Kerry King Interview: Metal Hammer, June 2001
It's 1980. You're pissed off with limp-wristed metal and bored with pretentious punk. What do you do? You invent the sound that changes a generation. Neil Kulkarni meets Slayer, the true lords of thrash metal.
Slain. Again. While meeting your heroes is so often a disappointing demystification, this is perhaps the most inspiration half-hour chat I've had in far too long. And not just 'cos it's with Kerry King, the guy responsible for all the neck trauma that you got through the 80s. The guy responsible for waking you up to the fact that metal had changed - that it wasn't poodle-cuts and piddly-widdliness any more and was actually right in the street you were walking down. It's not the most inspirational interview I've done in a while because he held my hand and shared something intimate. It's inspirational because he barks out answers like a boot-camp sadist and because King is a million miles away from the mawkish self-aggrandisement that's pretty much compulsory for all nu- metal bands. The gnarly old fucker simply rips apart any question that he considers beneath him and delivers a torrent of invective about anything that grabs his fancy. A fucking professional, in other words. Makes one hell of a change in this day and age.
But then, what else d'ya expect from Slayer? The most consistently rewarding thrash band of their generation, and perhaps the only band of their era to survive the ensuing explosion in all things rawk with no compromise and their (dare we say) dignity intact. A quick note of bias: Slayer are the reason I'm here. They were the first truly all-out metal band I really got into and the only white-guys beyond the Beasties I'd listen to in my B-boy intransigence. Yeah, it was 'Reign In Blood' that got me and still gets me every time I hear it. Its 26 white-hot minutes are still, I reckon, the best speed-metal of all time. What people tend to forget about Slayer is that they keep making some of the best speed metal albums of all time. Their latest, 'God Hates Us All' is a stunning reinvigoration of the Slayer blueprint, once again possessed of a feral incisiveness no other band can quite approach. This time they've extended their customary lyrical mordancy into more personal, almost blues-like territory. It's another triumph. Another reminder of who rules this burg. And this summer's Extreme Steel tour with Pantera, Morbid Angel and Static-X should serve to confirm that for anyone who's forgotten. No wonder the avuncular bald-headed human bullet across the table from me at the Hammer offices looks a happy man.
"Every album for us is a refinement of what we do," explains King, in a voice that suggests that nothing gets past him and you'd better not fucking try it. "Obviously you want to grow musically, you want to move things on. It's just that many bands feel guilty if they aren't trying new things and try and overcompensate by 'progressing' or some bullshit like that. 'Progressing' normally means doing things you're not good at - we're not gonna suddenly do an album of ballads just to progress, we know that what we're best at and what we love is incredibly aggressive, fast, heavy music. I'd say 'God Hates Us All' is the heaviest album we've ever done, up there with the real early stuff. Thing is, it's kinda weird that we always have to talk about albums like they're a big marker for the band. I still don't feel like that kind of band - waiting around on our asses for three years to release an album. Slayer still feels to me like it always has, a band that has to play live, be out there fucking doing it, to matter. 'God Hates Us All' is a snapshot of us at this point in time. Every album has been just that, a snapshot. So what kind of spot-diagnosis of the Slayer camp does 'God Hates Us All' serve up?
"That we're all still pretty pissed off with the world. That we're playing our music better than ever. That we've all grown a little bit. The lyrics on this album are a lot more personal than they have been in the past. In the past, when we've been pissed off, we've tended to be abstract about it. I'd dig out my thesaurus and find somebody to blame. There's less of that on the new album - it's more how we talk, more conversational. Everything gets in there but there's no satanic or supernatural elements to it, it's just more about things people can relate to. All our albums are angry but this one is really pissed off because it's inward-looking. It's about how we're all fucked and how stupidity rules the way things work. An understandable sentiment given what's happened to Slayer recently - something that would tear bands of lesser-mettle apart.
In '95 the Pahler case came into Slayer's life and threatened to end it. It was a sordid, senseless story of a 15-year-old girl, Elyse Pahler, who was ritually murdered by three teenage boys in California who then went on to blame their crime on the influence of Slayer's music. A lawsuit claiming Slayer and their record label were partly to blame for the murder was brought by the girl's parents David and Lisanne Pahler, accusing the band, Columbia Records and Sony Music, of violating California's Business and Professions Code by marketing and distributing harmful and obscene products to minors, specifically by marketing "death metal to "severely and emotionally disturbed adolescents. The three convicted killers - now serving sentences of 25-years-to-life in separate California prisons, are also named as defendants in the suit for inadequately supervising their children.
