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Lars Ulrich seems hesitant. Well, maybe hesitant isn't the right word. Cautious is more like it. Tentative, perhaps. Then he comes right out and says it: "This is my first interview for this album, so be nice to me."
The album he's talking about is 72 Seasons, the first Metallica record in nearly seven years, and the long-awaited follow-up to 2016's Hardwired… to Self-Destruct. But it's not the new album that has him feeling vulnerable. "I can't even remember the last time I did an interview," he explains.
Birthed in the crucible of the pandemic, 72 Seasons isn't just a new Metallica album. In many ways, it's the reintroduction of a band that occupies a new, somehow even more exalted position in the pop-culture pantheon than they did before COVID. Part of that is the massive boost Metallica received — not that they needed it — from their 1986 classic "Master of Puppets" being featured prominently in Netflix's retro sci-fi series Stranger Things. And part of it is a viral video of Ulrich, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Robert Trujillo hugging vocalist-guitarist James Hetfield onstage in Brazil last year after Hetfield admitted to the crowd that he was feeling a bit old and insecure. This would've been unthinkable in the Eighties when Metallica were an unstoppable, and unflinching, testosterone-and-beer-fueled thrash machine touring with the likes of Venom and Ozzy.
As it turns out, the 2023 version of Metallica is a different beast entirely. They don't simply hire overpriced shrinks — as seen in the notorious 2004 documentary, Some Kind of Monster — to iron out creative differences and mediate interband conflict. They actually talk about their feelings. Onstage, even. And it's likely that the songs on 72 Seasons are more personal than ever.
Musically, the album is almost an overview of the band's 42-year career. The title track, "Shadows Follow" and "Too Far Gone?" revive the frenetic thrash of Metallica's early days; "You Must Burn!" sounds like something that could've been on the Black Album; "Sleepwalk My Life Away" and "Chasing Light" boast rock grooves that split the difference between the Load/Reload era and something their friends in Corrosion of Conformity might write. Meanwhile, lead single "Lux Æterna" seems like a tribute to Diamond Head, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal band that provided some of Metallica's earliest inspiration. And 11-minute closer "Inamorata" somehow manages to invoke both Kyuss and Metallica's towering 1986 instrumental "Orion."
Based on the concept that the first 18 years of life impact us for the rest of it, 72 Seasons deals in nostalgia ("Lux Æterna"), self-harm ("Screaming Suicide") and self-reflection ("Room of Mirrors," "Sleepwalk My Life Away"), among other seemingly introspective topics. Not that Ulrich — or Hetfield, who wrote the lyrics — will confirm or deny any specifics.
"The theme of the record, to me, is about how your experiences over the course of your life continue to shape you and affect the decisions that you make — and who you are," Ulrich says. "In the song '72 Seasons,' James had this concept that everything about who we'd become later in life is really shaped in those first 72 seasons. Everybody felt that was really interesting, but so much of what we do is really just instinctive. At the end of the day, it's just four guys throwing ideas at each other. You do the best you can in the moment and hope you land in the right place."
YOU AND JAMES WERE 18 WHEN YOU STARTED METALLICA, WEREN'T YOU? IS PART OF 72 SEASONS ABOUT LOOKING BACK AT YOUR OWN ORIGIN STORY?
LARS ULRICH That's a great question. I don't think it's so much looking back on the band's origin story as it is looking back on each of our own stories. Obviously, for somebody who's been around as long as we have, those lines get blurred really quickly. Almost everything in my life, I correlate to a Metallica event because I've been in Metallica since I was… actually, I guess, 17. I was 17 when James and I met and started [the band]. And I turned 18 two or three months later. So, the timeline of basically my entire life threads in and out of the timeline of the band. You can't silo the two as two separate trajectories.
Of course, you sit around with your buddies and tell tall tales and war stories or whatever — I'll tell stories from the road or about all kinds of crazy shenanigans that we were up to — but I don't spend a lot of my time in the past. I spend, probably to a fault, too much of my time in the future and maybe not enough time in the present. But between the past, the present and the future, I definitely hang out mostly in the future. So, the correlating of the band's timeline to my own is obviously a really interesting point. And I think your question is valid. I just don't have an obvious answer.
