Orginally printed in Guitar World, September 2006.
As Slayer celebrates 25 thrashing years together, Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman sit down to talk about the group's new album, the Unholy Alliance tour, and the setbacks that delayed them.
It all seemed perfect. Maybe a little too perfect. This year is both Slayer's 25th anniversary and the 20th anniversary of the extreme mettaler's benchmark thrash recording, Reign In Blood. In addition, the Los Angeles band—which features singer and bassist Tom Araya and guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman—recently reunited with its original drummer, Dave Lombardo. What better way to celebrate than to release a new album, Slayer’s first with Lombardo since 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, and kick off a tour on that most evil of dates, June 6, 2006?
But the 6/6/06 date didn’t come about as planned. The recording of the new album, which is presently untitled and due out on July 25, ran behind schedule, and the launch date for the Unholy Alliance Tour: Preaching to the Perverted had to be pushed back after Araya underwent gall bladder surgery. A bit of divine intervention? Or perhaps divine retribution? God may not hate us all, but it wouldn’t be surprising if at this point He has it in for Slayer, at least a little bit.
But it’s doubtful that the band contemplated whether it was finally time to repent. Slayer managed to commemorate June 6 by squeezing out a limited edition EP. As for the Unholy Alliance tour—on which Slayer are supported by some of metal’s best and brightest acts, including Lamb of God, Mastodon and Children of Bodom (all of whom reveal more than a little Slayer influence in their own music)—is proving to be the fiercest bill of the summer.
The new album, meanwhile, is pure Slayer, mixing furious speed metal with downtuned, midtempo dirges of the type the band has become accustomed to in recent years. Araya’s raw-throat scream is considerably more corrosive than in the past, moving ever closer in tone and texture to the guitarists’ caustic, barbed-wire riffs. Then there are, of course, the shit-stirring lyrics. Two songs, “Eyes of the Insane” and “Jihad,” deal directly with the atrocities of war, the latter from the perspective of the terrorist, while the first single, “Cult,” is characteristic Slayer Bible-bashing, based around the refrain, “Religion is rape/religion’s obscene/religion’s a whore.” And if next year’s Grammys were to add a category for Best Song Title, Slayer would be a strong contender for the award with the album’s
closing track, “Flesh Storm.”
All of which would suggest that Slayer are still some supremely pissed-off dudes. But that proves to be far from the case when King and Hanneman, resembling nothing so much as evil beach bums in their black T-shirts, baggy camouflage pants and dark sunglasses, arrive at their management company’s West Hollywood headquarters on a warm afternoon in May. King takes a moment to test a beautiful flame-and-tribal-tattoo custom shop B.C. Rich Warlock that he plans to take out on the road this summer, while Hanneman examines the newest addition to his collection of signature ESPs, a black Strat-style model with the logo of his favorite beer emblazoned across the body. On closer inspection it is revealed that the word “Heineken,” much to the guitarist’s delight, has been replaced with “Hanneman.” In short order, the beverage that served as artistic inspiration for the instrument is brought into the room, and the two guitarists are ready to talk.
GUITAR WORLD You were shooting to release the new album and start your tour on June 6.
JEFF HANNEMAN We sure fucked that all up!
GW The idea of a 6/6/06 release date comes off as kind of quaint considering that your last record, God Hates Us All, came out on September 11, 2001.
KERRY KING I’d have to agree. That one was a fucking weird coincidence.
GW Was the release date delayed because your label, American, was still hammering out the distribution details with Warner Bros.?
KING At first, yeah. The tour delay was unavoidable, because Tom had to get better. But doing the album was the weirdest fucking experience for us, because usually the record company’s begging us to get in the studio, and this time we were trying to get in the studio and all we were getting back from the label was, “Not yet.” And it was like, “Fuck you!"
HANNEMAN We had been playing this stuff to the point where there was nothing else we could do to it. We were ready to go into the studio at least a few months before we finally did.
GW So you’ve had much of the new material for a while now.
KING Pretty much. One of the tunes, “Catalyst,” was written for God Hates Us All; it just didn’t get used. The music was done but Tom never sang it until recently. But Dave and I demoed nine of the songs that appear on the record back in March 2004. So the shit’s been around.
GW Did your producer, Josh Abraham, suggest any changes or help to arrange songs?
KING There was very little of that, because we had been working on this material for so long. It was probably the most ready we had been to record in a long time. All the shit was streamlined and ready to go.
GW Rick Rubin is credited as executive producer on the record—why not have him produce it?
KING We thought he was going to. With Dave back in the band now, it seemed to make sense. It would have been like having the whole starting lineup again.
HANNEMAN We expected to be working with him, and it sounded like he was interested. When we first wanted to go in to the studio, he was the one causing the delay, because I think he wanted to be able to go with us.
GW Now he’s working with Metallica.
KING It was like, “Well, that’s kind of a slap in the fucking face.” But we’ll see how that pans out. You can’t reinvent somebody that doesn’t want to be reinvented.
GW Is that what you think he’s attempting to do with them?
