I Went on a First Date with Metallica's Lars Ulrich
It got better, but the beginning bit was dreadful.
"So you've had three marriages. Do you still believe in the institution of marriage?" Yes, this is my opening gambit. Lars Ulrich pauses, looks taken aback and after one beat too long replies: "Um…yes, yes I do. I've lived a lot. A third marriage… you save the best for last."
"My dad's been married three times too," I offer.
"Right in line with our demographic, I guess," responds Lars, wryly.
As first dates go I'm really knocking this out of the park early. Sitting at an outdoor table at Robert DeNiro's swank Tribeca eatery with the Danish drummer—arguably Metallica's most recognizable and outspoken member—I can feel the red start to rise in my cheeks. Nothing left to do but blunder on: "Do you consider yourself a romantic?"
"Um… this isn't stuff that I think about a lot," he says. "I guess I would consider myself a romantic. If hard pressed, yes. Yeah! I haven't had a lot of these conversations… I guess I would consider myself a romantic."
"Is this freaking you out?" I ask. "Am I being too direct?"
"Oh no… it's just because I'm in new album mode," he says.
Ah yes. Metallica have a new record out, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, their first LP in eight years, and their tenth album overall. If you want to know about the ins and outs of that record then read our metal editor, Kim Kelly's interview with Lars. Riffing on erm, riffs, is not what Noisey first dates are made of. My plan, as ever, is to be nosey! And personal! To talk about love, and romance, and maybe, if our date is going well, sex. I mean, this should be a cinch, right? I know Metallica. I pined after that classic Metal Up Your Ass Metallica tee (mom said no). I spent many a night starring at my bedroom ceiling listening to "Nothing Else Matters." (Please don't get angsty about how this is their most commercial song and I can't be a true Metallica fan. That song spoke to my 13 year old soul.) I interviewed Kirk Hammett in 2008 at Germany's Rock Am Ring (we bonded over horror movies and being half-Filipino). In fact, Lars and I have met before: That one time, in San Francisco in 2005, in the back of the Kings of Leon's tour bus. (Lars: "Sure, that sounds probable. If I don't remember anything beyond that, we should leave it at that.")
But this date is not going well. I change my tact.
Noisey: If you weren't married, and we were going to go on a date, what would be an ideal situation? You're a big film buff, right?
Lars Ulrich: When I enter the film world, that's when I turn my brain off. Music is not terribly inspiring anymore unfortunately. In the world of film, there are still more creative things happening—it's more intriguing. Film is definitely my favorite escape. These things [gestures to his smartphone] have a tendency to disrupt your life if you let them, so I guess seeing films is the most immediate disassociation from this damn thing.
That's why I like flying. I just pretend the wi-fi is broken.
Film is my great escape. My wife and I were talking about going to see a film as soon as this is done.
Given your schedule and that you and your wife [Jessica Miller] have kids, do you find you need to schedule times to go on actual dates?
Well two things: Number one, being Danish, Danish people plan, it's in my DNA. Second of all, I find as you get older, which I'm like 100 years old…
You're not 100 years old.
You're too kind: I'm 90. When you get older, you plan. And so I find a combination of being Danish and being seasoned makes me plan things. We're here in NYC for 10 days, doing lots of stuff that has time stamps so we have to steal our private time. If you like to go to theater, then you have to plan. Especially in this fuckin' town—things here sell out. We find the right balance, she keeps me somewhat spontaneous and impulsive, and I keep her a little more organized. If you look at my relationship with James Hetfield, I'm the one keeping things somewhat in line.
You haven't lived in Denmark since you were 17. Can you remember your first impressions of America as a teenager?
Size. Everything is big here. We came to New York in '74, '76, '78. This was back when the cars were big as football fields. We went to record stores and would buy a shit-ton of vinyl. I finished school in Denmark when I was 16 and lived in America for a year down in Florida. I went to a tennis academy. My dad was a tennis player and jazz musician and Denmark is next-level liberal. All of a sudden, I was in a dorm in Bradenton, Florida, in a rundown hotel that had been turned into a tennis academy and it was lights out at 9.30. I got in trouble for smoking weed. It was a clash of two worlds, so I kind of ran out of there. But then we moved to California. At the time I think I was blindly fooling myself into believing that I had a future as a tennis player. In Denmark I was ranked in the top 10 of my younger age groups, then I came out to LA, I wasn't ranked in the top 10 in the street I lived on! I didn't even make the tennis team at the Corona Del Mar high school. It was a total mindfuck. I walked away and within two or three months, music took over.
And how was that? Did you find kids who were into the same stuff as you down there?
Southern California, at that time, was full of 16-year-old kids in pink Lacoste shirts. They were all preppies and jocks. I started wearing my Iron Maiden t-shirts and my Motörhead t-shirts, my hair was as long as it would grow: I would pull on it every day to try and make it grow faster. I was a dorky, disenfranchised, loner teenager. I wasn't weird or outcast, I was kind of left alone, no one fucked with me, I lived in my own world.
