Christian-irking till its dying breath, Slayer has been the face of thrash music for more than twenty years. In 1986 the band -- pioneers of a breakneck, full-throttle sound that combines demented guitar solos, thunderous double-bass drum kicks and toxic bellowing with surgical precision -- released Reign in Blood, a work widely hailed as speed metal's crowning achievement. Co-founded by six-string mutilators Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman in Huntington Beach, California, the legendary outfit features original timekeeper Dave Lombardo (who moonlights in Fantômas) and bombastic frontman/bassist Tom Araya. Relaxing at his ranch near Corsicana, Texas, the 43-year-old Araya spoke to us about his band, his voice, prison letters, child-rearing, God, world music and exploiting Satan for fun and profit.
The Riverfront Times: You guys originally called yourselves DragonSlayer and wore makeup. Did you think that was scary at the time?
Tom Araya: C'mon, dude. We were based out of LA. Everything that was coming out of LA was looking like girls, you know. We were putting on makeup to look like girls. But we wanted to put makeup on like men. So people would say, "Look, that's a guy."
Did Slayer set out to be notorious from the get-go?
Yeah. That was our goal. And to be the fastest and heaviest band out there. That song "Aggressive Perfector," in my opinion, is the template or the blueprint for Slayer. It's our first recording ever. We did one song for Metal Blade on Metal Massacre. After that Brian Slagle wanted an entire album. So we went back to the drawing board and thought, "We gotta do everything like this."
Did critics realize you were wallowing in parody?
No. People thought we were serious! When you come out with an album title like Show No Mercy, and then on the back we put "Side 666"? And Jeff's got his upside-down cross, playing his guitar. Back then you had that PMRC [the Tipper Gore-founded Parents Music Resource Center], who literally took everything to heart, when in actuality you're trying to create an image. You're trying to scare people on purpose.
Do you ever think that all the Satanic overkill is redundant and kind of dopey?
No. You know why? You just listen to Show No Mercy or Hell Awaits. And for the time and place, those records are amazing. Nowadays, production-wise, it's so under par. But for what it was at the time, those are amazing records to me. I guess we could go in and redo it. But why ruin it?
Do you have a personal favorite Slayer album?
Actually, I like them all. They're like a photograph. They capture a moment in time. And they're all good. There was a lot of work in putting those songs together. When I'm in the studio, belting these songs out, I have to sound sincere in the words that I say and sing, you know? It takes a lot to do that.
It must take a lot to sing that way, too -- shredding the hell out of your voice night after night.
I'm not a very disciplined singer or musician. I've somehow learned the technique of how not to blow up my voice. I've only lost it once in the entire time that this band's been together -- knock on wood.
How's your hearing?
It's good. It's not great. Time takes its toll no matter what you do in life.
Given the technical demands of the music, do you guys need to practice playing thrash every day in order to continually be able to play it?
We'll usually get together about a week before we head out, but I think a lot of what we do is just playing the music. That in itself is enough to take you to the next level. We don't sit down. We run. We want to have everybody try to catch up. It's like you're at the starting gate, you know? And the minute that gun fires, you're gone. That's the best way I can describe it. The four of us -- we try to make sure we're all together. 'Cause if one person stumbles, it takes a while to catch up.
Has your setlist changed much over the years?
There's a set number of songs that you have to play. The encore is always different -- that's the surprise ending. We're always trying new combinations and different medleys. And our medleys consist of entire songs. There's three lists: our favorites, the list of the favorites that the fans want to hear and whatever's not on the other two lists. And those are the songs that you choose, in that order.
Speaking of fans, do you still get letters from incarcerated people?
