Interview with frontman Steve “Zetro” Souza
By Peter Atkinson
Photos from www.facebook.com/exodusattack
When I spoke with Steve “Zetro” Souza last spring, he talked about prepping his new band Hatriot – which includes two of his sons, drummer Nick and bassist Cody – to learn some old songs from his twice-former band Exodus as they readied for upcoming shows in support of Hatriot’s second album, Dawn of the New Centurion. Three months later, he found himself frantically prepping to learn new Exodus material for a very different reason – a chance to return to the band, which had just dismissed frontman Rob Dukes after a nine-year stint, and see if a third time was the charm.
The second go-round ended famously badly in 2004 on the eve of a South American tour, not long after the release Exodus’ comeback album Tempo of the Damned, which followed a long hiatus and the death of singer Paul Baloff – who Souza had replaced in 1986 and whom the band had initially attempted a reunion with. Guitarist Gary Holt’s now-legendary Souza-skewering forum postings from that time are still reverberating around the Interwebs, even though the two have been back on speaking terms for some time. Indeed, they had even shared the stage together on several occasions in recent years.
This new go-round certainly was a whirlwind “courtship.” Less than a week after Dukes’ dismissal, Souza was in the studio laying down the vocals for the new Exodus album Blood In, Blood Out, which was due out Oct. 14 on Nuclear Blast, and soon thereafter the band played a series of festival shows – with Holt often performing double duty with his “other band,” Slayer. A headline tour of South America and a U.S. tour with Slayer and Suicidal Tendencies were set to launch the album.
On the phone from Oakland, Souza spoke excitedly about the rather dramatic turn of events that brought him back into the Exodus fold – which is rounded out by Holt, guitarist Lee Altus, bassist Jack Gibson and founding drummer Tom Hunting – the sense of urgency that fueled the new album and the scramble to get ready to do his part, and making the most of this new/next opportunity – all with lots of football metaphors and F bombs.
How are you hanging in there, it looks like you’ve been on the phone a lot lately?
STEVE “ZETRO” SOUZA: Yeah, it’s nonstop. I think I have 18 [interviews] today to do. You’re only No. 3. I’ve got this list, and after you it’s still a long way down (laughs). But it comes with the job. You gotta keep telling yourself, “this is what you wanted when you were in your garage, remember?”
I spoke with you in March when the Hatriot album came out, and it was the same situation – just a different band.
ZETRO: That’s right. But you gotta pump ’em, you gotta pump ’em, you gotta pump ’em. Doesn’t matter what band it is, you gotta work it hard, man. This is great because this helps Hatriot immensely. Obviously the emphasis here is Exodus, but everybody asks about them [Hatriot] or we end up talking about them, so it’s publicity the band wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. And as you were saying, I’d done a lot of publicity for that band as it was.
I just saw some pictures on your Facebook page and it looked like Hatriot just played some shows?
ZETRO: Yeah, we played last week in Reno and Sacramento. I like double-dipping, I think I’m Gary Holt. One day last Wednesday, nine-and-a-half hour photo session with Exodus. We took three different photographers and all different clothes so we didn’t have to do another fucking promo shoot for the rest of the year, the next day I drove to Reno with Hatriot, played in Reno and Sacramento with them and then back to Exodus.
Yesterday, we had to do a video for “Blood In, Blood Out,” a real video, not like the lyric video we did before. And then every single day there is press of some sort. Some days there may be only four interviews, or there may be 14. There’s not one day where I wake up thinking, “Oh, what I going to do today?” Sunday, or Saturday, whenever, there’s people to talk to, things to do every day, so I’ve been hitting this as hard I can.
It’s all good, man. It’s great. If you’re still relevant after 30 years, wahoo! You might as well take the ball and run with it.
Since you had a bunch of stuff going on with Hatriot and then all of a sudden you were back with Exodus, has it been difficult keeping everything straight and switching back and forth from one band mode to another?
ZETRO: I haven’t really had a problem so far. The rest of the year we have like 42 shows, that I counted, for Exodus, so that will probably blank Hatriot. But they’re working every week on new material so when I’m on tour with Slayer and Suicidal we’re playing a 35-minute set, what am I going to do for the other 23-and-a-half hours? I’m going to write Hatriot lyrics and I’m go to the gym and work out and do a lot of things to keep myself busy.