KING If they can’t reinvent themselves, where are they gonna go? When you do the thrash thing for however long they did it and you go away from it for years, you can’t just come back and pretend that you’ve been a thrash band all that time. Because it’s fucking running right by you. And I think that’s what they’re finding out.
GW You mentioned the idea of having the whole “starting lineup” back. How are things with Dave?
KING The best thing about it is that we got him back a few years ago, so we were comfortable with him by the time we made the record. It’s not like it was tense at the beginning, but it was good to have that time to gel.
GW He seems to have a looser, more instinctive style than Paul Bostaph.
KING That’s fair to say! [laughs] We call Dave “the loose cannon.” Even though he’s got a structure for a song, you never really know what’s gonna happen.
GW Like you never know when he may throw in a roll or a fill?
HANNEMAN Sometimes, we’ll be playing live and he’ll start a roll early, and you’re like, “Oh shit, where’s this going?”
GW But then it always ends in the right spot.
HANNEMAN But for those seconds when that roll is going, it’s like time freezes. You’re just like, Where the hell is this going to land? [laughs] And then it does, and it’s like, boom! We’re off again!
GW How was it working again in the studio with Dave?
KING It was great. We all played along when Dave recorded his drums, but that was just to give him a point of reference. We’d try to keep him focused. We’d be fucking up all over the place because we’ll be giving him cues, waving our hands, nodding our heads…
GW When it comes to recording your rhythm guitar tracks, do you split things up equally or does one guy handle the brunt of it?
HANNEMAN Actually, on this one Kerry did all the rhythms. Even though he and I have similar styles, the parts sounded tighter when only one person played them. I think he did all the rhythm tracks on God Hates Us All, and most of [1998’s] Diabolus in Musica, as well.
GW So even on the songs that you wrote, Kerry played all the riffs?
HANNEMAN Unless he couldn’t do it. Having only one of us play the rhythms, whether it was me or Kerry, is something I wanted to do back in the old days as well, but the other guys weren’t into it.
KING Things get done faster that way, too. Because if I go through 10, 11 songs, I’m pretty fucking happening with my right hand. I can match myself better. I do one rhythm track for me, and one for Jeff.
GW So you record Jeff’s parts using his rig?
KING Yup. His guitar, his amps. So it’s his sound. And I hate playing Strats.
HANNEMAN I knew that was coming!
GW On the last record, you experimented with seven-string guitars and low tunings. How about this time?
KING The coolest thing on this album is that four of the songs are in D sharp [standard tuning, with all strings lowered one half step: low to high, D# G# C# F# A# D#], the tuning we used on everything from [1985’s] Hell Awaits through [1994’s] Divine Intervention. Diabolus was pretty much all C sharp [standard tuning, with all strings lowered one and one half steps: low to high, C# F# B E G# C#]. But on this one we’ve got D sharp, C sharp and dropped-B [dropped-D tuning, with all strings lowered one and a half steps: low to high, B F# B E G# C#]. And no seven-string stuff.
GW Do you split the leads equally?
HANNEMAN In the old days, we used to make it so we had an equal number of solos. Nowadays, I don’t even know how many solos are on the record, much less how many are mine.
KING Jeff was busting my balls in the studio because I didn’t even know who was playing leads on my songs. And he was like, “C’mon! Hockey season’s starting!” He wanted to get it done. [laughs] So in the end I was like, “You take this and this, I’ve got these covered, and then we’ll see where we’re at.”
HANNEMAN On “Catatonic,” I put one where it wasn’t even supposed to be. I was trying to get my leads done for hockey, so I was like, where do you want a lead in this one? Kerry told me where to play it, but I mixed it up and put it somewhere else. It sounds fine though!
GW Do you work out your solos in advance?
KING What I usually do is figure out where the lead’s going to go, determine what the rhythm is and decide what kind of scale goes there. Eighty percent of the time I’ll have something prepared. The rest of the time I’ll go in there and let it rip, do the classic Slayer noise lead or some shit.
HANNEMAN If I know I’m going into the studio to record solos on a certain day, then back at the hotel beforehand I’ll crank the rhythm tracks, put on my guitar and see what feels right. If I come up with something cool, I’ll race to the studio and put it down before I forget it. [laughs]
GW “Catalyst” has some cool harmony lead lines, which I don’t normally hear in Slayer solos.
KING Josh dug it, and I was like, “Well, I don’t hate it,” so we kept it in there. I just laid down the first part and went up four or five frets for the harmony.
GW You’re better known for doing harmony lines in your riffs.
KING We spend more time coming up with harmonies for the rhythms, Because when we get into leads, I mean, I have a style and Jeff has a style, and they’re both fucking all over the place. So it’s very weird for us to play a lead piece together.
GW It seems like there’s a lot of wah pedal on the solos
HANNEMAN I used it on a few leads, and Kerry used it on all of his.
KING We used Zakk’s new pedal [the Dunlop ZW-45 Zakk Wylde Signature Crybaby Wah]. It’s got a real dirty sweep.
HANNEMAN That thing kicks ass. Endorsement for that!
GW What other gear did you use?
KING Pretty much the same stuff that was on God Hates Us All. I used my B.C. Rich guitars, and Jeff played his ESPs. And we both had our [Marshall] JCM800s.
