When faced with mortality, Slayer didn’t regroup so much as charge forward. In May of this year, guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who wrote the music for dozens of thrash classics including “Angel of Death” and “South of Heaven,” died of liver failure. The death came as a shock to the metal community. Although the public had known that Hanneman had been battling a disease caused by a spider bite since 2011, fans were largely unaware that Hanneman was fighting for his life during the spring.
While Hanneman was on a hiatus from the band due to his illness, Slayer brought in Gary Holt of Exodus, who most people assumed was a temporary replacement until Hanneman came back. But after Hanneman’s death, the band set off on a summer tour just a month later. Now they’re capping off the era with the “Old School Slayer Night Tour,” where the band is playing a set composed almost entirely of material recorded during their first decade.
Rolling Stone spoke with founding guitarist Kerry King about the current tour, Hanneman’s passing and what the band has planned for the future.
Why do you think the first decade of Slayer is so celebrated among fans?
I think because it was kind of the beginning. It was the big bang from where thrash evolved. It meant a lot to people because up through 1990’s Seasons in the Abyss, it was a roller coaster ride just going up. As you move on – it has been 20 years since then – it’s hard to get that many of those songs in the set. And now it’s a perfect time to do that, because we have no new product.
Early Slayer material had a lot of Satanism and black magic in the lyrics. As you progressed, you began to deal with more real-world topics, like terrorism, mental health and even rugby. What does the Satan stuff mean to you now?
Well, it’s certainly still cool. I think my dabbling in demonic-type lyrics graduated into poking holes in religion. When you’re young, you’re finding yourself. I’m still finding myself through my lyrics. Every time I write lyrics it opens up a new chapter in my life, because it forces me to pay attention more. You have you write relevant lyrics. I think that’s what a lot of bands are lacking. You have to write for the original fans. I try to keep making things that are relevant to me and I think that’s relevant to the audience, because we’re the same type of people.
I sense that “closeness” at Slayer shows with the fans. Despite the aggressive and violent lyrics, it seems everyone is having a good time, and it’s almost like a party.
It’s an event that you can enjoy with your family – you can enjoy with your kids. Metalheads can enjoy it with punk freaks. It’s a special thing that way.
So you would recommend bringing your children to Slayer?
I think it was in Vegas, there was some dude that brought a 10-year-old with a Mohawk, and the kid was on his shoulders the entire time.
Can a 10-year-old comprehend the points that Slayer is making?
I don’t think it would be about understanding at that point as much as it would be about enjoying. When I was young, there were some lyrics that were just so embedded in my head that to this day I’ll sing wrong – songs that meant something to me 35 years ago and then when I find out that I had them wrong, I feel like the biggest dick. I think for people at that age, it’s more about the experience and liking the sound.
This tour has Gary Holt from Exodus on guitar and Paul Bostaph on drums, neither of whom were on the earliest recordings. How do their playing styles affect the older music?
I know when Paul approaches the songs that Dave Lombardo recorded, he’s in the 95th percentile of what’s on the record. I just turn Gary loose.
You also did something unusual a few nights ago – you covered an Exodus song. Slayer rarely does covers.
Yeah, we’ve done that song twice. Rather than take any of our songs out, we just added it in. It’s an old-school song, and Gary and Paul were both in Exodus. It’s the same era, same great music. I love playing that song. I think it’s going to be part of the tour.
I’d like to talk about Jeff Hanneman. Did you know that he was fatally sick for a while, or did it come as a shock, like it did with the metal community?
I think the quickness of it all was a shock. I knew he was back in the hospital and in and out. To be honest, I knew that after the spider bite that he probably wasn’t going to come back. The door was open for him to come back. If he worked hard enough and was able to do it, I kind of expected for him to come back. But a month before he passed, he was back in the hospital, and I was pretty sure that he wasn’t coming back. But I wasn’t thinking that he wouldn’t be with us at all.
Sometimes when people die suddenly, there’s an unconscious resentment towards the deceased for departing. Did you feel any of that?
Not then. My whole thing was his lack of commitment for not coming back.
You were frustrated that he didn’t want to come back to the band?
Not that he didn’t want to, I just think he wasn’t putting the time in. And that’s me looking in from the outside. When you’re uninformed and people don’t tell you things, you have to make your own opinions.
Were you hurt that you didn’t hang out as pals anymore?
We did when we were younger. Then Jeff became more of a loner and a recluse. He lived an hour and a half, maybe two hours outside of L.A. You never saw him. When we went on tour, in 2010, which was the last time we toured with him, he would sit on the bus all day. He didn’t want to come in and socialize. He didn’t want to deal with taking pictures or anything. He didn’t want to deal with anything.
Do you think he was tired of being in the band?
He wasn’t tired of playing. He enjoyed playing live. If he didn’t, he would have just come in and said, “Hey guys, I’m done.” We all love playing. He just didn’t like the headache that came with it.
Some bands attribute their longevity to the fact that they don’t hang out, so they can’t get on each other’s nerves. Do you think Slayer’s longevity is partially due to the fact that you guys don’t all hang out as much?
I think it would have been either way, even if we did. For a long time, if anyone did hang out, it would be me and Jeff, especially on tour. On days off, we would just go and do whatever. It usually involved the bar.
You guys used to watch horror movies together.
Yeah, earlier on. As far as me and Hanneman, and even Tom was involved then, it was like a nightly thing. I had a big-ass bag of VHS tapes and it took up so much room that I had to bring another bag for my clothes.
What movies would you watch?
Full Metal Jacket was definitely one. Seven was definitely one. More recent than those, Thirteen Ghosts, Event Horizon.
All those movies deal with the concept of mortality. Slayer deals with that a lot, too. Since Jeff’s death, has your concept of mortality changed or been reaffirmed?
Probably reaffirmed. I was dealt my first death blow when the original owner of B.C. Rich guitars, Bernie Rico, died suddenly in his fifties. That one shook me up.
Are you going to use any Hanneman material on future recordings?
Jeff gave us – there was a song leftover from the last album that Jeff finished as an afterthought that was called “Piano Wire.” It wasn’t on the album because it wasn’t as good as the other songs. I knew Jeff as gonna work on the lyrics and get it done. He was always talking about reworking the song. When you try to make a song better, you pretty much have to deconstruct it to make it better. I know there are two other ones, which are incomplete things, which he had for 15 to 20 years. Those will come out. My big thing is that I don’t want people to say “Oh, that’s a bummer that this was Jeff’s last song.” I want people to say, “this is awesome that this was Jeff’s last song.”
How is the new album coming along?
I finished seven lyrically. I’ve done, like, 11 demos with Paul. There’s leftover Jeff stuff and my leftover stuff. There’s tons of stuff, we just have to record it. Hopefully we’ll record in January.
Do you have any song titles?
I don’t release song titles early because people might steal them!
What concepts do you address?
It’s gonna be the extension of World Painted Blood, like World Painted Blood was an extension of Christ Illusion. It will be what Slayer fans like, because that’s why Slayer fans like us.