Metallica have entered their fourth decade far away from their comfort zone. Last year, the quartet released the nobly experimental Lulu, an almost universally detested art-metal collaboration with Lou Reed. On June 23 and 24, the band will host Orion, their very own music festival in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where they will share billing with the likes of underground extremos Liturgy and beach-pop heartbreakers Best Coast. Also in the offing are a 3-D concert film and a new album. “People gotta let us run amok,” says drummer and mouthpiece Lars Ulrich, 48, speaking from his Bay Area home. “To be what everybody wants us to be would fuckin’ kill us.” Unless these questions do it first.
The Orion lineup is eclectic, but as of the day we’re talking, Best Coast is the only female-fronted band on the bill. Why?
We don’t go, “There have to be x slots for girl-fronted bands, and there has to be somebody from Kalamazoo, Michigan, and we have to find a band where the bass player’s a twin.” We don’t have demographic requirements. [Best Coast] write incredibly well-crafted songs.
Is it necessary for you to charge $150 for an Orion ticket?
We’re not being paid to play Orion. It costs close to $10 million to put it together. That’s gotta come from somewhere other than, “Metallica’s gonna write a check.”
Given how pervasive free music has become, was it a losing battle to fight file-sharing?
It’s 12 years later and [Metallica’s battle with Napster] doesn’t consume my waking hours. I’ve heard a thousand times: “How greedy can Lars Ulrich be?” I got enough money. It was about choice. Do you want to give your music away? Sell it for Twinkies? It should be your choice.
Wasn’t asking for the names of those who were illegally downloading Metallica’s music going one step too far?
We didn’t ask for names. People said to us, “We don’t know who’s downloading this stuff.” We said, “We don’t believe that,” and hired a company who supplied us with those names in half an hour. But [Napster] was brilliant at publicity. We had always been the good guys and all of a sudden we were greedy Luddites. The whole thing was bizarre.
Speaking of bizarre, were you surprised by the reaction to Lulu?
It was more spiteful than anyone was prepared for. Especially against Lou. He is such a sweet man. But when Metallica do impulsive riffing and Lou Reed is reciting abstract poetry about German bohemians from 150 years ago, it can be difficult to embrace.
You never had second thoughts when sweet Lou came in with lyrics like “I swallow your sharpest cutter / Like a colored man’s dick”?
I understand that to some 13-year-old in Cape Girardeau, Missouri, it can all seem a little cringe-worthy, but to someone raised in an art community in Copenhagen in the late ’60s, that was expected.
Did Lou ever give you his what-the-fuck-is-wrong-with-you stare?
One time I had to point something out to him about how things were functioning in the outside world and he got hot and bothered. He challenged me to a street fight, which is a pretty daunting proposition because he’s an expert in martial arts and is never too far from a sword. The good thing about me is I can do the 100-meter dash faster than most other 48-year-old musicians.
What’s the most embarrassing moment of Metallica’s career?
There are easy clichés, like “The Load album when you cut your hair.” I’m proud as fuck that it is what it is. I don’t carry a “Five Things I Wish I Could Change” list around so I can throw them out in an interview.
How about one?
I’ll never forget the summer of ’99. We came back after touring Europe and I heard this song on the radio called “Nookie.” We were making a record with a classical orchestra [S&M] while Limp Bizkit was going on. We were off in our own little world. But I didn’t think it was embarrassing.
Does being so secure about Metallica’s place in the world affect the music you make?
We wrote Ride the Lightning in a garage in El Cerrito, California, and a cold cellar in Nowheresville, New Jersey. Does that make for better art than when you’ve sold 47 bazillion copies of the “Black Album” [Metallica]? Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t.
If you could take back one Metallica song, what would it be?
“Don’t Tread on Me” has that shuffle vibe. That’s not my thing, but I don’t wish to erase it from all 97 bazillion copies of the “Black Album.”
You know the cover of Death Magnetic looks like a hairy vagina, right?
It can be viewed many different ways. But of course I’m aware of that.
This story was originally published in SPIN’s May/June 2012 issue — which you can buy now!