Slayer’s Kerry King Tells How Jeff Hanneman's Death Affected New Album

Slayer's touring line-up
Slayer's touring line-up
Slayer

Over the past five years, Slayer's world has been turned inside out. But proudly displaying what they’re made of has always been the band’s strong suit—2015 might just mark one of the most raw, visceral and vulnerable transitions for the band in its 30-plus year career so far.

Touring extensively through the summer, as well as quite a few "An Evening With... " shows, the band’s energy and emotions are running high. Right now they’re headlining the Rockstar Energy Mayhem Festival alongside King Diamond, supported by a charge of bands including HellYeah, The Devil Wears Prada, Whitechapel, Sister Sin, Thy Art Is Murder, Jungle Rot, Sworn In, and many more.

On top of that hell-of-a-bill, Slayer has finally—finally—finished the recording of Repentless, slated for release on September 11, 2015. Highly anticipated since 2009's Grammy-nominated World Painted Blood, it marks several substantial changes for the band. First off, Repentless is the band’s first album since the death of guitarist Jeff Hanneman in 2013 and departure of founding drummer Dave Lombardo. It also hosts the return of drummer Paul Bostaph (who hasn’t been on the line-up since 2001’s God Hates Us All), and addition of guitarist Gary Holt (Exodus), playing leads in Hanneman’s stead. The album will be released on Nuclear Blast.

I was fortunate enough to see the debut of the first single from Repentless, “Implode,” live at 2014’s Golden God Awards, and again saw the band when they were in Phoenix for a tour date alongside Exodus and Suicidal Tendences in November. These new songs put Slayer’s depth of emotion, adaptability, and technical prowess on display, while still reaching back to classic Slayer; founding member and guitarist Kerry King has even confirmed that some of the songs were written 15 to 20 years ago.

King has been playing guitar since he was a child, and had a strong hand in developing the signature axe-sound of Slayer; the wailing soloing and chaotic, intense riffs that climb endlessly throughout the songs, from verse to refrain to bridge. But he found himself encountering quite a few challenges and frustrations during the creation of Repentless, all the same.

Phoenix New Times talked with Slayer’s Kerry King about the one song he had to write on the album, the time he and Dimebag Darrell were almost “snortin’ whiskey, drinkin’ cocaine,” and the desire to be born 50 years later.

Happy belated birthday [June 3] and congratulations on the release date of Repentless! Thanks for taking the time to talk to New Times.

Thank you! I owe Phoenix; I used to live there.

I first saw “Implode” when you guys performed it at the Golden Gods last year, but I have to say that I think the songs that stand out the most for me on Repentless are “Delusions of Savior” and “Vices.” Do you have a particular track that you are absolutely most excited about on the record?

I wrote all of them so they are all special to me, but um, the faster one for me that I like.. I mean, “Repentless” was a good song. But my favorite fast one is “Take Control” and for slow one, it would be “Vices” as well.

So much has happened since [2009’s] World Painted Blood, but I think one of the most influential aspects is that during the writing process of Repentless, it was the first time that Jeff wasn’t writing right there in the trenches with you.

Yes.

While writing, what emotions were running highest in you?

Well, if I hadn’t started picking up music until he passed, it would’ve been really difficult. But when Jeff got hurt, I took it upon myself to start writing a shitload of stuff, because I didn’t know if he was gonna come back and have six songs, half a song, no songs — I had to assume that he was gonna have no songs. I didn’t know. So I just went forward and over the period of four years I made a bunch of material. We had a lot of stuff left over that was already recorded as well from other albums. So we were far along the way towards a new record if we needed to go that route.

For you though, when you are writing, are you channeling those emotions from your current life, or is it more of a technical process about what sounds super heavy to you?

It’s kind of business as usual, you know, as far as making music. I mean, of course I sit down to make up a music that’s a challenge, not necessarily to make up songs. I’m just looking to get some ideas and they may turn into a song that week, or it may turn into a song 20 years later. The funny thing about some of the riffs on this record — the intro to “When the Stillness Comes” is 20 years old. Every time I tell people that, they’re like "Really?" And the intro to “Vices” is probably 20 years old. At the time, I just didn’t have the things to marry them to, to become a song. I like that though. Figuring those things out — it kinda gives the record a sound of what Slayer wrote 20 years ago, as well as what Slayer wrote in the past five years.

