Torben Ulrich is Lars’ Father, and as such has a great insight into Lars, Metallica, and its history and future. Molly is Torben’s wife and runs his website. Molly and Torben have been kind enough to spare some time for our chapter to work on the following interview.
Interactions with Lars and the band
FWMT: Do you often get to do interviews with Lars the way you did with Steffan Chirazi for the latest edition of So What! Magazine?
T: No, except we’ve done a few things together with some lines around a photo session or something like that.
FWMT: Have you read Lars’ biography (only released in Danish, so I have not!) – if so, what did you think?
T: Not necessarily from beginning to end, but certainly quite a lot of it. And maybe enough that I would dare to say that I thought it was an honorable attempt to get into sort of the factual circumstances of what Lars is about, but since as we’ve seen over the years maybe that’s a complex situation, you know, and so in that sense it’s a very tall order.
FWMT: In the interview with Steffan Chirazi you referred to an incident when Lars was quite young, an incident in which he refused to turn off a tap, and you would not let him pass until he did. Do you see this aspect of Lars’ personality in his interaction with other people?
T: Maybe not. Also because I’m not around him maybe in situations where that kind of setting, with that kind of tension, would arise. And also since, in some sense, Lars and I also don’t seem to have that kind of thing going anymore, so on the whole I would say: maybe not.
FWMT: Lars has a very well known stance on the issue of musical control by its creators (most notably seen when he rightly took on Napster). Do you think his stubbornness plays into the way he confronts these issues?
T: I don’t know that I can take the idea of “stubbornness” into the area, if you will, of these already very complicated issues of quote ownership unquote. It could well be that I myself have a different take on what ownership means with regards to music and such — also because when you’re most your own, or yourself, with regards to music, you’re not owning that situation but rather almost discarding “your own”. Which is not to say that I do not sympathize with or fully understand the activity of being simply ripped off by others.
FWMT: James’ description of his first meeting with Lars suggests Lars was not originally accomplished on the drums, but he improved substantially by their next meeting. Did he have a natural talent (you mention in the interview with Steffan that he used to play some drums even as a child), or was it more perseverance and practice that has made him as good as he is today?
T: I always thought, and maybe that was mentioned in the interview, that he had a very compositional approach to drumming in his very early years, meaning actually before he started to be more involved in beating on the 2s and 4s and playing along with his records. And by compositional I mean that we could ask him to play a certain song that he had named and he could bring it out on the spot and repeat it. That kind of thing.
FWMT: At what point did you realise that Metallica was going to be successful enough to support Lars, and when did you realise that Metallica was going to be bigger than most other bands around?
T: I don’t know that I ever realized that.
FWMT: Have you heard anything of what Metallica are working on currently? Can you tell us if they are in the studio recording?
T: Yes, I have. Yes, they are.
FWMT: What are your thoughts on Cliff Burton … how the band would be had he not died … what did you think of him as a person and as a musician?
T: Not only as a person but also as a musician and maybe that kind of rock musician, I think Cliff was extremely precious and very difficult to replace, or impossibly so. And I say this also because he seemed to have a side to him that still was not fully unfolded, and quite possibly could have taken the band in quite a different direction from the way it went with Jason, which is not at all a critique of Jason and his large skills and ears. But more that there was something in Cliff’s background and genes that seemed to suggest that something not so muscular could have come to the fore. Whether that would have taken them away from the kind of physical strength that they have and which has been embodied with Robert is quite another story. And I don’t know about that.
FWMT: I assume that you have met all of the members of the band. I am interested in your assessment of James, Kirk, Cliff, Jason, and Rob, both as professional musicians and as people (not trying to get too in depth or personal, just your general thoughts).
T: I think as you can see from the above response just with Cliff and Jason and Rob, this will inevitably take hours and you may not have the endurance, and maybe Molly not either, and maybe I don’t even have a long-winded insight.
FWMT: What were your thoughts when you heard that Jason had left the band?
T: Generally speaking, I was sad to see the collisions, in particular the collisions between James and Jason, James maybe wanting a kind of a narrower allegiance to the Metallica project as such and Jason with his large ears going 360 degrees and being so interested and potentially involved in other things. So obviously for a long time they were on that kind of collision course, and in some sense maybe it was unavoidable, at least at that stage. But, given the broad dispositions of Jason’s interests, I think there ought well to be operating room beyond the narrow confines of that kind of band.
