Slayer is one of the most influential and successful thrash/death metal bands to emerge since the birth of the genre, and has effectively defined the genre from the early '80s to the present day. Most recently, Slayer achieved a couple of new career milestones – their album Christ Illusion scored Slayer's highest Billboard chart debut, at #5, and last February the band won its first Grammy, the “Best Metal Performance” award for the song “Eyes Of The Insane.” In July, Slayer will embark on a tour with Marilyn Manson taking them across the U.S. and Canada through early September. But first, the band's vocalist and bassist, Tom Araya, chats with us about Slayer's recent tour of Australia, the band's working relationship with uber-producer Rick Rubin, their history with TGI Friday's, and some of his preferred non-metal listening choices. As the backward chant says in the intro to Slayer's classic “Hell Awaits:” JOIN US!
Bullz-Eye: Hey Tom!
Tom Araya: Hey, how's it goin', Mike?
BE: Good, how you doin'?
TA: Doin' alright!
BE: I don't know if you remember, but I actually interviewed you in '98 in Providence, Rhode Island, so I'm psyched to be able to talk with you again.
BE: Yeah, at Lupo's.
TA: Yeah, I remember!
BE: You got Paul (Bostaph, Slayer's drummer at the time) to sign a drumstick for my brother.
TA: I don't remember (laughs).
BE: (laughs) Well, we never forgot that, that was really cool of you.
TA: Cool, cool, glad I could do that.
BE: So I just saw the press release on the tour that's coming up with Marilyn Manson. How did this tour come about, pairing you guys together with Manson?
TA: Well, I guess behind the scenes people talk, and somebody talked to somebody and this came out of that conversation, you know what I mean? That's what I can do to describe that. You know, it was our management and their management, obviously. They were interested in doing a tour, and our manager said, “what do you think?” And to me, I just thought the two names together made for an interesting evening, you know, I thought, wow, I thought it would be cool. I think it'll be cool.
BE: It certainly is provocative.
TA: Yeah, you know what I mean? I'm thinking there's probably a lot of fans who don't like the idea, but you know, it makes for an interesting show. The combination to me seems like an attention grabber. It's probably one that would garner an audience that probably wouldn't go to either band, and get a chance to see both of 'em.
BE: So do you or any of the guys in the band listen to Marilyn Manson?
TA: Not really. (laughs)
BE: So no chance of an on-stage collaboration or anything like that?
TA: Uh, nope! (laughs) But if you get a chance to interview Kerry (King, Slayer guitarist) you can ask him that question. But that's a definite no.
BE: So how did the tour in Australia and New Zealand go?
TA: Awesome! We had an audience of about 5,000 so I think we did great, and all the shows that we did were sold out.
BE: How are the fans there as far as their reactions, compared to fans in America?
TA: You know, it varies, kinda like it varies here in America. You got your loopy-loos, and then you got your thrashers, so for different reasons the fans are different, it's the same there. In Perth they were going nuts, they were pretty crazy. And in Sydney, the same. Brisbane, the same. They're crazy. Actually New Zealand was the same too. They all had the pits going, they were all coming over the barricade. It was like, every show had people coming over, so, there was activity.
BE: I've read a lot about how you guys are really into TGI Friday's. What's the story with TGI Friday's?
TA: The story with TGI Friday's is, that was a place that we would frequent at the bar, and it was a location that was convenient for everybody to drive home, and we became very good friends with one of the bartenders there. And actually we've known this guy for a long time. He's a really good friend, and he became the main bartender at that place. And in getting to know him, we got to know everybody there, and that's how the TGI Friday's thing happened. And in fact, with the tour for Divine (Intervention, Slayer's 1994 album), we frequented all TGI Friday's that were open that we were able to get to after a show. And that was because our friend worked at TGI Friday's. And that's the connection. His name is Aaron Boner.
BE: Is that still something you do today when you tour?
TA: No, we don't do that now. I don't do that. I think Kerry will check out a Friday's if it's near the hotel, depending on where we're at. But that usually happens in Europe, because in Europe the chances of having food that tastes like it's been made in America, and not foreign, we'll likely frequent those (laughs)
BE: So with the new record, Christ Illusion, how involved was (producer) Rick Rubin compared to previous records like Divine where he took a step back?
