Last weekend, Metallica closed out the 59th Annual Grammy Awards alongside pop superstar Lady Gaga, but all did not go as planned: during their set vocalist James Hetfield had a microphone malfunction, forcing him to share Gaga’s. Despite the setback, their rendition of “Moth Into Flame” was nothing short of spectacular. The two musical powerhouses, who at first seemed an unlikely pairing, delivered an unforgettable show, with some arguing that the shared microphone amplified the thrash metal energy of their performance.
From Metallica’s surprising collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony in the ’90s to performing with Lady Gaga at the Grammy Awards, the metal legends continuously manage to keep their audience guessing. True to form, the band, now in their 36th year, have unexpectedly announced that starting in May, they will be going on their first full-scale tour of the U.S. since 2009. In celebration of this news, we’re reprinting drummer Lars Ulrich’s feature from Interview‘s November 1999 issue, where he reveals his pointed opinions about the heavy-metal community, aging, and the importance of musical growth. —Tahnsarah Peters
Strings Attached By David Sprague
Metallica is working with some surprising band members on their daring new album—the San Francisco Symphony.
Almost twenty years ago, Metallica emerged as hard rock’s most primal party animals, laying the foundation for what would become thrash metal. When the band grew wary of the genre’s limitations, however, they zigged when others expected them to zag. They even managed to overcome the sudden death of bassist Cliff Burton, who was killed in 1986 when the quartet’s tour bus overturned in Sweden. The group stalked through the ’90s with a steely maturity and an astute world view, but with every bit of viscera intact. This month they take another unexpected turn: a live album recorded with the San Francisco symphony.
DAVID SPRAGUE: Your new aesthetic caused quite a bit of grumbling in the heavy-metal community.
LARS ULRICH: The heavy-metal audience is very conservative, and I get into pushing their buttons. The fact that people could spend all this time talking about our haircuts just points out how ridiculous the whole thing is. If at the end of the day someone’s opinion of us comes down to whether we’re wearing leather jackets, then they shouldn’t be buying the records.
SPRAGUE: Do you give much thought to the idea of aging?
ULRICH: People are always spewing this horseshit about how age doesn’t matter. Well, it does matter! I’m thirty-five, and I’m happy to be thirty-five. I can’t pretend I’m still a snot-nosed 21-year-old and that the four of us are living in one room eating tuna out of a can. I had just as much—even more—fun in a purely primal way back in those days, but everyone grows up.
SPRAGUE: You recently played your material with a fully outfitted classical orchestra. Was that a daunting proposition?
ULRICH: It was an interesting one, to say the least. It’s not something that would have occurred to me, but when the idea was suggested, we jumped at it. Stretching your parameters is a necessity if you wan to keep growing, and sometimes the best way to do that is to dive into the deep end.
SPRAGUE: I understating your interest in so-called highbrow culture extends to art as well.
ULRICH: I’m fascinated by and collect artists who play with the perception of what painting actually is. A lot of it descends from the Cobra movement, which began around 1948. All these writers, artists, and poets formed this doctrine of stripping art of any preconceived notions and approaching it with a child’s innocence. It’s funny, because whenever I buy a piece, someone invariably says, “Oh, what a great investment.” And I hate that reaction. To me, it’s a matter of love and not an exchange of equity.
SPRAGUE: Money and creativity must also come into conflict with Metallica, don’t they?
ULRICH: Obviously, we’re in a position where things are expected of us, but at the same time we’ve never done anything that I feel was contrived. In that way, I think we have more in common with bands like U2 or R.E.M. than with a lot of hard-rock bands that have been around for the same amount of time. Those are bands that inspire me more than most people would imagine.
SPRAGUE: And if it were to end tomorrow, what would you like the final word on Metallica to be?
ULRICH: I would say that I’m very proud that we play heavy music—but equally proud that we don’t think like a heavy-metal band.
THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE NOVEMBER 1999 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.