Backstage at Los Angeles’ Gibson Amphitheatre it’s a rare moment when Kerry King isn’t being handed a drink, pounding a drink, or indeed waiting for another. It’s never long. The drink in question is Jägermeister, which – shot after shot – seems to have all the impact of a light drizzle somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s late afternoon, and right now he’s waiting for the men of In Flames to make the rounds and play the last night of the Sounds of the Underground tour so they can – you guessed it – get on with the business of drinking. It might seem slightly incongruous that this California native, the heavily bearded guitar hero of legend, founder of Slayer and author of some of the most seminal riffs in the history of metal, is waiting for anyone. But spend a little time with him and observe the eager way he gets up at the slightest hint of a request for a photo with an awestruck fan. Or how he happily makes light conversation for the fifth time in the span of 30 minutes with metalheads curious as to why he’s there, and it’s easy to get the sense that for all the cold-hearted menace and crushing volume of his music, Kerry King is really rather easy going. That’s because at this moment he doesn’t give a fuck about any of that other stuff. He’s only here to see his friends.
“Oh, I know them all real well,” he says from behind his trademark, mirrored wraparound sunglasses. “We toured with them in 2002 and I was like, ‘Hell, if they’re around then I’m staying in town. They’re like my shot buddies’.”
As King tells it, it’s no accident that people like Lamb of God singer Randy Blythe – currently out in LA on business – has spent the afternoon asking, ‘Where’s Kerry?’. Or indeed, that In Flames are no mere band to him but counted among his list of close personal friends. He’ll laugh as he recounts being partly, well OK solely, responsible for the recent potential drowning of Mastodon drummer Brann Dailor, who – according to the rest of the band – recently attempted to keep up with King’s superhuman pace of shot-consumption. He woke up the next day, stumbled out of his bus for a puke and nearly fell in a river (“I was like ‘Yeah, I did that,’” beams King). All those people bear the distinction of having toured with Slayer, most recently on the US leg of the Unholy Alliance tour, and to Kerry King, that means it’s his responsibility to make other bands feel welcome.
“I’m headlining so that makes me the host,” he says flatly. “Nobody kicks your ass out. It’s an open invitation. Nobody really gave that to me when I was growing up. I remember in ’86 we were opening up for WASP and they just treated us like dogshit. And we kicked their ass every night.”
“Well, they were touring Inside the Electric Circus and we’d just done Reign In Blood, and it just didn’t mix. Blackie was just up there trying to be Paul Stanley. I think that’s just who they were, one of those rock’n’roll bands that took a shit on everybody that opened for them. I never liked that, I never wanted to be that way to bands that opened for us.”
But it wasn’t always that way, and – given the explosive success of Reign In Blood – few bands actually had the chance to mistreat Slayer before the Huntington Beach thrash band was headlining in its own right on the back of what was soon recognised as one of the greatest metal albums of all time. But before that success they toured with Judas Priest, and this time it wasn’t any headliner egos, but King’s own sense of smallness that got in the way.
“I was like such a Priest fan,” he says through a smile. “I was hardcore. The last show of the tour Glen Tipton told everyone we could go in and hang with him, so I just stood in the corner the whole time. I was like ‘I don’t know what to fucking say to these people!’ I was 24 years old and they’re my heroes. Then we did Ozzfest in 2004 and I was like ‘Alright, I’ve been around the block a few times, I ain’t gonna let this happen again’, so if I knew where they were I’d go find them and go ‘We’re drinking, fucker’. Toward the end of the tour they kind of stopped hanging out with me because they knew I was a bad influence.”
“Oh, well I guess, but I don’t play it up,” he says with a splash of irony on his face. “On the last tour in the States I couldn’t get Children Of Bodom to hang out for weeks because Alexi was scared of me. Rita, Dimebag’s girl, brought them around in Dallas. I went, ‘Rita, why the fuck don’t Alexi hang out?’, and she was like, ‘I asked him ‘Why don’t you hang out, you intimidated?’ He said ‘Yes’’.
I was like ‘Tell that motherfucker to get in here and have a fucking shot with me!’ But I understand. I was like that with Tony Iommi, you know, it’s just weird that I’m that guy with somebody else.”
When was that?
“Oh, that was 1999. I opened my door in a hotel somewhere and he walked by and I just went, ‘Uhh… hey!’ That was all I could muster. I just clammed up. I was a fan. People call me the antichrist, but he’s the original.”
Displays of mutual admiration and respect on the metal circuit should come as no surprise. Anyone who’s spent time backstage understands that the sense of fraternity that unites metalheads doesn’t normally stop where the stage begins. And it seems as though King has comfortably settled in to his identity as one of metaldom’s iconic guitarists – “I do more press than anybody else in the band, and every year I do something different to myself to stand out more, I can’t be incognito,” he says, while gesturing to his extensive arm tattoos. But there are still some lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
“Home time is where I can just be myself, where I’m just Kerry and not Kerry King from Slayer, and that’s harder and harder to do,” he says with a twist of vehemence that betrays a touch of exasperation at his being synonymous with a band. “When I’m out like this I don’t give a fuck, you want your picture taken with me? It’s the least I can do, but I don’t want you knocking on my fucking door.”
Of course, privacy aside, if he threw an arm around you and invited you in you’d probably discover a person very different from the one you expected. It isn’t merely the acuity of his responses to casual questions or the way he seems to have become the public face of Slayer while remaining very much an enigma. Countless interviews have made him well-practised at the usual fodder; the heaviness of Christ Illusion, Slayer’s latest, the spirit the band regained with the return of original drummer Dave Lombardo after the departure of Paul Bostaph in 2001, the experience and frustrations of working with longtime producer Rick Rubin. But, as King admits, these aren’t the only things that make him tick. The ideas – the fascist symbolism, the Satanic undertones, the monstrous riffs – that have made Slayer iconic in the 20 years since their seminal Reign In Blood album was released, took root far earlier. Contrary to what you might assume, his was not a religious upbringing.
