Lars Ulrich Takes Us Inside Metallica's Record Store Day Vault, Teases New Album

metallica lars ulrich 2016
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Robert Trujillo, Lars Ulrich, Kirk Hammett and James Hetfield of Metallica at  AT&T Park on Feb. 6, 2016 in San Francisco.

Metallica are serving as the official ambassadors of Record Store Day 2016, and they’re taking the designation seriously. In addition to putting out the live documentary Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, Metallica! - Live at Le Bataclan, Paris, France - June 11th, 2003 on April 16, the day of the event, they have also lined up CD, vinyl and box set reissues of their first two albums, 1983’s Kill ‘Em All and 1984’s Ride the Lightning, for release on April 15. 

To call the box set iterations of these two seminal albums “deluxe” would be an understatement; rather, they are massive excavations. Kill 'Em All boasts four vinyl records, five CDs and one DVD comprising the remastered album, rough mixes of some of its songs, band member interviews and multiple complete live performances all dating from 1983 and 1984, as well as a patch and a hardcover book with never-before-seen photos. Ride the Lightning, meanwhile, spreads period-specific material across four vinyl records, six CDs, one DVD, a hardcover book, a mini-book of handwritten lyrics and a set of three posters. Exhaustive products, to be sure. But, explains drummer Lars Ulrich, “We were trying to dig deep. Because with YouTube and these things today it’s harder to find exclusive content that no one has seen before. Our goal was to create something special.” 

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Furthermore, these boxes are only the beginning. “There’s a lot of stuff here that will get fans psyched and whet their appetites,” Ulrich says. “Then over the next few years we’ll get into subsequent records. And we’re going to bring out some really cool things -- partly because with the later albums we have a better idea of where everything is! But every record will be a bit of a different process. And all I can say is we’ve done the best we could with these two.”

Billboard caught up with Ulrich while the drummer was in New York City to give the induction speech welcoming Deep Purple into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. During the discussion, Ulrich looked back on the recording of both Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning (and the garages, warehouse facilities and porn mustaches that were a part of the processes), and also forward to the upcoming release of the long-awaited new Metallica studio album, their tenth overall. At one point, he took a moment to draw a parallel between the material unearthed for the new box sets and his own of experiences as a Deep Purple super-fan: “With Deep Purple, I know every single live version of ‘Child in Time’ that exists,” he explained. “And if a new one comes out with a different Ritchie Blackmore solo, that’s always going to be exciting to me. Because there’s only something like 12 of them out there. So if another appears after all these years it’s like, ‘Cool!’ That’s exciting stuff to me. Hopefully we’re giving the hardcore Metallica fans a little bit of that same feeling with these releases.”

There is a wealth of material, from music to photos to video, spread across the Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning box sets. How did it feel to revisit this part of your early history after so many years?

Well, one thing I felt was, Wow, we have a pretty chaotic past! Because in the early days we had so many different record companies in so many different places. Kill ‘Em All came out, I think, on something like 10 different record labels in 10 different countries, because it was all done independently. And Ride the Lightning was released on two different labels in America alone. So there was kind of an air of disarray around the whole thing. And even after everything we’ve done with these sets, there are still some tapes and other things missing. We’ve actually had a guy working for us the last couple of years whose sole job is to try to retrieve all this stuff. And we haven’t found all the pieces yet. But that said, I think we managed to put together a couple packages that are hopefully worthwhile. 

One of the interesting things about these sets is that there is little to nothing in the way of never-before-heard songs. 

Well, one thing about both of these records -- and pretty much most of Metallica’s history -- is that we’ve never really written or recorded things that didn’t make any of our releases. We always thought that was kind of a waste of time. Why write a song and record it if you’re not gonna put it out? So it’s not like there’s, you know, four leftover songs from Kill ‘Em All that no one’s ever heard, and three more from Ride the Lightning. Basically, Kill 'Em All is the first 10 songs we wrote and recorded, and Ride the Lightning is the next eight. That’s it. We’ve always been very methodical and straightforward in that sense. 

You recorded Kill ‘Em All in roughly two weeks in a studio in Rochester, New York. What do you recall about the sessions?

It was a pretty low-budget thing. We were all staying at the house of one of the engineers, I think, and the circumstances were pretty spartan. And we were in a studio that was basically an old warehouse with big, empty spaces. The whole thing was three or four stories tall, and we had the drums set up on one of the top floors. And then you had to walk down, like, five staircases to get to the control room. But we were up there in Rochester and we were making a record, you know? So we were thrilled. When you’re 19 years old you don’t think about whether you have anything to eat or if you can do your laundry or whatever. You just want to play music. All that other stuff, you don’t give a shit. You just want to get on with it.

