Metallica Mixer Says Lars Ulrich’s Drums Sounded ‘Like A**’ on ‘And Justice For All’
The production on Metallica's 1988 album ...And Justice For All is beyond notorious. There's the whole ordeal about the lack of Jason Newsted's bass that has continuously fueled the ire of fans (and even Newsted) for more than three decades and counting and, in a new interview, mixer Steve Thompson touched on a fresher angle, which is that he felt Lars Ulrich's drums sounded "like ass."
It's difficult to imagine a more popular album that has been the source of such widespread criticism than ...And Justice For All, but these are the things metalheads can't help but cling to without ever daring to loosen their grip on collective gripes.
The followup to Master of Puppets and first Metallica album with Cliff Burton's successor, Jason Newsted, challenged fans in a number of ways, from its highly ambitious songwriting to grating, tinny production values.
Loudwire spoke with Thompson, who was a co-mixer on the project, in 2017 about these production values, and he recalled have disagreements with Ulrich about the drum sound, among other things. The "official story" concerning the lack of bass is constantly fluctuating with plenty of finger-pointing having gone 'round and, while speaking with Dean Cramer, Thompson again recalled the dispute about the drum sound.
"We did the project up at Bearsville, New York — we worked on an SSL [console] up at Bearsville studios. And Lars originally came in with a whole EQ setup chart of how he wanted his drums to sound. So Michael Barbiero, my partner, says, 'Why don't you work with Lars and get the drums [sounding the way he wants them to sound], and then once you do that, I'll take care of the rest.' So he does that. And I listened to the sounds, and I said, 'Are you kidding me? I think this sounds like ass,'" began Thompson (transcription via Blabbermouth).
"So anyway," he continued, "I kind of re-EQed all the drums a little bit just to make them a little more palpable — it's in the ear of the beholder. Then I brought the bass up, which I thought the bass was a great part because… You know what was great about [Newsted's] bass? It was a great marriage with [James] Hetfield's guitars; it was, like, they needed to work together. It was perfectly played."
Thompson again dished out the story he's stuck by for years now, and explained, "So I got the whole rhythm section together, vocals and everything like that, and then I felt, 'Okay, now's the time.' Hetfield was in there, [giving] thumbs up and everything like that. Then I brought Lars in. First of all, Lars hears it for about five to 10 seconds, and he goes, 'All right, stop right there.' He goes, 'What happened to my drum sound?' I basically probably said something like, 'You were serious?' [Laughs] So I had to rearrange the drum sound to get it to where he wanted it again. He goes, 'Okay, see the bass?' I go, 'Yeah.' 'Drop it down in the mix.' I said, 'Why? It's great.' 'Drop it down in the mix.' 'Okay.' So I did it as a joke. [I] dropped it all the way down. He goes, 'Drop it down another five or six dB' from there, which could hardly hear it — you couldn't hear it. I said, 'Seriously?' And I think I turned around to Hetfield, and he just went like this [raises both hands]."
While he understood he was hired to execute Metallica's vision, Thompson still had trouble accepting what he had been instructed to do.
"And then I remember having a conversation with Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch who were managing them," he went on, "And I basically had a conversation, I said, 'Listen, I love these guys. I think this band is fucking amazing. I don't agree with what they want me to do with this. And I understand, it's their record. They should get whatever they want. We were hired to get them what they want. But I just can't see doing this.' And we wound up giving them what they want. Again, it's not my record — it's their record — and you have to respect their opinion. I hated it personally, because I'm a bass guy. I love bass. When we're recording, we record the fattest basses in the world."
In the end, Ulrich won out, which left Newsted "fucking livid" when he heard the album recording. But he understood, as well, that there was no wiggle room when it came to the internal decision making in Metallica. You, and, evidently, still millions of others, Jason...
Though, with no less than 20 million streams on Spotify for any of the ...AJFA tracks, the lowly production isn't exactly deterring the listeners who claim to be outraged.