Bloody But Unbowed: How Slayer Turned The World Red

This article originally appeared in Metal Hammer #199.

“If I’m misquoted,” says Slayer guitarist Kerry King to Metal Hammer, “I’ll be up your ass quicker than fuckin’ anybody – because I live by my words. More so than most people.”

While lesser magazines would be hiding behind the interview-room sofa after that dire warning, we’re not fazed. Slayer like Hammer: Kerry even starts the interview by asking how the Hammer crew is doing, having been entertained no end at the Golden Gods ceremony in 2008. Perhaps this explains why our interview today – two hours up close and personal with Kerry and frontman Tom Araya – is unflinchingly honest, with the two metal legends taking us to places that we’d never expected to go. Listen and learn.

We begin with the story of the new Slayer album. As you’ve probably heard on World Painted Blood by now, the band members may be ten albums into their career but there’s no let-up when it comes to their music. The fast songs are still insanely, brain-fryingly speedy; the slow, heavy tunes are as crushing as ever; and everything else in between is, well… So. Fuckin’. Slayer.

Over the last few months, you’ll have read fragmented stories of how the album came together – born of old-school chaos but stabilised by the presence of new producer Greg Fidelman. But you won’t have heard that, for one member of Slayer less than a nightmare made real.

“At the beginning of the year, when we started recording the album, my sister had been battling cancer for 14 years,” explains Tom Araya in his usual unnervingly soft tones. “When we started recording this album she was on the way out, and I wasn’t much use. But I was always in the studio: I didn’t want to be alone in the hotel room.”

Anybody who has lost a relative to cancer will know how miserable those last few months are. Before Tom’s sister, Anamaria, lost her struggle with the disease, Tom spent much of his time visiting her in hospital, and – understandably – was hardly in the mood for creativity.

“I would spend most of the day with her,” he recalls, “and then in the evening I’d go to the studio and record what I needed to record, go back to the hotel, listen to what I did, get up in the morning and go visit my sister again. Then I’d come back, and depending on what was going on and who was doing what, I went into the studio – and even if I wasn’t doing anything, I was there because Jeff [Hanneman, guitar] or Kerry or Dave [Lombardo, drums] was doing something.”

Slayer are famous for having written about death and disease before, of course, with Tom specialising in serial killer songs – but faced with the loss of a loved one, his song writing deserted him.

“I couldn’t focus,” he remembers. “I just couldn’t put my mind into those thoughts. I said to the other guys, ‘This is what I’ve written – if you can use it, then great; if not, then I understand’.”

While Tom went through his private hell, the rest of the band rallied round, with Kerry and Jeff delivering 13 blistering songs between them. For the World Painted Blood sessions, the band had less time than usual to lay down the recordings, forcing them to work around the clock on writing the songs. As Kerry explains, the presence of Dave Lombardo – on the second Slayer album since he rejoined the band in 2002 – was a godsend.

“We’d go to rehearsal and I’d go home and play guitar for four or five hours, just to get enough material to finish the record – because we were under the gun! So Dave had more of an input – definitely on Americon and Not Of This God, if I remember correctly – because for a couple of parts I didn’t know what I wanted the drums to do.

“It was so rushed and condensed,” adds Kerry, shaking his head in disbelief, “that if Jeff was working in the studio, I was in the hotel working on my stuff, and then we’d switch! So for the first time in probablyour whole career, I don’t know all the lyrics to the songs.”

Fortunately, the awe-inspiring parts laid down by Dave (of whom Kerry says, “the motherfucker is probably the best drummer on the planet”) and Greg band’s huge sound yielded mind-blowing results. Even in his stressed frame of mind, Tom could hear that the album was something out of the ordinary.

“The whole time I was in the studio I was listening to all the tracks, after I got done singing, and I was like, ‘Fuck! This sounds so amazing’,” he says.

World Painted Blood has its title for a reason. Like all of Slayer’s work, the album paints an unflinching picture of the sick side of life, from religious bigotry (Not Of This God), society’s fascination with death (Snuff, Playing With Dolls and Psychopathy Red) and the horrors of warfare (Unit 731) to the autobiography of the band themselves (Hate Worldwide). Kerry is most outspoken about Americon, a song in which he addresses his home country’s less-than-glowing international reputation under the Bush regime.

“People look down on us all over the globe,” he explains, “and America’s a great place to live, but maybe people make opinions because we’re kept in the dark a little bit, and I’m one of the lucky ones who get to go around the world and see different perspectives. [In the UK], there’s nobody to keep things back.”

Tom, always the most politically outspoken member of Slayer, doesn’t see things improving much, despite the new presidency.

