Slayer interview – Eye Weekly (7.29.10)

Geeks, sportos, motorheads, dweebs… everybody loves Slayer. EYE WEEKLY’s Chris Bilton tracks down the band in Quebec to find out why the original masters of thrash are more popular than ever

QUEBEC CITY — It’s never just “Slayer”; it’s always “fuckin’ Slayer!” As an expression, it’s the perfect summation of what it means to be a Slayer fan, especially when yelled in the vicinity of one of their concerts. The name of the band alone carries with it a certain set of images and associations — Satanic pentagrams, combat-helmeted demons, vaguely SS-styled lettering, the most brutalizing thrash metal to come out of the 1980s — and yelling “Slayer” is enough to let any other metal fan know that you mean business. But adding the expletive is a kind of fanatical declaration: both vulgar and impassioned, and thoroughly committed to showing total disregard for societal norms.

Case in point, there’s already an Urban Dictionary1 entry on the phrase, and it’s a phenomenon that, for some, extends past the concert venue into everyday life. (Also, “Fuckin’ Metallica” has far too many syllables and “Fuckin’ Anthrax” too much consonance right in the middle of the phrase — “Fuckin’ Slayer,” on the other hand, just rolls perfectly off the tongue.)

Even if you’re not versed in the semiotics of Slayer fandom, you might know that Slayer’s most recent album, last year’s World Painted Blood, has been widely recognized as their best effort since thrash metal broke into the rock mainstream in the early 1990s, and that it came out nearly 30 years into a career that’s been sustained by the same four guys who started the band in Southern California circa 1981.

Like pretty much every non-nü-metal band in the late ’90s, the group fell off the mainstream radar for a time, thanks to grunge and, in Slayer’s particular case, the departure of drummer Dave Lombardo, who returned in 2002. This week they hit their Canadian Carnage Tour with Megadeth and Testament — a twice-postponed affair due to Slayer vocalist/bassist Tom Araya’s back problems and eventual surgery last year — which finds Slayer playing their epic 1990 album, Seasons in the Abyss, in its entirety.

“I wish this was a headlining tour, so that we would have more time to play those [new] songs,” says guitarist Kerry King of the new album’s success, when we eventually sit down to talk. “Some bands put out a new album when they really shouldn’t have — like it’s totally self-indulgent. It’s not like we’re stroking our own cocks to play our own shit — all the feedback I get is that people really dig it.” And while King admits that playing Seasons was a way to assuage promoters’ cold feet from the rescheduling, he says, “It’s kind of like jumping back to 1990, only it’s still relevant.”

While Seasons in the Abyss is totally a worthwhile addition to the recent All Tomorrows Parties festival–led trend of bands playing classic albums as though they were just released, this summer was already shaping up to be the Season of Slayer, with casual observers once again noticing what hardcore Slayer fans have known all along: seeing them live is where true believers are made.

Slayer have their own chapter in the textbook of metal, and namedropping the unholy ones is hardly frowned upon in other circles. Even a jazzer like John Zorn was influenced by thrash outfits such as Napalm Death and Slayer, and former Faith No More/Mr. Bungle leader Mike Patton’s band Fantoma (featuring Slayer’s once and future drummer Lombardo2 executing the music’s ADD-riddled changes and teeth-shattering blast beats with ease) helped bring meta-thrash back to its origins. There’s also been a strangely unironic embrace of the band by the public at large, signs of which include local promoter Steve Rock’s all-heavy music DJ night, Slayer Party, the fact that World Painted Blood was the first Slayer album to get a review in hipster record-nerd bible Pitchfork and that, in the popular 33 1/3 series that has examined albums by everyone from Bob Dylan to Joy Division to Celine Dion, D.X. Ferris’ book on the Slayer album Reign In Blood is one of only two metal entries.

King’s use of the word “relevant” is odd but appropriate for a band that used to scare the shit out of me from the pages of late-’80s rock magazines. Despite their consistent dedication to blood-soaked subject matter and lyrics written in the first-person from the perspective of some of history’s most notorious mass murderers, in 2010, Slayer’s brutal legacy is almost a non-issue. Their music crosses cultures and languages, which is partially why, after spending the past six months awaiting their greatly delayed North American tour (an assignment that, at one point, involved potentially watching the Super Bowl with them in New York City), I’m in Quebec City, waiting to interview them. You don’t even need to be a metal fan to understand the appeal of such a subject. At the end of the day, it’s Fuckin’ Slayer.

* * *

In most cases, when you’re interviewing a band, the people you meet are far, far different from the performers you see on stage. But there can be no mistaking Slayer for anything other than a metal band. It’s not like you can picture these guys working as insurance brokers; they are clearly meant to be in Slayer.