According to the homicide investigation following the discovery of Pahler's body, the three boys indulged in drinking and drug use, truancy, the torture of animals and "bizarre and often criminal activity involving satanic worship practices... evidenced by their attire, bedroom decoration, and school materials. American Recordings (Slayer's old label), Rick Rubin (producer of some of Slayer's finest albums), and the band's various producers, record companies, publishers and distributors are all fair game according to the suit. In their admission statement, the killers - Royce Casey, Jacob Delashmutt and Joseph Fiorella - all claimed that they were following specific instructions found in Slayer's songs such as 'Altar of Sacrifice', 'Kill Again', 'Tormentor' and 'Necrophiliac' when they stalked, raped tortured and murdered Pahler on July 22, '95. They allegedly believed that performing these acts, they'd receive the power to lead their own death meal band, Hatred, to success, citing the lyrics to 'Born Of Fire'. It reads: Spewing out death with the evil I've churned/Love turns to lust the sensations I've felt/Exploring the pleasures of sin/Making the best of the cards I've been dealt/Adjusting the odds so I win.
Of course the whole story is revealing, but curiously not of Slayer (if anything, King's good humour seems to suggest the case is a universe away). What it reveals is a US justice system that enables people to welch on their responsibilities, cheapen an already tragic scenario for gain and exploit their own bereavement for a quick buck. All very anger-inducing, all very corrupt, and all very good fuel for Slayer's angriest album yet. 'Cos they're punks. They always have been.
Time for a bit of reconnaissance for you little tinkers too young to remember. "We grew up on punk says Kerry. "Punk and British heavy metal. When NWOBHM got stupid, when it started talking about shit we couldn't identify with and making music that seemed to care more about how many notes there were than actually communicating anything we decided to rip into it with the attitude we got from punk. That's basically what we did. And that's what started speed-metal.
Neatly put. Slayer came together (King and Jeff Hanneman on guitars, long time cohort Tom Araya on bass and vocals and Dave Lombardo the ill-fitting drummer) in LA's Huntington Park suburb in '82 playing Maiden, Priest and punk covers. Signed to Metal Blade in '83, they recorded an album, 'Show No Mercy', that pretty much invented thrash. "People always say that but it didn't even have a name then," insists King. "No one else was doing what we were doing - and I don't think anyone ever has done it quite like us. For us it was about the fact that punk had disappeared and metal had lost its connection with the street. We played live almost incessantly with no money and it was then that the Slayer dynamic really got worked out. I listened to 'Show No Mercy' the other day and it fucking rules. I'm not that keen on 'Hell Awaits' (the '85 follow-up) but 'Haunting The Chapel' (the classic '84 EP) still kicks ass. We're still playing songs off that - 'Chemical Warfare', 'Captor Of Sin'. That's the weird thing looking back, there's still loads of shit I'd like to re-do, get right. I don't feel in any way ashamed about anything we've done 'cos it's always been honest.
It was in '85 when Slayer were contracted by Def Jam wnderkind Rick Rubin that the whole story took a more revelatory turn. Slayer were Rubin's first metal band, his first break from producing the second-wave of hip-hop revolutionaries tearing the genre apart. That Rubin found Slayer at the absolute top of their form is one of the great serendipitous moments in rock history and it's why I'm here today. "Really? Cool, that's cool, that album was a lot of things coming together at the same time. In '86 no one was gonna bother actually putting in some work to produce a thrash album. Rick did. He really took care over it and at the time we had some fucking awesome songs we wanted to record. From the beginning we've always divided up the writing duties on the albums just to make things less boring for the listener and for us. 'Reign In Blood' is where that really came to the fore - we were all writing different kinds of songs but they all came together with this definitive Slayer sound. People ask us if we've been trying to top it ever since. I just think you have to look at the whole body of work from start to finish and then decide.
Speaking of which '88's 'South Of Heaven' seemed to many Slayer fans to be a step back, a slower aftershock after 'Reign In Blood's revolution. Looking back King admits it marked a change.
