An interview about death, sacrifice, and family with the world-weary thrash god.
All photos by Fred Pessaro
Tom Araya sounds tired. He's in a hotel room somewhere in Idaho today, whiling away the hours with phone interviews and daytime TV until it's time to climb back in the bus and check off the next date on his band's summer itinerary. To get to him, I have to call the front desk, give a fake name, then wait—hope—for the call to go through. My first attempt fails, but the second time I try to get in touch with one of the most famous metal musicians on the planet, the line clicks into life and a warm California drawl greets me. I make a mental note to text my Dad ("I just interviewed the guy from Slayer!!") then ask the legendary vocalist and bassist how his day is going.
It's all very Almost Famous, though Araya doesn't go by Harry Houdini. When he checks into a hotel on tour, he uses the name of a martial artist who has special significance to him. He and his entire family are black belts; they started training together six years prior, when Araya and his wife started homeschooling their kids and needed to find them a fun physical activity. Now, he's the only member of Slayer who could actually kill you—though when I pointed that out, he went into sensible, earnest dad mode and gave me a little lecture.
"Well, we train because it’s for self-defense. You’re there to help protect, and that’s the idea behind it. It’s not for offensive, it’s defensive," he explains. "Grandmaster told us, 'You give people two chances, and then after that, the first time you tell them, 'No,' but the second time? Two weeks in the hospital!"
He chuckles after that last remark, and laughs easily and often through the rest of our interview. Despite his fierce onstage persona and iconic banshee wail, Araya's a famously mellow guy—a good-natured counterpoint to Slayer's gruff, camo-draped guitarist Kerry King, the outspoken original drummer Dave Lombardo, or the band's late guitar wizard, the hard-partying Jeff Hanneman. The contrast between Tom Araya the chilled-out patriarch and Tom Araya the metal god is an interesting one, especially when one considers the vast scope of Slayer's career. He joined in 1981, shortly after King and Hanneman started the band, and has watched his creation go from something a bunch of kids who lived and breathed NWOBHM and punk came up with in a humid garage outside Los Angeles to one of the heavy metal genre's most influential and most timeless bands: elder gods who have nabbed five Grammy nominations (and won twice), sold millions of albums, and played to roaring crowds from atop the biggest stages in the world. If Metallica is the most successful metal band in the world, Slayer's not far behind—and unlike their other old friends-turned-Bay Area thrash titans who've stumbled and lost their drive over the past few decades, Slayer's never faltered. Yes, they've had a few missteps here and there, but they've never truly let us down. That's why they still pack out arenas 29 years after their best-loved album, Reign in Blood, dropped, and why so many people are still eager to hear their 12th full-length, Repentless, later this year.
Despite all of the acclaim and the outright worship from the band's slavishly devoted fanbase, Araya's vibe is more salt of the earth than larger-than-life. He doesn't know what grindcore is, but loves Hank Williams (and really, really likes The Strokes). He's long been open about his Catholic faith, his appreciation for country music, and how he'd rather be home with his kids than anywhere else; he's a family man before all else, and at times, you wonder how he found himself where he is now.
Araya flies home to visit his family every chance he gets, and is the reason that Slayer schedules so many off days on tour. He will do his damnedest to get home by 11AM on off days; if he can't find a flight or the times don't line up, he won't go. It seems like a Slayer plane like Iron Maiden's Ed Force One would come in awfully handy, but after three decades, the band's still not quite there yet. "I travel commercially, but people think “Oh you must be rich!” he exclaims. "No, I’m not. That’s just a sacrifice I’m willing to make because I want to go home, I don’t want to be out here on the road in a fucking hotel room."
At this point in its existence, Slayer is more than a band—it's a machine, a cottage industry based on fast, tight songs about death and power. It's big business, and a full-time job for the people it revolves around, from management and merchandisers to the four men who form its bloody core. This machine is merciless, and above all, relentless—"repentless," even, if the title of band's upcoming album counts for anything. It's also getting old. Araya joined the band in 1981, when he was twenty years old. It is now 2015, and after dedicating thirty-four years of his life to Slayer, he sounds weary—resigned to his fate as one of the reigning kings of heavy metal, still excited about the future, but burdened with regrets.
