Southern California's Slayer moved attention away from glam-laden Sunset Strip bands in the 1980s to aggressive speedy metal that developed into one of the most popular subgenres metal culture thrashed into music history books. Thirty-four years later, the quartet known for consistent, public anger-invoking content focused on religion, strife and warfare is still raining blood on one trick pony artists and subgenres and continuing to sell out massive main stages, although radically changed.
The untimely death of co-founder, lead guitarist and (one of) the main songwriters Jeff Hanneman in May 2013 was only one of several shifts to come for Slayer, followed by the termination of founding drummer Dave Lombardo. Even before Hanneman showed a decline in health, guitarist Kerry King had already started writing tracks for the follow up album to 2009's World Painted Blood not knowing if or when their lead would be able to contribute again.
This year on the "coincidental," eerie matching release date to God Hates Us All in 2001, Slayer will release their 11th studio album Repentless featuring returning drummer Paul Bostaph on September 11th, with recorded guitar leads by fellow thrash shredder Gary Holt. After previews of Repentless songs "Implode" and the title track received overwhelmingly positive feedback from devoted fans, Rockstar Energy Drink's Mayhem Festival co-founder John Reese invited Slayer to return to the summer, one-day hell raiser tour again to headline, preceded by fellow '80s legion leader King Diamond.
"I think Slayer is as important now as they were in the '80s," says Reese. "Today, they are more legendary, and everyone from teenagers to 50-year-old's love them. They have a really broad demographic and have never toured with King Diamond before. Their thriving existence proves the importance of the genre and for Mayhem."
In addition to speaking with Reese, King also talked to the OC Weekly about the upcoming Mayhem tour, the song "Piano Wire" Hanneman wrote featured on "Repentless," his introduction to B.C. Rich guitars and Gary's recent bloodletting for an upcoming Vincent Castiglia work of art.
OC Weekly (Rachael Mattice): Since Slayer has been around for 34 years and you're about to go on tour for Mayhem, what are a few albums or songs you would like to revisit for your setlist this summer?
Kerry King: It's pretty much the old set we've been playing for a better part of two years. I think we're going to play three songs off of Repentless on Mayhem, if I'm not mistaken. And that's all I'm going to give away.
I covered Mayhem in 2012 when Slayer performed on the tour last with other acts like Motorhead and Anthrax, but Slipknot headlined the show. This year, now with Slayer headlining and another legendary band like King Diamond on the main stage with you, what do you think that represents for the state of metal in 2015 (especially the U.S.) that two bands who have been around for 30 years are leading this type of festival.
I think it's pretty cool. We've never played with King Diamond other than festivals here and there. It's going to be really cool for me as an old Mercyful Fate fan to be able to hang out with them for six weeks and check them out when we get the opportunities.
We've been a part of three really awesome Mayhem Festivals. King and us have always been in different circles and I don't have his phone number like I have others as if we hang out and chat, but I'm sure that will be a different story after the next two months. There's a lot of history between the two bands. I'm sure there will be one or two Mercyful Fate songs he plays and I'll be sneaking up on stage to watch every night.
"Vices" off of Repentless will be a crowd pleaser, especially if you choose to play that one on Mayhem here in California. You'd get a mass response during "Vices" when Tom screams, "Let's get high."
I wanted to convey a sense of unity first with Slayer, because I know there's going to be a question mark about us. I wanted to convey a sense of unity between Slayer and the audience too.
I knew for a fact in "Vices" when he says, "Let's get high," every mouth in that crowd is going to be screaming it back at us. It's a very unifying statement that is going to get the fans to join us and to also take control. When the chorus comes up, it reads, "We will take control." That's meant to convey the band, the crew, the crowd, security and anyone else who is there to join us.
Did you have a lot of stress and feel pressured when writing Repentless knowing that you had to write this without one of your main songwriters there to provide that input and influence you've leaned on for 30+ years?
I didn't because I started working on it a lot earlier. I started working on this album when Jeff first got hurt. Had I not started working until Jeff passed, yeah, that would've been a whole different story. I started two plus years before that. I didn't know if he was going to come back, how much he was going to contribute if anything. I took it upon myself to assume he had nothing and went from there.
