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Exodus's Gary Holt: "We're the Romeo & Juliet of metal – tragedy everywhere!"

Exodus - Gary Holt
(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

If you go down to the woods today, you might just bump into Exodus guitarist Gary Holt. The thrash metal icons’ longest-tenured member no longer lives in the Bay Area, for decades the physical and spiritual home of both his band and the scene they helped pioneer. “I’m out in the middle of nowhere,” he says of his current home in the forests of Northern California. “There’s no people, just deer and wild turkeys and coyotes.” Bears? “No, we’re a little bit too low in altitude. What you’ve got to worry about is wildfires.”

Holt may have swapped the urban landscape that has inspired his band for the past 40 years, but the savagery that defined such landmark albums as 1985’s classic debut Bonded By Blood, 1989’s Fabulous Disaster and 2004’s killer comeback, Tempo Of The Damned, hasn’t abated - Exodus’s 11th album (and first in seven years), Persona Non Grata, showcases the tenacity that has seen the band overcome multiple line-up changes, the death of a key member, potentially ruinous drug addiction and serious illness. “It’s been a hell of ride,” says Holt, as he prepares to look back over his rollercoaster career.

Metal Hammer line break

Can you remember your first gig with Exodus?

"I can't remember the year, but it was New Year's Eve, at the Montara Community Centre, in Tara Hills, California. It was the first show I’d ever played in my life. I'd never even been in a band. I started playing when I was 17 and I joined Exodus six months later. That show was half cover songs, half originals. I was hooked. I knew what I wanted to do."

But you knew Exodus before you joined, right?

"Yeah. They used to put on their own parties, these legendary fucking alcohol-fuelled ragers with names like The Ripper and Jug Night. You paid five dollars and there’d be, like, 15 kegs of beer and 20 jugs of whiskey. Just these legendary soirées."

Exodus always had a reputation for partying. Was that stuff hardwired into you from that start?

"Oh yeah, right from the early days. [Exodus founder and future Metallica guitarist] Kirk Hammett and I spent an entire summer taking acid. We’d sell some old jazz records or whatever that his dad had left at his house and go buy a 12-pack of beer and a purple microdot [of acid] or whatever. We used to love our psychedelics. We learned a lot of guitar on LSD.

"We were the band that climbed into the burning rubble of a burnt-out liquor store to rescue alcohol. This liquor store-slash-bar called The Wagon Wheel had burned down, and Kirk and myself and some of our entourage climbed into that place and rescued all these bottles of whiskey. The plastic caps had melted, so we just put aluminium foil over the top with a plastic band.  All the carcinogens we must’ve drank, man…"

“Exodus were the band that climbed into the burning rubble of a burnt-out liquor store to rescue alcohol”

Gary Holt

Kirk Hammett once told me Exodus got so fast because your drummer, Tom Hunting, kept speeding up between rehearsals…

"Tom's tempo was always consistent, but he had the ability to play this shit fast. Tom was always the best drummer in our backyard party scene. And he’s an amazing singer too - he’s the best singer in Exodus to this day. He's like a soul singer, he could sing the hell out of a Daryl Hall song, shit like that. Keeping up with Tom has always been an issue. When we rehearsed for the show we just did, the first one back after his stomach cancer, I had to tell him to slow Strike Of The Beast down, 'cos he was so amped up to be back."

Paul Baloff joined as singer in 1982. He was a legendary figure. But what was he really like?

"He was exactly like you’d think he’d be: a madman. Kirk met him at some show in Berkeley, and so he’d come to see us play. He was cool as fuck, I got on with him immediately. Paul came to one of our rehearsals one day, but the band had cancelled it and no one had gotten hold of him. So me and him went to the park near my parents. We hung out and did some drugs and listened to metal and had a good time. He was the real deal, there was nothing fake about Paul. When he said, 'Posers must die!’ at shows, posers got really nervous, they started sweating. Then they started slowly walking back towards the door, 'cos he would have beaten the shit out them."

What's the craziest Exodus gig you remember from those really early days?

"Any one of hundreds of shows at [legendary Berkeley club] Ruthie's Inn. Animal behaviour, people beating each other, PA-top stage dives. [Machine Head frontman] Robb Flynn tells a story where he saw someone running around with this giant bone, like a leg of mutton-type bone, just swinging it at people. Often there were fights onstage, with one guy on one side of me and another guy on the other side, punches flying in front of me and behind me, and I’m bobbing and weaving, just keeping playing."


