Interview: Slayer

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Whenever a metalhead screams the word “Slayer,” there is such an historic sense of integrity attached to this monumental term that it commands the utmost respect. For longtime metal listeners, there’s a right of passage where we could instantly recall the fondest memories of hearing “Angel of Death” for the very first time. In my case, the eye opening reaction once Tom Araya’s venomous scream pierced through my speakers amongst this malicious backdrop of demonic riffs. Dare I say, the greatest display of insanity in the history of thrash metal.

Groundbreaking releases such as Reign In Blood, South of Heaven, and Seasons In the Abyss forever catapulted this band into the upper echelon of heavy metal since they pushed the boundaries of maniacal aggression and lyrical darkness. Thousands of acts still try to recreate this “Black Magic” within the confines of metal yet none of them will ever surpass the heaviness of Slayer.

Looking back at 2009, everything in the world of Slayer seemed perfectly intact. They released World Painted Blood to critical acclaim and took part in the historic thrash phenomenon known as “The Big 4” live shows. However, legendary guitarist Jeff Hanneman contracted an illness from a spider bite, which cost him the ability to perform in 2011. On May 2, 2013, Hanneman tragically passed away from liver complications, which created this insurmountable hole in Slayer. For those unfamiliar, Hanneman was the principal songwriter and composed a majority of the group’s most beloved tracks. Before this tragedy occurred, disagreements in business decisions saw highly beloved drummer Dave Lombardo leave the band as well. After 30 years of relentless thrashing, Slayer fans begged the question, “Should they move forward or should they retire?”

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This isn’t the story of Kiss replacing two beloved members with little regard for how listeners feel. Both Slayer guitarist Gary Holt and drummer Paul Bostaph represent the best-case scenario for what became a bitter pill to swallow. Gary Holt is the lead guitarist and principal songwriter for the legendary thrashers Exodus. Let’s put it this way, Exodus garnered a loyal Bay area following in the early 1980s before Slayer found their stride. They may lack the commercial success of “The Big 4” but their catalog proudly stands alongside Slayer’s best work. Legendary thrash journeyman Paul Bostaph made a name for himself in Slayer after his debut on 1994’s Divine Intervention. Right from the intro of “Killing Fields,” longtime listeners became fully aware that Slayer hit the lottery twice in the drum department. Plenty of fans welcomed his return since he contributed to some astounding material in the mid 90s/early 2000s.

On the brinks of a full-fledged comeback, Slayer is set to release a new record Repentless on September 11, 2015. Having already listened to the entire LP, this album revisits the downtuned grittiness previously heard on God Hates Us All. Minus the same eerie release date as God Hates Us All (September 11, 2001), Repentless showcases a band with nothing left to lose, as they sound hell bent on conquering all of the adversity lying in their way.

In an exclusive interview with Pop-Break, I spoke with Slayer drummer Paul Bostaph about the writing process behind Repentless. Keep your eyes glued to the screen as Bostaph delivers some eye opening insight into Slayer’s latest LP after tragedy put their future in doubt.

Photo credit:  Andrew Stuart
Photo credit: Andrew Stuart

It’s been a whirlwind couple of years since you rejoined Slayer. Could you describe your initial reaction of reconnecting with Tom and Kerry and contributing to the writing process once again?

Getting back into the band, it was really great. I’ve been away from it for so long. I missed playing these songs. There were never any problems between us personally. Rekindling those relationships and getting into the process of playing this music again, I was really excited about it.

It must’ve felt good to be wanted back as well. Both Kerry and Tom have stated how your presence helped them find comfort in keeping Slayer active.

Oh yeah, it did. It’s definitely been a tough couple of years for the band for some obvious reasons. It just felt good to know that they had the confidence in me to write another record.

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Did you try to invoke Jeff Hanneman’s spirit during the recording process or take any of his previous critiques into account when you approached your drum parts?

