JUKE talks snakebreeding, fake coke and Akita dogs with Slayer lynchpin Kerry King…

Many music lovers know Slayer as a bunch of tragically anachronistic, middle-aged faux-Satanists with stupid faces, grunting away to a backing track of farcical noise, to rooms full of testosterone-juiced meatheads. Sure, that’s what I dig about them too.

To others, Slayer are a kind of fun thing people got on board with four years ago, maybe neglecting to actually explore the back catalogue past Raining Blood, because hello? – they get it already! Totally: Slayer are huge; but not hard to get – like lolcats, or Harry Potter. Or maybe your Slayer are denizens of pure evil sent by Lucifer himself to draw blood pentagrams on your girlfriend with their dicks. That’s cool, you’re eleven.

Ok, so let’s get this out of the way. The eight people who know me also know that Slayer are one of my Favourite Bands Of All Time. No, I don’t like fawning interviews by superfans either. Especially when the band in question are tarred so thoroughly with the alt-brush (and the spraypaint nozzles of Shoreditch) that their logo has become kind of like postmodern shorthand (for ‘knob’). That’s why this chat with Slayer’s Kerry King is mostly about dogs, snakes and James Hetfield’s sexual orientation.

Anyway, my Slayer moment happened with the dirge Dead Skin Mask (it’s about Ed Gein, the bodysnatching serial killer who also inspired Norman Bates, Jame Gumb from The Silence of the Lambs and Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre). Not their best moment – it’s kind of cheesy with a lame spoken word intro, twinges of nu-metal and it’s practically sluggish for the band who took metal to new speed limits with Necrophobic at an obscene 248 beats per minute (a gabba-taunting pace that beats Angel of Death by 1bpm). As the gross imagery and loping riffs filled my teenage bedroom, I was struck by the realisation that I’d found something that channelled my juvie emo vibe without being all lesbian, or Poppy Z. Brite. Something a lot uglier, faster and badass than my previous indie crushes. Something that my parents would really fucking hate. And… Slayer was in. But that’s exactly what turns some people off about Slayer and the beckoning grunt of heavy metal as a whole: the dubious teenage mentality which seeks out that kind of aggro entertainment. You’re meant to outgrow metal around the time you become a fully-fledged adult who needs a range of credible lo-fi and challenging IDM to eat pesto to. But even though I think metal stands up as a genre worthy of lifetime membership, I also think you need to hang on to stuff that reminds you of being a virgin with moth-eyebrows and braces; or risk losing that awesome dork forever.

Many hardcore fans have a sweet spot for the thrashier Slayer of the nascent Show No Mercy/Haunting the Chapel era, but let’s admit that Reign in Blood is the one that changed it all. It’s also the album that people who like Weezer, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers, or Run DMC like, probably because by this point Slayer had nabbed the same producer. By 1986, Slayer had become the ‘favourite bullshit’ of Rick ‘The Dick’ Rubin: today, a Hydra-headed genre-blending mystic Jewru whose portfolio includes everyone good ever, from Shakira, to Johnny Cash, via the Pixies and Jay-Z; then a young rap honcho with a thing for noise, slinging LL Cool J from his dorm headquarters, aka his record label, Def Jam. Before Reign, Slayer’s intense live performances, complete with DIY light show featuring homemade upside-down crosses, had already pretty much eclipsed other thrash heavyweights like Exodus and Dark Angel, creating a huge following for their thrash crossover output and authentic vibe, but they were still competing heavily as puny underdogs to their Bay Area rivals, Metallica. Reign was the album that made that dogfight interesting. All bets were off and, as Metallica rose to commercial superstardom one radio-friendly ballad at a time, Slayer got faster and more ruthless, reaping fans from every arena, with words like ‘credibility’ and ‘mastery’ being thrown into the pit. “There is nothing in all modern pop like the moment Slayer takes a stage,” gushed Rolling Stone in an article about the Clash of the Titans heavy metal tour in ‘91. High-profile fans, like Tori Amos (who covered Raining Blood) to the Simpson’s Matt Groening (also a respected rock critic) gave the band that valuable seal of approval from outside the metal camp. Slayer weren’t just for spotty monosyllabic knuckleheads. They’d made the canon.