The $64,000 question: no Exodus, no thrash scene. True?

"Absolutely. I'll own that. We created the violent scene. Hell, the last time we played a proper show with Metallica was a New Year's Eve show at Bill Graham's Civic, and we stomped them into the dirt. We were getting wasted after the show, and James was laughing and saying, 'Haha, that's the last time you guys'll ever support us.’ And it was the last time we ever supported Metallica."

Were you pissed off when Kirk left Exodus to join Metallica?

"Yeah, I was mad for a minute, we all were. Kirk wrote everything in the early days, but I was starting to come up with my own riffs. But we had a big party to celebrate at his mother’s house in El Sobrante, and it was kind of like a passing of the torch. It put me in the driver's seat, and suddenly Exodus started going like that [makes speeding up motion with hand]. Those tempos Kirk said Tom was playing too fast were no longer too fast, they were just the right speed. And obviously Kirk made a really horrible business decision to join Metallica, the worst choice ever financially. I don't know what he was thinking!"

“Paul Baloff was exactly like you’d think he’d be: a madman.”

Gary Holt

What was it like being part of that scene back then? 

"The scene was rad. You could go to a different club five nights a week and never see the same band twice. There wasn’t thrash metal competition, 'cos in the beginning there was only us and Metallica - the first time I ever heard them was when we played with them, and it felt like looking in a mirror. Later on, there was some competition. The bands were all friends, and we hung out together, but Exodus owned Ruthie’s. Everybody was gunning for us, but nobody could take us."

Bonded By Blood is one of the all-time great metal debut albums, but it wasn’t released until 1985. Do you ever wonder what might have happened if it had come out of the gate 18 months earlier?

"Yeah, we’d have developed some serious drug problems earlier! Nah, we had so many problems with the label, Torrid Records, which was two guys on a learning curve. And then someone said the cover artwork was too extreme, and it wouldn't get in the stores. There was delay after delay, then these bad bootleg copies leaked out 'cos we weren’t so careful with things back then. It just caused us to fall behind the eight ball a little bit. Exodus, we’re the Romeo & Juliet of metal – tragedy everywhere!"

Paul Baloff left after Bonded By Blood. What happened?

"We fired him. Paul's strength was never musicality, it was personality. There were many times onstage when Paul would get off time, so I'd go over and start kicking him in the leg in time to the music to try to get him back on: 'One, two, three… kick, kick, kick.' He'd turn around and look at me and go, 'Dude, what?', 'I'm just trying to get you back on beat'.

"But we were working on new songs and he was kind of a mess. He no longer had a house and he was living in our rehearsal room, drinking like crazy. We all partied when we went out, but we were dead serious when it came to rehearsal. It had become a struggle with him."

Was it a tough decision to get rid of him?

"Absolutely, and in the Bay Area it was not greeted kindly - people threw shit at Zetro [Baloff’s replacement, Steve ‘Zetro’ Souza] at his first gig. Night two, Baloff came up and sang a song, that took the sting out of it. It was a decision that I kind of rectified in my life by reuniting with Paul and reconnecting with him in 1997. We became best friends again before he passed away in 2002, albeit both of us lost in a sea of substances."

Did getting Zetro onboard make you take things a little bit more seriously, or was it still a party on wheels?

"Oh, we still partied. But we always took the music side super-serious. We didn't go onstage hammered and sloppy, we rehearsed our asses off constantly, we liked working. Zetro just bought the timing and musical ability that Paul wasn't born with."

Exodus

(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

By the early 90s, the wheels had started to wobble for the thrash scene. Did you see that coming?

"Not at first. It was more, like, 'Hell, Metallica have just become the biggest metal band of all time, it's gonna open the doors for everybody.' And that didn't happen. Then grunge came out, and bands like Pantera exploded. It was a strange time for heavy music. People wanted it a certain way or no way at all, I guess." 

Exodus split in 1993. Did you go out with a bang or a whimper?

"With a fucking whimper. We were in Japan playing these amazing shows, but the personality conflicts in the band at the time… basically, there was a lot of battling behind the scenes, everybody going through our managers to complain about each other instead or talking to each other.

