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Slayer’s Tom Araya Talks Touring, Making ‘Repentless’ After Jeff Hanneman’s Death + More

Tom Araya (Slayer)
Frazer Harrison, Getty Images

Slayer‘s Tom Araya was the guest on Full Metal Jackie’s weekend radio show. The vocalist chatted about Slayer’s current tour, but the discussion also delved into the band’s musical legacy, the changes going into the ‘Repentless’ album after Jeff Hanneman‘s death and more. Check out the chat below.

Slayer is more than music to diehard fans. It’s almost a genre unto itself, that represents a lifestyle to diehard fans.

Yes. Very well said. A lifestyle. [laughs]

How does their devotion influence creative and career decisions you make as a band?

A lot of the stuff that we do is because that’s just how we wanna do it and what we’re gonna do. We basically listen to our inner voice because we know what we want Slayer to be and how we want Slayer to sound like, and then on top of that, we are fans of the band. So when we are doing stuff and working on stuff we can look at everything with the eyes of a fan, ya know, we are fans of our own band.

So, we step back and look and listen and think, “Yeah, this is cool, this is Slayer.” So we refuse to change or do anything different other than just be Slayer. We don’t want to lose our hardcore fans, but we don’t look to them to influence how we are and what we do. We kinda just do it. I hope that doesn’t sound bad. You know what I mean? But we don’t look to get ideas or be influenced by the fans. It is more like we just do what we do and if the fans like it, great, and if they don’t, oh well.

I think that’s what’s always been awesome about Slayer. You guys just do whatever you want. You’re not trying to be something different or trying to change to please anybody, you just do what you do and that’s what works.

Yeah, and our fans have been very accepting of it. And I guess because of that they are a pretty rambunctious bunch.

That’s what’s awesome about going to see Slayer live. You never know what you’re going to expect from a Slayer crowd. How many times have we been at shows (non-Slayer shows) and you just get somebody in the crowd that screams, “Slayer!” and then everyone chimes in. That’s pretty awesome. Not a lot of bands have that.

No, there is one. And it is always one guy in a crowd, and he yells out “FREE BIRD!” That’s kinda cool. Ya know what I mean. [laughs]

Slayer and “Free Bird,” OK. Tom how does the music you like to listen to at home in turn influence Slayer’s music, and does it?

Wow. I’m more the lyricist in the band. I write lyrics. I also help and I collaborated a lot with Jeff. On this newest album, Kerry wrote a lot of the material and he had a lot of material written already. Kerry is the kind of the person that likes to write his own stuff unless he has music that is just music. But a lot of the stuff he usually writes he already has a lot of ideas for. I like to think that I make the songs better. I know Kerry wouldn’t agree with me, but I like to think that I make what he has penned – I like to think that I make it better. I rearrange. I rearrange lyrics. I change up the lyrics. I make them work and sound palatable.

I like to think that the music that I listen to is a subconscious; it helps me subconsciously as far as knowing what I want to hear and what I’m listening for. It is kind of weird to say this, but I like to sing, and I like to think that I’m putting some kind of melody into what it is I do. Ya know what I mean? And the feel and the meaning behind what I’m singing I like to make sure that I’m able to project those ideas and feelings by how I’m singing. And the music that I listen to I think, is a big part of that. I enjoy good music, period. And that is any music. Because there is good music and there is bad music. There’s great songs and then there is horrible songs. Music that I listen to, man, it is a variety of music.

Just the other day, my wife was listening to Brooks and Dunn. She was listening to George Strait and she always listens to Elvis. She listens to Pantera. You obviously get the idea that I’m not a radio head. I won’t take the time to put music on and listen to it on just the home stereo, but I’m more than happy to listen to whatever is being played on the stereo. So my music consists of all kinds of stuff. My daughter plays her music. My son likes his music, so I’m more than happy just to sit and listen to stuff. If it agrees with me and I like it, I’ll listen to it and pay attention. But if it’s something that’s eh, I’ll just tune it out. [laughs] After 50 years of living I’ve learned how to tune things out, [laughs]. I like to think by listening to a wide variety of music, it’s helped me do what I do as a singer for the band. Also, lyrically because I pay attention to lyrics and when I hear something I’ll sit there and ask, is this a lyric I just heard? They’ll go, yeah.