The Kill ‘Em All box includes a few rough mixes of the album’s songs, but no demo versions. 

That’s because most of the songs on Kill ‘Em All had been recorded and released earlier, on [the 1982 demo] No Life ‘Til Leather. And actually, we were talking about putting out a No Life ‘Til Leather collection first, but there were a couple practical things holding it up so we moved straight to Kill ‘Em All. We did a cassette release of that demo for Record Store Day last year, but hopefully we’ll get a chance to put out a whole set around it at some point. Who knows, maybe now that we’ve started with Kill ‘Em All we’ll do it last. But most of what you hear on the Kill ‘Em All box, stuff like the alternate versions of “Hit the Lights” and “Motorbreath,” those are just different mixes from the recording sessions. And then there are the quote-unquote live versions of “Seek and Destroy” and “Phantom Lord,” which were really just us at [San Francisco recording studio] the Automatt. The famous live versions that weren’t really live!

On the Ride the Lightning box set there are several tracks that are identified as garage demos. Where were those recorded?

Those were actually done in a garage, back behind the house where we were staying at the time. When we first came up to San Francisco [from Los Angeles] we landed in El Cerrito, a suburb right next to Berkeley. James and I lived there with a guy named Mark Whitaker, who was sort of our early manager, and it was where we would write and rehearse. We had the garage done up for soundproofing -- egg cartons on the walls, carpet on the floor, that kind of stuff. And we wrote and worked on most of the tracks for Ride the Lightning and Master of Puppets there. 

You recorded Ride the Lightning proper at Sweet Silence Studios in Copenhagen, Denmark. A much different experience than a warehouse in upstate New York, I’d imagine. 

Absolutely. By that time there was a little more money available, and Sweet Silence, not to say anything disrespectful about where we did the first record, it was a more international studio that had hosted people like Ritchie Blackmore and Queen and Rainbow. It was a different kind of facility. So we were very excited to be at a place like that, which was maybe a little more advanced than where we had done Kill ‘Em All

You have clear ties to Copenhagen, having been born and raised just outside the city. But why did the band choose to record there? 

We recorded in Europe so that we could stay and tour in Europe. We were playing shows and sort of cycling in and out of Copenhagen for the better part of the spring of 1984. We’d gig throughout Europe, go to Copenhagen and record, go back out and gig, come back and record. That kind of thing. 

There’s a great live set on the Kill ‘Em All box from around that time -- Feb. 9, 1984, at the Espace Balard in Paris -- which captures one of those European shows right as the band was preparing to record Ride the Lightning. That gig was also part of the Seven Dates in Hell tour, when you opened for Venom, correct?

It was -- that was our first run in Europe. And those dates were the first time we every played to a significant audience. Instead of playing to hundreds of people we were playing to thousands. The European audiences were just very passionate, and probably a little more aware of what Metallica was doing compared to American audiences. I also think that was also when James [Hetfield] started to get a little more comfortable and confident as a frontman. So it was an exciting time. We were opening for Venom, playing to three, four, five thousand people a night and just hanging out and getting a chance to kind of embrace the whole European hard-rock scene.

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Among the many interviews segments scattered throughout the two box sets is one in the Ride the Lightning box titled “Lars Ulrich When He Was Young.” What can you tell us about that?

That’s from the Ride the Lightning recording sessions in Copenhagen, and it’s the first TV interview I ever did. I look like I hadn’t been out of the house yet, with the porn mustache and the whole thing. [Laughs] It’s one of those things that hasn’t been seen very much. But it’s fun to share.

Finally, we’d be remiss if we didn’t ask: How’s the new Metallica album coming along?

Well, thank you for asking! We’re getting there! I think it’s going to get wrapped up soon. Unless something radical happens it would be difficult for me to believe that it won’t come out in 2016. That’s what we’re going for. But obviously, the way we do things now is very different than the way we did things back in the days of Kill ‘Em All and Ride the Lightning. Nowadays we like to do so many different things -- we like to write and record but we also like to be Record Store Day ambassadors and put out deluxe reissues and go play at Rasputin’s and AT&T Park and all these other things. So, you know, writing and recording is now something that is part of the bigger picture rather than something that happens exclusively. And when it really comes down to it, the new record may actually have been written and recorded faster than the last one [2008’s Death Magnetic]. It’s just been spread out over a longer period of time, with these gaps in recording. Which is fine. I’m certainly not complaining about it. It’s just the way we work now. But anyway, the record -- it’s definitely coming along. Nearing completion. Should be done soon…hopefully. [Laughs] End quote!