The Human Condition: Exodus Interviewed

Mark Eglinton speaks to Gary Holt, founder of thrash legends Exodus, about the selfishness of mankind and a devotion to metal

Legendary Bay Area thrash band Exodus are currently on tour with Megadeth and Testament as part of the Rust In Peace 20th Anniversary Tour. Back in the mad days of the mid 1980s, Exodus, and specifically their front-man the late Paul Baloff, had a reputation for destroying things (people, homes and relationships according to his business card), on and off-stage. Their debut album entitled Bonded By Blood would come high on anyone’s list of vital thrash metal debuts, and the band members regularly did their own special kind of bonding by snorting lines of each other’s saliva.

While there was no immediate evidence of that going on when I spoke to founder and guitarist Gary Holt before the band sound-checked in Indianapolis, Exodus are still going strong nowadays, and their new record entitled Exhibit B: The Human Condition is released this Spring.

Exodus are on tour just now with Megadeth and Testament. What has the response been to the Rust In Peace 20th Anniversary Tour?

Gary Holt: It’s been fantastic, every show’s been sold out or completely packed and close to it. The only ones that weren’t were huge venues that were, like, 400 shy maybe. So that’s almost 4,000 people – it’s been awesome. It’s great to be touring with Megadeth and for the first time, our friends Testament. Everyone’s having a really good time.

Are you playing any new stuff from Exhibit B: The Human Condition?

GH: Nope. We’ve kind of joined in the spirit of the fact that Testament are doing The Legacy in its entirety, and Dave’s doing Rust In Peace, so we’re only playing songs off our first three records.

Is the album title a reference to the way human beings treat each other?

GH: Sure, human nature in general: cruelty, our lemming-like behaviour and all things that go with being the human species. I’d find it all depressing if I wasn’t such a happy guy all the time, but I think sometimes this is my therapy, and it’s not like it’s just mankind and I’m excluding myself; we’re all in this boat together. I’ve engaged in my fair share of cruelty back in the day too, but not on the scale of some of the things we touch on in some of the songs. Mankind in general are just a very arrogant race of people. We really don’t see the damage done.

It’s getting worse too…

GH: Oh yeah, it’s not getting any better. I mean if there was a time-machine and somebody from the 1950s was transported here and read the paper, they would die of a heart attack. A serial killer? What the hell is that? The funny thing is that if you go further back in time, it’s much worse. You have The Inquisition, and there’s been something going on since the dawn of time; I don’t see it changing any time soon.

The media is a factor however?

GH: Sure, the media reports it and sensationalise everything, and I think sometimes that makes matters worse.

Now that we’re discussing the human condition and the media, what do you make of Varg Vikernes – convicted murderer – getting featured on the cover of metal magazines like Terrorizer?

GH: You know, that all goes back to the media stuff, whether it’s mainstream media or music media. I mean, it’s a story to be told – certainly I don’t agree with all his politics but also I do agree with a lot of them. I’m sure it makes for an interesting read and I’d like to read it myself actually.

But you don’t see putting a convicted murderer on the cover of a magazine as a bad message?

GH: I don’t know what kind of message that is but you think of any number of issues of Time or Newsweek. How often do you see convicted killers on the cover of that? Fuck, constantly…

While we’re being political, have the big labels killed music?

GH: Maybe they have something to do with it, but technology is more to blame. At the same time as technology has made it easier to make really high quality albums for a lot less money, it’s that same technology that allows everybody to take it for free and put it on a little MP3 player and walk away.

Something of a double-edged sword, then?

GH: Exactly. I’m a fan of high-speed internet as much as anybody, but to me the MP3 player and the CD burner are what’s killing things. Without those two, even if you downloaded a record, it’s confined to your computer. So if you wanted to throw it in your car you still had to buy the fuckin’ CD. Now you buy it, burn it, take it and soon CD’S will be a thing of the past anyway, and it will all be MP3 downloads.

