- Story by J. Bennett
An exclusive oral history of Slayer
This is only an excerpt from Decibel’s exclusive Slayer oral history. The complete version can be found in the August 2006 print issue of Decibel on newsstands now.
In 1981, the Billboard charts were dominated by Rick Springfield (“Jessie’s Girl”), Olivia Newton-John (“Physical”) and Dolly Parton (“9 To 5”). Punk’s second (third?) wave had already hit both coasts, with the Misfits in New Jersey, Minor Threat in D.C., and the Dead Kennedys in San Francisco; “speed metal” was bicoastal as well, with Metallica in L.A. and Anthrax in New York City. Elsewhere in Los Angeles, Black Flag ruled the underground and Mötley Crüe were quickly becoming the coke-metal masters of the Sunset Strip. On the fringes of L.A. County, where evil has no boundaries (Southgate), where bastard sons begat their cunting daughters (Huntington Park), 20-year old bassist/vocalist Tom Araya, 17-year old guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, and 16-year old drummer Dave Lombardo danced with the dead in their dreams.
King: By ’84, it was exploding for sure. It hadn’t got to the biggest explosion yet, but it was spreading like fire. We were touring the country by then.
Araya: I remember Brian gave us a list of addresses and contact numbers. That was the first tour. I was still working at the hospital—me and Kerry’s dad actually funded the first album. We all knew the tour was coming, and the day came when we had to leave. I came home from work and called these guys like, “Today’s the day. Are we gonna do this?” We knew that if we didn’t do it, we’d never do it. We took my Camaro and a U-Haul.
Lombardo: We’d never been out of the state, and we were so naïve about everything. It’s not like we had a manager or anything back then—we just had a guy who would sell t-shirts for us. His name was Doug Goodman, and he eventually became out tour manager. Now he tour-manages people like Green Day and Beck.
Araya: My younger brother John used to roadie for us, too. Our friend Kevin Reed—his dad, Lawrence, drew the guy with the sword on the cover of Show No Mercy—would set up the drums, and John set up the backline. Then when the show started, Kevin would run the lights, and my brother would run sound.
Hanneman: We were barely making enough money to sustain ourselves on that first tour. It was like beer, food and gas—that was it. Tom’s brother was only like 13 or 14 then. I used to make him drink beer.
Araya: We basically used whatever money we got to get from point A to point B. When we got back, Brian was like, “So, where’s the money?” And we were like, “What money?” At that time, we didn’t realize that you had to ask for money up front. I think he got a lot of money sent directly to him, and we were supposed to pick up the rest. We didn’t even get records to sell on the road—but we printed up our own t-shirts. Sometimes Kerry or Jeff would break a string, and we wouldn’t have any extras, so I’d just hand the bass to whoever couldn’t play guitar.
Hanneman: We’d argue about it, too—like, “I wanna play bass for a while!”
Lombardo: I remember driving the Camaro somewhere in Montana with Tom and Kerry. I hit black ice, and the car just spun out. I let go of the steering wheel, and we hit a ditch. Everybody was okay, though—we were lucky. I remember we were listening to Voivod when it happened.
Araya: We stayed at some fuckin’ hotel in Winnipeg—the basement of the hotel was actually the club. We stayed there for like four or five days, I think. We saw Verbal Abuse play there. Then we played a place in Boston called the Lizard Lounge. In fact, a car had run into the front of the building, and it was all boarded up, but we still played there.
HAUNTING THE CHAPEL
Araya: Show No Mercy sold quite a few records, and Brian was very adamant about us doing another album. We were constantly writing—we were already doing “Chemical Warfare” and “Captor of Sin” when Show No Mercy came out, so Brian wanted to do an EP.
