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Interview: A Conversation with Slayer’s Tom Araya

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Chilean born thrash/speed metal bassist Tomás Enrique Araya Valparaíso is cool, humorous, self-effacing. He doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you’d expect fronting one of the most notorious, button-pushing metal acts ever founded. But that is exactly what he does. Alongside guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King and drummer Dave Lombardo, Tom Araya’s brute vocal force and thundering bass lines drive the American thrash metal band Slayer – a group whose 1986 watershed release Reign in Blood is considered by many to be quintessential thrash effort and "the heaviest album of all time."

Credited as one of the "Big Four" thrash metal bands (along with Metallica, Anthrax, and Megadeth), Slayer’s punishing, aggressive sound and modus operandi are unmistakable; yet, their reputation as a coven of fascist, devil worshipping racists who hate everyone and everything has often overshadowed their sonic influence on the mainstream rock and metal of today. It’s been 25 years since the band arrived and people are still gripping about what the band writes about – jihad, serial killers, Satanism, religious zealotry, war – and it all makes Araya laugh.

Why? “People don’t take kindly to having mirrors pointed at them,” he says.

Araya, who resides in Buffalo, Texas, on a ranch with his wife and two children and pet Rottweilers, laughs about the role call of “hysteria” surrounding Slayer’s career: the lawsuits, criticism from right-wing religious groups, album (and cover) bans, the irony in God Hates Us All (released the day of the 9/11 attacks) and the general terror that a new Slayer release inspires. The band’s latest album, last year’s Christ Illusion, was no exception: the original cover featured an artist’s rendition of a dismembered Christ and naturally was censored.

It all cracks Araya up. To him, “it’s good to push buttons and to have people come to realizations and think for themselves, but it’s also just another day at the office.”

Araya and the rest of the band don’t see what they do as brain surgery or rocket science – Slayer just do what they do to and let the chips fall where they may. Those chips fell in the Top 5 of the Billboard chart with Christ Illusion. Their highest charting debut to date, the disc is the first featuring all four original members in a decade, it earned the band a Grammy (for the single “Eyes of the Insane”) and will keep them on the road for nearly 15 months from end to end.

Checking in with Blogcritics on a windy Thursday afternoon from his ranch, Araya was asked about the last 25 years of Slayer, the band’s sound, legacy, peers, and musical traits, the 1991 Clash of the Titans tour and a new co-headlining tour with Marilyn Manson – which starts tonight in North America after a leg overseas. The conversation went like this:

This last year has been big for Slayer: the original members record the first album in 15 years together, then Christ Illusion debuts in the Billboard Top 5 and wins the band its first ever Grammy for “Eyes of the Insane.” Add a 25th anniversary and that huge “Unholy Alliance” tour and it adds up to perhaps your biggest year ever.

That’s what people say! (laughs). I don’t really see it that way, none of us do. The only thing new and different is that Number 5 on the Billboard chart and the Grammy. We got nominated with the last album. To me, this is just a normal record cycle for us. We don’t really celebrate like a lot of people do.

Not many bands are can keep stride after 25 years. Most of them are into their second or third “greatest hits” package, playing the sheds every summer. What is it that drives Slayer to not just sit back and riding past accomplishments like other bands do?

It’s no secret. We survive because we get along and because this is what we’ve always done. After all this time, we’re still talking to each other, we don’t have problems and egos, we acknowledge where each of us are as people. And we have been true to what we do from the very beginning. Nothing has moved or shaped that approach, and I think people *get* that! (laughs) We get a lot of the “How come you never really steer clear of the image part of what you do?” question. The mystique of the band comes with our interest in understanding where other people come from.

The other one is “You all seem like you guys get along, you seem like you’re good friends.” Like they thought we had to stop a four-way fist fight to do a radio interview or something. Without one another, we know and accept that this would not be possible.

Have you had opportunity to step back and take in all the career signposts and what has happened for the band recently?

Nah. Kinda just take it as it comes, really. Business as usual. (laughs) Whenever there’s being attention paid to us, that is always news. I’ve never known the publications to write about us just to write about us!

