Master Of Metal
From the moment of their first independent release in 1982,Metallica had passion and potential to burn. With their third album, Master Of Puppets (Elektra), Metallica not only outdistanced the rest of the speed metal pack, but began to change heavy metal forever. Even those who prefer melodic vocals and boy/girl content to James Hetfield ‘s martial barking and subjects of doom have to be impressed by the utter individuality and complexity of Metallica’s rampaging rhythms, textures, and sensibilities. Metallica’s creative breakthroughs in song structure—delicate acoustic passages unconventionally combined with tricky meters and galvanizing speed-of-light riffs—are as revolutionary as Led Zeppelin’s were in their day. Their sheer power and youth(the “old man” of the band, guitarist Kirk Hammett, is 24) alone might make Metallica heroes of the studs-and-leather set. But their defiant, do-it-yourself business attitude (as well as their ripped jeans and T-shirt posture) owes more to punk than Zep, and their time changes and non-formulaic musical approach have more in common with jazz than old metal.
But perhaps the biggest difference between Metallica and most heavy bands is that what dominates their sound is neither lead guitar nor lead vocals, but rhythm guitar and drums. A Metallica show is one of the few concerts you see where a large segment of the audience is playing air drums. So perhaps it’s no surprise to discover that Metallica was founded by drummer Lars Ulrich, who is as unique a character as Metallica is a band.
Lars’ father, Torbek Ulrich, was a tennis pro who hung out with jazz musicians to relax from the rigors of his sport. One of his friends, the great saxophonist Dexter Gordon, who lived in the Ulrichs’ native Copenhagen for some time, is Lars’ godfather. That in itself might have indicated a musical future, but Lars grew up thinking that, when he got to Madison Square Garden, there would be a net in the middle of it. He still hasn’t quite escaped his tennis past. When Lars greeted us in the lobby of his New York hotel, he wore a rock ‘n’ roller’s stubble, three earrings, a Metallica sweatshirt, sweatpants, and mismatched socks—one of which was decorated with little tennis rackets.
Unlike most rock stars, once Lars found out that we wanted to interview him, he made the phone calls and arrangements himself, although he has a staff and record company who are supposed to handle such details. Lars, who’d seen Blue Oyster Cult as a teenager in Copenhagen and San Diego, was as excited about meeting Albert as Albert, who considers Ulrich the most innovative drummer of his generation, was about meeting Lars. Later, we heard the Cult’s Cultosaurus Erectus blasting from Metallica’s Felt Forum dressing room before the band went on stage.
This interview began in the restaurant of Lars’ hotel, where we were interrupted by a friend of Lars’ announcing that “Charlie Watts is in the lobby, looking old,” and the other diners were somewhat shocked when Lars and Albert pushed back their chairs to trade blistering licks on their knees and stamp out imaginary bass drum riffs on the floor. We continued on the band’s tour bus, before and after Metallica’s soundcheck and show at the Capitol Theater in New Jersey. Lars wanted to make sure we came to the Felt Forum show two nights later, too, where the band would have the full light system the Capitol couldn’t accommodate. “I’m bragging about the lighting,” he said, “only because I’m impressed by it.”
Although, when we first met, Lars said that he still hadn’t recovered from jet lag due to a nonstop flight from Tokyo and was fighting a cold, he was always the perfect host, constantly in motion, making sure that we had everything we needed—from ample time with his drum tech, Flemming Larsen, to crew dinner and souvenir T-shirts. At 23, he seemed remarkably in control of his life, and radiated intelligence and boundless enthusiasm. An elfin figure who defies the metal drummer-as-big-bruiser stereotype, he punctuated his conversation with his hands—making sweeping gestures in the air, socking a fist into his palm to emphasize a point. You could almost forget that this extraordinary young man had, only two months before, survived the horror of the band’s tour bus crashing on an icy Scandinavian road, killing their bassist, Cliff Burton.
MD: Number one, how do you pronounce your last name?
LU: In English, I would say “Awlrick,” but in Danish, it’s a little sharper—”Ooolreek.” I’m Danish. I didn’t know if you knew that. We used to travel in America with my dad, and “Uhlrick” is the way he had his name pronounced. He was traveling in something very similar to this.
MD: He was a professional tennis player.
LU: Yeah. There are so many similarities between the whole circus of heavy metal and the whole circus of tennis—the environment I grew up in. We have to smile to people, and there’s always somebody we have to talk to—meet this guy, meet this guy. It’s cool, but there are just so many similarities.
MD: So how did you start playing the drums?
