None more heavy. None more terrifying. None more pitch black. We spoke to Kerry King in 2008 and never posted the piece online. Here it is. Salute their bloody reign.
Words John Doran
Illustration Philip Mount
If you want the measure of any established band, ask them to sign an album for you. Tom Araya, Slayer’s hellaciously cheerful bassist and singer, rushes about looking for a better pen, so the sleeve will look good. Jeff Hanneman, the group’s least visible member and guitarist, complies with one deft flick of the wrist, his face hidden behind shades, not registering any kind of acknowledgement. Dave Lombardo, drummer and bona-fide musical genius of the group, looks surprised that you would even ask: “What? Oh, sure dude!” Kerry King, the on-stage focal point and de facto leader, looks at the pen we proffer him and relishes saying, “I ain’t using a fountain pen. Fuck that shit!” He fetches a sharpie out of the voluminous pockets of his camo combat trousers and signs happily. Everyone in the room lets out a giggle, probably all reflexively remembering the spoken word intro to ‘Die By The Sword’: “They say the pen is mightier than the sword / I say fuck the pen! / Because you can die by the sword!” Tom arrives back with a magic marker and offers us beers. “Drink as much Bud as you want but leave me the Heineken,” he says.
But why are we here, two decades after the peak years of thrash metal, sitting backstage at the Hammersmith Apollo? Why is the venue packed to the gills with 14-year-olds and 44-year-olds alike bowling round the corridors shouting “Slayarrrrghhhhhh!” gleefully in each others’ faces like they’ve just had a fat line and won the lottery? Why am I gripping a freshly signed copy of Reign In Blood like it’s the recipe for eternal life? To answer that you need to go back 22 years to the release of the very same album.
The LP to some — me included — is not only the greatest heavy metal album of all time, but one of the greatest albums of all time, full stop. Rick Rubin, who signed them to American, is often criticised as being kudos-hunting, excess baggage behind the desk, but his effect on the group sonically as well as commercially was undeniable. From the opening riff of ‘Angel Of Death’, the 28-minute long album is like a tyre-iron to the teeth. Despite the insanely high rate of BPMs, all of Araya’s lyrics are instantaneously audible and Lombardo’s preternaturally skillful drumming is very high in the mix with horrific sounding echo on the floor toms and machine-gun snap on the snare. Hanneman and King are at the height of their game here, and although they’re not extremely technical guitarists, they wrench almost obscenely effecting solos out of their instruments, upping the ante for each other with every burst of atonal noise and each shard of sense defying shredding.
Of course, Rubin would have time to regret making Araya’s vocals very clear at leisure. The opening track concerned concentration camp scientist, Josef Mengele, the so-called Nazi ‘Angel of Death’. “Auschwitz, the meaning of pain / The way that I want you to die” left little to the imagination and immediately caused one hell of a stink. Thrown into the mix was apocalyptic artwork of a goat-headed demon giving a Nazi salute in a Hieronymus Bosch landscape of Hades (including what looks like a miserable Prince Charles and Mark E Smith standing with erections in a lake of blood), which heightened the controversy. Quite rightly, sensitivities ran high about fascist music during the mid-eighties and there were many organisations dedicated to shutting down bone-headed far-right skinhead bands.
Slayer weren’t about preaching to their fans, however — they just held a mirror up to all of Western society’s worst atrocities, including the Holocaust, and used the resulting imagery to add to their sonic harshness. They realised that being bombarded by two hours’ worth of Slayer was one of the most cathartic experiences your average punter could undergo. Considered in that light, it was a positive rather than negative thing.
But left-wing groups refused to see that there was a huge gulf between singing about something and actually being it. The group became public enemy number one. Whatever the band’s intentions, CBS — the major who distributed American’s releases — downed tools and refused to press the record up. As always, this had the opposite effect of the intended one; Geffen signed the band in a hailstorm of publicity and the record not only became the thrash album that all others had to be judged by, it’s also almost entirely responsible for the birth of death metal. (This was also, it should be pointed out, just one of several peerless albums they released, including Seasons In The Abyss and Hell Awaits.)
It’s often hard to get a feel for outrage years after the fact, but listening to the track ‘Raining Blood’ even now immediately gives you a visceral sense of why the band’s Christian right detractors saw them as evil incarnate. Perhaps it was inevitable given that it was an early song of theirs — ‘Hell Awaits’ — which reignited the whole trend among evangelists to seek out subliminal or back-masked messages in heavy rock music. The truth of the matter, however, was that Slayer were and still are a secular humanist band of the highest order, even if that sometimes came as an unintended by-product of the desire to shock. They realised that, although we could live in paradise, we live in a hell of our own making. And although the original idea of damnation was just the concept of absence of God, the religious orthodoxy chose to believe that we weren’t being punished enough and created the abhorrent idea of eternal torture. Add to that the cataclysmic failure of all of the grand political schemes of the 20th Century and you have a band railing against a bleak world of utter atrocity.