So when this thing gives me a little time in 2015, because Slayer at some point is putting out a new record and Gary is going to have to tour, Exodus is not going to do every single tour with them (laughs), you know what I mean? Gary will be wore out. At some point there will be a break. And Lee and I are talking about doing something with Hatriot and Heathen, so we’ll see what’s up.
That would be cool. It’s nice that you are all able to have the incestuous sort of relationship where one thing can help another.
ZETRO: Exactly. So we’re just going to kind of work it like that. We’re going to see what happens with Exodus. The boys are really excited. ESP just endorsed the boys, so now they’re all playing ESPs exclusively, all three of them in Hatriot. Lee plays ESP and Gary just went to ESP so everyone is playing ESP, it’s great. So a lot of good things are happening for everybody, especially for Exodus.
If you hadn’t been busy with Hatriot the last few years, would you have been able to hop back into Exodus?
ZETRO: No. No. No. I was ready. I was vocally ready. You’ve gotta remember, I practice with Hatriot no less than two times a week. So I’m singing the best I ever have, I think. So when I was called to audition, it very easy. I know this band, I’ve played with these guys, I know the songs, I know how to do this, I know this. So I didn’t really have a problem with it, I thought it was pretty easy.
Do you think they would have even asked?
ZETRO: Peter, I’ve wondered the same thing. If they would have just called me out of the blue, and I hadn’t have been keeping my voice in game shape, I doubt it would be have been what it is. I doubt they have called me in the first place, to be honest. But I’ve been active, I’ve done Dublin Death Patrol, I’ve done Tenet and obviously Hatriot, so I’m good to go now. Vocally, I was ready for it. I wasn’t like, “Oh shit.” It was like “bring it on motherfucker, I can thrash this out. Piece of cake.” Give me the car, I’ll drive it.
When we spoke in March, you were rehearsing some Exodus songs to sprinkle into the Hatriot set, so you can’t get much better practice than that.
ZETRO: Yeah, totally. Hatriot learned six of them, although the guys certainly know more than that, especially my kids because they’ve been hearing them all their lives. But we’re not gonna do those with Hatriot anymore because obviously I’m back in Exodus. We’ll do Hatriot songs with Hatriot.
This situation we’re in now is good for everyone. Everything works hand in hand. Slayer is good for Exodus, Exodus is good for Hatriot and Heathen. It works and it makes more people turn around and listen. “Oh really, you have another band?” And then they hear it and go “fuck dude, wow!”
So now that you’ve gotten yourself settled back in with Exodus, how has it gone? How is it going?
ZETRO: Good, very good. We’re great. It’s fine. It had to be that way, there could be no way to go in and have any type of disdain whatsoever. It had to be this way. You don’t think we didn’t all have that conversation where it was like “Hey, hey, hey, hey, hey, we’re not going to tolerate this anymore, you can’t be this way, we can’t be this way and it doesn’t operate like this anymore?” It was all very refreshing.
We all talked about it. And I was like, “You know, I’m in the best place I’ve ever been in my life right now, I would an asset. I’m going to tell you, I would be a fucking asset.” So they were like “wow, he’s really coming to the party.” At rehearsals I’m totally into it, I sing the songs correctly. When I got in the band I was a little heavy, so I hired a trainer, I started to go the gym every day, I changed my diet. I’m really working to be the best that I can be for everyone.
I know that I can do this, I know I’ve still got a lot of gas left in my tank. There’s tons of fans out there who wanted to see me back in the band and I want to thank all of them. Although I’ll say this, Rob did a hell of a job. Rob did a great job in nine years. I really like the songs on the albums that he did.
I didn’t listen to all of them when I wasn’t in the band, but I’d hear a cut here and a cut there and dug them. But since then I’ve sung “Children of a Worthless God” live, I’ve sung “Iconoclasm” live, so I’ve learned those songs and I really like them, I really think they are good and I think he performed them well. They are actually really fun to sing and fun to perform, so I’m having a good time with them.
Your voices definitely match up well, so the transition back isn’t going to change the way they sound all the dramatically?