LU: All through the ’70s, when I was growing up, I was playing tennis as my main thing. There was not too much pressure from my dad to follow in his footsteps. It was just natural for me. My dad was very different in the white sport of tennis. He still, to this day, has longer hair than I do and a very long beard. He was like the hippie freak tennis player. In 1973, my dad and a couple of his hippie friends had tickets to see Deep Purple in Copenhagen. They had an extra ticket, so I was dragged along.
MD: How old were you?
LU: Nine. I was very impressed with the whole thing and the way Ritchie Blackmore was throwing his guitar around. The next day, I went out and bought my first record, Deep Purple’s Firehall, which was the only one the record store had by Deep Purple. And since then, this heavy rock and metal, or whatever you want to call it, has been my escape from the discipline of tennis. Down in the basement, my friends and I were always pretending that we were the orchestra. We had a table football game, which was the keyboards, and tennis rackets were the bass and guitars. I had cardboard boxes with some of those sticks that you mix paint with as the drumkit. Finally, in about ’77, I talked my grandmother into buying me a real drumkit. It was like one Premier tom, one Slingerland floor tom, and one Ludwig kick drum. I would just sit there and pretend I knew what I was doing, and hey, I’m Ian Paice.
MD: When you got your drums, did your friends have real guitars?
LU: No, no.
MD: So you never really had a band in Copenhagen?
LU: Never. I was getting seriously into tennis, so we decided that, in the best interest of my tennis future, we would relocate to Los Angeles in 1980. That was mistake number one for the tennis thing. In Denmark, I was someone. I was ranked in the top ten as a 16-year-old. But in L. A. in August 1980, I was absolutely nothing. I didn’t mean anything on the block that I lived on, tennis-wise. So at the same time as the tennis began to slowly fade out for me, the music that was going on in Europe, which I’d just gotten a taste of when I moved from Denmark, took over.
MD: When you listen to most people, you can say, “Oh, he copped from this or that,” but it’s hard to pinpoint your influences.
LU: I’m sneaky in that all my influences are unknown drummers. I had a lot of influences—a lot of very small British bands. In 1979, there was a whole upsurge of new young bands coming out of Britain. The biggest were Iron Maiden and Def Leppard. But there were hundreds of smaller bands that had records out on completely unknown labels. The punk attitudes that sprung out, you know, in ’77 and ’78, hit a lot of the heavy metal bands, and a lot of bands found they could do it themselves—record demo tapes, record small independent singles, and do tours. I landed in L.A., where none of this was going on. And I was so far removed from it that it became an obsession to be very interested in what was going on in Britain and Europe. The new bands and new ways of doing it- Iron Maiden, Def Leppard, Motorhead, obviously, Saxon, and a lot of bands I don’t know if you’ve heard of—Samson, Diamond Head, Trespass—they did it themselves. They didn’t just sit around and wait for the majors to come to them. That whole attitude gave me the kick to do it myself.
MD: Did you have any sort of formal teaching?
LU: I got into that then in Los Angeles.
MD: Who did you go to?
LU: West Coast Drums. It’s about five miles from where I used to live in Orange County. It was in a warehouse where they paid very little rent, so they could give really good deals, and the guys running it were so friendly. I had a vibe with this guy Joe. I took lessons from him for about a year. I really trusted him, and he worked at the store. The first kit he sold me was an old Camco kit, one of the last of the Camco line. The first thing I did as soon as I could sort of go one-two-three-four was form a band. I didn’t want to sit there for years and go paradiddle, quadruple flam, and all this. I wanted to play and create music. I had all this energy I wanted to get out. And I felt the only way I could get it out was by playing with people who played really loud rhythm guitar.
MD: How did you find people to play with?
LU: Through The Recycler in L.A., a classified newspaper. I’d put ads in that said, “Drummer longing for other people into European bands like Tygers of Pan Tang, Diamond Head, Angelwitch.” People would call up saying, “It all sounds great, but who are these bands?” I’d jam with some guy. The guy would live like 40 miles away, and it would only last a couple of weeks. I wanted to play all these songs that were favorites of mine from the new wave of British heavy metal bands. I would always sit and play air drums to them, and it was the greatest thrill to play real drums and real guitar with these songs. During the entire spring of 1981, I was just fooling around in L.A. There are a lot of flakes, as you know, in L.A. I became fairly annoyed and wanted to go back to Europe for a while, because the whole thing was really taking off in Europe. So I went back to England in July ’81.
When I went to England, I hooked up with these guys in Diamond Head, because they were my favorite of those bands. They had an album in 1980 called Lightning To The Nations, which, to me, is the best of all those records from that period and the most influential in both the early sound of Metallica and the early influences on my drumming. They played a gig in London the day I arrived. I hung out at the gig and introduced myself as the kid who’d been writing letters from America. They instantly took me under their wings. I was invited to Birmingham, where they lived, and ended up spending the next six or seven weeks with them. It was those six or seven weeks that really influenced me to go back to America and get my own band together. So I came back late for school in November of 1981 and called James up, who I’d met in the spring, and said, “Listen, let’s do it.” And we did it.