TA: He was just the same on this one. He wanted to hear material, we recorded it and played it for him, he wanted to hear more, so he said “write more songs, I want to hear more.” So we told him, “well, we like these songs, these songs are great. Out of all the songs that we came together, these are the songs that we like.” And his insistence was that he wanted to hear more songs.
BE: I've heard that he does that with other artists too.
TA: Yeah, he does that with everybody, you know what I mean? But to us, it's like, OK, we can give you more songs, but these are the ones. We got 10 songs for an album, you know? We can put more songs on there, but we really don't like those songs.
BE: At how many songs does he stop and say, “OK, we've got enough here, let's pick and choose”?
TA: I don't know, you know, I've heard rumors that bands will come up with 30 songs, 35 songs, however many songs, and then they take those songs and pick the best ones. To me that just doesn't make sense. Why would you do that? Why would you focus on all this stuff, and then pick out 10, 11, 12 that you like? And then the rest you have. You recorded 'em, you have 'em, but they're not as good as the ones you just picked for the album. So I thought that was odd. You put out an album with great songs, and then you're going to follow it up with all these other songs that were your second best.
BE: Or put 'em on a box set.
TA: You know, on God Hates (Us All, Slayer's 2001 album), we had 12 or 13 songs…
BE: Yeah, 13 with the intro.
TA: Then the Japanese import had all the extras. And on this album we have 10 songs. We did have 11, I just wasn't able to finish it because of my surgery (Tom had his gall bladder removed before he was able to complete vocals), so I wasn't able to finish that 11th song. And that's actually something we're going to do, go to the studio and finish up that song (“Final Six”), and there's probably a good chance that they'll reissue the album. But you know, we have a set number of songs and that's it, we don't like to do any more than those because, given more time, you come up with a really great song, yeah, you just keep adding it to the bunch. But you don't write 30 songs and then pick out your best ones, at least we don't do that. That's why Rubin at this point, for the past three or four years, we kept sending him the same songs and he said “I want to hear more.” But we like these songs, and four years later we're still liking them, you know what I mean? So we finally said, we gotta record it, and if you don't want to do this, we'd really really like you to come in and just do your magic, which is basically sounds, anything having to do with percussion, melodies, the rhythm of the melody, he's all into that. To me, that's what he's good at. He hears everything as it's being done, it all gets forwarded to him and he has his input. But he's not actually in the studio. He's more just taking what we've done, listens to it, and then lets whoever's working with us know what's going on and what he thinks.
BE: That must affect the gestation process for an album, it seems like there's a lot of time that goes by between albums, at least the last two (three years lapsed between Diabolus In Musica and God Hates Us All, and six years went by until Christ Illusion).
TA: Well, with the last album we were getting offers to do tours, and things were coming up, so we figured, let's just do tours. We hadn't really done a lot of touring. So we did like three years of touring with Dave (Lombardo, original Slayer drummer who rejoined the band in 2001 after almost 10 years away from the band) before we went to the studio to record the stuff. So Dave was familiar with the material. With the first tour we did with Dave, after that tour they got together and worked on the material and recorded the demos. And then we went ahead and did a couple more tours. They got together, and I would come in for a week, and we'd get together and go over everything and make sure everything was together, record it, go out on the road again and then do the same thing. We did that for three years.
BE: That's a long time!
TA: Yeah, you know, but we were happy with the material, we liked it. That's why we didn't have an issue with telling Rubin, “listen, if you don't want to do this, that's fine with us. We want you to do this, but if you don't, it's cool. Can we record the album?” And then he would say, “cool, you guys go and record the album.” Or he would say to find a producer, have him listen to it, and have him come back to me and see what he thinks. Which was awesome because we came in and we were set to record. We did a showcase, we played all the material for Josh (Abraham, producer of Christ Illusion as well as Velvet Revolver's Contraband), and he liked it. He was blown away. He said, “Rubin doesn't think you're ready for the studio?” We said no, what do you think? He said he liked it, thought it was amazing, sonically everything sounded awesome. He called up Rubin that night, the very next day he called us and said he had a studio booked for a week starting this Saturday, which was the day after the second night. I had been there two days, and the third day we were in the studio doing drum sounds and getting ready to lay down the tracks.
