In 2016, Metallica released their long-awaited double album, Hardwired… To Self-Destruct. In 2017, they toured the world and broke records with it. Here you can read what happened when Music Week caught up with Lars Ulrich and Q Prime’s Peter Mensch to talk about how the metal superstars have stayed on top, broken boundaries and set up their own label, Blackened. And all without making compromises…
Lars Ulrich is stationed in his kitchen, nursing a cup of tea when Music Week’s question discombobulates him.
Considering our interviewee is not a man typically known for short-changing people with words, it is not an especially ferocious line of interrogation, but it is seemingly a foreign subject for Metallica’s drummer. We asked if, now that touring is over for the year, he’s on holiday...
“Hol-i-day?” he slowly utters. “What’s that word mean?”
That he is stupefied by its definition is not surprising given the kind of year he and his bandmates – vocalist/guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Rob Trujillo – have had. Even for a band who, alongside Black Sabbath and Iron Maiden, conceived the blueprint for virtually every heavy metal group to follow, who have sold nearly 34 million copies of their 1991 self-titled opus (aka The Black Album) worldwide and delivered a grandstanding 2014 Glastonbury headline set, 2017 has been a phenomenal testament to their enduring power.
It has all been on the back of Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, their double-disc 10th album released back in November 2016. In the UK, it has helped them break venue attendance records and shift 138,453 copies to date, according to Official Charts Company data. Meanwhile, over in America, the album has gone platinum.
Ulrich is someone who fully acknowledges the unmapped “Wild West” modern nature of releasing albums, he tells Music Week he has long since protected himself against the burden of excessive expectations and takes pride in Metallica existing and thriving in isolation of whatever else is going on in music at any given time. Still, some 36 years into the game, their 2017 success has not been lost on him.
“The way this album connected with Metallica fans all over the world actually overwhelmed and shocked us and, obviously, was very invigorating,” Ulrich beams. “Also, the amount of new people, younger kids, that came onboard was really stunning. From a critical point of view, from a commercial point of view, from almost any angle, this record blew our minds.”
Their return has, indeed, been impressive, not least because they did this after an eight-year gap between studio albums, re-emerging in an age where guitar-based music is largely bypassing both mainstream affections and streaming algorithms.
Moreover, it has also capped off what could easily be regarded as the most intruiging chapter of their career, one that has seen them record an experimental album with the late Lou Reed [2011’s Lulu], launch their own festival [Orion], plus, in 2012, take ownership of their master recordings, leading to the inception of their own label, Blackened.
This year a hilarious, doctored picture emerged of Blackened’s besuited CEOs, Ulrich, Hetfield, Hammett and Trujillo, presenting themselves – in typical metal guise – with a platinum plaque for Hardwired.... At this point, we are a long way from where it all started back in 1981. It kind of freaks Ulrich out.
“As a musician, a fan of music and a living breathing human being, I had no aspirations to deal with any of the business side whatsoever,” Ulrich recalls. “But it sort of came to me by default because the other people I was with were even less interested. I’ve always been practically minded. I sat there in my bedroom and copied the cassettes, I took them to the post office.
Then, when the first phone calls had to be made, I took care of the calls, and it morphed from there.
“Now we have employees in Northern California, Southern California, New York, this whole infrastructure that has morphed out of that bedroom and garage years ago,” says Ulrich. “Whenever people say, ‘You’re CEOs of this whole thing,’ I just say, ‘God help us all’. But as anybody will tell you, you’ve got to have the right people.”
The right people come in the form of Q Prime Management, specifically the enduring partnership of Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein. Ulrich laughs as he recalls leafing through the artwork of Def Leppard’s seminal 1983 Pyromania release as a young metal fan, seeing the words Q Prime emblazoned on it and dreaming of working with a big league management firm like that.
Whenever people say, ‘You’re CEOs of this whole thing,’ I just say, ‘God help us all
Lars Ulrich, Metallica
Little did he realise the following year they would become his business partners, and circumnavigate unbelievable success and unfathomable lows with him – no more so than the death of 'Tallica’s talismanic bassist Cliff Burton in a tour bus crash in 1986. Ulrich knows why they haven’t sought any other management firm’s services.
