It’s a rainy Thursday in early April, and Lars Ulrich has posted up at one of his favorite places in New York, a luxuriant hotel owned by Robert De Niro. “I love sitting here in this courtyard,” he says, gesturing through a window at a favored spot that the bad weather is keeping him from. “Usually when you sit here, you sit outside, but it’s fine.”
The drummer is in town for a short time to induct Deep Purple into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame – an honor he embraces passionately the next day – before he heads back to San Francisco, where he and his Metallica bandmates are to play a concert in a music shop as they serve as Record Store Day Ambassadors. But as he looks out at the hotel’s would-be piazza, the subject at hand is his band’s past.
Today, Metallica are reissuing their first two albums, 1983’s thrash tour-de-force Kill ‘Em All and its more melodic follow-up, 1984’s Ride the Lighting. In addition to remastering the records as stand-alone release, they’ve also created deluxe box sets that contain several discs’ worth of previously unreleased material. The “goodies,” as Ulrich calls them, include unearthed concert recordings, alternate mixes of songs, demos and video interviews, spread across CDs, DVDs and vinyl. Both reissues also include a book containing liner notes and previously unpublished photos.
The reissues herald the beginning of a long reissue campaign – launched last year with the re-release of Metallica’s No Life ‘Til Leather demo cassette – that will continue through their catalog. After years of planning, Ulrich tells Rolling Stone that for now he’s just excited to see the first two major reissues make it into his fans’ hands.
Why did you want to do these reissues?
I’ve seen some formidable reissues coming out. Deep Purple did some, and U2 did some great things, like the Achtung Baby 20th anniversary release. I liked what Oasis did with Definitely Maybe. I’ve been looking forward to our albums joining the ranks of those reissues for some time.
Does it feel good to have the first two reissues done?
Yes, but I’m experiencing a crossfire of energies. I’ve sat here all day telling journalists about what I had for breakfast in 1984, and I sat with [Metallica managers] Peter [Mensch] and Cliff [Burnstein] all morning talking about 2017 and the new album. So it’s interesting.
What went through your mind when you finally saw the box sets?
I haven’t actually held a real one in my hands yet. James and I each did an unboxing video – and I promised not to tell anybody this – but there were no real records in any of the sleeves. But the first thing I thought was, “Holy shit, there’s a lot of stuff in here.” The second thought I had was that the book in there was really cool.
When we put these things together, and I’m approving this or that, it’s usually on this device [picks up iPhone]. So to hold it in its real size – the book being 12 inches by 12 inches – it’s just awesome. It’s got a good girth, a good weight, a good size to it, so it’s cool. And I think as we get further into doing these reissues, there will be more and more to put in these. ‘Cause unfortunately, as I’m sure you can understand, some things have gone missing over the past 30 years. So there will be even more goodies that we will be able to be put in the subsequent releases. But I think this is an awesome place to start, and off we go.
What was the process like finding the goodies in the deluxe reissues?
We turned everything upside down to find things for these. We put it all in there, the kitchen sink as we call it. We’re not holding back anything for the 2021 remaster; there’s no ulterior motive. But we are continuing to unearth things. With things like master tapes, shit just disappears. We actually have one guy who has worked for us for the last two years whose sole job it is to just go around to record-company vaults all over the world and search through them for Metallica recordings. A lot of shit gets mislabeled and all the sudden we hear, “We found this thing but it was in a Steve Miller box.” And I was like, “OK.”
So what inclusions in these box sets wow you the most?
I’m particularly fond of some of the video stuff that has not been released yet. There’s all the raw footage of an interview James and I did at Day on the Green in 1985. It was done with a stationary camera on us for about 15 or 20 minutes. Just seeing that unedited is just really cool. Our mannerisms and the dynamic between the two of us is really interesting to me.
The Day on the Green concert was a turning point for the band, and one of the DVDs features some of your performance at that festival. What do you remember about that?
Day on the Green and that whole summer was obviously insane. Two weeks before Day on the Green we played Castle Donington, the Monsters of Rock festival, for the first time. It was a huge thing to be able to walk out on that stage and play with bands like Bon Jovi and Ratt and be on a festival of that size, and obviously Donington was kind of the mecca.
So Day on the Green for people in California and Northern California – especially for Cliff and Kirk who had the history of going to all those Days on the Green starting in the mid Seventies – it was, like, legendary. The fact that we could play a show on that was a big deal. We were, like, second or third from the bottom of the bill. We weren’t just the opener in the parking lot. It was really insane, and the fact that Metallica could go out and play to not 800 drunk people in a club in Oakland or Berkeley, but to 60,000 people at Oakland Stadium – and at least a fair amount of the people either got it or went along with it – it was a pretty significant thing. If you look at what we were doing at that time from a historical perspective, it was still way out of the mainstream. So when we started doing these types of things and I think you’d have to argue that Day on the Green was a pretty mainstream, a definite undertaking, it was really cool that we could be accepted. And obviously it gave us great faith in the years to come.
The Ride the Lightning reissue also features something billed as your first television interview. What do you remember about that?
It was the first I did on television. The Danish TV station came to visit at Sweet Silence Studios in the spring of 1984 when we were recording Ride the Lightning. We got some of the raw footage, and there’s two shots of James and I and Cliff sitting, listening to, I think, “Ride the Lightning.” And it was really cool just seeing the three of us and Flemming [Rasmussen, producer], and it’s not a still photo – it’s moving. You’re seeing again the mannerisms we had, and obviously any time anything gets unearthed with Cliff, it’s precious, because there’s not a lot there.
