"So, what's on the agenda today?" Lars Ulrich asks Revolver. "Master of Puppets?"
Well … yeah. With the long-awaited reissue of Metallica's legendary third album finally upon us, talking to Lars about Master of Puppets is definitely at the top of our agenda. While the remastered 1986 album is being made available in a variety of formats, including a single vinyl LP and an expanded three-CD edition, it's the Master of Puppets deluxe box set that is really making diehard Metallica fans salivate.
Along with remastered CD and 180-gram vinyl LP versions of the original album, the limited-edition box includes nine CDs of demos, riff tracks, outtakes, rough mixes, interviews and live performances from 1985 through 1987 — as well as a previously unreleased two-LP soundboard recording of the band's May 25th, 1986 concert at Chicago's Aragon Ballroom, two DVDs of concerts and interviews from the Master of Puppets tour, and a cassette of Metallica's final concert with bassist Cliff Burton (recorded in Stockholm on September 26th, 1986 just hours before he was killed when the band's tour bus crashed on its way to Denmark). There's also a hardcover book containing never-before-published photos, a folder of handwritten lyrics, a set of six buttons and a "Damage, Inc." lithograph.
While the box set showcases the Metallica lineup of Ulrich, Burton, James Hetfield and Kirk Hammett at the peak of its powers, Jason Newsted — who signed on as the band's new bassist less than two months after Burton's death — is present, as well. The box includes recordings from Newsted's first and second auditions, along with previously unreleased soundboard recordings of his first show with the band (November 8th, 1986 at The Country Club in Reseda, CA), and a January 25th, 1987 concert at Grughalle in Essen, West Germany. By spanning everything from the album's first creative rumbles to the band's early shows with Newsted, the Master of Puppets deluxe box set paints a vivid picture of one of the most crucial eras in Metallica history.
"For me, it's hard to separate the record from all the experiences that surround the record itself," Lars explains. "The record itself is just, what, eight songs that we recorded, and that obviously has a life and existence of its own. But when I think Master of Puppets, I think of everything that went on for the better part of nearly two years."
YOU'VE ALREADY DONE DELUXE BOXES FOR KILL 'EM ALL AND RIDE THE LIGHTNING, BUT THIS ONE SEEMS IT WAS EVEN MORE OF AN UNDERTAKING TO PUT TOGETHER. WERE YOU OVERWHELMED BY THE SHEER AMOUNT OF AVAILABLE MATERIAL?
LARS ULRICH Yeah. After doing Ride the Lightning and Kill 'Em All, this was the first one where we actually had to pull back. We had to sit down with our team and decide what had the most value, because if we included everything we had it would have been too much even for our most diehard fans. So we took about a third of it out, and it was not an easy process. It was like, what has already been out there on bootlegs, and what do we have that's better quality? You want to be respectful to the economics of it, and obviously not have a box so expensive that nobody can afford it. You know, there's this whole thing about "more is always better," but not necessarily. I think you can try to find the right balance of all of that, and not just offer the box with all the crazy stuff and an additional microwave oven and that whole thing for the select few who want to go that route. We try to find the right balances, and we do our best. There's always someone who complains, but that's part of the package.
WAS THERE ANYTHING LEFT OFF THAT YOU WISH HAD MADE THE FINAL CUT?
Uh, no. Because you have to be realistic. We actually have a person who works for us, Bob Pfiefer, whose full-time job is to travel the world in solitude and try and unearth Metallica tapes and Metallica first-generation masters, and that type of stuff. That's literally his only job! And you have to sort of be realistic about it. There's some stuff that just doesn't exist — no matter how many rocks you turn over, it's just not going to show up. You can throw your little rock star shit fit, or whatever, but some of this stuff is just lost to time. When you're looking for stuff from the Eighties and before, it's pretty limited — a lot of radio stations didn't keep all their archived stuff, TV shows often erased [their tapes] and recorded over it. For me as, say, a Deep Purple fan, I'm pretty sure that every single recording that exists of Deep Purple playing live from, say, 1969 to 1973, I've already heard. Because it's not like two weeks of shows from their 1972 U.S. tour are suddenly going to show up in perfect condition. You kind of have to come to the conclusion that what's there is there, and you accept that and move on.