Reign in Blood nailed its on-point themes lifted from real human evil – war, holocaust, serial murderers, torture camps, racial hatred – rather than the standard metal tropes of devil horns, toxic sludge and childish mythic fantasy. Hanneman and King, with Rubin and engineer Andy Wallace’s gentle divine intervention, honed their lead guitar style – reinventing the guitar solo by twinning insane technical skill with an impressionistically atonal style that evoked genuine anarchy and terror, making the showoff stylings of even their idols Priest and Maiden, but especially the classical tappings of Malmsteen and co, seem fucking lame by comparison. The benchmark was set – and a couple of decades, two Grammies and a steady output of consistently uncompromising albums later, Slayer are still gods to a new lineup of pretenders to the throne (particularly the new wave of European metal bands cribbing creatively from their early albums).

I spoke to their gobby lynchpin Kerry King and didn’t nerve bomb. This is because all Americans – even scary bald ones who changed your life – sound like Chevy Chase over the phone.

Hi Kerry – thanks for talking to me. I’m a geek!
No problem [laughs]. Shoot!

It’s weird how you’re an LA based band and California is the home of the Beach Boys, fake boobs and little dogs, but it’s kind of fed this weird menacing vibe into a lot of music and literature. Do you ever look out of the car window – where I’ve read you do a lot of your writing – and just think “How am I going to get a Slayer song out of this!?
Not really – I can find hate just about everywhere![laughs] As I laugh hysterically! [laughs – he laughs a lot] I don’t know, when I’m working on lyrics, it’s usually in the studio, because before that, I’m pretty much incessantly working on music, not the lyrical parts. So then I’ve got to “ice the cake”, so to speak. Then it’s like an hour away from my house to go to the studio when we’re recording so, you know, I’ll veg out, listen to whatever song I’m trying to put lyrics to and scribble something on a pad of paper and hopefully I can decipher it later. You know, cos I’m not being a reckless driver! I’m just trying to get an idea on the page and hopefully, when I get home I can decipher it!! [laughs]. But it’s a good time, cos you’re just zoning. You’re driving and other than your motor skills keeping you on the road, your mind’s just…well, my mind’s just racing!

You had a lot of classic metal influences. Do you still listen to the old stuff? I’m pretty true to the old stuff, but I mean the funny thing is in my iPod and it pisses me off every time I pick it up ‘cos for some reason I never put Stained Class into it! I must have just forgot, ‘cos that’s my favourite Priest record and it’s not in there I always want to listen to that but I’ve got to pick something else! Yeah, and new stuff as well. I like to listen to Doomsday Machine by Arch Enemy, Slipknot – some of the heavier Slipknot, cos I love listening to Corey, I think he’s great.

Yeah he’s a big fan of yours – he had a lot of nice things to say about you on the Get Thrashed documentary. So, who do you think is being original or inventive these days?
I don’t have any! I was talking about this the other day with somebody. You know, of course there was Maiden, Priest and Sabbath, you know, from one era. And then it was like Metallica, us, Megadeth, Anthrax, Testament and Exodus – and the only thing I got after that is like the Scandinavian movement, like In Flames, Arch Enemy, The Haunted: they all came out about the same time. But since then, I don’t have one; I can’t pinpoint anything.

