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Lars Ulrich on the Spoils of Success, Life Beyond Metallica

In introspective interview, heavy metal drummer discusses looking up to his bandmates, reading Springsteen, and why it’s a good idea to stop whining.

In one of his most introspective interviews ever Metallica drummer, Lars Ulrich, shares with us his own Words of Wisdom, on looking up to his bandmates, reading Springsteen, and why it’s a good idea to stop whining.

What’s the best part of success?
On the personal side, giving back to your family. On the musical side, it’s having the freedom to go in whichever direction you want to. A case in point would be that we don”t go on tour for longer than two weeks at a time. We did almost 200 shows in two-week increments for [2008’s] Death Magnetic. We don”t want to miss out on seeing our kids.

What’s the worst part of success?
I don”t think there is a “worst part” [laughs]. I think you should stop whining and be happy that somebody gives a shit.

Who are your heroes?
People who challenge the status quo. In no particular order: my dad, Steve Jobs, James Hetfield, [painter] Mark Rothko. People who encourage you to be selfless, like [Salesforce CEO] Marc Benioff. People like Ritchie Blackmore who are completely impulsive – you have no idea what’s gonna come out of his mouth or his guitar three minutes from now. [Metallica co-manager] Cliff Burnstein always taught me to think differently and independently and outside the box.

Why is James one of your heroes?
He is just the coolest musician. He’s put up with my shit for 35 years, so there’s gotta be appreciation in there for that. Sometimes I think he may be underappreciated in terms of just how vast his talent is.

You guys clashed in the movie Some Kind of Monster. What have you learned about settling band disagreements?
I’ve learned that there’s nothing more important than the health of the band. Rather than force people to do something they don”t want to do, there’s always going to be another opportunity to create something cool.

What did you learn about yourself from watching that movie?
It was pretty painful to watch some of the stuff unfold. But I was proud of the fact that we were completely transparent and let people in. I have an ability to compartmentalise stuff that scares me; the only thing that scares me about myself is that I have the ability to not be scared. Sometimes I can just be so thick-skinned that it actually freaks me out. In the wake of my Napster [lawsuit], I took some pretty heavy hits. I just learned to kind of put the turtle shell on and not be affected by any of it.

You grew up in Denmark. What’s the most Danish thing about you?
My big forehead? [Laughs] My wife says I’m a cosy guy. There’s a Danish word, hygge, which translates loosely to “cosy”. There’s a kind of Danish hygge thing where you invite people over, you light candles, you have some wine and hang out. The other thing is I’m sort of self-deprecating. I also have a little bit of contrariness to the status quo about pushing the envelope. It’s poking fun. It’s something you have to be Danish to understand.

What music moves you the most?
The stuff that’s embedded in you from your life experiences. Bob Marley’s Babylon by Bus will probably always be a record that has some sort of significance in my life. Some of it was recorded in Denmark at the Roskilde Festival, and I started listening to it a lot when it came out, in ’78.

Then there’s [Miles Davis’] Kind of Blue. When I hear [Black Sabbath’s] Master of Reality, in some perverse way it still reminds me of being 13 and smoking black Afghan hash for the first time with my friends in my room.

What did you read as a kid, and what does it say about you?
I was introduced to Mad magazine in ’76 when I was travelling with my dad in America. It introduced me to a lot of American culture. It’s always been my thing being an outsider, being autonomous, slightly cynical of the mainstream – Mad brought that.

What are you reading now?
I downloaded the Springsteen book two weeks ago. I read the stories in Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair and thought I should check it out. I love the way he writes; it’s like his lyrics. It’s incredibly poetic. I love how open he is about depression and his issues.

What was your most indulgent purchase?
There have been periods in my life, not so much recently, where I would spend a lot of money on clothes. I”d spend, like, three grand on a suit, and two years later you’re looking through your closet, like, “Fuck, there’s that suit I bought. I never even wore it. It’s still got fucking tags on it.” Thankfully, it’s not something that happens much anymore.

What advice would you give your younger self?
“Slow down. Take it all in. Appreciate what’s going on instead of being in such a hurry.” The opposite of when Dave Grohl says, “Done, done and on to the next one.” There were a lot of experiences in the Eighties and Nineties that I just never fully took in. We were in Russia in ’91, in the thick of the fall of the Soviet Union. I just wish I had opened my eyes a little more because I don”t have a recollection of what was going on around me. I don”t regret it, but nowadays you just pause a little longer to take it all in, like, “Wow, this is pretty crazy.”

Illustration by Mark Summers.