Slayer has been part of scenes like this before: thrashing guitars at high noon, facing a crowd of shaved heads and tattooed limbs as fans push violently forward, while security struggles (and fails) to shove them back. But here, the walls are lined with barbed wire and smoke fills the air, and men dressed in prison orange erupt to the frantic shouts of singer Tom Araya: “Arrogance, violence, world in disarray/Dealing with insanity every fuckin’ day!”
The guards are soon overwhelmed and flee, leaving prisoners to stomp and swirl around the band as it again plays a new song called “Repentless” — the title track of Slayer’s new album, due September 11th — in the yard for a large camera crew. It’s day two of a music-video shoot at the Sybil Brand Institute in Los Angeles, the old women’s jail where members of the Manson Family once resided, closed as an active jail since 1997 due to earthquake damage. The infamous hilltop facility is now frequently used as a prison location by filmmakers.
The forthcoming “Repentless” video will be an elaborate collision of heavy metal and violence directed by horror fanatic BJ McDonnell. “I’m probably the most excited I’ve been for a video that we’ve ever done,” says guitarist Kerry King, sporting a long, braided beard and wearing a black “Slayer Nation” T-shirt.
If today’s shoot is focused mainly on capturing Slayer’s performance amid a prison riot, the day before was all about carnage. With a cast that includes Danny Trejo (of Machete), Derek Mears (Friday the 13th) and Tony Moran (the original Halloween), gallons of blood and multiple severed body parts were spilled as prisoners went to war on guards and each other.
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“What’s being filmed here is a story of something that becomes violent,” says drummer Paul Bostaph. “There’s no way to do it PG. It’s got to be done as close to reality as possible.”
Sitting by a row of windows in the jail’s empty visitor center is Araya, gray-bearded like Methuselah, wearing black and with long brown hair down his back. “We’re telling the story that we’ve always told about society and how humans treat each other,” he says. “It can get pretty violent. It can get pretty stupid. But that’s OK. That’s human nature.”
During multiple takes throughout the day, Slayer stand with their stacks of Marshall amps as a huge camera crane swings above. During one take, the director throws the devil’s horns in genuine excitement. “We had a burning building and barbed wire and Slayer. It was killer,” McDonnell says. “We love horror movies and we played for that and made it really gnarly and violent.”
Evidence of yesterday’s splatter mayhem could still be found scattered around the makeup and special-effects department inside the jail offices. Preparing to demonstrate one of his effects, Tony Gardener pours fake blood into a large syringe and says, “You can’t have a prison riot without a lot of blood. With BJ, ‘a lot of blood’ means a lot of blood, and with Slayer, it means a lot of blood.”
“We had the jail cells opened and all the inmates running out and beating the shit out of each other, slamming each other against the cell,” says music-video producer Felissa Rose, a slasher-horror vet since she was the 13-year-old star of Sleepaway Camp in 1983. “It was terrifying.”
Though all of his scenes were filmed the day before, Trejo has come back to the set for a chance to meet the thrash-metal originators. “In prison, there’s only two different kinds of people: There’s predators and prey,” says Trejo, leaning against a cell door. “Being a Slayer fan, I’m a predator.”
The actor and ex-con accepted the offer to appear in the video in part because his sons and daughter were already fans of Slayer. And his memories of the previous day’s jailhouse violence are vivid. “Yesterday, I stabbed a guard numerous times — it was alleged that I stabbed a guard numerous times,” he says calmly. “It was also alleged that I jammed my fingers into an inmate and gouged out his eyes. They haven’t proven anything yet, though. Almost 300 people saw the incident, but there are no witnesses.”
For guitarist Gary Holt, this was his first music video as a member of Slayer, but he brought decades of experience from his band Exodus. Holt says he’s typically bored by the process of miming to a song over and over for the cameras. Not this time.
During multiple takes amid a SoCal summer heat-wave, Holt stood on the asphalt beside his Slayer bandmates, raising a guitar the color of coagulated blood as the riot of guards and prisoners pushed toward him. “It was awesome,” says Holt. “I got to grab a riot cop to the ground several times, which is super fun. I get to lash out at the law.” He laughs. “He said, ‘I’m a stuntman — yank me down hard.’ So by the last time I did it, I grabbed him and hurled him, and the guy is six-foot-five, so that was really fun.”
For Slayer, the location wasn’t just about carnage and criminals, since they have always counted prisoners among their fans. “To me, Slayer is a very street kind of music — which means inmates, which means enlisted people, officers, both sides,” says King. “It’s very real.”
“Slayer fans — I’m sure there are a lot of them with records,” says Holt with a grin. “Heavy metal and crime sometimes go hand-in-hand… We can’t all be choir boys.”
The location also reminds Araya of an overnight stay he once had behind bars during a night of drinking two decades ago. “I don’t really remember much of it. I was drunk off my ass,” he recalls. “It was the beginning of my sobriety. I remember waking up in the location, looking around thinking, ‘How did I get in here?’
“Some of us are lucky and never have to experience that. And there’s the unfortunate few that spend the majority of their lives in fucking jail. Not because of who they are but because of circumstances that put them there. We all have a story.”
The story behind “Repentless” couldn’t be closer to Slayer. The raging, fast-paced tune has so far opened their 2015 concerts. The lyrics were written in tribute to their late guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who co-founded the band with Araya and King in 1981. He died in 2013.
“Kerry wrote it as an ode to Jeff. It’s one of my favorite songs on the album,” says Holt, who knew Hanneman well and now fills his old position in the band. “It’s just fast and aggressive and furious. I love playing fast stuff anyway.”
King titled the song during a rehearsal, not realizing he’d just made up a new word that mingled “relentless” and “repent.” It seemed to capture something of Hanneman’s lifelong attitude.
The guitarist also understood that the track could offer some brutal comfort for fans “and maybe give Slayer a little bit of closure and more desire to move on — if I base the verses on Jeff and how Jeff looked at life, which is basically how Slayer looked at life. But Jeff was a little more hardcore.”
At Sybil Brand, Slayer may be moving to a pre-recorded track, but band members are thrashing for real. King headbangs at a machine-gun pace while Holt snaps his head like a whip. Araya’s roar can be heard above the recording and Bostaph pounds the beat with gloved hands, just like any other night on the road.
Soon the prisoners overtake the scene and a riot cop goes down, just as he has all day long. The song ends to a round of applause from the cast and crew and a quick break in the shade.”There’s only one way to play this music, and it’s from the heart,” says Bostaph. “If I’m not really playing the song, you’re never going to see how it feels on my face.”
“Headbanging in the sun for 11 takes — it doesn’t get any easier,” King says with a smile. “But I think it’s going to look fucking ridiculous.”