ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED IN THE GEORGIA STRAIGHT, MAY 22, 1997
By Steve Newton
Back when the Starfish Room was still a headbanger’s haven known as Club Soda, a rock-crazed pal of mine named Stick bumped into Lars Ulrich there. The Metallica drummer was hangin’ out with his entourage after one of the band’s intense Vancouver gigs when Stick—whose band Mad Duck had a rehearsal space two blocks from the bar—got the notion that Ulrich might want to slip out for a quick jam.
But the volatile skin-slammer didn’t take kindly to the suggestion, and gave the startled Stickman an angry dressing-down. Seems that impromptu jamming with a stranger was the very last thing on Ulrich’s mind.
When he calls from backstage at the Riverfront Coliseum in Cincinnati, Ohio—with openers Corrosion of Conformity blasting away in the background—I mention the Club Soda incident, and Ulrich stands by his vehement antijamming position.
“I have all the interaction with other musicians that I want,” he claims, “which is basically somewhere in the vicinity of none. I mean, I spend a lot of my downtime trying to get as far away from music as possible. Jason [Metallica bassist Jason Newsted] really loves jamming for hours, but that kind of endless sittin’ around, smokin’ pot, ‘Let’s jam for six hours’ just doesn’t interest me that much. I’d rather go to the movies or something.”
Ulrich hasn’t been spending too much time at the cinema since the pioneering thrash of Metallica’s Kill ’Em All debut set the hard-rock world ablaze back in ’83. When the band isn’t recording multiplatinum records, it’s constantly touring the world. It’s been to Vancouver a number of times, the first being on the Ride the Lightning tour in ’85, when the group tested the limits of local eardrums at the New York Theatre. Back then, Ulrich wasn’t having premonitions that Metallica would one day become America’s hard-rock kings.
As far as he was concerned, they already were.
“I’ve never really been one to look ahead that much,” he says. “I live pretty much in the moment all the time. I think a lot of Americans are very kind of goal-oriented, and I’ve just never really been that way about climbing ladders and reaching for things; I’ve always been pretty content with what’s going on. And at that time in 1985 when we were playing the New York Theatre there, that was beyond my wildest dreams. We were on top of the world.”
Although Metallica first made its name with a bludgeoning brand of menacing metal that was shunned by radio everywhere, by 1991 its music had developed more tuneful, mainstream tendencies, as evidenced by the breakthrough radio hit “Enter Sandman”. That more accessible approach continues on the band’s latest CD, Load, and has resulted in no small amount of flak from Metallica’s hard-core followers, who feel the band is abandoning its raunchier roots. I prefer Metallica’s current trend towards more melodic, less thrashy material, but the majority of hard-rock fans that I’ve talked to take a different tack. Ulrich is also aware of the backlash among Metallica’s longtime fans.
“Every time I get up in the morning there’s somebody who has a problem with something,” he says, “so I’m kinda used to that. I mean, ever since we put a ballad on the Ride the Lightning album back in 1985 there’s always been somebody somewhere who’s been sort of annoyed at something that we do. But we pretty much learned 15 years ago not to really care much for that, and always look within.
“Of course there are some hard-core fans who have that problem with the record,” he adds, “and that’s fine. It’s not mandatory that you have to like it—the only four people that really have to like it are the guys in the band. I mean, you have to take a very selfish route about these things, and as bad as that sounds, that’s the only way that I believe your true artistic self comes across. You can’t really sit there and worry about how everybody’s gonna react to what you’re doin’, because then you’ve already lost.”
Over the years there have been a few bands that have inspired Ulrich with a like-minded resolution to succeed on their own terms, and tops among them is Rush, which played General Motors Place last week. Considering how uncommonly creative a component drummer-lyricist Neil Peart is within that band, it’s not surprising that Ulrich—a major songwriting force himself—thinks highly of the cooperative power trio.
“I have liked different periods of their music for different things,” he says, “with my favourite period of theirs being around the Signals and Grace Under the Pressure era, sort of ’84, ’85. But you really have to respect a band that’s been around that long and continues to make records and tour.”
If ticket sales for Metallica’s Vancouver gig continue on course, by the time it takes over GM Place from Rush on Saturday (May 24), the Bay Area quartet will have sold several thousand more seats than its venerable prog-metal counterpart. For what it’s worth, Metallica has also been outselling Rush in the record stores of late, and some of the credit for that must go to local producer Bob Rock, whose first album for the band, 1991’s Metallica, has moved more than nine million copies in the U.S. alone.
Rock, who now works out of a glorious home studio in Hawaii (lucky dog), followed that up with last year’s Load—which has already eclipsed the three-million mark—and will also put his stamp on the next Metallica release, which Ulrich expects to be in the stores by November. “Basically, Load was gonna be a double album,” he reports, “and then we kind of pussied out at the last minute, and that’s what these next 12, 13 songs are. We’ve just got to put vocals on them and mix them and stuff.”
After perusing the abundant band photos in Load’s 32-page CD booklet, one might venture that Rock’s influence during recording went beyond the merely musical. In one studio shot, there’s a Vancouver Canucks banner proudly emblazoned on a control-room wall, suggesting that Rock was supporting his hometown team in spirit while the tapes rolled. But Ulrich, a San Jose Sharks fan, can’t confirm that.
“I think his sidekick Randy did that,” he quips, referring to engineer-mixer Randy Staub, another Vancouverite. “It had nothing to do with me. We were actually tryin’ to airbrush it out.”
Ulrich may not be the biggest Canucks booster in the world, but considering how well the band has performed in the team’s home rink, there’s plenty of Metallica maniacs around here. The number of hard-rock acts from the ’80s that can still fill large arenas is shrinking fast, and Ulrich is aware of how heavy rock’s popularity has dwindled in the past decade.
“In Germany and some other countries it still does fairly well,” he offers, “but I think in the United States, your heavy metal/hard rock is certainly somewhat of a dead issue—which is fine with me. I think a lot of the trappings of it really became a joke, and everything just got kinda silly. But we’re lucky that we’ve always kind of occupied our own space.”