The artwork of Relentless
The artwork of Relentless
Slayer

That keeps the authenticity with you guys. So was the end result what you originally expected?

Um… I’m not positive I expected anything. I don’t usually place parameters on what I expect a record sound like. I write the song, and at the end of the day when it comes to flow, that’s what the record is. But we’re super stoked on it. I’m excited, and very proud. I think it’s a super complete record and a really good follow up to World Painted Blood six years later.

Well with all the dynamics that have shifted, from the passing of Jeff and departure of Dave, and the addition of Holt on the album and return of Paul. And then there’s working with Terry Date for the first time, and releasing the album through Nuclear Blast. What has been your biggest frustration throughout the process?

[Long pause.] Probably the time it took to get a record deal done. And once that was done, the time it took to get into the studio. When you’re ready, you’re ready, and not being in is, is, basically wasting time to me. And I don’t like to waste time, and I don’t like people wasting my time. But the end result, I get it. Terry Date, you know, helped Slayer, and Slayer helped Terry Date. It seemed to me like he hadn’t had a, a big record recently. He’s had a ton of amazing records in the past, but it seemed to me like he needed a big record right now, just like we did.

I’ve always been a fan of Terry Date’s work.

Yeah, I knew his name. I’m not a producer geek, I don’t freak out on who produces albums and stuff, but I knew Terry’s name because of the Pantera boys. And I didn’t know him back then. Once we started working and stuff he told me he did Louder Than Love [1989] by Soundgarden, which is one of my favorite albums. And I’m like "Jesus!” I had no idea. That just added more to his credibility in my book.

Would you say that during songwriting, did Jeff’s passing influence the lyrics of songs like “Chasing Death,” with its themes of alcoholism?

A lot of people don’t know that a year before Jeff died I lost my long-time guitar tech. He passed away too. More unexpected than Jeff was. Um, that was difficult for me. Facing death... Part of — I’m getting to that age where you deal with more deaths then you do weddings. 20, 30 years ago, it was more weddings than deaths. So feeling like you’re dealing with death and always cheating it… At the end of the day, I was having conversations with Jeff about his spider bite and everything, and I told him that he has just been chasing death. I said that he needed to focus on getting better and get rolling again. So part of that song is about addiction… and part of it is about the finality of dealing with death. I don’t know. I had to write it. I don’t usually have to write songs, but I had to write that one.

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This is the second album Slayer has released on September 11, and considering God Hates Us All was September 11, 2001, I’m curious why you guys are choosing the date again?

Believe it or not, this is a complete coincidence. Before I found out that date I was still under the impression it was coming out in August. It took us awhile to plan on our artwork so it kept getting pushed. Then three weeks ago I was told the release date was 9/11. I didn’t even know 9/11 could be a release date any more. I wasn’t paying attention. Um I think it’s ironically cool, because the last record we did with Paul [Bostaph] came out on September 11, and now this one comes out too. So it almost felt like we were going back in time and nothing had ever changed. Funny way to look at it, but I got a lot of time on my hands. Laughter.

I figured if anything, it was on purpose, it was because of that aspect with Paul.

No, complete coincidence. Plus, we were trying not to coincide with any other major releases. Like Lamb of God has a record coming out, [Iron] Maiden does too. Again, I don’t like the “fill the marketplace.” I wouldn’t go up against any of those bands. You want to place as high as you can in charts, believe it or not to this day, and so going up against somebody like… you lose the market.

Well and with World Painted Blood being Grammy nominated, the album has been highly anticipated.

You know, I think fans have been waiting for it. I know people will be opening their mouth and saying it sucks regardless. And I’m cool with that and prepared for it. I don’t care because I know it’s good. People who are true fans will enjoy it.

You know, I can’t believe how well received the Slayer set was at Bonnaroo. I was at Bonnaroo a few years ago when Paul McCartney played. While it was awesome, I gotta say that I was one of the only metalheads there. The only metal band was Kyng! What memory sticks out the most from playing Bonnaroo?

I expected to just be there. It’s like European festivals; it’s very diverse and people may or may not know who we are. But we got on stage—people were already chanting for us before we even hit the stage! It was so much better than I thought it would be. There was a bunch of people just watching Slayer, and it was just like a Slayer show. The crowd was into it, bodies all over the place.