After speaking candidly with him about sacrifice, family, and death, I can't help but wonder if he thinks selling his soul to Slayer was all that worth it.
Noisey: You've been involved in metal for over three decades now, lived through the Satanic Panic, and have undoubtedly seen a lot of changes in the genre's style and perception. Do you think metal will ever be accepted by mainstream society?
Tom Araya: Yeah, the new metal that’s out there, grindcore I guess it’s called? They have these crazy names that are little sentences—Pierce the Veil, Asking Alexandria, they all have names like that—and I’ve noticed that it skipped us. Because this new metal has found its way into mainstream, it’s more acceptable, as opposed to what we do and what we’ve done, because it’s played on the radio.
And you feel like they’ve stolen your thunder in a way?
Well, no. [Laughs] They haven’t stolen any thunder, believe me. They’d like to think they have, but they’re not doing anything that impressive to me. There hasn’t been a band, any new bands where I’ve gone “Woah, what is this? This is fucking amazing!”
It’s been a long time since I had that. I mean, I hear these bands, I’m familiar with them because my kids listen to the music. My daughter, she’s up to the latest trend, the latest things in music. She says “What do you think?” “Eh, it’s good. Produced well. What’s the rest of the record sound like?” “I don’t know," she'll say. Well, you gotta listen to the rest of the record! You can’t just listen to one or two songs. To me, it’s about the album. If a band has any true worth, they have to have a great album. Every song on the album has to be like, “Wow, dude, this is really good.” You don’t get that a lot of that now.
People are more geared toward instant gratification now.
It’s a throwaway society, man.
You’ve clearly put a lot of work into your new record, Repentless, to make sure it meets that standard. It seems like it’s a transitional album for you, too. Do you think Slayer needs to prove yourselves again, since Jeff’s not there this time?
Nah, we don’t need to prove ourselves, because we started this process like four years ago. It’s been a long time coming. We started with the idea that we needed to do an album—well, our management was like, “You know, it’s about time you guys do another record”," and we said, "Oh, okay.” [laughs] So we start working on ideas and put together some new songs, and then four years later, a lot has happened. Kerry had a lot of stuff written, and Jeff was working ideas out, but he was very limited because he had a tough time playing his guitar. Jeff was always writing music, so he had demos and stuff that he liked, and he started cutting and pasting those together and trying to make them work.
So, we had a lot of material already, but I was a little apprehensive, because Jeff and Kerry wrote the music for Slayer. We all contributed to the lyrics, but music was written between the two of them. So you have half of Slayer, musically you have half of Slayer and physically you have two-thirds of Slayer, so it’s a big percentage of the band. Two-thirds is still a big percentage, and like I said, I was a little apprehensive because they each wrote differently, so it would be a lopsided wheel, you know what I mean? [laughs] And when we went into the studio, the relationship me and Kerry share is very different than the relationship me and Jeff had. The relationship between me and Kerry is more black and white.
Is it more business?
Yeah, more business. And through the course of our history, Kerry and I have had a different relationship than Jeff and I. I had to wonder how things were gonna be, because the studio experience was always different with Kerry. With Jeff, it was very open, and things came together, and magic happens. With Kerry, he didn’t allow the magic to happen, you know what I mean? It was very cut and dry. I was apprehensive about how this record was going to come together, and so we sat down, we communicated, we shared our feelings, I shared my feelings about how I wanted to move forward if we were going to finish the record. We shook hands and we said “Okay, let’s do this record,” and we went in there.
I did what I did, and we had a great producer that listened to what I was doing, and really liked the stuff that I was doing, and who said “No, this sounds really great, we’re not changing anything." Kerry was able to pull a couple of rabbits out of his hat and wrote some slower, heavier music, too; he’s written the heavy stuff before, it’s not like he hasn’t, but both heavy songs kind of just came together in the studio. In the beginning, you’re like “Holy shit, what’s this gonna sound like?” and then in the end it was like “Okay, this is good, this is Slayer."
