and a half of the show is broad daylight, and by the time you just get around to the end of it, it starts getting dark, but it doesn’t get really dark, so it’s a different vibe because it’s Norway and it’s daytime and it’s lots of young kids and it’s pretty cool. A very good first show.

It seems like the metal culture over there is really pervasive in a way it’s not in the States.

Well, I think what happens in a lot of places, you know, for instance, you take Norway, Sweden, Denmark, even—I was just doing a couple interviews in Canada—I think, to a degree, in the States, metal and maybe music in general has a tendency to be a little more segregated, and has a tendency to be more specialized, and it exists in these subgenres and it’s more of a subcultural thing.

In a place like Norway, it’s a cross-cultural thing. When we’re in Norway, when we’re in Oslo, we’re on the front page of the newspaper. The reviews of the gigs are the lead stories. It’s even the same a little bit up in Canada. When we’re in Quebec or Montreal, they’re the lead stories in the newspapers and stuff like that.

When we’re in New Jersey, if we’re playing Philadelphia, it’s not the lead story in the Philadelphia Times or whatever the newspaper’s called. It’s kind of a different thing. Music penetrates in some of these countries at a higher level cross-culturally, where it becomes a wider phenomena. In America, music gets more shoved down into the entertainment pages, or becomes more of an entertainment thing rather than something that really is part of people’s lives.

A lot of these kids, for instance take Norway, they live and breathe this shit 24 hours a day. It’s what they do. It’s their sense of belonging. It’s what they identify with. It’s what characterizes them. I see in my kids—I’ve got a 14 year old and an 11 year old—they listen to music, but it’s not something that affects them in a way that it shapes their life. You know what I mean?

You still get that a lot in places around the rest of the world, and you just don’t see that so much in the States. And like I said, that’s not a diss whatsoever, it’s just an observation.

How did the idea for Orion come about, and was part of it, like you said before, bringing that idea of crossing genres and cultures to a festival setting?

Going back to a European molding. We’ve been reared on these European festivals for decades, and they’re so musically varied, and there’s so much different stuff going on musically, with sub-things. The events that go on with these festivals are so all over the place that they become these extravaganzas and opportunities for fans and people to engage in all kinds of different experiences. The interesting thing about a lot of these festivals in Europe is that basically they’re announced and they go on sale and sell out before they even announce what the bands are.

A little bit now you’re getting that with Coachella and Bonnaroo, but basically, we’ve been playing those for decades, and it was pretty eye-opening when we headlined Bonnaroo—I think it was four years ago—that was the first time I saw that European model work in America, and we just sat around afterwards and talked about how cool it would be to try to get something like that up ourselves if we could. It’s an idea we’ve had kicking around for years, of trying to offer a musical experience that was kind of rooted in the Metallica kind of thing but not limited to that, and so had its point of origin in the guys in Metallica curating it, but at the same time it’s much wider in its scope than Metallica’s music itself, which is obviously not an easy thing to sell to people (laughs), but we’re doing our best.

It took a few years to find the right people to do it with, but now we’ve partnered up with these guys that do Lollapalooza and they do Austin City Limits, and they take care of all the technical stuff and all that production stuff, so we can kind of just sit there and deal with more the creative stuff and try to explain to people that (laughs) it should be a fun experience for a couple days and it should be one that may surprise you in its scope and its scale in terms of different kinds of things. Because that’s what we’re trying to do, and listen, I’ll know on June 25 whether it worked or not (laughs).

This may be the only go-‘round on this carousel, but we’ll see. It’s certainly a lot of fun to try and put together, and we’ll see if anybody shows up and partakes in it.

How involved were you guys in the curating process?

We didn’t necessarily hand pick every single band. We sat there, we talked about the scale of what we wanted to do and how we wanted to get some alternative bands and some more kind of—I don’t know what you would call The Gaslight Anthem—but bands that have different points of origin and come from different places and try to fuse as many different musical styles as possible to get all kinds of authentic and different stuff, from punk to hardcore to independent to more authentic Americana stuff to more straight-ahead rock to kind of quirkier things.

