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Iron Man: An Exclusive Interview With EXODUS/SLAYER Guitarist Gary Holt

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Sunday, September 7, 2014 @ 10:15 AM

“I'm going to try to keep both bands going, do my best with SLAYER and keep my own band rolling as best I can and try to make sure I leave some time for recuperation.”

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It’s certainly no secret that EXODUS guitarist/main songwriter Gary Holt is one busy dude. Since also taking the reins as SLAYER’s second guitarist in early 2011, when Jeff Hanneman contracted necrotizing fasciitis in his arm from a spider bite, and now seemingly in that position for the long haul after Hanneman’s death in May 2013, Holt now essentially holds two full-time jobs with two very active bands.

And things only look to get more hectic. Over the past few months, EXODUS dismissed vocalist Rob Dukes after nine years and replaced him with the man he replaced in 2005 - two-time frontman Steve “Zetro” Sousa – and recorded their 10th studio album, Blood In Blood Out, much of which Holt wrote. The album will be issued in October, not long after EXODUS begins a tour in South America. SLAYER, which just began recording new material, also will be hitting the road in the fall.

The veteran thrash metallers will join forces for a U.S. tour, along with SUICIDAL TENDENCIES, starting Nov. 12 in Oakland, Calif., during which Holt will play with both EXODUS and SLAYER. He did the same thing during a tour with the identical lineup earlier in the year, as well at some festivals where EXODUS – rounded out by guitarist Lee Altus, bassist Jack Gibson and founding drummer Tom Hunting - and SLAYER were on the same bill. On the phone during a rare spell at home, Holt offered his thoughts about the new EXODUS album, the band’s out-with-the-new, in-with-the-old singer situation, letting bygones be bygones, his role as he sees it in SLAYER and that artery-clogging Canadian favorite poutine.

KNAC.COM: Good morning Gary, how are you? Sorry this is how you have to start your day, but I didn't make the schedule.

HOLT: That's all right. I'm good. How are you doing, man?

KNAC.COM: Good as well, thanks. Where are you today, and with which band if you are still on the road?

HOLT: (Laughs) No, I'm at home right now. I've got a break now finally. So I'm my own boss for the time being.

KNAC.COM: I guess you don't see much of home these days?

HOLT: Exactly. I only have two weekend shows coming up with SLAYER, and then on Sept. 28 I go to South America with EXODUS. So I've got like a month home, and I've been home for a few days. So I'll do what I can to enjoy it before it's back to work.

KNAC.COM: I suppose a good place to start is how did the festival shows EXODUS just finished up go with Steve back behind the mic?

HOLT: It was awesome. Every show it got better and better. Despite the fact that Steve played in the band during our most popular era over several albums, it was like learning to perform with each other all over again, if that makes any sense. We're getting more and more comfortable with each other onstage, and Colombia was just incredible. It was awesome.

KNAC.COM: Is there still going to be a feeling out process for a little while, since it had been 10 years since you last played with Steve in the band?

HOLT: I think Colombia made big strides with everyone being comfortable with each other onstage. Especially the fact that Steve has a pretty decent command of the Spanish language and he was able to communicate with that crowd and really get 'em going in such a way that we all had to take a step back and go “woah, that was awesome.”

KNAC.COM: As opposed to Montreal, where none of you guys speak French?

HOLT: No, no. (laughs) We can order poutine, you know, the fries with the gravy all over it and the cheese curd. That's about it.

KNAC.COM: I grew up in Vermont, we used to go to Montreal all the time, so I know all the poutine.

HOLT: It's good. It's real good, it's just real bad for you (laughs). You can't eat that shit before you play.

KNAC.COM: The new album, is it totally done now or do you have any work left to do on it?

HOLT: We actually did some last minute mix adjustments – after sending out the promos to the journalists and stuff. And it's even that much better now. It's bigger, it's got some more thump in it. It's probably subtle to some people, but to us it was pretty obvious. We were totally happy with the first mix, but Andy [Sneap, producer] just played around with it some more because we had a little time before the actual final mix had to be turned in to go to manufacturing. So we improved on it a little bit more from what had gone out.

KNAC.COM: Unfortunately, I'm not quite high enough up on the media food chain to rate an advance this far out [I ended up getting a promo a week later].

HOLT: Oh, that sucks. Well the one you get when the next round goes will sound even better, so it will be worth the wait, mark my word (laughs).

KNAC.COM: I've read a number of descriptions of the material – most of them, ironically, from interviews with Rob – and he made it sound like it was more old school, sort of Fabulous Disaster-ish. Would that be an accurate take?

HOLT: I don't know. To me, I don't hear it, other than the songs are shorter. There's going to be people who hear it and go “Gary Holt doesn't know what thrash is anymore, it's too modern” and some people are going to think it's a throwback. I guess if I was pushed for an answer I would say “yeah, it's a perfect blend of modern and thrash.” But it's not retro, it doesn't sound like all of a sudden we're gonna start trying to sound like some of the young kid thrash bands who have their feet firmly standing in the '80s, you know? But the songs are shorter, I think they're more punk in some ways. We've been listening to a lot of DISCHARGE again (laughs). They're aggressive, it's super fast and it's brutal. I'm sure proud of this album, we all are.

