A Folk Devil Talking: Slayer's Tom Araya Interviewed
, February 16th, 2012 06:49
Jenn Selby talks to Slayer front man Tom Araya about American folk music, Reign In Blood and the band that came before the big four... Anvil
It’s hard to envision a world in which thrash pioneers Slayer do not exist, such is their weighty, stalwart presence in our well-worn scene. They are one of the few long-running bands to have remained true to the genre they set out to create, resisting the all too slippery slope of nu metal. They also steered well clear of any ‘down with the kids’ gimmickry that would have forced condemnation upon them post-Seasons In The Abyss in a Metallica ‘pre-"Black Album" or GTFO’ manner. And, after 30 years of sweaty rage, spinal injuries and facial tension, they are still chugging along, with album number 12 in the pipelines and an anniversary to celebrate.
Speaking from the comfort of his Californian home after a heavy day of karate and tending to animals, incredibly laid back frontman Tom Araya reveals some exciting details about the new project, as well as spilling his guts about guitarist Jeff Hanneman’s latest health scare – a flesh-eating disease that ravaged his arm and almost killed him. As a result, he’s been out of action for almost two years, and the band are eagerly awaiting his return to form.
He also reflects upon the making of Reign In Blood – arguably one of the most important metal albums ever produced – which the band will be playing in its entirety as the headlining act of ATP's I'll Be Your Mirror festival on May 25 in London.
And of course, it would be rude not to take a swipe at Dave Mustaine or have a pop at Loutallica along the way…
Jeff Hanneman’s disease was pretty scary stuff. Almost like something out of a horror movie. Can you tell us happened?
Tom Araya: It was pretty scary. He somehow contracted an infection from a bug bite that got into his blood stream, and then they had to make sure that they could save his life. Once they got control of the infection and they knew that it wasn’t going to kill him, it was time to see if they could take care of that arm.
Did you ever think that you might lose him?
TA: Well, it was a life-changing and defining moment. We thought it could go either way. But I’m happy that he’s better. He’s rehabilitating his arm, so he’s still working at playing. So, we’re waiting for him to come back at 100 per cent, and that’s where we’re at the moment. It was scary.
Do you think he’s almost ready to return? Do have a time span or a date you’re expecting him to join you again?
TA: We’ll wait for him to be at 100 per cent. He’s still working at it. We’re working with him, period. We rehearse with him so he gets better. But it’s a process, and there are some things that people have to overcome… So we’re working with him and trying to get better so he can be out there performing with us.
Do you think he’s going to be able to join you on stage to play Reign In Blood at All Tomorrow’s Parties?
TA: Well we’re always optimistic. It would be fucking awesome. That’s what we want. But we have to take it one day at a time. He has the ability to play, but he needs to really work at it. So we have to make sure he’s at his best before he comes out and tours with us, but yeah, we want him out and on the road with us.
You’ve had your fair share of health problems in the past too, especially with your back. How’s that all going?
TA: I’m doing good. I mean it’s been three years now since the surgery. But I just can’t head bang, I just can’t do the things that I’d normally be doing on stage, you know, going crazy, flipping my head. Like what Will Smith’s daughter, Willow says: ‘I whip my hair back and forth, I whip my hair back and forth.'
I had no idea you were a fan…
TA: I just can’t do it anymore. After the surgery it was a bummer, but I got over that. I like to think that I’ve improved as a singer and as a player and I focused more on that and making sure my performance is 100 per cent. That’s how I overcame that.
You said that you’re rehearsing with Jeff again – does that mean you are also writing the new Slayer album with him?
TA: Yeah, we’re attempting to. We’ve had a few set-backs, but we are attempting to work on new material. Kerry [King] and Dave [Lombardo] have been doing that and me, because I’m sick, I don’t want to fly out and make everybody sick, so my joining in the process is going to be on pause until I get better. But I’m not contagious in any way. But there’s something there. Our sights are set on recording new material and seeing where that takes us.
What kind of sound are we expecting from what you have got down so far? South Of Heaven slow or Reign In Blood fast?
TA: It’s raw. There’s some good bits. That’s all I can really say at the moment.
Have you decided who will produce the record?
TA: Yes, all four of us have agreed that the guy that we want to record our new record will be the same gentleman who recorded our last album [World Painted Blood], Greg Fidelman. We just had a really great experience with him last time, loved the sound, and, if we can make our timings match up, we would love to record with him again. We’ll probably bring him in towards the end of the writing process, which is what we did last time. Jeff will be recording with us on this album. He can still play, and he is still rehearsing with us, it’s just that he needs to get his chops up before he joins us live again.
