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PHOENIX, Arizona (Reuters) - Minutes before his band hits the stage to play the first show of a world tour to promote its first album in five years, Metallica drummer Lars Ulrich has more important things on his mind.
The rock band's co-founder and creative force is rushing backstage to meet some three dozen members of the band's fan club for a traditional "meet and greet," and he also manages to find time for a busy schedule of media interviews.
"The (Led) Zeppelin mystique and that KISS thing about who are these larger-than-life comic book characters didn't interest me," Ulrich told Reuters on Tuesday, as nearly 20,000 fans at the Jobing.com hockey arena waited impatiently for their heroes.
"We've always prided ourselves on and enjoyed being accessible. It's amazing that after 30 years anybody is still interested in what we have to say," said the 44-year-old Danish native, who is never short of an opinion.
Metallica have sold 100 million records in that time, and seem assured of a spot in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame when the latest crop of inductees are announced early next year.
Their latest album, "Death Magnetic," went to No. 1 in more than two dozen countries, and enjoyed a three-week stint at the top in the United States. It was a welcome return to form for the band, following the commercial and critical disappointment of 2003's "St. Anger."
Known for their work ethic and explosive live shows, Metallica have tried to indulge the hardcore fans who followed them long before the foursome achieved mainstream success with their self-titled 1991 album and hit single "Enter Sandman."
To warm up for their tour, which will hit 37 arenas in North America through February 1 before heading to Europe, they invited fans and friends to attend two rehearsals in their adopted San Francisco hometown and Phoenix.
"I always got close to the bands that I was interested in," said Ulrich, who as a teenager newly arrived befriended Diamond Head, a cult British band. "I was extra keen and extra fanatical but I always got in there. I appreciated when bands you idolized made you feel special by letting you be part of what they were doing. I've always tried to do that with Metallica."
Out on stage, Ulrich's partner-in-crime, singer/guitarist James Hetfield was equally humbled.
"Metallica has been around for 100 years and you keep coming back," Hetfield said. "We appreciate it."
As usual, the band played on the arena floor, thrilling fans with laser displays and pyrotechnics. Along with old standbys like "Enter Sandman" and "One," Metallica played five tracks from "Death Magnetic," which takes the band back to its thrash metal roots, showcasing Hetfield's trademark snarl and machine-gun rhythm guitar.
Hetfield gleefully ran around the stage, looking nothing like the broken man who checked himself in rehab in 2001. His struggles were laid painfully bare in the documentary "Some Kind of Monster," which detailed tensions that almost tore the band asunder. Those days are apparently over.
"James is more than my best friend. He's as close to a brother I've ever had. We're partners in a gang," Ulrich said.
The band once known as Alcoholica is certainly taking better care of their bodies now, even bringing a chiropractor on tour. The after-show parties are also a thing of the past.
"I'm 44 years old. I've got a great girl and three beautiful kids," said Ulrich, who has an infant son with his girlfriend, Danish actress Connie Nielsen.
"I certainly can drink like everybody else occasionally, but it's mostly red wine, not vodka tonic like it used to be."
Ulrich said the band could go on forever if not for the physical demands.
"I've got nothing but respect for the Rolling Stones, but what they're doing is still pretty different than what we do. It's difficult not to play (hard) when I'm up on stage in front of 20,000 people. I just don't know if it's possible to do this 20 years from now. I look forward to finding out, but I also hope we have the grace to say 'thank you, we're out of here', when it gets silly."
When the band does retire, the avid art collector plans to take on Hollywood.
"I'd love to sit down for six months and write a movie," he said. "I probably have more friends in the movie world than in the music world. It seems natural to go in that direction."
Editing by Dean Goodman