Lars Ulrich is the son of a Danish tennis pro — and he might have actually had a promising career in that sport himself. But at age 9, he saw something that would change his direction forever. He was at a tennis tournament in Copenhagen with his dad, and the hard rock band Deep Purple had invited all of the players at the tournament to their show.
After the performance, young Ulrich was hooked. "I'd never seen a racket like that before," he tells NPR's David Greene, before noting the unintentional tennis pun. Ulrich got a drum set, and when his family moved to L.A., he placed an ad in the classifieds, looking for musicians to form a hard rock band.
Guitarist James Hetfield answered his call. "Lars was there with a hodge-podge drum kit that was three different colors and he had two cymbals that were cracked and fallen over," Hetfield says. They tried playing some songs, but at the end of the session, they weren't too confident about the band's future. "We just looked at each other and said, 'Yeah, we'll um, we'll call you,'" Hetfield says.
Despite their shaky start, drummer Lars Ulrich and guitarist-singer James Hetfield gave it another go — and ended up creating one of rock's biggest bands, Metallica. In the early '80s, their aggressive sound and punk-rock attitude stood out in the West Coast metal scene. "In L.A. at the time, everything was about hair and makeup and how you looked and the costumes," Ulrich says. "And so I said, you know, leather jackets and smelly t-shirts and dirty jeans."
Hetfield and Ulrich have been making music together for more than 30 years, and today, they're releasing their 10th studio album, Hardwired...To Self-Destruct. The two of them still write most of Metallica's music together, pushing one another to experiment with their instruments. "This is not a traditional, singer-songwriter sitting down with an acoustic guitar and then three hours later comes a song," Ulrich says.
"I'm a frustrated wannabe-drummer and he's a frustrated wannabe-guitar-player and singer," Hetfield jokes. "So I guess that's how it works out so well."
That partnership has not always been easy. In 2004, Metallica produced a documentary, Some Kind of Monster, that exposed deep tensions in the band, especially between Ulrich and Hetfield. "At that point, we had been together for just about 20 years and we had never really had a conversation about how we were feeling," Ulrich says. So they brought in a performance coach ("I think that's the word he prefers," Ulrich says) to help the band work on communication.
"That movie was super therapeutic for all of us," Hetfield says, adding that it helped him view his reactions to conflict with more clarity. And perhaps it shouldn't be surprising to hear two of the best-known rockers in history speak gently about emotion — after all, Hetfield says, "Music is all about emotion."
In that film 12 years ago, rock fans saw Metallica close to imploding. But the band has worked through its issues. "We realize now that there's nothing creatively or nothing practically that's worth damaging that relationship over," Ulrich says. "And — dare I use the word — empathy shows up occasionally in this band now. Like, 'Wait a minute, I wonder how he's feeling about this!'"
For these two 50-something dads, getting out on tour can be tough –- and harder on the body than it was 30 years ago. "You know, there's tennis elbow," Hetfield says. "But actually, I must say, there's headbanger's neck."
But the two persist through the aches and pains. And to those who still find their music a bit hard on the ears, Ulrich responds with a fun fact: the music of Metallica is now officially in the Library of Congress. "So take that, mister radio-throwing, not-have-your-coffee-yet guy," Ulrich says. "You're disrespecting national treasures here."