Q&A: Slayer’s Kerry King
The fact that Slayer survived the 2013 passing of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman testifies to its status as a thrash metal institution. This is one band metal fans did not want to let go of, and as Slayer’s latest studio album, Repentless, proves, the band has much fire left in it. Guitarist Kerry King and vocalist/bassist Tom Araya are now joined by drummer Paul Bostaph and Exodus guitarist Gary Holt, with no end in sight for the 35-year-old band that changed extreme music forever. Las Vegas Magazine’s Matt Kelemen spoke to King ahead of Slayer’s March 26 date at The Joint at the Hard Rock Hotel.
Your Philadelphia show is in a few hours. How was last night’s concert in New York?
Last night was cool! Apparently our booking agent said it’s the best Slayer show he’s ever seen. Must be doing something good.
In 30 years? That’s a pretty heavy compliment.
Yeah, man! (laughs). It’s good to hear. I had a good show.
How are the fans reacting to the material? It looks like you have a good run of four songs close together in the middle of your sets.
Yeah, it’s cool. I think the trick we’ve done historically is surrounding it with heavy-hitting classics. It’s really just like playing older songs. They just happen to be new. It’s not odd, you know what I’m saying? The fans are into them like they’ve been out for 10 years.
You’re opening shows with the opening track from Repentless. How far along did the song develop before you know you could open shows with it?
That’s an odd story because I didn’t make that song up to be the first song on the album. It just kind of happened to be that way, and we tied the intro to it so now we’ve got a new intro to open shows with. We just did Europe in the last year and we opened with it, and it really blew me away because a lot of places, I could hear the crowd singing the chorus louder than Tom. I’m like “Man, that didn’t take long.” It just kind of blew me away.
You really need to get feedback from fans in a live situation now because of the way the music business is. You can’t tell by record sales.
Oh, for sure. When we do big block of press—not like this—people always ask your expectations for records and stuff, and I’m like, “I haven’t had any in 25 years.” Especially now, compared to what you did 20 years ago. It’s discouraging, but that’s just how it is. Music is shared these days, purchased and shared, whatever you want to call it, but the live situation is and always has been the situation. You can judge by T-shirts that are sold at a show. You can judge by selling out shows, like tonight was sold out, yesterday was sold out. It’s fun to go out and play full houses.
Yeah, it’s almost like you’re reaping the benefits from the way you set the band up.
Yeah, totally. It’s a very tight-knit group, metal fans, and I think Slayer fans are a notch above your average metal fan, because it’s not just music and it’s not just gig. To me it’s become a lifestyle. Slayer’s a lifestyle.
It’s definitely a way of life that’s reflected in “Repentless.” The song seems to serve as both tribute to and epitaph for Jeff Hanneman, which is a pretty cool way to open the show for the fans. Do you ever see a connection between “Repentless” and AC/DC’s “You Shook Me All Night Long.” The new album almost seems like your Back in Black—everything’s going to be okay, Slayer’s still around.
For me, I think of the record as a whole like that. “Repentless,” when I started writing that, I started with the chorus first because I knew it was going to be like eight syllables and not a whole lot going on, so I basically wrote that about Slayer and how Slayer looks at life. And then when I went to focus on the verses I thought, “I should pinpoint this more.” Yeah, this is Slayer’s mentality, but if I wrote it about Jeff and it had some insight on how Jeff lived his life, maybe that’s some moving-on closure point for not only us but the fans as well. I know Jeff better than anybody, so to write about him in a song might give insight into things they didn’t know.
It gives insight. For the longest time, unless you were a real diehard Slayer fan, it was almost hard to think of you guys separately. Between the guitar interplay and the way you guys presented a unified front it was almost hard to see the subtleties each of you brought to the band. That song helps do that when you know it’s about Jeff.
Yeah, totally. The timing was right. I didn’t set out to write that song like that, but that’s how it ended up.
I can’t think of a band besides AC/DC where it was so clear that fans did not want you to break up (after the death of a key band member). Other bands have gone down from much less crucial members being lost.
We’re compared to AC/DC all the time. Not necessarily that, but the fans and the records you make … AC/DC’s made the same record for 40 years. That’s why we like ’em. We’ve made the same record for basically 30-35 years now. That’s why our fans like us. I speak as a fan as well. I was a fan of AC/DC. Still am. Judas Priest, Sabbath. Maiden—all that stuff. When I was growing up, when publications were still important, we’d wait just to see live pictures because you didn’t have the Internet and five million pictures of your favorite band. It was important to read about ‘em, and be anxious about he magazines coming out so I could get some information. This day and age, it’s not like that. It’s instant information.