“At one point everyone was hating America, but the minute Bush went out and Obama came in, all of a sudden everybody could see a light at the end of the tunnel,” he explains. “I don’t vote - because I don’t really see voting helping anything: it’s still the same agenda. There are some things that Obama is doing that are making things worse. Printing money, for example. Third world countries print more money - not America. It’s going to get to the point where the dollar can’t be backed up with anything.”

The lesson? Listen to World Painted for its aggression and its vitriol, but but not for its optimism.

Forget politics – Tom has bigger things on his mind right now. His other sister, Ana, is writing a book

“My sister’s working on a book,” he explains. “She let me know what it was about: a story about my dad, and how he migrated to America [from Chile], not knowing the language and worked there, making an honest living making brooms, ha ha! And making enough money from brooms to fly his family – with five kids – to the USA. She told me some of the stuff that he was going through, which I had no idea.”

This can’t be easy for Tom to explain: after all, the everyday life of his father, a deeply religious man, was affected profoundly by the message of Slayer’s songs. He goes on, obviously digging deep.

“I knew that my dad had issues with the fact that I was in Slayer, and singing the songs that I was – but I didn’t realise how much it affected his life. He never talked to me about it. He kept that to himself and to my mom and my sister and the family, but it never got to me. I think a lot of the stuff they never told me because I would have done something about it: I would have fixed it.”

While we don’t know what ‘fixing it’ would have entailed, it’s clear that if it had ever come down to choosing between his family and his band, there would only have been one real choice.

“When my father went in for heart surgery, they didn’t really tell me how severe it was,” he continues. “They just told me that he was going in for a bypass, and that he was doing great and this and that, but they didn’t tell me the severity of the problem – to protect me, so I wouldn’t do what I would do, which is say, ‘Fuck the tour, I’m gonna go and be by my dad’s side’… They knew that I would drop everything, and this is a lot – to drop what I do, is to drop a lot.”

It seems that Tom’s father even refused a formal invitation to join the church – a major goal for a Catholic family – for fear of reprisals if a connection with Slayer were ever made.

“He turned down the opportunity to be ordained, because they thought that they would discover that his son was [in the band],” explains Tom regretfully. Casting around for the right words, he muses, “In fact, the parish priest, Father Gorman, told him, ‘That’s [Tom’s] life now. You’re no longer responsible for him.’ But he still felt… he was really connected to the church. They considered him a minister, he just didn’t accept… he didn’t go to be ordained, because he was afraid that they would find out about me.”

Despite these trials, Araya Senior remained stubbornly proud of his son.

“Y’know, he was pretty accepting,” Tom reasons. “A dad would have to be prettyaccepting to have those things going on – that turmoil going on – and to be proud of me. I’m hoping that Ana gets further along, because there’s some parts of the book where she’s gonna need my help, as far as when the band started and what went on. I’m sure there are certain incidents that she wants to write about that I was a part of. I told her, ‘Just keep working on it’.”

There’s more: the story of Tom’s father may even make it to the big screen one day.

“The more she told me about the things that my dad had gone through, and the things that she had been writing, and the stories she was telling me about him growing up, I kept telling her, ‘You know, we should make this into a movie’. That’s something that I’m encouraging her to continue doing. I want to make sure that she gets plenty of material, so she can start writing ideas for a movie.”

(Image credit: Getty Images)

While we’re on the subject of movies, how about a Slayer film one day? It turns out that Tom loved the Anvil documentary so what chances of Slayer following suit?

“That’s a great movie! Watching it, I was like, ‘Wow!’ Every band goes through what they went through. A Slayer movie would be a great idea. When you get to the gig and the guy says, ‘Well, you showed up late,’ and you’re like, ‘Fuck, we played anyway!’ That happens all the time, man, where they don’t wanna pay you. Or you find yourself at a strange train station because you missed your fuckin’ train. Or you’re at the airport, and they won’t let you into the fuckin’ country because you don’t have the right visa! That happened to me a lot, because at one time I was travelling with a Chilean passport, and I found myself – usually in France – sitting there, wondering if they were going to let me into France or not. Obviously there was an issue between France and Chile somewhere, because it was me that they singled out. When I became an American citizen in 1992 or ’93, that issue was no more, ha ha!”

In 2009, Slayer are invincible. They continue to head up the thrash metal scene, so far away from any of their contemporaries that it’s almost a joke. Of the original Big Four Of Thrash, they remain the only band who never tried their hand at hard rock (we’ll ignore their dismal 2002 cover of Born To Be Wild), and as a direct result, their credibility is higher today than it’s ever been.

