SLAYER – Interview With Tom Araya

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SLAYER – Interview With Bassist/Vocalist Tom Araya

By Peter Atkinson

Live pictures by Arto Lehtinen

Slayer 2013
Slayer, circa June 2013. Photo by Tim Tronckoe

As 2013 marked the 30th anniversary of Slayer’s debut album, Show No Mercy, and the 25th anniversary of their legendary, yet divisive fourth album South of Heaven, this should have been a year of celebration for the band. Instead, frontman/bassist Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King spent the first half of the year dealing with the back-to-back gut punches of replacing original drummer Dave Lombardo yet again in February, on the eve of an Australian tour, and then mourning the sudden loss of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who died in May of alcohol-related liver failure after battling the effects of necrotizing fasciitis in his right arm for two years that left him unable to perform with the band – and which nearly killed him to begin with.

While the shock of it all was still just settling in, Slayer were back on the road over the summer, honoring tour commitments in Europe and South America – all while the usual parade of shit-talkers were taking to their Interweb soapboxes to pile on the band for forging ahead under such circumstances and casting doubt about their future with the common refrain of “No Hanneman, No Slayer!” – given that he had written most of their signature songs, from “Angel of Death” to “Psychopathy Red.”

The band is soldiering on for now with Exodus guitarist and long-time friend Gary Holt holding down Hanneman’s spot – as he has been since Hanneman contracted the infection, apparently from a spider bite, in 2011 – and two-time drummer Paul Bostaph returning once again, after one-time drummer John Dette filled in on the Australian dates. Slayer will be playing their first North American shows since Hanneman’s death – and with the new lineup – starting at the end of October, with France’s Gojira opening.

After that, however, nothing is for certain. There is some new material to be had. Some of it was put together by King and Lombardo before contract squabbles prompted the drummer’s departure after his 11-year latest stint with the band. More intriguing, perhaps, is the fact that there are two relatively complete songs written by Hanneman in the hopper, and potentially many more bits and pieces in his archives. Whether any if it will see the light of day, however, remains to be seen.

During an Oct. 9 phone interview from his home in Texas, a somber but still quite chatty Araya spoke about the loss of Hanneman, how the band has handled things in the aftermath and the new material that has been kicking around. He also noted that what the future holds for the band will be determined once he and King are able to “sit down and talk Slayer” after the upcoming tour is over.

I caught the tail end of the last interview where you were reminiscing about places you used to play back in the day. When you are playing in New York this time, is the Theater at Madison Square Garden the old Felt Forum you were so famously banned from for the “seat cushion” incident?

Slayer at Jalometalli 20013
Slayer at Jalometalli 2013

Tom Araya: That’s the old Felt Forum, yeah. The Felt Forum was crazy because people were lighting seat cushions on fire and throwing them like Frisbees. Good times (laughs).

When I saw the Clash of the Titans tour at the full Madison Square Garden in 1991, I was up toward the front, which were supposedly the VIP seats, and all the fold-up chairs there ended up in a huge smoking heap at the front of the stage by the time you were finished, so even at the big hall it was devastation.

Tom: (laughs) Oh yeah. I remember that. A lot of tours where we played buildings like that they put folding chairs out and we always told them, “Not a good idea.” We had a security guy who worked for us, a guy named Jerry Mele, and when we’d play at these arena-type places where they would put these chairs out he would tell them, “you can’t be putting these chairs out.” And they would be, “well, you know, we have to.” And it was like, “we understand that, but we’re telling you right now this is not a good idea. This area in front of the stage, you can’t put seats.”

He would tell them “this is what will happen if you do.” And they would be like, “Oh, no, no, no, no. We have to put seats, it’s regulations, it’s fire code.” And he would talk to anyone in authority and say they shouldn’t do this, and they would ignore him and at the end of the show there would be a huge pile of them.

And then it’s your fault.

Tom: Yeah, and then it’s our fault. A lot of times, what he would do, once the chairs started coming up and becoming a pile, he started encouraging the fans, these kids, to line up and pass them to side, so they would put out away from the audience. And a lot of the kids were very helpful, and they would clear out a big section of the floor and then do what they wanted to do, which was mosh and go crazy. Do their metal dance (laughs).

That continued happening even up to when we started Ozzfest. We did the Ozzfest in San Bernardino and they did the same thing. They started ripping out the chair sections in front of the stage, and they started passing the seats over the barricade and they got taken onto the stage and out the back. That seems to follow us everywhere we go, so we’re used to it. But it doesn’t happen so much any more.

I remember reading an article about Jerry back then in the New York Times magazine or some place like that where was talking about all the security preparation that went into a show like yours and he sounded like a general preparing for combat.