"An incident happened in Japan in front of a roomful of press. Somebody came in – I don’t want to name them, 'cos it’s old – and started ranting, not realising there was a roomful of 20 journalists. The journalists asked, 'What’s in the future for Exodus?' I said, 'This is our last tour.' I made the decision right there. I wasn't happy. I always said if this wasn't fun, I didn't want to do it. My first child had just been born. I could either go out with a band that I'm not having fun with, or I could stay home and join the PTA and take my kid to school, so I chose to do that."

So were you playing a normal dad for a while?

"I was a normal dad. I was the only male member of the local school's parents-teacher association. When I showed-up my hair was in little Sid Vicious spikes, I had giant chrome sunglasses on. They looked like they were gonna get robbed! But we were taking kids bowling, just hanging out. I was just like all the other housewives. I barely touched the guitar."

What reeled you back in?

"People were going, 'You need to call Baloff, get the band back together.' It was like that movie, Still Crazy – I was working in an RV place, tracking down the old band members: 'You wanna get back together?' I couldn’t get hold of Baloff, then he called me. He was living in Monterey, making sandcastles for tourists. I go immediately into this thing about reuniting, and he sounded kind of weird. I didn’t know whether he was into it. So he hangs up, then calls back five minutes later and goes, 'Are you serious? I was just calling you to see what’s up!' He didn’t know I’d been trying to get hold of him. It was like some fucking feelgood movie about a rock band."

“I’m like a car with a brand-new engine, but my suspension is fucked.”

Gary Holt

That reunion seemed really exciting. You put out a live album, Another Lesson In Violence, in 1997, then it all fell apart again. Why?

"Because we all developed really bad drug problems. Actually, a lot of the stuff about the early Exodus drug problems have been blown out of proportion. It wasn't until 1997, when we reunited with Paul, that the drugs became really horribly bad. Before, we just liked to party. Sometimes we liked to snort some shit so we could drink longer and drink harder. Once you start smoking meth, you have real problems. The amount of meth the band would do in a night while drinking and partying at Ruthie's back in the day, I was smoking that by myself in an hour by that point."

But you'd spent five years just being suburban dad…

"When we got together for the live record, I was doing more drugs than I had in years, because as a suburban dad, I wasn't. Yeah, but I got back into metal and I went about it wrong. I went into it as this full-on midlife crisis. I wasn’t used to partying like I used to be, and meth caught me and all of the other guys, except Jack [Gibson, bassist]. We did a three-month US dive tour for that album, and that's when things got really bad. We never broke up, we just kind of splintered apart. It was fucked up."

How bad did things get for you? Were you ever in danger of becoming a casualty?

"I never had to have someone call me an ambulance or get me to a doctor, but I've watched other people die. Paul had a stroke [in February 2002; the singer died of heart failure while on life support]."

“Once you start smoking meth, you have real problems.”

Gary Holt

Did his death hit you hard?

"Yeah, it was crushing. Me and Paul were never on bad terms. I miss the man. But at the same time, those who knew Paul will all agree that he was never meant to be 60 years old. Some people, their flame burns too brightly, the fire is too intense, and it consumes itself a lot sooner than a slow burn. He was one of those guys. I wish he was still here, but some guys aren’t made to get old. But his death alone didn’t wake me up. It still took until the December of the year he died to get clean."

What prompted you to clean up?

"We went to Europe to tour, and of course we smuggled a bunch of drugs with us. By the time we arrived in Greece to play our first show, we no longer had any drugs – we’d already done them all. We got dopesick. We were sleeping on our luggage in the dressing room before the show, we couldn’t wake up for nothing. It was a struggle, but every day that went by without any drugs, I started sleeping, feeling a little better, feeling a lot better, feeling pretty fucking killer… 

"The amazing thing is that I’d left this huge, single-piece rock of meth back in our rehearsal room. It was a lot, so I hadn’t smuggled it. I’d left my car for the repo man before I went to Europe, so when we got back I had no way of getting home. So I went to one of the other tweakers who had a car, whipped out this fucking piece and said, 'I'll give you this for a ride.' And I got a ride home. That was the last good thing meth did for me."

Exodus 2005

(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

Was it tough being in Exodus in the 00s?

"It's been tough at times. But this is my life, it's what I do. Gary Holt, Exodus - the two are synonymous."

You say that, but for a while it was Gary Holt, Exodus and Slayer. Where were you when you got the call to help them out after Jeff Hanneman started having trouble with his arm?

