Months of anticipation came to an explosive finish in the California desert on Saturday night, as Metallica closed their “Big 4” thrash-fest with a thundering “Seek & Destroy” for 50,000 weary headbangers spread across Empire Polo Field in Indio. By acknowledging their shared roots as thrash-originators with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, Metallica has found that looking back can also suggest a way forward for the band.
In an exclusive interview the day after, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich tells the LA Weekly how a partnership with Goldenvoice brought the Big 4 to the site of Coachella, the role their late bassist Cliff Burton played in Saturday's set, and how Metallica's newest album, Death Magnetic, (and producer Rick Rubin) somehow led them into the desert:
How was it playing on the polo fields last night?
It was a little bit windy, but other than that it was great. The kids were great. The band was semi-okay, even though we hadn't played live since November. We jumped in the deep end. I'm a little bit in need for someone to walk on my back for a couple of hours. But I had a good time. A lot of friends came out, a lot of familiar faces from the last 25-30 years, new friends and old friends. All around it was a pretty successful day. People were psyched, the sound was good.
How much of the set-up was Metallica's and how much provided by Goldenvoice?
It was a partnership. We did this [Big 4 tour] in Europe for two weeks last year, and we knew we wanted to play in America. The Goldenvoice people came to us with the proposal of slotting it in during that weekend between Coachella and Stagecoach. It seemed like a cool idea. Anytime that you can give the kids an experience in a place that already has an infrastructure, it always has a chance of coming off better than throwing a dart on the map and setting up a show.
I was out there three or four years ago when Rage Against the Machine played Coachella, and I thought it was such a brilliant set-up. The vibe there is just really good. Coachella may be the best festival experience in America. From what I've seen, it rivals the absolute best European set-ups – from Redding to Roskilde.
Did you plan your set any different for this show?
When you play to 50,000 people in that kind of a setting, you primarily want to play songs that people know. You maybe play more of the anthems. Sometimes the really fast songs can get kind of lost in big settings. We play so many different types of set-ups: festivals, stadiums, arenas, amphitheaters. Over the course of that, we've found what works in different situations. When we play arenas, we change the set-list up every day and play lots of obscure songs, album cuts and B-sides, but when you 're playing these really big special events like last night, I don't know if you want to start digging into super-obscure album cuts and play songs people have never heard of. It can bring the vibe down a little bit, especially when people have been standing on the desert floor for six or eight hours in 90 degree heat.
And yet there was a long instrumental in the middle of your set that really worked, and didn't seem like an obvious choice.
You're referring to a song called “Orion” from [1986's] Master of Puppets. That was primarily based around this almost classical piece that Cliff Burton brought in. I don't think we've played that song very much in America over the years — we certainly haven't in the last 10 years. We finished a two-year run on Death Magnetic in November, and we were down in Australia four or five nights in every venue there, and we started going really obscure and digging into things that we hadn't played in years and years. “Orion” was one of the songs that we pulled out. It's such a different piece of music that we were sort of surprised at how much the fans really embraced it. We threw it in last night because we figured it was something people would consider special.
When you're playing with Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax, it seems to make a statement about your shared roots and the kind of band you started as. It's not just another concert for you.
When the whole Death Magnetic thing started, Rick Rubin, our producer, was very encouraging of embracing certain elements of our past. Things got a little more metal, harder, edgier with the last record. That brought along playing some of the older songs [live] — which in turn sort of brought this [Big 4] thing along to celebrate the past. It's a real fine line, because we obviously don't want to be considered a nostalgic band, and we don't want to rest our laurels on something we did in 1986.
There are many young kids that have never experienced a lot of this stuff. Kids at 13 or 14, it's time for them to jump into the Black Sabbaths or the Deep Purples or the Metallicas or the Slayers. A lot of these kids were obviously not around back in the day. There's some countries in Europe — I swear to you, half the audience is 15 and younger. You don't want to turn your back on your past, but you don't want to rely on it either. You try to find that middle ground.
Last night, when you did “Am I Evil?” you managed to get two members of Slayer onstage this time.
Listen, it keeps going up and different guys show up. If we keep being persistent, we may get everybody up there at some point. I was telling [Slayer guitarist] Kerry King last night after the show, between Sofia [Bulgaria] and last night, we've had all four members of Slayer up there — either for the jam or for the picture on the back of the [Big 4] DVD. We're batting a thousand between Sofia and Coachella.
Why is Diamond Head's “Am I Evil?” the song you choose?
I can't tell you a cosmic reason. We felt that you're not going to invite people to come onstage and start playing a Metallica song. That would seem a little selfish, so you want to find a cover song that had some resonance towards what's going on. Everybody's got different influences, different inspirations, but certainly the band Diamond Head has a lot to answer for when it comes to four bands playing out the desert in 2011 in terms of lineage. They're probably one of the biggest reasons that we exist. When Mustaine was in Metallica, he was very inspired by them. I know Diamond Head may not have the same relevance for the boys in Slayer, but you've got to find a happy medium at some point.
We've got another half-dozen shows this summer. I would like to be a little more adventurous and not rely on the same song if there are continued jams. There are other things we can do, and I know that Tom [Araya] from Slayer was talking about [Metallica's] “The Four Horsemen.” Inviting the other bands to come up and play a Metallica song just doesn't seem right.
Based on what I've heard from them, I think they'd all be up for it.
You know, I'm not afraid to go anywhere. Maybe we'll play a Slayer song instead.
The first time you and Slayer shared a bill was about 30 years ago at the Woodstock club in Orange County. Do you remember anything about that night?
I remember it vaguely. The Woodstock was a club in Anaheim that held about 17 people. We played a show there I believe in '82, and we were just finding our feet at the time. I'm pretty sure [Slayer] played Deep Purple's “Highway Star” because at that point, and still to this day, I'm the biggest Deep Purple fan, and when anybody plays a Deep Purple song I take notice. Obviously, we've come a long way from back at the Woodstock. I think I still have the flyer somewhere. It's awesome that we're still at it, and that 50,000 people wanted to be part of it.
Metallica's Big 4 set-list for Saturday, April 23, 2011:
“For Whom the Bell Tolls”
“Ride the Lightning”
“Fade to Black”
“All Nightmare Long”
“Sad But True”
“Welcome Home (Sanitarium)”
“Master of Puppets”
“Nothing Else Matters”
Encore: “Am I Evil?” (with members of Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer), “Hit the Lights” and “Seek & Destroy”