You were really young starting out, whythe Satanic or ‘evil’ vibe?
I think just being into that kind of music you know? As far as Maiden goes, I think Number of the Beast is probably my favourite record – and it kind of goes hand in hand with metal. I wouldn’t have known what else to do back then! You know, I‘ve said a million times, I think on your first records, you’re actually emulating your heroes – you know, as you try to find out what you’re going to sound like. I’ve said a million times also that there’s no doubt there’s Maiden influence on that first record and I’m not ashamed of it. I was way into them! You’ve got to use that as a jumping point to become what you’re going to end up as. People have brought up to me you know, “What do you think of bands that obviously heard a few Slayer records?” and I say, well, number one, it’s flattering and number two, I did the same thing on our first record! So now it’s up to them to use that as a stepping stone to what they’re going to become.

Do you have any memories that have stayed with you from that first Show no Mercy Tour?
Erm…. I don’t know if it was the Show No Mercy tour but one of my fondest old memories is being able to play with Venom. I’m a huuuuuuge Venom fan. That’s probably where the Satanism came from right there! [Laughs] But yeah, it was Slayer, Venom and Exodus. What a bill you know? I was such a Venom fan and I was like a little fucking schoolgirl around those guys! It was awesome.

But didn’t Tom pee on Cronos (Venom’s legendary frontman)?
Yeah, that was kind of a genius moment! [LAUGHS]

I thought that was lore. I’m glad it’s true!
Oh yeah. Not one of his most brilliant moments! [LAUGHS]

I dunno. How did you know when you were so young to do the DIY light show and the showmanship?
You’re actually competing for people’s money at that point and to me it was just like, how do we make ourselves better than anyone else? And that’s what, looking back, made us stars. We went round and stole floodlights from all the apartment complexes and built our own flags, built our own flashpots and burnt some ceilings and you know, all that was fun! We should have been blown up, but it worked back then!

Tom’s had some serious back/neck problems from headbanging for too long, but you still go off. No metalneck problems to report?
I don’t know if it’s just from headbanging when you look at the big picture. Tom’s been in a… I remember he got rear-ended by a semi and I’m sure that wasn’t good for his neck.

Oh shit! That sounds rude.
… All that contributes to it and he was never the warm-up guy that me and Jeff are. You know, I warm up my neck an hour prior and then a half hour prior, as I’m warming up my hands for guitar. I was always kinda not a workout freak [laughs], but I understand the concept, you know? If you want to work up to benchpressing 150, you don’t start there. You start at 70 or 80 pounds and work your way up over time and that’s how I’ve treated my neck over the years.

You guys were known for your wild ways back in the day but you’ve never taken drugs and Tom and Jeff quit that kind of partying pretty early on. Do you think that’s one reason Slayer’s stayed together and kept productive for so long?
It’s hard to say cos I never had to deal with it. I think a lot of bands miss the big picture of, you know, the collective is bigger than the individual. For some reason, the four of us make great music you know and at this point many people have asked, magazines, fans, whatever, if somebody left would you replace them? And I’ve said, probably for 15 years – that’s how adamant we’ve been about it – absolutely not! If one of the front three guys leaves, it’s done. There’s not going to be an abomination of Slayer.

So is that fake coke on the Hell Awaits liner then?
What’s that? The pictures in the album? I don’t even remember! I would imagine it was salt or sugar or something ‘cos it was gigantic right? Yeah! [LAUGHS]

You had teenage guys thinking you were living the dream!
There was no Tony Montana going on!

The Big Four Reunion just went down at Sonisphere. Did that feel momentous for you guys?
Once I became a part of it? Yeah. Coming into it, I had a different perspective. You know, I thought it was going to be cool. I thought it was going to be more of a fan kind of thing, you know? Just really great for the fans, starting with the dinner that Metallica threw for all the bands – no managers, no personal assistants, no anything – it was just us. And that was really cool – like his little “Lars World”! Like you see him just hanging out, mingling with everybody in the bands. And then you know at the actual shows me and Dave [Lombardo, Slayer’s drummer] hung out with Lars a lot ‘cos he would always call if he was hanging out partying after the show or he was in town on a day off and me and Dave also watched Metallica like 4 nights of the 7 shows, or whatever it was. We were right behind Lars’s metal screen behind him – that’s where we actually watched from. It was cool. For me.