We’re all doomed…

GH: I think within the next 10 years there will be no albums and that will be a crime. I think back to when I was a kid and I couldn’t wait to get that vinyl and tear into it, and just listen to it and read the lyrics along with the song until I had all that shit memorised. And then there was the artwork and it was all part of the experience, and all you might get now is some little picture that pops up on your iPod. They’ll miss out on what I consider an integral part of the record-buying experience. Personally I don’t like listening to albums on little ear buds, I like listening to this shit with good hard watts of fuckin’ power behind it…sub-woofers, you know? I want to feel it. I remember when I’d bring home one of my favourite albums in the middle of the afternoon, and nobody’s home and I’d be just CRANKING this shit. I’d sit in that one spot on the couch where I’ve got maximum bass response. Who wants to have this shit pumped into your ears through some tiny microscopic speakers?

All of this must add emphasis to the need to tour?

GH: Oh sure, I mean now we depend on it. I look back to, like, the 80s and I always thought that we didn’t tour enough back then. Now you have to stay out on the road as much as possible and try to generate enough income that way. Then when you’re done touring an album you’ve got to get your ass back in the studio as soon as possible for the next one.

Do you actually make money?

GH: You know, we manage to do it…I make a living at this, but sometimes it’s feast or famine; one minute you’re doing those really profitable tours and then you’re doing tours where you just try and increase your audience, but you’re not making anything. I can only imagine how hard it is for younger bands.

Europe had a release date for your new record before the U.S did. That says a lot about your audience…

GH: I think that’s just a label thing. I don’t really see the purpose in it; I prefer a simultaneous release. Europe has been loyal to us and loyal to metal in general – they don’t outgrow it over there. When we play you’ll see the same guys who were there when we played with Venom in 1985. In America, a lot of the same guys who were at shows in 1985 are listening to fuckin’ Kenny Chesney records. They aren’t metal heads any more. They get their mortgage payments, a place, three kids and a white picket-fence and they just mellow out. In Europe they stay hard to the end. I love those old crusty guys in the denim vests! [Laughs]

Metal itself has changed a lot too?

GH: Yeah, and there has been a resurgence of the kind of sound we play and there a lot of bands out there that I may not find appealing. I try and shy away from ever slagging anybody off; it’s all art.

Old school thrash band Heathen have a new album out, and Lee Altus their guitarist also plays in Exodus. What are your thoughts on that?

GH: It’s an amazing record, old school fans love it. It’s funny, Lee told me one guy accused him and said ‘That album’s all down-tuned like Exodus’ and Lee said ‘No it’s not, it’s all in straight up A’. This guy said ‘You’ve made it sound down-tuned’.

How do you make something sound down-tuned? I’d love to have that trick and then I could use lighter strings and still sound deep how I want it. I’d love that guy to teach me that one. [Laughs] I always told Lee that this Heathen record was his Chinese Democracy.

Except this Heathen record turned out well…

GH: Exactly, the end result was what Axl was hoping for – not that I’ve heard it, I have just heard everyone say it’s not very good.

The ‘Big Four’ tour this summer…do you think it’s all too late?

GH: I don’t think it’s too late, but my whole take on this whole thing is that I don’t get pissed off with it but look: we were there before anybody but Metallica. I guess if you’re basing it all on sales then Dave and Metallica should be there certainly, you know. Slayer were right there. Maybe I’m biased but I think we had as big a hand in it as anybody. I think it’s good for the fans that want to see it, and it’s cool that Metallica are open to such a thing now.

Are they open to it because they have made so much money though?

GH: Yeah, maybe. People ask me what it’s like to play with Metallica but we haven’t played with them since 1986. There are lots of bands who have played with them way more than us. We were there together in the beginning so people always want to hear all the tales and how it all started. I’m that guy to call on when you want to hear about the old Bay Area days.

Does it irritate even slightly that a band like Anthrax, who haven’t had a settled line-up and have been considerably less prolific than you of late, are still involved?

GH: No, more power to them. They’re old friends. I haven’t seen or spoken to any of those guys in a long, long time. We just let the music do the talking.

Tell us your most outrageous Paul Baloff story.

GH: Oh gosh, I think there are more outrageous Paul Baloff tall tales than there are stories. Paul has a million of them. People would come up to me, right after his passing, with these great stories and I’m like ‘ Man, that shit never happened’. There was a big rumour going around that at one of the old Ruthie’s Inn shows where Paul said ‘Kill a poser’, that somebody slashed some poser’s throat outside. There is no way I would not know about that, you know…

Presumably the police would know about it too!?

GH: Exactly, I should just let everyone believe that one though [laughs].

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