Our New Symphonic Overlords: Metallica On 'S&M2'

Our New Symphonic Overlords: Metallica On 'S&M2'

Lars Ulrich speaks to Clash...

Metallica have always been a future-focussed beast. An unstoppable force in heavy music, the thrash icons simply power through any obstacles in their way – whether that’s record industry politics, the shifting critical tides, or even a global pandemic.

Speaking to Clash on the phone from his home on the American west coast, Lars Ulrich is busy putting a positive gloss on a somewhat mystifying year. Metallica’s plans were altered, but the group escaped relatively unscathed; they have their health, he points out, and lockdown meant that he got to spend more time with his family – something he doesn’t often get during hectic touring periods.

The band have also released a bold concert piece. ‘S&M2’ is the rare sight of Metallica returning to the scene of the crime, the follow-on to their outstanding collaboration with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. “I’m just so happy to get it out there and for the Metallica fans to enjoy it!” he gasps. “It’s a seriously weird and bewildering time but I’m just happy to get this out to the fans.”

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The original concept was designed to pit the metal behemoths against heavyweights of the classical realm. Remarkably, though, it worked, with both the record and the ensuing film becoming much-loved objects. For Lars, too, the project spurs pleasant memories. “It’s always interesting when you get slightly out of your comfort zone,” he says. “When you’re working with an orchestra it’s a very different kind of pressure. It’s not a bad pressure, it keeps you on your toes and in the moment. It’s certainly challenging, but I just love any time when we as a band are out of our comfort zone. It’s great to be out of our territory.”

The new concerts took place last September, two nights in San Francisco that saw Metallica tear it up once more. It’s both a re-union and something brand new, with a different set list and a different energy. Says the drummer: “We’re curious, we’re interested, we’re open, we’re engaged as people. Generally, more of our energy is just generally towards the future.”

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“I mean, you have to remember the origin of the project,” he comments. “The seeds of the project is about celebrating San Francisco. When we were first asked, San Francisco was getting a world-class arena, which it had been lacking for thirty years. Once this incredible arena was built and we were asked to open it as the hometown rock band it seemed a really organic thing to be involved in.”

“We sat and thought about how we could really make it an amazing event for San Francisco and we brought in the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra and really making it a celebration of San Francisco itself. This like many others can often become enormous and go in all sorts of directions, but we wanted to make sure that first and foremost this was a celebration of San Francisco. If you are a kid from England or Malaysia maybe San Francisco doesn’t mean a lot to you and you can maybe just enjoy the music, but for us it started about what San Francisco represents and the culture and arts of the city.”

Working with such a broad range of musicians placed a distinct kind of pressure on the musicians in Metallica. “It manifests itself in a different way, when you are my age and doing a project like this, you are really part of a big ensemble of people and in that everyone has got to hold up their end. If you fuck it up, you don’t just fuck it up for yourself, but for everyone else, too. So, I guess that sense of focus and pressure. You wake up in the morning and have to be a lot more regimented.”

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In a way, this approach links to one of Lars’ other passions. A renowned cinephile, he’ll often drop cinematic references into his answers during our conversation, and he marvels at the techniques used in a discipline wildly distinct to his own. He enthuses: “You have to work with other people, respecting their opinions and making it work in a collective. So, film is very much the same medium, you really can’t make a film by yourself. You can make a painting by yourself, you can write a book by yourself. It is basically impossible to make a film by yourself and I love the collaborative element of that.”

Out now, ‘S&M2’ is a testament to the collaborative power of Metallica. A rare example of the sequel matching the original, it’s a bit like the Godfather 2 or the Empire Strikes Back of the symphonic metal world, retaining the power of the original statement while broaching new ideas.

Keeping that collaborative energy flowing is something Metallica have been focussed on throughout 2020. Whether that’s drive-in screenings or their Metallica Monday social media events, they’re looking to communicate with fans whenever possible. It’s something they take on board internally – firing up Zoom, and swapping ideas. “We have our weekly zoom meeting, just like everyone else! I dunno… I don’t always know what’s up down or sideways with Zoom! We surrender to the reality of that at the moment, which is fine. When it’s possible to engage again we will. It’s a difficult time for everybody.”

It’s a difficult, but much like the thrash ice-breakers they are, Metallica are finding a way through.

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'S&M2' is out now.

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