Do you think losing Jeff had an emotional impact on how you wrote?
Jeff wrote a lot of the more heavier riffs and the more melodic riffs. That was Jeff at his best, but Jeff could write some fast riff stuff too, you know what I mean? And I think that Kerry felt that we needed something like that on the record, because that was Jeff’s part. And he did a really great job with those two songs.
What’s your favorite track on the album?
There’s a few. I never have one. “Repentless,” the one we released recently, I played that one in a variety of ways that to me felt good, sounded good and when we came down to choosing the track that made it on, the producer said, "I really like how you’ve done the song, which take is your favorite?” I listened to it, and I came back and said “I like them all but this one right here is where it captures the attitude” He looked at me and goes, “That’s the one I like” and it’s the one that’s on the album. It’s just angry and aggressive and in your face.
That’s the kind of thing you guys needed to put out right now.
Yeah. I was listening to it thinking “This song captures it,” and then when I found out later what the song was about: Kerry wrote it through the eyes of Jeff. The lyrics are based on how Kerry felt Jeff saw life. He was envisioning what Jeff was going through in the last few years of being in Slayer, and when I heard him say that it hit me like, “Oh my god, I understood it. I picked the right one!" [laughs] I picked the right one because it was full of attitude and anger, it captured our emotions, you know what I mean?
Are you afraid of death?
[Long pause, then a sigh] No, I’m not really afraid of death. I’m not. My fear is what will happen to my family when I’m gone, and leaving them behind, because you kind of do when you pass away—you’re leaving people behind and you’re going somewhere else. You’re moving on. I want to be there for them forever, but I know that’s not possible. I faced that when my father passed away quite a few years back. And my mother just passed away recently, in April. So you think they’re going to be there for you forever. You never realize what a loss it is to no longer have your mother or your father with you. I don’t think people quite understand that until that happens to them, when both their parents are no longer with them. There’s a form of protection knowing they’re alive, and then you have no one to run to and say “Mommy! Daddy!”
Why do you think heavy metal is so obsessed with death?
I don’t really know. We personally weren’t really obsessed with death; when we started the band, we talked about devils and demons, and now we still write about devils and demons but more on a societal level. And that’s how we matured as a band. When we first started out, it was “Oh you’re a Satanic band, you worship the devil” We don’t worship the devil, but we did start writing songs that way. And then it became more about the ills of society, about human beings and how evil we are.
We’re the scariest thing out there.
Yeah, we are.
You guys have always tackled social and cultural issues in your music—what do you think was the most difficult subject to touch on?
I think the most challenging one was when Jeff told me he was writing a song called “Jihad.” [laughs] I’m like “Dude what are you doing?” [Laughs] He goes “No, no, no I want to write about it, but I want to do it in the perspective of the terrorist." So he came up with the majority of the words for that song, and since he told me what he was writing about, I did my homework too, reading books and watching documentaries about what was going on with Al Qaeda, and writing ideas down. Then we got together and started working on the album and I said, “Hey Jeff, you have the lyrics for the song?” and he said “Yeah, here are my ideas, what do you think?” And I read them through and think “This is really cool” and I go “Do you have anything for this ending part of the song” and he goes “Nah, not yet” and I said “Well I’ve got some stuff that I scribbled down” so I literally took what I had scribbled down and sang that. It wasn’t in any order, I didn’t rewrite it, it was just stuff I had jotted down. It was the tail end of the song and I did one take on it and it came out great. The producer said “Let’s try another take” and we couldn’t replicate it. Could not replicate it.
You can’t bottle lightning.
Yeah, and that’s the magic of the studio. When you just kind of do it, and you capture it in one take. It worked, and it’s a great song and we never got any backlash or repercussions from it. That was my concern, people are going to talk shit about us, they’re going to raise controversy. We got more shit over “Angel of Death” than we did for that song [Laughs]. I’m not going to say anything else because I don’t want to get in trouble, but it’s the nature of the business.