Well, you always want to go into the studio and draw on past experiences The more experience you get when you record albums, you work with different artists and you draw on things you learned. The bottom line is – you don’t really know everything. That’s the exciting thing about recording and creating. You could come across some sort of new inspiration and it affects the way you write. When we were recording in the studio, there were times I definitely thought to myself, “I wonder what Jeff would think?” It was always on my mind whenever we were recording.

Did having another former bandmate like Gary Holt (Exodus) involved make this comeback easier for you?

Yeah, I’ve played with Gary a lot over the years and I know Gary really well. He’s a Bay Area guy and he’s an overall really cool guy. Right when I rejoined the band, it wasn’t like there were three Slayer guys and this one other guy. What can you say? Gary was there at the very beginning of thrash metal. You could see it – he really knows the sound of this band. He was playing with them while Jeff was still here. It really felt like a band before we even started. I spent a lot of time rehearsing with Kerry and when Gary finally sat in with us, it felt like we had been playing together for a long time.

You immediately felt this sense of artistic chemistry between Gary, Kerry, Tom, and yourself?

Yeah, it was the first show we did and it was in Europe at some festival. And literally, when we were going through the set, it was like, ‘This is pretty big since we’re playing in front of a huge crowd in Europe.’ It was strange because I rehearsed the songs a bunch of times before we played the first show but it felt like Kerry, Tom, Gary, and I were really locked in the entire time. We went out and played these songs live and it felt like riding an old bike again. It was really good.

LEFT TO RIGHT:  Tom Araya, Gary Holt, Paul Bostaph, Kerry King. Photo credit:  Andrew Stuart
LEFT TO RIGHT: Tom Araya, Gary Holt, Paul Bostaph, Kerry King. Photo credit: Andrew Stuart

Could you describe your initial reaction when you first heard Kerry’s new material? Were there any riffs that immediately caught your attention?

In terms of riffs, there were quite a few but one in particular is a song called “You Against You.” When I first heard it, I was like, ‘Man, this pretty unusual and something I’ve never heard Kerry do before.’ It was so funky and it got me really excited. Every time we play that song and right from the intro, I get really mad when I hear it. That’s really where it started. Right from the beginning, it felt so funky and I really liked the energy behind it.

Since Slayer hasn’t released a new record since 2009, was there a decent amount of material reserved for this project? Did you and Kerry sort through his riff collection and determine which material was strongest for Slayer?

Kerry was pretty much bringing in material as he was putting it together. Every once in a while, there would be a riff that I hadn’t heard before that caught my attention. I’ve always done this a lot over the years. If I heard him working on something during sound check and I liked it, I would stop and tell him, ‘Man, that sounds great.’ If it was something he was playing and he didn’t know what to do with it, I think it helps to have another band member around to hear those riffs and say, ‘Man, you have to do something with that.’ We weren’t sorting through all of Kerry’s old riffs and I think Kerry does all of that himself.

Which other tracks are you most excited for Slayer listeners to hear? Which are your personal favorites off Repentless?

There are a few songs like “Vices,” “Etched In Stone,” “Chasing Death,” and “Piano Wire.” In particular, I think those four songs are really great and I really can’t wait to play them live. I think they are going to sound amazing.

Since Slayer were signed to American Records for a majority of their career, was it weird not having Rick Rubin involved in any capacity?

From my experience, Rick hasn’t really been involved since the first one. There were only a handful of times where I really saw Rick in the studio. Was it weird? I don’t know. There were so many things that happened to this band over the years. I think at this point, we’ve got to roll with any friends we still have and we can’t stop. I can’t say it was weird. There were so many other things that I thought were so much more important, especially the loss of Jeff. For me personally, his loss overshadowed everything.

From what you gathered working with Tom and Kerry, how did they cope with such massive changes this far into their career?

Look, a lot of bands don’t have a career as long as this band – you’re talking over thirty years. They’ve dealt with a lot of adversity over the years but this was the worst of them all. It’s one of those things – when I say adversity, I mean what happened with Jeff. I think friendship is so important during those difficult times. Sometimes losing a friend could be a lot bigger than anything else in life. With that being said, this is Slayer and this is what we do. I think Jeff would’ve wanted us to continue on and I think Kerry and Tom know that.

