As the founding and most instantly recognisable member of now-defunct LA thrash legends Slayer, Kerry King spent 38 years conjuring up a seemingly endless supply of scalpel-sharp riffs. The most notorious of the Big 4, the band were unsurpassed in speed and downright viciousness, and 1986 classic Reign In Blood remains the high-water mark of thrash.
It’s hard to imagine the state of extreme metal without its influence. In 2018, Slayer took the surprise decision to go out on top and call it quits after a final arena tour, and Kerry’s been pretty quiet ever since – although we know there’s a solo project coming at some point.
He reassures us it’ll be just as heavy. “If you know my work, you know what it’s going to sound like,” he chuckles, when we ask how it’s shaping up. But the void Slayer left has been gnawing at us for too long, so we asked him to reminisce on those amazing years. “The one thing I do have right now is time,” he tells us. “So, it’s good to be doing this again.”
From his upbringing, to the early years of thrash, to his emotions during that final run of Slayer shows, to his love of snakes, to, um… Sum 41, Kerry King has been on the wildest of rides.
What are your earliest memories of growing up?
“We lived 20 minutes south east from LA. It was a while away from the super shitty neighbourhoods, we didn’t have the very best place to live, but it was totally fine. It was pretty normal stuff, playing baseball, sports – this is all before music.”
When did you first become exposed to music?
“I had two sisters and the radio. I didn’t have older brothers pushing heavy music on me, I had whatever my sisters played, and you weren’t going to hear anything heavy on the radio. But there were rock channels that would play Van Halen all day.”
Was that the type of music you immediately gravitated to?
“Definitely. When I started caring about music, I was already playing guitar. I started when I was 13; I guess I was a late bloomer in that respect. I was more into sports. Watching Van Halen was like watching a wizard play guitar. How could you not be impressed?
But it was really when I heard Judas Priest on the radio, that was my introduction to those types of vocals and guitars, which are my favourite to this day. I bought the cassette of British Steel, and that’s when I found Rapid Fire and The Rage and the other gems. Then I found Unleashed In The East and Stained Class. That’s how it all worked for me. You find something you like and you work backwards.”
Tell us about your first band.
“It was a stupid band. It was called Quits… and no, I did not name it. My guitar teacher was in that band and he was grooming me to take the place of the other guitar player. I’d go take guitar lessons and he’d ask me what I wanted to learn, and if I didn’t have anything then he’d say, ‘Well I got this one’, and you learn that. I was young. I was the dude who had a fake ID, not to drink but to actually get into the show to play.”
Do you remember your first gig?
“Yeah, it was awful! Ha ha ha! It was my only band other than Slayer. It was all covers and an original or two. Nothing was mine. We played a few shows, but that band had no potential at all. It broke up and, by that point, I knew more about what I wanted to do: Maiden, Priest, Deep Purple.”
So, Slayer came together quite quickly after that?
“Yeah. I went to a few auditions for new bands, but I was never that impressed. There was one I tried out for, and where it took place is where [Jeff] Hanneman was working the desk. I did the audition, walked out, and he was playing guitar, he was playing all the stuff I liked, and so we got chatting. I said, ‘Hey, would you be interested in getting together?’
And I think I’d already found Dave [Lombardo, drums] at this point. He was a pizza delivery guy who lived round the corner. Jeff said to me, ‘Are you the kid with all the guitars?’ I said, ‘I… have some guitars’, and that seemed to do it. That meeting and the Dave meeting were very close together. We got together and played in Dave’s garage… quietly! Ha ha ha! We enjoyed each other’s company and liked the same music. That’s when I got Tom’s [Araya] number out and said, ‘I know this singer dude’ and we moved into Tom’s garage and that went from there.”
Those early years of thrash seem so exciting. Didn’t you see Metallica with Dave Mustaine?
“Yep. They were great at that point; they were ahead of us by at least 16 months to a year. They were doing originals and we were still doing covers. I think we opened for Metallica with Mustaine, I can’t recall, but I know me and Dave definitely saw them in a club and we were blown away by Mustaine. Still to this day, he’s a fucking great guitar player.
It was very awesome, it wasn’t big clubs, you could see from anywhere, and I was very enamoured with seeing Mustaine play these insane leads and James [Hetfield] playing these insane rhythms and barking out these lyrics. It was way more extreme than what I thought metal was or could be, it was like another arm of it, so to speak. We all came out around the same time, but Metallica certainly influenced me.”
When did you start to realise that the thrash scene was going to really take off?
“It didn’t take long. As Metallica found out, and as we found out, trying to get into Los Angeles was difficult. It was the land of Van Halen and Mötley Crüe and W.A.S.P. We tried the strips a few times, and we would play the deadliners spot – the spot after the headliners when everyone was leaving.
We actually played after W.A.S.P. once, when they had this raw meat and the girl on the rack and all of this stuff. We were a bit like, ‘OK… this is interesting, how’s this going to work?’, and when we came on, no one left! We thought, ‘Hmm, something’s happening here!’ But it never really became a Hollywood thing. We just bypassed those clubs and went to the Bay Area, and then on full US tours.”
Can you remember much about the flak you took for the title of God Hates Us All back in 2001?