When are we expecting the new record? When will you be hitting the studio?
TA: It really depends, but we are aiming to have something down by May , before the touring kicks off [over the summer].
You’re going to be playing Reign In Blood in its entirety at I'll Be Your Mirror. It’s quite an interesting choice of events to showcase the album, as it’s essentially an indie-rooted festival. Does it feel like a victory to you or do you have mixed feelings about the type of audience you’ll be playing to?
TA: All the more reason to play the album. Actually, when we were asked to do this festival, the promoters had initially asked us to perform that album, and now you’ve explained to me what the festival is all about, or the idea behind it, all the more reason to play the album… I was trying to figure out what kind of festival it was… All we knew is that it was a big event. Now that you've told me it’s an indie type thing, that’s good because at the time that we recorded the album, we were kind of independent. It was supposed to come out on Columbia and they dumped it, so we had to find some sort of other label, a little indie label, that were able to do it. And that was Geffen. Which was small at the time, it was kind of a mini-major, independent label…
So it’s almost like coming full circle again in a way, going back to the independent roots of that album…
TA: Yeah, definitely. Cool. We enjoyed that album, it’s an awesome album, and it’s definitely one we need to warm up our chops for.
That’s not the only tour you did recently. You also did the Big Four Sonisphere tour. Was there much bravado back stage, any arguments between you guys, or was it all quite pleasant and sedate?
TA: It was actually pretty peaceful. Surprisingly so. Everyone got along. You know… I guess we’re all older, a little more mature these days, but 30 years is a long time to be doing what we are doing as bands, and to be existing for as long as we have. And everybody has gone through their periods of trial and error and each band has had their experiences with all kinds of stuff. The fact that 30 years later we’re still doing what we enjoy… To some extent we were innovators, so… to find ourselves 30 years later still being able to do this, being played on radios, on TV shows, it’s quite an accomplishment. You know, it’s a tour I thought was always a really good idea, it’s just funny that it actually happened…
But you didn’t play the Bay Area!
TA: No! You know, it wouldn’t surprise me if that comes about. It doesn’t mean we’ve done the last one. Metallica is taking a break I guess, and if they were to decide, ‘Oh, let’s do this here’, then the other bands… We’re not going to go ‘No!’ We’re always going to agree with it…
It’s a shame about the lack of arguments, I always had this image of Dave Mustaine and Kirk [Hammett] wrestling over a can of hairspray in a back room or something. Kerry [King] and Lars quarrelling over who has more celebrity friends…
TA: No, it was pretty mellow… It’s very different from what people image backstage to be like nowadays. Everybody wants to be backstage because they don’t want to miss the party, and when they’re back there wandering around, they’re going, ‘So where’s the party?’ Some of that stuff goes on but that doesn’t happen in our camp. And I didn’t see it happening in the other camps, ha ha.
Which band out of the four of you would you say had the biggest egos?
TA: That’s not something I really pay attention to. The guys in Anthrax are really, really nice guys, and over the years that I’ve known them, they’re really, genuinely nice guys. I got to know Dave Ellison of Megadeth really well, and the drummer and guitar player in the band are really nice too – I can’t remember their names… The guys in Metallica are really, really nice guys. Robert Trujillo we’ve known since the Suicidal Tendancies days… And, if I’ve left names out, there’s a clue! Ha ha ha…
Speaking of one name you didn’t mention, Dave Mustaine once told me – and several other people – that without him, thrash wouldn’t have existed. What would you say to that?
TA: Daaave… He’s a little late on the draw! Ha ha ha. You know, because his record and his band Megadeth didn’t materialise until the mid 80s. He was a founding member of Metallica, but I think there are other bands that we should owe credit to and they should owe credit to. Credit is due to a band – who made the music that we developed and made it our own - and I hate to say it, but Anvil. You listen to the first Anvil album, and you hear echoes of Metallica. So, you know, there are other bands you can credit to starting thrash metal or attempting to do something new. We just took it and made it our own. And for some reason, Anthrax, Slayer and Metallica all evolved… And it was all about the same year, in 81. And then we all evolved into this, 30 years later. Like I said, Mustaine was in Metallica but got kicked out, and five years later came up with his band. So he’s a little slow on the draw.
Going back to Reign In Blood, why do you think the record has had the longevity that it’s had? What makes it a classic in your eyes?