And I’ll just laugh because sometimes some of the lyrics some people write are kind of funny. And then there are some that are just really clever how they use rhymes. It’s not even rhymes, it’s more sounds. So those are the things that I pay attention to when I listen to music. But I listen to all kinds of music. I mean, I myself have the Beach Boys, I like the Beach Boys. I watched the movie Love and Mercy movie about Brian Wilson with John Cusack. Really, really good movie. I grew up in the sixties. I listened to the radio when I was little. I used to listened to KHJ which was a big, popular radio station in the sixties and they played everything. It wasn’t segregating like it is today. They played all kinds of music. That was my music. I used to listen to the radio all of the time. So I grew up with the ’70s, the hits of the ’70s. You know, so I’d like to think that all that helps me do what I do when I’m singing in the studio and listening for I don’t know what, but something that I know is going to sound great.

When Kerry first had ideas put together for the music and songs and I was listening to them, just music I was thinking oh my God, what’s it going to sound like in the studio? What’s the end result going to be? So I went in, we went into the studio and we recorded it, I worked on my ideas for his lyrics and worked on them and kept rehashing them and then thinking okay this sounds really good, this is Slayer. So I don’t know what I’m listening for, but when I hear it, I know it, and that’s when I know it’s Slayer.

The latest Slayer album is called Repentless, and it’s the first Slayer LP with Gary Holt. What aspects of his playing and personality made making the album a good experience?

Wow. Gary came in one day, sat down and started recording in the afternoon at maybe about 2 or 3 in the afternoon and then finished about 9, I think 9, 10, and took a late flight home. That was about what Gary did. Gary came in, listened to what he had to do, fiddled around a bit and then just cranked them out. I’m trying to think about how many songs. He did solos for, he did like seven or eight songs, just jammed out stuff. Gary felt that and again the idea behind the guitars or the guitars in Slayer for Kerry was that they would play to each other or against each other when they did solos. They would play to each other doing solos. And when we were with Kerry when we were finally finishing up the album Kerry had every intent of asking Gary to come in and said it would be great if you came in and played solos, if we played solos against each other because it would be very awkward if it was Kerry who played solos on the album. So I think that was kind of to break up the vibe in the studio as far as having another guitar player and jamming out some solos. But Gary has been an amazing addition to the band overall, period. He’s just an amazing player. And I remember sitting there listening to him jam out to stuff saying, “Aw this is great, this is great.” And Gary was just like, “Let’s try it again.” You know, and this is after a hundred million takes. I’m like, “Dude, I thought the first thing you did was great.”

Does that happen often where you do it a bunch of times and then you come back and it’s the first take that was the one?

That’s kind of how it is in the studio because the first one you don’t know what your are going to do, so you just do it and then you think this is great. And then you try to make that better. Or you’re trying to replicate what you just did. And it just never comes out the same. But he’s been a great addition to the band. For me it made life with Slayer easier and more comfortable. Considering what has gone on with the band in the last two or three years. But it’s made things, it made life with Slayer tolerable.

Talking about Jeff for a second, how conscious were you of the intangible aspects of Hanneman’s playing and personality once they weren’t there?

Kerry has a different style of writing compared to Jeff. I’m just going to leave it at that. They both have different styles of playing. Kerry’s is very chaotic, very fast and in your face. That was my concern, what are these songs going to sound like? He writes good songs and lyrically he writes great stuff too, but I was really thinking OK how is this going to sound? What is this going to be like? What’s a finished product going to be like? So that was one of my main concerns when we started working on the record. My thought was, that Jeff was definitely — you can hear that Jeff was not part of the record because of the songwriting style that was predominant on the album.

A lot of fast stuff, a lot of riffy stuff, which is how Kerry writes. That was my concern and like I said, I was like what’s this going to sound like? Then as we worked on the record and progressed on the record, and you know doing what I do and having a producer that sat there with me and listened, tell me and give me feedback. That’s what I like, having someone give me feedback and say I like how you’re doing this, I like where you’re going. Keep moving in that direction. Or, eh, you’re not convincing me. I’m not feeling it, why don’t we stop for today? Come back tomorrow and try it again. That’s the kind of stuff that was helping me with what I was doing in the studio. I didn’t get a lot of that on a lot of the other records, and I think this record lyrically and vocally I think was one of my favorite vocal recordings, period because of the producer, Terry Date, was just amazing help. He had an ear for melody and just paid attention, so I was really happy to have that.

