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What keeps Metallica going after 40 years of making music

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Metallica has been making music for more than 40 years - from their early thrash metal days...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHIPLASH")

METALLICA: (Singing) Late at night, all systems go. You've come to see the show. We do our best. You're the rest. You make it real, you know.

CHANG: ...To filling stadiums as a mainstream rock band with commercial radio hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ENTER SANDMAN")

METALLICA: (Singing) Take my hand. We're off to never-neverland.

CHANG: But maybe the most metal thing about Metallica is the hard-edged voice of drummer Lars Ulrich.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE")

LARS ULRICH: What's metal? What's that?

CHANG: OK, just kidding. That's not his real voice.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE")

ULRICH: I'm bored and lonely. I want to start a band.

CHANG: That is Ulrich putting on a puppet show, trying his best to channel a cactus, which was the puppet that he chose to master for a "Jimmy Kimmel Live" skit Wednesday night alongside his bandmates.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "JIMMY KIMMEL LIVE")

ROBERT TRUJILLO: And I'm the invisible man, and I like to party, too.

(LAUGHTER)

TRUJILLO: Let's be in a band together. Come on.

JAMES HETFIELD: Yeah.

CHANG: And that is Metallica bassist Robert Trujillo. Earlier this week, we caught up with him and Ulrich while they were shooting that skit at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater in Los Angeles.

Lars, how did you get stuck playing the cactus when James gets to be the cool cat in bellbottoms?

ULRICH: I knew right away that James was scouring for the coolest character on the racks, so I instantly gravitated towards the silliest one.

CHANG: Maybe there's something deeper there.

ULRICH: There is.

CHANG: Like, maybe you're a prickly kind of soul?

ULRICH: Let me guarantee you there's something way deeper 41 years later. Absolutely. It digs deep.

CHANG: Now, if you know anything about Metallica, you've probably already guessed what this whole puppet charade is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MASTER OF PUPPETS")

METALLICA: (Singing) Master of puppets, I'm pulling the strings, twisting your mind and smashing your dreams.

CHANG: Metallica released the song "Master Of Puppets" back in 1986. But last year, it topped the Billboard charts for the first time in the band's history thanks to the TV show "Stranger Things."

When it comes to old songs like "Master Of Puppets," what do you think it is about some of your songs that have such staying power?

TRUJILLO: For me, you know, Metallica's always been what I call cutting-edge and, like Lars says, kind of going against the grain and taking the most grooving, heavy riffs...

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "THE CALL OF KTULU")

TRUJILLO: But then, all of a sudden, you get these kind of gear shifts, so to speak. And whether it's tempo or the dynamics of the song - you know, going slow...

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "THE CALL OF KTULU")

TRUJILLO: For me, you know, before I even joined the band, I was always motivated by Metallica's music. In fact, I used to go running up in the Santa Monica Mountains to "Ride The Lightning" - you know, to the album. And that would motivate me for tours with, actually, Suicidal Tendencies, the band. So, you know, there's something about the music that has everything you need and all the ingredients.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "THE CALL OF KTULU")

CHANG: Well, I love listening to you guys talk about the past, reminiscing about the past, because so much of this new album, "72 Seasons," is about revisiting the past.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "72 SEASONS")

CHANG: I know that James Hetfield, the lead singer who writes most of your lyrics, had this idea in his head that the first 72 seasons in life - those first 18 years - shape who you are the rest of your life. And I'm wondering, how much did that idea resonate with you when he first said it?

ULRICH: Well, it resonated a lot. I'd spent a lot of my time in those first 72 seasons of my life alone, kind of a misfit, kind of disenfranchised. And I think a significant part of the reason that I wanted to be in a band was I wanted to be in a group, a collective, a gang. I wanted to belong to something bigger than myself. And so we all have our own versions of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF METALLICA SONG, "72 SEASONS")

TRUJILLO: You know, your first 18 years, you know, you discover love. You discover heartache. But also, you know, for me, growing up in Southern California, there were things like catching your first wave...

CHANG: Yeah.

TRUJILLO: ...You know...

CHANG: Yeah.

TRUJILLO: ...Surfing. And it's just like, wow.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "72 SEASONS")

METALLICA: (Singing) Feeding on the wrath of man.

CHANG: Lars, you and James started Metallica when you were - what? - 17 and 18, right?

ULRICH: Yeah, I was 17. Yeah.

CHANG: And, I mean, in the last 42 years, I'm just curious - what parts of early Metallica has the band let go of as you have all evolved individually?

ULRICH: I guess the first things that come to mind is, you know, stuff around health. Just the late nights and the shenanigans - all that have pretty much all fallen to the wayside. The one thing that we also share is that, as we get older, we become very comfortable sharing who we are to the world. And I enjoy it because, when I am on stage or representing the band, you do feel good about what you're contributing, and you know you're not letting your brothers down.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TRUJILLO: You know, you become, like, a faction.

CHANG: Yeah.

TRUJILLO: You become a part of the tribe. A lot of people can play. But at the same time, you're touring together. You're - you know, the rehearsals, your hang time, all that stuff - you know, the balance of it is super important.

CHANG: I mean, what strikes me the most when I read your most recent interviews now is how compassionate you guys sound when you're talking about each other - how much you talk about loving each other and forgiving each other for mistakes now. Tell me this - how do you think that vulnerability fits into metal?

ULRICH: Well, I don't look at it like vulnerability in metal. I look at it as four guys who are sharing an experience together and have been for the better part of 40 years. And we play music, first and foremost, that we really enjoy. We love each other endlessly, and we enjoy playing music together. And the vulnerability and the - and that transparency that we're comfortable with, you know, is something that we're actually quite proud of.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROOM OF MIRRORS")

METALLICA: (Singing) Would you criticize, scrunitize, stigmatize my pain?

CHANG: So when will you know when it's time for Metallica to stop making music?

TRUJILLO: When we're 120 years old (laughter).

ULRICH: When...

TRUJILLO: When the limbs...

ULRICH: ...The elbows, the knees...

TRUJILLO: Well, let me just say this - we love what we do. We love music so much. I mean, it excites us. I always say, when Metallica gets in the room and puts the guitars on or Lars gets behind the drums, it's fun. And there's no shortage of riffs and ideas. That's probably a blessing and a curse, and that's why you hear a lot in the music - because there's a lot of good stuff, and it's just a good time.

ULRICH: You know, spiritually, I mean, this could, like Robert's saying, go on forever. It's the elbows and the knees and - that is what may put a wrench in it eventually. There is obviously a certain physicality that it requires to play this music, but that doesn't feel like it's imminent. So excuse me, I got to run and get on my Peloton and...

CHANG: (Laughter).

TRUJILLO: That was the ambulance coming to get Lars.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUX AETERNA")

METALLICA: (Singing) Lux aeterna (ph).

CHANG: Drummer Lars Ulrich and bassist Robert Trujillo of the band Metallica. Thank you both so much. This was awesome.

ULRICH: Thank you for having us.

TRUJILLO: Thank you for having us.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LUX AETERNA")

METALLICA: (Singing) Lux aeterna. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Jonaki Mehta is a producer for All Things Considered. Before ATC, she worked at Neon Hum Media where she produced a documentary series and talk show. Prior to that, Mehta was a producer at Member station KPCC and director/associate producer at Marketplace Morning Report, where she helped shape the morning's business news.
Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.