TA: I have no idea. Maybe because at the time the record came out, something new was developing, as far as the metal that we came up with. We recorded Hell Awaits and it was slow, and demonic, and there were other bands that were coming out with that kind of style… That demonic voice and heavy sound… You know what I mean? And it just surprised everybody that it didn’t continue. We came up with something really fast, and out of the blue, compared to what was happening to other bands coming out trying to be slow and heavy. And the death metal scene was developing at the time. And now, all of a sudden, we come up with this album that’s fast and furious…
In a way, it was a leap forward in terms of style. But also, in terms of other thrash records that were coming out at the time that were almost kind of prog-like in their epic-ness, imagery and song length, Reign In Blood took the genre right back to its punk roots…
TA: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Everyone was doing that, we didn’t want to do another slow album, we didn’t want long songs. If we’ve put any thought into any albums we’ve done in our career, there were two. One was that we didn’t want to do a slow album like Hell Awaits in '86, so we did a fast one. We purposely did a fast album because of that. Then we purposely did South Of Heaven because we didn’t want to do a fast album like Reign In Blood. Those were the two moments in Slayer’s history where we consciously made a decision not to do something, ha ha ha! And you’re right. A lot of bands were doing long and epic songs, so we purposely wrote fast songs and wrote a fast album. We didn’t realise it would be as fast as it was. We got into the studio, and when we were working on the songs, Rubin was like, "Alright that’s great," then he’d look and Dave and say, "Come on now, speed it up a little bit… Tighten it up just a notch…" And that’s how the record came out sounding as it did. I know that Jeff and Kerry purposely wrote fast songs. It was a very punk-rooted type of album, because, even though we did Hell Awaits, Jeff was a fan of punk music, and that was something that he introduced to us as a band, and Dave was a big fan also. He kind of jumped on board. I wasn’t a fan, but I enjoyed the music, there was some really good stuff. Great music, great lyrics… And he was able to apply it to the album and to the music we were creating.
So the actual album itself dealt with quite a lot of different themes. We know that it attracted a lot of allegations of Nazism at the time, because of 'Angel Of Death' and the references it made to Josef Mengele. But, in another way, you could almost say the album has an almost humanitarian quality to it – acting as a warning, almost anti-war in places. Was there a conscious message you were trying to portray, or were you a bunch of kids writing random things you thought were cool?
TA: They came up with ten songs. Jeff had just read a book about Josef Mengele and he thought he could put that into words… Kerry came up with a lot of lyrics to the album, the same with Jeff. That was an album that was kind of written by the two of them. ‘Raining Blood’ is a song that came together in the studio, which is basically about a serial killer that would hang the corpses of his dead victims from the ceiling. So there was really nothing more than some really great songs that were put together, and the album just kind of came together from that. There was no thought process behind anything other than, "This is a really cool song, what do you think?" "Awesome!" Ha ha ha! And ‘Raining Blood’ was written, lyric-wise, in the studio, and they wanted to stress the point of it… That was it! Ha ha ha! It wasn’t very deep.
What would you say your personal favourite track on the album is?
TA: That album? Oh, wow. I would have to say ‘Angel Of Death’ and ‘Raining Blood’. Those were the two. The other song… I’m trying to think of what was on that album…
You should probably check before the ATP show…
TA: Yeah. I was going to say ‘Mandatory Suicide’, but that was on South Of Heaven. No, those two songs, because, for one, ‘Angel Of Death’ is just a great song, period. It’s written well, great riffs… And then ‘Raining Blood’, because it’s such a short song, and an unforgettable riff. You know, the beginning, the dundundun! Dernernerner nernerner… That imbeds in your brain, you know what I mean? Such a huge impact. To me, those two songs are really strong. I’m trying to think of the other songs, but I can’t think of any other songs! ‘Post Mortem’, I guess. That’s a favourite of mine, but that would be it.
Can you tell us about the time you pissed on Cronos’ head? How did it happen? Did it happen?
TA: I don’t… You know… That was something I did many years ago. It was, er, in a drunken stupor, and it was very disrespectful of me. And that’s about all I’ll say about that.
Metallica decided to go a bit left-field recently and make Lulu with Lou Reed. What your equivalent be, if you had to go and make it, and you had to choose an artist to make it with who was completely mismatched, who would it be and why?
TA: Erm… I can’t speak for the whole band, but it would require a lot of thought, and I don’t see us doing anything like that. I can’t even conceive of the idea of doing something like that, you know? Lou Reed of all people, you know? He’s just so avant guarde, so out there, so musically different. He was his own thing. He was his own mould. And for them to try to… I don’t know, when I found out about that, I thought that it was a little too much.
Did you listen to the album?