What was your success rate with the ladies back then?
Nonexistent. Is there anything lower than zero?
They weren't charmed by your long, flowing locks?
There was an occasional like grunt in my direction, but no, nothing.
But then you started a band…
We started young. James and I met I was still seventeen. James and Ron, who was his best friend, lived alone. Dave Mustaine—who was our guitar player for the first year—he was a very magnetic personality, very good looking, he had great hair. James and I were very awkward, Ron was sort of OK, and Dave Mustaine was really cool. There were a lot of people around Dave Mustaine. He had a lot of friends, of both sexes. People would look around and go, who are these guys? Dave would introduce us as the members of his band. We started figuring it out slowly, very slowly. Then we met Cliff and he encouraged us to move up to San Francisco.
What was the scene like in San Francisco at the time?
This was in late '82, early '83 when there was a new cultural thing happening. We started getting more and more comfortable socializing. San Francisco was the antithesis of what was going on in LA. The rock scene in LA was very much about movements, fads, fashions. In San Francisco, people were very individual and did their own thing. We filled in with a big group of rock kids, most people were in bands, everybody just lived music. There'd be 20, 30, 50 of us hanging out with a boombox, doing keggers at the top of a place called Strawberry Hill in the middle of Golden Gate Park. People were just playing. We weren't any different. In LA it was a thing about pecking order, about leaders and followers. In San Francisco, people were appreciative for who they were. We really embraced everything in San Francisco and took it to heart. It's been 33 years now.
You have three boys. Are they teenagers yet?
One's in college up in Boston at Berklee School of Music. I have one who's in high school in Marin and one, the smallest one, who's at MCDS in Marin.
Do they ever come to you for relationship advice? Or do they just keep away?
They are so far ahead of me, of where I was at that time. There's been a couple conversations. But when you say advice, I think nowadays with the internet, they figure it out on their own. I'm certainly there for them, and there's no weird boundaries or anything like that. Up in Boston, my 18-year-old is doing very well, seems to be having a good time. He's got a lady friend up there. I was an only child and not a lot of people were into the stuff that I was into. I wasn't weird and I didn't get bullied, but I was very much a loner. None of my kids are like that whatsoever. They are the opposite. Listen, like I said, if you wake up and find yourself going to school in Northern California, not only that, but in Marin County, you've already won the fucking lottery. But also in terms of social acceptance and culture, and the way of looking at the world, it doesn't get much better. So I think that it's as good as one can hope for anything to be in this day and age on that front. I beat into their heads everyday how lucky they are. Actually, my middle son and I joke: Every day he goes to school, he pauses and thinks about how lucky he is to go to Marin Academy. He appreciates every minute of it. So I think it's working so far.
In the interim between this album and the previous one, you guys talked about how you wanted to focus on family.
It's important. The best thing that ever happened to this band is that the four of us, especially Hetfield and I, became parents more or less at the same time. It was 18 years ago, so if I'm 100 now… no, I was 35 when I had my first kid. It gave [Hetfield and me] an additional element in our relationship; it gave us something else to talk about. We were able to bond and connect over it and that's been really cool. The kids get along. In our band, the fact that all four of us prioritize the domestic responsibilities and all four of us took the turn at the more or less same time is really cool. It takes a while when you're in a band to figure stuff out.
Over the years, when you're fortunate enough to become successful, when you become successful you can become more financially independent. And so we've been able to put parameters on how we tour so we can spend more time at home. We have a two-week rule: we don't leave home for more than two weeks at a time, 16 days at the most. We did 180 dates on the last album in two week increments. It's not the most cost effective way of touring the world, but we believe you can't put a price on sanity. If you remain somewhat sane, than there's a better chance of finishing all the shows and not jumping off the deep end in despair and misery.
When you weren't married, was it hard to work out if people that you met liked you because of you, or liked you because you were the drummer in Metallica?
There was certainly a period where that didn't matter. When you're 18, 19, 20-years-old, when you're fresh out of home and you're touring America, that question is not applicable. Especially when you're such an awkward latecomer as myself.
When did you start to feel confident in yourself in that arena?
That's a great question. I guess probably by the mid 80s, somewhere on the Master of Puppets tour. Ozzy and Sharon took us under their wing and we were with them for basically the entire year. We played arenas where you're offstage at 8.45 in Albuquerque, New Mexico or El Paso, and you're about 21 years old, you can probably connect the dots. Somewhere on that tour, it went from being weird and "what the fuck" to "I can figure out how some of this is supposed to work." So I guess '86 when I was 22, 23.
When you were famous and looking for love, was it hard? It's not like you could jump on a dating site in the 80s.