“I mean, we’ve always taken flak for something! It was already bouncing off us like nothing. God Hates Us All – it’s a good title. If you have an argument about it then I’ll listen, but you’re gonna lose. At that time, it was an album that meant so much to so many people because of what happened the day the record came out [9/11]. It was kinda prophetic.”
You have a history of inciting outrage from people. Where do you think that came from?
“Probably early on, Mercyful Fate, Venom, those are two of my favourite bands. I like to stir the pot, and I just like to bring things up. I like to give people something to talk about, even if they’re outraged or don’t agree.”
You upset Ian MacKaye when you covered Minor Threat’s Guilty Of Being White on Undisputed Attitude and changed the lyrics to ‘Guilty Of Being Right’. Have you ever spoken to him about that?
“I don’t think I’ve talked to him since then, I can’t even guarantee that I’ve met him. The funny thing is, Tom was doing vocals that day, he did it, and I thought, ‘Huh, that’s gonna make people talk.’ It was an incredibly racial statement… but it was made by a Chilean guy! So, it’s funny how these things get twisted. I can tell you, if I ask Tom what he meant by that today and ask someone else what they think it means… you will get six different answers.”
You also surprised a lot of people by playing on the song What We’re All About by Sum 41!
“Well… there’s a whole lot to say there! It was my record label that wanted me to do it. I turned it down 10 times! A friend of mine at the label came to me at an angle that I just couldn’t argue with. He was like, ‘Well, you know you played on the Beastie Boys record [1987’s No Sleep Till Brooklyn].’ FUCK! Ha ha ha, he’s got a point! That was my epiphany.
That was before we put ourselves back on the map, those dudes were fun and they were popping. So, yeah, I played on the Beastie Boys record andI played on the Sum 41 record. I mean, those weren’t choices for me, those were just career choicesI made. Some people may agree with them and some people may not.”
Do you remember the last time you saw late guitarist Jeff Hanneman?
“I do. I think it was at the Big 4 show at Coachella [in 2011]. He came out and it was a surprise to everyone, you know, Jeff’s big comeback onstage… yeah… good times… trying to be good times.”
How did you react when the conversation to stop Slayer first came about?
“Anger… what else? It was premature. The reason I say ‘premature’ is because my heroes from my childhood are still playing! I can still play, I still want to play, but that livelihood got taken away from me. But, anyway, on to the next chapter, I guess. We were on top of the world, and there’s nothing wrong with going out on top of the world, it’s a good way to go out. So, bravo for that. But do I miss playing? Yeah, absolutely.”
What do you remember about that final Slayer show?
“Believe it or not, it was ‘I’m so glad I didn’t fuck up on that one!’ Ha ha! Your mind can wander on tour sometimes, and I always know when I’ve got a mistake coming up! Usually when I have that fuck-up coming up, I just do a pick slide and it restarts my brain. But I did pretty good that night."
Really? You didn’t have any big emotional response to it? Was it like that for the full tour?
“Well… every one of those shows was a bummer! We were going to all these places and all these cities where we have all this history. We probably have as much history in London as we do LA… well, not LA, but you know what I mean.
It’s a bummer to think, ‘I’m not gonna see my friends there again.’ You’d get to that country and know you were going to see these people, and you’d see them yearly. I haven’t seen them now in three years! That sucks! And the fans, too. Slayer means a lot to our fans, and they mean a lot to us. I know I will see these people again, but no Slayer leaves a big hole for a lot of people.”
Slayer fans are some of the most obsessive ever, aren’t they?
“Absolutely. I wanted to be good, not as much for me, but for the people who paid to see me. It was in my blood to not fuck up, for the people who had spent their last $20 to see me. The least I could do was be on my game.
Early on, it was different. I’ve been a notorious drinker – ‘Kerry likes to party, Kerry is where the drinking is at after the show’ – and I am, but I gave up drinking before shows because I couldn’t do it to the people who were paying to see me. It’s a matter of pride, of self-control and of giving a shit.”
And you get something crazy back from them most of the time…
“Every show! Ha ha! Of course, something happens that you never saw coming. The bonfires whenever we played LA were like clockwork. No matter how many times we saw them, we were never ready for it. It was a big blaze, very cool, very tribal.
There have been some oddball things. The first time you see a kid come over the pit in a wheelchair… wow! To see the other kids and the security take such care of him, that was so cool. I burst out laughing, not at the kid, but the situation, ’cause you’re not expecting it. Every show, man. Every show.”
What inspired you to collect snakes as pets?
“I remember this like the back of my hand. We were wrapping up a tour in Texas, and this club had a pet snake and they called it Slayer. I thought that was pretty cool. I went home and got one and named it Venom, because I was a big Venom fan. It seemed like such a cool pet for an upcoming musician, as it had this taboo about it, and it’s not a day care item.
If I go on tour then I can get someone to look in on it once a day, and they only have to feed it once every couple of weeks. I’ve owned dogs and cats in the past, but if I can’t find someone to look after them while I’m on tour, it isn’t going to work. This works for me and it came together at the perfect time.”
What’s your most beloved snake?
“Oh dude, so many. I created the first one, through genetics and stuff, and you never know what they’re gonna look like. I do most of my breeding with carpet pythons. That’s the beauty of them – they’re these totally unique animals.”