“No, I was never the crazy kid with religious parents,” he says, chuckling. “My only confrontation with religion wasn’t a confrontation. I was in elementary school and I was in those gifted classes…”
Wait a minute. Gifted classes?
“Yeah, the ones where you finish your tests and you’ve got a bunch of games you can play because you finish your test halfway before everybody else in the class. Up until 11th grade I was a stud in school. Not a jock stud. I played basketball, I played baseball before high school, but shit, when I was in junior high I got a math award for the whole school. 10th grade straight-As, 11th grade straight-As, then first semester in 12th grade I forgot what a book was.”
Did Slayer take over?
“I was in Slayer,” King says after hesitating a little, possibly debating whether to leave it at that. “We were doing covers at the time, but once I discovered chicks I didn’t have time for anything else.”
So, about his confrontation with religion?
“Oh yeah. One summer I tried Sunday School because I was bored, so I did that for like three or four weeks and I just got more bored. I had to do something, so I was like ‘Mom, I don’t want to go anymore’, she was like ‘Why?’ And I was like ‘I just don’t feel like it.’ It felt retarded.”
But Slayer’s relationship with religion has hardly been one of indifference, and it’s hardly over. The days when CBS refused to put Reign In Blood on shelves for fear of a conservative backlash may be long gone, but it was only on 31 July 2006 that the Southern Californian city of Fullerton voted to remove bus-stop benches emblazoned with advertising for Slayer’s then unreleased* Christ Illusion *album.
“Yeah, I saw one on the way here,” says King, smiling. “Obviously Hollywood don’t have a problem with it. I’ve seen a lot of bus benches with hip hop and rap artists, whatever the hell they are, flashing their bling, flashing their guns, whatever, and that’s OK. But it’s the fucking 21st century, you don’t like the radio station, change the fucking channel, you don’t like what you see then fucking look away. Yeah, we still get under people’s skin, but there’s a lot more people that are with us now, people that agree.”
King laughingly remarks at how, unlike the UK, “There’s a lot of little baby bible belts. I walk around my neighbourhood and see all these ‘Jesus Saves’ stickers, and it’s like if they knew who they were living next to they’d probably fucking blow my car up.”
Unlike the UK where you seldom get evangelical picketers turning up to Slayer gigs, Kerry King finds their presence at US shows very amusing. There’s relish and amusement in his voice when he tells of sending members of his crew out to film them so he can see what’s being said. It’s clear that as quick as he is to underscore just how disinterested as he may be in religion, it hasn’t hurt his career in Slayer.
“I think of myself as a horror writer,” he says, bluntly. “That’s how I come up with this stuff. Jeff and I don’t believe in God, we don’t believe in the Devil, but that doesn’t sell records. It’s not like I’m writing about Satan to cash in, I’d be doing this anyway.”
As King explains, he does experience the perverse, slightly twisted and self-amusing delights of an author who’s pushed his audience’s buttons. Not his fans’, but the observers who – as he sees it – just don’t get it. And he knows it isn’t really the Satanic but the Nazi symbolism where Slayer tread a fine line at times. And in the case of Slayer, ‘tread’ really means ‘dance’.
“It’s not necessarily me,” he says. “Jeff Hanneman’s the World War II guy, but it’s like this. I just saw V for Vendetta last night, and it’s got a chancellor, a big cross, the black and red guards – I like the way they do that because it’s like Nazi Germany and I like how it’s portrayed, but it’s not like I’m going ‘Man, I wish Hitler was alive’. But I like turning the screw and making people think that.”
But with all the talk of Satanism, Nazis, heavy drinking, throttling fans who cross the line, and antagonising believers, you might overlook the basic fact that Kerry King is very easy-going in the flesh. The man has his outlets; like giant snakes for instance. More than an enthusiast, he’s a well-known fixture in Southern California’s reptile circuit. This just in: Southern California has a reptile circuit.
“Well, the cool thing about snakes is you can leave them for 10 days or two weeks and you’re not worried about them,” he says, completely transforming his tone of voice to something not unlike a friendly pet shop owner going in for the hard sell. “You know, in the wild they may not find food for four or five weeks. I like to keep mine fed because the idea is to reproduce them, but if I’m in the UK I’ll feed them before I leave, I’ll go, come back and they’re fine.”
And by “reproduce” them, he means breeding. Scratching his beard, he estimates he currently has somewhere between 50 and 70 snakes at his home. He isn’t afraid of admitting it: the pet shop owner thing isn’t very far off.
“My main thing is still carpet pythons, but once I put my site up and Slayer kids see it, they’re going to go ‘Man I’ve got to have a snake that Kerry King has’. I’m still going to sell them at market value, but they’ll be Kerry King snakes.”
So he obviously doesn’t name them, naturally.
“Oh, some of them have names,” King says, with the closest thing to love as you can recognise on such an obscured face. “They’ve got stupid names, like the cast from Anchorman or the X-Files. We’ve got Scully and Mulder, and Leatherface. Weird shit. I haven’t found Freddy Krueger yet but I will.”
And with that he swallows his final shot of Jäger, only to stand and disappear within a throng of metalheads who immediately swoop out of his path. From the murmur of conversation and amazement at his just hanging out today that seems to follow him wherever he goes, there’s no doubting thrash metal’s most evil guitar hero will find him. Freddy better watch out.
In the same year that Kerry King was telling Hammer about Christ Illusion, he and Dave Lombardo also made time to talk about the genesis of their classic Reign In Blood.