Slayer's Tom Araya on the Evil That Men Do
An old, robed man opens a microwave oven and puts a cockroach inside. He sets the power to high and cranks the timer for as long as it will go. Slayer's "God Send Death" begins. The old man laughs, loose and yowling. Slayer's napalm guitars lay out in fired lines as the cockroach jolts and spasms in a panic, looking for a way out. Its roach thoughts are, "Fucking fuck. Hot. HOT. Inside me? SCALDing. Out of here. Whaat the f-FUCK is happening??!" Tom Araya screams (from the diaphragm), "Watch you die inside!!!" Double-kick drums batter, splatter, and ram. In its previous life, the cockroach was 9/11 hijacker Mohamed Atta. Now he's on his back with insect legs flicking in the air, being cooked from the inside. For 30 years, 11 studio albums, and two Grammys, Slayer's rifling, exacted thrash metal has dealt with dark, unpretty subject matters. In "Necrophiliac," you've got sex with the dead; "Jihad" is told from a terrorist's perspective. It can be uncomfortable, even controversial. Their album Christ Illusion was banned from India in 2006. But they're just songs, remember. Sadly, this past May, guitarist and founding member Jeff Hanneman passed away from liver failure. A great one, was he. Tom Araya spoke from his home in Texas.
The way you play and sing, it's no fucking cakewalk. A song like "Necrophobic." You're moving through a minefield at high speed. What's it like doing that song?
Out of everything we've ever done, that one has to be the most obscure one to sing and play—with the timing of that riff change. When we did the album, we made all the music first, and didn't really have any lyrics. When we practiced in the garage on Hope Street, we knew the songs musically, and recorded them without vocals in like a week. Jeff had ideas written, but nothing was complete. We wrote the lyrics in the studio—I didn't have a whole lot of time to get inside the songs and feel them out. That song in particular, when you listen to what's being played, and then what I'm singing, [pauses] it's a fucked-up song [laughs]. It took a while for me to be able to do it. The crazy melody line, and the way the riffs are played, compared to what I'm singing. It's a bunch of hurdles. And having to get that knee up just perfectly to get past that hurdle was really hard.
Slayer is the mental/physical package. The shows, the albums, the sound, everything. For you, is conveying the subject matter of a song more mental, or physical?
It was more physical when I used to bang my head all nuts. It's both. You gotta make sure you're playing the song the right way. It's like a race. When they shoot that gun at the start and you take off running, you gotta sprint. The instant you trip on yourself, you gotta get up quick and keep on running. The things that go through my head when I'm singing [laughs], especially when I start off with the wrong verse—it doesn't happen a lot, but when it does—my first thought is, "Holy shit, hopefully no one will follow what I'm doing." The other guys in the band, I'm hoping they stick with how it should be played. The most important thing is for the band to remain a unit. When you realize someone's gotten into a part quicker than normal, you have to adjust for that. Sometimes I'll start late, or sometimes I'll start too soon and be ahead of everyone, so I'll sing slower to let them catch up to me. You're right about it being a mental and physical thing. It's all muscle retention, but you gotta be on it mentally, or else you fall all over yourself.
Do you ever wish you were in a band that played slower, or easier? Do you ever wish you were in Coldplay? The guy in Coldplay is in a king-size bed with comforters galore. He's getting breakfast in bed, and blowjobs.
Yeah. We're on single beds with torn sheets! I actually think everyone who's in a band understands what I'm saying, though.
Slayer's bed is a bed of nails, and there's fire. But Slayer gets blowjobs, too.
Yeah. I mean, even bands that play at slower tempos have to react. You still turn around after a song you messed up and go, "Fuck! I can't believe I fucked that up." Most of the time, no one notices but you. Minute things, most people have no clue about. I'll tell Kerry, "I can't believe I fucked that part up." And he'll go, "What part?" We're all so focused on what we need to do to get the song to its end.
Slayer has been banned from countries. Any banning stories? What are some of your favorite bannings? I think being banned from a country is a huge accomplishment. I mean, forget your Grammys, you got banned from India.