MD: In the story by Xavier Russell in your concert program, it says that at first James wouldn’t play with you, because you didn’t have a decent drumkit and your cymbal would fly across the room every time you hit it.
LU: They put that in the program because it was funny. By the time I called him up again after my stint in Europe, I had my Camco kit and he was ready. We got together and basically formed Metallica. All this time, I was still taking lessons. We had the first complete lineup of the band in February ’82. We did our first gigs in March ’82.
MD: This was the band with Dave Mustaine?
LU: This was Dave Mustaine on lead guitar and James Hetfield on vocals. James could play guitar great, but in the band situation that he wanted to be in, he wanted to be a singer. So for the first six months of Metallica, he was just the lead singer. We had Dave Mustaine on lead guitar and James’ housemate on bass. We were interested in getting a rhythm guitar player. We didn’t want two lead players. We were very determined on that for some reason; I’m not really sure why. And none of the people who came in wanted to play just rhythm. So one day at rehearsal, James picked up his guitar and said, “Screw it. I’ll do it.” He wanted just to be the rhythm player then, and we were looking for a singer for about a year. We couldn’t find a singer that’d fit in. So James ended up doing what he does best—singing and playing rhythm.
MD: When did you record “Hit The Lights”?
LU: That was the first recording that we did—on a small compilation LP in Los Angeles called Metal Massacre, which a friend of mine put out. That was even before we had a lineup in January, 1982. We had a Teac 4-track. I played the drums, James played rhythm and sang, and we had a black friend of ours on lead guitar. It was difficult for us in L.A. at the time, because Motley Crue, Ratt, and Quiet Riot were the club bands, before any of them broke out. We were obviously very different. We were doing all these songs of European bands. In the spring of’ 82, we just started getting into our own songwriting. And we played in the clubs and did all this heavy stuff with the emphasis on rhythm guitar. We were also very different visually. We didn’t care what we looked like, and there were all these bands with their hair and their makeup. To say that we didn’t go over so hot is putting it mildly.
MD: How did it feel when the band didn’t go over and groups you didn’t have any respect for seemed to be more successful?
LU: We just went out and played. We’d have a circle of 50 friends out front yelling, “Yahoo. “Slowly people started saying, “Metallica—they’re different. What’s going on here?” The big savior was when we did a gig in San Francisco at the Stone in September 1982 to promote this compilation album we were on. We came out and played all these British metal songs. What we weren’t aware of was that, up there, there was a huge underground scene—the equivalent was completely nonexistent in L.A. And all these people came to the first gig—like 200 or 300 of them. They knew all the Diamond Head songs and the Sweet Savage songs, and were going crazy. Then, over the course of the next four months—September through December of ’82—we kept going up to San Francisco and playing there.
MD: You eventually moved there when Cliff Burton joined the band, didn’t you?
LU: The switch of bass players made us move to San Francisco. But the whole scene in San Francisco was our type of situation. All these people were into the same bands we were into from Europe. People came out in jeans. There was none of this L.A. b.s. with your hair and your makeup, and standing over in the bar trying to pick up chicks. They were there for the music, which is what we were there for. All of a sudden, we had all these people. We started getting letters in the mail. It was like we were a real band up there, whereas in Los Angeles, we were a bit awkward.
MD: Who influenced your drumming then?
LU: Diamond Head’s Duncan Scott and the guy in Motorhead, Philthy Animal Taylor, were definitely the two biggest influences. Duncan Scott and Phil from Motorhead were two very, very different drummers. Phil was all over the place, doing a lot of quick fills and a lot of stuff that sounds to me these days like a sort of speeded up Ian Paice. The other side of that is the guy from Diamond Head, who drummed a lot more on accents—a lot of heavy accents emphasizing the rhythm guitar, utilizing a lot of the toms.
MD: In Metallica, everything, including vocals and lead guitar, is subservient to the drums and James Hetfield’s guitar.
LU: He and I get the songs together. We formed the band. The basic sound of Metallica is the rhythm guitar and the drums. Accenting the rhythm guitar seems to me more powerful than doing all these brrrrrrrrr rolls. When I listen to the first record, the rolls are there, but they don’t really do anything. They’re sort of hanging out, emphasizing the end of a measure or whatever. One thing I really picked up from Duncan Scott was to accent cymbals on the snare hit, which I do a lot. I hit probably 75 percent cymbals on the snare hits instead of on the kick drum. There’s something about that accent itself that’s really [socks fist into palm] powerful.
