"He made up for some of my lack of talent": Lars Ulrich remembers meeting James Hetfield for the first time

Singer and guitarist James Hetfield (right) and drummer Lars Ulrich of American heavy metal band Metallica at the Aardshock Festival in the Netherlands, February 1984
(Image credit: Pete Cronin/Redferns/Getty Images)

Metallica was such an odd group of people to be in a band together that it took a few goes to get right, and even then tragedy sometimes forced their hand. Strangest of all was the uneasy partnership at the band’s core, the one between intense, bottle-it-up frontman James Hetfield and breezy, let-it-all-out drummer Lars Ulrich. 

They first met after Ulrich, fresh from seeing his dream of becoming a tennis pro fade away, placed an ad in the local paper looking for bandmates. He reminisced to Classic Rock about his first impressions of the singer. “We instantly connected over music,” he said. “He freaked out about my record collection and seeing all that stuff from England, and I didn’t know that much about the Aerosmiths of this world. We filled each other’s voids right there.” 

Ulrich remembers the young Hetfield as an extremely shy presence around people. “We were a perfect match because I thought that I could help pull some of that stuff out of him,” Ulrich told Classic Rock. “He made up for some of my lack of talent. It was a yin and yang kind of thing. I felt it from the get-go.”

Talking about the group’s formative years, Hetfield once described Ulrich as being on a different planet to his bandmates, declaring, “We ate McDonald’s, he ate herring,” but the drummer says he’d already spent a large amount of time in the States and wasn’t the, umm, fish out of water that the singer makes him out to be. “Obviously there were cultural differences, but I was in America four four-to-six weeks out of every year when I was growing up,” he countered. “Being around McDonald’s or 39 channels on the television wasn’t new to me. I didn’t come over with a Danish flag going, “Come on everybody, let’s eat herring!”

Reflecting on their relationship now and how it’s endured over four decades, Ulrich thinks that he sees a side to Hetfield that others rarely get to witness. “He’s much sweeter and more vulnerable than people think he is,” opined the drummer. “I always felt he was a vey gentle soul and a very loving guy.”

Niall Doherty

Niall Doherty is a writer and editor whose work can be found in Classic Rock, The Guardian, Music Week, FourFourTwo, on Apple Music and more. Formerly the Deputy Editor of Q magazine, he co-runs the music Substack letter The New Cue with fellow former Q colleagues Ted Kessler and Chris Catchpole. He is also Reviews Editor at Record Collector. Over the years, he's interviewed some of the world's biggest stars, including Elton John, Coldplay, Arctic Monkeys, Muse, Pearl Jam, Radiohead, Depeche Mode, Robert Plant and more. Radiohead was only for eight minutes but he still counts it.