I'm very interested, as I'm sure the rest of Slayer fans will be, about the song "Piano Wire" that Jeff wrote. Lyrically, what's the story behind the hanging body and piano wire? Since this was a song he wrote, did you record the leads on this track or did Gary?
I never knew the story until we were working on it again and Tom mentioned it this year. I'm probably going to convey it incorrectly, but Jeff was a big World War II guy. During WWII, apparently the Germans would hang people from whatever with piano wire. It was meant as a deferent to ward off whoever was against the Nazis at that time. It was definitely a show of force deferent kind of thing.
The story was created originally for World Painted Blood, but we never really finished it. It was toward the end and Tom didn't put in a keeper vocal performance. Unfortunately, it is my lead and I say that because if it would've been Jeff's lead we would've had something to put forward so there is no Jeff playing. Paul also redid all of the drums too.
Other than "Piano Wire," are there any other remaining songs he recorded that could surface on another Slayer album in the future?
We finished another one. It doesn't have a name and it doesn't have lyrics, which is why it's not on this record. I've been working on this song for the better part of 20 years and Tom and Jeff both had worked on it so I knew it was something I wanted to complete. Paul and Tom put together an ending. It's just waiting for lyrics and leads. We have several songs like this actually so we are way ahead for the next record.
Let's talk about another song. "Cast the First Stone" has buildup and references to battle. Where in the world were you when you wrote this one and what's the story with this?
I was in Athens, Greece. We were on tour either last year or the year prior and we had three days off during a Turkish raid and we couldn't go home when that was going on. I was just walking around the streets of Athens thinking about all the strife and war that went on historically in Greece and all through Europe at that time. I went back to my room during those three days and finished it.
Are you open to Gary collaborating in the songwriting process for any and all future albums after Repentless?
Personally, I'm open to that for the next record for sure. For Repentless, I thought a long time about what I thought Gary should do on this record. I know fans might not be very open after hearing Jeff for 30 years. I didn't know how fans would react if he contributed writing to this record. The best scenario was to get Gary involved a little bit with playing leads because you can't have a two-guitar attack without two guitars.
Watching some of the old band videos from the '80s, you heard a lot of questions about going to church, Satan and religion. Some people were really fearful of you. Although I wish I could say the organizations of religions have evolved, you would probably get asked some of those same questions 34 years later, even though Slayer and metal has evolved. Would your responses to some of those questions still be the same if those were asked today?
I can almost guarantee it because my thoughts haven't really changed. Early on, I started telling people I don't believe in God, I don't believe in religion and therefore, I don't believe in hell and I don't believe in the devil either. You can't have one and not the other without being hypocritical. I used to say, "I'm an atheist. I don't believe any of this horsesh*t," but it's not fun and compelling to write atheist lyrics. I tried before and it just doesn't work the same.
You especially have referred to religion as "brainwash." Why do you feel transparent to its effects and why do you think some people are immune to it over others?
I think that it takes a strong person or anyone who can think for themselves and make up their own mind. Anyone with a science background would come to the conclusion that there is no God and there is no heaven because there is no proof. Science relies on proof and I think people with that outlook are immune to it because they don't need the mythical crutch or the person to lean on. That's what my friends are for. I don't need an imaginary person for that.
What was one of the best moments for you on the other side of the "meet-and-greet" when you were in the shoes of the fan and you met or spoke with one of your music idols?
I never really had the chance to have that happen because I got in the business so early. My first record came out when I was 19. Even though they were my heroes, they became my contemporaries very quickly.
I met Ronnie James Dio in 2006 and that was a big deal for me. It was pretty late in my game, 26 years into my career and I had never met him. Black Sabbath was performing at a festival out in San Bernardino. The whole band was doing a meet-and-greet so I wanted to go see him. I had made acquaintances with Tony Iommi and I had known Geezer Butler for awhile too.
I'm waiting in line with everyone who had their tickets out waiting to get signed and we get around this corner where you can see them signing and I just yelled, "Would you guys f*cking hurry up, I want to say hello!" Dio about fell out of his seat, it was awesome.