So you guys have buried the hatchet?
I never considered Metallica to be friends because – not because we were enemies – but just because we just ran in different circles you know? Funnily enough, they’re in San Fran, I’m in LA. Pretty damn close! But we never run into each other. But after this run I feel like they’re all my friends. Of course I’ve been friends with Rob Trujillo [Metallica’s bassist since 2003] forever ‘cos of Suicidal [Tendencies], but the regular Metallica guys, we all hung out and had a blast. I think everyone’s hoping, you know, that we do that again!

How’s Dave Mustaine [Megadeth’s troubled singer and ex-mentor to Kerry] doing?
Well, he’s not the big “hanger outer”![LAUGHS] Funny you know, we got into Cleveland like three hours ago and there’s like a Hard Rock Cafe attached to our hotel and everyone was in there. It was funny, I sat down with my crew and they said, “Hey did you see Dave?” and I said “No man, I must have walked right by him!”

I hope I didn’t take you away from a reunion.
Oh no, I’ve got plenty of time!

You’re a big animal lover right? You’re a respected snake breeder and you dabbled in showing Akita dogs. How did you get into that?
I’m online now looking at snakes! [laughs]

You’re cheating on JUKE with a snake? How many do you have, it’s up in the hundreds isn’t it?
So on my own I probably have 130, but then there’s probably a couple of hundred extra that are going to be moving out at some point.
Do you get weird fans coming to buy a snake?
Not really. You know, when I get home- and the weekend after there’s a big show at Anaheim in Southern California and I’ve got to call the guy that’s running that, but I put up a table. Actually I’m going to have 2 tables this year and I’ve definitely sold snakes because of who I am.You know, if there’s a fan or a guy that even remotely knows of Slayer and I’ve got the same animal someone else has, that guy will come to me every time. And I don’t like to use that as marketing or anything, but that’s just a fact – that’s just how it is!

How much does the most expensive snake go for?
Uh, this year I produced only the third of its kind in the world, so if I sold that I would imagine 15 to 20 grand.

Wow. What kind of snake is that?
It’s just a colour morph variation of a carpet python.

And you bred Akita dogs as well?
I did a while back, I used to show them. But you think there’s politics in music man, politics in the dog show world, my gahd. Cutthroat! It’s ridiculous you know? All these people, they have nothing better to do that just deal with that all day. And it just offended me, so I just got out of it.

Do you have a juicy secret for us?
… A secret? Everybody knows my life man – the internet makes sure of that! [laughs]

Ok, well someone highly respected in that circle told a friend of ours a pretty unbelievable one… that James Hetfield is gay?
Yeah, that’s pretty unbelievable!

Would you say absolutely no way?
I would say absolutely no way. Erm…

He seemed pretty serious about it.
Yeah, that’s an odd one. I was hanging with James like a month ago you know! [laughs]

Oh. So is there something we should know?
A secret from me? Christ man, I don’t even…. everyone knows about my snakes… everyone knows I like to drink… [laughs] Errrrr yeah, I don’t even know where to go with that!

It’s been driving your fan forums crazy for years. Can we give the Slaytanic Wehrmacht a break? Was the crowd noise on Live Undead faked?
… No! No, the funny thing about that one is that it was supposed to be a live recording at a venue and for some reason – I actually remember this story! I don’t remember all the stories, but I remember this one – uh, so for some reason Metal Blade couldn’t make it happen to where we were going to record at the venue, so what we did was we had like 50 winners, radio winners, in the studio with us as we played live. So it was actually a live performance in the studio with kids all around us and we’re actually putting on a show too, we were headbanging and everything. It was just like a show… in a studio! We multiplied the fans, you know, cos there were 50. They probably put an effect on it so it sounded like more; but yeah – it was definitely live!

By Lucy Stehlik

Photos Alex de Mora and Brad Bird

For JUKE Vol.03