To us, it's just self-created drama. We don't really think about it. Like when we started getting shit for "Angel of Death." When Jeff wrote that, and I was recording vocals, I was thinking, "Wow, this is such a great subject. This is about a person who did some pretty fucked-up shit." Jeff put it together well—it was a great song. We didn't think two shits about it. And it became a reason for the label not to release the album. We were like, "Whaaat? Over a fucking song?" So somebody else released the album. But they made such a stink about it. When we put together ideas for stuff, we'll think, "Yeah, this is interesting, this is cool. No one's done this." It's never because we're thinking, "This one is really gonna piss people off, yeah." I guess the crowning achievement as far as being banned was India. When Christ Illusion came out, India refused to release it. You could get our other albums, but Christ Illusion was not allowed.
What an honor. Were you mad at all?
It was sort of an honor. I don't get mad about that stuff. I was surprised, but it never makes me mad when people say, "We're going to ban this song, or this record." When we became a band, we did it to become a band, to be part of a band. We lucked out because we wrote our own material and people heard it and liked it, people that could do things for us, and put us out into mass production to the public. We were fortunate to be discovered. Financially, yeah, if we don't sell records, we don't make money, but that's not really what we're about. We're just about making music, and if you buy it, you buy it, if you don't, you don't. When people start saying they're gonna ban this and ban that, we're like, "Whatever. Do what you want. We're doing what we want." We have an audience that enjoys it. Hopefully, they'll keep buying our records.
You've toured India since the banning, correct?
Yeah. Two years ago, we did a show in India, and there were no issues from anyone as far as what we could play and what we couldn't, which has happened to us before. In Singapore, we were getting letters from the promoter and the big government, saying we were more than welcome to play, but we could only play particular songs. They gave us a list of our songs we were allowed to play. But they didn't tell us until after we had already landed there. The day we got there, we got a letter from the promoter that was given to him by the music police—it didn't leave much room for songs. We told the promoter we were going to play what we had planned on playing, and if they were going to tell us what to play, then we weren't playing, we were going to go back home. We were already there. We had visas, our gear. We prepped for the show and spent a lot of money to get there.
So what happened? Slayer versus Singapore Music Police.
We played, and we played our set list. Which we gave them beforehand, because they wanted to see it. And they had issues with it, but we played it. They had a group of governmental personnel supervising the show. Taking notes. I said things to them in the set, leading into songs. I gave them my two cents. They raised red flags, saying, "See! They're troublemakers; they're trying to cause trouble." [Laughs]
Back to Christ Illusion, the song "Jihad," is told from the perspective of a 9/11 terrorist. It's uncomfortable and unique. Writing from the mind of the enemy. What made you guys want to write this way?
Musically, it was a Jeff song. When he played us the song, he looked at me and went, "I want to call it 'Jihad.'" I was like, "Whaaat?" [Laughs] He said he wanted it to be from the perspective of the terrorist. It's one of the only times I've ever thought, "Man, this is a heavy topic. Some people might not like this." And understandably so. But I think it's an interesting subject, so I filed it away. Later, I was home and saw a show on an educational channel about jihad, and the aspects of the extremists. Toward the end, it got into this manual that the jihadists have—guidelines on how to be a good jihadist. I started listening to it and remembered Jeff's song. It was like, "Ding-ding-ding." I grabbed a pen and paper and jotted down things I heard, and ideas.
When we started recording Christ Illusion, Jeff gave me what he had as far as lyrics for that song. They were cool. I was laying them down and said, "I might have something for the end," and tried what I'd gotten off that program, and it really gelled. Gave everybody goose bumps. It's one of those moments in the studio where you try to replicate what you did just on a one-take. But we couldn't replicate it, so we ended up using what I'd done on that first take. It sat really nice. There have been several songs like that. Where we go in, and we'll have an idea, so we'll try it, and it ends up sounding great. I think "Jihad" is a gutsy song—a very artistic thing for Jeff to do. We weren't going to turn back from it, even though it was controversial. We felt it was important.