More people know who Slayer are than ever before. We know this because Kerry King, always the most visible member of the band, is starting to find it hard to walk the streets…

“Dude, it’s getting bad!” he informs Hammer. “I know, I did it to myself – I can’t complain. I didn’t do anything to blend in! But we were in San Antonio recently and I’m telling you, man, it was like fuckin’ Britney Spears was in town or something. Me and my wife went to the Hard Rock Café to eat, unannounced, and I took a picture with some kid on the way to the table. We sat at the table, and I looked up, and there’s people videoing us discreetly… I was like, ‘We gotta go.’ I got hit up on the way there, twice, and on the way back to the hotel three or four times. I’m like, ‘I can’t go out here’. That’s why I’ve always got shades on. Not because I think I’m too cool, but because however many flashes hit me, it doesn’t bother me.”

Kerry remains one of the straightest talkers in metal. He doesn’t give a toss what you or I think of him, gleefully admitting that he dyes his famous beard (“I see no reason in letting fans who’ve just got into you see how old you are. Fans think you’re bulletproof, man!”) and happily explaining the band’s agreement with Dave Lombardo.

“I’m friendlier with Dave now than I’ve ever been,” he remarks, “but it is a business arrangement at the moment. The deal gets sweeter every so often: he might say, ‘Hey guys, I need a raise’ or something, and I’ll absolutely listen to him.”

You get the honest impression that Kerry is exactly who he says he is: asked about Slayer’s recent Canadian tour with Megadeth (with whose frontman Dave Mustaine he has a long and turbulent history), he simply explains: “I went into that tour very open-minded. I wasn’t expecting anything. We did four shows, and I saw Mustaine in passing once. He was in catering and I was off to do an interview or something. [Megadeth drummer] Shawn Drover hung out the last day. You know us, we’re pretty fuckin’ laidback. You want to come hang out, come hang out; if you want to be a dick, you got no business here.”

Tom is more reserved than Kerry: when you speak to him, you feel that he’s holding back a little more than his unapologetically blunt guitarist. But he doesn’t pull any punches with Hammer, laying verbally into an erstwhile industry colleague (who shall remain nameless, m’lud) before relaxing into hilarity about the terrible state of most modern music.

“What’s that song by Katy something about her boyfriend, which has a really catchy hook about being hot or something – what’s it called?”

Hot And Cold by Katy Perry.

“That’s it!” he yells, doubling up in laughter before stunning us into speechlessness by singing the hook line, Slayer style.

“It’s just that catchy phrase – that’s it, for the whole song. She just sings it over and over, and the whole world’s going ‘Oh my God! Aarggh!’ First you think, ‘This is a really catchy song,’ and then after a minute you think, ‘I really fuckin’ hate it – I can’t forget it!’”

No danger of Slayer going pop, then – which begs the question of when we’ll hear another album after World Painted Blood, and whether that album will be their last.

“Even when we got together to do this record,” admits Tom, “knowing that this was our final record with Rick Rubin, we still haven’t sat down. But I know that conversation’s gonna come, and we’ll see where it goes.”

“I don’t think it’s an issue,” says Kerry impassively. “Because I think if we’re gonna sit down and have a talk, then it would be an issue, you know. I answer this from the press a lot: I remember before Christ Illusion I said, ‘If our next record takes five years it’s probably going to be our last record, because the next one will be ten years away, and I can’t promise that.’ You know, the live show is still phenomenal, and that’s my biggest concern. We can sit there and play guitar until our fuckin’ hands fall off, and make records, but if you can’t sell it live, like we’re used to selling it, I don’t want to.”

You can rest easy. There’s more music to come, Kerry assures us.

“I’ve got stuff for another record,” he says. “We’ll address [our future] after that one.”

Eventually there might be a Slayer compilation, he predicts – after all, it’s been six years since the *Soundtrack To The *Apocalypse box set.

“I’m sure when we’re done, there’ll probably be something,” Kerry reasons, “because whatever record company we’re signed with then, once you hang it up they’re like, ‘How can we sell more Slayer products?’ Look how many Pantera things have come out since fuckin’ 2001!”

Although Slayer obviously aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, Tom – now 48 years old – sometimes yearns for a break from the road. Asked if he looks forward to being old and decrepit and living out the rest of his life on his Texas ranch, he laughs.

“Shit, I don’t wanna be old and decrepit, I wanna return now! I wanna be able to enjoy my life and be able to go like, ‘This is great!’ I don’t wanna be out fuckin’ bustin’ my ass and then find myself in a coffin…”

Don’t retire too soon, Tom.

Kerry King and Tom Araya stopped by the Team Rock studios to talk to the Metal Hammer Magazine Show about the making of Repentless.

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Joel McIver

Joel McIver is a British author. The best-known of his 25 books to date is the bestselling Justice For All: The Truth About Metallica, first published in 2004 and appearing in nine languages since then. McIver's other works include biographies of Black Sabbath, Slayer, Ice Cube and Queens Of The Stone Age. His writing also appears in newspapers and magazines such as The Guardian, Metal Hammer, Classic Rock and Rolling Stone, and he is a regular guest on music-related BBC and commercial radio.