Then you start putting all the other stuff on top. You start putting some comic stuff, and you start putting some different kind of experiences, what we call the “lifestyle elements,” and that type of thing. We were pretty involved in setting the stage for that, then what we’ve learned is if you want to get a good festival bill together, you’ve got to get out of the gate pretty early. If this thing is gonna run a second year, then we’ve learned that it becomes harder and harder the later you are in the game. We were very close to getting this thing off the ground for 2011, but we realized we were way too late, and we started early in 2012, but when you’re competing with all the festivals that are going on in Europe in June, it’s not so easy.

I really wanted a band like the Arctic Monkeys, for instance, which is obviously one of the biggest band in England, who I’ve always thought were, I don’t know, to me they’re kind of a heavy metal band dressed up as a cool indie UK band. There’s lots of other bands, like, obviously we wanted to bring a couple heavier bands in, so Avenged Sevenfold has played with us over the years, and they go down really, really well. A big part of our audience loves them, and they have a pretty wide appeal, especially to a lot of younger kids, so you’re just trying to put together as varied of a thing as possible. We’re pretty instrumental in being involved in most aspects of the other bands.

In terms of bringing in a variety of acts, it’s interesting you mention Arctic Monkeys specifically, because I think it would’ve been super-easy for Metallica to put together a metal festival.

Well, of course, but it would also be super-boring. I don’t want to say the wrong thing, but I don’t know. Predictability. I know there’s always somebody, especially in the metal community that gets annoyed at the width of our scope. We’ve learned to live with that for years. We’ll always be slightly at odds with certain conservative members of the metal community.

I’ve been saying this for 25 fucking years. I’ve run out of different ways to say it. Ever since we started putting acoustic guitars on a song called “Fade To Black” on the Ride The Lightning album, people started fuckin’ losing their lunch. We’ve always tried to, to the best of our ability without being offensive about it, but just say to the hard core metal community, “Listen, we’ve got just a little bit of a wider path, a little bit of a wider scope and trajectory than certain other bands,” and that’s not being disrespectful or anything, but we’re into a lot of different stuff, and if you sat down and looked at the iPods that the four members of Metallica carry around, there’s just so much different stuff.

That doesn’t mean that the four members of X-Metal Band don’t have Bob Marley in their iPods, but it just means that we like to spread the net a little wider, and I don’t need to apologize for that, but it’s something that obviously has been a bit of a thorn in the hard core metal community’s side for years. It’s okay. Other than that, I think we coexist fairly well.

But putting a super-metal thing together just doesn’t sound as fun or as appealing, and I think that ultimately, music, to me or to us, is really about a journey and about exploration, about discovery. I think if you can put a bunch of people together and a bunch of bands and a bunch of experiences together where people—take a band like Hot Snakes, who are super-cool post-punk, Southern California—I guarantee there are very few people in Metallica’s world who’ve heard them. They blew my mind. And so you sit there and go like, “Great, so maybe they’ll blow a bunch of Metallica fans’ minds when they get the chance to experience them,” but this would be the only way they’d get to experience them, so you try to bring a little bit of that type of thing to a festival like this.

Is doing the black album one night and Ride The Lightning the other night part of striking that balance?

Well, that was more just to come up with something special. In year 31, you sort of try to tread and find the right balance to the best of your ability. It’s a balancing act. Obviously, we don’t feel that we need to dwell too much on the nostalgic elements, and we’re certainly not a band that spends too much of our time living in the past, but at the same time, you don’t want to deny the past and you don’t want to turn your back to the past and you want to, as you move forward, continue to celebrate whatever the past represents to you and whatever the past represents to your fans.

Again, the Norway scenario, you want to be attuned to the fact that there are a lot of people who were just not around when some of this shit was going on. I think it’s okay to celebrate some of that stuff occasionally. You just don’t want to get into a situation where it becomes predictable or it becomes the only thing. As long as you can mix it up. Really, for a band like us, I think the thing that keeps us going is the fact that we can mix it up.