On previous records, Kerry would say this is how I want it done and that’s how he expects it to be done. With this record, I kind of broke the mold on that because for one, we didn’t have Jeff. He needed to allow me to do what I need to do and what I do best, so I think that was my concern with this record. How everything was going to sound compared to a record that would have Jeff there. Jeff would come in and say, “Hey that sounds great.” He would give feedback. That was my concern, and like I said, Terry Date was there with me and listened to me and kind of guided me and allowed me to do what I did. I was very happy with what I did on this record. In the end, sitting back and listening to it, overall thinking oh my god this sounds really, really good. I really like how this is sounding. So the doubt about how the overall album was going to sound like went out the window. It was like, ok, this is really good, this is Slayer. Fans are going to like this because I like this.

Physically and mentally, for you Tom, what goes into preparing for a Slayer tour?

It used to be, we used to figure out a setlist or an idea of a setlist. Usually, that’s something Kerry likes to do, to put together a setlist or a list of songs that he think would be cool to play. Usually, what we do is we figure out what songs we haven’t played in a while. We figure out the list of songs, we’ll get that and I just start listening to them, doing homework. Start working on memorizing the songs, and that’s about it. Just getting a setlist, ideas of songs we’re going to play and listening to them over and over. It’s like anything else, you gotta get back on that bike and ride.

It seems like it’d be physically and mentally challenging, besides just getting ready for what you have to sing, it just seems like so powerful.

Preparing for it, a tour, there’s a lot of people that do things different. I don’t warm up. I’m the kind of person where I just go out and do it. Before a show. To me, everything for me happens before the show. It doesn’t happen a week before the tour. [laughs] it happens the day — once we get ready for this tour that we’re doing, it starts in Chicago. The first thing I’m going to do is fly in the day of production day and then we’re going to go over an idea of the set, and we’re going to go over the show production and make sure everything works and how we’re going to do the set, what the lighting guy is going to do. Then the sound guy has an idea of how the songs are going to go. Everybody cues in. Everybody is working on their spots. To me, the big day is the first show. That’ll be the night of the show, so that’s when the pressure gets to be a little, everything – it’s just nerves. I’m thinking, how am I going to do it? It’s gonna be a good show. I hope I don’t forget the lyrics. Hope I do this, hope I do that. My biggest concern is making sure I remember the lyrics to a song [laughs]. It’s more like, I suck in all that nervous energy and redirect it and use it in my favor. I don’t put a lot of pressure on myself if you can understand that, I just do it.

You guys have been doing it for so long, I have to imagine that it’s just something that maybe comes naturally.

I like to think it comes naturally. [laughs]

But I mean the way that you guys are together and performing together, it just seems like you guys are in sync with each other and just sort of works.

Yeah. That’s about it. I can understand, Paul warms up. He has this little practice kit, practice pad kit that he warms up on. Kerry will sit there and grab his guitar and warm up, a good hour before we play. He’ll sit there and literally plays the set in its entirety before we go out and play it. Gary just sits there and jams out on some stuff, plays leads. He jams out on songs that are stuck in his head. He’ll figure it out, I remember one time when he was practicing and warming up, he looked at me and goes check this out! He started playing this song, he goes, that’s Bryan Adams! [laughs] I looked at him, Bryan Adams? He goes, yeah – I was playing and played this little chord riff thing and it reminded me of that songs Bryan Adams does. So he picked out the whole song. [laughs] that’s just everybody focusing and doing stuff on their own. That was Gary. Then me, I just pace. I get really nervous. I pace. I guess I find a zone and then just wait for showtime. I try not to talk too much, save my voice.

