So far as Lars Ulrich is concerned, the backlash and bad reviews that followed the release of Metallica's last two albums were the best thing that could ever have happened to the band.
That may seem hard to believe, given how extreme the band's fall from grace seemed. After releasing "Metallica"--an album both the band and its fans refer to as "The Black Album"--in 1991, the quartet became the biggest band in metal.
Not only did the album sell a jaw-dropping 9 million copies, but such tracks as "Enter Sandman" and "The Unforgiven" made Metallica as much a fixture on MTV as Madonna. Meanwhile, the band's road show was selling out stadiums and arenas all across the globe. Simply put, Metallica was huge.
Trouble was, all that success effectively painted the band into a corner. How could it possibly follow such a success? As Ulrich, 34, and his bandmates realized, no matter what they recorded, "it would always be 'The Record After "The Black Album," ' and people would deconstruct it to the point where it would get ridiculous."
So they went in another direction entirely, shortening their songs, reducing the amount of thrash in their sound, even cutting off their shoulder-length locks. All of which was revealed in "Load," an album some fans adored but others damned as a "sellout," claiming the band had abandoned metal and gone alternative.
Although the backlash got a bit ridiculous--"People started focusing on [guitarist] Kirk Hammett's eyeliner, or whatever," says Ulrich--it was ultimately a good thing for the band.
"Those things made us stronger, because they brought us closer together," the drummer says. "It really worked so well for us, because it brought back a little bit of that, 'Well, [expletive] you!' attitude."
In a weird way, that backlash also freed the band up creatively, allowing it to take artistic chances it never would have attempted before "The Black Album."
"I don't think I've ever felt more creatively free, or creatively liberated, than I have in the last couple of years," Ulrich says. "I feel right now that we can do whatever we want and go wherever we want. That's a great position to be in."
Ulrich credits some of that to having survived the pressures of success that came with "The Black Album."
But he also feels that his current sense of calm comes in large part from having gotten past the urge to succeed that drove him for so many years. "Whatever carrot I was chasing--and I think I've realized that I probably was chasing more of a carrot in those earlier days than I thought I was at the time--I'm a lot more comfortable with myself," he says.
"I was intent on taking it as far as it could go, and it couldn't really go any further than it did in 1992-93. Then you wake up one morning and go: 'Wow! OK, that was kind of cool. Now what?' "
That was when he had his moment of revelation. "You go: 'Well, hmmm. I could start enjoying myself,' " he says, then laughs. "You know what I mean?"
Back in 1981, when he and guitarist James Hetfield first put the band together, Metallica was unlike any other metal act in Los Angeles. Inspired by "new wave of British metal" bands like Motorhead, Venom and Tractor, Metallica's music was hard, fast and uncompromising, a sound Ulrich describes as "about as extreme left as you could go."
That's hardly the case now. "The most extreme left you could go keeps changing," Ulrich says. "Next to a band like Sepultura or Korn, or whatever the latest Florida death metal band is this week--I don't even know what all these bands are called, Mortal Death Killer, Satan Witch or something--we sound like REO Speedwagon."
But being musically extreme was, deep down, never what Metallica was about. "At heart, the thing about Metallica is that we have always cared much more for the simple fact that no matter what we were doing in terms of energy, there was always a song there." He laughs, and adds, "Something resembling a song, at least!
"The more I think about a lot of the stuff from the early days, we really wrote songs, with structures and so on that were quite conservative--really, almost structured in a pop [format]. We were just playing it faster or harder than anybody else was at the time."
These days, Metallica is more than happy to play up that song-oriented side of its sound. In fact, the band's current tour--which comes to Irvine Meadows Amphitheatre on Aug. 28--actually included an acoustic segment, in which the four sit down and show off how little their songs need amplification.
"That's really fun, playing a 15-year-old song in an acoustic interpretation," Ulrich says. "People go: 'Whoa! Where did that come from?' "
He adds that the band will be rethinking more and more of its back catalog. "I just don't think that songs should be sentenced to spend the rest of their life being played the way they were recorded," he says.
At the same time, Metallica will be doing a lot more recording in the future. In fact, Ulrich would like to release an album a year. So far, Metallica is keeping to that schedule. "Load" came out in 1996, "Reload" in '97, and there's an album of cover songs scheduled for release this November. In April, he says, the band will do "another, completely different interpretation of some of the stuff we've done."
It's a long way from the band's old days, when two or three years would pass between releases.
"When you're 22 years old, and the only thing you want to do is tour and get drunk and [have sex], being in the studio almost turns into an inconvenience, because it breaks up the touring," he says. "But now, I actually enjoy making records. I enjoy the creative process, for the first time ever.
"So being in the studio is a great thing, and touring is becoming less of a great thing. So the two have kind of swapped as you get older and start having families and all this type of stuff."
Ulrich understands that some listeners may not get or like what Metallica is doing now. But he doesn't care. He likes it, his bandmates like it, and that's good enough.
"If there's heart and soul in what you do, man, they can never take that away from you," he says. "All these arguments about whether people like it or not, or whether you're selling out--if you've got heart and soul in it, that's it, man. You're on the safe shore."