Tom Araya on Repentless, fame, and Slayer's legacy

As Slayer defy the odds and return with Repentless, frontman Tom Araya discusses the loss of Jeff Hanneman, his uneasy relationship with fame and the thrash titans' legacy

Feature by Joe Goggins | 07 Sep 2015
  • Slayer

“I never used to think about it, but these days, people are always throwing it in your face. I think it’s 34 years in the band, 32 since Hell Awaits, next year will be 30 since Reign in Blood; fuck, man. It’s crazy.” 

The last six or so years of Slayer’s career have been amongst their most turbulent; given their ever-present penchant for controversy, that’s saying something. In 2008, frontman Tom Araya shrouded the future of the band in doubt, apparently loath to continue roaring his way through the likes of Angel of Death and Raining Blood the older he got. Three years later, and just months before some of the biggest shows of their career alongside fellow thrash legends Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax as part of the Big Four tour, founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman contracted the gruesome skin disease necrotising fasciitis; he was forced to sit out both touring and studio commitments, and in 2013, he succumbed to alcoholism at the age of 49.

That same year, drummer Dave Lombardo – another original member – departed in acrimonious and apparently financially-driven circumstances. With Araya and guitarist Kerry King - not known for always seeing eye-to-eye - the last men standing, the very future of one of metal’s great institutions was very much up in the air; for a while, it looked as if novelty Christmas jumpers and their own ale (red, obviously) would be the only kind of output their fiercely loyal fanbase could look forward to.


"Jeff was always talking about teleporters" – Tom Araya

They continued to tour, although hardly with abundant enthusiasm. “After 30 years, it’s stopped being fun in some ways,” Araya admitted when we called him at his home in Texas. “It’s become this corporation; we have to tour, because people rely on us. There’s a lot of other people involved, and they all want their money.” Repentless, though – their first new full-length since World Painted Blood in 2009 – at least seems to signify the turning of a page for the band; King and Araya have forged a new creative partnership, as well as having drafted Paul Bostaph back in to the studio for the first time in 14 years to replace Lombardo, and the result is their most vital record in over a decade.

On the change of band dynamics since the loss of Hanneman...

When Jeff passed, I was apprehensive. To me, the issue was, do we continue? That was what was going through my head. The relationship between me and Jeff was very much a working one, where we could communicate, collaborate and make things sound cool in our eyes, whereas the one between me and Kerry was really different. I just knew we had to sit down and figure out if we could still do this – if this was going to be a good relationship or a rocky one. 30 years together is a long time, and you end up learning how to cope with each other – or at least deal with each other! After that length of time, you learn how people are and when you should just say “oh, whatever. That’s just him being him.” That was easier when Jeff was around, but I talked with Kerry and I said my piece and said, “you need to be open with me – you need to be able to accept my ideas, too.” So far, it’s working.

On Hanneman's enduring influence...

As much as I think Kerry took control of the record, he tried to make it a rounded Slayer album by musically pinning together songs that, in some ways, were influenced by Jeff. I don’t want to use the word emulate, but at some points, he tried to come up with songs that would represent how Jeff wrote and the preference that he had for the heavy, slow stuff – especially on When the Stillness Comes and Pride in Prejudice. Kerry can do that – he did that with Gemini, too, on the Undisputed Attitude album. When Jeff was still around, Kerry had come up with a lot of material, and I was really trying to encourage Jeff to be a part of what was going on when we got together at rehearsal. He was a really good arranger; he did an awesome job of sitting and listening to the ideas and saying, “how about changing this, how about changing that?” He was a very thoughtful guy, but during those last sessions, he would often come in, be quiet, listen to the songs and then take off without saying anything.

On Hanneman's uneasy relationship with fame and desire to teleport everywhere...

At some point, he was over it. He didn’t want to be bothered, he didn’t want to deal with that. He was still a nice guy to people that he knew and ran into, but quietly, behind the scenes, he spent a lot of time on the bus - we both did, period. He would take the front lounge, I would take the back lounge, and we’d both read a lot. We’d change on the bus and then make our way to the dressing room maybe fifteen or twenty minutes before stage time. That was life; you didn’t want to have to get off the bus, because - and I hate to say this – you have to deal with people when you leave the bus! He got tired of that side of things, and so did I. I still follow that tradition. After 30 years, it becomes a lot to deal with. Jeff was always talking about teleporters; “wouldn’t it be great if we could just teleport onto the stage, play, and then teleport back home!” I kept saying to him, “well, do it, man! Find someone to develop it.”

On Dave Lombardo’s departure...

I’m just going to set the record straight on that. Going back a long time now, fifteen years nearly, we were looking for somebody to sit in for Paul Bostaph – that’s how long ago it started with Dave. Paul decided to move on, but he stuck with us until we could find a replacement. Dave said, “yeah, I’ll sit in for a tour or two,” and in the process of doing that, we drew up a contract for Dave, because that’s what you’ve got to do – make sure everybody’s taken care of, everybody’s happy. We came up with a simple agreement that lasted a while, and then we were in the process of trying to make it better for Dave, because after so many years of playing with us you figure, well, shit – we should redo this, we should figure out how we can make it better for Dave. We came up with a deal and he basically was getting everything he wanted, but it was a three-year term, and three years into that, we still hadn’t been able to get him to sign it.