That was something I learned from a doctor from a while back who told me, he said, “On show days try not to talk too much.” He asks, “Do you do interviews on show days?” I go, “Yeah.” He goes, “You might want to not do that anymore because it’s really not good for your voice if you talk all day and then you sing at night.” It was not only one doctor but a few doctors. I managed to lose my voice a few times along the way in the career of Slayer, literally lost my voice and gone to doctors the following day. They all tell me, you should use tapes, you should use this, that. I’m like, uh, no, we don’t do that. They say, all singers do that. I go, not this one. [laughs] I just get nervous and I just kind of anticipate getting on stage and singing that first song, then from there it’s like a roller coaster, it’s all downhill. We start picking up speed as we’re going down. Then we do the final loop at the end.

When bands form, people don’t necessarily think in terms of what it might be like to still play together 10, 20 or 30 years later. What aspects of the early days of Slayer have had the most lasting impact on the way the band functions today?

Oh wow. This band has been about just doing stuff. Doing it. I think that’s how this band has always functioned. It was never a big plan, it’s always just – someone says hey I got this, you want to do it? Sure. We’re going to set this up, you guys want to do it? Yeah. You guys ready to record a new album? Sure. And we just did it. We never sat down at a round table and said OK this is how we’re going to be, this is how the band is, these are the rules. It was never – you can’t have short hair, you always have to wear leather pants. None of that anything other than playing and doing it. When we came together as a band, we were a cover band. There wasn’t really any thought as to if we were going to start writing original material.

We just started doing cover tunes and we were jamming, playing shows at clubs and different things. Along the way, Jeff said, “Hey, I’ve got a song I wrote.” Then Kerry said the same thing. If someone says hey, I want you to do a single for an album, we did the single and they put it on an album. Then they’d say, hey if you have enough songs, I’ll do an album for you guys. So we wrote a bunch of songs and made an album. Hey I’ve got this tour lined up, do you guys want to do a tour? We’re like, OK. That’s basically how the existence of this band has been. We never sat down and second guessed ourselves, we just did it. We took things as they came and just kept doing what we do. That’d be Slayer. I remember one time I was doing an interview with somebody, and them asking, alright so what’s it been like? You guys have been together 25 years, what’s that like? I never took into account how long the band had been together at that point. It floored me when he said that. I’m like, 25 years? The guy laughed. He said, haven’t you even given that a thought? I was like, no one has thought about it until you just now mentioned it. I had to sit there and think, we’ve been together 25 years? That’s a long time.

That’s about the extent of where my thought went with that. Ever since then, I’ve had an idea that we’ve been around a while and then all of a sudden it’s five years later and we’re like, OK you guys have been around for 30 years now. How do you feel? It’s not something I think about. I don’t even think about my age until someone asked me how old are you? Then I have to do the math. It’s not something that’s on the tip of my tongue. How old are you? Uh, what year is this? It’s just not something I myself have ever thought about. It’s just something that I do and have been doing and not really given a thought as to how long or how much longer, we just do it. I’m sure there will come a day when we stop, but at the moment it’s not something I’m thinking about, I’m just doing. It’s like that NIKE logo. Just do it. Don’t think about the future. It’s like that saying, you don’t think about the future because it’s not here. There’s no sense in thinking about the past, because that’s behind you. You just do what you do and you do it now.

We talk about now, but when you guys were starting out, did you ever think in a million years that you’d still be doing it this many years later?

No. Like I said, none of us thought about that. I remember when that was brought up. Someone asked when we’d been together that long, it was like, same reaction from everybody. Wow, we’ve been together that long? No. By the time we did Show No Mercy, I was stoked. I was in a band, and there was vinyl and we had a record out. It had stopped there and had gone nowhere else but there, my life. I was satisfied. My life was fulfilled. I just wanted to be in a band and we had an opportunity to make a record. I was like, God, this is so cool. Then 9,10,11,13 albums later I’m like, we’re still doing records. It’s just not something we thought about, I don’t think any of us thought we’d be around this long. I can guarantee that none of us thought we’d be around this long.

Slayer has been playing a ton over the years and even still today with bands that you guys have been coming up with or newer bands. What do you feel like when you play festivals like that? Do you enjoy the camaraderie of knowing all these bands for so many years. Then when you guys go out it’s like, alright, now we conquer?

