Lars Ulrich: ‘Metallica Is All Of Us And Metallica Belongs To Everybody’

Lars Ulrich
Kevin Winter / Getty Images
– Lars Ulrich
Lars Ulrich performs at I Am The Highway: A Tribute to Chris Cornell at the Forum on January 16, 2019 in Inglewood, Calif..

Metallica just wrapped another leg of its monster “WorldWired” tour with two special hometown gigs opening San Francisco’s brand-new 18,000-seat Chase Center Sept. 6 and Sept. 8 for “S&M2” a special 20-year anniversary redux of the band’s Symphony & Metallica shows with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra.

“Over the years, whenever we get a chance to give something back to San Francisco, we’ve always jumped at the chance,” Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich told Pollstar just ahead of the S.F. gigs. “The fact that we can be part of opening of this incredible establishment is is going to be super cool.” 

The tour leg caps a run that has grossed more than $415 million and sold 4.1 million tickets, putting it in a league with the very top of the touring echelon, and bigger than ever as a band that has consistently toured at the highest level for decades with more than 22 million tickets sold since 1982 according to Pollstar’s boxoffice history.  The “WorldWired” run continues in October with dates in Australia and New Zealand, as well as in South America with Greta Van Fleet in April. 

Founding Metallica member and drummer Ulrich, interviewed for a recent Pollstar cover story taking an in-depth look at Metallica’s touring prowess, talked at length about the band’s career, touring schedule and the band’s legacy as one of the greatest metal bands of all time.
Pollstar: You guys have been on the road a while, but you’re hitting in lots of different cities, indoors, outdoors, different kinds of shows. I mean, does that kind of keep it a little more interesting playing places like Fresno and Boise? 
Ross Halfin
– Metallica
The band’s lineup since 2003: bassist Robert Trujillo, guitarist Kirk Hammett, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist and singer James Hetfield.

Lars Ulrich: We hadn’t done a lot of the secondaries in America for some time. So I think it had been around eight or nine years. So we just finished in I guess what, March? We finished just going back and like you said, playing in the Fresnos and the Boises and Birmingham, Alabamas and the Little Rocks and a lot of the great secondary places, the lockbox of the world. Places like that that we hadn’t been to for quite some time, so it was fun and you really feel that people in those places are not only just into it, but are very appreciative of the fact that you came through their town. 

It’s great to connect with that side of America. Like I said, we hadn’t done it for a while, so it was a lot of fun. 
[But] it’s not so much about like selling out or not selling out. It’s getting an opportunity to play to fans that don’t get a chance to see us very often. Like I said, it works both ways. It gives us a chance to come in and, and hit up some cities and some environments that we haven’t been to a lot. 
And, and it gives the fans a chance to experience, um, something you don’t get to see as often as obviously a New York or London or LA or whatever that, that get rock and roll shows a couple of times a week. 
For us it’s a vital part of touring. You know, in the last 10 years since we started this model, we have found a way for it to work for us in terms of how we tour, the amount of shows that we play, and how we play them. We played these shows in sort of two-week increments, which gives us a chance to sort of look at the long game rather than how we’d go out and play, you know, 100 shows over 130 days, and then we all fall over and can’t deal with the physical and mental fatigue of it. 
If touring is one of the things we do, I don’t necessarily look at it like the tour’s never-ending, you know, it’s just this tour will just roll over into something else, which will roll over into something else. 
Then, you know, at some point they will stop calling it the ‘Hardwired To Self-Destruct’ and then it’ll be something else. So it’s not that old model of putting out a record then going out and playing 150 shows and then going home. That, that’s not really our MO anymore. 
And so when people go, ‘How long is the tour?’ Like the tour? Maybe to my early- to- mid 70s and then as long as we can keep going without, you know, falling prey to the physical ailments that can cut these things short. Knock on wood. 
Do you think you guys can keep going that long?
I’m pretty sure that the notion of us playing or functioning when we’re 76 mentally is not a stretch at all. In terms of the desire to want to play music, connect with each other, connect with the fans and take Metallica music, I think that we can, definitely. I mean, obviously, you know, sanity/insanity aside – which some could argue is certainly a part of what we do. But I’m not worried about that side of this. I think that we’ll always be inspired. 
We’ll always get an incredible joy out of playing music, sharing it with people will always have incredible respect for the audience and will always feel that. Playing is something that keeps us alive. Obviously the physical part of it is the big unknown. So when you look into the future, when you look into the pipeline, who knows what that will look like? 