Slayer at Jalometalli 20013
Slayer at Jalometalli 2013

Tom: Yeah, he was a really great person to have out because everywhere we went he would talk to the local security and a lot of security companies adopted his method to the madness, which is really cool because it’s made life easier for a lot of bands and a lot of fans to enjoy themselves more. As opposed to what they used to do, which was beat the shit out of you and throw you out (laughs).

You’ll be getting back into more “intimate” places on this North American tour, are you looking forward to that?

Tom: Yeah. We’re going to be doing theaters, between 2,000 and 5,000 seaters, so it’ll be good. It’s the first time we’re actually doing a Slayer tour, as opposed to being a part of a big tour, in a very long time. The last few tours we’ve done across the states have been with co-headlining acts or festivals. It’s never just been a Slayer tour with two special guests as opening acts. We figured we’d just keep it simple and hit theaters and small arenas. We’ll see how it is, we hope it’s successful, but we haven’t done it in a while.

Are you interested in seeing people’s reactions here to the new Slayer, the new old Slayer, or whatever people think it is?

Tom: (laughs) I don’t know. They’ve experienced Slayer with Gary, and everybody’s experienced Slayer with Paul because Paul was part of the band for quite a few years, so it’ll be time for everybody to get reacquainted with Paul and acclimated to this lineup. Gary has been playing with us for two years now, if you can believe that. People have seen the various pieces, just not all together.

Paul’s always been a friend. When he left it was on his terms and it was no bad feelings at all. Paul felt he needed to move on and it wasn’t on bad terms and to have him back and playing in the band is awesome. It’s like we’re taking up where we left off with Paul and he’s amazing. He’s full of energy, he’s excited to be back and he’s excited to be part of Slayer again. So it makes for very energetic shows and very exciting times.

This is gonna be good. Like I said, everybody is going to be reacquainted with Paul and everybody knows Gary has been filling in, now it’s just a whole different circumstance knowing that Jeff has passed. I’m sure everyone will enjoy it. Paul is very energetic and excited, which makes everybody else excited. It’ll be good and it will allow closure for everybody.

Those were two pretty big hits for the band back to back, the situation with Dave and then Jeff passing.

Slayer at Jalometalli 20013
Slayer at Jalometalli 2013

Tom: Yeah. It was a same time kind of thing. We would have conference calls between the three of us [Tom, Kerry and Jeff] trying to figure this whole mess, this situation with Dave, and each of us were letting the other know how we felt about it and we needed to figure out what we were gonna do about it. All three of us were onboard as far as what was to be done and how we were going to approach the situation with Dave, and Paul coming onboard, and then Jeff passed on. We were stunned. It was pretty crazy. It still is kinda crazy.

It seems like that happened a longer time ago than it did, since the band was playing shows all through the summer, but it hasn’t even been six months since Jeff passed away and Paul returned. You guys really didn’t have much time to take stock of everything.

Tom: After Jeff passed, about a month and half later we started a European tour, which is something that was in the books the year before. So we did two European tours and we just got done doing a South American tour.

We put a banner up, it’s a Hanneman banner, it’s like a small memorial to Jeff. Doing these shows, its allowed closure, but, shit, the first tour of Europe we did after he passed was a little rough. For me it was. The first week and a half was pretty rough as far as continuing on and doing what we were doing. It’s a whole different tune now. It’s not the same, because you know it can never be the same. That was a little rough for me.

But like I said, we have a banner, we have a backdrop that we use, and we’re taking it to the audience, to the fans, and allowing closure for allow of them, for everyone to sit back and remember Jeff. So I think doing what we’re doing, this fall tour that we’re doing, is going to allow for that for the fans in the states. It’s a healing process for me, remembering Jeff by playing his music.

Believe it or not, 95 percent of the music we play live is Jeff’s (laughs). Almost every song we play live is a Jeff song, musically written by Jeff.

How is Gary dealing with all this, he’s in odd position – plus there’s still Exodus and I wonder if he’s itching to get back to that, since it’s his baby?

Tom: He’s managing. He still has Exodus, actually apparently in his time off he’s been writing new material, so he’s putting together material for a new Exodus album and taking care of that. But yeah, at some point, once we get this tour put aside, me and Kerry are going to have to sit down and take care of Slayer business and figure out how we’re going to handle this.

But Gary has been doing an amazing job. He’s a devoted friend, obviously, to continue doing what he’s been doing, because it’s been asking a lot of him. He’s been great at this, he’s been doing a tremendous job and we’re indebted to him because he’s continued and kept moving forward playing with the band, he’s more than happy to do what he’s doing.