We had some obligations that came up and when you’re given an ultimatum or put on the spot, you have to do something, so we moved forwards, and Dave got really upset. We went back to him again and told him that if he signed the deal, we could move forwards, but he had other plans, so we made a phone call to him and ended it, because he was beginning to put us into a bad spot. We managed to find somebody to sit in, we went off to play in Australia and Dave went on a rant and told a lopsided story, and we let him talk and do what he does best. I hate to say anything bad about him, but he did what he did and we had to move forwards. He was beginning to put us in a really bad light, and we didn’t want to stop the wheels from turning.

On Paul Bostaph's return...

It’s funny; I remember Kerry talking about getting off the plane on tour, and we had all these people who’d been trying to text us, saying “have you seen what Dave has said? This is all over the internet!” And one of those messages was from Paul, saying, you know, “hey!” And I took that as a sign. Paul’s the only other drummer for this band, he’d replaced Dave before, and become kind of a fixture in his own right. We did several albums with him, and in fact, if he hadn’t left, he’d still be in the band. That was the level he was at with us.

On dashed plans to work with Rick Rubin...

When we got together to throw around some ideas a few years back, it was on the premise that we’d be working with Rubin, once he came up with the kind of agreement that we were hoping for. In the end, that never materialised. I wouldn’t say we were upset, but it was frustrating – “what’s the problem? Why isn’t he responding to us?” By the time he finally did, we had other offers, because people had gotten wind of the fact that we were working towards another record. I was hoping that Rubin would want to really be a part of the album like he did with the first few - to sit in and really work closely with us – but he didn’t offer us that level of participation.

On signing with Nuclear Blast... 

We did our homework. Nuclear Blast know all the ins and outs of how to work with metal. We went to Europe to do press and met up with everybody at the company, around the time we were mastering and sequencing and finishing up the artwork. I was blown away by how methodical they were – they had this really meticulous road map for the record. Plus, everybody there’s a metalhead! I was thinking, “fuck, this is cool, everybody in this building is a genuine metalhead.” There’s obviously a big difference there between those guys and the major labels in America; they have people working your record, but there’s a standard model of selling albums in the U.S. that doesn’t really work when you try to apply it to metal.

On King’s claim that preferred producer Greg Fidelman’s services have been ‘monopolised’ by Metallica in recent years...

Yeah, that’s true. When we started this record about two and a half years ago, we thought it was a done deal that we’d work with Rubin again, and we started the process of demoing with Fidelman. A month or two down the line, Rubin took Fidelman and moved him onto working with other bands, because we hadn’t managed to strike a deal yet. That was kind of what happened on World Painted Blood, too; we ended up continuing to demo stuff on our own, while Fidelman went off and worked with Metallica on, I guess, whatever the next record is going to be for them. It was kind of a downer – it would’ve been really cool to have him sit in and do one more. It would’ve been a good way to close that chapter.

On Slayer's relationship with Metallica...

They’re a bunch of fucking assholes! Nah, they’re great people; the band, and everybody who works for them, too. Those Big Four shows we did a few years ago were fucking amazing, and it helped that they were such nice guys, and that the opportunity was always there to sit down and talk with them. Everybody got along so well; the bands, the crews, it all gelled together. It’d be great if we could do that again as a world tour, because it would do well everywhere we went. That whole tour is basically a Metallica thing, even if it was billed as the four bands, so it’s their call, and I’m sure they have their reasons for why it stopped. I can tell you it’s not because of us! I’ll just leave it at that. They’ve got their reasons for why it hasn’t been brought up again, and I don’t blame them. I couldn’t thank them enough for giving us that opportunity, to do those fucking massive shows. They allowed us to be part of that, and it was really fucking cool.

On three decades on the road catching up with his voice...

It's getting to the point where, these past few tours, my voice gets and tired, and has a tough time recuperating. I need an extra day or two of rest sometimes. There's been a few times where I didn't want to go out and play because I'd rather sacrifice one show than an entire tour, and when I do that – and there have been a few shows cancelled because of my voice – I feel really bad. That's not Slayer, that's not cool. It's not fair to all the people who bought tickets. Jeff kept his health problems to himself for the same reason – he didn't like to let anybody down.

On Slayer’s legacy and his own standing in metal history...

I’m not really big on that. I mean, I’m humbled and embarrassed when people ask for my autograph, or when they ask for a picture of me, because I don’t see myself in that fashion – and I’m being sincere when I say that. I play bass and I sing for this band. That, to me, is gratifying enough, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t make myself as accessible any more. I don’t wear the Slayer hat very well these days. I used to be much better at that, and it was fun, but it isn’t any more. I didn’t start a band so that people would know who I was. I remember on one of the early road trips, our tour manager had us constantly doing interviews, and Jeff and I were like, “fuck, we’re getting tired of doing all this press.” His response was, “well, you wanted to be a rock star!” We stopped him in his tracks right there. We just wanted to play in a fucking band!

Repentless is released on 11 Sep via Nuclear Blast. Playing Manchester O2 Apollo on 24 Nov and Glasgow O2 Academy on 25 Nov. http://www.slayer.net