YOU GUYS DIDN'T REFLECT ON THE PAST AT ALL WHEN YOU WERE WRITING?
That didn't come up so much in the discussions when we were riffing back and forth about where this was going, but I think it's a great point. Who would've thought that 42 years later, we'd still be doing interviews and talking about new records and all that? It's kind of crazy to sit here in my late fifties [still doing this]. Kirk has already joined the 60 club, and the rest of us are right behind him.
But I think we're very comfortable with who we are right now. Age and experience are a part of who we are that we don't want to downplay or run away from. All these experiences have obviously shaped who we are up till this moment and will continue to shape who we are in the next moments. The other three members may have different versions of this, but I know for myself that I spend a lot of time thinking, Next year I'm going to do this, and five years from now I'm going to do this. So, I spend a lot of time maneuvering around in the future. I'm happy to talk about the past and I'm happy to relive some of those things, but it's not something that I do unless prodded or encouraged.
WELL, I'M GOING TO PROD YOU A LITTLE BIT MORE. IN THE ALBUM ANNOUNCEMENT THAT WENT OUT, THERE'S A QUOTE FROM JAMES SAYING, "MUCH OF OUR ADULT EXPERIENCE IS REENACTMENT OR REACTION TO CHILDHOOD EXPERIENCES, PRISONERS OF CHILDHOOD, OR BREAKING FREE OF THOSE BONDAGES WE CARRY." WHAT'S YOUR TAKE ON THAT?
Well, I think we all have our own versions of that. I don't want to speak for anybody else in the band, but James is going through a phase where I feel that he's very open and transparent about a lot of the stuff that he's been through. A lot of it's coming out in his lyrics, and I'm very supportive of him using the lyrics to communicate. But I don't want to put words in his mouth, obviously.
HOW DO YOU THINK HIS STATEMENT APPLIES TO YOU, THEN?
There're certain things from my childhood that I still carry with me. I've talked openly about this, but I'm an only child. I've heard myself say 612,000 times that the reason I'm in a band is because I want to be around other people. I definitely was a bit of a loner when I was growing up, felt kind of ostracized, never felt like I was part of the big cool club, never felt like I was part of the center of attention. I was always sort of hovering outside. I was playing tennis, which is a solitary sport. You play against other people, but I spent a lot of time playing against the wall or with ball machines. I would bike myself to school rather than take the bus with other kids. So, being in a band, being in a group, being in a collective, being in a gang — whatever you want to call it — has always given me a sense of belonging.
I was an awkward, isolated, loner kid back in the day [who] jumped into a band environment. All the social elements came in the wake of that, whether it's meet-and-greets or always being around people or — back in the day — partying and all that type of stuff. Being around people that were like-minded and were all in their own way sort of disenfranchised misfits was like, "Wow, there's so many of us." It started in Southern California when we first formed the band with me and James and the few people that we played with very early on. Then, we moved to San Francisco and became part of the thrash scene up there. From there, we met more and more musicians and metal fans outside of the mainstream. Looking to connect with other people, that's definitely been my path. And that comes from being an only child. But everyone has their own version of that. I'm sure you have your own version.
IS IT SAFE TO SAY THAT THE LYRICS TO THE NEW SONGS ARE INVITING PEOPLE TO MAKE THEIR OWN INTERPRETATION?
From the very beginning, I think the strength of James' lyrics is how it's always been about making up your own meaning, your own version. We're not being dictated to. And there's enough of an abstract wording in there for everybody to have their own version of what exactly these words and these songs mean. I don't think that that has changed over the years. When these songs come out, everybody will get a chance to dissect and decipher them, to embrace them and analyze them and everything else. Hopefully everyone will find their own version of what this means and create their own picture. I know James is certainly not more interested in explaining what the songs mean than he's been in the past — which, as you know, means he's not very interested in carving that out in stone. I can tell you that I'm certainly not going to try to carve it out in stone for anybody, either. I can just tell you what they mean to me.
