Slayer’s Kerry King on Being a Rob Halford Fanboy and Growing Up Country

Slayer's bringing the relentless metal.
Slayer's bringing the relentless metal. Andrew Stuart
“The rudeness that people show in everyday life — it wears on me,” Slayer guitarist Kerry King says. “It gives me endless ammunition for song titles and topics. It’s not difficult to be courteous.”

For more than three decades, American thrash metal band Slayer have set the bar that dozens of heavy metal acts have tried to measure up to. With two Grammy wins and several gold albums, in addition to being members of the legendary Big Four alongside Metallica, Megadeth, and Anthrax, the band has always exhibited razor-sharp focus and consistency when it comes to their extreme craft, unwilling to cater to the mainstream.

Apparently, bands that aspire to be like Slayer should note that the same dedication applies to how they treat fans, fellow musicians, and people in general. Even though, as King adds, “this is from a guy who writes songs about Satan.”

But Slayer have to be considerate of their actions. They rarely express any regrets.

The band's 12th studio album, Repentless, came out in fall 2015. Since it was the first without founding member/guitarist Jeff Hanneman (who died in 2013), it was a big deal for the band and fans. It ended up being the highest chart debut of Slayer’s career, spawning three high-concept music videos that racked up 22 million YouTube views, as well as a three-issue comic book series.

With a half-finished 2018 album, fans can rest assured there will be consistent Slayer. The band tend to pull material from the depths of their career, like the 20-year-old intro to “When Stillness Comes” and also “Vice.” While those treats are nice surprises for fans, the members are seldom surprised. Makes sense, knowing just how much Slayer’s music has influenced the industry and culture over the years.

Case in point: Body Count’s latest album, Bloodlust, had a medley of “Raining Blood" and "Postmortem” to pay tribute to the precision and speed of Slayer, one of Ice T’s favorite influences. When asked what he thought of the thrilling track and video, King simply says, “We have to approve stuff like that. So I think I heard it once, to make sure nothing sounded out of line. Basically proofreading!”

Regarding the audience reaction to Slayer’s Tonight Show performance in late July, King recalls “shock and horror!”

“Aside from the four or five people we get to put in seats, it’s usually like a dress rehearsal," he says of performing on late-night talk shows. "We’ll be putting on a show, but I think 75 percent of that crowd won’t have any idea what we’re doing. It’s an odd request!”

As one of the chief architects of Slayer’s sound, guitarist King talked with New Times about his influences, playing with legends who have passed on, and who he is as a person.

New Times: August 20 in Phoenix is your last date for this tour. Have there been any moments from this current tour that are really stand out for you?
Kerry King: I didn’t realize Phoenix was our last show! We’re only seven shows in, the turnout has been great, better than I expected. You always hope that people come to see you, but I mean, we sold our Philly, got a gigantic response in St. Augustine, Florida.

You’ve noted that a new album is halfway done with around seven songs that didn’t make it onto Repentless. Once you guys return home, will you take a break for a while, or do you think you’ll dive into more writing?
Last time, we had six months off … I kept threatening to work on stuff, but I ended up just sitting around and fucked off for six months. I hadn’t had a vacation in a long time — and by vacation I mean, doing nothing at home [laughs]. But this time around, at the end of this year, I plan on addressing that again, like when I’m backstage warming up, and coming up with some new stuff. Then I can revisit that when I am working on music and have time.

Are you guys ever that prepared to go into work on a new album?
It’s crazy it’s already half done! I hate to call it leftovers because it’s not; they are just songs I didn’t finish. And I don’t see the point of doing double albums anymore. So those extra six or seven songs, we just need to put a few more together.

I recently read your Rolling Stone list of your top 10 favorite metal albums. That must have been hard to compile!
I was! God man, if I did it today, maybe I would’ve picked a different AC/DC album, because it’s difficult to pick one. Ten … I could pick 10 of my own favorite Slayer songs!