Hoglan: They recorded Haunting the Chapel in Hollywood with Bill Metoyer, and the drum room had no carpet. I actually held Dave’s drum kit together while he recorded “Chemical Warfare.” He had to set up on the concrete, and during the first few takes, the kit was going all over the place. So he was like, “Hey, dude—do you mind holding the kit together?” I just remember looking up through the clear drumheads on the toms, thinking, “I hope he does this in one or two takes, because this is rough.” That was the start of my hearing loss, I think.
Lombardo: Gene wasn’t just holding my kit together—he was coaching me. He was an amazing double-bass player even back then. He really helped me out.
Metoyer: I happen to be Catholic, and for some reason nothing off of Show No Mercy bothered me at all. But I had never heard the lyrics to “Haunting” until Tom sang them in the studio. The first words out of his mouth were, “The holy cross, symbol of lies, intimidates the lives of Christian born.” I remember thinking to myself, “I may be going to hell for my part in this!”
Hoglan: I started doing lights for them, because their lighting dude didn’t show up one night. I was like, “I’m in stage crew in school—I know what I’m doing.” I ended up going on the road with them during the summer of 1984, on the Haunting the West Coast Tour. I’d do Dave’s soundchecks every once in a while so he could hear what the band sounded like. Sometimes we’d even play Dark Angel songs. That’s actually how I got the Dark Angel gig—I already knew most of the songs from Slayer soundcheck.
Durkin: That’s how I met Gene—he was working Slayer’s lights. Dark Angel was starting to move along, and he came up to me one day and started giving me his criticisms of the band. He said we needed to be more evil. And then he goes, “By the way, I’m a better drummer than the guy you have in Dark Angel right now.”
Hoglan: I was the worst roadie ever. I thought the lighting guy just shows up and does lights. Tom’s brother, Johnny, was humping all kinds of gear, and I didn’t even think to lend a hand. Eventually they told me to fuck off.
Araya: We played a place up in Seattle and there was like 1500 kids there. That was the biggest show that we’d done up till that point. I think that was actually with Metal Church. And then in Texas, we played with the San Antonio Slayer. Their record came out at the same time as ours, and they were also named Slayer.
King: That was their farewell gig. [Laughs]
Durkin: Dark Angel played a few shows with Slayer, and even back then you couldn’t open for Slayer—even if you thought you were heavy. We were pretty awful back then—that was before Gene was in the band. I remember our roadie, who I play in a band with now, ran over my guitars by accident one night, and Kerry lent me one of his Deans so we could open for them at the Troubadour.
King: Eventually, it got to the point that people didn’t wanna follow us.
Araya: That hasn’t changed much. [Laughs]
After getting kicked out of Metallica, Dave Mustaine forms Megadeth. Kerry King plays Megadeth’s first live shows in 1984.
Hanneman: I thought [Kerry] was an ass for doing that. [Laughs] I remember talking to Tom about it, like, “I guess we’re gonna get a new guitar player.” I thought he was kissing Dave [Mustaine]’s ass or something, and I thought it was kinda fucked up. I think he was gonna join. Kerry will probably tell you something different, but why do that if you’re not thinking about joining? I’m a loyalist, you know, and I thought Slayer was the best thing going. Why go hang out with somebody else? If Dave would’ve asked me to do it, I would’ve told him to fuck off.
King: I did it because I admired Mustaine—I’d seen him play with Metallica. He’d be up there drunk off his ass, just ripping, not even looking at his fingers. Me and Jeff didn’t know how to do that yet. [Laughs] When he got kicked out and was sniffing around for a guitarist, I figured I’d do it because I thought I could learn something. The other guys in Slayer were probably unhappy, but we weren’t really known back then, and the way I looked at it was that if people saw me playing in Dave’s band, it’d be more publicity for Slayer. Now you look back, and you think “supergroup,” but back then, absolutely not. I played their first five shows, and then I was like, “Man, this is taking too much of my time.” I can’t speak for Dave, but I don’t think he would’ve been unhappy if I stuck around.
SLAYTANIC COMBAT / HELL AWAITS
In 1984, Slayer, Venom and Exodus embark on the Combat Tour.