Yeah. They're pretty out there. It's like, "Man, dude, maybe it's a good thing you are in jail." They're genuine letters. I know that they're kids. It's great that Slayer inspires them to carry on. There's hope -- which is really odd to be saying. People say that listening to Slayer has helped them along in crucial parts of their life. I've gotten letters from Marines and different branches of the military. They're pretty trippy, too. Actual accounts of them in Iraq listening to Slayer while they're doing what they do. I'd like to think that it's the music giving them aggression and strength. It kind of recharges your batteries. It's like some of these athletes that we've met listen to Slayer to get 'em pumped up. Mostly in hockey and football. Hold on a second. [In the background is the sound of kids crying and Araya laughing.] Sorry about that. They're fighting over a necklace.
A glimpse into the life of the family man!
Yeah, dude! I have two beautiful kids. Five and eight. They've had the honor of being to a Slayer concert. Actually their first ten or fifteen shows. My son was a month old when we had him by the side of the stage, out by the monitor board.
Yeah. Earplugs with cannons. He slept through the whole thing. My little girl -- she's a well-seasoned Slayer fan. They request it and run around.
More than Raffi?
Yeah. They enjoy it. They enjoy Metallica, Pantera. They enjoy that music because we've exposed them to it. Country too. My wife's a country fan.
Is there a kind of music that Slayer fans would just be astounded to know that you listen to?
I listen to everything. I surf the satellite dish out here. There's one station: the Heart Attack. It's serious radio. Other than that, there's some good music out there. It's been a while since something's really caught my ear. Like Sting's Dream of the Blue Turtles. That's a great album. Another one like that, [which] I just walked into a record store and heard, was Joe Jackson's Jumpin' Jive. And recently Ry Cooder put together an album [Mambo Sinuendo] with a lot of Cuban players from Buena Vista Social Club. That's awesome. It reminds me an awful lot of the traditional music from Chile, where I'm from.
Viña del Mar. It's on the coast, directly across from Santiago.
So you grew up hearing Chilean folk music?
Yeah. But my memories of that are here in the States -- my parents playing music from the period when they left. You know a true Chilean if he recognizes a song and starts singing to it, because it's such a national thing. I guess it's a part of my culture.
What's the biggest misconception people have about Slayer?
The obvious one: the Satan stuff. I'm not here to fault anybody. And I hate to say this, but Christ came and taught us about love. About doing unto others. That was His [message]: Accept each other for who we are. Live peacefully, and love one another. Period.
Do you believe in God?
I believe in a supreme being, yeah. But He's an all-loving God.
Can you see how people might miss that message in your music?
Yeah. And I don't fault them for that. Songs are open for interpretation, you know? It's like we can both be looking at a flower, but the information that we absorb is different about that flower.
But Slayer is not about spreading the love.
Slayer's about what we enjoy: putting together some really cool songs. Like on God Hates Us All. There's some really good stuff in there lyrically that just blows my mind. That's something that intrigues me about what I write. The serial-killer stuff is like, "What thought process led you to this?" It's like everyone has been asking for a sign. The Twin Towers were a fuckin' sign! Actually [September 11, 2001] was the release date of God Hates Us All. We did a midnight signing at a Tower Records. They had over 3,000 kids there. We were supposed to fly out the next day and start a tour in Europe.
Any prophetic lyrics on that album?
Yeah. On "Disciple": "Pessimist, terrorist targeting the next mark/Global chaos feeding on hysteria/Cut throat, slit your wrists, shoot you in the back."
Did that make you feel like Nostradamus?
For a nanosecond, dude.
What do you think you'd be doing if you weren't in a notorious speed-metal band?
I don't know. At the time that [Slayer's formation] happened, I was working as a respiratory therapist. I think I probably would've stuck with something like that. Or maybe even emergency medicine or, like, a MedEvac or a physician's assistant. Being able to help and fix people, to me, was pretty cool. When I was working at the hospital, I was part of the blue-code team. I was a resuscitator.
Have you ever jumped down from the stage to save the life of a hyperventilating Slayer fan?
No. I think the music does that. The music kind of cures me, too. Just high energy, you know what I mean? To be able to create that energy and maintain it for a long time gets you going. And it's a good going. We got an aerobics class going for an hour and a half every night.