Slayer at Jalometalli 20013
Slayer at Jalometalli 2013

Would you be amenable to having Gary write and play on a new Slayer album, or is that going to be part of the Slayer business you and Kerry will be taking care of?

Tom: Yeah, we’re going to have sit down and figure out something. We haven’t had a chance to sit down and talk about anything. I, for one, didn’t really want to, especially at that moment when everything was happening. Now that we’ve got that behind us and we’re going to do this fall tour, once we get finished I think that will be an opportunity for me and him to sit down and talk Slayer and see how he feels about it, and I can tell him how I feel about it and we’ll know before the year is out what the future holds.

Of course the cat is out of the bag now about the material Jeff had left behind, and the possibility of it being included on a new Slayer album. Where do things actually stand with regard to that?

Tom: He’s got a lot of material I’m sure we haven’t heard, we haven’t had the privilege to really go through his material as far as the stuff that he has at home, personal stuff. That’s up to his wife to allow us the access to that. But there are two songs, one that was incomplete lyrically, that we were working on for World Painted Blood and then another song that he had put together before he passed away that got circulated between the three of us.

It was something when I heard it I liked it, and I communicated that with Jeff, that I thought it was great, that we needed to figure this out and I wanted to put some ideas together for it because I really liked the song musically. He was excited, and he let me know how he wanted the song to be as far as verses and choruses go, so me and him communicated about the song, so I was all excited, and then … (pauses).

That’s what he usually does, he’ll put together a demo of songs and let everybody listen to them and everybody learns then, and then when we go into the studio we work the songs out until they are polished the way we like them.

Slayer at Jalometalli 20013
Slayer at Jalometalli 2013

On Soundtrack To The Apocalypse there’s the demo of, I think it’s “Angel of Death” [actually, it’s “Raining Blood”] where he put the guitar tracks down over a drum machine, and it didn’t sound that far off from how the finished version ended up.

Tom: That’s how he did stuff. He would present six or seven songs like that every time. On World Painted Blood, before we even thought about going in to do the album, he was like “hey, why don’t we go in and record at least three or four tracks and try to release an EP or a single, just to give everybody a flavor of the upcoming album.” And he had seven or eight songs that I recall listening to and thinking “Oh my god, this is some really good stuff here.”

“Psychopathy Red” was one of the songs that was on that disc. And we recorded two of the other ones, one of them being the song that we haven’t been able to finish (laughs). He had other stuff that I thought sounded awesome, and when we started recording the album he brought out other material that was different than the stuff he had earlier.

I even communicated with him and told him, “Listen, there were three or four songs that I really liked [from earlier] that I’m surprised you never did anything with them. Whatever happened to them?” And I had to send him a copy of what I had because he was like “I don’t think I have copy of those anymore.”And later it was like, “Oh yeah, I remember these songs (laughs).”

I thought they were great because I had ideas for them, melody ideas, and they never really came into fruition. I’d like to hear what he had done and whether he had ever completed any of that stuff. And there is other stuff that, hopefully, I’ll get a chance to sit and go through and listen to and see if we’ll have access or get permission to do something with.

Slayer at Jalometalli 20013
Slayer at Jalometalli 2013

That sounds like it would be like going through someone’s attic, with all its ghosts and memories and things like that.

Slayer at Tuska 2008
Slayer at Tuska 2008

Tom: I think that that would be good though, because there are some things that I know he’s got that would be great. But like I said, we have to talk business before we can do anything else.

Have you and/or Kerry been working on stuff of your own, or working together on anything?

Tom: Me and Jeff collaborated a lot. I collaborated with Kerry on a few songs, but that was not a big thing with Kerry. Kerry liked to do his own stuff, and liked to do it his way, and didn’t really care too much for collaborating, he wasn’t too hip on that.

Kerry’s been doing some stuff on his own and there were two songs, out of all the songs that he and Dave demoed, two songs were completed that I helped finish for him vocally, but it wasn’t anything that we collaborated on. When we did the two songs in the studio, he was like “here are the lyrics and this is how I want the song done.” And I did the songs the way I felt they should be, but he would prefer that I did them his way (laughs). So there are two songs that have come out of the sessions they started a few years back.

We’ll see how it goes. Like I said, there’s a lot of communication that needs to go on before we move forward. We need to sit down and talk.

Well I certainly appreciate your doing this, it can’t be easy to sit through these one right after the other talking about what might happen with your career.

Tom: Yeah. I’m trying to choose my words correctly. Definitely (laughs). We’ll see what the future holds.