By any measure, 2020 has been a year to remember… or a year to forget, depending on how you view these things. Metallica, just like the rest of us, have had to take the rough with the smooth. Even before the words ‘coronavirus’, ‘pandemic’, ‘lockdown’ and ‘unfuckinprecented’ entered our shared vocabulary, Metallica were facing an uncertain year, with frontman James Hetfield’s return to rehab in September 2019 prompting a rewrite of the group’s 2020 itinerary. And then Covid-19 arrived, and ballsed things up for everyone.
So, even if you’re one of the special breed of people who spends every breathing moment posting the words ‘Fuck you Lars!’ below every single Metallica news story ever posted online, you may find it hard to disagree with the Danish drummer when, in summarising the past 12 months, he offers the concise assessment, “It’s been a mindf**k of a year.” And yet, despite everything, the 56-year-old remains optimistic about what lies ahead, as he reveals in a new interview with Metallica’s long-running fan club magazine, So What!, via Blabbermouth.
“We’re different people from each other,” Ulrich emphasises, referring to the individuals who make up Metallica. “We’re independent people from each other. We live our own lives, and Metallica’s the thing that connects us. And so, like in any next level, strong, binding relationship, there are parallel paths, which are the state of the collective — the group — and the state of the individuals. So, it’s like, ‘How is James, how is Lars, how is Kirk, how is Rob?’ That's one conversation. And then, ‘How is Metallica?’, which is a different conversation, and what gets tricky is that both of those conversations exist on parallel trajectories, but also overlap more often than not.”
“When you were 19 years old, maybe there was a greater emphasis on the collective or on the gang mentality, and when you’re 156 years old, like I am now, maybe the percentages shift. There’s a significant emphasis on your family, yourself, and the trajectory you’ve created for yourself outside of Metallica, so it's an interesting place where all that kind of comes to a head and you have to prepare yourself for the ups and downs.”
As previously stated, one of the challenges facing Metallica across the past 12 months involved the readjustment of personal and professional plans when James Hetfield announced his return to rehab, to deal with matters connected to addiction issues. In discussing his colleague’s personal circumstances, Ulrich was understandably respectful, discreet and diplomatic.
“[Back in September 2019], two [or] three days out from [having done] S&M², I was told that James had some issues, and that he had to go and deal with that, and nobody at that time really knows what that means," he admitted to So What! "You know, what does it mean for him, what does it mean for us, what does it mean for scheduling, all that shit. You just kind of sit there, and obviously your first thoughts are, Is he okay? What's going on? Then the Australian dates got moved. Then there was the Helping Hands concert that got moved, so on and so forth. And you start understanding more.”
“We spoke a couple times,” he continues. "We were texting. Started getting some more clarity, I mean, we're coming up on 40 years here. You surrender to the elements. It’s part of the ride, and, obviously, none of us are officially married to each other, but you know, in marriage vows you say ‘In the good times and the bad times, in health and in sickness, in ups and then downs,’ and if there's anything that's clear almost 40 years later, it is that we’re in this for the long haul. We love each other, we believe in each other. We have each other’s backs. We will fight for each other. And we sort of roll with it.”
“I’m not gonna bullshit you, if I look back to a year ago, there were days where I was more positive, there were days where I was less positive, and there were days where you sit and wonder, ‘How is this going to play out?’ And Kirk [Hammett], Rob [Trujillo] and I were probably talking and communicating closer and more intimately than ever before. This shit is never easy, but it's also part of the ride, and so you just learn.”
“But a year later, here we are, all engaged. James is in a very healthy place, the band is in a very healthy place, and obviously COVID has played a major role in all of it,” Ulrich added. “It's been a mindfuck of a year; I feel confident and excited about the state of the Metallica nation, and I feel very optimistic about what's ahead.”
As the drummer sees it, there is now greater clarity, within Metallica at least, as to how the collective whole might regain momentum in the months ahead.
“In order for this band to function, the band members have to function, families have to function, and personal lives have to be in order,” he notes. Metallica lives have to be in order. So, there's all these sorts of relationships, people, and dynamics to work with. As we move forward and the earth rotates through the universe, I think we continuously get a little more clarity on the path forward in terms of the balances needed to keep everything rolling, to keep the band functioning, to keep the band members happy, to keep the lights on — all those different things. I think we’re better at it now than we were ten years ago, ten years ago we were better at it than we were ten years before. So, it's all just part of the path forward.”
Metallica’s next scheduled shared activity is to play a special acoustic show and host an auction in their Californian HQ on November 14 to benefit their All Within My Hands charity. The performance will be streamed live on the day, in what will be the quartet’s first ever worldwide pay-per-view event.