BE: So how involved were you this time compared with the last album (God Hates Us All)? You weren't really that involved in the last album at all.
TA: You can kinda hear it! (laughs) I wasn't that involved in the last record, and the records prior to that too (Diabolus In Musica and Divine Intervention). Things happen, you know what I mean? On this one, you can tell I was a part. It's noticeable, isn't it?
BE: There's definitely a difference. I've listened to it several times, and it almost sounds to me like there was a conscious attempt to bring back some of the spark that was there in the late '80s and early '90s.
TA: No, it wasn't a conscious attempt to do that at all.
BE: So it just kind of happened?
TA: Yeah, you know. 'Cause when we did Reign In Blood, South (Of Heaven) and Seasons (In The Abyss), that's basically how we did everything. We went in, we had ideas, everybody had their ideas depending on who wrote the songs.
(Tom excuses himself at this point to take another call coming in on his phone; 70 seconds later, we resume.)
TA: Hey. What was the question again?
BE: You were talking about the way you made records in the late '80s and early '90s versus the last one.
TA: It's hard to explain. Actually, we had a really good engineer (John Ewing Jr.) who recorded everything and was able to get really clean sounds. Listen to the drums – they just sound alive, because they were recorded in a live room, and you can hear every little sound, every little detail. You can hear the cymbals ringing out, you know?
BE: That was the first thing I noticed on the new record. Dave's drums, they just screamed at me.
TA: Yeah, and then everything else… the engineer we had was great, how he miked and recorded everything, the techniques he used to do that, sonically it helped. It sounds amazing. But we've always done everything the same musically, for every album. The music has always been done the same way, as far as being creative. But when we go into the studio and work out stuff, on South of Heaven and Seasons, I had a lot of liberty in working out (vocal) things, making sure they sounded good to me, making sure I liked them, and worked out things that to me really helped the song out a lot. I didn't really get any help or support as far as doing that for Divine, and then it got worse. And on God Hates, I wasn't really a part of that album at all, all the way around. So the songs, the way they were sung was because that's how they wanted them sung. It wasn't me working out the ideas, feeling them out and then trying to do the best performance I could, what I was feeling. And I did that with this album, with all the songs, and I think it's a noticeable difference.
BE: What exactly kept you from being able to do that on the last couple of records?
TA: We don't need to talk about that! (laughs) That's what you call compromise, otherwise it would end.
BE: That's fair.
TA: Yeah, and I proved my point! You know what I mean?
BE: So would you say everyone is still happy in the band?
"If I were to listen to anything I'd put in Jimi Hendrix The Ultimate Experience, you know, 'cause it has different recordings of the same songs everybody's heard!"TA: Yeah, we are. But you know, I proved my point. I'm being serious. After God Hates was done, I had a conversation with Jeff (Hanneman, Slayer guitarist), and I told him this album could be so much better. And I had a tape of stuff that I had done, my interpretation of the songs, and I said, “you need to hear these, because you didn't want to listen to them.” And he just kinda didn't say nothin'. But you know, you compromise, and if it's something you really enjoy and know what you're doing, you know, it doesn't sound bad but it could be better, and I proved my point. Because once we started working on this album, I said “this is how we're gonna do it, this is the way we're gonna do it. Let me do what I do, and I don't wanna hear any shit from anybody.” And you can hear it!
BE: It does sound different from the last two, and I enjoyed the last two, but this one here...
TA: Yeah, the last two were OK, but they could have been much better! (laughs)
BE: What have been your favorite songs to play from the new record so far?
TA: The songs that we play (live) actually. We play “Jihad,” “Cult,” “Eyes Of The Insane” and “Supremist.”
BE: And those are all going over well?
TA: Yeah, actually they go over really well.
BE: I unfortunately haven't been able to attend any of the shows.