Metallica WorldWired aerial
– Metallica WorldWired aerial
And if I don’t want to be disrespectful to the Charlie Wattses of the world or whatever. But yeah, you know, obviously playing “Master of Puppets” or “Fight Fire With Fire” or “Battery” or any of these songs, maybe has a slightly different demand. 
I just don’t know, I don’t know how long it can go. We’ll see. But we’re taking precautions – or cautions is the right word – but we’ve found these bound balances for us. So right now playing 50 shows a year is good, but we could play 50 shows every year rather than play 50 shows one year and then not play any the next year. But 50 shows a year is really good for us. We play them in two-week increments. 
And that works really well. We go out, we play our ass off a couple of weeks and we get all beat up and banged up and burned out, and then we’d go home and then we recharge the batteries for two, three weeks and then we go out and do it again. That model works for us. 
I think that we’ve got a couple of guys out here that are taking care of the physical elements and stretching us and stitching us back together after the show. And, you know, we spoil ourselves with a chef that cooks good, healthy food. So we invest a lot of resources and time into trying to make the physical experience as kindly as possible. 
So hopefully there’s a few years left in the tank, physically. Like I said, I’m not worried about the mental side of it now. 
I didn’t mean to derail too much on our way. You guys make it look easy and it’s easy to forget that playing the rhythm guitar alone and then to be so tight and technical music.  On the listening side, it’s easy to just say, ‘oh, well that’s Metallica. It’s what they do.’ But it is physically demanding and it is probably something you do have to be mindful of as you stay on the road for 50 shows a year at any age. So I just thank you. 
Yeah, no, I appreciate that. I mean, it’s certainly not getting any easier, that much I can tell you. 

Well, I’m sure the new music probably keeps it exciting as well. 
Right. The music definitely. Also, the other thing that we do, which is vital for us, is that we keep changing the setlist up. 
Since we started aggressively switching up the setlist, I think it was around 2003 or 2004, but it’s been, what, 15, 16 years and we haven’t played the same set list twice. 
We’re always putting in different songs and different deeper cuts. Whether it’s over two weeks or one where we play different set to every night. We’re always conscious, when we put the set list together, number one, give that city a different experience than the last time we were in that city. 
And also there’s an incredible amount of people that travel with us wherever we go. So we make sure and give them a different setlist every night, so they don’t see the same experience. 
But again there’s so many songs you might not have played in a while. You have to rehearse, you have to be very tight. You can’t just go up there and phone it in. 
We have a studio in the bowels of the arena, the stadium or wherever, they set up so we get a chance to rehearse. There are about 40 to 50 songs that we can more or less play. 
I don’t know if that is on a moment’s notice, if that’s the right way of saying it, but, you know, with a day or two notice. If we run them once or twice in this studio that we carry, the tuning room we call it. And we’ll throw in different songs and different, deeper cuts. If we’re starting on a leg or this European tour that we’ve been playing since May, you know we’re playing some St. Anger songs that we hadn’t played for a while until we rehearsed those once or twice before the beginning of the leg. And then we can sort of throw them in whenever, but there’s I’d say at least 40 songs that we can more or less play at a moment’s notice. So it gives us the opportunity to write a fresh and new set list every night, which is  definitely a part of what keeps it going. 

Metallica in the round
Courtesy of Live Nation GSA
– Metallica in the round
Most arenas the band visited celebrated a new attendance record thank to Metallica

How does it feel to make such heavy music and still be one of the top touring bands of the last few years? It seems pretty incredible. 