FWMT: Musically, what do you think of Rob’s bass style, and do you think he will add a new dimension to Metallica’s playing style?
T: I think that Robert was an extremely fortunate choice. In view of what I said above, I think that he’s a very strong continuation of the direction that the band had taken after the death of Cliff Burton, and since if one listens closely, I’m wondering if the lack of conflict or shall we call it the new togetherness can be heard in the way that the bottom now plays out in a very sonorous way, so that from the point of view of heavy metal, meaning here sort of heavy bottom played in tune, this may be their strongest moment.
FWMT: What did you think of the recent shows supporting The Rolling Stones?
T: They were OK, not great. The first one a little on the cold side, maybe, since many of the people showing up for the Stones floor and fashion show did not seem to know quite what to make of this, kind of: Was it a warm-up band, or local color, or what? The second night was maybe better from that point of view. But still there was a kind of a tension between wanting to pay homage to the obvious tradition of that whole music and not being quite at ease as oneselves.
FWMT: Were you ever worried about Lars in the early days when he was touring the U.S. in small vans?
T: Yeah, all the time, obviously. Wouldn’t you be if you had a child playing rock-n-roll?
FWMT: I have read of two incidents on tour in the early days – their equipment being stolen, and one time when they crashed their van. Were there many other incidents they encountered on the road that you know of?
T: No, or none that I heard of or can recall right now.
FWMT: Lars has collaborated with you on “Before The Wall”. Would you ever collaborate on a Metallica album if invited?
T: Have you heard the CD where Nas collaborates with his father, Olu Dara? That sounds both interesting and maybe a little scary. But there’s no doubt it would have to be considered.
FWMT: Do you think Lars’ tennis career would have taken off if you had remained in Denmark instead of moving to America, or was your intention to expose him to new things so he could make a final decision on where he should channel his talents and interests?
T: You’re exactly right, you hit the spot there. That was the entire idea, to test whether he would really want to explore that whole tennis scene, because if that was the case, then that would be high time, the way things have to start so early these days. (Maybe that’s not quite true, because I started a couple of days after I was born, I think, when I was placed in my cradle at the tennis court while my parents played.) But I think it was absolutely right for him to have that situation really tested so that if he chose to go away from the ballplaying, that he felt that he’d had the chance to explore it and not have to regret it later.
FWMT: How good do you think Lars could have been as a tennis professional?
T: It’s very, very difficult to say, particularly nowadays, since earlier on you could almost tell when people were 11 or 12 that they would become very good unless something happened. But nowadays there’s so many factors and the piling up of work habits that becomes increasingly difficult to see whether somebody can be really making it on the tour.
FWMT: Of the current tennis scene, what do you think of the top players today, especially Federer, who seems unstoppable, Lleyton Hewitt, Andy Roddick, Andre Agassi, and the Williams sisters?
T: Yeah, I agree that Federer looks unstoppable, although not quite as floating as he looked a season or two ago. Maybe that in itself also is an impossibility, what with the pressures and strains of the tour. The same goes a little bit I think for Agassi, who had to go into a very rigid regimen to be able to endure, and in some sense it seemed to take the larger and more playful contingencies out of it. In so many ways, I respect the long tradition of Australian players, an Adrian Quist, a Bromwich, Sedgman, Fraser, Hoad, Rosewall, Emerson, Roche, Margaret Smith Court, Goolagong, Rafter – to name but a few. And of course Hewitt follows strongly in this line, although maybe a little less in the net-approaching approach, but with a tremendous reach in the backcourt. On the whole, that way of staying back is a little bit out of the way of what I think is appealing in terms of what’s really interesting to watch. So that would probably cover Roddick, too, the way his overpowering serve or speeding forehand seems to be something relied upon rather than opening up the court in a playful way. Then most of what I have said probably would cover the Williams sisters; I would say that it’s been very interesting to see them grow into what they have achieved and, in some sense, out of it again. But, being an addict of the playful, for me, they’re still maybe a little too much on the side of the strainful to be something that I can really say will move me in a more profound way.
FWMT: What is one of the weirdest experiences you had while you were on the professional circuit, outside of the game?
