It’s basically almost impossible for me to listen to a Metallica song without going, “Okay, how are the sonics, how’s the mix, how does the guitar sound? Superlatives

A Vulture series in which artists judge the best and worst of their own careers. There were times when some of the stuff was hard to watch, and there were times when it was like, “Whoa, was this too transparent?” but we trusted their gut. Chicken or the egg. He would do sometimes just these pretty simple snare rolls and stuff, but they were so “air drum” in terms of just, you know, you’re listening to a song and then comes this supereffective but really simple snare roll, and he would just look like the master of this. Anger, the album without the snare. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. It’s hard for me to separate the record itself from the process and the time and place of making the record. Wherever I hear that song, it sounds kind of like — I guess we don’t want to be super-disrespectful to it — but it sounds really forced. Anger’s snare sound.) The Hall of Famers’ latest release, August’s S&M2, entails two live performances from last September that, 20 years after the original S&M, reunited the metal legends with the San Francisco Symphony to perform Metallica songs side by side to open the city’s new Chase Center. We didn’t know anything about time signatures. I’m okay with that. You can’t not appreciate the more big-band dudes. I’m much more interested in what’s calming [laughs], and I’m much more interested in the next record or what the possibilities are for the future. And I guess over the last 20 years or whatever, I’ve been more into that style of drumming where simple is better. The Deep Purples, the Black Sabbaths, the Led Zeppelins, the Iron Maidens — a lot of those bands would sort of go on these musical journeys. The vocals are too loud, the bass is too boomy.” It becomes this exercise in analytics. And Elvin Jones and Lenny White would be probably the first two that come to mind [in terms of jazz drummers]. There are certain songs, “Creeping Death” or “Fade to Black,” that didn’t make either of the projects. Some people had a hard time with the sound, the brutality of that record. Then 10 or 20 years later, you can kind of sit back and go “Huh?” or “What were we thinking? It’s hard for me to listen to someone say [does his music journalist’s voice again], “Oh, listen to … And Justice for All versus listening to Reload.” I can’t listen to these records without putting myself in the spaces I was in. There were some of the ones from the first go-around that we felt didn’t age that well for the second project. The thing about jazz drummers is that they were so much at the mercy of what they were being asked to play. You kind of sit there, 20 years later, with the combination of bemusement and horror on your face and go like, “What the fuck were we thinking?” the way we used to write these songs. (For example, he still doesn’t care about your feelings about St. Generally, I don’t spend a lot of time being analytical. Geekiest Metallica song for drummers

It’s gotta be around Puppets or Justice. But when Metallica comes on it’s like, “Huh?”

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The basic structure for collaboration of any kind is trust and when to trust the people you’re working with. But I don’t have a recollection of, at that time, that we would sit down and specifically say, “Ooh, look at us, we’re treading into the classical world.” It was more, “We can go into the instrumental.”

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The songs that were picked, one of the criteria, or the primary criteria, was that they could translate into that kind of collaboration that they could be embellished with an arrangement either by Michael Kamen [conductor during S&M] or by Michael Tilson Thomas [current SFS music director]. I was much more familiar with, you know, the Dexter Gordons and the Ornette Colemans and the Sonny Rollinses and the Miles Davises of the world. I guess it goes back to kind of a “chicken or the egg” answer. There was no direction from the band or the manager or anybody going, “You know that thing that happened on Tuesday, make sure nobody ever sees that, and make sure that film gets burned.” There was none of that. We’re not the youngest people onstage anymore.”

Lars ran though with Vulture his own take on Metallica, S&M2, and what makes a good rock drummer. So of course, sometimes you sit down and go “Huh?” or “That could have been better” or “That was a little awkward” or “That feels a little silly or easy” or “That feels over-thought-out” or whatever. When I hear songs from either of those records, I’m pretty happy with what I hear. “I try to give you the truth of the moment,” says the Metallica drummer and co-founder over the phone. I’m proud of the fact that if nothing else, all these records represent the vision of the moment. I even have a standard answer when people go, “What’s your favorite Metallica?” Before they finish that question, I would say, “The next one.” If I’m not more excited about the next one, what’s the point of making it? St. Part of it is because I’m sort of overly analytical [about the details]. Did I say that? “[During S&M], we were in our mid-30s and we were by far the youngest people onstage,” says Lars. If you have to kind of put them all into a sound bite: Justice, the album without the bass on it. His name was Clive Burr. He was much more schooled in the classical world than certainly James and I were, and he would sit and talk about Bach. What were we doing? Looking at the list, or thinking about what the different songs were, there wasn’t anything that was sort of like, “Fuck, we got to make this happen.” It all came together fairly effortlessly or else it sort of got sacked along the way. I guess the asterisk is that, to me, we did the best we could each moment. It goes back to that whole thing about the past is the past, and I don’t spend a long time back there. And then a few years ago we did a Metallica by Request tour. Metallica song you never want to hear again

There’s a song called “Eye of the Beholder” on the Justice album. They did enjoy playing that. It sounds very awkward to me. Why did we make that choice?” or whatever. While the first S&M felt like a dare to bring metal and classical musicians together, S&M2 — which ended up being the final Metallica shows before fellow co-founder and guitarist James Hetfield reentered rehab — was about casting a wider net. Most classically written Metallica song

