By: Chris NorrisThey’ve been gone five years. But now Metallica arereturning with St. Anger–possibly the most intense album oftheir career–and this summer’s Sanitarium tour. Drummer LarsUlrich dug deep and talked openly about singer JamesHetfield’s near breakdown and the band’s nearbreakup
A power vacuum is a dangerous thing. Take out the dominant force and you’ve got chaos, tribal clashes, ethnic disputes, Nickelback. In the five years since Metallica released their last studio album, Reload, hard rock has been overrun by suburban angst-rappers, Bible-touting neo-Vedders, and cartoonish goth punks. Whither our mighty metal Vikings?
Oh, pretty much whither you’d think. Off in the fortress of solitude, going to rehab, losing their minds. The band started unraveling in 2000, when their lawsuit against file-sharing underdog Napster prompted a massive backlash. Then, in January 2001, bassist Jason Newsted, who had been with the group for 14 years, went his own way. Then singer/guitarist James Hetfield entered rehab–reportedly to cope with alcoholism–leaving no word when, or if, he would return.
When he tentatively rejoined Metallica in 2002, no one in the band knew how to continue the torturous business of being Metallica. So they enlisted a group therapist–pro-sports “enhancement coach” Phil Towle–and began jamming, with producer Bob Rock (who has helmed the band’s last five records) filling in on bass. They had no songs, no concept, and no idea where they were going. Yet, while some people who go through this type of ordeal end up discussing it on Oprah, Metallica did probably the only thing they could do: make a huge, brutal, no-bullshit record–possibly their rawest ever–that actually sounds like a struggle to exist. They titled it St. Anger, and their forthcoming road show (with Linkin Park, Limp Bizkit, and Deftones) is called the Sanitarium Tour, just in case you had any doubts as to where they’re coming from. Sipping tea in a Manhattan café, drummer Lars Ulrich–an intense, peroxided 39-year-old–discusses the band’s long journey and the addition of Robert Trujillo, former bassist for Suicidal Tendencies and Ozzy Osbourne (Ozzy’s new bassist is–in some cosmic realignment–Jason Newsted). This, and other strange turns for Metallica, will be revealed in an upcoming documentary by the folks behind the hit indie film Paradise Lost. But until that film-in-progress hits theaters, we have Mr. Ulrich to sing us the ballad of Metallica.
Spin: It’s been a harsh three years. When was the low point?
Lars Ulrich: September 2001.
Yeah, that was a great time.
[Nods ruefully] A great time. For our part, we’d been three weeks into recording [during that summer] and James had come into the studio and said, “I’m going away for five weeks into a program.” He returned four months later. We’d left the amplifiers still running. It wasn’t until August that we were like, “Well, maybe we should turn everything off and go home.”
So when did you realize what bad shape he was in?
It wasn’t until I went down to the facility and saw him that I realized what he was going through. And then, in September, the night before we were gonna get together, he called and said, “Look, I’m not ready. I don’t know if I’ll ever be ready. But I’ll let you know.” That was rock bottom, when I was wondering what the future held. I mean, the brother in me wanted to run over and give him a big fuckin’ hug and say, like, “You okay?” But the member of Metallica [in me] wanted to go over and kick his fuckin’ ass.
Did you collaborate on the lyrics?
[Nods] We would sit in a room together for a half-hour and just riff, all of us. Then we’d go in to play, and James would literally stand and sing from, like, eight or ten pieces of paper from everybody. I remember when James said, “I would like you guys to help me write the lyrics,” there was a moment of shock and disbelief. That was when I knew that the creative process of Metallica had truly become equal.
So your group therapist was in the room when you were jamming, composing, and recording?
He was there every step of the process.
The new songs portray various mental demons–“Get out of my head,” “I’ll die if I lose control”–in a very direct way. It seems like a lot of that period’s craziness went directly into the music.
Yes. It did. But this is not a rehab record. We’re not talking about the Beatles going to India. It’s just sitting down and understanding who you are.
In “Some Kind of Monster,” the refrain is “We the people / Some kind of monster.” With the images of bombings on TV, this is easy to hear as bitter war commentary.
Well, I’ve always been very wary of using a Metallica interview as a platform to promote my own political views. There are very few people I respect as much as Tom Morello or Bono. But it doesn’t mean that I want to use Metallica in the same way.
Well, the Napster suit was political. Are you satisfied with the settlement?
There was no victory in that, no uncorking of champagne bottles. Most of the time it feels like something that I dreamt. I mean, I was as surprised as anyone when I found myself testifying before the Senate. But anybody who knows anything about Metallica knows that we’ve always taken a stand against anybody who fucks with us. So it was like, “How did I become the most hated man in rock’n’roll for 15 minutes?” It was a very surreal experience, and still hurts more than I’ve ever let on.
When were you able to put it behind you?
Well, [laughs] I still go through eight-hour therapy sessions about it.