You're talking about pre-dating sites—Al Gore still hadn't invented the internet. The good thing about Northern California and the Bay Area (and obviously the middle of the country) is it was the place in America where fame and all that shit is the least applicable. In LA, it was obviously the opposite, in New York to a degree too. So I guess you just have your radar on to the best of your ability. We're kind of in close to perfect position. We're pretty well enough known to get in anywhere, but we're not so well known that it becomes difficult to navigate in terms of people that are triple A-listers. It's always been a pretty cool place. And I've always, I guess to a degree, as I've gotten a little bit older, cherished my ability to blend in. I've rarely had security guys or done the big posse—big dick with twelve guys behind me. I've always cherished slithering in and out and being a little more low key and pulling my hat down over my face. If I was in therapy, I'd say I'd learned to survive that way. It's never an issue I've really dealt with, at least compared to really famous people.
You said you don't find music very inspiring… but do you still find playing in Metallica inspiring?
Ten years ago or 30 years ago, it was different. Like, "Oh my god Guns N' Roses, oh my God who are these Nirvana guys! Oasis!" You were hearing about it, and you wanted to meet them. Nowadays, there aren't any bands that have had that impact on me. The last time where I was like, "Holy fuck! This really inspires me," was this band called Sword, from Austin, Texas. Stoner rock, kind of a modern Black Sabbath. Super cool. They showed up seven or eight years ago, and I just had to bring these guys on tour. There is a Norwegian band called Kvelertak. These bands are few and far between nowadays. This is not a black and white statement. I know more about film than I do about music because I follow it more. That doesn't mean if something awesome came and slapped me in the face then I wouldn't embrace it, it just shows up less and less.
I watched that Mission to Lars doc a while back. How was meeting with Tom?
Tom's awesome, Tom's the coolest. People are like, "You gave this guy your time? And you met him? Seriously?" We were 170 shows into our tour, we get an email about this family making this film and meeting Tom with special needs. I mean seriously? Of course we're going to meet him. It's not that complicated. Of course we do a lot of work with the Make a Wish Foundation, and we meet kids all the time in the most fucked up circumstances. It's a part of who we are, and it certainly inspires you too. Often, those are the highlights of your day. Sometimes when you're having a bad day it helps you appreciate how lucky you are. And you shouldn't be sulking about how the omelet wasn't cooked the right way in the Four Seasons hotel you were staying in that morning. Tom and his family were great. We've remained connected and close friends. We stay in touch and follow the story.
Some Kind of Monster is one of my favorite rock docs. As the subject of that, did you have any regrets or apprehensions going into it?
We made a decision that we were safe with Joel and Bruce, and that it wasn't something we could micromanage. Our record company was initially paying for it, it was supposed to be more of a making of the album, then things took some pretty unexpected turns. There were questions about what to do with it, the label didn't want to fund it anymore. We decided to give them their money back and handed it to Joe and Bruce and said do what you gotta do, we'll make ourselves as open as possible. I am always up for a dare, and I love stuff that has a unique feel to it. We knew that Joe and Bruce weren't going to sell us short. And so that was the life preserver I guess.
I have a pretty good ability to compartmentalize stuff. I can pack stuff in the corners of my brain, and easily forget. I get very unemotional about this stuff. There were times when I was watching earlier cuts where I really had to go into that mode. Whatever it was I was watching, I had to third-person it, if you know what that means—it's not really me, that's sort of a character. I think that the dare was the transparency. To me, either you're transparent or you're not. It's not like you're sometimes transparent and other times not. It was like, "Doors fuckin' open so knock yourselves out." That was it. A couple of the band members had a different take on that.
Say you had a daughter, would you warn her against dating musicians?
No. Musicians are creative people and musicians need love like everybody else.
But they're such troublemakers.
That's a little bit of a general blanket statement for the way I view the world. I think it would be a little bit contradictory if I had a daughter and I advised my daughter against dating musicians. I would advise my daughter to be careful in any dating endeavor, whether if it's someone in the creative world or not. I'm sure there's as much shenanigans that happens with colleges and jocks and business schools. All of it. No, so I would not advise her against it.
What would be your deal breaker? My deal breaker is when a person is rude to waiters or is a messy eater. Or if they're not good at cuddling, like if you're a bad spoon-er.
Thanks for sharing that with me! My deal breaker is [not having a sense of] humor and [grasping] sarcasm and irony. A lot of Danish people poke and like to be a bit provocative—it's in our DNA. Sometimes with people, especially with people I don't know, I'll throw a couple of provocative balls out there, just to see how they get handled. If they don't get handled the right way, that's a turn off for me. Generally this is how I feel, not just with people that I'm dating. There's got to be an ability to deal with abstract humor, and more unusual ways of looking at the world.
Kim Taylor Bennett had to resist responding to Lars with some smutty comment about handling balls. She's an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter.