After 35 years, Slayer really needs no introduction and about thirty seconds into our conversation with guitarist and co-founder
After 35 years, Slayer really needs no introduction and about thirty seconds into our conversation with guitarist and co-founder Kerry King, it was clear just why. “If you told me that 35 years ago, I’d probably tell you to go suck a dick or something,” King politely informed us. “You know, ‘who the fuck are you to say?’ or ‘get the fuck away from me,’ but here we are.”
Here Slayer is indeed, but it didn’t always look like the band would get to this point even if their past success pretty much guaranteed a prosperous future. In 2013, the band lost founding member Jeff Hanneman to liver failure and even though King himself proclaimed Slayer would continue at the time, others (even band members) were pretty uncertain if Slayer would return. But Slayer did return through what King described as “hands down, the most adversity we ever had to deal with” and continued to tour behind 2009’s World Painted Blood even if it was hard. “We were kind of thrust into becoming a band that just tours on old material for the last cycle because World Painted Blood came out six years ago and we toured on it for most of those six years. It was really hard and I know people doubted we would have new music, but we did and I think it’s great.”
Repentless, the band’s twelfth studio album, came out last September and reconfirmed the concept that Slayer was far from a nostalgia act at this point. “We definitely thought about not releasing new music anymore,” King stated. “Maybe even doing what Down did and just release four songs before every tour, but really, until the time comes that albums are obsolete, you better believe Slayer’s going to be making records.” Considering his reaction, it seems unlikely King ever truly considered the idea of Slayer resting on its laurels like other bands, even if he admits that the band already is to some degree. “We’re living on our history for sure,” he admitted, “but so is everyone else, yet we’re the ones trying to push ourselves forward. I would say [Iron] Maiden and Metallica, no offense, are living on past success. Metallica has toured forever on The Black Record which a lot of people don’t like. I actually like it. It’s heavy as can be. Is it Master Of Puppets? Course not, but it’s a great record. Iron Maiden for me is living off their first three records. Have they made good songs since then? Yeah, but they haven’t made great records. I like to think we’re still making great records and as much as people come out wanting to hear ‘Reign In Blood’ and ‘Angel Of Death’, they also want to hear ‘Disciple’ or even ‘Implode.'”
Slayer may still be making great records, but King was also quick to add that the records aren’t selling quite at the level they used to. “It’s true, but it’s just a sign of the times because people get their music differently. It’s not all about [Nielsen] SoundScan anymore. That’s the last thing I remember because you remember what you had growing up. There’s different technologies and different ways of doing a number of things, but when I grew up, I knew SoundScan and we are way off of SoundScan now. That’s because people get music for free. One person downloads it and shares it with five people. It’s not the same as it used to be. I can’t be bitter about it because that’s just how time has changed.” Like more and more musicians today, King has stopped relying on sales and radio airplay to determine his success or quality, instead focusing on the people themselves who routinely come out to still see the band perform. “My barometer is the live show where people show up,” King detailed. “That means people are into the music, whether the record is selling or not. They have it, they know it, and we can play it and have them sing it right back to us. That’s pretty much how it shows me people are still into, regardless of sales.”
To read that barometer though, you have to get out there and play as many shows as possible, something Slayer is still doing in their 35th year despite King’s still hostile feelings towards the method to get to do it in. “I’ll always love playing shows, but travelling just fucking sucks,” King mused. “Even if you’re in business or first class, hell, even if you’re in the sexy lounges, travelling sucks. If you take that out of touring, I love touring. I love playing. It’s still super fun for me. I still get a kick out of it and I can’t ever see that changing. American tours aren’t too difficult though really. It’s when we start talking about European festivals that my body starts to ache. Those shows…it’s like you get a map and throw darts at it and that’s where you’re going to play the next day. They book you in a manner that if a plane’s late, it could be the difference between you making your show and not making your show because all the festivals are in different territories. That’s the part that is really grueling and gets to everybody. Getting up early to catch a flight to check in to a hotel to drive two more hours to get to a show and then drive back to that hotel and then do it all again the next day. That’s not even easy for young people.”
Of course, Slayer’s not young anymore, but their intense and gutsy live performances might lead you to believe otherwise. “Let’s say we have an hour and a half up there,” King explained “Well, I’m going to jam twenty songs into that time frame and there’s really no time to even breathe, you know? I don’t know anyone else today who does that unless you’re a full blown punk band.” To King and the rest of the band, this is all second nature. It’s never been hard because it’s what they love to do, but getting to that point is where the hardship comes in and it’s not just the travelling that King already discussed. “Set lists, man,” King sighed. “They can be so fun, but they’re just so difficult. Every time there’s a new record, it just makes it that much harder. I’m trying to get six new songs into our live set now, but we’ve got such a huge catalogue that it’s hard to do.”