ZETRO: No, not at all. It’s been the same thing with the three singers in this band. Paul, Rob and myself, are all kind of in the same vein. It’s mostly all about aggression with us, you don’t get a lot of finesse. No one’s going to mistake any of us for Bruce Dickinson (laughs).
The new material certainly is a good workout for you. It’s super fast and you’ve got quite a mouthful to handle with every song?
ZETRO: Yeah, it’s very, very thrashy. We put “Salt The Wound” out and people were like “Yeah, it’s a great song.” And I’m like, “honestly, that doesn’t have anything to say about what the record is like. This album is thrashy as hell.” And they’re like, “What? Really?” Believe me, this album is fucking thrashy as hell. So you tell me Peter, is this album thrashy as hell or what?
I’d say so, and I can see what you mean about “Salt The Wound,” because it’s the one catchy, mid-tempo song on the album. Compared to the last couple albums, that were pretty epic and involved, this has the feel of Tempo, which was simpler and more brutal.
ZETRO: I agree, I agree, I agree. I do. When you hear my voice, you automatically assume that, does that make sense?
ZETRO: But if you think it’s “retro because it’s Zetro,” no, no. It’s not. If you listen to the leadwork they did on the last three albums, it’s definitely on this albums. They blaze. Both of them, Lee and Gary, are just shredding fire. I love the ferocity. That part they really bring to it.
But the songs aren’t as long as they were on the last few records and they are definitely more relentless (laughs). I still think it’s a good bevy of elements from every point of Exodus. If you listen to some songs you’ll hear some Bonded [By Blood] in there, you’ll hear some hints of Pleasures [of the Flesh], just like you’ll recognize the guitar work from the albums Rob sang on.
You mentioned “Salt The Wound,” that’s pretty damn Fabulous Disaster-ish?
ZETRO: That’s exactly what I thought. And “Blood In, Blood Out” reminds me of “Scar Spangled Banner,” you know. Again, I think it’s a good bevy of what this band is about and has done over the years. And I think we are really fortunate that we have a good fan base that really has supported us and been very loyal through the changes and everything that’s gone on and the history. So we’re fortunate to have that and very fortunate to be one of those bands that are still breathing. So hats off to you and everyone who has been here for us.
How much time did you actually have with the new material before you went into the studio? Everything seemed to happen so quickly when the change occurred: one day Rob was gone, the next day you were back and the day after that you were in the studio.
ZETRO: You’re gonna shit your pants. Three days, pal. You all knew, the world knew, on June 6 that Zetro was back, I knew on June 5 (laughs). And I started June 9 in the studio. I didn’t pay any attention what was going on in the background, it was none of my business. It was like “you’re going to come in, you’re going to do the record. We’re on a timeline.” It had to be done by this time because they wanted it out in October and I was like “Ah, OK.”
Even my audition, when I had to meet with their management about their approaching me, I went in to sing two songs first just to see if they felt I still had the gas in my tank. That, I only had about eight hours to study. I got the songs at 10:30 at night and I had to sing them at 5 o’clock the next day. And I nailed them. It was “BTK” and “Black 13.”
I guess that’s the best way to judge your commitment and interest. Here it is, let’s see if you can deal with it, we don’t have time to mess around?
ZETRO: That’s the way it was. “Let’s start with this, let’s do this and if we like it and we like what he’s doing, let’s talk to him, we’ll see where his mind is at.” So we went through that, and it was a very fast process, and I don’t know what was going on behind the scenes because I was so consumed with having to learn the new material and wanting to perform.
And it was like “you’ve got three days, but you’ve been doing this for a couple years with your boys so just fucking get back on the bike, you know how to do this.” This is Exodus, I know how to do Exodus, I’ve been doing Exodus since I was 22 fucking years old. So I went in and did Exodus. It’s fast and it’s mean and that’s fine. That’s what I do, I do thrash metal. And I was prepared for this, this is what I do. I annunciate thrash metal (laughs).
How was it in the studio, did it take a while to get the feel of things, since like you said, you’d been playing with your boys for a few years?
ZETRO: Nope, nope, nope. I did three songs the first day, finished. And they were like, “Woah.” I was prepared. They gave me those songs. I got them all on a Saturday, I got them all and I heard the whole record then, the music. And I didn’t do anything but sit in my office and make notes and just listen to the songs from top to bottom over and over and over again. How long is the album, it’s a little over hour? I could listen to the album 18 times in a day, and that’s what I did.