You also included a bunch of other interviews with the band from back then. What strikes you about your younger selves while listening to those?
They’re kind of funny. It’s like the balls hadn’t dropped quite yet. We’re all still talking in high-pitched voices and you can’t just blame it all on tape decay [laughs]. Also, it’s really fun hearing the youthful energy and hearing some of James’s banter in between songs back then. It’s like he was in character.
What do you mean?
He was much more in sort of a metal character onstage then. Now he just talks to the audience. At some point, it shifted to talking to the audience more like friends. But back then it was more like a character, like in the way he’d introduce songs: “Bow to the Phantom Lord.” And then we’d start. So some of that stuff’s interesting to hear.
What has he said about hearing himself like that?
I don’t know. We’ve been missing each other in the studio. He’s been doing vocals and I’ve been going in and doing other stuff. So we’re sort of in the studio every other day, and I haven’t really had a chance to talk through some of the stuff with him.
You said that finding things related to Cliff is precious. There’s a rough mix of his bass solo, “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth),” on the Kill ‘Em All box. What was that session like? Was it off the cuff?
Yeah. With “Anesthesia,” Cliff had just joined the party. And no disrespect to anybody else but he was at a different level. He did a bass solo with his previous band and when he came in, he asked if he could do a bass solo with us. I was like, “Come on, do a bass solo.” At that time, drum solos and those sorts of solos were sort of frowned upon by who we were. But we figured with his talent, he should. So we tried to find a way to do a bass solo in a way that would maybe be a little more in line with the way we were thinking at the time, so we thought maybe putting some drums behind it and making it a little bit more of a rhythmic experience that people could bop along to or whatever was the right thing to do. And then when it came time to put it on a record, instead of it just being a bass solo, we turned it into more of a composition. It adds some different dynamics to it, almost like different acts – like, act one, act two and act three.
We recorded in this old warehouse up in Rochester, New York, right downtown on the river, close to the Kodak building. The drums were set up in a room about two or three floors above where control room was. I don’t think I was able to see Cliff. We could just hear each other, and we just set it up and played. We weren’t so sure people would understand that it was a bass solo, so we had the engineer go, [silly voice] “Bass solo, take one.” Even though it may have been take seven.
It wasn’t just one take?
Oh, a Rolling Stone exclusive [laughs]. Everything about Cliff with that type of stuff was very, very off the cuff. He didn’t labor over it. If there was five different takes, I’m sure all five of them would be completely different from each other.
Why didn’t you include the other takes?
Unfortunately, we don’t have them. If we ever find some of those outtakes we’d love to share them. Those master tapes are still unfortunately M.I.A. We have our most wanted list in Metallica and that’s obviously at the very top.
Another interesting inclusion in the Ride the Lightning box is your demo of “Call of Ktulu,” which was first titled “When Hell Freezes Over.” Did Cliff make the H.P. Lovecraft reference?
Yeah, he brought in the whole Cthulhu myth and Lovecraft and all that. “When Hell Freezes Over” was a piece of music that we actually wrote and were working on on the Kill Em’ All summer tour in the summer of ’83. It was one of the first things we wrote for the next record. We just changed the title.
And you spelled “Cthulhu” with a “K.”
I know James Hetfield said in one of his interviews a little while back that one of the biggest regrets was that he wished we would’ve spelled Cthulhu the way Lovecraft did. It was a pretty substantial mouthful to try and pronounce that whole thing with the “C” and the “H”; it was like a 15-letter word or something. So we figured we would make a little easier for people to pronounce. But at the same time all these pieces of music were living, breathing entities that just rolled along and from the time we started writing them until we recorded them in the spring of ’84. At that time, nine months was a really long time. So the fact that there weren’t more changes in a lot of that material actually kind of surprises me.
“We lived and ate meal to meal.”
On one of the interviews on the Kill ‘Em All reissue, you talk about how you felt the people who made the record wouldn’t let you produce yourselves. Listening back to it now, is there anything you wish you had done differently?
Don’t get me started on that [laughs]. I’ve conditioned myself to not even think like that anymore. I know this sounds cheesy – I’m the first to say it – but every one of those records is a time capsule or a photograph for us. Kill ‘Em All is the spring of 1983 confined to vinyl or CD or MP3 or whatever. It’s nothing more, nothing less. It’s a bunch of songs that were a result of budgetary and creative decisions. I’m very practical about this type of stuff. Making a record is just a process of decisions.
Right, but that had to have been different when you were 19, when you recorded Kill ‘Em All.
Well, I don’t want to sound that pragmatic about it. But I don’t sit there and go, “Fuck, I wish the snare drum was a little louder on the first verse of ‘No Remorse.'” I’ve learned to just accept and be proud of the choices that were made. I don’t wish anything were different because it’s all part of a story.
I believe that life is a sequence of options and decisions. Other people believe that things happen because that’s the way it’s supposed to be, and they get more spiritual, and that’s fine. At the time, we were beyond excited to be making a record. We had four or five weeks up there. There were some pretty severe budgetary limitations and we lived and ate meal to meal. A lot of that was difficult, but when you’re 20 years old, who gives a shit? It doesn’t even phase you. You just fucking deal with it. So it’s fine.