I remember. Slayer was a mystery for a long time because it was hard to find that magazine from England with a good feature.
Oh yeah, man. And I was like that when I was a kid with all the bands that I looked up to, so I remember that and see it applied to us. Not in the same way, but fans are hungry for it that way.
You can say that Slayer’s music hasn’t changed, or a certain aspect of it. I mean, I think it’s been said many times that you’re giving the fans what they want, but at the same time once you get into the latest album past “Repentless” it becomes this careening rollercoaster ride that serves as a soundtrack to today’s current events. Do you think Slayer is channeling contemporary conflict and chaos more so now than it did with the band’s seminal ’80s albums, or is it another case where it just turns out that way?
Simply put, it just turns out that way. I think up music how I make it up, and that hasn’t changed since Day One. Until I started putting riffs into my iPhone I still put them on a cassette with a piece-of-shit Radio Shack mic because that’s how I did it when I was a teenager. I never graduated to four-track, I didn’t want to learn it. So it’s definitely primitive, but we’re very old school to the point of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it.” It’s funny to talk about recording on cassette for remembering important music ideas as late as six, seven years ago, but I still did. I still probably have cassettes with riffs on them that I haven’t even used yet. I just gotta go back and listen to them, but the formula’s been the same forever.
Wasn’t it weird realizing one day you can use your phone for the same thing?
Oh, yeah. I guard my phone with my life because there’s tons of riffs in it that I haven’t used yet.
“Take Control” especially seems like it could fit the anti-establishment political times.
That’s one’s actually a unifying song, believe it or not—number one, to show unity within Slayer; number two, to show unity between Slayer and the fan base. I like to include the fans in songs. I didn’t say, “I will take control.” I said, “We will take control.” When the fans sing it back at you, it’s a very unifying moment. Slayer’s always been really tight with the fan base, so I like to make them feel a part of it as much as I can—where it makes sense, you know? That one did. “Vice” has the big “Let’s get high … A little violence is the ultimate drug/Let’s get high.” It’s just including the fan base into what we’re doing and making them feel like they’re essential to it as well.
There’s some really great punk attitude in that album too. Before I read anything about it I heard “You Against You” and I was like …
Oh, that’s the big punk tune for sure (laughs).
Yeah, I was just smacking myself in the head: “Oh my God, this sounds so good!” The difference between you guys and—no disrespect to AC/DC and the Ramones, Motorhead maybe too—all those bands, is they received flack for making the same album over and over again at times. When you hear an album like this and all of a sudden a song jumps out at you like that … somehow you still make the formula sound fresh.
It’s funny you bring that song up. I’m looking at the first take of that video as soon as I’m done with this interview. That’s the next video that’s gonna come out, but I think it goes back to us being one of the first bands that made metal fans and punk fans unite and not try to beat each other up, and unify and have fun at a show. We definitely are part of the punk-metal come-together. We’ve got so many aspects of metal and punk. Yeah, we make a heavy record that’s got fast stuff. It’s got heavy stuff on it, but there’s so many who’ve influenced us over the years. You can hear Maiden influence, you can definitely hear Sabbath influence. You can definitely hear punk influence, so we’ve got a couple of little buckets we can reach into for ideas.
I don’t think Slayer gets enough credit for that. There was a very segregated musical climate, then all of a sudden you could go to a thrash show and a punk show, or a whatever show. You helped set the stage for what would later be called alternative rock.
I remember shows where there would be fights between the metal kids and the punk kids, and it sucked because all we wanted them to do was have a good time and enjoy the music. It was a difficult transition for a short bit, but then they realized they were there to enjoy the music and celebrate this feeling they get when they listen to us. That was cool. It was cool making that come together for sure.
It’s also cool to see Gary Holt playing with you. He was featured in San Dunn’s documentary A Headbanger’s Journey, and I remember thinking “What’s in his future with Exodus?”
My admiration for him goes back a long, long time. I said, before he started playing with us, that he was like the Glen Tipton of our generation because he’s a great player … and Judas Priest was huge. They’re not as huge as they are now, but they were a huge band. You never would really refer to Glen Tipton in a guitar-player conversation, and he made some groundbreaking things very late into their career. I felt Gary was like that. He made great songs and he’s a great guitar player, but he’d be kind of an after-thought when you had guitar conversations. I’m glad, if nothing else, that we brought him to the forefront.