Basically, what Metallica comes down to musically is power. I try to emphasize that power and push it out to the other three guys in front. I’m not interested in showing off and doing fancy things that don’t really do anything for the music as an overall picture. The less you can play, the more you want it to come across that you really can play, and the more you feel that you can play, the less you need to prove it. That has been a very important point in my development over the last three or four years. I wish there were more people who felt that way. I think that conies with confidence. There comes a point when you just want to fit in with the music that’s going on around you, instead of doing all this solo stuff.
MD: On some of the really fast songs, like “Fight Fire With Fire,” how do you even get the sticks off the drums in time to hit them again?
LU: I play all the fast stuff on the Tama X-hat, because I can get my snare hand further back. So on “Fight Fire With Fire,” “Damage Incorporated,” and ” Battery,” I play on the X-hat. I used to play all the fast things on ride cymbal, but I’ve grown really bored with the sound of ride cymbals. I prefer hi-hats. To me, hi-hats sound a lot heavier. The only time I use ride cymbal on Master Of Puppets is on a really slow break on “Disposable Heroes” to get that really fat sound. But to play fast on the ride cymbal sounds really weak, I think. Right after we finished recording Ride The Lightning, I got my X-hat. I guess playing fast is something you get used to; it just takes practice. We do play “Fire” as the very last encore, and it’s the end of the set. We’ve been playing for an hour and 40 minutes and here’s “Fight Fire.” We just go for it, as fast as we can go; see ya.
MD: When you recorded it, was it as fast as you could go?
LU: At the time, yeah.
MD: That’s about one of the fastest tempos ever recorded. Motorhead never got close to that speed.
LU: That whole thing with speed really bores me. Is this band faster, or is this song faster…
MD: You don’t care about being the fastest foot in the West?
LU: Absolutely not. The thing that separates my really fast songs from some of the other fast drummers who play the same tempos is that most of the other drummers only hit one note. For instance Slayer—nothing against him; I think he’s one of the best new drummers today—but he does all this fast stuff. He only hits one note on the kick drums between every snare hit. I throw triplets in all the time, which makes the whole thing sound a lot fuller. I mean, anyone can do ones real fast.
MD: Tommy Lee said he attached a pedometer to his foot, and it said that he did the equivalent of six miles during a show. How many miles do you think you do?
LU: If Tommy Lee does six miles, I would do at least a marathon.
MD: One difference between old heavy metal and this wave is that older metal is based on the blues. The only time a blues feel even surfaces in Metallica is on “Orion.” Do you have something against the blues?
LU: The whole middle section of “Orion” came from Cliff Burton. A lot of the more off-the-wall stuff you hear, especially on the last two records, he was responsible for. Kirk, James, and I did fairly much of one thing. Then Cliff would do something very different to the songwriting. He was into a lot of old Thin Lizzy, Lynrd Skynrd, and old Z.Z. Top. And it’s not anything we’re against. “Orion” is one of the most interesting songs we’ve done, simply because it is so different. And without saying anything bad about the new guy, I’m a little sad that we miss Cliff’s input into the songs.
MD: Your name is on every song. What exactly do you do in the songwriting? Do you write lyrics?
LU: No, that’s completely James’ lyrics. James and I lived together and had sort of a rehearsal studio. When all four of us were in the same room, one guy was going cling cling, the other guy was going doo, and it was very difficult for us to focus. We’d have tapes from Kirk and Cliff of their best ideas, and James and I would simply build the songs. I can bring ideas to life through him. He can get the chord progression I hear in my head without my having to play guitar. I hear a riff in my head, I hum it out, and James plays it. It’s a riff that I’ve created through James. When we’d have the basic skeleton of the song, one guy would come in at a time, make suggestions, and take it from there. When we write a song, we try to approach it really separately and differently from the song before or after it. My biggest input into the songwriting is the structures, the mood changes, and how the song shifts from an intro into a verse and a middle break. That influence comes from the early Diamond Head. You know, you don’t wake up in the middle of the night and all of a sudden have the most original thing in the world. Everything comes from somewhere.
MD: Do you ever see yourself editing down to a conventional three- or four-minute format? Has there ever been pressure to make a single?