"Basically it was the only album we did that we thought about before we did it. We actually sat down and said: 'Right. This album's gonna be slower than the last one.' I guess we didn't want to get fenced in and the album suffered because of that. We tried things that didn't necessarily work. Straight after it came out we started touring the world and I don't think we've stopped yet. Touring is where we have to be, it's what we love. We did the 'World Sacrifice' tour in '89 and then the 'Clash Of The Titans' tour in '91 after 'Seasons In The Abyss' ('90's ripsnorting return to form). It nearly tore the band apart.
Dave Lombardo had never really fitted in to the Slayer camp: by '92 the increasing fractiousness that had always marked Kerry, Tom and Jeff's relationship with their sticksman escalated beyond boiling point.
"Basically, if you're in Slayer you've got to make sacrifices," says King. "It needs 100 per cent dedication to the cause. Dave was turning up for shows and just fucking it off, not playing as well as he could, just not up to the levels we were aiming for. Paul [Bostaph, Slayer's current drummer who they recruited from Bay Area thrashers Forbidden in '92] came in and gives it everything.
He chuckles and you notice that same bullshit-free plain speaking that has won Slayer few friends in the biz. Slayer have always seemed to come from the left- field, to be a supremely aware yet totally isolated band, as unconcerned with making friends as they are with making enemies (just ask a Metallica fan).
"We've just had to put up with a lot of bullshit about the band simply because a lot of the time don't engage in the whole rumour mill," says King about their dissident status. "We're confident the fans can see through it. In '92, when Dave left and we'd wound up all our appearance, everyone in the world was saying we'd broken up. They say it every few years when they haven't heard from us. It's just bullshit. Splitting with Dave would've been a convenient time to call it a day, but we still believed totally in the music and we were sounding better than ever. As 'Divine Intervention' proved. Described as the 'Reign Of Blood' of the '90s, 'DI' was a lot more than that. It signalled a new lease of life for the band that '94's 'Undisputed Attitude' (a bruising collection of punk covers) and '98's 'Diabolus In Musica' only consolidated. For King, after nigh-on two decades building the dream, it's not just a matter of settling into their roles as rock statesmen, curators of the thrash legend.
"That's just dead. We're still fans. I played whole Ozzfest tour last year and I couldn't say one word to Sabbath 'cos I was so fucking scared of them. I was like a little kid with my autograph book. We're still fans. We still get pissed off when bands fuck up and go off the boil. If I ever though anyone was doing what we do better than us, I'd think about stopping or selling out. But none of that shit ever occurs because we're just not made like that. We started off pissed off, we've stayed pissed off, and the whole notion of 'comfortable success' make us puke.
Since Slayer last dropped, metal has undergone something of a commercial explosion. Have the pioneers of the '80s underground metal revolution been listening?
"Sure I've been listening. As to whether I keep listening to it and don't turn off after a while is another matter. Some bands just totally rock my world though - you have to be excited about someone 'cos there is so much stuff out there.
"Slipknot fucking destroy me. I listen to them and even I feel intimidated. I feel like: 'Fuck, these guys are really pulling something out of the hat here.' They just came out of nowhere and the album is so fucking powerful. Every time I see them live it's incredible. They're a band I'm as obsessed with as the bands when I was growing up. And, like us, they got heard with no help from anyone. Even now, we're never played on the radio or MTV - we've had to rely on word-of- mouth and live shows to get fan base.
Could a band as against the grain as Slayer were in '82, get heard again now?
"Well, Slipknot managed it. But yeah, I don't really think we'd make the same impact now because what we basically invented has now become a whole genre. But every time things get real fucking bad - and you could say that right now things are on the side of commercialism - there's always a reaction, a 'fuck you!' from people left out.
As Kerry leaves, I ask when he'd consider giving the whole thing up. "When we look fucking ridiculous on stage. We can still play as fast, as loud and as hard as any other band on earth. But when I'm in a zimmer frame and the rest of the guys are wheezing I think it'll be time to call it a day. Not for a long time yet 'cos none of us know where we'd be without it. We need this. This noise.
We all do. And Slayer have delivered it for longer than anyone. God may hate us all but the devil still has the best tunes. Manna from hell, on tap for some time yet, from heroes who actually live up to their mythology. Once again, slain.