When Slayer emerged, many of the punk bands of the 80s L.A. punk scene came of age. Bands like Black Flag, Bad Religion, the Minutemen, Circle Jerks. Was there any personal connection between Slayer and those bands back then?

Oh yeah, man! Totally. We’re not all too familiar with the east coast thing that was happening, but the west coast stuff we felt really connected to – mostly because of Jeff. He really was the one who was into that [sound] and would bring those bands to us and play them, at the time, on a tape player (laughs). He would jam away at anything he could get a hold of that was punk. I remember when goofed and bought us Merciful Fate’s Nuns Have No Fun to listen to, and with the record cover we were thinking “This ought to be great!” We were all like, “Whoa!” Just goes to show you, that’s how you discover everything.

Early reviews of Christ Illusion suggested it was your best work since the speed metal watershed Reign in Blood – which is certainly accurate to my ears. It was incredibly heavy. But most of those compliments were backhanded by the thought that Slayer was suddenly “relevant again.” Did you ever feel irrelevant, given Slayer’s influence permeating metal?

No, I never felt that way (laughs, then barking in the background).

There are a lot of bands out there that wouldn’t be if not for Slayer. Slipknot, Sepultura, Korn, Killswitch Engage, Chimaira, Mastodon, everyone on the Unholy Alliance tour, Machine Head. Even Bleeding Through – who open on your new co-headlining tour with Marilyn Manson – owes a huge debt of gratitude to you. As I’m ticking through this list, I count dozens of bands who do.

We get a lot of that… yeah. I don’t know what to say to them, you know? That’s cool… ya gonna blame me for that, eh? (laughs). You almost have to make fun of it, because what else are you going to do. You get that [praise] from fans a lot too. Growing up, music was something that always made me pass my day, made me sane. It was the radio and albums friends brought over, until I started buying albums  from RCA record club (laughs). I’m the proud owner of some really great records that way. And I eventually paid the bill, couldn’t ruin my credit that way! (laughs) Listened to a lot of Zeppelin, Sabbath, Judas Priest, Van Halen, AC-DC. Then Kerry introduced me to modern metal heaviness. Hard not to be influenced.

My first introduction to Slayer’s live show was on the Clash of the Titans tour, which was great. Regarding that tour, your feud with Dave Mustaine is legendary, almost larger than the tour you did together. Yet, Slayer is having the last laugh as the sole survivor from the Titans tour, and has outlasted Metallica and Pantera as well. And Megadeth? Well, they’re sort of like a tribute band now, really. How’s that for a come-uppance?

That’s… in all honesty? I, myself, do not sit around thinking about all those things. Legacy and all that? They’re really only thought of when they’re brought up in interviews like this one. I never think about that until someone confronts me with it. I can’t explain it. We’ve never bigger than our britches about how we felt about the band. It was never about legacy, history, or coming of age… we just laid the foundation for our sound and just kept doing it, or wonder why we did it, in some cases! (laughs) We just kept doing it, put together another tour… earn a gold record…. It’s all just great, then you do it again and just keep going. Day by day.

You just speak up and show up or shut up! (laughs) That’s our attitude.

Talk about the creative process for the band a bit. How do you, Kerry, Jeff and Dave work together creatively and how has that changed over the years?

Wow. Well, it hasn’t changed much honestly. Jeff would always show up with demos and present them to us, we’d listen to them and try to contribute to them. It’s a very open and creative process… same with Kerry and Dave. They will work on things together, demo them. Kerry pretty well likes to write his own stuff; if I can help with the melodies, or find different ways to sing the song, then that’s where I come in. Sometimes I can iron out a melody [Kerry] has, or I can just sing it the way he wants it done (laughs). It’s diplomatic compromising. That is how we write. Present the ideas and when we’re ready, let’s rehearse them, let them sit for a while, come back to them and if anything, we make adjustments then.

Did having Dave back change the dynamic at all?

It was like old times, like he never left. It was like, the day after he said he was leaving, it was like he showed up again and started jamming. (laughs) Felt like a pair of comfortably worn shoes.