Holt: Doing that tour with Venom together in ’84, we immediately bonded with the Slayer guys. It was two bands of friends playing with one band of heroes, you know? We were just star-struck—Venom was one of the bands that helped mold both of us. We cut our collective teeth on albums like Welcome to Hell, and now we were on tour with them, watching them bust through “Black Metal” and “Countess Bathory.” It was amazing, man.
Lombardo: I remember Tom getting punched by Cronos. We were in the back of the bus, drinking, and we were just totally hammered. It was our first time on a tour bus. I remember Venom started the tour with these extravagant tour buses, but by the end of the tour, they were bankrupt and driving around in cars. So Jeff and I were drinking in the back of the bus with Cronos—I think we were playing Hell Awaits for him. Tom came in, hammered out of his mind, going, “I gotta take a piss! Where’s the bathroom in this thing?” And Cronos goes, “Right here—right here in my mouth!” And Tom took him literally. He pulled down his pants, whipped it out, and went to the bathroom on Cronos’ hair. Cronos got up, grabbed Tom, and punched him in the face. They spent the rest of the night blaming each other, and Tom did the rest of the tour with a black eye.
King: I still can’t believe Tom pissed on his head. I was still star-struck by Cronos at that point, and I was like, “Holy shit!” That’s definitely a Tom claim-to-fame; I gotta say. [Laughs] I’m not sure I would’ve handled it that way.
Slagel: Hell Awaits was really interesting, because obviously the band was doing pretty well by that time, and with three records out, we wanted to try and get a better sound. So the guy who signed Armored Saint—his name was Ron Fair, he was working at Chrysalis Records—was also doing production. He’d seen Slayer and liked them, so I asked him if he’d help us out in the studio. He’s not really a metal guy at all—he actually went on to sign Christina Aguilera and produce her records—and I remember he was like, “Wow, these guys are really angry.”
Lombardo: Hell Awaits was professionally done. I didn’t have to overdub the cymbals, and we had a really good engineer. “At Dawn They Sleep” was always my favorite track off that album, because it was kind of slow and grungy, but then it had that double-bass part the middle.
Slagel: When Tom was singing “At Dawn They Sleep,” there was one word that Kerry or Jeff had written incorrectly, and we couldn’t really read it. Neither Kerry or Jeff were in the studio that night—we just had this handwritten sheet of lyrics—so Tom just sang it how it was spelled. It’s not even a word.
REBORN (THE RUBIN FACTOR)
Slagel: The band was getting pretty big, and we all kind of knew they needed to go to a major at that point. Unfortunately, I was also managing the band at the time, which I wasn’t really supposed to be doing, but I kind of had to, because nobody else was. And I was a young, dumb kid—I didn’t really know what was going on. I was only about 23 or 24, and I was kind of learning as I went along. So we were talking to a bunch of different labels, and [Rick] Rubin was really interested in them, but at that point, his label was all rap music, so we didn’t really know what was going to happen. We met with Rick and Russell [Simmons], and they were really nice guys, but it was a rap label.
Lombardo: I heard that someone at a major label named Rick was interested in the band. The other guys were kind of apprehensive about leaving Metal Blade, because we were contracted. But I called up Columbia Records, which distributed Def Jam, and asked for Rick Rubin—I remember making the phone call from my mom’s house, where I was living at the time. Then Rick and this photographer, Glen, came to my mom’s place, and then they came to rehearsal and watched us play.
Glen E. Friedman: I was the one who introduced them to Rick Rubin. I produced Suicidal Tendencies’ first album, and I was their manager at the time as well. I helped direct the “Institutionalized” video, too, and that’s where I first met the Slayer guys. If you look at the beginning of that video really closely, Tom Araya has a cameo. He walks by and pushes [Suicidal Tendencies vocalist] Mike [Muir]. Around that time, Rick Rubin asked me if I knew them.