ONE OF THE REASONS I WAS ASKING YOU ABOUT METALLICA'S ORIGINS EARLIER IS BECAUSE ON THE FIRST SINGLE, "LUX ÆTERNA," I CAN HEAR THE DIAMOND HEAD INFLUENCE IN THE RIFFS. THAT'S EVEN BEFORE JAMES DROPS THE LINE ABOUT "LIGHTNING THE NATION," WHICH IS AN OVERT NOD TO DIAMOND HEAD'S DEBUT ALBUM. I KNOW THEY WERE A KEY INFLUENCE ON YOU GUYS WHEN YOU STARTED THE BAND. WAS THERE A "LET'S GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING" MINDSET WITH THAT SONG?
No, that's never the mindset. When we were writing what became "Lux Æterna," I don't think Diamond Head ever came up. But, obviously, yes, I did notice that he said, "lightning the nation" in the song. I don't really ask him about the lyrics, to be honest with you. But you know me well enough to know that when people go, "That sounds like NWOBHM" or "That sounds like Diamond Head" or whatever, I get it.
It's not like I'm puzzled by these comments. I just try to take a step back and enjoy the banter. I don't feel a need to be involved in the discussion, and I don't feel a need to try to, I guess, correct it. I don't want to get into an interview with Revolver and say, "No, no, no — hang on, Metallica fans. This is what it means, and this is how you should interpret it." As you get older, you're just less interested in trying to steer that dialogue. But if you wanna get technical about it, the riff is in the key of A, and a lot of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal songs were in A as well. But the majority of our songs are in either E or F-sharp. I hate breaking things down to that level, though.
LET'S TALK ABOUT THE SECOND SINGLE, "SCREAMING SUICIDE." WHEN YOU GO TO WATCH THE VIDEO ON YOUTUBE, THERE'S A WARNING THAT SAYS, "THIS SONG TALKS ABOUT SELF-HARM," AND YOU HAVE TO CLICK AND AGREE THAT YOU'RE GOING TO WATCH IT ANYWAY. AND BELOW IT, THERE'S A SUICIDE HOTLINE NUMBER. AT WHAT POINT DID YOU HAVE A SENSE OF HOW THAT SONG WAS GOING TO BE PRESENTED?
It's something that comes afterwards. When you're in the middle of creating something, you don't spend any time thinking about how it's going to be interpreted. But we made a choice, feeling that with this subject, this lyrical foundation, it would be helpful to package it with those disclaimers and that helpful information in there. And it was really, really emotional for me. I checked some of the comments a day or two after it came out, and to read the feedback from the fans about how many people have been affected by this topic in their family, in their extended family, with their friends, was just mind-blowing. I was reading through the YouTube comments, and every third or fourth comment was somebody sharing a story about suicide or suicidal thoughts in somebody close to them. I was sitting with tears in my eyes reading this feedback.
I THINK THAT SPEAKS TO THE IMPACT METALLICA HAS HAD ON PEOPLE OVER THE YEARS. ON THAT TIP, NOT MANY GROUPS CAN PULL OFF THE KIND OF TOUR YOU'RE ABOUT TO EMBARK UPON — TWO NIGHTS IN EACH CITY, WITH DIFFERENT SET LISTS AND OPENING BANDS.
We're definitely getting into something that we've never done before and nobody has really done before, so the blueprint for this is fairly nonexistent. But the idea of being able to take this whole thing one step further with different support acts on each night as we're playing different sets was more of a last-minute realization. I don't know exactly where it's going to land, but it's going to be exciting. And daunting. So, fucking wish us luck.
SOME OF THOSE SHOWS WILL BE WITH PANTERA. YOU'VE KNOWN THEM SINCE THEY WERE PLAYING CLUBS, BEFORE PHILIP ANSELMO WAS EVEN IN THE BAND, HAVEN'T YOU?
We met the brothers [Dimebag and Vinnie Paul] on the Ride the Lightning tour and became friends with them. This was in Dallas in — what — 1622 or something? It was about 400 years ago. [Laughs] We obviously loved both of them, and they had a posse down there, and we would see them whenever we came through Texas. We watched the band evolve over the years from more rock vibes into that creative, unique force that they became. So, we've had a relationship with them for decades and decades, yeah.
