It's been a hellish year for the band from hell.
The mighty Slayer has endured both loss of one founding member and controversy swirling around another.
In February, original drummer Dave Lombardo, who had been in and out of the band numerous times and was no longer considered a "partner" in the business sense, picked a financial dispute with the band and was fired overnight. He went public with a Facebook post that shared secrets about band business and his impersonal dismissal -- a letter from a lawyer -- generating outrage and sympathy among fans.
Then in May, guitarist and songwriter Jeff Hanneman died of liver failure after an extended illness that included a flesh-eating disease from a spider bite. Gary Holt, of Exodus, has been in his spot since early 2011.
How long that continues is up in the air, as the two remaining principals of the legendary thrash band, singer-bassist Tom Araya and guitarist Kerry King, have expressed some doubt about the group's future.
In the meantime, the 32-year-old Slayer, one of the Big Four thrash bands (with Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax), soldiers on with its dark, punishing live shows, this time dipping into a self-described "old school" set. Slayer, which had been on a pace of three or four albums per decade since the '80s, is working on the follow-up to 2009's "World Painted Blood" and parsing through what Hanneman left behind.
All that said, in a phone interview, Mr. Araya, who, in contrast to his stage demeanor, has one of the heartiest laughs you'll ever hear, was anything but somber about the state of Slayer and his musical future.
I understand you might be playing some deeper stuff?
Yeah. Kerry came up with an old-school set for the second show we did in LA, and promoters got wind of it, so they asked if we would do that at their shows. We figured this was a really cool set to do. We don't have any [new] material out, and this year marks 30 years of "Show No Mercy," and we figured that would be cool to do. Now we find ourselves doing an old-school set everywhere.
What did it take to prepare that? Did you have to relearn the songs?
Yeah, you have to. There's songs we haven't done in a while, so you gotta get back on that bike and ride that bike. You have do homework and become familiar with the songs again. Usually, it comes back naturally.
You have the hard part, remembering the lyrics.
[Laughs] Yeah, I'm the one who has to do the homework, because I have to play and sing. Some of the songs come easier. Some of them I have to have a cheat sheet.
You're in the midst of what has been a tough year. What is the mood of the band like?
Well, we're thankful that we're out here playing. Me and Kerry have a lot of dialogue to cover about how the band moves forward. We haven't really had a chance to communicate between the two of us. We've had to take care of some business, and some of the business is doing the shows we're doing now. Three weeks after Jeff passed away, we had two European tours scheduled, a South American tour and then this tour. So, first and foremost we're trying to take care of the business at hand.
Does his death put some doubt into the future for you guys?
I don't know. I don't know. Like I said, me and Kerry have to sit down and talk and see what we want to do. It definitely changes things. [Jeff] founded the band and we stuck it out. The three of us, we had drummer changes, but we rode the wave out together. We were all young. I was 20 and they were 17, 18. And for the past 30 years we grew up together. We stuck through thick and thin. We made it last 33 years.
I understand he's made some contribution to what you're doing next.
We started working on an album like a year and a half ago or so. At the time it was Kerry and Dave, they were in the studio. They were actually writing stuff, then they went in and demo-ed stuff. Jeff, on a few occasions, he also went into the studio and demo-ed some ideas. But in the course of all that, whenever we were rehearsing, getting ready for tours, we always asked Jeff, "Hey, why don't you come in and jam with us just to see how you feel about playing." He always opted out on the tours and decided he needed more time. In the process of coming in to rehearse, or attempting to rehearse with us, he would play some of his music. He had some really good stuff there. I was trying to find it, [laughs] because he demo-ed his stuff at home with guitars, bass and drums. He would play stuff for us. Now it's a question of finding what he used to play for us and see how far along it is, or if it's a complete song. But there's some stuff there. There's a song we didn't finish that didn't make the "World Painted Blood" album. It's a Jeff composition. And then a month and a half before he passed away, he had put together a song that he played for everybody, and everybody got a copy of it. I thought it sounded great.
In the revolving drummer slot, what is the difference for you between playing with Dave or Paul [Bostaph]?
Wow ... Paul is really energetic. He's on top of the beat. He tends to play slightly faster [laughs], which is great. It's good for me. I like that, because the songs have a little more energy when they're played faster than what they had been. So, Paul's excited, he excitable, and he's bringing new energy to the band. He's an excellent drummer, he's every technical, and when we're playing a song, you know he's going to be there, at the same tempo, the same speed.