One, I think it’s a testament to the global reach of rock and harder rock. Obviously most of the time hard rock is not at the forefront of anybody’s mind in terms of trends, waves or sexy factor or a choice for media to write about. You know, it’s just consistently there, but obviously as of rite of passage or as something that kids can reach for whenever they start becoming independent in their growing up years. 
I mean, hard rock has always been there for and it becomes a significant part of people’s lives all over the world. I think the main thing that has changed or evolves on a worldwide basis, there’s more and more, infrastructure that supports touring at the level that we do. 
20 or 30 years ago, it wasn’t possible to go to Jakarta. It wasn’t possible to play in Manila or play in a Bogota, Colombia, or Guatemala, Estonia. We just played the Olympic Stadium in Moscow two weeks ago. It just simply wasn’t possible because the infrastructure wasn’t there. The environment didn’t really support this type of thing. I mean, if you were going into some of these places, you were often not knowing what was gonna happen. You didn’t know if you could rely on the logistics, the mechanics to be functioning. The safety of your experience for the band members, the crew members, but also for the audiences and so on [was a concern]. 
And so now on a worldwide basis, there’s a lot more structure to this type of thing. So as the world becomes smaller, there’s more places to play. 
We like to explore, we like to travel and we’d like to give people all over the world an opportunity to experience what we do and this type of music. So obviously we’re happy to go and travel and do this. 
So obviously on that front there’s more places to play. And it feels to me that we’re constantly playing in one country, and then there’s always 9,000 people in another part of the world that complain “Why are you only playing in that part of the world?” We’ll hang out, we’ll get there. Let us just play over here and then, you know, six months from now we’ll come and play in your zone and then we’ll go and play in Latin America and then we’ll go play in Asia and then we’ll go play in somewhere else. 
The touring environment is just so much healthier than it was. Also, obviously the the festival experience now means that you can rotate between playing indoor, arena level shows and then you can play sort of stadium shows and then you can play festivals. So we quite comfortably rotate between those three different experiences. And for the audience, the fans in those particular cities get a chance to see us in different size buildings and also at festivals. 
So the fatigue factor is kept to a minimum, both from the band and from the audience’s point of view. So that’s really cool. And it gives you an incentive to just keep going because, ultimately, this is what we do. 
The last leg we’re visiting places like Estonia and Russia. So it’s just unbelievable how we’d go into a place like Estonia and we played to 60,000 people. it’s just incredible what, you know, the energy is at the event itself and how appreciative people are. It’s just really cool that can still happen, so as long as that keeps happening, we’ll keep doing it. 
But in the first place the fans wouldn’t want to see you if not for your music and your performances. What do you think made you guys so popular where you can play any part of the world? 
Well I’m not comfortable being overly analytical about that part of it. I mean I’ll usually say something cheesy like our good looks. But, at the end of the day, it all starts with a good song and everything else from that secondary. And I guess when we write songs we’re fortunate enough that people connect to the music, the energy, the lyrics, the story. And a lot of times getting overly analytical about that specific part of it makes me – increasingly as I get older – feel more and more uncomfortable. I think part of the magic of music when it really, really works is that people make up their own version of what the song is that works for them. And so I’ll sit here and go ‘well, you know, in this song, this happens, in this song that happens.’
And then, you know, that may not mean fucking shit to somebody else in Estonia. Do you know what I mean? So I think when music really works it gives everybody a chance to connect to something that’s bigger than themselves. 
I think all humans, as a species, want to connect to each other and music connects people. And when we play these songs and when the four of us connect with each other and the fans experience our enthusiasm, playing with each other and our appreciation for the fact that we can still fired up, that somehow transcends over that barricade that can exist between an audience and a stage or an audience and a band. And when it really works, that barricade dissipates and the music connects the people in the audience or the people on stage, and it becomes this magical thing. 
And I don’t know if it needs to be explained much more than that. If you put 10 Metallica fans or 10 people that show up at our gigs up against the wall and ask them the question you just asked me, you’ll get 10 completely different answers. People will connect to different things in the music, the lyrics, the story and that’s just the proof of the transcending, otherworldliness of this medium when it really works. 
Why us? I don’t know. I mean, I guess ultimately as fans, you know, fans of music and gatekeepers of Metallica, we set a fairly high standard for ourselves and in order for this to get us off, it’s got to have a particular set of elements. And, I guess if it turns those on, then we’re fortunate enough that what turns those on also seems to turn a lot of other people on and I try to not be overly analytical about that part of it. 
And frankly, if we knew why everyone would do it. I’m just having a great time right now, so yeah, you can’t quantify it. 

Ross Halfin
– Metallica
You’ve been with your manager for quite a while. Do you have anything to say about being with Q prime and manager Cliff Burnstein?
Well I’ve known cliff since ’84, so that’s 35 years. We use the phrase ‘Metallica family’ and, you know, we really depend on deep relationships, relationships that are forged in trust and knowing that everybody’s got the group’s best interests and everybody’s looking out for each other and that we really are family. So this relationship with Cliff and his company 35 years later, I mean, it’s stronger than it’s ever been.
You know they’ve always been advisers, managers and part the team, but they’ve never been babysitters or binders or hand-holders. So we learned at a very early age to be independent, to be responsible, to be respectful. And they were never there to give us a false question of ourselves or pats on the back or talking about how awesome we were. Cliff has always had a philosophy about, you know, what it’s been, it’s been real and the relationship has really been about a mutual respect and an understanding of what I would call the “long game” and taking the high road, never going for short-term gain.  It was just more like “We’re in this for the long run and the most important thing is our integrity and that we can all look each other in the eye, that we can look our fans in the eye and that we can look our peers in the eye.” That we’re authentic and that we’re real and that the fans know that this is the real thing. That’s always been the primary MO. 
And, statically and dynamically, Cliff’s personality and his vision is a big part of why we’re still here. It’s just never been about back-patting, insincere compliments and all this kind of bullshit. We always kept it real and that’s been a significant part of the reason that you and I are sitting here talking to each other. 
But were there growing pains? Was it hard to sort of age gracefully as a metal band? Musically, is that something you had struggled with? 
To me as I got a little older, I used to think Metallica is James and I and Kirk and Rob, you know, we are Metallica, it belongs to us and you don’t fuck with Metallica and all this shit. I don’t think like that at all anymore. I think Metallica is all of us and Metallica belongs to everybody. Metallica is more like a state of mind or some sort of ethereal position or situation. It’s like nobody owns Metallica and it’s a place we go, it’s a place we escape to. It’s a place we go and feel better about who we are or connect to other people or connect to the fucking energy of the universe. You know what I mean? And it’s just a different kind of thing. 
So to answer your question maybe in not such an abstract way, to me, I just keep thinking and forcing myself to think that all our best years are still ahead of us. We may even, you know, turn professional and do this full time one day, you know what I mean? 
That’s the MO, you know, the MO was always, which one is your favorite record? I’ll tell you which one is my favorite record: the next one, the one we haven’t recorded yet. It’s always about the possibilities. It’s always about what can be, it’s always about what’s coming. And that, to me is, is really what this is all about. And I think that attitude is, is a big part of why Metallica still connects to so many people around the world.