LU: There’s never been pressure for us to write anything in any different way than we do. On Ride The Lightning, we deliberately tried to make a song short, mid-tempo, and have a catchy chorus. When the whole album was over and done with, that was the worst song. We could see it was a huge mistake and realized we couldn’t do anything any other way than by instinct. We’ve proven to the record company that we don’t need any outside interference. We’re always open for a creative idea or a second opinion, but we’re not the kind of band that can be locked in and told what we have to do. On Master Of Puppets, we had quite a close thing with Geddy Lee. There was talk of Geddy Lee actually producing the album, but that didn’t happen. There are people we have a lot of respect for—our managers Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch, along with Geddy Lee, who we talk to. We don’t need any idiots up on the 23rd floor at the record company telling us what to do, because they don’t really have any contact with the street, the way we feel we do.
MD: Do you think that, as you get more successful, it may be harder to have that contact with the street?
LU: It could get harder if we wanted it to get harder. It’s more difficult now than it was, say, a year or two ago, but we are trying. I think part of the reason we’re successful is that we know what’s going on around us. We make a lot of conscious efforts to avoid really overdone, cliche things. Heavy metal today is the biggest cliche in the world. We see a lot of things we dislike, so we make sure we avoid them. What’s the point of doing something if it’s already been done? If you can’t do something new and different in whatever particular area you’re talking about, then don’t even bother.
MD: Sometimes what happens when you become successful is that, if something works, you feel you have to repeat it.
LU: You know the old rock ‘n’ roll cliche statements like “We’re doing this for the people,” “We want to give the people what they want,” and “We want to let people have a good time”—as far as I’m concerned, that’s complete bull. We’re completely the oppo site. We’re here for ourselves. We want to make sure that we have a good time. It might sound a bit arrogant or whatever, but that’s really the way we feel.
MD: It seems like you’re just beginning to discover what you can do in the studio.
LU: We have a very peculiar way of recording. People would be a little disappointed if they hung out in the studio with us. Every thing is so completely unspontaneous. It’s amazing that we make it sound the way we do in the end. We do everything separately. There’s not even bass and drums together. Basically, the way we recorded all of Master Of Puppets— except for “Battery” and “Damage” because they’re really fast songs that would be impossible to do this with—was that James and I would set the tempo of the song to a click track. James would lay down one cue rhythm guitar track, and then I would be alone with the engineer, Flemming Rasmussen, who we worked on the last two albums with. I would have the rhythm guitar and the click track, and we would just go. If things started getting wavy, we would go back and punch in. He’s the best engineer in the world for punching in. Engineers say, “Yeah well, you can punch a guitar in or vocals, but you can’t punch drums in.” Why not? We have mastered some sort of way of recording where there’s never, at any point, more than one of us recording, and there’s still some sort of live feel to it. That’s because we know that , when that red button is pushed, we simply give as much as…I mean, I’m sitting there, and there’s no one else in the studio. A lot of people probably couldn’t get a vibe off it. But when he says, “Rolling,” I just let out everything I have inside of me for 30 seconds or however long it takes for it to get wavy again.
MD: Did you do that on Ride The Lightning?
LU: On Ride, the budget was very different. Master was the first time we had the opportunity to go in the studio, and it was like, “Here’s the studio. Just send the bill when you’re done,” because it was the first record with Elektra. On Ride The Lightning, we had a lot less time, so it was, “Well, that’s good enough.” For Ride The Lightning, we had about six or seven weeks, including mixing. Master Of Puppets took from September to January continuously— just two weeks off for Christmas. Master Of Puppets was the first time we really wanted it to be as good as it could be. Nothing else was accepted.
MD: Do you do any drum overdubs on the records?
LU: A lot. One thing we throw in a lot is extra toms on accents—big heavy accents. Toms are good to overdub, because you can really make it sound fat and huge. On some parts, the snare is doubled. There’s the occasional punch in when I throw in an extra cymbal. That’s the hard thing about punching in drums. If I hit the cymbal, it’ll still be hanging in all the ambient mic’s around the room 10 or 15 seconds later, and you’ll punch in and hear a crash . . . .So a lot of times, I’ll play along—the exact same thing—so the cymbal should still be in the room, and he’ll punch me in. But sometimes, you can just vaguely hear it. I know I’m too paranoid about it. I’m the only one that hears this stuff.
Sometimes we’d spend a minute getting the song down and eight hours on the snare sound. I had to end up with someone else’s snare drum, because I couldn’t get the sound together. Rick Allen is a good friend of mine, and he has four or five of the classic Black Beauty Ludwig snare drums. I always heard about this Black Beauty stuff. They’re so rare, and they don’t make them anymore. We spent four days when we were trying to get a snare drum sound, and absolutely nothing happened. So finally, I called up Rick and said, “How about letting me use your snare drum. It’s so legendary.” Everyone said, “Yeah, sure.” But we tried everything else. So it was sent over from England. We took it out of the box, I hit it three times, and that was it. That was the snare sound I was looking for. Then what happened was I walked into this music store in Copenhagen and told the guy in the music store the story about how this Black Beauty saved the snare sound. He said, “Stay here for a second,” ran to the back room, and came back with a box that was unopened. He opened it up and pulled out a brand-new, never before touched 6 1/2″ deep Ludwig Black Beauty snare drum. It had just been sitting in his back room for seven years, and it had never even been opened. I’m so paranoid about it that I don’t take it on tour. I just want to use it in the studio. I have it stored in a bank vault in San Francisco.