GW The song “Jihad” opens with a series of fingerpicked doublestops. It’s a very different sound for you.
HANNEMAN That’s me, and I’m picking with my thumb and forefinger. It’s something I started doing at soundchecks on the last tour.
GW It’s got an Angus Young–type of vibe.
HANNEMAN Angus does that?
KING He stole it from Jeff!
GW The lyrics to that song deal with terrorism, but through the eyes of a terrorist. Why did you approach it that way?
HANNEMAN We don’t preach to people about right or wrong. If I’m gonna write a song about 9/11, it’s gotta be from the terrorists’ point of view. That’s what we do in this band.
GW It reminds me of the lyrics to “Angel of Death” [from Reign in Blood], in which you detailed Nazi atrocities without explicitly condemning them.
KING I actually made that same connection. After hearing “Jihad,” I remember thinking, Great, now we’re gonna be answering for this one!
HANNEMAN But as with “Angel,” we’re not endorsing anything. It’s just not an “anti” song, either.
GW Slayer has made a career out of writing pointed and controversial lyrics. Has there ever been a case where someone within the band hasn’t felt comfortable with what was being said?
HANNEMAN Oh yeah. It comes and goes. But at the end of the day, people realize it’s just entertainment. I mean, we are Slayer. It’s not like we’re gonna go write about what a nice day it is.
KING I remember that Tom had a problem with the lyrics to a song I wrote, “In the Name of God,” [from Diabolus In Musica] and he went to talk to Jeff about it. And it’s like, “C’mon man, you’re in Slayer. You’re the antichrist—you said it yourself on the first album!” You can’t draw the line like that. Whether he agrees with it or not, he didn’t write it—I wrote it. So you have to say, “Well, it’s just a part of being in this band.” Now Jeff and I, we don’t give a fuck. If Jeff wrote something I had a problem with, I would never even raise a fucking finger. I’d be like, “Fuck yeah, let’s do it! Gonna piss someone off? All right!”
GW It’s nice that after all these years you can still manage to piss people off, not to mention get a charge out of it. As a band, it seems you’re currently functioning at as intense a level as you ever have and being recognized for it.
KING I think this is our second wave of big popularity. The first was probably around 1990, ’91, during Clash of the Titans [a package tour co-headlined by Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax]. That was probably the high point. Then we just did our thing for the next 10, 12 years. I was noticing bands like Disturbed and Godsmack getting more popular. And I was like, there’s gonna be
another heavy revolution right after this because people are gonna get over this and want something heavier. And that’s what’s going on now. Plus, we’ve got Dave back in the mix, so it’s like one of those “stars are aligning” things. Now is our time again, so we’re gonna make the best of it.
GW More recent metal acts, from Slipknot to Lamb of God, exhibit a strong Slayer influence in their riffs and overall approach, more so than that of other seminal thrash bands.
KING It’s safe to reference us because we never changed. A band can say, “We’re influenced by Metallica,” and you’ve gotta say, “Well, which one? The one that was heavy for all those years or the one that cut their hair and did ‘Fuel’?” And Anthrax were doing albums with [singer John] Bush on and off, and then Megadeth had that whole Risk period. But we’ve always remained true to who we are. I’m just happy that the real heavy stuff is back. Fred Durst can’t get arrested nowadays!
GW At the same time, “real” metal has achieved a certain level of mainstream trendiness. Hilary Duff has been photographed wearing a Motörhead shirt. It’s only a matter of time before we see Lindsay Lohan in a vintage Slaytanic Wehrmacht tee.
KING My wife buys all kinds of fashion magazines, and I was looking through one of them recently and there was this male model wearing an old Slayer shirt. And I remember thinking, This fucking dude has probably never even heard of us!
GW You always seemed to be at ease with your underdog status. You never courted the mainstream.
KING The only time I think we did something to try to get on the radio was when we did “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” [Slayer covered the 1968 Iron Butterfly song for the soundtrack to the 1987 movie Less Than Zero]. And then after that we did “South of Heaven,” it was all over KNAC radio in LA. I hate that fucking song!
GW You hate "South of Heaven"?
KING No! That Iron Butterfly one. Even today I'll go to a radio station and do an interview and the DJ wil be like, "Yeah, we just heard Slayer do 'In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida'!" And I'm like, "We have hundreds of fucking tunes and you pick that one?"
HANNEMAN I don't hate that song, but I certainly don't like it, either. [laughs] It was just something we did for Rubin for the movie. It doesn't represent us.
GW But you guys are big on the classic rock covers. A few years back you recorded Steppenwolf's "Bon To Be Wild" for a NASCAR compilation.
HANNEMAN Now that one I hate!
GW With that said, in a way you've achieved a certain "classic rock" status of your own. You've been together for 25 years.
HANNEMAN Holy crap.
KING That's true, although I guess 2008 will be 25 years since the first album.
GW That'll be your "Hall of Fame" year.
HANNEMAN [laughs] Yeah right, I can't wait!
KING Shit, that ain't gonna happen. Forget about it. And if they ever do let us into the Hall of Fame, we'd have to have the Devil come up and induct us.