What is the most embarrassing thing that has happened to you while on stage or meeting a fan?
The oddest thing that's ever happened to me was in Spain. We were playing small enough shows at the time where our bus was on the street and we weren't segregated from the fans. People would wait for autographs outside.
In one particular city, the fans were really well behaved. They waited in line and we would just walk down and sign things. Half way down the line, this guy gestures for me to write with something, and it ended up being a scalpel. He wanted me to carve Slayer or my name in him somewhere. I told him I would sign anything he had, but I wasn't going to cut him.
The only thing I've really done on stage that wasn't planned was on the "South of Heaven" tour. Back then, but I used to be on Jeff's side of the stage for the tradeoff lead in "Angel of Death." During the double bass kill I would run back over to my side when the strobes were going. One time, I was running over to my side and the strobes didn't work; it was so dark that I ran into a light and went sliding on my back across stage. I tried to keep playing, but the tour manager at the time had to prop me up for the last 30 seconds of the song.
You've had endorsement from B.C. Rich for a long time and the Warlock has really developed into a signature for you. How did you get introduced to B.C. Rich guitars?
That's a good question. I remember my dad lived vicariously through me when I was playing guitar when I was younger. Back then, when you wanted anything you would look at the Recycler and you could find bands you wanted to audition for, find instruments, cars or whatever. It was the best advertising paper ever.
He had a number of guitars and one day he showed me an ad and asked me if I had ever heard of "B.C. Rich" and said "I have no idea what that is." I knew the common names like Gibson, Fender so he brings home this B.C. Rich Mockingbird, which happens to be the one that showed up on "Show No Mercy" and "Hell Awaits" and I liked it. What I liked about it was the active electronics and the passive pickups at that time and could make any sound conceivable with that guitar at that point.
When they came out with the Warlock in the '80s, I thought it was the most unique body I had ever seen. When I went to purchase my second Warlock, I went to the factory (which was about 20 miles from my parents' house) and filled out the paperwork how I wanted it made and they said they were going to give me the guitar. I was so confused on why they wanted to give it to me; I was just going to pay for it, and that's when they started to endorse me. That was my upbringing. Some musicians today feel like they deserve these free instruments.
Independent of Slayer, you have a few stakes planted in other businesses as well. I know of at least Coldcock Whiskey and Psychotic Exotics. Do you have plans to expand in any other businesses?
Yes, I specialize in carpet pythons from Australia, but I have a number of guilty pleasures like south Brazilian red-tailed boa constrictors, Dominican red mountain boas and Madagascar ground boas. Ninety percent of what I have is carpet pythons though. Nothing new in the works yet.
Tell me more about your friendship with artist Vincent Castiglia. You're going to be featured in his upcoming documentary Bloodlines and Gary actually donated blood. Did you also participate?
At that show, he took 18 vials of blood from Gary because he's going to paint one of Gary's guitars in Gary's own blood. He does use his own blood too with his own work and I have one of his paintings at my house. It's like the best black and gray (it's actually red) tattoo work and he does it with blood.
I know that Gary is still a member of Exodus and has recorded guitar leads on your new album. Has there been discussion about solidifying Gary's presence in the band full-time after Mayhem? The album release?
That's something I definitely want to address sooner than later. We just got recording out of the way and we still had to get Paul situated. Not as if this issue wasn't important to us, we just had other things on our mind. I know we got Paul's deal in (and I don't even know if that's even gotten finalized yet), but I know we got the paperwork through and it's in the process.
To us, we had to do that first because Paul was in the band for 10 years prior to this. The next thing to do is make a legit offer to Gary if he's going to stay on board. And that's ok if he's not interested in staying. I certainly wouldn't ask him to quit Exodus, that's not part of it at all.
Reese added an additional Southern California stop in San Diego on Friday at Sleep Train Amphitheater, followed by a Saturday date in San Bernardino's San Manuel Amphitheater. For a full list of the bands on the 2015 Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival tour, visit here for the roster and ticket information. To pre-order "Repentless" before the September 11, 2015 release, visit the band's website.