“Cliff and Peter were never hand holders,” says Ulrich. “They never babysat the band, they were never there 24/7, they were in New York dealing with the business side, rather than travelling with us and making sure our asses were wiped or whatever. I think they’re very incorruptible.
They just don’t get sucked into anything that they’re not impressed by, or intimidated by it. Everybody knows what the game is, everyone pats each other on the back, congratulates each other, sucks each other off, and then talks shit behind everyone’s back and so on. They don’t play that game. They don’t fall prey to it. Thirty-five years later, between the Metallicas, the Def Leppards, and being involved with The Rolling Stones, Madonna, Shania Twain, Muse and the Chili Peppers, they still run as clean of a ship as they did when I first met them in 1984.”
When Music Week reaches Mensch at his New York office, you soon understand why Ulrich admires him. He is a man possessed of an implacable, bulletproof confidence.
Today, Mensch – in a rare interview – recalls the first time he saw Metallica live. Their dual guitars may have been out of tune, but it mattered not.
“It didn’t make a difference,” Mensch says. “When they started Creeping Death and 2,000 people all started singing ‘Die!’ I said, ‘Fuck me!’”
The foundation of their lasting business partnership is, he insists, not a particularly complicated one.
“It’s really simple,” says Mensch.
“We like each other and we respect each other. That’s the bottom line. My partner and I have a line: ‘You get the acts, as a manager, you deserve’.
There are acts that could be as smart as Metallica or likeable but don’t respect what we have to say. We have a peculiar bunch of acts that we all like talking to, that we think are smart, they think we’re smart, we give them advice, they comment on our advice, we go back and forth, and we come up with a plan.”
As far as plans go, Blackened Records constitutes something of the endgame Metallica have always been building towards: complete independence. Ulrich hails Mensch and Burnstein as instrumental in pushing them to chase – "the carrot of carrots" dangling in front of them: "To own your records and be your own record company.”
“Lars always talks about autonomy, we helped him get autonomy,” says Mensch of Blackened, which was launched in November 2012 – a direct result of the contract they had renegotiated with Warner Music Group in 1994.
“We’re part of his autonomy. It’s a really rewarding thing. And by the way, we took all the hits to do it. We sued a record company [Elektra] to get the catalogue back, we took on the internet and now everybody goes, ‘You were right!’”
The “internet” reference alluded to is the notorious Metallica vs Napster suit in which the band, upon finding their then-unreleased demo of I Disappear on numerous US radio stations, sued the file-sharing site. It was an act that would provoke an enormous backlash from commentators and even fans. Ulrich, Metallica's mouth on the subject, was mercilessly parodied in South Park, which depicted the drummer crying because he couldn’t afford "a gold-plated shark tank bar in his pool" because of illegal downloading. Yet the sense now, in 2017, is that old perceptions have shifted. In 2000, Metallica went to war, not they insist out of greed but for autonomy – the kind of autonomy that, as streaming came of age, is back making headlines again.
We sued a record company to get the catalogue back, we took on the internet and now everybody goes, ‘You were right!’
Peter Mensch, Q Prime Management
We are never far away from discussions about the value of art, the way it is disseminated, and the attendant degrees of artistic control and fair remuneration. Applying 20/20 hindsight, Ulrich was ahead of the curve. “He had guts,” observes Mensch of the drummer's stand today. Ulrich remains philosophical about the whole ordeal.
“I don’t really look at it like a victory or a defeat,” offers Ulrich. “From my perspective, it was more of a street fight than a crusade. It was more a personal thing than, ‘Here we are, trying to save business’. It wasn’t really like that. In a nutshell, somebody fucked with us, so we fucked with them back and all of a sudden it blew up into this thing about morals. It became something else. You could call us ignorant. The biggest mistake we made... We underestimated what this meant to such a large amount of people. That comes from a good place because we always try to have our blinders on – we never let the commercialisation of something interfere with our actions. We didn’t realise quite the significance of what we were getting into. It was literally about control.”
Metallica have, of course, weathered much worse considering the gauntlets they have faced: the death of Burton, their 2003 St. Anger album that almost saw the band acrimoniously implode amid bad blood – captured so unflinchingly in their 2004 documentary Some Kind Of Monster – and, more recently, their costly experience making their own film, 2013’s Through The Never. Mensch knows the biggest obstacle he and Burnstein have shepherded the band through.