T: Traveling around Pakistan in a state-sponsored train car, one car for us the players, another full of soldiers with leopard skins on top of their uniforms, playing music when we were dislodged from the train each morning, stopping to meet the mayor in the next town over, where we were to play exhibitions later in the day, and dancing with the men at supper because the ladies were confined to behind a screened door next to the ballroom.
FWMT: Who were your favourite opponents when you played professionally?
T: Every one of them, if it was late enough in the day.
FWMT: Who are your favourite players at the moment?
T: Hard to say, harder the question.
FWMT: Can you give us your opinion on who some up-and-coming players are that we may see big things from in the future?
T: I think to give you some idea of that, one would have to be much closer to the scene in its everyday sense, being around the tour or visiting junior tournaments and stuff. In that sense, we’re quite isolated, although we try to follow the tournaments as they come, but television is already a distancer, not easy to get into the meat of things.
FWMT: In 1976 you reached #1 ranking in the seniors tournament. What was your highest ranking before you joined the seniors tournament?
T: Since I’m really not so interested or taken up with rankings and stuff, you’d have to look into the books of statistics for that kind of thing.
FWMT: Was winning the Wimbledon seniors doubles as good as winning any of the individual tournaments you won before joining the seniors circuit?
T: Probably so, since winning any of those tournaments that you refer to was not more or less than anything else.
FWMT: Your Davis cup record stretches over quite a period of time, and quite a lot of the matches were on clay. Did you prefer playing on clay or was this all that was on offer?
T: I loved to play on all kinds of surfaces. A really good grass court is probably something special. But so is cow shit, which we played on regularly in India. As long as it doesn’t rain, which it doesn’t.
FWMT: Where you ever captain of the Danish Davis Cup team?
T: No. My father was, and my brother was. That wouldn’t have been my gig, I think.
FWMT: Your profile says you played in Australia twice. What did you think of Australia?
T: I liked it a lot. Yeah, we played everywhere. Except Perth, regrettably. Up in the very north someone said to me, “You’re Willie Nelson, aren’t you? Would you sign your autograph?” At that time I had pigtails and signed that person’s book “Willie Nelson”. Yes, I enjoyed it.
FWMT: What did you think of Phil Towle?
T: Actually thought he was quite helpful, keeping the talk and things flowing and people opening up to the degree that he was there to question and direct the various dialogues and trialogues. The fact that someone was there with the endurance of his and that kind of long-distance steering. And I think if they were comfortable with Phil for so long is also an indication, that the fact that they’re still together should not necessarily make him an object of ridicule, which sometimes there can be a tendency to do, off the film, etc.
FWMT: Do you think Lars and James’ relationship would have been destroyed by now without Phil’s help?
T: Having said what I just tried to explain, of course you may say so, but you could also de-personalize it in the sense of saying that if someone had been there other than Phil, for that kind of length of time, maybe someone else also could have done it. So on the one hand, it’s fair to give credit to Phil, but it could also be that someone else, given the same patience, could have pulled it off.
FWMT: In the scene you seem to be asked most about from Some Kind Of Monster, you recommend deleting a sequence. Lars’ response is that Cliff Bernstein said to open the record with it. Do you see yourself as a balancing opinion for Lars when he seeks it, seeing most other people offering opinions on the music would have a vested interest in the outcome?
T: Yeah, it’s a good question. I try to tell Lars how I hear it as close as I can call it, given my resources, meaning of course that I come from a certain background that Lars is also familiar with, but which is still different from his. So that’s not to say that I see myself as a “balancing opinion for Lars when he seeks it,” but rather that I let it be up to him if he can use it for anything whatsoever.
FWMT: What did you think of the other songs Lars showed to you when they were recording St. Anger, both those included in the album, and those not included?
T: I’m respectful of any band that tries to reassess where they are when they go into the recording studio again, trying to balance (to use that term from the previous question) remaining with what you are in terms of your stated strengths and opening yourself up to new and unknown territory. In some sense, I think Lars easily tries to go that way in any case, but at that particular time with all their difficulties they were not that anchored, really, with respect to their common ground in terms of music, either. So maybe it was good to fall back, even if a little harshly, or even a little too harshly, on the narrow path of what they could do, and maybe eliminate outer temptations, or something like that.