How did playing Bonnaroo even come about?

It seems like a lot states are trying to emulate the festival atmosphere in Europe. Like, Rock on the Range and Carolina Rebellion, events like that. So it seems to me that sooner rather than later the touring festivals will be obsolete. And each state or region will just have their own.

The good thing about those festivals is that it’s a way to get new fans and open the door to other genres for people to explore.

It is, and Europe has been doing that for several years. Far more than 25 years. Now it seems like America is catching that idea and diversify.

So speaking of love for other genres, what other type of music is close to your heart besides metal?

You know, I admire people for doing what they do. But I’m not a fan of… the farthest reaches of my fandom is probably rock and roll, like Boston or Aerosmith. Which is still a harder edge of music.

So no classical? Or bluegrass? Just straight metal? Refreshing.

I’m just an old-school metal kid.

I also wanted to ask you, in honor of the 25th anniversary of Cowboys From Hell [on July 24] and your buddy Dime, will you rate your top five Pantera songs?

I don’t have my iPod in front of me and in the iPod age you don’t remember titles like you used to, I gotta confess. Okay… “Becoming” has gotta be number 1. Hmmm. Put me on the spot. “Fucking Hostile”¬—I used to play that one all the time, that was fun. Um… “By Demons Be Driven.” Look at me with my titles! I’m rockin’! That’s three… What else…

It’s hard to choose. I would have to put “I’m Broken” on my list.

“I’m Broken” is good. I could put “I’m Broken” up there. I warm up to that sometimes. You know, I’m just gonna say “Cowboys From Hell” because it put them on the map. Laughter. That was Pantera finding out what Pantera was gonna sound like. You know, they were leaving the hair metal days behind. So I’ll stick with that.

In the past, you’ve laid down tracks with an array of different musicians, such as the Beastie Boys and Pantera. What is one artist you would love to collaborate with, dead or alive?

If you include dead people I could go on forever. But I’ll start with two of our past friends. Dime, you know, me and Dime were gonna do a song. We talked about. I hit him up one day and said, "You and I need to do ‘Snortin’ Whiskey, Drinkin’ Cocaine’ [by Pat Travers]. It’s just perfect for us to do." And he said, ‘Who’s gonna sing it?’ and I said, “You and I will sing it, it doesn’t matter. You and I are this song let’s go do it." It was when they were working on a Damageplan record so he couldn’t do it. Then one day he called me and said, “C’mon King! Come on down. I got like a 36-hour window. Let’s record this.’ And I said, ‘Well there’s no rush, man, let’s take some time to do it.’ And of course, we never did it. So Dime obviously ... we almost got it done. Another one for me is Ronnie James Dio. And then I’ll go with living counterparts… Rob Halford, as he is my favorite all-time singer. And Zakk Wylde. As I said, I could go on for fucking ever.

That sounds like a supergroup I would wanna go see right there.

Oh yeah.

Which would you choose: being born 50 years earlier, or 50 years later?

Probably 50 years later. Uh – I don’t know. I mean I would say that because I get more of the gadgets that took a long time to get when I was kid. I mean, if I had the gadgets, or guitars, that kids have nowadays when I was a kid? Man. When I was a kid, the cheap guitars were pieces of shit. Nowadays the cheap guitars are actually nice guitars! I guess I’ll stay with that. The only drawback to that is how people get music you know? I miss days of just waiting for the LP to come out, because I liked the art. And the digital download thing… I know that’s how a lot of people get music today. But I think there are fans that want the product and the LP. But I’ll say the future. So I would’ve been born like last year. You’re not gonna hear from me for like another 20 years.

Well, it’s a tough one. If you were born 50 years earlier, you might not have been a musician. But 50 years later, you have no idea where the industry is going. But metal fans really do like that tangible album in their hands.

Yeah I still use discs. You know, I don’t go out and buy lots of music though. I need someone to tell me what I should listen to. I don’t have time listening to a ton of new bands all the time that I may or may not like. If my disc player is broken in my car, I’m fucked. 

Correction, 2:25 p.m., 7/2/2015: Corrected the relationship between Slayer and Nuclear Blast

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