What predicates the tone and direction of your work together? Is it really as simple as 24-hour news channel sound-byte bombardment a lot of the time?

We told ourselves after God Hates Us All and with what happened on 9/11, everyone was going to be writing songs about [that] so we were gonna steer clear. But you can’t help but be interested in the perspective of the other side, like there is on “Jihad.” [Kerry] was looking at the perspectives of the terrorist and said, “Hey I’ve got some ideas.” When we heard it, we were like, “Awesome! You know were gonna get shit for that!” But then we all shrugged our shoulders. (laughs) It’s going to happen anyway. We just go for a different type of song that nobody else would write.

That’s why we write that way we do. We’re not here to preach, just trying to inspire some dialogue. We read a book, or see something that makes us think and we just present those ideas, saying “What do you think?” No one needs to be told how to run their life. People can do that on their own.

The themes of holy wars permeate Christ Illusion. I would think that because of this, a huge outpouring of response from members of the armed forces came with this new record. There’s a lot of relevant material to them in it. Have you had any regular correspondence with vets of this current Gulf War? Or the former one? And if so, what do you tell them?

We did an appearance at military bases in Germany and France – both of which were on standby, so while we were there they had drills. They were always on alert. Anyway, you hear the stories that are coming back from the battlefields and some of it, they may not have experienced firsthand, but they tell the stories from others people experience’s too. Like, they’re listening to Slayer as they were bombing or during air raids. It’s cool to know that they’re listening to metal of the time and to know that the mighty four horsemen rode in with the military troops. It’s great that music does that and is strong enough force to pull them through what they’re doing. The fact that we inspire them, to me, that is awesome. That we can do that for people in general, in an odd way, is a source of inspiration.

Do you think the United States is truly poised to become as radical and fundamentalist as our media makes Islamists out to be? Or it sensationalism in both cases, and merely a case of a few bad apples rotting out the bushel like the Jerry Falwell/Ronald Reagan ‘80s, when Slayer first came out? Both? Neither?

I don’t know, you can’t put that past anybody, though. There are extremists here in America. Plenty of examples, usually our government coming down on someone or somewhere they fear as a threat – and not only to the people of the US, but to the government as a whole. We’ve seen that in action with that [Branch] Davidian [David] Koresh… they said they were doing it to protect the people of the republic; I don’t know.

I sincerely feel there is elite group who has control of what we do or don’t do [as a country]. Think about it: we’ve never really found out the truth about [Timothy] McVeigh, or [Terry] Nichols… both those guys knew if they talked they would die. There was a lot of stuff behind closed doors that was struck to keep everything secret. The JFK assassination is still a secret, same with RFK, Martin Luther King… that’s the best way to put fear into a republic is to assassinate someone they care about really deeply. That has a huge impact on the population. In my opinion, those three incidents scared the population of the time and that alone has controlled it for the last 43 years

If you had to pay tribute to Falwell – himself a huge fan of the band before his departure – with an existing Slayer song… which would it be?

(laughs) I guess the one song would be “Read Between the Lies” from South of Heaven. Yeah, definitely.

You’ve gone on record as saying that perhaps the single biggest misconception about Slayer is your label as pack of devil worshipping, fascist racists who hate everyone and everything. All these years later, people are still gripping about what the band writes about – why don’t people get it?

I don’t know why people don’t get it. People who understand identify with it.

Is it a knowledge gap? Lack of education?

With these kinds of things, you must assume that… not everybody reads (laughs). Not everyone buys books or reads newspapers, not everybody can afford the internet… a lot of people are just not involved.

Does it get old to always being sucked into the “scandalous” side of Slayer and all the buttons you’ve continued to push over the years?

Nah! (laughs) Like I said, when we do our stuff, it comes naturally. And the reactions are never much of a surprise in that sense. It happens all the time! (laughs)

OK, so I confess that this new tour with Marilyn Manson initially threw me a bit. It seemed like a weird pairing, in that Manson is pure theater and burlesque, where you guys have always maintained this enormous sense of intensity and credibility – despite saying that your “attraction to the unknown” has always fueled your perceptions and songwriting. But it’s not really that big of a stretch, is it? 

