Kerry King Talks Repentless Success, Past Regrets + Headbanging On The High Seas

Slayer just wrapped up two headlining nights on Motorhead's Motorboat cruise.

Honestly, I don’t know what the hell I’m doing hanging out with Kerry King in the middle of the ocean. It sounds like some kind of weird teenage dream—not in a romantic sense, but the actual result of insane hormones, lack of sleep, general youthful megalomania, and possibly bad weed.

Yet here I am onboard the M/V Norwegian Sky, temporary rechristened Motorhead’s Motorboat. Last night I’d just had my very first live Slayer experience. Now I’m sitting in the deserted Plantation Club Lounge, complete with leather seats, potted palms, and a baby grand piano, while Mr. King sips from a red Solo cup across the granite card table.

Our conversation is occasionally interrupted by what I originally think to be the ship’s airhorn. In fact, it’s Kerry’s extremely loud text message notification. “When my wife texts I have loud noises so I can hear it,” he laughs. When you rock as hard as he does, amplification is a must.

Is this the scene I’d imagined for meeting the King of Thrash Metal? Definitely not. For a start, there are nowhere near enough pentagrams. But is it awesome? Affirmative.

VH1: What have you been up to today? Are you taking advantage of the cruising life?

Kerry King: I got up at like 2:45! Rock star lifestyle, right? I needed it man, I slept like a rock last night.

How’s the Motorhead’s Motorboat experience been treating you so far?

I was concerned about headbanging. I didn’t have anything to base it on. I was sitting in my room with nothing to do yesterday, and the chair’s vibrating. I’m like, “Man, I don’t know how this is going to pan out.” But I was thinking before I got up there that every stage moves, sonically. So it was no different. Two or three times I felt a sway, but that’s because I was flat-footed. I was looking at Paul playing a riff and was like, “Ahhh, I felt that one!” But it didn’t seriously affect me at all.

How does it feel going from little underground metal clubs at the beginning of your career to this massive Love Boat-sized thing? That has to be pretty surreal.

I don’t think I noticed the size of the ship until last night. My room’s in the back of the boat, and afterwards we went to the front where everyone was hanging. And I was like, “Wow, this is a sizable little boat we got here!” I didn’t realize a lot of things until we got on the boat.

Congrats on a killer show last night.

Thanks, man. That was the first time playing in like two months. Or seven weeks, I don’t want to exaggerate. Me and Paul rehearsed like five times before coming on this. Me and Paul are tight. Everybody’s tight, that’s how I feel.

Have you run into a bunch of old friends onboard? This has gotta be like metal summer camp or something.

I saw a bunch of the Exodus guys last night, a couple of the Anthrax dudes last night. I saw Roy [Mayorga] from Stone Sour today —he’s vacationing on this, I didn’t even know he was here. He came to the soundcheck and I went, “Awesome!” The surprise is cool, I like running into my friends when I don’t expect to see ‘em.

Who are you looking forward to seeing live this week?

I don’t think I’m gonna have time to see anybody live. I would try to see Motorhead. I don’t know if we’re going to be on any festivals with them next summer or not. Right after I get home from this I’m going to Japan and Hawaii, and then Priest is playing Vegas when I get home. I definitely want to see them because I know they’re not going to be playing that much longer.

Absolutely. Now, Repentless is going crazy in the charts—

It’s crazy, right?

Yeah! Obviously it was an incredibly challenging record to make. Has its success served as an “I-told-you-so” to the nay-sayers who said you wouldn’t survive?

The “I-told-you-so” has nothing to do with how well it’s doing, the “I-told-you-so” is that I succeeded. I’ve been doing this a long time. Yeah, I lost half my songwriting team. But I’ve been doing this so long that I can cover the moody stuff, which was definitely a question for me because that was Jeff’s thing. Once I knew I had that covered, I knew this was the next step. Of course it’s different. Jeff’s not here. Dave [Lombardo’s] also not here, but Paul [Bostaph’s] been with us for ten years of his life, too. So that was a hiccup more than anything. But Jeff is the big thing that we miss. And figuring out how to move on without him is the biggest challenge.

You’ve called “Repentless,” the title track, a “Hannemanthem.” What goes through your mind when you play it?

When I made that song up, I didn’t make it up to be the title track. I didn’t make it up to be about Jeff, it was just “that song.” It’s number…whatever it is. Three? (laughs) It had no name. When the name came about, it was me and Paul. Any time I’m making stuff up it’s me and Paul, because I gotta see how the drums work. We played it one day and I was like, “Dude, that song is just fuckin’ relentless. It just goes!” And that night, “Relentless” became “Repentless.”

And then when I made up the chorus I knew it was like eight words. I knew it was going to be very easy and concise. I basically did the chorus about Slayer: “Live fast.” That’s why I sleep ‘til 2:45. (laughs) Our recurring theme! Then when I wrote the verse, I thought the chorus is very general so I can basically make this about anything. So I thought it would be really cool if I made it from Jeff’s perspective and how Jeff looked at life. And I think I nailed that.

How have you seen the metal scene change and evolve since those early days with Jeff?

I think it had its first high point in 1990 and a couple early ‘90s years. And then grunge came out and killed everything. Everything! Every kind of music, grunge killed. So that was the low point of our career, if you could call that a low-point. We just weren’t as prominent as we are right now. And then around 2000, right before God Hates Us All, I think that was the beginning of the second surge. It was definitely the refocusing of Slayer.

If I had anything that I could change in my career, it would be to pay more attention to the ‘90s. I lost track, I lost touch. I didn’t understand why bands that were popular were popular, and it got to me. And I let it get to me. And then when 2000 came around I thought, “Fuck this! I’m pissed. I’m making up fucking Slayer like we’re supposed to make up fucking Slayer.” And that’s where God Hates Us All came out. And since then I feel like we redefined ourselves and paid attention, and remembered the things we’re supposed to be doing.

I can’t think of a band that has more integrity than Slayer. How do you balance this integrity and authenticity with the business of being a band?

Business? I let other people worry about the business. At the end of the day I gotta make a choice, but I got somebody to make those decisions and say, “OK, you got this and you got this. What do you want to do?” I don’t want to waste all of my time with that.

If it wasn’t such a big deal with this record, I would have no idea what [chart] number we’re at, because that’s not why I do it. But to have a worldwide number two, that’s a fuckin’ gigantic statement—one that I never thought I’d be saying. The metal community came out in hoards and bought our record, and I appreciate it.

I know it’s a great record. We were rehearsing “Vices” today because we’re trying to put it in the set—it’s not quite ready. But just playing that with the whole band I was just like, “This is gonna be SO FUCKING HEAVY. I can’t way to play it.” (laughs) I’m a fan first, dude. Yeah, I’m in Slayer, but I’m a fan. “Vices,” I can’t wait to get that in the set. “Take Control,” I can’t wait to get that in the set.

There are so many things I want to play from this record, but you can’t play ‘em all because you’ve got a catalogue you’ve got to get through as well. A Slayer show doesn’t translate to two hours. On here we’re playing an hour and 15. I think a perfect time for a Slayer show is an hour and a half. Because any more than that and the fans just get bludgeoned. It’s not like Metallica. Metallica can play two and a half hours because they’ve got that roller coaster ride of thrash songs, plus the “Unforgivens.” You can elongate a set with stuff like that because it’s not just (pounds fist repeatedly). That’s how we play.

It’s has to be hard to keep that up for so long.

It’s not even that. We’ve done an hour and 50 before. It was the last show of the tour and I was like, “Let’s play every song we know.” And we did it, and in the last 20 minutes the fans were fucking DEAD. That’s when you’re playing shit like “Raining Blood” —which they should be going nuts for— but they’re just out of gas.

A very good friend of mine wants me to pass on that “Raining Blood” is a national anthem.

Awesome (laughs) Next time someone asks me to play the national anthem I should just play “Raining Blood.” (laughs) I’ve got a lot of friends in the [Oakland] Raiders organization, and they keep bugging me to play something—either their theme song or something else. And I keep saying, “Man, I don’t know…”

Oh man, that would be incredible!

Yeah, I know! But the tailgate before, you’re partying for three hours before the game even starts.

Good point. Hey, I loved the recent Smithsonian profile on you guys.

That’s another cool thing! Who would have thought, right?

What are your thoughts on the Rock Hall of Fame?

You know, I went there last year, and I was surprisingly amazed. It was awesome. Have you ever been there?

No, I’ve never been.

Dude! I thought I’d be there for like 40 minutes. I spent three and a half hours. The stuff in there is amazing. It’s way cooler than I ever imagined it would have been. It is really cool. If you go to Cleveland you should check it out.

I’m not making a ploy to get in, but it makes me think, “Man, I hope they call my name one of these days.” I think it took them a long time to get Metallica in there. But Metallica basically opens door for us, because when you think of metal who do you think of next from that generation? Of course there’s Sabbath, Priest, and Maiden, without question. But for The Big Four, you think Metallica…We’ve always been number two on The Big Four shows. So come on, Rock Hall, give us that call! We’re ready! I’ll donate some change or something. (laughs)

It’s about time! I’ve got one last question, but it has some backstory. When I was first learning guitar, it was my high school principal of all people who said to me, “Kerry King. Get to know this guy. When you’re ready, his music will appear to you.”

Your principal? Wow, that’s amazing.

I owe him huge. Did you have any people like that in your life who lead you down the right musical path?

Nah, I kind of had to find it myself because the music I like was so obscure back then. I didn’t find Judas Priest until British Steal. And the only reason I found it then was because the rock station picked up on their two hits: “Breaking The Law” and “Living After Midnight.” I went, “I kinda like this singer, it’s kinda edgy…” And then you go out and buy British Steal and you find “Rapid Fire” and “Metal Gods”—the REAL Judas Priest. And then you go back and buy all the earlier Judas Priest. My favorite one to this day is Stained Class. Great fuckin’ record. But I had to find that shit on my own because there was no radio for it. If you could find a Kerrang or Metal Hammer magazine in America I’d buy 10 of ‘em because you couldn’t get it. But I had to find it myself.

My guitar teacher basically primed me to take over in his band when I was 16. Tom [Araya] was the singer in that band, actually. But there was another guitarist, and my teacher would push to teach me these songs— they were all songs his band would play. So I’m like, “I bet you this guy is priming me to take this guy’s job.” And he did. So that was my only sort of lesson. And they were more of a Top 40 kind of band, shit you’d never imagine coming out of these fingers. But it was my first taste of the stage. I sucked, but I’m glad I sucked doing that rather than sucking at metal!

VH1 Music Editor + Seltzer Enthusiast