Hanneman: I thought Rubin was cool—he seemed pretty laid back and confident. And I liked that he was impressed with us, obviously. I went through kind of a rap phase back then, because it was totally new. It’s boring as hell now, but at the time, I liked LL [Cool J] and Run-DMC, so I knew what he was about. I was just surprised he was into us. At that point in time, I didn’t think anyone was gonna like what we were doing. I loved what we were doing, but I figured nobody else would get it. Rubin totally got it, though.
Slagel: It’s interesting, because over the years I’ve met Ice-T and a couple of the other rap guys, and both kinds of music—rap and thrash—were kind of similar when you think about it, even though the music itself was two completely different things. They were both really dangerous; the whole vibe and image was similar. I remember that early promo photo of Slayer hovering over Hanneman’s girlfriend freaked so many people out. At the time, that was really extreme. People really thought they were like these crazed Satanists, which is so far from the truth it’s not even funny. But back then, people were scared of that band. Once the PMRC started in the mid ‘80s, we got letters from Tipper Gore’s minions saying we should stop putting the records out. It was pretty bizarre.
Friedman: I remember going with Rick to see Slayer practice in Tom’s garage in Southgate. The last time I had been in that area, there was a riot. I think Suicidal and maybe the Misfits played a gig down there and the police came out. Slayer were from a gnarly neighborhood, no doubt about that. Rick was so stoked to see them—he loves extreme shit of any kind, but I was never a Slayer fan, and I’m still not. I never really liked speed metal, to be honest. Slayer were big Suicidal fans, though, and I liked the fact that they were into punk rock. I think they even had Wasted Youth and Dead Kennedys stickers on their guitars.
Slagel: I went to a music convention in Europe, and Rubin talked to the band directly while I was gone and got them to sign with him. I’ll give him credit, though—of all the labels Slayer was talking to at the time, he was definitely the most passionate about the band.
REIGN IN BLOOD
Larry Carroll: I met Rick Rubin in a coffee shop in New York—it must’ve been 1986. He looked pretty much the same as he does now, with the big beard and everything. I had heard Slayer, because I’m from California, but I’d never seen them. At that time, I was doing a lot of political illustrations for The Progressive, the Village Voice, the New York Times op-ed page, stuff like that. If I remember correctly, the band didn’t like the cover I did for Reign in Blood at first. Someone didn’t, anyway—I don’t remember if it was actually someone in the band or their management. But then someone in the band showed it to their mother, and their mother thought it was disgusting, so they knew they were onto something.
King: Rubin really cleaned up our sound on that record, which drastically changed what we sounded like and how people perceived us. It was like, “Wow—you can hear everything, and those guys aren’t just playing fast; those notes are on time.” It was what we needed to be. Before that, we were happy to sound like Venom or Mercyful Fate. We played in Reverb Land, for lack of a better term. And the reverb was the first thing Rubin took out. When we heard the mix we were like, “Why didn’t we think of that before?”
Hanneman: At that time, we always listened to Metallica and Megadeth to see what they were doing, but one thing about me and Kerry is that we get bored of riffs really quick. We can’t drag the same thing over and over or do the same verses six times in a song. If we do a verse two or three times, we’re already bored with it. So we weren’t trying to make the songs shorter—that’s just what we were into. When we finished Reign in Blood, we had this meeting with Rubin, and he was like, “Do you realize how short this is?” And we’re going, “Oh, fuck…” And then we all collectively looked at each other and said, “So what?”
King: I thought it was kinda neat that you had the whole record on one side of a cassette. [Laughs] You could listen to it, flip it over, and play it again. We’d never been about putting songs and music on our records that doesn’t need to be there. Hour-long records seem to be the trend these days, but you know, you listen and it’s like, “You could lose this part; you could cut this song completely,” and make a much more intense record, which is what we’re all about.