You’ve definitely spent a lot of time in this business. How do you separate the business side of things with the actual fun part, the experience of playing live and writing music and doing research? Is it still more fun than it is a job, or is it equal at this point?
It’s kind of equal, but teetering more toward business, because we’ve been around for so fucking long that Slayer's become its own entity. It’s become its own thing, and it has its own life, and we’re the ones breathing life into it. So we have to put work into making sure it still breathes and continues and that’s where its become more of a job. The most enjoyable time is the stage time.
You always seem like you’re having a lot of fun up there.
That’s it. That’s the most enjoyable part of what I do in this band. Everything else sucks. Because you have to get from point A to point B, and when you're doing it everyday of your life, at a certain point you don’t want to do it anymore. That’s how Jeff felt. Jeff was at the point where he was just tired, like we all are. And he was always anticipating the invention of the teleporter—he always talked about how great it would be to teleport on stage, do the show and then teleport home [laughs] And I was like, “Dude that would be awesome!”
To just cut out all the bullshit.
Yeah. That’s exactly it. You cut all the bullshit out. Because everybody has this impression of what life’s like. Like you mentioned the movie Almost Famous, and it was like that at one time, but I hate to say this, but there’s a point in life where you have to grow up. I hate to say that, but you have to grow up because you’re no longer that fun drunk person...you’re that sloppy drunk.
It's not as cute when you’re 45.
It’s even worse when you’re 50 [laughs]. So at some point you have to grow up and have a little bit of respect for yourself. I guess that’s the better way to put it, huh?
And spend time with the family doing karate instead of shooting Jager.
Whatever time we’re allotted, that’s what you live for. The rest of it—I can take it, I can leave it. If we didn’t have to do any of that other stuff, I think life would be great but like I said, after so many years, at this stage of the game, it’s a whole different thing, and people don’t understand that. After 33 years of traveling—actually more like 29 years of actual touring and traveling—after a while, it’s just tiring. And people are like “Oh it must be fun! You travel! You see blah blah blah!” I’m like, man, if you were in my shoes you would think differently.
You’re in a bus all day, you stop at a rest stop, you go to work, you get back on the bus.
That’s it. It’s funny, recently we went to Europe to do press for the new album. We did three days in London, a day in Paris, a day in Norway, two days or three days in Germany. And people are like “Oh, that must be nice. Did you get to see much of Paris?” And I look at them, and say “See this room? Look around you.” And they’re looking around. “This is my Paris. It’s beautiful isn’t it?” [Laughs] That's what I say whenever anybody asks me that, because we’re always in the hotels doing interviews and everybody asks me that. “Did you get to see much of Stockholm?” I’ll look around and I’ll show them the room. “How do you like it? This is my Stockholm. It’s beautiful, isn’t it? I like the drapes. Look at the couch. Wonderful.” And then you open the window and go “This is my painting, my picture. This is what I see."
I could tell you what every airport in the fucking world looks like. It’s a sad day when you can do that, let me tell you that.
Do you even like to travel on vacation anymore?
That’s the only time I enjoy it. The only time I enjoy the airport or traveling is when I know that I’m going somewhere with my family.
Your family life seems like a such a refuge for you.
I used to have them out on the road with me when we were out here in the States, on Ozzfest or whatever, when we would do it seven weeks in the summer. The first two tours were great, and then after that I had to drag them with me [laughs] It was more about them being with me than them coming out with me. I really enjoyed having them with me, it makes this fucking... it makes it so I can do it. If I’m in a hotel room with my family, I don’t give a shit what the hell is going on. We’ll go out and walk around. We’ve got a show to do, so I'll go do the show. Get back on the bus with my family. Watch TV, play a game, whatever. And it made it tolerable, but I didn’t realize my happiness was making them miserable.
Because touring without that stage time is just endless travel.
