There's a commonly held theory that in order to make it big, especially in the creative world, one must generalize and attempt to make one's work appeal to as wide an array of mankind as possible. And this works for some, but also misses a crucial truth, which is that if your work is caustic enough, upsetting enough, controversial enough, you may piss off and alienate a large percentage of the populace-- but you don't need a large percentage to make an impact. In our nation of nearly 350 million people, a small fraction is still millions of people, and everyone from right wing talk show hosts to reality tv contestants have figured out that appealing to a minority opinion can make you popular and rich beyond your wildest speculations. Which is a roundabout way of explaining to the dumbfounded how a band like SLAYER, who back in the 80s when they emerged from Southern California's thrash metal proving ground were seen as the most unholy of all metal acts, could stick around to find success beyond their wildest dreams in the ensuing three decades while dulling their approach not one hair the entire time. I spoke to bassist/ singer TOM ARAYA a week ago, as the band was mid-slog through the Mayhem Festival tour which will bring them through Mansfield's Comcast Center this Friday night on a bill with Slipknot, Motorhead, and a bunch of other bands, and he was surprisingly candid about how the band came up with and managed their controversial stance, and how they have mantained that stance through changing times both within the metal genre and our society in general. We have a feature on the band in this week's Metal Issue, but in anticipation of Friday's gig, we thought we'd let you read the rest of the conversation, as there were so many precious bon mots that had to be cut. So crank some Haunting The Chapel, throw horns and yell "Fucking Slayer!" (or "Slay-ah", as we tend to say in these pahts), and get psyched for Friday!
So Tom, we’re excited for your current tour; I’m assuming that there isn’t any new news on the next album or anything.
No, we’ve been working on new material, but... no, nothing definitive yet.
I wanted to start by asking about Slayer’s beginnings-- could you tell me a bit about how you guys found the musical direction that became your signature? Was it an evolution, or did you consciously think “We need to be faster and heavier”?
Yeah, that’s about it, you answered your own question! When we started up as a band, we started writing some material, and then we got an offer to do a song for Metal Massacre [1983’s Metal Massacre III, for which Slayer contributed the song “Aggressive Perfector”]. So we went out and got the previous Metal Massacre to see what they sounded like, and basically that’s where it all started.
So what happened, what changed when you did that?
Well, before, we just sounded like a heavy metal band, and when we listened to Metal Massacre, we decided to write a song that was better than what we heard. We liked what we did, and we continued from there.
That’s a really interesting story, if only because it illustrates just how competitive metal is.
We knew we could do something better, and we went ahead and did that and we liked what we did, and then along the way, yeah, you get the idea that “Shit, we need to revitalize metal!” We’ve gotta out-do the other guys! Along the way, there’s been a few points like that, but honestly that was only a few moments in time when that happened. The rest of the time we’d write our shit, put it out, and if you like it you like it!
In metal, it seems like bands have this constant pressure to evolve their sound, but then other the other hand is a constant pressure to keep sounding the same. Do you guys ever feel that pressure?
I don’t think that there was ever really any pressure. Let’s put it this way: when we came out with Hell Awaits, it came out in a time when everyone was doing long songs, so we figured we could do long epic songs too. And then from then on, that was the only time that we worked that way, because we didn’t want to do a slow album again. And after Reign In Blood, we knew that we didn’t want to repeat it, so that’s why South of Heaven came out the way it did. And Seasons was a combination of everything we’d done up to that point, and from then on it was all about evolving in our own way. It wasn’t evolving because “We’ve got to sound like this, we’ve got to sound like that”, it was more “We did this album, let’s try doing something different.” And that’s the way it’s been ever since Hell Awaits, we don’t want to repeat things, we want to do something different-- or as different as we can be!
Slayer’s evolution has always been in front of a violently surging audience-- do you always have to, first and foremost, consider how new material will go over live?
We always write songs with the full intent that we have to be able to replicate them live. We don’t do stuff that have to technically involve other things. So when we record a song in the studio, we have to be able to pull it off as a four-piece live, so we can’t add electronics or gadgets or anything. That’s our one and only requisite, that if we can’t duplicate this live, it’s not a Slayer song.
When you guys come up with stuff, does it become more intricate as the song structure builds, is it all planned out ahead of time, or is it just an organic process each time?
I think it’s more of an organic process, it all starts off with “This sounds cool.” And that’s about where it starts, because if it doesn’t sound cool, it has a tough time evolving into anything. We have to listen to it and go “Fuck, this sounds hot, this is awesome,” and then you take it from there.
Is there a lot of material that doesn’t make the cut? Or does substandard riffage just never make it to the end?