What draws Slayer to those subject matters? Areas that might be deemed controversial—that darker shit. What's attractive about it? And why is that important?
Because it's interesting. It's not mundane stuff. You mentioned the mental/physical before. That involves the psyche, the mind. I find the psyche fascinating—how people can do the things they do to each other. There's a phrase: the evil that men do. We do some fucked-up shit to each other, and we don't think twice about it. The people who think twice about it end up dead. Human nature is fascinating. When we got together as a band, those are the things we knew we wanted to write about. And it went from demons and devils to the demons and devils of real life: ourselves. That's what draws me into that subject matter. I have books on serial killers, but I have a lot more books on the psyches of serial killers—case studies and interviews with them trying to figure out what made them do what they did. What makes a human mind work like this? Like the guy recently who kidnapped those three girls and held them captive for 12 years. My daughter had on a program the other day about stalkers—there was a woman that had a guy stalk her for 10 years. He went to jail. Got out, however many years later, and continued stalking her. Or people killing people for a small amount of money, because to them, it's a shitload of money. Humans do these things, to better themselves? Or they don't like themselves, so they want to become this other person?
I see it on an animalistic level. Look at the Serengeti Plain in Kenya. Animals out there do some fucked-up shit to each other to live. A pride of lions picks out the sick, limping baby wildebeest to attack and kill. We're animals. Population is exponential, and there may be too many rats in the cage.
I agree. For me it brings up the question, what's the human link? What is it that makes us different from animals? I hate to get religious on you, but that's the God aspect. God gave us his DNA, and combined it with something. So we came from somewhere. He made us in his own image. We're half of something, and the other half is animal.
Do you believe in God? Are you a religious person?
Yeah. I was brought up that way. I believe in God as a creator, as something grander than we are. Something so huge that we wouldn't be able to comprehend it. I think he's put order to everything that's here. Starting with the universe and everything out there. It was done to order and specifications. I believe there's something bigger than us.
But Tom, who made God? How are we here? Because we're here. I'm sitting here talking to you, right now. It's a dream come true, don't get me wrong. I mean, talking to the singer of Slayer feels like a fantasy, but we're here. How did we get here?
He is, he was, he has always been. That's who God is. It takes a lot for people to believe and think that way, in terms of a greater being, but that's the gift.
Speaking of gifts, do you own your own Slayer Christmas sweater? Tell me you've seen this.
I approved it! The ugliest fucking sweater on earth. When they sent it to me, I was beside myself. They asked me, "Do you approve this?" I said, "Yeah! Are you kidding? Send me one now." When it came out, it sold out quick. The four I got were hard to get. I couldn't even get any for my mom or my brothers and sisters. I wanted more! Now I guess there's a new one.
Slayer recorded with Rick Rubin for three albums. What does Rick Rubin do that makes him such a craftsman of a producer? How did he funnel you into your sound?
On the first album with him, Reign in Blood, he came in, and he listened. That's all he did. He paid attention to everything. We played, and he dialed in what he was hearing until he was happy with it. Then he just recorded us. The songs were complete. He wanted to capture what he'd heard on the demo of us playing it in rehearsal. He liked the demo. He didn't focus on writing, he wanted to take it where we were sonically, and reproduce it in the studio, and give it to everybody. And that's what he did. He cleaned up our sound. He took this dirty little kid from the wrong side of the tracks and cleaned him up, cleaned the crusties out of his eyes.
On the next two records, South of Heaven and Seasons in the Abyss, he did the same thing, but he paid attention to what we did musically. He had the opportunity to listen to the songs as they were developing, so he'd make suggestions. He'd say, "I really like this part here, but can you try something different?" Jeff was good with him as far as listening to what he had to say. Same with me, working on the lyrics. He'd say, "How about if you try this word instead of that word?" Everything he did was based on listening. He'd listen to you, and polish you. He's got, like, a gold finger. He touches things, and they become gems. He's done amazing albums, where he doesn't really do anything. He does a lot, without doing much of anything. If you give him a diamond in the rough, he'll make it sparkle. But if you give him a piece of shit, he'll do the best he can to make it pretty, but the smell's just not gonna go away [laughs]. A piece of shit's a piece of shit.