“The biggest is obviously the death of Cliff Burton, and the replacement of Jason Newsted [with Robert Trujillo in 2003]," says Mensch. "Those are the hardest things because that’s a band dynamic – the personnel changes. Other than that, we’ve survived documentaries about how to make records [laughs], Some Kind Of Monster, we made a concert film that no one saw but we’re still out there killing it as far as I can tell. We really haven’t had too many speed bumps.”
In 2017, they are enjoying the fruits of their labour and no more so than when they take the 'Tallica juggernaut on the road. When Metallica played their October UK arena tour, in the round, they smashed attendance records – including at the O2 Arena with 22,134 people. The following night they broke their own record with 22,211 punters. Ask Mensch about Metallica circa 2017 and his rhetoric is persuasive.
“Metallica sold every ticket to every venue they’re playing," he chimes. "How badly could it be going?”
As per usual, he has a point.
Live Nation’s president of UK touring and Download Festival promoter, Andy Copping, has booked and seen them countless times – he says their latest tour, which included them playing in the round, with drone moths flying out of the floor, was “second to none”. As was the set.
“Metallica try and change their setlist from show to show so that nothing is the same,” Copping enthuses. “How many bands do that? More to the point, how many bands can do that? Other bands need to take an example from Metallica and push the boundaries.”
That Metallica, 36 years in, are still breaking records is, in part, down to a change in business strategy.
“For the first 25 years of the band it was the band first and the individual members and needs second," explains Ulrich. "Somewhere along the way that model got flipped and it became the individual members and their needs first and then the band second. When that happened the whole thing loosened up a little bit and became a healthier unit. We spend what I would call, and what I can sense from being around our peers, an unusual amount of time, resources and energy on the well-being of the band.
"Everybody gets a chance to put their schedules in before we plan anything, we book Metallica around people’s personal schedules for special things, family needs," he adds. "It’s not easy, trust me. Everything we do is about what’s best for the mental and physical stability of the band rather than what’s best for the bottom line. If you have a healthy, functioning band, and four dudes that want to go and play shows and go and do the grind, then that’s ultimately a better economic model in the long run. People say, ‘Well, by only playing shows in two-week legs it costs more money’ – yes, I know it costs more money! I understand all that, but if we’re going to play 50 shows a year, it’s better for us to play them in two-week increments. We’ve managed to set it up in a way where it works for us, we keep it interesting and never get too close to the point of mental or physical fatigue/burn-out/capitulation/falling off the deep end/spiralling out of control. We put everything we can into making sure we have a healthy unit; we’re betting on our longevity as the right model for us.”
It puts Metallica in the best frame of mind to follow their muse. And where they've followed it to has often been surprising. Their 2011 release with Lou Reed, Lulu, for example, which started with the lyric, 'I would cut my legs and tits off when I think of Boris Karloff and Kinski'.
"They’re constantly innovating," says Clive Cawley, managing director of their UK label partners Virgin/EMI. "They do things and think bedamned of the consequences, for a band of their nature and magnitude I think it’s very brave to never rest easy. They don’t sit on their laurels. Lulu, the whole thing was very weird, even the artwork, it was them doing something that wouldn’t sit easy with fans. But all that does is maintain interest in them.”
Indeed, the creative restlessness that has defined Metallica's activity is something they take pride in.
“That’s right," agrees Mensch. "Because… why not? They have the platform. Sometimes it works better than other times. The fanbase is strong, you lose some, you gain some. Some people think the best record we made was Master Of Puppets, I’m sure there’s a bunch of 17-year-olds, maybe not a lot, that think Hardwired… is the best, because they don’t know the old stuff.”
But how do they reconcile what makes artistic sense and what makes business sense?
“It all makes the same sense,” insists Mensch. “We made an album with Lou Reed, it didn’t make any business sense. But we tried it. Critics probably hated it, but it didn’t stop people from coming to see us play at Download or Reading a couple of years ago. They did an album with a symphony [1999's S&M], no one else has done that in 20 years either. What Metallica is now, in terms of its skin being thick, nothing can hurt it. They can try some stuff, sooner or later it all comes back to being Metallica.”