MD: Did it seem weird to you to play in headphones in the studio? Did it seem unnatural or that you were cut off from the live energy?
LU: I never had any problems with headphones. I just used to wear the same headband that I used to play tennis with so they’d stay on. The thing I really had a problem getting acquainted with—and really hated at the beginning—was the click track. The first song we did click track for was “For Whom The Bell Tolls” on Ride The Lightning. On tempos that slow, I’d always done quarter notes. But it sounded a lot heavier to do half notes on the hi-hat. It was a bit wobbly, because I never really played that tempo before. Flemming said, “It’s click track time.” I tried it for about four seconds, threw the headphones down, and ran out. Slowly, you actually get into it. We recorded the rest of Ride like that. We came to Master, and I was actually up for it. I’ll never record any less than the really fast songs without a click track now. It’s a challenge—you against a click track—and you want to win. It brings out something in me that I like. I really, really got into it on the last songs on Master—”Sanitarium,” “Thing That Should Not Be,” “Orion.” It felt right. It was a really cool thing when I went up against this click track, and I was going to win and not let it mess me up. It helps me when I play live a lot.
MD: Do you own a drum machine?
LU: No. [We’re interrupted by a roadie bringing tape for Lars’ sticks.] This is one thing I copped directly from tennis. They have this gauze tape you use to tape the racket with. It’s not any drumstick thing. It’s just green gauze tape. You wrap it on. It doesn’t stick to anything; it just sticks to itself. They don’t slip out or anything. If I drop them, it’s because I’m stupid.
MD: Do you ever see yourself owning a drum machine?
LU: They’re a lot of fun. At the studio, they had a super up-to-date one that cooks breakfast, dries hair, and everything. Yeah, I could picture that, but it’s not high on my list of priorities at the moment.
MD: What drums and cymbals are you using now and why?
LU: I feel the 18″ medium-thin Zildjian crash cymbal is a good standard. It makes a lot of noise. It’s not too heavy to hit. It cuts through well. The rest of the cymbals are just one up and one down from that. I have a lot of 18s. I specifically use Zildjian cymbals, because I think they sound good. Live, I prefer the A Zildjian Platinums. They’re not too high ended, but they’re very, very crisp. My hi-hats are Zs, which are the heaviest. My drums are Tama power toms. I have all bottom skins in the studio, because drums simply sound better that way, period. The bass drum is open. Live, we mike them from underneath because Mick, our soundman, prefers it that way. And even though we know the drums themselves don’t sound as good without bottom heads as they do with bottom heads, he still says the difference in the drum sound itself isn’t as big as the difference he gets with the separation with the mic’s in there. It’s the same thing with the cymbals. Live and the studio are very different in terms of how I have the bottom skins and how I have the cymbals set up. I prefer the Platinums visually, because they look really cool with a lot of lights. I don’t think I would use Platinums in the studio. I would use just regular A Zildjians. The audio side of it is so minimal. It’s like a waterfall that hits you. Live, the difference you get if you have bottom skins on or not is so minimal. But these things are a lot more important when you record.
MD: Do you use any electronic effects?
LU: Live, the Yamaha REV 7and noise gates. In the studio, sometimes echo on cymbals is really cool. In one place, we flanged a cymbal. There are ideas you come up with in the studio. With the drum room itself at Sweet Sound Studio, which is where we’ve done the last two records and where I would prefer to record the rest of my life, and the way Flemming Rasmussen works the room with ambient mic’s, you don’t have to put too much stuff on.
MD: Were you using double bass on Master Of Puppets?
LU: Every song.
MD: You can’t always hear it.
LU: That’s probably one of my only complaints: When I do double bass, it’s not as up front as it should be.
MD: Are you using just ruffs and flams?
LU: That’s one thing I’ve been getting into a lot. I used to only do triplets [does a figure on the floor with his feet], but now I’m getting into more like this [does a more complicated figure on the floor]. But I do this all the time [does double-bass roll on the floor].
MD: Do you lead with your right or your left?
LU: I’ll demonstrate it, and you can answer that question.
MD: You lead with your right. Do you use two different sticks?