"I was on the boat for the inaugural 70,000 Tons Of Metal Cruise. Kerry [King) messaged a mutual friend of ours and said, 'Have Gary call me when he gets off the boat.' It was only supposed to be a small commitment [to Slayer], not almost 10 years! At the time, Exodus had been going so hard for so many years. I just wanted to take a little time off and just write music and be creative at home. That wasn’t the case. It ended up being 10 years."

Playing Angel Of Death at 70 would be fucking hard

Gary Holt

How was being in Slayer different to being in Exodus?

"I had one responsibility in Slayer, and that was to just go out and play and kill the songs. I didn't have to make any decisions, I didn't write anything, I didn't have to deal with shifting line-ups. The biggest surprise I got was how many solos I had. Some songs I'd do three leads. They let me do my own thing – I just went out there and played the role of guitar hero."

You skipped some Exodus tours while you were playing with Slayer. Did you ever think of quitting to join Slayer full-time?

"In my own way I did, without actually having done it. I carried a lot of guilt for not being there for every tour. I never stood in the way of the band for using [touring guitarist] Kragen Lum to fill in on the road and continue working. That was good for Exodus. It's never good for a band to vanish forever. Exodus did that in the 90s, where other bands we knew continued making albums. We had to play this big game of catch-up, and I didn't want to do that again."

Kerry King said that he thought Slayer quit too soon. What do you think?

"I'd have to agree. We were still playing at the top of our game, we were totally killing it. The band had a lot of years left in it, but I guess when it's time, it's time. When you decide to walk away from something, walk away. I can't tell anybody they made the wrong decision. Better to go out on top than go out unable to play your own songs, and this shit isn't easy. Playing Angel Of Death at 70 years old would be fucking hard. But it was time for me to come back, let's put it that way. I was really missing my first family."

I've got two feet; [if] I shoot myself in one, I'll just hop on with the other"

Gary Holt

This is Zetro’s third stint in the band. It seems like you and him have had a turbulent relationship. How are things between you these days?

"I would say this is the first time in the whole of that relationship that I call him my dear friend. We've got past the old battles. The old damage that was done is healed. If there's anything bothering us, we discuss it ourselves, we don't go to some go-between and moan. We're a 100% committed to each other and as Exodus. He's my friend. It's crazy. I'm 57 years old and I'm saying that."

Paul Baloff, Jeff Hanneman, Cliff Burton – you've lost a lot of friends and peers over the years. Do you ever wonder whether the toll music takes has been worth it?

"Absolutely. Me personally, I'm like a car with a brand new engine, but my suspension is fucked. My knees are my bad, my feet, I have Achilles Tendon-itis, my hands are stiff, I'm in therapy for my elbows. None of this is gonna kill me, it just makes really slow going up and down steps in the morning. But I take some Ibuprofen and get on with it."

Exodus 2021

(Image credit: Nuclear Blast)

Tom Hunting’s had his own health issues after being diagnosed with stomach cancer. How’s he doing?

"He's doing amazing. The show [Hunting rejoined Exodus during their Aftershock festival set in October 2021] was a triumph, an absolutely monumental thing. I was a total mess when he first told me. I broke down. But he's doing great. He'll be back when we resume touring, stronger than ever. But the band’s made some changes, the way we take care of ourselves. I'm sober now for the first time since I was 16." 

How’s sobriety working out for you?

"It’s been easy. I was the guy on tour who was a teetotaller, as far as headbangers go – if we had a Jägermeister, it’d just be a ceremonial stain at the bottom. But then in the pandemic, I found myself sitting here in the hills alone, nothing to do, so I just ended up getting hammered, putting back 12 beers then looking for any [alcoholic selzer water] White Claw that people had left behind. I was getting miserable. My wife’s been sober for many years, and she told me, 'Enough's enough.' I feel great."

Have Exodus been your own worst enemies at times?

"Oh sure. We've managed to cock the gun and shoot ourselves in the foot over and over. But you know what? I got two feet. I shoot myself in the foot, I'll hop on the other one. We're hungry, we still love doing this, we have no intention of slowing down the intensity."

If you could click your fingers and wipe one of the Big 4 from the face of the earth so Exodus could step in and take their place, which one would it be?

"We'd wipe ’em all from the face of the earth. If Slayer were still around, they'd be the only ones who could hang. Look, the song catalogues of all those guys, you can't argue with that. But that’s why we bang our heads a thousand times harder, we have an uphill battle but we don't like to lose."

Persona Non Grata will be released November 19 via Nuclear Blast