We always stay in touch with Rick. After those three albums, from Divine Intervention on, he'd still listen to what we were doing and give his opinions. We'd be working with different producers, but we'd always send him mixes and have him tell us what he thought. Like God Hates Us All—we sent that to him, and he liked it, but he didn't like the mix. So he suggested someone else mix it, and they did three songs. And we liked those mixes, so that person did the rest of the album. Rubin was still part of what we were doing as a band. We wouldn't do anything without his approval.
Dave Lombardo is not drumming for you anymore. What happened? Are you on speaking terms?
He said some things that didn't sit well with Kerry and me. Because of the way things had gone, we had to communicate with him through his attorneys. One thing led to another. We were determined to do shows that had been set up Australia, so we found an alternative. Jeff was well aware of what was going on, and when we got back from Australia, the three of got together and talked about what was going on with Dave, and what we needed to do. We did what we did because it was a way of moving forward. Dave doesn't communicate with me. I think he's pretty upset. He's done this kind of stuff before, and we managed to do 12 years without him. That's when we got Paul Bostaph in the band, when issues were coming up this time around. The three of us are partners in this organization. At one time, Dave was a partner, too, but he chose not to be. When he came back before, it was great. He wanted to play with the band again. At that point, we hired him to play, and it was all on good terms. Nothing was malicious in any way. After Australia, the three of us chose to bring Paul back. He'd done four great records with us already. Dave is more than welcome to say what he wants, but the truth is, it was a band decision. It was put on our lap, and we had to decide what to do. Dave hasn't reached out to me. He had every opportunity to call Kerry and I individually, and Jeff, but he chose not to.
Business messes things up.
Yeah. When we started, it was about music, and about being in the band. Then it reached a certain level, where it became a business, yes. And if you want to keep the business flowing, the acts of someone can sabotage that, and you can't allow that to happen. You have to move forward, and figure out how to make it better. If someone's not picking up the phone and calling. Like I said, there was ample opportunity for the phone to be picked up and for someone to call someone. He had ample opportunity to pick up the phone and talk to somebody, and that was never done. The ball was in his court. It's just been an ongoing issue. At that stage of the game, we were about to go to Australia. We're tired of talking and doing full circles in conversations about what's going on. He could have called one of us, fuck the lawyers. We need to know if you're going to do the shows or not. We waited, and we waited, and we waited, and it got to a point where we needed to figure out what to do. So we did. Jon Dette happened to be in the same area we were going to be in, and it worked out.
To get the call from Slayer, "Hey, can you play with us?" That's a good call.
He was excited. He knew what was at stake. He'd stepped in for a tour or two before. He's a great drummer. Jamming live player.
You guys have a tour, shouldn't you be practicing?
The band is actually rehearsing right now. I do a lot of homework here at home. There's three or four songs in this tour's set list that we haven't done in a while, so I'm familiarizing myself with them again—listening to them, tabbing them out.
What is Slayer homework like?
It's like anything else—when you haven't done something in a while, you have to familiarize yourself with how it's done. For me, it's just a matter of listening. Once I've heard the song a million times, it kicks in, and I'm like, "Okay, I remember how to do this one." When we're out on the road, and Kerry King's like, "I want to do this song." So two or three days before we actually play the song, he'll let me know. I'll listen to it, and visualize playing it. I'm a visualizer. Once I do that, I'll sit and listen while I'm looking at the lyric sheet. Sometimes the lyrics come easy, sometimes they don't. Then I'll play it and sing it at the same time, by myself. People think you should know how to play a song that you wrote, but when you haven't played it recently, they get tricky [laughs].
You're re-instilling your muscle memory. It's a neuromuscular facilitation.
Oh, we're using big words now [laughs].