No, not really. Let’s put it this way, our management had apparently offered a tour quite a few years back. Recently, that idea came back up again and would we be interested…? I thought it was interesting pair up. It’s all about that competitive thing and having fun with it.

Are you guys tight with anyone in the Manson camp at all? Or is this simply a working relationship instead of a partnership? Who’s headlining this tour? Do you switch off? And how was the tour received overseas?

It went really well. There’s always a question of who’s gonna close the show with these [kinds of] tours. We sorta went into it thinking it would be a 50/50 deal, because we play equal amounts of time… but he [Manson] chose to close the show. The same questions came up during the Clash of the Titans tour – we got asked a lot about why we weren’t closing, there were a lot of “rules” that were instituted on that tour.

My first thought on this tour was we’ll have to close show, the same thought I had when we did Titans. But the response was “We want to rotate the bill.” OK, sure, no problem! Then they had rules, that so-and-so was never to follow so-and-so… and I thought, “This is pretty fuckin’ lame.” Anthrax got the short end of the stick every time [on Titans] because they always had to follow us. (laughs) Did not matter where we played. We opened the show at Madison Square Garden when we should have closed, but Anthrax was from New York, so, you know.

So, whatever. We can go out there beat the shit out of everybody at these shows with [Marilyn Manson]. Leave him to whatever happens! (laughs)

How do your crowds bode for Manson and company? Lesser bands have been brutalized by Slayer fans. I remember reading about your fans all turning their backs to the support bands and the story of Blackie Lawless from WASP being pelted with batteries, nickels and cigarette lighters, with chants of “Slayer!!” drowning out their headlining performance after you were gone. It’s metal lore now.

(laughs) Well, I guess [Manson] feels that he is a big enough entity to have that audience. We’ve got broad shoulders. We take it in stride and every year, things gets bigger and better. We never went to a stadium level and then had to fall back. We’ve been almost consistently in 5000 seaters, with a consistent audience. Like I said, we get to go out there and destroy and that’s fun.

What’s next for Slayer after this tour? Have you started writing new songs already? How long can Slayer continue? Another 25 years?

No, I don’t think so. Not that long. Another album is gonna happen, that’s for sure. It’s something what we need to work on and discuss… and who knows, if our manager can make some cash to help underwrite what we do, then great! Whatever the new year brings, we’ll see.

Slayer/Marilyn Manson North American Tour 2007

July 2007
25 – West Palm Beach, FL – Sound Advice Amphitheatre
27 – Tampa, FL – Ford Amphitheatre at State Fairgrounds
28 – Atlanta, GA – HiFi Buys Amphitheatre
30 – Columbia, MD – Merriweather Post Pavilion
31 – Cleveland, OH – Time Warner Cable Amphitheatre at Tower City

August 2007
2 – Camden, NJ – Tweeter Center at the Waterfront
4 – Worcester, MA – DCU Center
5 – Holmdel, NJ – PNC Bank Arts Center
7 – Quebec City, Quebec – Centre de Foire
8 – Montreal, Quebec – Bell Centre
10 – Toronto, Ontario – The Molson Amphitheatre
11 – Clarkston, MI – DTE Energy Music Theatre
13 – Rosemont, IL – Allstate Arena
14 – St. Paul, MN – Xcel Energy Center
16 – Lincoln, NE – Pershing Center
18 – Englewood, CO – Coors Amphitheatre
21 – Marysville, CA – Sleep Train Amphitheatre
23 – Concord, CA – Sleep Train Pavilion at Concord
24 – Irvine, CA – Verizon Wireless Amphitheater
25 – San Diego, CA – San Diego Sports Arena
27 – Phoenix, AZ – Cricket Pavilion
28 – Albuquerque, NM – Journal Pavilion
30 – Grand Prairie, TX – Nokia Theatre at Grand Prairie
31 – Houston, TX – Reliant Arena at Reliant Park

September 2007
1 – Selma, TX – Verizon Wireless Amphitheater

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About Peter Chakerian