We’ve done three or four instrumentals? It literally sounds like two different worlds rubbing up against each other. We didn’t know anything about counting. I guess they all do. So much of what I think about a record of ours, I just think about what we were going through, where we were, what my memories are. I don’t listen to a lot of Metallica music. “Now the Metallica members are in their mid-50s, more comfortable within their own skin, more confident in these types of adventures. So that means that if the other stuff sits north of that, then that’s a good bar to have. It sounds like it’s got two different tempos. What were the daily ups and downs? This go-around, Lars also realized that many of the younger new symphony musicians grew up on Metallica. The second record, Kirk [Hammett] and Cliff [Burton] joined with these incredible ideas and a whole new approach, especially Cliff. “You kind of sit there, 20 years later, with the combination of bemusement and horror on your face and go like, ‘What the fuck were we thinking?’”
Photo: Koh Hasebe/Shinko Music/Getty Images

You have to give Lars Ulrich credit: You can never accuse him of not following his gut. We trusted Joe [Berlinger] and Bruce [Sinofsky], who were directing. Like, sometimes I’ll be asked [imitates a ‘music journalist’s voice’], ‘Hey, remember in 1998 when you said that?’ and I go, ‘Really? Related

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Tags: Every day we were playing like 18 songs that the fans voted on. The first phase was really the first four albums. All of them would have instrumentals. What was that about? All this stuff, I’m very okay with any of that. There was nothing that was forced at that level. I’d occasionally hear members of Deep Purple talk about Bach, but I didn’t really know that much about the classical world; the world that accompanied my sort of non-rock experience was much more the jazz world. From [1991’s] The Black Album forward, it became more about trying to set up some grooves, put some swing and some bounce and that kind of stuff, trying to support the guitar riff rather than lead the guitar, so it’d be kind of a different thing. I don’t think I can answer that! I’ll own up to that.’ But I reserve the right to change my mind along the way.”

Lars, impeccable writer impression aside, is an otherwise good sport when it comes to assessing his current truth about his very famous band. In terms of “air drumming moments,” you know, there are so many incredible ones from both of those guys. Sometimes it’s hard. We were protective of that vision and we fulfilled it. I’m just more interested in making the songs sound good. Anger, maybe, is more of a polarizing record. I think the longer answer is, I’m pretty much okay with anything and any way people rate any of the things that we’ve done. On the first three Iron Maiden records, he was a very simple drummer. There were some of the songs that connected; I think “Sad But True.” They use words like “sick” — “that’s a sick song.”

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The counterquestion to that would be “By whom?” [laughs]. I’m not a huge fan of that song. And of course, anything that got sacked along the way, you have a tendency to kind of forget about happily. I would say I spend more time in the future, maybe even to a fault, not enough time in the present, and definitely the least amount of time in the past. We weren’t changing the votes or doing any of that crazy shit. “The Call of Ktulu,” “To Live Is to Die,” “Orion,” and “Suicide & Redemption.” I don’t know if I can break it down beyond those four, but “The Call of Ktulu” probably has got some more orchestral elements in there. It sounds like you put a square peg in a round hole. What were the moods? The amount of swing and bounce that each of them contributes to how you hear a Rolling Stones and an AC/DC song is completely unappreciated and unrecognized. I guess some songs of ours have kind of lighter and darker shades of color in them. There’s kind of a 4/4 feel in the intro and on the verses, and then I think the choruses are more like in a waltz tempo. Your kids’ favorite Metallica songs

I don’t know if that’s ever come up. The Metallica Guitar Hero game I guess was, what, ten years ago [2009]? I think we were supposed to play in Helsinki and the fans had voted for “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.” We had like two weeks or something to learn this song. And I guess there were just certain pieces of music that we came up with that we felt sort of suited itself better to nonvocal and non-lyrical, and more of a moodier kind of approach where the coloring would be done by different melodies and so on. When you hear your favorite band — like if I listened to Rage Against the Machine or something, I just fucking let myself go. I was really interested in having the drums color the songs, having the drums be very much a lead instrument, and being aggressive and about all these crazy patterns and time signatures. I guess the geekiest of those songs would probably be something like “… And Justice for All” a song like “Blackened” or “The Frayed Ends of Sanity.”

“The Frayed Ends of Sanity,” we never played live because it was just such a crazy undertaking. But if the most underrated records, i.e., the least appreciated records, are Load or Reload, then I would say I’m fine with that because I think those are pretty decent records. You sort of learn to step away. And I think in the last 20 years, I’ve been just more interested in sort of having some balance and trying to put what I guess I would call “air drumming moments.”

The two most underrated drummers in rock, to me, are the Rolling Stones’ Charlie Watts and AC/DC’s Phil Rudd. Some of that stuff just became so headstrong and so cerebral, almost mathlike. Okay, fair enough. St. The first record was basically written by James and me. “I sort of learned over the course of hearing myself talk over the years that truth can change along the way. And there’s not really much I can do about it [laughs] and honestly, I don’t listen to them. But those four obviously are closer to anything [and are] probably [more] classical than the “Enter Sandman”s or the “Sad But True”s of the world. There would be probably two [drumming] phases. We stuck with it, and I’m proud that we stuck with it. Also Jimmy Cobb, who played on [Miles Davis’s] Kind of Blue. Another guy I would put on the lesser-known list is the first drummer in Iron Maiden. It was just the way the drum parts spoke to each other. At that time, I was really into experimentation, and I was really into coloring the sound with crazy drum patterns, crazy drum fills, and crazy-weird time signatures, and all kinds of super-sideways stuff. All that shit from the ’80s of “Who’s the better drummer,” “Who’s the faster drummer,” and “Who’s the more technically able drummer,” and you would always sit there and try to measure your manhood — I gave up on that so long ago. If the song didn’t work well with a classical interpretation, then we didn’t pursue it. But then we felt like we sort of took that as far as we could.