Hanneman: I collect medals and other Nazi stuff that my dad got me started on because he gave me all this shit he got off of dead Nazis. I remember stopping some place where I bought two books on [Nazi “surgeon” Josef] Mengele. I thought, “This has gotta be some sick shit.” So when it came time to do the record, that stuff was still in my head—that’s where the lyrics to “Angel of Death” came from. Next thing I know, we’re neo-Nazis.
King: Yeah, “Slayer are Nazis, fascists, communists”—all that fun shit. And of course we got the most flack for it in Germany. I was always like, “Read the lyrics and tell me what’s offensive about it. Can you see it as a documentary, or do you think Slayer’s preaching fucking World War II?” People get this thought in their heads—especially in Europe—and you’ll never talk them out of it.
Lombardo: We got dropped by Columbia because of that. I mean, “Auschwitz—the meaning of pain!” Any sympathizers with the Holocaust aren’t gonna have any part of it. But they didn’t see the deep meaning of it—it’s just documented musical awareness. It’s not necessarily for it—it’s just something that Jeff discovered and wrote a song about.
Hanneman: It was like, “Oh yeah—we’re racists. We’ve got a Cuban and a Chilean in the band. Get real.”
Araya: That was one thing I never understood. It’s not like there’s four white guys in the band.
Carroll: I was living in New Jersey in 1986, right around the time Reign in Blood came out, and the kids across the street loved Slayer. They must’ve been 14, 15 years old, and they had posters of the album cover all over their room. You know, it’s a pretty grotesque cover. You see the guy with the bishop’s hat? Right by his hand is his dick. No one ever caught that. Now look at the guy next to him—he’s got one sticking out, too. So there’s two big dicks on the cover, these kids had Slayer posters all over their room—and the best part is that their dad was a minister.
Friedman: My favorite thing was when Public Enemy sampled “Angel of Death” on “She Watch Channel Zero.” That’s fucking amazing.
Holt: Reign in Blood—what can you say? How can you deny metal’s greatest opus? Of course, I’ve written a couple of pretty good opuses myself. [Laughs]
Paul Bostaph: The first time I heard Reign in Blood, I was at a house party. I was in Forbidden Evil at the time, before we changed our name to Forbidden. I had just taken a hit of a joint, and from the other room, I heard this sound. I walked away from whoever I was talking to, and followed the sound to this ghetto box. [Forbidden Evil guitarist] Craig Locicero was there; [then Forbidden Evil guitarist] Robb Flynn may have been there, and I asked, “What is this?” Craig goes, “It’s the new Slayer.” I stood in front of that box for the entire 20-some-odd minutes. I remember looking at Craig and going, “We’re fucked.”
King: To us, Reign in Blood was just the best ten songs we had at that point. It wasn’t like we sat there going, “We’re gonna change shit with this record.” Maybe around Divine Intervention is when we’d get the interviewers asking us, “How does it feel to keep trying to outdo Reign in Blood? How does it feel to have made the best thrash metal album of all time?” But you know, we didn’t really think about it. And we certainly don’t try to outdo it.
HARDENING OF THE ARTERIES
Friedman: Rick Rubin flew me to Seattle for two days to do publicity shots, some possible record shots, and a tour book for Slayer because he knew no good photos existed of them. The sky in Seattle was so perfect for that day—the lighting couldn’t have been better. I remember they didn’t really like Dave that much at that time, but they also never denied that he was the perfect drummer for them. I guess they just didn’t get along.
Araya: Right after we recorded Reign in Blood, we went on tour with WASP. After a month, Dave quit. I think it had a lot to do with personal opinion as far as what a band consisted of and what a band is about. I think he had just gotten married, too, and we all kind of had a belief that that the road was a band thing, so that was kind of an issue that divided everybody. He wasn’t fired, though—he left on his own.