FWMT: In his book about the movie, Joe Berlinger says he felt the scene with you, Lars and Phil in the hills was a bit contrived by Phil. Did you feel that Phil forced interactions sometimes for the benefit of the cameras?
T: I certainly didn’t feel like they were particularly contrived by Phil. That said, everything like that is a bit contrived, or there’s a fine line between contrivance and planning, or something, in terms of what’s going to be shot or attempted or what makes a good angle or idea or that kind of thing. Also, if things appear to be a little thick it can also be edited out in the making; there’s certainly was a lot of footage that was either kept or scrapped.
FWMT: Were you ever uncomfortable with either the cameras of Joe and Bruce, or Phil’s presence when visiting Lars in San Francisco?
T: No, I don’t think so, not at all. First of all, everybody was very friendly and things went quite easily. Also, maybe one should remember that I have been in that kind of filming almost all my life, so that doesn’t seem so difficult.
FWMT: Did you ever get to know Dave when he was in the band? What did you think of the manner in which he was asked to leave the band, and what did you think of the scene with Dave and Lars in the movie?
T: Let’s tread carefully here. First of all, yes, I remember Dave from the first days he came to our house as someone smiling and always friendly, very courteous and quite articulate, and when I say courteous I think particularly about the way he was always attending to Lars’ mother and asking her if she’d had a good day and so on. So when he was around the house he was always very well liked and received. Obviously we (Lars’ mother and I) could not know how things were going once the guys left the West Coast and things began to unfold, or unravel, out East. Obviously it cannot be very nice to wake up in the morning and be told that it’s over, and here’s a ticket to take you back home, if your whole life is involved with this kind of music and that kind of traveling. But since we were not there, it seems impossible to be able to go further than that, except to give to Dave that kind of sympathetic thought, that I think also everybody would give, even given that he of course could not think that that was enough, ever. With regard to the scene with Dave and Lars in the movie, I thought it was quite moving, and I thought that if the film had qualities or any qualities, then that kind of thing that happened there was part of what constituted that kind of insight into the problems, even the lingering problems, of what it means to be a member, or not a member, of a rock-n-roll band. If Dave Mustaine now feels that maybe it was not quite right or quite fair, then I would say just as we sit here and speak more or less spontaneously, that you always take that kind of risk when you appear before a camera or a computer, and so if you agree to participate, then that’s more or less what you can risk, and things can always either take a turn that you did not anticipate or, worse, they can be distorted to a degree that you never imagined. As a ballplayer, I’ve seen that happening over a lifetime, even to the degree that some sports reporters would ask me, “Can you say this or that?” and I’d say, “No, I don’t think you can say this or that”, and they would still say it that way.
FWMT: Your beard is one of the best I have ever seen. Have you been growing it continually since your tennis career, or do you shave it periodically?
T: It’s been there pretty much untouched except when it was rotting away from too many showers, since, what, it must have been the mid-1950s. There was a time when it was completely gone, everything, hair, beard, mustache, everything, razored away, completely bald. Which was interesting since no one recognized you, not saying hello at the jazz club, etc., which is a pretty good learning experience, the way people you think you know look through you or look away, good lesson.
FWMT: If you were talking to someone new to jazz, who would you recommend as the first jazz musician to listen to?
T: It would be difficult to get around Louis Armstrong, since he was the one that maybe more than anyone shaped a certain approach that then became the almost, you might call it, the main gestalt of the music. And if not Armstrong, maybe Billie Holiday, since I think today she might still sound more approachable than if you thought that Armstrong’s clear and measured style would come out slightly archaic. But we should remember also that Billie Holiday herself also talked about how she had learned so much from Armstrong himself.
FWMT: Which musical instrument do you play primarily? (I know you play clarinet, any others?)