I did nothing, I didn’t turn on ESPN to see if the A’s were winning, I didn’t turn anything on to see if the fucking world was blowing up. I didn’t fucking care. I had to learn these songs. I wasn’t taking any distractions from anybody. Don’t talk to me. That’s how it was and that’s how I approached it. I knew what I was up against. I knew what I had to do.
The quarterback just got hurt and you’ve gotta go in and play next week. And you’re playing against a Super Bowl team and you have to win this game. It’s like, “I can do this, just give me the playbook. I’ll study the playbook and read the motherfucker over and over and over.” And I had the fucking playbook down, my friend. I had the playbook down. And my personal opinion, it’s the best vocal performance of any record I’ve ever done.
It’s funny you mentioned the quarterback scenario because when we spoke last time you were talking about having the role of coach to all the young guys in Hatriot. Now that you’re a player again, has that been a comfortable transition?
ZETRO: Honestly, it’s great to just be a player, to go out and just be able to take the ball and throw the ball. When I’m with Hatriot, I don’t just have to throw the ball, I have to catch the ball, I have to hand the ball off, I have to punt the ball and kick the field goals and I have to deal with the equipment. It’s my direction. I have guys who help with the publishing and managing, but basically I really have to pay attention to that band.
With this, there’s a lot of people involved with this band, a lot of people making decisions and I don’t have to worry about anything but getting under center and having the ball the snapped to me. And because it’s like that I’m going to throw a touchdown pass every fucking time because I’m gonna be prepared for it.
You now have that relationship with Breaking Bands and I guess Chuck Billy [Testament’s frontman, who Souza introduced to the band – then known as Legacy – after he left to join Exodus] is your manager, or co-manager. How is that working out so far, and how do you think it’s going to help the band down the road?
ZETRO: He’s managing. He’s definitely a part of it, he’s definitely hands on. The band would not be going in the direction that we are going in now if it were not for the direction of him and Maria [Ferrero, head of Adrenaline PR] and Jonny Zazula [founder of Megaforce Records]. I can tell you that right now. They know what they are doing, believe me and I trust everything that they do. It’s awesome. All the stars have aligned with this one and I don’t think that would be the case if Chuck was not in charge.
Chuck’s a really, really good businessman. He’s worked Testament very well and the other two people who are behind him, believe me, these people got a plan, they know what they’re doing, they’ve got their shit down, that’s why I’m doing press every motherfucking day. Every day I’m doing press. That’s good. Press is bliss. Is it is a pain in the ass all day long? Well yeah, it can be. But it’s your job, would you rather kicking at doors every day for a living? I welcome it and I don’t mind talking to everybody. They are all big fans like me, so it’s easy.
You’ve done a handful of festival shows with Exodus, but you leave for South America this week and I guess that is when the real touring starts?
ZETRO: Yeah, Sunday [Oct. 5]. This is where it starts for us, yeah. We’re there for three and half weeks and then we come back and I think we’re here for a couple weeks to prepare and then the Slayer tour starts on Nov. 11 in Oakland and goes on until Dec. 13 when we end up back here. We lose Slayer like five dates before that. We do like five headlining shows on the West Coast.
You’re doing an off date near where I am in Washington in late November before that.
ZETRO: Right. There’s a couple days that are days off that we filled in with headline shows. It’s great, we’ll play more material.
The place you’re playing near me is really small, it’ll be quite a change from the festival shows and bigger places you’ll have been playing since your return to Exodus.
ZETRO: I love that. That means it will be packed. We don’t give a shit. I love to play scumholes, we get to play arenas and then we play a scumhole. I don’t have problem with that. It’ll give us a chance to reduce the place to rubble (laughs). With Slayer, we’re playing 35 minutes, you’ll get a whole hour and a half set, 10 more fucking songs.
Are you going to have enough time to play much, if any, new stuff when you open for Slayer?
ZETRO: We’ll have enough time to get about seven songs off and three of them are going to be off of Blood In Blood Out. We’ll do “Black 13” and go right into “Blood In, Blood Out,” just like we do on the record, as the opening. I love it when bands do that, it kind of invites you in and that’s cool. And we’re very happy with this record, so we’re excited to play it.