One such gamble was Through The Never – a project Ulrich says shows Metallica biting off “more than we could chew" as they tried to sidestep the Hollywood distribution system. The self-funded IMAX film is reported to have lost millions of dollars.
"I had the idea we should do a concert film," explains Mensch. "I thought we should re-stage stuff people wouldn’t have seen if they were only seven years old when we did the  Justice... tour. The band sat there and said, ‘OK, that sounds like a good idea, but we really think there should be a story behind it’. I said, ‘OK, fine, it’ll cost us more money but let’s see’. We survived it. It’s a great concert film, it’s not even a bad movie in retrospect. One day people will understand that. Is anybody saying, ‘I’m never going to listen to Metallica again because that movie sucked’? It didn’t suck. It might not have been interesting, you might not have known it was out, but it didn’t suck.”
Equally as bold was their venture into festivals. In 2012 Metallica launched their Orion festival in Atlantic City followed by Detroit in 2013. Despite the enormous cost of putting it on – rumoured to be in the millions – Ulrich is not ruling out its return.
“Orion is our thing,” begins Lars. “At the right time and right place, we would definitely bring that back."
He laughs as he remembers their thought process. "‘Hey! Let’s start our own festival!’" he says. "That takes three and a half seconds to say and three and a half billion hours to put together. Anybody who started a festival will tell you it’s probably a five to 10 year commitment, we rolled the dice and neither of the set-ups we threw ourselves into was ultimately the right set-up. We gave it two shots in America and neither were right. I think we’ve talked about maybe doing something in Europe. That will definitely roll back around.”
What matters is this: on the back of Hardwired… To Self-Destruct, nothing is off the cards.
“If you’re Metallica and you tour around and killed it at The O2, and broke the house record, and you got more shows to play and more plans and more music to make and James Hetfield writes a riff every time he picks up a guitar, you’ve got to feel pretty good about yourself,” says Mensch. “And you survived it, you’re looking around and you’re on the top of your mountain. There’s nobody else up there, you’re up there with the U2s of the world or whatever. You may not be The Rolling Stones yet, but you’ve got 20 more years to get there.”
Everything we do is about what's best for the band, rather than the bottom line
As to why the Hardwired… campaign worked so well?
“Absence makes the heart grow fonder,” reasons Mensch. “They put out a great record. They hadn’t put out a record in eight years, it was quality music and then they went and played a bunch of quality shows. It got bigger because I believe they maintained the quality of their product, so music is No. 1. No. 2, there’s no question about the quality of their performance. No. 3, they were out of the [US] marketplace with a new record for years. They played Europe and stuff like that, but in America where they just completed an absolutely sold-out stadium tour, they hadn’t played in eight years. And No.4, guess what? There’s nobody even close to them. Look, you can make the point that Stone Roses begat Oasis and Pulp and Blur who begat Radiohead, Coldplay, Muse even. We’re still waiting for the next Metallica. I get plenty of emails saying ‘We’re the next Metallica’ and then they send me shitty music. But there’s nobody else. We’re all waiting for the next Led Zeppelin, but guess what? There’s not going to be one.”
From there, Mensch isolates the problem at hand.
"Metal, hard rock, whatever you want to call it." he says. "Guitars in general. It’s a shrinking business. Pop music nowadays isn’t guitar-based, it’s rhythm and keyboard based. It used to be if you had a guitar and singer that sang, you had a shot. Have a contest: name the Top 5 bands in the world, under the age of 40, where the singer doesn’t play guitar? You don’t have to answer that one now. Ponder that one..."
Yet for all the discussion of who, or where, the next Metallica is, the fact is that the real Metallica are doing an extraordinary job of being themselves right now. That is whoever they want to be. In a 2012 SPIN interview, Ulrich said that if Metalica were to become the band everyone wants them be it would kill them. But what does he think that is?
“I’ve said a lot of stuff over the years!" he concludes. "What I was attempting to say is that in the somewhat conservative corners of the hard rock world there is a desire to have the bands put out the same record every couple of years, with the same sleeve, the same creative approach and be predictable. I’ve always said that’s not the band that we’re interested in being. We’ve fought against that for over three decades. We’ve always stood very hard against being pigeon-holed. We really like doing things our way.”