Lombardo: I wasn’t making any money. I think I had just gotten married, and I figured if we were gonna be doing this professionally—on a major label—I wanted my rent and utilities paid. Rick Rubin would call me every other day, like, “Dude, you gotta come back in the band.” Finally he offered me a salary, but I still didn’t wanna go back. I’d been out of the band for a few months at that point, and they got Tony [Scaglione] from Whiplash to fill in.
King: I can’t even remember how we came across Tony, but he was with us when we were opening for WASP. They had just done [Inside the] Electric Circus, and we had just done Reign in Blood, so they were getting their ass handed to them every night. I liked WASP before that record, though. I remember getting drunk with [WASP guitarist] Chris Holmes—he’d tell the same story every five minutes.
Lombardo: My wife finally convinced me to go back. I remember Rick came over, picked me up in his Porsche, and took me to Slayer rehearsal.
King: Somewhere in there I played with the Beastie Boys—I did the solo on “No Sleep ’Til Brooklyn.” Rubin was like, “This song needs a lead,” so he paid me a couple hundred bucks to come into the studio. I certainly wasn’t a virtuoso at that time, but that was a lot of money to me. The song was kinda spoofing metal a little bit, like [Motörhead’s] No Sleep ’Til Hammersmith, you know? I’d never heard the Beastie Boys, but they were cool. In the video, they originally wanted the gorilla to knock me off the stage, but I was like, “If there’s gonna be any knocking offstage, it’ll be me knocking the gorilla.” So that’s what we did.
Hanneman: Rubin wanted us to do [Iron Butterfly’s] “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” for a movie [Less Than Zero]. To me, that song doesn’t represent Slayer. It’s not our music, so who cares? Kerry fucking hates it, but I hate that “Born to Be Wild” cover we did even more. It came out on some compilation [NASCAR: Crank It Up] for some TV show we were doing. I’d rather listen to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” than that song. I can’t believe we did that.
King: Even today, if you hear Slayer on the radio anywhere in the States, they play fucking “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” There’re a lot better things to judge us by than that hunk of shit. Rubin picked that song, and a week prior going into the studio, I was real unhappy. And today, it’s the bane of my existence. I hate that fucking song, but it got on the radio, and that opened the door when South of Heaven came out.
SOUTH OF HEAVEN
Hanneman: South was the only album that we actually talked about before we started writing it. We knew we couldn’t top Reign in Blood, so we had to slow down. We knew whatever we did was gonna be compared to that album, and I remember we actually discussed slowing down. It was weird—we’ve never done that on an album, before or since.
King: That album was my most lackluster performance. I had just gotten married and moved to Phoenix, so I was probably the odd man out at that point, and I’m sure I didn’t participate as much because of that.
Hanneman: We go through dry spells sometimes, but the good thing about having two guitar players that can write music is that you’ve never gonna go without. I guess at that time, Kerry was hitting a dry spell.
Araya: That album was a late bloomer—it wasn’t really received well, but I guess it kind of grew on everybody later. It was something that we purposely did different. It wasn’t fast, and it didn’t have that Reign in Blood effect. I’ve always liked the title song and “Mandatory Suicide”—and those are the two that people always wanna hear.
King: When South of Heaven came out, I didn’t like it as much as Reign in Blood, because I think Tom backed off too much with his singing—or should I say, added too much singing. Honestly, it’s one of my least favorite Slayer albums. And we never play “Behind the Crooked Cross” because Jeff hates it. It’s not my favorite song, but I’ve always wanted to play it because it’s got a cool intro. But that’s fine—there are songs that he wants to play that I always shoot down.
Lombardo: The photo on the back of South of Heaven was actually taken right around the time Reign in Blood was released. That picture made it seem like we had matured a little bit or something.
Friedman: I thought that was a really cool back cover—I think it’s one of the most classic shots of them ever. They all still have their hair, and they just look gnarly. That’s why Rick hired me, you know? I bring out the cool in people and sometimes make them look a lot tougher than they are. But those guys were pretty tough, there’s no doubt about that.