TA: No I haven’t listened to the album. I don’t want to. To me, it’s like, I hate to say this, but it’s trying too hard to be cool.
Lou Reed is trying too hard?
TA: No, no, no, this is nothing against Lou Reed. The Reed is great, I think what he does is amazing, but it’s Metallica trying to be too cool. They’re trying to be too cool. Why do you need to do that? Why do you need to be too cool? That’s on Metallica, that’s not on Lou Reed. He’s awesome… And they’re going to hate it if they read this, they’re going to hate me saying it, but it’s just my personal opinion. I don’t even need to listen to the album! Ha ha ha…
What kind of music do you listen to personally? Are you just into metal, or are you quite into a lot of other stuff?
TA: It really depends. When I drive around, there’s satellite radio… Ha ha ha, the kids are going to hate this! I listen to… Because, there’s four of us in the car, and my daughter likes to listen to the Top 20 Count Down on XM, and then my wife is constantly flipping through channels to the 50s, 80s, 90s, Elvis… I listen to Classic Rewind! Ha ha ha… And then, a variety…
Are there any pop acts that you like in particular?
TA: I think Bruno Mars has got a really great voice. So that’s what I think about him… My son and daughter… Actually more my daughter. My son likes heavier stuff… Recently we went to a concert that we were invited to see Ruthie Foster, and she had a really great voice. She was a blues gospel singer. I thought that was really impressive. And that was the most recent live show we went to period.
What does your daughter think of Slayer? Does she listen to it, does she like it?
TA: Yeah, she likes certain songs. She has favourite songs. My son and my wife are big Slayer fans. My wife is a big Slayer fan. She likes everything that we do. She’s a big Metallica fan, she’s a big Megadeth fan…
But did she like LuLu, that’s the question?
TA: No, you kind of cut me off mid flow there, I should say she prefers older Metallica! Ha ha ha… She doesn’t really like anything past the "Black Album". Yeah, she’s a woman of taste, yes. Ha ha ha! No, my son likes Slayer, he’s got his favourite tunes. My daughter has just the one song that she really likes. She enjoys the live experience, but she’s not really an avid listener. She prefers MTV, VH1, you know, that kind of stuff. That’s expected!
What would you say you guilty pleasure was?
TA: I’m not embarrassed. I really enjoy country blues, country folk. Like Hank Williams. I really enjoy the soundtrack to O Brother Where Art Thou? But I gravitate towards that kind of stuff. Paul Simon’s Graceland album, you know, musically and lyrically it’s just a really good album. The Robert Johnson tapes, the complete set, all his original recordings, I find them really fascinating, I don’t know why. But I’m not embarrassed, that’s something I would tell anyone who asked… It doesn’t really matter where it’s from, as long as it has a folk orientation to it… My wife’s a big Elvis fan, and we listen to it a lot. And the more and more you listen to Elvis, how he was able to influence an entire generation of musicians.
Would you ever consider making different music to metal? Would you ever be tempted to go solo and make a folk album, or a country album, or something like that?
TA: I don’t know. It’s not something I’ve really thought about, but who knows. That’s the best answer I can give you! I think it would be interesting to see what comes of something like that, but right now, I’m not saying that I don’t see that happening, but it’s not written so far. When you flip that page for tomorrow, it’s blank, you know? I only know what I’m doing now, and I know what I’ve done. What’s ahead of me I have no idea.
We’ve all got this image of you as this metal god, who goes around with a pint of whiskey in one hand and a sacrificed virgin in the other, but what does the average day in your life outside of Slayer consist of?
TA: It would include getting up, having a cup of coffee and some breakfast. Then I tend to the animals, and whatever else needs to be tended to… I do a lot of outside work. And then I’ll get back in the house, and then, depending on what stage of my life I’m at… Right now, working on new material, writing stuff, then listen to music, try to get ideas going. Then karate is a big part of my life now, and that’s about it.
How long have you been doing karate for?
TA: About four years.
Do you practice quite regularly?
TA: It’s kind of a daily thing. We home-school, and we put our kids in karate for Physical Ed, and we figured we’d be a part of that too. Why not! We’re in the second Q. You count down from 10 to one, then you become a black belt… So that would be brown belt. That’s about it! Then I go to sleep.
What are you up to next?
TA: I don’t know. We’re going to hopefully work on new material. We have a tour that starts on the May 25 in England, and that takes us through June. And we start again in July through August in America. Then I’m sure we’ve got stuff scheduled for September to December, but at the moment, nothing’s in stone. But that’s about it. We hope to have new material and a new record.