LU: That was true. It’s not anymore. I changed when we came off the Ride The Lightning tour. I had it for about two years. My thought behind it was that I liked real heavy snare, so I had a 2B for a snare stick, and I would shift between a 5B or a rock stick for the ride because some of the songs are so fast. Every time the drum roadie back then would hand me a stick, it was like a huge complicated thing.
MD: Do you ever get a cramp in your legs?
LU: No, but if I’m on a night of low energy, I try to do less of the visual side. When I’m really on, I sit up, play out to the people, and have a lot of eye contact with the people. When I’m high on energy, I do that very well. On the nights when I get a little tired, I just sort of go down and I wouldn’t say I hide, but I get down. Most of it is mental. Sometimes I’m tired, but I tell myself that these people have been waiting outside for four hours and why shouldn’t I just keep this going? Or I’ll tell myself that it’ll be over in twenty seconds. Then, I’ll put it on autopilot, and think about going to the bakery and getting a pastry.
MD: Seeing you in concert, it’s hard to imagine that you’re ever thinking about going to the bakery.
LU: I try to remove myself from what’s going on in my body for a few seconds. There’s one place in “Ride The Lightning” where, if I’m having a low-energy night, I get away with switching to single bass. It’s right after I play the longest stretch of double bass in the whole set. If I’m really, really tired, I just kick into single there without anybody noticing and saying, “Hey, the drummer just switched to single bass. I want my money back!”
MD: Do you use oxygen live?
LU: Some people say it’s bull and some say it’s not. I have it usually around encore time. I just read some reports in magazines where doctors questioned if it actually gives you a kick or not. But if it doesn’t work physically, it works mentally. If you take three sucks off an oxygen tank and just mentally you think you feel better, it’s worth it. I’ve done it all year. Now it just depends how hot it is.
MD: How do you relate to the bass player? Where most drummers and bassists lock in together, you key off the rhythm guitar.
LU: I have absolutely no bass in my monitor, period. I have a very different monitor setup than most drummers. I can’t hear him. I play with the rhythm guitar; that’s it. In my monitor, I have 25 percent kick, 25 percent snare, 50 percent rhythm guitar, and a hair of toms. I have none of Kirk’s guitar, no bass, and no vocals.
MD: So on stage, the difference in bass players hasn’t had a radical effect on your playing.
LU: In terms of how it was with Cliff? Obviously, I can sense it. I told Jason [Newsted, Metallica’s new bassist] very early on that one of the things I feed off a lot is what’s going on with the three other guys on stage. If you notice the way the set is designed, I’m fairly far out there. I pretty much designed that part of it. There’s a lot of room for the guys to hang out on each side of me. One thing I really hate is to be left alone back there. I told Jason that I wanted him to come up because it gives me a lot of kick. When he comes up, we do something together—just eye contact or whatever.
MD: What do you think is your greatest strength as a drummer?
LU: In a band where so much is built on the rhythm guitar and the riffs, it’s good that I don’t want to be all over the place all the time. When I’m on, I really can push the rest of the band. I can play quite fast and I can play heavy quite fast. Some people can play fast, but there’s not a lot of power being emitted. I think a lot of the energy in the Metallica music starts back around me, and then I emit that power out to James and the rest of the guys. They throw it further out in the crowd, and they throw it back. It’s a circle that starts back with me. Someone once called me Angus Young on drums. When I play, I just get heavily into it. I mean, people like John Bonham are heavy drummers, but you see them sit and play, and yeah they’re roaring, but . . . .I’m not a particularly heavy guy, but I give 100-and-whatever percent pretty much every time.
LU: On some of the nights that I don’t play very well, I really play bad. It’s strange how I can psych myself down in a gig. I can make a couple of mistakes early in the gig and bring myself even further down thinking about the mistakes in the beginning. When I lose my confidence, things can get ugly. That’s my biggest weakness. Also, everything has to be right. I can almost go out of my way to search for something not to be right so I can use it as an excuse. If the monitor is not spot on, I can always blame the monitor. If one cymbal is two inches further to the left than it should be, I can always blame that. If I do 80 gigs in 110 days, my mood goes up and down. The kids don’t notice it, but I notice and the band notices. The worst thing of all is that I notice it.
MD: So you want to be perfect every time?
LU: I don’t care if I do a fill and the fill is not perfect, or if I reach for a cymbal and it’s not there. My greatest concern is not messing up and messing the other guys up. The other thing that I hate is when I’m a little cautious. I just want to be in the really confident mood. I play best when I don’t think about what I’m doing. I usually sit and make stupid faces at Flemming Larsen, my drum tech. When I start thinking about what I’m doing, sometimes it can be a disaster. Last night, there was one place in “Ride The Lightning,” and for some reason, my mind just focused in on it about a minute earlier in the song. For that whole minute, I was thinking, “Okay, here it comes. I’ve done it 800 times before. It’s the easiest thing in the world,” and when I got there, it just fell to pieces. But again, it’s not something that any of the kids out front would notice. So I don’t know if it’s strange to hear someone being as honest as I am right now. It’s easy to say, “Well, I never screw up.” I’m just overemphasizing the things that happen maybe three percent of the time.