Like any savvy metal group, Slayer knew that a bit of controversy was a good thing as well and that anyone with any sense would be able to tell they weren’t actually Nazi Satanist child killers. On the subject of the great horned one, Kerry King has always said that he doesn’t believe in God. By default, he doesn’t believe in Lucifer either, but he sings about him because “it’s more fun”; a case of the devil having the best tunes, perhaps. Tom Araya, a practicing Christian, goes even further saying they are all very well adjusted with nothing in the way of “hidden demons”. Anyone who has seen them recently will surely know that the band (now all in their mid-to-late forties) can still easily cope with being in Slayer as a touring band. But if all of them are happy, relaxed middle-aged men, surely it must take even more effort to get into that zone of evil; that zone of, well, Slayerishness.
King, who is a lot more friendly and accommodating than many might suppose, says, “The only hard thing about it is the beginning of the tour. Stuff hurts. You’ve got to get your neck happening, you’ve got to get your back happening, you’re gonna get leg cramps from having to stand in that way. Even in practice, you’re not standing like you would in a full-on show. Last night was the first night that didn’t hurt and it felt good.”
It would be a lie to suggest that the band — one of the big four along with Anthrax, Metallica and Megadeth — have always been as popular as they are now, but they are one of the few groups that came through in the eighties and successfully weathered the lean years of the nineties. By that I mean they survived the twin threats to the genre – nu metal and alternative rock/grunge — to become critically and commercially reborn with 2001’s God Hates Us All and Christ Illusion (2006). And they did so without employing a DJ with an incorrectly directioned baseball cap or by wearing plaid shirts.
“God Hates Us All was the start of the rejuvenation for us,” says King. “It was the end of a dark time known as nu metal — bands like Limp Bizkit — when everyone started to see through the nightmare. People just kind of went, ‘Oh, it’s not really music, is it?’ I think it started with Disturbed and, what’s the other one? Godsmack. They were heavier rock-type bands and I saw that they were getting really popular. I was, like, ‘Metal’s going to be right on the tails of this.’ Kids outgrow stuff and get into crazier stuff that their crazier friends are into, and I saw they would use this as a springboard to get into metal.”
It should say something about the renewal of interest in the group that they are headlining their third Unholy Alliance package tour, and with increasingly youthful support bands: “First time it was us and Slipknot who are much younger than us. Then it was In Flames who are also younger, now it is Trivium who are even younger still. So it’s more of a different generation of bands thing.”
When The Stool Pigeon went down to the Apollo en masse to watch the diabolically fantastic spectacle, several of the hardier sorts braved the pit only to emerge with bust lips and clattered noses. Not that this seemed to faze them at all — they came back wearing their facial injuries like badges of honour. “I’ve seen that a million times, man,” says King, laughing. “People are stoked.”
He admits that the shows aren’t as violent as they used to be in the late eighties, however, when to enter a Slayer pit was to take your life into your own hands: “Maybe there is more looking going on. People want to see the spectacle that Slayer is. And I think they pick and choose their songs; it really depends. Yesterday, there were a lot of people watching and then I think we did ‘Raining Blood’ and there was a gigantic tornado of people going on. So I think maybe they just waited for the song that they wanted to go off for. But there are no rules out there and the cool thing is that Tom will never tell people what to do. He just says, ‘Have a good time,’ and that’s it. He doesn’t say, ‘Form a circle pit right now,’ or, ‘I need to see all the people over there go like this…’ Cheerleading as I call it. I think people are there to see us do what we do, not to have us tell them what to do.”
However you look at it, a Slayer gig is something completely unique and provokes a berserk loyalty that is extremely rare. Going even further still, I’d say the camaraderie amongst Slayer fans is pretty much unparalleled. As soon as you’re in a show, it doesn’t matter where you are, someone will start bellowing “Slayaaaarrrggghhhh!” in your face. King agrees. “You hear it at a random show where we’re not playing,” he says. “A buddy of mine took his daughter to see Britney Spears and he heard someone shouting ‘Slayer!’ in the middle of it. They’re a strange bunch.”
When dealing with a group who are so obsessed with the cruel indignities of life and a forensic fascination with death itself, it is perhaps only natural that the lifespan of the group itself should be considered. Speaking earlier in the year, Araya said he found the idea of 50-year-olds head-banging “cringe” inducing, causing most media commentators to presume that the band have only got one album left in them. While agreeing that the band have a limited life-span, King suggests that perhaps there’s a bit more on the horizon for his beloved group than just one more record: “We’ve only played together for the first month in 13 months of not playing together recently. I had the first vacation of not playing in my life. We’re talking of going in the studio next February and getting the next record out, so if we do things in a timely manner I don’t see any reason why we can’t do more than one album. If we do get a record out next year before the summer time when we tour — and everything’s pointing to yes — I’d want to start working on another one immediately, because we’re all having a good time. The show last night was a blast and the show tonight is gonna be a blast, too.”
A final question: what would you do in the unlikely event of meeting God after you die? King laughs and shrugs: “I guess I’ll say, ‘Sorry, dude! I just didn’t believe it.’”