We have to be into it, nothing really moves or evolves unless we’re all into it. We have to, otherwise we-- it’s hard to be a part of something if you don’t like it, so we all have to in some way come to terms with it, to like it. If we don’t like it, it’s not one of the better songs. I mean, songs make it on an album but that doesn’t always mean that we all like them! And you can tell when you listen to one of our albums, you can tell which songs everyone was a part of, and which ones that only a few were a part of. You can tell, it’s noticeable.
Right-- but Slayer were and are influential in having really cut out a lot of the bullshit of metal. I mean, people lost it to Reign In Blood in part because there just wasn’t any filler, it was all rad parts.
That’s just the end result, because we’d initially start off with-- I mean, if we’re jamming out 12 or 15 songs, and we end up with 10 good songs, that’s great. And then there might be a few others that just sucked so we never finished them! So those ten are the ones that we liked, we never had a bunch of crap that made it onto the follow-up album, it was always stuff that we had to like, otherwise those songs never made it anywhere. If we didn’t like it, it isn’t going to go anywhere.
In the late 80s, thrash metal really took off, and Slayer was seen by many as the most far-out of all thrash bands in terms of being quote-unquote controversial. But now, in 2012, you guys have transitioned to being accepted as metal legends, where even people who aren’t super into metal can kind-of “get” Slayer. Does that seem odd, from your perspective?
Yeah! Everybody painted us as controversial, and we’re not-- we just do things that we think are cool. And everybody else tags us as controversial. Everything we do, everything we write, everything we create, we do because it has a cool factor. We’ll sit down and go “That’s cool! That’s great”. And people go “Why would you do this controversial thing?” And we’re like “We did it because it was cool, you’re the one who’s making a big deal out of it!”
And now it is what it is, where people who aren’t into metal can “get” Slayer, and honestly I think it’s because, you know, “Wow, this is cool.” I think people have adapted to that, and people can realize that it’s cool. People don’t have to believe in it, or buy into any kind of message, nowadays you can just go “Wow, this is really cool” and no one’s going to think anything of you, they’re not going to go “Oh, you’re a devil-worshipper” or “Oh, you’re a Nazi.” Now they’re just going to say “Ok, he thinks that this is cool,” and that’s about it.
When you guys started to get huge, did you feel some pushback that maybe you had a strange sense of what is “cool”? Because I don’t get the sense exactly that you were intentionally trying to confront American society or anything.
We really don’t have a message, we might have an opinion, but that’s about it. There’s no message, we’re not trying to sell anybody anything. I guess that the music that we play is pretty intense, and at this point it’s all about going out there and make someone step back and go “Fffuuuck!” That’s what it’s all about, we’re about going out there and kicking you in the head with our music.
With this tour, we have pyro, and that’s rare that we do a “show” or that sort of thing. But on this tour we’re traveling with Slipknot, who use all sorts of shit like that on stage, and we’re a cost-effective band. Slayer relies a lot on the music, we don’t rely on gimmicks or effects, so when we have an opportunity to share the cost on something, we’ll do it. So we’re splitting the cost of the pyro with Slipknot and it makes it a little more convenient for us to use. But at the same time, Slayer doesn’t really need to use that stuff.
Yeah, I remember seeing you guys a few years ago at a big stadium, when Christ Illusion came out; you played the song “Jihad”, which is sung from the point of view of one of the 9/11 terrorists, and the gigantic jumbotron behind you guys showed this strobe-like juxtaposition of Bin Laden’s face with a bunch of 9/11 footage. Put together with your guys playing, which was just mind-blowingly loud and aggressive, the whole thing was just completely overwhelming.
I’m glad! Good!
So I guess in that case, it’s not a “message” per se, but about getting across a theme in a way that’s intense.
Do you feel like you are still trying to find a way to do that with new records?
Individually we try to come up with themes, stuff like that, that will give it the wow factor. It’s always about the wow factor, the cool factor, and I think as writers that’s what we do, to put something like that together. We want the wow factor, we want to blow people away. It’s not really about any message, but as you said, more of a theme. We just want to be heavier and more intense than anything.
It’s interesting the words you choose there: “heavier” and “more intense”-- a lot of bands try to be faster than anything, but as you guys started playing bigger and bigger places, you found a really effective way to be heavy and intense while not participating in the speed wars that consumed metal post-thrash. You know, all these bands playing as fast as possible and it’s all this blur that doesn’t work in big places.
Yeah yeah, it’s never really an aim, with us it’s never really a speed war. It is competitive, you want to out-do the other guy-- but it’s not about speed, you know what I mean? This band’s never been about speed, but when we first heard that compilation we thought we wanted to be intense, and speed is intense, the feeling that speed will give you when you play this music. And then it became second nature for us, it wasn’t something we had to work at, it was more like “Let’s write a new song” and the intensity has always been there. It’s something that eventually came natural and that’s the way it’s been. And it’s competitive sometimes, because we’ll hear what the other guys are doing, and we think “Wow, metal is sucking!” and then we try to do something better because everything is sucking so bad! So that’s the competitive thing, because you want to out-do the other guy-- but in turn, they want to out-do you, so it makes it all better.