IN OTHER WORDS, YOU PRACTICALLY NEED TO BE AN ARCHAEOLOGIST TO DIG UP STUFF FROM THE PRE-DIGITAL ERA?
Listen, the internet helps, and the fans help a lot. Every record like this that we put out, we reach out to our network of fans. People took pictures on their little insta-cameras, people send in their recordings, etc. But obviously, as we get further into this endeavor and into the digital era, there's gonna be no end to the material that will surface. The problem is, we had three different record companies back then — we had a record company in America, a different record company in Europe and a third record company in Japan. Elektra, our record company in America, doesn't even really exist anymore — they got swallowed by Atlantic, and Atlantic got swallowed by Warner Brothers. So just trying to find some of this stuff from the mid-Eighties, trying to get the best masters back ...
But this whole thing of looking back and trying to do reissues, it's a whole world of its own. It's such a dichotomy — you're thinking about writing new songs, you're thinking about moving forward and thinking about what's ahead of you. And then there's this thing where you have to think about what you had for breakfast on the Master of Puppets tour. That's a little bit of an odd disposition, you know? But we know there's a lot of fans who love this stuff, and we do what we can to make it as cool as possible. And the good news is, there's enough stuff to keep everybody interested and happy. Everything that we could think of for Master of Puppets was unearthed, and there were a couple of things we left out of there, mostly because it had already been out there on some bootlegs or other stuff.
WAS THERE ANYTHING UNEARTHED FOR THIS THAT PARTICULARLY BLEW YOUR MIND?
The stuff that's always interesting to me is the early versions of the cover art — the different sketches. Some of the pictures on the cover — I'll stay away from the word "iconic" [Laughs] — but a particular record is defined by one particular picture, and it's interesting to see the five frames that were taken before and after that picture was taken. Going back and revisiting the early roughs — we recorded a couple of B-sides, like the early version of a Diamond Head song called "The Prince," and then this other song by this seminal punk band from the time called Fang, which was called "The Money Will Roll Right In." But James never sang over the recorded versions of those ... so just getting the chance to revisit that is amusing. Cliff's last gig in Stockholm is obviously an uncomfortable thing to revisit. But the whole thing about thinking back to the summer of '85, when Live Aid was on TV and we were finishing writing all those songs, and then being in Denmark — for me, it's impossible to separate the album from the experience, you know? So I think back on that year and a half, two years with mostly fond memories.
IN RETROSPECT, THE SUMMER OF 1985 SEEMS TO HAVE AN ALMOST MAGICAL AURA TO IT. YOU GUYS WERE COMING OFF RIDE THE LIGHTNING, AND REALLY FIRING ON ALL CYLINDERS WHILE WRITING THE SONGS THAT WOULD BECOME MASTER OF PUPPETS.
Well, yeah, that's what one thinks 32 years later. You have a tendency to sit there and cherry-pick the memories that fit what you wanted it to be the best, you know? We sit here struggling to write songs today, and it's like, "Back when we wrote Master of Puppets, we wrote those songs in 15 minutes, and everything was so easy and instinctive and we never had any second thoughts!" I'm not so sure it was quite like that. [Laughs] But you're young, you have a tendency to be a little more impulsive and maybe irreverent when it comes to decision-making; back then, we winged it a lot more, and that has a certain kind of romantic flair to it when you look back on it.
WHAT MUSIC WERE YOU LISTENING TO AT THE TIME FOR INSPIRATION?