After a long day awaiting their arrival in QC for our scheduled 11pm encounter, I find myself heading out into the crowded din of Grande Allée Est (essentially the city’s version of clubland) enmeshed in a crew that includes guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, drummer Dave Lombardo, their road manager Jim and a couple of metal-looking assistants. There’s a powerfully un-fuck-with-able energy coming from this crew as we walk the busy street.

Jim leads us into a wholly unlikely venue: a Wallpaper magazine’s-worst-nightmare of trendy interior design with Lucite bar chairs and glass-encased-water-bubble walls, where an incessant umph umph dance beat plays over the PA. Drinks are ordered, and food,3 but it takes the waitress a while to sort out the rhythm of Slayer’s alcohol consumption and there’s a palpable tension as we sit with a table of instantly emptied glasses of Grey Goose (Jeff), Crown Royal (Dave) and Jäger (Kerry and myself).

Our waitress soon matches pace enough to allow for free-flowing conversation from King, who is definitely the take-charge member of the band and whose interminable sternness I quickly understand to be his natural state of existence.

The guitarist casually comments on re-learning old albums: “It’s fucking tough…. My guitar tech has the music book, and over the years you think you know something, like a lead break, but when I reference the book I’m, like, ‘Motherfucker. I’ve been playing this wrong for 10 years.’”

On playing the recent Big Four concert with Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth: “When I made up the set list, I made it up not to make friends. But Metallica is so electric and the fans react so much — we could have played ‘Raining Blood’ 10 times and it wouldn’t have made a difference.”

When it comes to writing an album as satisfying to fans old and new, King explains that “working on [World Painted Blood] was the closest to how we used to rehearse in Tom’s garage in the ’80s. Spontaneous isn’t the word, but kind of organic I guess.”

As for their notoriously incendiary lyrical content, in an age where horror films often favour torture-porn sequences over scary storylines and all forms of mainstream media have adopted an “If it bleeds, it leads” mentality, it seems that Slayer was maybe right all along. On the other hand, this must make it difficult to stay on the cutting edge, subject-wise. For a band that’s detailed the crimes of Jeffrey Dahmer, Ed Gein and Josef Mengele, as far as King’s concerned, nothing is too extreme.

“I still want to shock if I can. I still want to provoke thought,” he says. “But our career has been [treading the] fine line of what’s on the edge and what’s goofy. And you’ve got to really think about that goofy part. A lot of bands cross that line and we’ve been lucky enough — I don’t know if we know what it is or not — to not be goofy.”

There are no Nietzschean declarations on World Painted Blood per se, but King is in fine form on “Hate Worldwide,” writing: “I’m a godless heretic / Not a god-fearing lunatic / That’s why it’s become my obsession to treat god like an infection.” Hanneman and Araya cover the creepy-as-hell territory of first-person serial killer profiles on “Unit 731” and “Playing with Dolls.”

While any conflict between these subjects and Araya’s well-known Christian faith remains somewhat unspoken (of the singer’s belief in god, King says, “I think it developed. But we’ve never really talked about it”), the tension between what they believe and what they sing about is part of the artistry. As Araya explained to me in an interview a few years ago, “We’ve gone from writing about demons and spirits to writing about the darkness of society, the dark social [aspects] in humanity.” It’s often argued by the band and their defenders that Slayer didn’t invent this stuff, they are documenting it as a reflection of the world in which we live.

King wholly accepts Slayer’s penchant for provocation saying, “I’ve got no qualms about throwing down the gauntlet.… I like to throw out ideas in a generic sort of way, putting something out for discussion. Like when I came up with the line ‘God hates us all,’ [from “Disciple”] I was, like, that’s the best line ever. And the cool thing about that line is that it makes us equal — us and the fans. Because we’re yelling it at the fans, but we say ‘us.’ There are so many ways you can induce thought without telling people how to think.”

That “us” is important. While metal fans can be the most close-minded and defensive about stylistic particulars — just bring up Metallica’s self-titled Black Album to get an earful on this subject — they are unselfconsciously proud of championing the genre’s greatest music. Sam Dunn and Scott McFadyen’s documentary, Metal: A Headbanger’s Journey, explores this phenomenon as a tribe mentality where outsiders are united in their respective metalness in a way that necessarily crosses the genre’s countless subgenres. I prefer thinking of it as a sport-fan culture, where you can argue all day about who the best teams/players may be, as long as you’re together when it’s time to get drunk and watch the big game.