Yeah—getting on the bus, getting off the bus. “Wake up, we’re here” when they just fell asleep. The kids were probably younger than seven or eight when they started. And now they’re 16 and 19. And it’s been the last three tours and four tours that they haven’t toured, they haven’t been out with me. They’re like me. They understood why I’d rather be home than on the road. They understood because they don’t want to be out on the road, they want to be home. They have friends and they’ve got all their stuff at home, why would they want to be on the road?
They understood what I go through now. And they look at me like, "You’ve gotta go," and I’m like “I know.” That’s the attitude. "We don’t have to go, you’re the one that has to go." And I'd tell them, “But I want you guys with me” and they told tell me, "We’re just not having fun, dad. It’s not fun.” Like I said, we’ve traveled a lot on the bus, planes, trains and automobiles, and at one point they said they liked being out on the road with me but it wasn’t fun anymore. So I said okay.
Man, how long are you gonna keep doing this?
I don’t know. I have no idea. When I get tired of being the old guy in the club. [laughs] Like "Who’s that old creep in the corner?" [Laughs] Because that’s about where it’s at. Being the old guy in the bar, with all of these young people around you and they’re all looking at the old guy thinking “Who’s that creep?”
I guess your resume just says "Slayer"— It’s not like you're going to go work at Staples when you retire.
Yeah, I’d like to think they’d give me a job at Burger King or something when I’m retired and I need to make extra cash because my Social Security check ain’t covered [laughs]
Hopefully we have a few years till then, at least.
Well, we just did a record, so I’ve sold my soul for about a good four or five years.
There are worse places you could sell it to, surely.
Yeah, that’s true, but I think it puts things into perspective when you tell someone that. They’re always talking about “You sold your soul!” and in life, you kinda do. It depends on what it is you’re doing in life, but there are some things that require you to sacrifice a good portion of your life. That to me is selling your soul. You have to give up a good portion of your life in order to do what it is you’re gonna do. When I agreed to this album, I knew that I would have to do a record, and then follow it up with at least a good three or four years of touring.
How old are you now?
Uh, this is 2015? I’m 54. I had to think about how old I am because I don’t feel my age, so I had to sit there and think, “Uh, what year is this?” 54, [laughs] A friend of mine told me that age is nothing but a frame of mind. When I look in the mirror I’m like, “Oh, I guess I am getting old!” But it’s a frame of mind, I don’t think of myself as old. Then when you look at people that are my age that are older than me, that’s because they feel old and they’re acting old. That’s what makes you old.
So you’ll be almost 60 when it’s time to do a new record.
Yeah. That’s scary.
That takes some serious dedication.
It is. I’ve sacrificed a lot of my life. You miss a lot. People don’t even realize that, but you miss a lot. I have brothers and sisters, so I have nieces and nephews that were born and had birthdays, and they’re full grown now. And I missed a lot of that. Even my own family—I’ve been married 20 years. I have a daughter that just turned 19, and a son that just turned 16, and I missed a lot of their growing up. I was around for the first month of my son’s life, but I saw him next when he was walking, making sounds and talking. The same with my daughter; after my daughter was born, I left, and didn’t see her for almost two months. When I saw her, she was walking and talking. That’s why I wanted to take them on the road with me, I wanted to be able to at least witness them growing and being a part of their life to some extent.
I guess the tradeoffs is that you’ve made so many people happy over the last 30 years…
Yeah, but I don’t consider it an even trade.
It doesn’t sound like it.
No, it’s not, it’s not an even trade.And it’s the one thing that people don’t understand. That’s one part of this life that nobody talks about, nobody brings up or mentions, and it’s the saddest part. They’re afraid to talk about it.
They don’t want to shatter the illusion of the indestructible rock god.
We are indestructible, but we’re also humans who have lives.
Well, I hope you get to go home soon.
We're only here for the next twelve hours— it’s a day off today. We’re spending a day in Vegas, which I think that means that I’m just gonna be lying around, watching TV, movies, eating…
That sounds alright!
Yeah, it sounds great! I just wish my kids were here to do it with me.
Kim Kelly is an editor at Noisey. Follow her on Twitter - @grimkim