MD: The band is very tight and the set is very structured. Although the show is fresh, there doesn’t seem to be much improvisation. James even says essentially the same thing every night at specific points.
LU: One of the things I thought was great about a lot of stuff in the ’70s… I collect a lot of Deep Purple tapes, and if you listen to the same song on two different nights, one night it’s eight minutes long, and the next it’s 12 minutes. Ritchie starts a solo, and when he doesn’t want to solo anymore, he’ll cue the drummer to go to the next break. That kind of thing is cool. In a way, that’s missing quite a lot. We play fairly much the same set every night. That works best for us. It’s not often that, all of a sudden in a gig, I’ll throw in something completely new. But every year, I upgrade the songs. When we come back from this tour, a lot of Master will get upgraded. Off the road, I play a lot. Where James and I used to live for three years, we had a house and a garage. It was the easiest thing to wake up in the morning, and go out and play all day.
MD: One more question: You’ve helped explain what makes your playing and Metallica’s music so unusual. But there’s one thing that you do that defies rational explanation and makes life difficult for your drum tech. On stage, why do you only have one spare stick on each side?
LU: I don’t usually drop more than one at a time. If I drop one, Flemming’s right there to put another right in. I have a stick in my hi-hat stand, and I’ve got the biggest, oldest piece-of-junk stand ever. It’s rusty. It’s like a little bottom half of a stand. It’s got a broken drumstick glued inside so the drumstick just sticks up. I’ve had it for over three years. I’ve got this superstition. I’d be lost without it.
Lars Ulrich’s Equipment
Flemming Larsen, Ulrich’s fellow Dane and an accomplished drummer in his own right, came to tune the drums for the recording of Master Of Puppets, and stayed on to tour as Lars’ drum tech. He graciously filled us in on Lars’ setup and equipment needs, as well as inviting Albert on stage during the last few songs of the Felt Forum set. There, Albert took note of the extra pair of dry shoes and socks behind Lars’ drums, as well as a bathrobe, which Lars, like the other members of the band, wears as he’s led off stage. Lars sweats so much that steam rises from his soaked drum throne when he gets up.
Lars uses Regal Tip 5B sticks and doesn’t wear gloves. His drums are the Tama Superstar series. The 24″ bass drums are tuned exactly the same (although a small stuffed monkey sits on the front of the left one). His Tama power toms are 12″, 13″, 14″, and 15″, There are two 18″ floor toms. He keeps his prized Ludwig Black Beauty snare off the road and tours with Tama 6 1/2″ chrome snares. Other than extra snares, “we haven’t got room for spare drums,” says Flemming. “We have two kits, though—an American kit and a European kit. And we can always call Tama and have something sent out.” According to Flemming, Lars “takes the same pedals and tom holders everywhere we go. He’s very worried if he changes to new tom holders.” Lars uses Tama King Beat pedals, Tama stands, and Tama hi-hats with a DW clutch, which he feels is somewhat more durable. “The design of the hardware is terrific—the best I’ve ever seen,” says Flemming. “Everything holds up, but the finish is coming off. They’re getting rusty, because Lars sweats a lot and spits a lot. I can’t wipe everything off after the show—go in all the little corners.” Flemming carries three or four spare stands, two spare pedals, and as many sticks and heads as possible.
Lars’ heads are Remo transparent Ambassadors. The snare head is coated with a black dot underneath to give it more strength, “because sometimes he uses a head for each gig, and we can avoid! that with the use of the black dots.” Cymbals are the Zildjian Platinum series, which, Flemming acknowledges, is “very nice for me. They’re very easy to polish.”
He uses an 18″ China Boy low, 16″ medium thin, a 19″ medium; (unless they’re all broken—which happened on this tour, in which case he uses an 18″), an 18″ medium thin, 16″ medium, 17″ medium thin, 20″ China Boy low, and 20″ Rock ride. He uses Z series Dyno Beat hi-hats.
Mick Hughes, Metallica’s sound mixer, mikes the kick drums with AKG RE20’s; toms: Sennheiser 421 S; snare: Shure SM-57 (top), AKG 224 (bottom); cymbals: AKG 460. Noise gates are DBX 904 sharp attack, short hold. For ambience, he uses the Lexicon PCM60 and the Yamaha REV 7.