The night after my surreal date with three-fourths of the band, I get a taste of this culture while standing in front of the Colisée Pepsi just north of the charmingly faux-Parisian downtown Quebec City, where I’ve travelled on assignment to spend some time with the band and its notoriously dedicated fans for the Canadian Carnage show. Everyone here is sporting any or all of the following: tattoos, long hair4, biker beards, black t-shirts, open beers. Half the dudes could almost pass for members of Slayer, as burliness and grey camo pants combined with various vintages of said band’s t-shirts are a popular look. Even in the heart of non-Anglo Canada, Quebecois heshers seem to have no problem with singing in English, as long as the lyric goes something like “Dance with the dead in my dreams / Listen to their hallowed screams.”

Despite the language barrier and my obvious journalist-ness (messenger bag, notepad, lack of illegal beer consumption) I feel welcome in the very inclusive crowd — or at least, a lot more welcome than someone who shows up to an indie-rock show wearing baggy jeans. Apparently, I am the only person who takes any interest in the most un-metal arrival of the evening — a cab-full of shorts-and-polo-wearing dudes who, amazingly, pass through the crowd unmolested.

This lack of pretension is also one of the main reasons I have, over the past few years, reassessed metal and come to a new appreciation of bands like Slayer. And I’m not the only one.

* * *

But for Slayer and their devoted army, it never really mattered whether casual fans were interested or not. (When new fans come around — which they continue to do — it’s less of an opportunity to say I told you so and more of a cause for drunken celebration.) A survey of the band’s oeuvre will quickly tell you why: at no point were they half-assing it musically, nor were they looking for opportunities to artificially broaden their appeal.

The one thing that Slayer has managed to do better than almost any other band is to grow old gracefully. They’ve never had a comeback tour, never put out an album that pandered to commercial demands and their only dubious guest spot came early in their career when, having just signed to Rick Rubin’s rap label Def Jam, King played guitar on the Beastie Boys’ “No Sleep Till Brooklyn.”5 On stage, muscling their way through Seasons in the Abyss’ face-melting opener “War Ensemble,” the group of mid-to-late-40-year-olds look as confident as ever, and way scarier. Araya’s back problems notwithstanding, only Iggy Pop and the Jesus Lizard’s David Yow rate higher when it comes to well-aged intensity.

“When I was 30 I didn’t think I’d be playing at 40. When I was 40 I didn’t think I’d be playing at 45,” King admits. “We saw [Judas] Priest on the last day of the tour where they played British Steel all the way through. And to see them do something like that is inspiring as hell. I became friends with [Ronnie James] Dio before he died, in the last decade, and to be onstage when he sings, he sounds like the fucking record. Until the day he stopped singing. I never heard Dio have a bad show. I get lots of inspiration from people like that.”

Slayer may not be the most likeable, innovative or successful metal band to come along, but anyone could learn a thing or two from them about finding one thing they love and doing it better than anybody else. If there are any doubts about the continuing, unyielding appeal of a band whose legacy remains almost entirely untarnished, the youngish Quebecois lad I saw at their concert with a detailed image of the sword-pentagram/goat-demon tableaux from Slayer’s Show No Mercy album tattooed across his back should silence them. As a representative of another new generation of fans, I’m sure he’d explain his position in the most direct way possible: “fuckin’ Slayer.”

END NOTES

1. “Fuckin Slayer: This is a phenomenon in which two or more Slayer fans may yell out. These ‘yellings’ occur when a guy goes to/leaves a concert and that guy is so pumped up with adrenaline, so he finds the first guy wearing a Slayer tee/hoodie and bellows out ‘FUCKIN’ SLAYER.’ The kid who is yelled to will probably find it shocking the first time, however, he will find a feeling of bonding through this too, because if there are more pumped up fans… they will yell, too, like some kind of domino effect.”

2. While discussing the merits of Lombardo’s return to Slayer with King, who says, “He’s able to take [his other musical experiences] and apply it to us in ways that I would never even think of,” the band members enter into a lengthy and detailed breakdown of the pros and cons of blast beats, which is probably interesting to the three per cent of our readers who also subscribe to Modern Drummer, but for our purposes can be summed up as really intense drum patterns that sound like machine-gun fire.

3. King’s customary wraparound Oakleys are absent, but he busts out a pair of reading glasses for the menu, which other members of the group borrow in turn for what ends up coming off like an absurd sight gag.

4. Incidentally, a head-banging mane of hair can be a beautiful thing — backlit in a darkened smoke filled arena, the up-and-down head motion sends the hair into a constant upward flow, like a small inferno (as in the opening of Wild at Heart).

5. Actually, this is only a dubious endeavour if you consider the song to be the birth of that most hideous of genres, rap-metal. Otherwise, it’s a pretty rad song.

Originally published in EYE WEEKLY.

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