Metal seems very 80s-derived currently, it’s become cool to be into 80s metal after a decade or so where it really wasn’t. As a titan of that era, does it feel weird to you, the way people act like metal’s heyday was 30 years ago, and the way people are kind of bowing down to that?
Wow. [pause] I kinda like that! [laughs] I like the fact that, thirty years later, everybody’s bowing down, I like that. I dunno... I think that thirty years of metal, you know, it’s like a mainstay. It’s something that has to be accepted. And you have a whole new crop of kids that are into this form of music that has been around a long time. And so people have adapted to it. Music has gone through an evolution, and metal has evolved and become part of the music scene, and it’s accepted, you know what I mean? Just like all the other stuff, the cookie monster vocals, or other thrash metal things, the different styles of metal that have come out-- and if they stick around for another thirty years, then that will be acceptable too. You need a generation of listeners to make it become some that is part of people’s lifestyle. Like there’s a lot of bands that have been around a long time that become part of the fabric, you know? And I think that’s what metal has done now, due to its own success-- it’s made a mark. And we’ve been doing this so long that metal has become part of the fabric of society.
Which is odd, because it was an outsider form for so long-- metal was made for outsiders, and then at a certain point, not so much any more. And that’s awesome because more people are into it, but then at the same time it changes the core beliefs of metal. did you guys ever feel, especially in the first decade, that you were doing an outsider thing?
Oh yeah, definitely. We always feel like outsiders, even now. I mean, we get accepted, but you still feel it. As long as we’ve been doing it, we still feel underground, which is fine. But like I said, we became part of the fabric of America, and the best part about that is that you start pulling on a stitch and the whole thing starts to come apart, it all unravels. And you don’t want to unravel society! [laughs]
It’s funny: in the Reagan 80s, people thought Slayer made sense because of what was going on at the time, serial killers, Iran-Contra, world conflict, etc. When you guys got huge in the early 90s, there was the Gulf War, all sorts of grim stuff going on. And as time marches on, Slayer just seems to fit right in there, your thematic toughness doesn’t go out of style.
There’s always turmoil, and I think we sit well with that. There’s always gonna be trouble, like how Elvis brought out rock, and all these years later rock is such an important building block of America.
Yeah; it’s like how your album God Hates Us All came out on 9/11.
It was really freaky, because we had a signing party the night before, and I wake up the next morning and my wife told me what was going on and I thought “Great, they’re gonna blame this on us!”
The record has such a bizarre focus on foreign affairs and warfare. It was almost eerily prophetic.
That spoke volumes to me. You know, you can be like “Show me a sign, show me a sign!” And then that record comes out on that day, and it’s like “There’s your sign”. It just blew my mind, I thought my god, you know? It’s the blade of grass, you know what I mean? Not too many people are paying attention to this, but I am, and it’s fucking scary. It was a very intense thing to make such a bold statement with an album title and for that to happen on that day, it was just mind-blowing.
On the one hand, as you said earlier, you guys were just trying to come up with something cool, no messages; but on the other hands, you throw out themes, mixed with the music-- do people take Slayer too seriously, or not seriously enough, you know what I mean? Is it possible to read too much into what you are intending? Or is it more like “Oh ha ha, Slayer wrote a song about war”, and it’s like no, you mean this to a certain extent!
Well, it’s not so much “ha ha ha”, but you’re right, we write songs about this stuff and it’s serious to a degree. When the band came up with the album title God Hates Us All, I thought “Fuck!” but deep down inside I thought “That’s a pretty cool title.” And that’s about it, that’s how we take everything we do. We’ll take everything and go “Fuck”, and then inside we’ll think “That is so cool, people are gonna shit!” It’s all about the cool factor, end of the story.
Right, like how you guys will do shows with huge Marshall stacks shaped like upside down crosses-- on the one hand, that’s show business and is awesome, on the other hand, is this some grand statement, but as you said, it is what it is, it’s interesting and compelling.
Exactly. And we’ve evolved. We started out with devils and demons and more of a-- well, not fantasy, but more of a... I don’t want to use the word “fantasy”, but when we’d write lyrics, there were devils and demons, and as we evolved and matured it because the devils and demons of society, more realistic in terms of how society is concerned, the true devils and demons of society. More of a reality-type face, lyrically. And I think that showed a lot of maturity, because there were a lot of bands that stuck with the devils and demons.
Oh totally, everyone was devil goats and wizards capes and shit like that, and when people got into Slayer in the late 80s, it was definitely a new, more realistic aesthetic for metal.
Like I said, it’s all about cool subjects, like really strong subjects. It’s all cool factor, it’s never like “Let’s do this because it will cause controversy.” But people made a big stink about it on many occasions.