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Full Metal Jacket

It's been five years since Metallica's last studio album and three since its tour. But hey, change is good (hear that country lick?).

June 02, 1996|Robert Hilburn | Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop music critic

Lars Ulrich, Metallica's drummer, paces outside a Hollywood sound stage during a break in the shooting of the band's latest video, but his restlessness goes deeper than the half-hour it's taking the crew to set up the lights for the next shot.

It's been three years since the last Metallica tour and five years since the last studio album, and both gaps are an eternity in the fast-changing world of rock. Because of the long absence, rumors were inevitable--from creative differences to personal problems within the band.

Ulrich says the reason for the break was simple: After more than 300 shows in support of the last studio album, "Metallica," the band was pretty much burned out. Ulrich, singer-guitarist James Hetfield, guitarist Kirk Hammett and bassist Jason Newsted agreed in the summer of 1993 to an "open-ended" break.

Ulrich and Hetfield finally got together in the fall of 1994 to write songs for the follow-up to 1991's "Metallica," which sold more than 9 million in this country alone.

By the time the band began recording the following May, the pair had enough songs for two albums. The group plans to release them about 18 months apart. The first one, "Load," is due in stores Tuesday. (See review, Page 67.)

Metallica hits the road this summer, starting with its headline slot on the Lollapalooza tour. When organizers of that alternative-rock showcase booked Metallica, some alternative fans balked, but in fact, Metallica has shown as much pioneering spirit as the best alternative-rock outfits. Just as Nirvana brought alternative rock to the mainstream, Metallica has shown a mass rock audience over the years that metal, too, can have character and content.

On the eve of the album's release, Ulrich, 32, spoke about the band's long absence, its new album and its place in '90s rock.

Question: What was the plan when you came off the road in the summer of 1993?

Answer: The main thing was we needed to walk away from what we were doing. We had been together for 15 years or so, and the longest break we ever had was probably two or three months--and that's not enough time to really wind down. Plus, we had never been through anything as physically and mentally draining as that last tour.

Q: Did any part of you worry about what a long break like that might do to your fan base? There doesn't seem to be a lot of loyalty these days in rock.

A: It was a matter of priorities. What does it do to an audience if you end up burning yourself out to the point of never wanting to do it again? Besides, you can't worry about things like fan bases. The minute you start trying to plan your moves in reaction to what you think your audience might want, that's the minute I think you have already lost. You never should sit there and go, "Well, here comes Green Day or whoever, so how should we react?"

Q: I suppose the same thing applies when you are thinking about your music. There was a lot of grumbling from die-hard Metallica fans last time that your album was too accessible. Does that intimidate you at all--the fan reaction to change?

A: The point people forget is that we change as people and musicians. You can't keep doing the same thing over and over or you'll get bored. That's why you'll find some changes on the new album. The thing that would worry me is if one of my favorite bands doesn't change. But we caught the grumbling long before ["Metallica"]. When we put a ballad on our second album, there were purists in the hard-rock world that were freaking.

In fact, every time we put a record out, 95% of the people are thrilled about the fact we explored some new musical territory, but you also have the 5% who are closed-minded and want you to put out the same record in a different sleeve. There are plenty of bands who do that. But we choose not to be one of them. This time, for instance, we put some bluesy stuff on the record and even some country and Southern influences.

Q: Do you ever see doing another marathon tour like the last one?

A: No. No. No. No. That's an answer for all of us. We will never do that again because we realize the whole thing would just crumble. That doesn't mean we won't tour a lot. We just won't play every place you can put up a stage, which is what we did last time. We did a month in the Pacific Rim at a time when almost nobody else had. We played the Singapores and the Jakartas. We played Tel Aviv and Athens. We went to Europe three times.

Q: How did you use the year off?

A: Mostly it was just an enriching experience--a chance for us all to think about ourselves and our life away from the band. It was the first time we really got to spend any extended period of time thinking of ourselves as individuals rather than being one-fourth of Metallica. The result, in my case, is I am a more comfortable with myself, a bit less manic.

Q: What did you do in the studio last year when you found you had 30 songs?

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