It's funny, when we did Death Magnetic, Rick Rubin asked the exact same question. "What were you listening to when you were writing Master of Puppets?" And I can't tell you exactly what we were listening to, but I can tell you that most of the stuff that was still inspirational to us at that time is the stuff that we've talked a thousand times about — we would still go back to the best stuff from the New Wave of British Heavy Metal, the Iron Maidens, the Thin Lizzys, the Motörheads. And then as we were going up through the Eighties, everybody's horizons were expanding, musically. We were starting to get into stuff like the Police and U2. I remember there was this Yes album called 90125, and that was a great record. I can't tell you that we sat there listening to that record and then went out to the garage and started writing Master of Puppets, but it was part of that era. Cliff Burton, especially, brought a lot of new things in that expanded our musical outlook. We were getting into ZZ Top for the first time, getting into the Misfits, and even finally appreciating Simon and Garfunkel for their amazing songwriting and harmonies. So it was a period of pretty serious expansion. On the first two records, we were just listening to Diamond Head and Motörhead and Iron Maiden, and that was it!
SO CLIFF PLAYED A PRETTY KEY ROLE IN EXPANDING YOUR MUSICAL OUTLOOK?
I mean, listen, I grew up a huge fan of Bob Marley. My dad would play Jimi Hendrix and Miles Davis, the Stones, the Doors, John Coltrane and all this kind of stuff. But it wasn't like James and I would sit and listen to John Coltrane together — that I can tell you! [Laughs] Those first few years of Metallica, it was all about Iron Maiden and Jaguar and Angel Witch and that kind of stuff. There was that gang mentality, and what you had a tendency to do at that time was, you went along with the gang thing. So, it wasn't so much that Cliff brought in all this other music, specifically, but it was that Cliff was the first person in our gang that despised the gang mentality and wasn't afraid to be unique. He'd be wearing bell bottoms, and everybody would go, "You should wear tight jeans like everybody else." And he'd go, "Fuck you — I'm wearing bell-bottoms, because that's what I want to do." So there was this disregard for the gang mentality, which was the first time we'd come in contact with that since we formed the band. Because when we formed, we were 19, and it was all about the collective, the team, the gang.
YOU RECORDED THE ALBUM AT SWEET SILENCE STUDIOS IN COPENHAGEN, WHERE YOU'D ALSO RECORDED RIDE THE LIGHTNING. ARE THERE ANY PARTICULAR MEMORIES FROM THE RECORDING SESSIONS THAT STICK OUT FOR YOU?
We worked at night, so for three months I don't think we saw daylight. This was like September, October, November, December — so in Denmark, if you wake up at four in the afternoon, it's already dark. So we'd wake up, go over to [producer] Flemming Rasmussen's house, and his wife's sister had the unthankful task of cooking a meal for us; that would be around 6 o'clock, and then we'd go down into the studio and start at 7, and then we'd work until 5 or 6 in the morning, then go back to the hotel and do the breakfast buffet. And then we would go to bed. So we never saw daylight for the whole time, and my main recollection is just how dark it was! [Laughs]
But the main thing about Master of Puppets, compared to Ride the Lightning, is that we had more time to make it. We were originally going to record in L.A., but our management had figured out that, with the way the currency was, we could get 12 or 14 weeks of studio time in Denmark, instead of eight weeks in L.A. And that was important, because at that time, the big thing that was driving the records was sonics — you needed more time to get the big drum sounds, and work on the guitar sounds. It was the time of Pyromania and Back in Black, and it was all about how big the kick drum sounded. So it was important to have more time in the studio, and that's why we were in Denmark.
WHAT DID FLEMMING BRING TO THE TABLE AS A PRODUCER?
We were fiercely anti-producer. We didn't want a producer coming in and messing with our songs, or telling James to sing harmony vocals or anything like that. Flemming was there to help with the sonics. The songs pretty much remained the way we wrote them. If you listen to the demos, we didn't rearrange them or anything like that. It was just about the sonics. Nowadays, when we make records, it's about trying to make it sound as lively as possible, and as full of spunk and vibe. Back then, it was all about getting it tight. "It's gotta be tight! Every guitar track has to be totally tight to the other guitar tracks!" That kind of stuff. So much time was spent trying to make everything super-tight, to the point of being completely anal. When I hear the record now, it sounds a little too tight for where my ears are in 2017, and it sounds like the master tapes got left in a reverb tank for too long. [Laughs] But that's the way it sounded at that time, and I wouldn't change anything.
Below, see Metallica's Kirk Hammett launch his horror-movie art exhibit in Salem and visit the Salem Witch Museum: