Slayer's Tom Araya Talks New Band Members, Mayhem Fest Controversy + How He's Influenced By James Brown

He also reflects on the band's future after new album, <i>Repentless</i>.

When you think of Slayer, words like "transparent" and "vulnerable" don't usually come to mind. When I was a teenager discovering metal, I devoured all content that gave me an intimate view into the inner workings of my most heralded bands: whether it was A Year and a Half in the Life of Metallica, Megadeth's making of Youthanasia, Evolver, Korn's autobiographical documentary Who Then Now, or the Pantera trilogy of home videos when a thing existed called video tapes.

In the mid '90s, Slayer granted no such access. Their 1995 concert video Live Intrusion gave you a no-frills, pummeling Slayer show sans a behind-the-scenes, "let's see how they make the donuts" exposé. The mystery worked to their benefit. When I saw Slayer for the first time in 1998 on their tour supporting Diabolus in Musica, these weren't mortal humans before my eyes; they were demonic manifestations. They opened with "Hell Awaits" in a 100+ degree room with twice as many people inside than safely should have been. It was the sound and physical incarnation of unfiltered violence and insanity, and I had never seen a band do that before.

Almost 20 years later, Slayer have opened the books, so to speak. Talking with Tom Araya, his personality is almost completely opposite to the image I've had of the band since childhood. He's laid back, calm in a way that comforts you, gregarious, very open, and a self proclaimed "chatter box." I asked him about this duality between the image of the band and his relaxed demeanor, even on stage, which has evolved to seem like he is having much more fun. Is he playing a character like Alice Cooper?

"Not like Alice Cooper. I’m more about James Brown," he says. "He put his emotion, he put his heart and soul into performing. When I say performer, that’s what I mean. I mean like a James Brown. I’m fucking, I’m just going to put my heart and soul into it, I’m going to put emotion into it, I want to make you believe that what I’m singing, I believe. So I’m about the heart and soul, and like you say, just passion. I recently watched that James Brown [biopic] Get On Up. And he put his heart into performing. His whole thing was performance. All his songs, they weren’t about melody, they were about a groove and a feel. You had to feel his music, feel his intensity. I’d like to think that when people come to a Slayer show and see us live, they walk away with that. Like, "Wow, that was so intense," because not only was the music intense, but the vocals carried you through that intensity. To me, that's what I do."

The emotion that often comes to the forefront while performing is humor. "I smile because the shit that goes on in front of me, when I’m in front of the crowd, it’s silly, you know what I mean? They’re all silly. It’s like they go out of their way to try to be silly because they want to see me laugh. They want to see me smile. And they do some crazy things. At the end of every song or the end of a cluster of songs we do, we stop, and I’m just smiling, thinking to myself several times, this is great. I’ve never seen so many smiling faces, and everybody just smiles more. You’re in here, especially people in the front, you’re in here getting kicked, you’re getting hit, you know what I mean? You’ve got heat exhaustion, and the minute we get done playing all you do is smile."

After speaking with Kerry King, the dynamic in the band is clearly divided with King being the logistical task master and focused general, and Araya wearing his heart on his sleeve. He let's his emotions weigh in, while still understanding the greater good. He touched on his vocal approach on Repentless with (producer) Terry Date, and whether he considers himself a singer or screamer.

"I’m a performer (laughs). I’m a performer, I’m an entertainer. In all honesty, I’m a singer. I really pay attention to my tone. I make sure I’m singing in tune to what’s being played. A lot of the songs I sang, I sang a different interpretation of every song. I did it, depending on the feel of the music, and how it made me feel and how it made me sing. I recorded Repentless in three different ways. The vocals were captured the same way. I mean, I went in and did it, and Kerry’s like ‘I really like this, I like how this is.’ I go, ‘I’m liking it too. Let me try it with a little more intensity.’"

It's clear that Tom Araya respects and admires his bandmates' efforts and talents. "Kerry knew his songs, he wrote the songs, and he’s a perfectionist as he’s writing the songs, working the songs out. So Kerry would come in and just play like a machine. So with Kerry, it was more like he would listen in and go like ‘Oh that sounds great.’ Or Kerry would go like ‘Oh let’s do this part over again. Ok. I think we’ve got something really great here.' And then move on, and basically that’s how it was."

On drummer Paul Bostaph's in-studio perfectionism: "It got to the point where Kerry had to step in and just tell him, ‘Listen, Paul, stop. You’ve done some really great stuff, let’s just stop. Why don’t you come in and listen, and we’ll put something together. And if you’re still not happy, we’ll come in and rework some of these parts.'" "I think it was more that if Paul had his way, he would do a million takes and still not be happy."

On new guitarist Gary Holt's efficacy and professionalism while tracking guitar solos: "Gary came in one day, and we thought he would be there for two days to come in and do his stuff. He came in at about noon, and at two or three he was ready to jam. He sat down and jammed for like a solid six hours, I don’t know how long. But he just, he put every solo down. And every time, you know, Terry would just push record and let Gary do his thing. And then Gary would listen to it and goes ‘I’m gonna try it again.’ And Terry would be like ‘OK,’ and be just listening. And Gary’s like, ‘Well what do you think?’ and he goes, ‘I think you got some great stuff,’ and I chime in and go ‘Dude I think you nailed it on the first one.'(laughs)"

Slayer just wrapped up a headlining stint on what was doomed to be the lame duck trek of the Mayhem Festival. Kerry King voiced some justifiably agitated reactions to festival organizer Kevin Lyman's comments about metal becoming "gray, bald, and fat," and I was interested to know if Araya felt the the same way.

"I talked to Kerry about it and he told me how he felt, and I kind of just felt the same way. The guy was an idiot. You know, you want to self-promote, you don’t want to put an end to your career. So I was upset. I couldn’t believe he said what he said. By all accounts, I wasn’t really happy with how they handled the the negotiating process to the festival. In all honesty, when they first came to us and approached us with the festival and who they had as a lineup, we said no. Then they came back to us and said, 'Well how about this, and this is what we’ll do.' And we’re like, 'Ok, that’s cool, that sounds reasonable.'"

"So it wasn’t us going ‘We want to headline your festival!’ ‘You guys suck.’ First we said no, and then they came back to us. And, I’ll use this phrase loosely, they came back to us with a better offer. We thought everything was great, and then before the tour started, they were unsure about how things were going with ticket sales, and this and that, And we’re like, 'Hey, we can pull the plug. We don’t have an issue with that.' So, it moved forward, and then they started making adjustments to the stage, to the lights, to sound, to venues. They made a bunch of arrangements and changes. And that was on them. We never said anything other than, ‘Ok, if you need to do that, that’s fine.’ So Kerry had a lot on his mind, and he said a lot less than he could have. It sounded more like he was whining and griping about stuff."

One of the most admirable things about Araya is that after 30+ years into Slayer's career, he holds tremendous gratitude for the loyalty and overwhelming support of their rabid fanbase. You can really hear it in his voice, and he identifies with them because he is a self-proclaimed big Slayer fan himself. I asserted that Slayer could be a legacy band like the Rolling Stones or AC/DC, where it doesn't even matter if there are new albums. The Slayer diehards are unwavering in their allegiance, and that support would carry them for as long as they wanted to keep going.

"You know, I’m a little embarrassed or humbled by something like a legacy band. I think the best way to describe it is: you know when you put 30 years in, you get pension? You find yourself in a location as a cop or some kind of employment where you put in more than 25 years, they pat you on the back and say 'Thank you for working with us, here’s your pension, enjoy life.' I think that after 33 years, we’ve earned our pension. If we never ever put out another record, and we decided to do another show or a tour, that we would get a lot of hardcore die-hards that would come see us, and I’m very grateful and thankful for that. Because the loyal Slayer fans have allowed us to do what we do for so fucking long. So, I’m very grateful for that. I think that’s one of the biggest achievements is the longevity of the band. And all of that and everything has to do with our fan base. Doesn’t matter where we play, they’ll be 3,000 that will always come to the show. So what if the bill sucks? They want to see the band. I think that’s been our biggest and greatest achievement—the fact that we’ve been playing for so fucking long. There’s not too many bands that can do that."

When I toured with Slayer on Ozzfest in 2004 and Mayhem Fest 2009 with my ex-band God Forbid, I hung out with pretty much all the band members except Tom Araya. The main reason is that Araya always had his family with him. He is a dedicated family man, and from checking out some other interviews, it's obvious that sometimes missing his family and home life has made the rigorous touring schedule less appealing as the years roll on. I wondered if Slayer was ever to come to an end, would it be Tom Araya's doing?

"You know, all I can tell you is we’ll see. I mean, a lot of life, doing this for as long as we have, you have to enjoy what it is you’re doing. When things start becoming more of a job you have to do, that’s when things change. And at the moment, me and Kerry sat down and, we talked about how to help and we agreed, let’s just do this record, and see how this record is. Let’s just move forward and feel it."

I was getting ready to wrap up the interview, and Araya assured me that he was not in a rush to end the call. He encouraged me to ask any more questions I had left, and this generous offering of his time was really stunning. The truth is I didn't even have to ask that many more questions, because he was so open and forthright. The final 20 minutes of our talk was an unprompted mini-history on the early days of Slayer. I didn't ask about their history, but I think this recounting shows something about Tom Araya: I believe he is someone that still does it for the same reasons as when he was a kid, and reflects fondly on that simpler time. They had no grand plans, but just went with the flow, and their only focus was to be faster, heavier, and more angry than everyone else around them. This man, who is bombarded with countless interviews and demands of his time and attention, still remembers with great detail how they got here, and he wants people to know. He remembers where he comes from. It wasn't always like this: major labels, gold records, and arena tours. That mentality, my friends, is the blueprint on how to keep a level head in show business. I can't thank Mr. Tom Araya enough for his generosity.