It’s a constant balancing act between the established classics and newer ragers and it’s something that any band passing four or five records in their catalogue faces. Well, Slayer has twelve now so just try and imagine the frustration that goes into making the set lists. “I’ll be working on set lists for shows until the day of really,” King laughed. “They’ll be 95% there, but the final tweaks are tough. What songs am I going to have to toss because we just can’t play for four hours every night?” The easy way out would be to just minimalize the new material or maybe even cut it all to begin with, but as King already described, there are as many people coming out to hear “Implode” as there are “Angel Of Death” and other classics. “It wasn’t even out yet when we were at Mayhem Festival and people were singing the chorus loud enough for me to hear it,” King remembered. “That’s just metal fans and especially Slayer fans. So maniacal and so die-hard. It blows me away that they already knew a song that well and when we hit the stage, I could hear them over my three head six cabinet guitar slamming behind me.”
King’s right–metal fans are maniacal. Always have been and always will be even as more and more people openly discuss the notion of metal fading farther away from the musical zeitgeist. “Honestly, it already has,” King bluntly said. “The 90s were a mess. Just a mess. We were lucky to be around when that mess sorted itself out and people wanted to hear metal again. The only advice I ever would have gave myself was to pay more attention in the 90s because it was such a nightmare. I think metal will always be around in some form or another though. Look at Sabbath. They were so scary, they were taboo and now they’re a stadium act. It’s not that it needs a comeback either. What bigger band is there right now, not Taylor Swift or anything like that, but what band is bigger than Metallica or Iron Maiden? That’s metal.”
Really though, bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica still being able to sell out any stadium at any moment speaks more to the testament to their success as opposed to the genre, a conversation point Slayer definitively belongs in as well even if King attributes it to other aspects. “I think what it is is being confident enough to keep yourself around long enough for people to come around to your style of music,” King theorized. “When we came out, I remember the magazines hated us. It just that people needed time to stomach the music. They kind of school themselves along the way too. It’s kind of like when I found metal for the first time. Living in Southern California, listening to the radio, you’d hear Rainbow, softer stuff Boston, and still rock and roll Van Halen. After British Steel came out, they were playing ‘Breaking The Law’ and ‘Living After Midnight’ and that was my first introduction to what I would say was an actual metal band. I could tell I liked the voice and music, but then you buy British Steel, you listen to the rest of the record and you hear the metal. Those are the pop songs, man. The rest of British Steel is rapid fire and you’re just left saying, ‘Oh, fuck!’ Then, like I did with all the bands I was late coming to, you go back and buy all those old records and you just wonder where the fuck have I been for the past fifteen years? I think that’s what people did for us. Even today, their first record may be God Hates Us All, then they go back and do their homework and they become a very schooled thrash metal fan.”
But there’s still the issue of the state of metal today. King has his thoughts on it for sure. “If somebody wants advice, I’ll give it. I’m not going to just go thrust my opinion on people because I think I’m awesome. I don’t think metal needs a comeback; it just needs to sustain itself.” So then how do we go about doing that? Or who are the flag-bearers going forward? Or what would happen to metal if the big four of thrash just decided to call it quits tomorrow? “I don’t know, man. I think about it. Not all the time, but a lot and I keep looking but I haven’t found it yet. I don’t have that answer. I wish I did. To me, there’s nobody that just stands out that if all these bands like us went away today, they’d be the saving grace. I’m not talking about hard bands like Disturbed or Godsmack. Those aren’t metal, they’re hard rock at best. Maybe that band is out there, but I don’t see it so hopefully metal can sustain itself going forward.”
Maybe the answer’s not there because Slayer is still so focused on being an active, thriving, and relevant band and it’d take an awful lot to change that mindset. “Unless myself or Tom [Araya] gets busted for child porn or some horrific thing like that, I don’t think that’s on the table,” King joked, but it’s also true. They’ve survived the waning popularity of metal, the constant fluctuation of the music industry, and even the sudden loss of a founding member. It’d take something bigger than all of those things combined to bring Slayer down at this point and even then, you’d probably still have Kerry Fucking King fighting tooth and nail to continue and somehow figuring out a way to become even better.
Slayer unleashes its thrash metal madness on Richmond tonight at The National for a sold-out show, flanked by Testament and Carcass. If you can find tickets through the secondary market or begging, doors are at 6:30 PM. For more information, click here.