As men in their 50s who first made their mark 30 years ago by playing louder and faster than anyone else, Metallica have a singular perspective on how it feels to be an aging rock star. They’re not worried about image, or getting older gracefully, or onstage endurance. Like athletes, they’re worried about how long their bodies will remain physically capable of playing the songs.
In advance of next week’s release of Hardwired… to Self-Destruct, drummer Lars Ulrich and singer/guitarist James Hetfield sat down with Billboard to talk about their status as elder statesmen of heavy music. The most interesting part of the interview came when Ulrich, 52, confronted the realities of aging head-on:
“Whether we’ll be able to play ‘Master of Puppets’ in our 70s, I just don’t know,” says Ulrich, referring to the group’s landmark 1986 thrash-metal anthem. “With Metallica, there’s a physicality and a weight that has to be part of it. You can play it less heavy, slower — or you can realize that the music deserves that physical approach, and if the physical delivery isn’t there, then maybe it’s better not to do it.”
The Rolling Stones have already proven that it’s possible to keep playing stadiums well into your 70s, and it’s not that metal is the only music that’s physically demanding to play. But there’s a difference between Keith Richards’ sleazy slide solos and Kirk Hammet’s freakishly fast leads, between Charlie Watts’ in-the-pocket grooves and Ulrich’s blasts of double-bass.
Still, Ulrich said that after attending Desert Trip/”Oldchella,” he realized that Watts is his unlikely lodestar:
Of the six acts at Desert Trip, he notes, “the bad news is that the only O.G. drummer in the house was in The Rolling Stones. The only road map is Charlie Watts. I can see doing it in my 70s, mentally, but I just don’t know about the physicality. That remains the great question mark.”
Considering that speed metal is only a few decades old, Metallica are probably among the first musicians to have to consider pulling off the tempos and time changes of “Master of Puppets” as septuagenarians. But if the breakneck advance singles “Hardwired” and “Atlas, Rise!” are any indication, they needn’t worry about losing their chops just yet.