I don't how much time you spend on the Internet, but comment sections can get crazy. I don't know if you pay attention to them or not, but there's some backlash from Slayer fans about what happened with Dave.
I'm well aware of it. I aware of it because my daughter will tell me, "Hey, they posted your interview" and then she tells me about the comments. Yeah, I'm aware of it. Well, what are you gonna do? Fans, not necessarily Slayer fans, but fans in general of a certain style of music can be pretty brutal. If you're familiar with that, then you're familiar with Dave's Facebook rant. He went out and put his situation out in the court of public opinion. And I hate to say this to people who obviously have definite opinions about Dave being in the band, [but] public opinion is not how you run a business. Especially a business between four people. That's not how you do business. Politics is about and for the people, so you're going to want the court of public opinion. But when it comes to a band, when no one knows what's going on or what the real issues are, it bugs me a little, but we're Slayer, and the attitude that Slayer has always had is, you know ... whatever, [expletive] you, [laughs heartily], you know what I mean, and our fans are no different.
So, you're not getting this at shows or anything? This isn't something that happens in real life?
No, ah, we couldn't care less. I myself couldn't care less. I'm very thankful for the people who do come to the show because without them we wouldn't have been here for 30 years. And every night, that's the first thing I do, I'm thankful for people coming to the show, because if they didn't buy tickets, we wouldn't be there.
On a lighter note -- I think -- that picture of you and your family at the Grammys [with the caption "You could be in Slayer: And your teenage daughter will still think you're lame"] is one of the funniest things I've ever seen on the Internet. What was happening in that photo?
Yeah, it's funny because whoever put that ... they call them memes? Whoever put that together, that's what they saw. But in all honesty I could tell you what I saw. She was more, like, embarrassed, like "Daa-aad," When you look at that picture and you look at her face ... I went out there and we were holding hands all together, and when they announce, "Slayer," you can't just say "Slayer," you have to go "SLAY-ER!" You know [laughs]. And I'm just like a fan and it overcame me, it possessed me, and I stuck my hand out and screamed out "SLAY-ER!" And my wife's smiling at me, and my son's smiling and my daughter's looking at me, like going, "Oh, God, Dad, I'm so embarrassed."
She actually went on the Internet and clarified.
Yeah, she got upset because she thought they were being mean to her. I told her, "Ariel, that's someone's opinion. When I look at the picture, I know exactly what I see."
I know it's a question for them, but what is it like for these kids to have their dad be the frontman in Slayer? Is it normal in your house or is it kind of like the Munsters?
Yeah, we're kind of like the Munsters when it comes to that kind of stuff. You know, skulls and ... we're eccentric about metal. But we're normal. What you see in that picture is a true rendition of how we are as a family. We love horror movies. We're always watching horror movies. We're always watching paranormal stuff. We're into that stuff. When it comes to dressing in black and you know, we kind of do that now and then, but we're just normal. I got normal kids.
Do you hear a lot of Top 40 pop music in your house?
They listen to new music. They're into metal, but they're into the nu metal. I'm not a big fan of the nu metal, with bands that have names that are sentences [laughs]. They're not like traditional names. It's a sentence. You know, Piercing the Veil, Remembering Tomorrow ... like "What the [expletive]? Those aren't band names." They sound great to her. I don't want to knock it. They're just not my forte. Now, my son, he's different. He likes music. He likes really good music, actually. He would prefer to go back and listen to System of a Down.
Finally, any thoughts on Lou Reed? And "LuLu"?
Lou Reed. I don't really know too much about Lou Reed. What I did know was "Walk on the Wild Side," which is a great, great song. I know that Lou Reed was an innovator and has been around for a long time with a very selective audience and managed to maintain his notoriety, his career. As far as "LuLu," I know Lou Reed is a great musician and songwriter, but I did not listen to that album because I did not want to be disappointed by it [laughs]. I'm sorry. For whatever reason they did that album I have no idea, but I haven't listened to it because I haven't heard anything positive about it. Like, with this nu metal, not one person has come to me and said, "Hey, you gotta check this band out." I usually go by that. If someone I know and that I can trust their opinion says, "You gotta check this band out, they're awesome." If I don't get that kind of review, I won't listen to it. If someone doesn't tell me it's great and awesome, I won't even bother.