T: Even though I was more practically committed, as far as playing was concerned, with the New Orleans style of music, where the clarinet fitted in as a distinct voice, together with the coronet or trumpet and the trombone, I was already interested in the later developments of the music, where Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young were shaping the sound of the tenor saxophone, and later on Don Byas and Sonny Rollins. So I studied tenor saxophone on the side until our band actually got a clarinet player, who was also substituting a lot when I was away playing tennis, which meant that when I came back, I could be part of that kind of development and play saxophone, and he stayed with the clarinet, that kind of thing. Then later on I could also study or try to understand what John Coltrane and other saxophonists were doing, like Ornette Coleman and Eric Dolphy. At the same time, and since way back I had been interested also in classical approaches to the flute, and so I was playing Mozart and stuff on the flute also, although never in that kind of active setting. Lately, although I’m not sure if the voice is a musical instrument, but being still very interested in sounds, the sounds themselves, I’ve been trying to work with the voice and textual improvisations, in the context of, in Denmark, touring with a kind of free-form or whatever-that’s-called group, and here in Seattle we’re beginning to give some appearances with a group comprising a cello player, a trumpet player, a drummer (Jaison Scott, a heavy-metal man who grew up listening to Metallica but can also play very softly in a non-fixed-pulse setting, interestingly) and this guy on vocals, vomiting or whatever.
Art, Literature, and Film
FWMT: You seem to be quite a renaissance man – you are a successful sportsman, you paint, you create movies, you write books and you play jazz. Have you always had a broad range of interests, or have they come up over the years, for instance, were you interested in Buddhism before your tennis took you to India, or did it arise due to your travels?
T: Yeah, the broader range of interests seemed to have been there from very early on. I remember reading Greek philosophy probably when I was 12 or 13, getting books from the library, but at the same time I was playing soccer, handball, table tennis, tennis, all day long, then beginning to add music. So yeah, it seems to have been there from very early. The Buddhist stuff specifically probably came right after the war ended, in 1945, when the piano player in our band, who was a psychiatrist, was also very interested in different approaches to things Buddhist and Hindu. And he was someone that I respected very much and learned a lot from.
FWMT: I have not had the opportunity to see your movies, but I have heard they are quite abstract. Could you give us an idea of what a viewer should expect, and what it is about?
T: Yeah, I agree it’s probably not going to be easy to see where all that’s going. If you’re thinking of the latest film, “Before The Wall”, what we were trying do, well, let’s quote from the beginning of the film, “A catalog of movements, inspired by the way of the ball … exploring a set of intensities, some inter-faces of athletic & everyday living, the ready and the already”, something like that. What we were trying to do was to suggest, through showing what we were trying to do, how would you yourself approach this if it was up to you? In other words, the film is not instructional in the usual sense, where this catalog of movements shows some stuff that you would then be expected to follow. On the contrary, it would try to say that if you were merely imitating, like we’re imitating almost all the time, then that was not what it was about. In fact, the film is also a kind of a mockery of that kind of approach, or at least it can easily be seen that way, and that would be a right way to see it as well.
FWMT: It seems you have a fascination with expressing and exploring athleticism in your art and movies, you often refer to athletics, or ballplaying, in your Lines and Off-lines. Is this because of your history in sport?
T: Yes. I’m often surprised how little the various classical art forms, quote-unquote, sort of spill over into something more exacting or challenging, as far as the whole athletics field is concerned. And therefore, increasingly maybe, maybe I should try to stay within the athletic field and see if I can distill some of my inspirations in these other fields and transfer them into this athletic field, or at least trying to set up a bridging dynamic, or something like that.
FWMT: Do you have a similar aspect for expressing music in your other art forms in the same way you cover athleticism?
T: Of course in the old days I was writing predominantly about music and its cultural ramifications, in Denmark. And in recent times I’ve maybe begun to go back to that, less in a kind of prose approach but in a form similar to the Lines and Off-lines that was referred to a minute ago, above. So that I’m trying to approach the questions of sound, line and pulse in a way that aspires to the form of the poetic, hopefully without being too pompous.
FWMT: The art included in the current issue of So What! are quite interesting – this is obviously a series (seeing there are quite a few included), but most have no name. Is there a reason they are not named?
T: No. Many of them already have texts written on them, as you may have seen, even if it’s so small that it’s not easily noticed in the magazine. But in that sense, that text would then be the naming.
FWMT: Do you have a favourite artist?
T: No. But there are so many wonderful ones that you would fall asleep before I’d mentioned them all.
FWMT: Have you always had an interest in both art and cinema, or did this arise later in your life?
T: Yeah, we talked about that above, or earlier. So if it started around 10 years of age or so, is that sooner or later in one’s life?
Thankyou Torben and Molly for your time. It has been fascinating receiving your answers, they are informative, interesting, and in some places, very humorous. I look forward to the online chat!
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