DO YOU HAVE A FAVORITE PANTERA SONG? WHAT ARE YOU LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING THEM PLAY ON THIS TOUR?
I haven't followed the setlist, but obviously "Walk" and the rest of the singles. I think that the idea that they're out celebrating the music and the magic of Pantera is … I know there's been a lot of talk in the community about whether people support that or not. But I'm the type of person, if Glenn Hughes wants to go out and play a Deep Purple set, I'd support that. I'm always in favor of people following their musical and creative ambitions; so this Pantera reunion, I think, is good. And obviously having Charlie [Benante] up there is great. I saw a video from one of the Mexico shows that felt like they were in the pocket. It'll be fun to have them out.
SPEAKING OF TOURING, THERE WAS THIS REALLY HEARTWARMING MOMENT YOU GUYS HAD ONSTAGE IN BRAZIL LAST YEAR, WHERE JAMES WAS TALKING BETWEEN SONGS AND HE WAS SAYING HE WAS HAVING A BAD DAY AND FEELING A LITTLE INSECURE, AND YOU GUYS ALL GAVE HIM A HUG. TELL ME ABOUT THAT MOMENT FROM YOUR PERSPECTIVE.
Hugging your fellow bandmates is definitely something that we do enjoy along the way. And being open about our love for each other and our appreciation for each other and how grateful we are that 40-plus-years later we can still stumble along and make it happen. We're very comfortable with that side. When you play these songs live and have these very rigid set lists, like, "OK, there's 16 songs and in this particular order," and everything's very scripted, our fans who know us well know that anytime there's a moment for something to happen impulsively, that's always something that we jump at.
But James was quite open about it earlier in the day. We try to check in with each other as much as we can on a daily basis. We try to be open and transparent with each other. That's in contrast to 30-something years ago when you were not allowed to have feelings because you were just a 20-year-old metal robot. Back then, the human element was sort of left by the wayside. When we would come offstage, we would argue: "You fucked that up." "No, I didn't fuck that up." It was just this crazy, inhuman striving for some sort of perfection that … I don't even know if it was achievable. But now, being comfortable with who we are in the aging process and all that stuff, you kind of go, "Haha, wasn't that really funny in that song when you fucked that up?" Now, we laugh and joke about it. We celebrate the human qualities in that, and the fact that we are people going up there every night just trying to do our best.
AS YOU KNOW, SLAYER RETIRED IN 2019. I KNOW THAT YOU GUYS HAVE BIG TOUR PLANS IN FRONT OF YOU FOR THE NEXT COUPLE OF YEARS, BUT DO YOU EVER THINK ABOUT METALLICA IN THOSE TERMS? IS THERE A CERTAIN BENCHMARK YOU'D WANT TO REACH BEFORE YOU MADE THAT DECISION?
It's not something we've talked a lot about, no. I think most of the energy and the resources go into trying to stay healthy, stay cohesive, stay functioning. As I get older, I spend more and more of my time on my daily workouts, on my cardio, on my strength training. I'm chained to my Peloton hours a day. It's all about trying to stay healthy: eating healthy, living healthy, whatever it is each of us need to bring to the table.
Obviously, there is a point where it's maybe not going to function anymore at some level, where we can't play "Battery" or "Master of Puppets" or songs like that. I know there's some people in the comments section that think that point has already come — and I appreciate that. [Laughs] But the only thing I can say is that it hasn't happened yet, knock on wood. Hopefully it won't happen for a while. I mean, McCartney's out there past his 80th birthday. The Stones are still out there. Springsteen just started his tour.
YEAH, BUT NONE OF THOSE DUDES ARE PLAYING ANYTHING EVEN CLOSE TO "BATTERY" TEMPO EVERY NIGHT…
Right. But at the same time, Springsteen plays three-hour shows and just played 28 fucking songs on the opening night. He looks healthier and stronger than ever. But I appreciate what you're saying. None of them are playing "Battery." I would say if we stay healthy, hopefully we've got another decade. I mean, the second I'm done with you, I'm getting on the Peloton.