TA: We just started recently playing all four of those songs. We were just doing two, and then we were doing three, and then we added a fourth one. Yeah, they get a real good reaction, all of 'em do, which surprises me. It's kind of surprising the response that we get, because the minute we start, it's the roar, you know what I mean? And it's really cool.
BE: I saw you on either the first or second tour after Dave was back with the band (in 2003). You were doing the entire Reign In Blood album as an encore, and that was a real surprise to me. How did that come about?
TA: We did it for two shows in England. I think that was the Jagermeister tour. We played those two shows in London, and then we were scheduled to do a tour in the fall, so we thought, why don't we end it with that? Because we had all this blood and stuff, and it looked really cool. We were able to play it in some places, but not everywhere. But it's a really cool effect, where it's raining onstage.
BE: It's not something I'm used to hearing, a band playing an entire album.
TA: That particular idea was mentioned to us by our European agent, and he said that so and so played an entire album in sequence, and he thought that would be a really great idea for us to do. And that's what sparked that idea, as far as doing an entire album. So the next time we were in London, we figured we'd do that, and it worked really well. So we thought we'd do it for the Jagermeister tour, and then that's it, just do it for that and it's a one-time deal.
BE: I think we have five minutes left, so I'd like to ask this question. What are you listening to these days when you're not listening to your own stuff or metal in general, or any guilty pleasures you have?
TA: I really don't take control of the radio or the CDs or the stereo. So if I were to listen to anything I'd put in Jimi Hendrix The Ultimate Experience, you know, 'cause it has different recordings of the same songs everybody's heard! (laughs) But you know, I'll listen to Hendrix, the Beatles, the Doors, Creedence Clearwater Revival, you know, stuff like that. I've been out of the hut and finally found out about a band called the Squirrel Nut Zippers.
BE: Oh yeah, the swing band!
TA: Yeah, they're fucking amazing! I finally found two albums of theirs, so I bought 'em. I just listen to good music, no matter what it is. 'Cause my wife puts on country. She's a big metal head, but she loves country. So I hear country songs all day long sometimes. But then you get your Megadeth, Pantera, Metallica, early Metallica. So a wide variety of music is what I listen to. I mean there's a couple of really cool songs, and they're old now, but I think they're great. Like “Gold Digger,” by Jamie Foxx and Kanye West. That's a pretty cool song. And then there's the band D-12.
BE: I haven't heard any of the D-12 stuff yet.
TA: One of the songs the kids listen to, it's fuckin' hilarious. And there's that Justin Timberlake song.
BE: I'm bringin' sexy back?
TA: Yeah! (laughs) “I'm bringin' sexy back, those motherfuckers don't know how to act!”
BE: That's a fun song.
TA: It is! Listening to the rhythms and the melodies, I'm curious as to whether he actually wrote the song, and what part he contributed to the song, you know what I mean? 'Cause he's got some cool little things in there, the cadence of the melodies, all the different little sections work together. And it all follows the beat and the groove of the song. Yeah, it's a good song. It doesn't matter what it is, or what style, or classification or category you want to give it.
BE: Does the family get into the Slayer records, like when you have a new record?
TA: Usually they don't like to listen to anything until it's done. They would rather hear it when it's done, as opposed to what I'm working on and what it's sounding like. But they get into it, yeah. They listen to Slayer.
BE: So you've got metal-head kids?
TA: Yeah, their taste in music is just as broad as ours, you know, they listen to country, you name it. They've got their favorites. My son, not too much country.
BE: So you've got a son and a daughter?
TA: Yeah. My daughter likes everything, and my son's not too hip on country.
BE: What's it like for them being kids of someone famous, going to school with everyone knowing? Do they get a lot of attention for that?
TA: If they do, they don't tell me. You know, “Dad!” (laughs)
BE: You're just “Dad” to them!
TA: Yeah, I'm just “Dad.” “That's what my Dad does.” It's nothing else to them other than that.
BE: Well, I don't want to keep you long as I'm at our time limit here, so I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me today. Good luck with the tour when that starts in a couple of months.
TA: Yeah, in July.
BE: I'm looking forward to seeing you guys and hearing when the next Slayer record comes out.
TA: Alright, you take care!