I read an interview in which he said he was at your first show with no makeup, and in fact advised you not to wear it at (Berkeley club) Ruthie’s Inn because of the crowd that was there. Is that a true story?
Yeah, yeah. We were the anti-LA band, the anti-hair-metal band, because LA at that time was exploding with Ratt and all the copycat Ratts, Motley Crue, Poison a little later. We were just from Orange County, so we weren’t that far from Los Angeles, but Orange County was way different. That’s really the birthplace of Metallica before they became a Bay-area band, so we were just the anti-hair band. We weren’t trying to be Alice Cooper, but we were trying to be as far away from LA as we could, so the birth of the eyeliner came in. We went to the Bay area and it’s a different scene up there—Gary Holt, the Exodus boys—so we didn’t need it and we got rid of it (laughs).
You guys didn’t wear hair-metal makeup though.
No, just black around the eyes.
Oh, I thought it was like a Mercyful Fate/King Diamond thing.
I’d say it’s more like Alice Cooper. We just had black around our … it was eyeliner, but it was bigger than eyeliner. It wasn’t just to make your eyes pop like f*cking retards (laughs).
You’ve mentioned having Paul back in the band along with Gary “made everything a little easier to handle.” Do you think Slayer could have survived something like this 10 or 20 years ago?
It’s hard to say. This situation that we’re in right now, everything just fell into place. In the face of tragedy, we just moved forward and it happened to work. I’m sure there are scenarios that could have come up where it didn’t work. We powered through it, and we’re a strong band now because of it. Playing live … it’s tight, it sounds good. That’s my biggest concern—we’re super tight. Like I said earlier, to have my booking agent say it’s one of the best shows he’s ever seen, that says I’m doing something right. We have a really killer set as you must have seen, and I’m stoked to come play it for you guys (laughs).
I know you’ve been asked about this plenty, but when you’re younger you think, “I could never keep doing this when I get to a certain age,” and then you get to that age and it’s almost like, “I don’t feel any different. Yeah, let’s keep going!”
The funny thing for me, I think a 50-year old when I was 20 is far different than a 50-year-old today. And it’s not just because I’m 50. I think the times are very different. I can reflect on my parents because I was close to that. The lifestyle was so much more sedentary. There was watching TV and going to work, that was about it. I’m 50 now and I’m a far shot from the way my dad was when he was 50. Not only the perception is different, but I think lifestyle in general changes, and I think a 50-year-old is far more fit than they were 30 years ago. If you asked me when I was 20 if I’d still be playing when I was 50 I’d say absolutely not, but now here I am doing it at 51 and I feel great so far. I’m still putting out a product that looks and sounds great. Will I be playing when I’m 60? I don’t know. Can’t guarantee you (laughs). I don’t know.
Probably, the way things are going. I’ve talked with Paul Stanley and Ace Frehley this year, and they’re still going.
And Sabbath and Priest. Maiden too. Having said that, Alice Cooper for sure.
For real. Now, the songwriting process for Repentless was years long and (not having Hanneman contribute material) was a transitional thing for you. Do you think the next song cycle will come easier now that you’ve put together an album’s worth of material by yourself? At least the music?
I don’t know. I worked on so much stuff for this one, and when this album was done there was probably six or seven full songs recorded that we did finish. I’m an old-school guy that thinks 10 or 12 songs are enough. I never got into so many songs on a record just to fill up the CD space, especially now that CDs aren’t that popular now. It makes sense, but when I was growing up 10 songs were great. You got 11 or 12, awesome. We finished guitar, bass and drums on six to eight more songs, so we’re almost at what the next record’s length needs to be. Might be one or two that have lyrics, but musically, if they don’t change because of lyrics, than they’re done. They’re ready to put on a record, so we’re further ahead of the game than we’ve ever been on any record that’s come out for extra material.
The “Repentless” video is one of the most bloody and violent videos I’ve ever seen. Do you think if people saw the connection between filmmaking and extreme forms of metal they’d be less likely to make assumptions about the musicians’ beliefs?
For sure. I was doing an interview last week or two and we were talking about “Angel of Death” and how controversial it was, and I said, “You know, it wouldn’t have been controversial if it was a show on History, but since Slayer said it, it was controversial.” If it were on History Channel it probably would have won awards for being so descriptive, but since we said it, it was dangerous and taboo. There’s always going to be those people looking for something to say about something they don’t understand.