It’s rare that a drummer becomes the face of a band, much less one of its most well-known members. But that’s the case with Metallica’s Lars Ulrich, who doesn’t shy away from speaking his mind and dealing with whatever fallout that invites. This past weekend, Metallica performed at the Grammys with Lady Gaga, a performance that saw some technical difficulties plaguing the early going. But Metallica has a long history with the ceremony, as it was first invited to perform back in 1989 when its fourth album …And Justice For All was nominated for the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance award. The band infamously lost to Jethro Tull, which raised questions about the award show being out of touch and heading toward irrelevance. Nearly three decades later that conversation is louder than ever. The A.V. Club spoke to Ulrich about the Grammys in 2017, Metallica’s collaboration with Lady Gaga, and what a constantly shifting music industry means for Ulrich and his band. It also coincides with the band’s announcement of its first full U.S. tour in eight years, the dates for which can be found here.
The A.V. Club: Since everyone’s talking about the Lady Gaga collaboration at the Grammys, let’s start there. Rolling Stone quoted her as saying you two met at Bradley Cooper’s house, and that’s how this all came together. What made this materialize instead of just being the kind of “we should work together” thing that never ends up happening?
Lars Ulrich: Well, obviously, there’s a whole bucket-load of people that you respect and admire as artists. One thing we do pride ourselves on in Metallica is that we don’t necessarily do a lot of collaborations, so when we do them they’re pretty special. We try to cherry-pick them a little more. When you do the Grammys, part of what makes the Grammys special is that collaborative undercurrent. So the Grammys asked us if we would come and do it again, and then literally in that same couple of days they were like, “Do you have anybody in mind?” We were talking internally about how awesome it would be for James [Hetfield, Metallica’s vocalist-guitarist] to sing with a great female voice and have a back-and-forth on one of the new songs. And then I just happened to run into her at this dinner. Sometimes that stuff just happens fairly organically. A lot of times, it’s always better when you don’t chase it. We don’t go looking for this stuff, generally. When it happens, it’s always by these chance encounters. So there was an organic and pure element to the whole undertaking that was pretty special.
AVC: Did it feel pretty natural when you all got in a room and ran through the song?
LU: Listen, I knew this was going to work. I mean, Gaga is a metal chick at heart. There was no way this was not going to work. It was totally in her DNA. It was totally in her wheelhouse. This was not not going to work. The only question was at what level it was going to work.
We did one run-through. The way her and James’ voices worked, it jelled so well together we all kind of stood there like, “Huh?” It was really fucking next-level. I think we rehearsed it twice, maybe three times on Friday night. And it was just dialed. There was no sort of, “Oh, my god, what are we doing here?” This was as natural and organic as you could imagine this type of stuff being. This was a home run from the get-go.
AVC: You said that Lady Gaga was “the quintessential fifth member of this band” and this is just the start of your work together. How do you see that taking shape?
LU: As you spend 72 hours with somebody, and there’s this connection and this intimacy, part of it is that maybe you don’t want it to end. When these moments work, you always leave them open to reconnection. So obviously, we’re not sitting in a recording studio today writing songs for a record or anything. I think that our weekend together was so seamless and so authentic and such a natural fit that the idea of revisiting this at some point down the road… As we were walking off one of the soundchecks, she said to me, “We gotta do something again together. This is just too good to leave.” And I said, “I agree with you. It’s just too real.”
Obviously, we haven’t sat around and talked about this yet. It’s been 48 hours. [Laughs.] I’ve been busy hearing myself talk about tours and all kinds of other stuff. But if there was ever an opportunity to revisit something like this, this is about as pure as it could get. So we’ll see.
AVC: Metallica has an interesting history with the Grammys. In 1989 you lost the Best Hard Rock/Metal Performance Award to Jethro Tull, which sparked a lot of discussion about the awards being outdated and irrelevant. That conversation has been back with even more fervor in recent years, especially after Beyoncé lost to Adele. How do you view the Grammys? Do you think they are relevant, and do you think they are accepting of artists doing new, progressive work?