Could you describe Terry Date’s approach during this recording process? What was the most impressive aspect of his production style?

Terry has produced some massive records and they always had these amazing tones on them. I’ve always been impressed by how he made music and produced records that became so big yet they were still so in your face. And that’s what I really like about our album. The drum sounds are some of the best I’ve ever gotten. The drums sound so big and even the slower songs are bigger than anything I’ve ever had. When you mix big with thrash metal, you’re going to get a lot of mud but that wasn’t the case. Terry’s worked on so many great albums and there were no questions in my mind when we first started working with him. I was really excited about it. For me, I think Terry brings the best out of this band. It was more like having another band member around or even a fifth band member. It wasn’t like we were sitting in the studio with another producer; Terry is just like one of us. It was just great to bounce ideas off him.

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Photo Credit: Andrew Stuart

Did you gain something new from this recording process that challenged the way you thought of drumming?

Yeah, from this record, I definitely learned what tones I want to work with next time for sure. I can tell you that right now. There were some recording techniques that Terry used, which I found very interesting and the way certain microphones were set up that sounded killer. Basically, I’ve always struggled a little bit in the studio. I consider myself a perfectionist so this time around, I learned to let loose a little more. With some records, you have a very short timeframe to work with and there’s other records where you have a little more time to let loose. On this record, there were some songs that I didn’t play too many times before recording them, maybe 8 – 10 times the most. That’s from writing to recording them and that was only a few songs. It was a really fun process. I really felt I improved with my improvisational skills. I felt I was able to lean on that side of my playing a little bit more on this record.

Harkening back to your debut on Divine Intervention, how have you seen yourself grow as both a songwriter and drummer? What’s the biggest advantage of being able to reflect upon your previous output and maybe apply a different approach now?

From then to now, Divine Intervention was a record where I was almost over prepared and I had a lot to prove. I had a gigantic chip on my shoulder back then. I had a year to prepare for the recording process and I mean, I put everything I had into that album. It’s probably one of my most technical records by far. After that, I learned to not be quite as technical and I worked a lot on my improvisational skills. I think that’s the biggest thing – my ability to know if I don’t know what to do, just let it fly. Just go with it and see what happens. If I try something and I fall flat on my face, I tried something and fell flat on my face. Sometimes the best material you create is stuff that happened spur of the moment. It could sometimes sound better than anything you’ve spent a long time working on. I tend to lean more on that side of my playing and my impromptu has really improved. I think the biggest thing I’ve also improved on is my dynamics. I used to hit the drums hard every time I hit them when I was younger. I think I’ve learned to get a little more out of the drums rather than just hitting them as hard as I can.

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Were there any similarities between your first Slayer gigs in 1992 and 2013? Were there any comparable feelings of déjà vu or nervousness?

I don’t think there were really any similarities. I was extremely nervous during my first Slayer gig. I think the only similarity is that they were both Slayer gigs. I had way more confidence coming in this time around since I had already done it for ten years. My first time around – I never played with Slayer before. They are two different eras. I knew what kind of drummer Dave was before I joined the band and that hasn’t changed. I generally just have more confidence in myself.

Taking your previous albums into consideration, would you consider Repentless the best record of your Slayer tenure thus far? Maybe even your personal favorite?

That’s a really good question. I would say it’s probably right up there. Diabolus In Musica is a good one and I really love that record but yeah, I guess I could say this is my favorite.

What excites you most about the release of Repentless – fans being able to hear the new material or you being able to play these songs live?

I’m really excited about the fact that fans will finally get to hear this new album. As you know, I’ve been living with the material for over two-years. At some point, you want to know what people think. I’m so critical of myself so I’m not one to say, “Yes, that’s my best.” I try to basically move forward and give everybody something different than the last time you heard me. I’m really excited about everyone being able to hear the record. With that being said, you get a story behind it and I can’t wait to play these songs live.

Click here to pick up Repentless by Slayer


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