To make a record like Death Magnetic, go on tour, hang out with Lou Reed, play the black album, go back and forth, do this, go here, go there. The fact that all the experiences continue to be different, so you never get to a place where you get either too content or it gets too predictable, or you get caught up in the sameness of it. Somebody asked us—it was the promoters at Download, a festival here in Europe—asked if we would play the black album, and we’re like, “Okay, we’ll play the black album,” and then we end up doing that for two or three weeks over here.

Then it seemed like a logical thing to do that one night at Orion, and then somebody, I think it was a guy named Mark up at the office, said, “Why don’t you play Ride The Lightning the other night?” and it was like, “Okay, we’ll play it.” Contrary to popular belief, we don’t sit down and over-think this type of stuff. It’s not like, “Okay, now let’s ask 50 people in a focus group,” or any of that, “Should we play this, should we play that, or what happens if….?” We’re so fucking spontaneous and so fucking impulsive in this band, which you could argue that that’s sometimes what gets us in trouble, we just sort of, “Yes! That sounds great!” and then three months later, “Huh? We said yes to that?” but that’s kind of how we roll, and ultimately, that’s what keeps it fresh or keeps it exciting. I don’t know. Safety nets and all that stuff, we don’t need those.

I think that our success has given us the freedom to just be impulsive and, listen, it’s hit and miss and I understand that, but somebody said Ride The Lightning, and sure, and now we’re playing Ride The Lightning and the black album. But we don’t sit down and go, “Well okay, if there’s a year two, next year we’ll play that album and we’ll play three songs from that album backwards standing on our heads.” It just doesn’t operate like that. But we’ve never played Ride The Lightning in its entirety, so we’ll give that a shot and see what happens.

I guess you hinted at it, but it seems like you almost have to be aware of keeping things that satisfy you creatively as an artist and still meeting the demand of your audience. You have these expectations to do things as Metallica.

I know what you’re saying. I mean, “meet a demand.” I certainly don’t walk around on a daily basis when I think of Metallica and think about that side of it. The one thing that one of the managers, basically the only thing that I ever hear from him is, “When’s the next record?” With the “next record,” that almost is taken care of, that there always will be another record and in the wake of that comes all the stuff that I think you’re hinting at, which is more the machine, the thing that goes out there and then the publicity and then this and that and then arena tours and all that type of stuff. That stuff is certainly cool. It’s a lot of fun to write.

It’s a lot of fun to make records, but also, there’s the size of those undertakings are so massive that sometimes it’s so overwhelming that to be able to go and lose yourself in all these other things, like a festival, like this movie that we’re doing this year, like a Lou Reed project, those types of things are necessary to balance the scale of those undertakings, which is the “next record,” and then everything that follows that. Because after the next record, there’s always, you gotta go play 80 shows in America, 40 shows in Europe and you gotta go and do 9,000 interviews—and I’m not complaining about it, I’m just saying there’s a process that follows that that is just so overwhelming sometimes that it’s nice to go, “Let’s throw ourselves out into a festival like this Orion thing,” because you don’t know what it is that’s gonna happen, and that’s exciting.

When you do these other things that fall under what you’re talking about, you know the routine of it. Because of the way our DNA’s put together, we just always try to find ways to reinvent it, so it never becomes routine and it never becomes too much of the same stuff. I guess my big fear with Metallica is I don’t want Metallica ever to end up on auto-pilot, where it becomes predictable and it becomes something that just happens.

Metallica still, 31 years—and probably more so today than maybe some instances earlier—I think we’re enjoying it a lot more. It’s a lot more full of life and vitality, and the whole thing is really alive and fun. Everybody’s getting along. It’s really a vibe. When I think back on certain points in the past, it was much more something that was just pushed along by the powers that be, where it was not as much fun as it is now. So it’s important to keep it real and keep it fun and protect it from ever being too watered-down.


Metallica are set to headline both nights of Orion Music + More at Bader Field in Atlantic City on June 23 & 24. For more info, and For more on Orion, turn the page.