LU: It’s an interesting question. There was an article in The New York Times [Monday] that talked about making the Grammys more like the Oscars. If you look at the Oscars, this year, you’ve got a movie like Moonlight, a movie like Manchester By The Sea, you’ve got lots of independent, progressive, creative endeavors that are at the very, very center of the spotlight. I thought that was a really interesting take on it. Because generally, when you think about the Academy Awards, you don’t necessarily think of them as a super progressive institution. But I think it’s kind of interesting how film has, in the last few years, broadened its reach so there are all these different voices in that world. There’s the commercial element, and then there’s the independent elements that sometimes are—dare I say it—a little more creative in their undertakings. So I thought that was an interesting comment on the whole thing.
The Grammys, obviously, back in the day were notoriously conservative. When we started forming a relationship with them in the late ’80s, that was sort of the year they let hard rock and metal in. Now they’ve started widening the categories, getting rap in there. When we were there playing, a good part of the room looked—I don’t know if they were frightened—but they certainly looked puzzled as we were playing. And then they gave the award to Jethro Tull, which was more comical than anything. I think it’s easy for all of us to sit here on our individual pedestals and point the finger of judgment and all that stuff. But at the end of the day, it’s a television show. For a television show to reach as many people as possible, there’s some give and take there. And there are some people that need to be involved in that for it to reach a lot of people.
For a lot of people, the Grammys are the only three hours a year that some people get into the musical world. You can argue that they could cast the net a little wider. But, at the same time, if it’s three hours of only artists that people in New York, L.A., San Francisco, and Chicago have heard about, then that doesn’t necessarily penetrate the flyover states. There are so many different sides to this argument that it’s hard for me to have one steadfast position. Could they spread the net a little wider? Of course they could! And I’m pretty sure that they have those conversations—regardless of me and you—on a daily basis. But, at the same time, they also want to make sure that people watch it. So it’s a fine line. I guess increasingly in my life I pick my battles to get involved in, and it’s so far beyond my reach that I’m just happy every three years they send an email asking if we’re interested in coming and joining them. We’re very proud of the fact that we’re the ones that sort of represent the harder rock world or whatever, so we appreciate that they cast the net wide enough to even let crazies like ourselves in. So I see both sides of it.
AVC: It’s interesting that you mention the Oscars, because much of its progress came from a very vocal backlash. That said, the Grammys did do something progressive in allowing Chance The Rapper’s album to be eligible, and then they actually awarded him for it. How do you view the shift in music that’s purely digital entering the conversation? Do you think it changes how music is made and how it reaches people?
LU: It hasn’t directly changed our process. When you write a song, you write a song. Whatever you’re going to do with a song after you written it, I don’t think those things necessarily overlap. Obviously, nowadays the primary driving force is not radically different than it was 20 or 30 years ago: I’ve written a bunch of songs, and now I want to get them to the people that are interested in hearing them. The idea is to make those songs available for the people that are interested in hearing them. The part that changes over the course of every decade is how that facilitates itself.
What you have to remember, and is sort of on a global basis, is that there’s one thing that happens in San Francisco or New York, and there’s a different thing that happens in Portugal and Uruguay. And there’s something else that happens with Chance The Rapper’s album and Spotify and Apple Music. Within a global outlook, you have to condition yourself to realize that what works here may not work over there. You have to do your best in each different situation. And that’s a living, breathing organism. It’s almost like a runaway train. You just hang on, but you don’t really know exactly where you’re going. You’ve got to be prepared to follow that ride. I don’t know where it’s going to be five years from now, but I know we’ll do our best to still be hanging on for dear life five years from now. And we’ll try to be at the forefront of the technology and the opportunities that [that] gives us to communicate with our fans.
At its core, it’s about how you communicate with your fans and how you get the music to the people that want to hear it. That is something that changes, if not on a daily basis, at least periodically. You just have to be open enough to roll with that. And if you’re not, you’re gonna put some people out of that loop.