In it, you said Judas Priest’s Stained Class defined Judas Priest’s sound for the rest of their career, much like Reign in Blood did for Slayer. Do you ever get the itch to dive into a totally different style from Slayer, like in a side project, just to mix it up?
Not at all. You know, luckily when I was 17 or 18, I found dudes that liked the same thing I did and created something that didn’t exist. People weren’t wholeheartedly into it in the beginning, but it grew fast. It became the type of music that doesn’t alienate people from each other; family members, for instance. Um, a dad, his offspring, son, girl, daughter, whatever. For older siblings, you can all dig it together. It’s not alienating to where your family members like it, and — well, for example, my parents like country, of course. It’s not that I hated it, it just wasn’t my thing and I knew I wasn’t going to be a country guitar player.

Your parents are big country fans?
Well, you know, they’re from Missouri, so they didn’t have much choice [laughs].

I’m from Kansas, so I get the feeling. So, how did Rob Halford, then, evolve into your favorite singer? When did you first hear Judas Priest or see them perform?
First time I saw him, would’ve been … Point of Entry tour, um ... I follow it chronologically by album. Not the dates of the album … but I think that was ’80, maybe ’81? When British Steel came around, I was a little too young to go to it by myself. And that’s why I found them on the radio. Without, you know we didn’t have the internet obviously, so the stuff I would’ve heard on the radio would’ve been “Breaking the Law” or “Living After Midnight,” which are basically rock and roll songs. But you get British Steel, and you find rapid fire and all the double stuff, then you do your backwards homework which you had to do for a lot of bands, and you find “Hellbent for Leather” (1978), Sad Wings of Destiny (1976), and all the original classic stuff, and you realize that there’s way more to this band than “Living After Midnight.”

Rob is what I call a vocal ninja. The stuff he does in the '70s, '80s, even '90s, and even today, he can’t hit the notes from his heyday, but he goes out and puts on a hell of a show. But the thing he does, the shrill crazy Rob Halford scream is I think what got me. It wasn’t about wearing leather and chains, but, of course, Priest are idols of me, and I think you spend the early part of your career emulating your idols, and we were definitely guilty of that.

Rob’s one of those Arizona, home-away-from home musicians. I think last time you mentioned last time we talked that you used to live here! When was that?
I lived there about 10 years!

Do you still have your snake farm? AZ would be a perfect spot for that.
Well, it’s not really a farm, more like a warehouse. It was in my one-car garage and then two-car garage, and now a warehouse. And I have someone who takes care of it for me. I haven’t had time to go in quite a while. I got a cool new snake in the last year from a friend in Colorado.

Speaking of Arizona musicians, Chester Bennington's passing has hit everyone really hard. As someone who's been in the spotlight for decades, you’ve performed with so many musicians who have passed on. Can you name a favorite memory from working with a few?
Well, Jeff Hanneman, and then there was Pantera, of course. Well, Dime, you know. I have tons of history with Dime. I’d fly into Dallas before Cowboys From Hell even came out. So I used to go there to keep in touch and play songs with them before performing. That story comes full circle: He had a love of Judas Priest and Rob. We’d play four songs of mine, four of Pantera, four of Priest, and it was a concert we’d put on. It was killer.

What about the Beastie Boys?
You know, I didn’t have much interaction with them. The idea was a concept from the producer, and it was the first time we’d worked with him. I wore my Slayer shirt in the music video to hopefully get more people talking about Slayer!

Fans know you as an award-winning musician, but how would you describe yourself as a person?
Real. To the point. Don’t dabble in much bullshit. What I love? Being at home is wonderful, but I’m happy on stage, too. I love doing this. I can’t embellish on it enough!

Slayer is scheduled to perform at Comerica Theatre on Sunday, August 20. Lamb of God and Behemoth are also on the bill. See Live Nation for tickets and details.
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Lauren Wise has worked as a rock/heavy metal journalist for 15 years. She contributes to Noisey and LA Weekly, edits books, and drinks whiskey.
Contact: Lauren Wise