Setting New MarkersSlayer frontman Tom Araya on taking the band to Bonnaroo this year, his quiet country life and the band’s eleventh studio album, Repentless, due in September.
Stop and let this sink in: Slayer is playing Bonnaroo this year. Yes, Slayer. Amidst the old rock (Billy Joel), new folk (Mumford & Sons), EDM (Deadmau5), rap (Kendrick Lamar) and indie-rock (Courtney Barnett) on the lineup, this year’s Bonnaroo will be marked with thrash metal icons Slayer, whose classic albums Reign in Blood and South of Heaven are louder, mean and far more evil than every other band heading down to the four-day Tennessee music festival combined.
Slayer isn’t the only metal band playing this year — Pallbearer will be there — but this is still a very rare thing to happen at Bonnaroo. They play on Saturday night, after Belle & Sebastian and before D’Angelo. If that seems crazy, it’s because it is.
Over the last few years, Slayer have watched their significant fame in extreme music corners morph into a bigger, cross-cultural pull, and the Bonnaroo invitation is the proof. They might be a novelty act for some people, but there’s no denying that Slayer have become perhaps the second most notorious metal band behind Metallica.
We caught up with Tom Araya, lead singer and bassist of Slayer, to speak about the festival circuit, as well as his own quiet country life and the band’s eleventh studio album, Repentless, due in September.
THE RED BULLETIN: Did you ever imagine that Slayer would be playing a show with Mumford & Sons and Billy Joel?
TOM ARAYA: No, never. We did a show with Alanis Morissette in France. I think we opened up for her because we were on the same stage and that was weird. Some of these shows we’ve been playing have been crazy. I never thought we’d be on the same bill as Billy Joel. But, then again, I also never thought we’d still be playing music 35 years later.
Slayer have been playing a bunch of these festivals lately, and that’s not something you’d necessarily be doing 10 years ago. What’s the energy like when you’re playing to a huge cross-section of people?
We’ve had the honor of playing a number of festivals this year that are out of the norm for us. We played one last year that was basically a country festival, but they had a metal day, which I think we headlined. It was weird because they had a seating section, all these people on these white lawn chairs. It was pretty cool, but most of our fans were on the other side of the barricade. The people up front, some of them were fans, but most of them were people who just had VIP tickets. But even way back when, we would play these Hollywood clubs and they wouldn’t let us back after the first couple of shows. We managed to sneak into those gigs, so we’re used to people standing back and going, “What the hell is this?” Now when we go back to festivals we played two years ago we see a bigger audience, so I think we’re growing.
You’ve said before that, back in the day when you were playing shows with Megadeth or Anthrax, you always wanted to blow the other bands off the stage. Not in a mean way, but in a friendly competitive way. Now 30 years later at these festivals, do you ever get in that same mindset?
Yeah. In a festival setting it’s more about making sure you’re playing the music correctly, because people can’t always see you up close. Festivals are about making sure everyone is having fun, and making sure everyone that’s listening can recognize a song. But when we play a festival and we’re getting primetime, around 8 o’clock, which means we’re playing right before the headliner, I leave the stage thinking, “I’d hate to have to follow us.” We’re so intense. Whether we’ve got an hour, 75 minutes, or 90 minutes, we don’t stop. We do five songs in a row, another five in a row and another five in a row. Before people get the chance to say “They didn’t play long enough!” we’re off the stage.
We did this tour called Clash of the Titans that had Slayer, Anthrax, and Megadeth. Dave Mustaine had a rule that he would never follow Slayer. That was in the contract — Megadeth would never follow Slayer. We’d open up and have Anthrax in between. Paul had gone to that tour before he was in the band, and said that we were up there kicking ass, and then Anthrax came out and they weren’t as loud and sounded like little wimps, and after a couple songs he and his friend just left.
It seems like Slayer has become something of a household name over the last couple of years. There’s an ESPN commercial that prominently features you, you’re playing Bonnaroo, obviously you’ve been famous for a long time but it really feels like you’ve crossed over into mainstream culture.
Yeah, I’ve noticed that. Nobody knew who the hell we were but now everyone knows who we are, not because of our music but because of our reputation. There’s been a lot of cross-branding with companies asking to use a song or asking us to record a song for them. When we started recording this new album the first song we recorded was something for Scion. We had to do it in four or five days because we were on deadline.
We’ve had mainstream cable shows ask to use our music. It’s kinda weird. There was one festival we played that was only radio bands. We were the only band on the entire bill that wasn’t radio friendly. It’s funny because people say, “All those people know you, so you must make a lot of money!” Being popular doesn’t exactly make you rich. But it is cool that we have some kind of acceptance with the general population. We have more opportunities now.
You live on a ranch in Buffalo, Texas, and seem to have this idyllic country life. So you go out on tour with Slayer for your day job, but you get to return to someplace a little more peaceful when tour’s over. What drew you to a quiet home life?
Well, when we first moved out here, my wife was having issues with her pregnancy. We moved out here because her parents have land out here, and she was able to see a doctor that she hadn’t seen since she was a little girl. The kids were born and we decided to stay out here. It’s my little piece of paradise. You know what it’s like living in a city, downtown Austin is a hustle and bustle type place like anywhere else. I’m in that all the time, so to come home and get away from that is great. I’m 800 feet from the next person. It’s a lot of privacy. And I have animals, too; I’ve got a lot of cattle. It’s just a way for me to recharge my batteries.
A new Slayer record is coming. What can we expect?
You’re gonna get Slayer. Believe it or not, you’re gonna get Slayer. It’s stuff we’ve been kicking around for the past four years. With Jeff’s passing, we had to move forward, and me and Kerry had to get reacquainted because the relationship I had with Kerry was very different from the relationship I had with Jeff when it comes to writing and collaborating. So we had to reverse that in order to work with each other. But yeah, you’re gonna get Slayer. I was tabbing out one of the songs because we’re gonna play it live, and it’s intense. You’re in the studio forever and you’re hearing it all the time, you start to get burned out, but going back and listening to it I’m like, “Holy shit!” You won’t be disappointed.
Are there any bands coming up right now that remind you of yourselves when you were first coming up?
Come on, are you really asking me that? (laughs.) I don’t think there’s any band that’s come out that’s set a new marker. I hope that changes. I’m not saying that they’re bad bands, but nothing has come out of nowhere and made me go, “Holy fuck, these guys are great!” The last band that did that for me was System of a Down. Nothing has slapped me in the face like that since.
Check out Bonnaroo’s 21 Must-See Artists this year here.