Kerry King on Jeff Hanneman, old rivals Metallica and Megadeth, and the future of Slayer
As Slayer return with Repentless, their first album since the death of founding member Jeff Hanneman, guitarist Kerry King talks to The Irish Times about staying at the top of the thrash pile
Your last album prior to Repentless was World Painted Blood in 2009. Since then Jeff Hanneman died and your drummer Dave Lombardo was fired. You must have felt at some stage that Slayer would never make a new record...
Not me personally. The way I look at it is that if I wasn’t making music up for Slayer, I’d be making music up that sounds just like Slayer with somebody else playing it. It made sense to me to continue doing what I was doing.
For me, it was waiting for Tom (Araya, bass player and singer) to be happy with the situation, and I think it wore on him more than it wore on me. I looked at it more realistically than personally. I looked at it as business. This is my job and I’ve got to continue what I’m doing, so there wasn’t any other option for me.
Many fans were wondering what would happen after you lost two original members, but this album sounds unmistakably like a Slayer record.
Yes I felt that way too. I just found out that it is the number-one album in Germany. I saw the owner of Nuclear Blast (Slayer’s record label). Of course he was excited. I’m happier for him than I am for myself, because I never set out to do anything like that. I just make records for ourselves and our fans. If number-one is part of all that is happening, so be it. For the Nuclear Blast guys, it’s great.
The other thing is that you never know who you going up against, but that’s the tricky thing about being number-one – that it has to come out when nothing else comes out because metal isn’t the biggest music in the world.
Tom Araya said recently that it felt like starting over for Slayer without Jeff Hanneman. Do you feel that way or do you feel a sense of continuity?
Personally, I’m more a continuity guy because Paul Bostaph (drummer) – even though he is new to this record – had been with the band 10 years. We’ve been playing with Gary Holt (the guitarist who replaced Hanneman) for five years. For me, this is as normal as it gets.
What are your abiding emotions about Jeff?
It is one of those tragic music stories, the type of thing you are going to see a movie about in 10 years’ time. You can only help a person so much. That’s kind of how it went down to us. We offered to help our friend. If he is unwilling to take care of himself, then that’s the tragedy of it.
Do you feel that you did everything you could to help him or, if you could wind the clock back, is there anything you would do differently?
I don’t think so. I’m not the type of person to dwell on things or go back in time. At some point, you have to ask yourself, what you just asked me, ‘is there anything more I could have done? What more could I have done to the point of being a nuisance?’ It’s a very hard thing to deal with. There is certainly not a right answer.
Jeff Hanneman had the rare condition necrotising fasciitis, which affected his ability to play. You spoke recently about having to tell him that he couldn’t come back into the band because he simply couldn’t play properly. Was that a real low point of your relationship?
It’s a difficult conversation to have. I’m the other guitar player. I have to base his performance on what we had at the time and to have that conversation. You don’t want to take the wind out of his sails, but you’ve got to have that conversation which states, ‘you’re not ready to come back, my friend’.
To be bluntly honest, when we got him on stage for the Big Four (April 2011, when the “Big Four” of thrash metal Metallica, Megadeth, Anthrax and Slayer played a series of concerts in California), if it wasn’t California we would never have let him on stage, but it was about an hour from his house. He wasn’t ready for that. We only put him up for two songs so that people wouldn’t dwell on the fact that he wasn’t playing well. That was the best way we could have handled it and that’s the best way that it went down.
People have expectations of a Slayer record. Do you feel pressure to conform to the expectations that you are going to play loud, fast and heavy?
I have no desire to do anything other than that. That being said, me being a fan of this type of music and metal in general, I’m aware of what is happening. I just make up what I think sounds cool to me and, if I like it, I think the fans will like it. That’s about as deep as I look at it.
The new album’s title track sounds like an Angel of Death for the new Millennium. It sounds like a million buzzing bees...
When we make the stuff up, there’s no hidden agenda. That song was never meant to be the title track. It was never supposed to be about Jeff, that’s just how it worked out. I remember rehearsing it and saying to Paul, ‘man, that song’s fucking relentless’, and in five minutes, it was changed to Repentless.
A lot of thrash metal fans regard Reign in Blood (1986) as the definitive thrash album. It will be 30 years old next year. Would you consider playing the album in full in 2016 to mark 30 years as you’ve done in the past?
Personally, I’m tired of playing albums. It was a cool thing to do for a while and we were one of the earliest ones to do it with Still Reigning (Reign in Blood played in full in 2006 or 2007). When you perform an album live, it takes away so many things you could be playing. In a 34/35 year career, there are a lot of things you’re going to miss because you have to devote so much time on stage to playing that record. Fans love it, but fans also love a lot of the songs we can’t play. It’s a hard question and a catch-22 situation.
Lemmy has said recently that he’s sick of playing a lot of the old songs. Do you ever feel that way about playing some of Slayer’s back catalogue?
No I don’t. I love playing Reign in Blood, I love playing Angel of Death, South of Heaven, War Ensemble. They’re fun to play and they’re not boring songs.
We’re playing three songs off the new album now, Repentless, Implode and When the Stillness Comes. By the time we come to Europe, I hope it will be five.
How do you assess the current state of heavy metal?
It is hard to say really. I judge it more by people coming to shows rather than on people buying music. It’s very different to what it was 20 years ago, but the live environment is unchanged, and that’s when you see if you are doing well. The tour that’s coming up is almost sold out already which is great news. It does seem to be a good time for metal.
What excites you in the contemporary metal scene?
It is tough to say. I like what Machine Head have done the last few goes around. When they put out Through the Ashes of Empires and Blackening, that was like what I had been waiting for them to do for years. That was enlightening to me. Anthrax’s last record (Worship Music) was pretty good. Megadeth to me have been hit and miss. That’s an interesting story. He (Dave Mustaine) has basically got a new band. I’ll be curious to see what that sounds like.
What do you think about Metallica not having released an album in six years?
Funny thing is, I brought that up last night. We were sitting around having some shots and I said, ‘when’s Metallica doing a new record?’ When you think about it, it’s kind of like us. You don’t have to put out a new record. People will come up to a certain point, because you’ve got such a catalogue. You can just keeping changing songs.
They are really living on the first five records, I think. I’m not sure a new record makes sense for them. Death Magnetic (2009 album) was a nice version compared to St Anger (2003 record). Hopefully, they keep going along that line and get some of the riffs back.
People keep offering you money to come out and play. Other than the tragedies we had in Slayer, we got offers to play a lot. You really got to sit down and say, ‘I’m not going to do that right now’. That being said, usually when we were doing this recording cycle, we don’t go out and play when we are recording, but this time we did because people made offers and we say, ‘that sounds like a good idea’. It doesn’t sound like it on Repentless, but it takes your momentum away because you’ve got to go out, learn your catalogue and play it and then come back and work on new stuff.
Are you planning on bringing the new tour to Ireland?
You know we were in Ireland a lot over the last two summers. It would make sense not to go there this time. I know we’re doing six dates in Germany, I know we are doing five or six in the UK, but Ireland, I’m not sure if we’re going.
For years we didn’t go to Ireland because we’d always play Donnington or Soundwave instead. We weren’t there for six or seven years, and then we started doing Dublin and Belfast two nights, so you’ve probably got your fill of Slayer for the moment.
Are you aware that you are named after an Irish county?
Yes. My Dad has the Irish connection, my Mom is more Dutch. I didn’t pay attention to that at all until I was a thirtysomething. I thought to myself, ‘no wonder the Irish people like me, I’m fucking Irish’.
Slayer’s Repentless is out now now on Nuclear Blast