That’s it. That’s the mentality and how we’ve been as a band. We know other bands and we get along with other bands, but when you’re out and you’re performing on a festival date, you have to conquer. You want everybody to walk away going, that was a great festival, but Slayer ruled! You want to conquer. All’s fair in love and war. It’s about conquer. You want to be the best and I think that that’s something we’d always strived for whenever we’ve done anything, even when we do our own headlining tour and we have opening acts with us. I’d like to think that the openers go out there and they have that same mentality, to conquer. You don’t want to go out there and suck, you want to go out there and conquer because then the whole package is a good package because everybody has the chance to see these bands performing at their best and they all sounded awesome.

I’d rather hear that the whole, that it was a great show, the bands were awesome. That’s what I want to hear. I want to hear that everybody was awesome, that everybody liked all the bands. I don’t want to hear about eh, this band sucked. I can’t believe they brought this band with them, they’re horrible. That’s not the experience you want fans to have, whether they’re coming to a Slayer show or whether they’re coming to a festival. You want the fans to have the experience of every band was amazing. That made the entire festival memorable. So when we go out and play, wherever we’re playing, however the deal, whatever the setup is, we go to conquer.

We talked earlier about how Slayer is almost a whole genre of metal unto itself. What do you think makes this band command such enormous respect.

I think the fact that we don’t command it, and it’s just given to us. [laughs]

But you do get it.

Yeah, I think the fact that we do what we do and for one, we haven’t compromised who we are and what we do as a band. Not only as people as a band but as musicians in a band and the creators of the music in the band. We’ve never done anything to compromise what Slayer is about. Like I said, we just do it. I think that a lot of people admired that, especially our fans. They have a lot of respect for that. We’re Slayer and we’re not going to bow down to anyone.

What can you tell us to expect for beyond that? I know you guys have a lot of touring scheduled, and I know this record just came out but now that it’s happened, are you guys already thinking ahead to doing another record?

I’m not [laughs].

Ever or just not now?

No, just right now. I’m not thinking about a new record, I’m thinking about what’s going to be up for this year. I’m more concerned with what’s going to be going on with the new year and what we’re going to do. Even then, it’s more like, hey we’ve got this plan. How do you like it? This is what we got so far. That’s how I am. Even this North American tour, then deciding what songs. We’re doing four songs off the new album and then having just to figure out if we want to do more songs from the new album. Or, if we want to add new songs from the album and maybe retire. We’re doing four songs, and I know that there is another four songs that we’re thinking about playing live. The idea is, do we add them to the set? Or do we replace other songs that we’ve already been doing from the new album and replace them with these other songs? I’m sure that’s going to be discussed, actually, I fly to L.A. on Sunday. We’re going to be doing a video shoot, which will be a follow up to the “Repentless” video.

Such a good video!

I thought it was really cool, all that blood. [laughs]

So intense. I don’t know how often it is when you watch a video and your mouth is wide open and it just gets further and further open.

You guys are going to be in for a treat … I’ll be flying to L.A. on Monday and Tuesday to shoot two videos. Or at least our part of the video, which is the performance part. When we get together then, I’m going to share and I’m sure Kerry will have an idea or I can get him thinking on the idea of what songs we’re planning to do on this North American tour. Then for the rest of the year, usually we’ll figure out, we’ll pick out a good 25-30 songs, and just start rehearsing those songs and figure out what to do as far as a setlist. Like a core setlist that we’ll use for the rests of the year, then depending on where we play or how long we play, you add or subtract songs. Make the set longer or decide, let’s switch these songs out.

I wish it was just stuff you didn’t have to think about, because you just want to go out and play. But you don’t want to play the same songs all the time. Then there’s songs you have to play because if you don’t everybody will get mad. So working out a set there are songs you have to play and then there are songs that you as a band enjoy playing, and then there’s songs that you think OK, we haven’t played this in a while. We’ll see how that works out. So I’ll be seeing Kerry and we’ll be able to discuss songs and our list of songs that goes into the pot to decide what songs we’re going to playing.

Thanks to Slayer’s Tom Araya for the interview. The band’s ‘Repentless’ album is out now and you can pick up copies via Amazon or iTunes. Slayer are currently on tour with Testament and Carcass. Check out their dates hereFind out where you can hear Full Metal Jackie’s weekend show at this location.

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