KNAC.COM: But we're not talking Reign In Blood short, overall, are we?

HOLT: (Laughs) No, it's probably twice as long as that. I haven't looked at the total final length, but the songs are shorter. There's a couple people who will say some of them are still too long. There's some that are more than 6 minutes long, but there are no 11-minute-long songs (laughs). But I've done that. With Exhibit A and B, we set out to make this big, two-part epic progressive thrash masterpiece and I think we've totally succeeded in that, and I'm totally proud of those records. But we have no intention of doing that type of record again.

KNAC.COM: Was that also a function of you playing in two bands now, and just not have the luxury of time to compose more epics?

HOLT: It's actually harder for me to write shorter songs. Writing longer songs is easy because the ideas just keep flowing. The hard part is at some point you have to say, “all right, we have a killer song here, just because I have a ton of other ideas, let's put 'em off and stick 'em to the side.” It's really easy just to run with it.

The bottom line is we're going to do what makes us happy and we don't really concern ourselves with what someone else thinks. The songs are too long? Well the song's done when it's done. But sometimes you have to put your foot down and say “this one is done.”

KNAC.COM: Did Lee do much writing for this album, or was it you who did all of the composing?

HOLT: Lee wrote two of the songs and one of the song's lyrics. And one of them Lee, Jack and Steve wrote, so Jack actually dipped his feet into lyric writing on this one. I typically write the lion's share, but I work fast. Lee if very meticulous, he's finishing them at the last minute, but the songs are awesome. I just crank 'em out.

KNAC.COM: I'm amazed Steve was able to contribute. The way things went down, it sounded like one day you're changing singers the next day Steve's in the studio. It seemed like it all happened that fast?

HOLT: Kinda. I was over in Europe with SLAYER and after all was said and done, the band decided a change was needed. And we weren't sold immediately on Steve being the guy. There was definitely a lot of talk about doing a long, exhaustive search. On one hand, I just wasn't into that. I'm too tired for that shit.

So what we did with Zetro, actually, despite all of his years in the band, we let him audition. We gave him a track, he had the lyrics in hand for two hours, the music he had for like 12, overnight, and he came in and sang it and we listened to it and it was killer. It felt right, you know.

KNAC.COM: Did he know this was an audition, or did you put it to him like it was a one-off, a guest appearance?

HOLT: He knew it was something where he had to step in and earn it and he was more than willing to do it and he put in the work do it and he came in and he killed it. He did a really fantastic job.

KNAC.COM: Like I mentioned earlier, it seemed like most of the descriptions of the music I read about Blood In Blood Out came from Rob. Had he been working with the songs, getting ready to go into the studio before the decision to replace him?

HOLT: He had worked on lyrics to one song and he'd sang just about everything, but I don't know maybe the best way to put it is a meeting of the minds just wasn't there. Not feeling the same about the songs, and there were other issues going on that I won't get into. So we decided to make the change, because we felt that this was too important an album to not have everyone onboard and at the top of their game.

And we love Rob to death. I still think he's one of the best singers in metal. It's not even close, I think he's one of the best there is, period. But sometimes things come up that dictate a change, you know?

KNAC.COM: For someone who came into this with no real experience, Rob did do a pretty solid job for you guys while he was there?

HOLT: Yeah, no doubt. He was our guitar tech, he was a guitar player and he came in with zero experience and he learned from the guys who had been doing it, not singing, but the guys in the band. He learned, he listened and he became fucking fabulous at this shit. I think any band would be blessed to have him. And he's got his own band that is fucking killer. So I think Rob's gonna be just fine, and we're gonna be just fine too.

KNAC.COM: The way things ended last time with Steve after Tempo Of The Damned came out, which was pretty ugly, did you guys sit down and talk all that stuff out and make sure that old issues were not going to reappear once he came aboard?

HOLT: Yeah, there was a lot of just opening up. There has been a lot of maturity through the whole process and the main key thing is Steve gets it now. He gets the fact that an opportunity arose that none of us ever thought would be there for anybody. He's done everything that was asked of him, he's worked incredibly hard and he's been fantastic. Sometimes you let the past be just that, the past.

And he and I, we've had a dialog for years, even if people say that we snip at each other. But if he said something in the press that I didn't like or came out wrong, or whatever, and I'd get on the phone and call him. It wasn't done through press. Him and I had a dialog, even if it wasn't always positive.

I had no problem saying it to him and vice versa. But he's thrilled to be back and he's doing a fantastic job.

KNAC.COM: When you guys go out with SLAYER coming up in the fall, will you be doing double duty, playing with both bands?

HOLT: Oh yeah. Ouch! (laughs) I'm in the building, so I'm playing twice. It's not a problem, the thing is you get a little extra sore and you gotta make sure you get your rest and sleep. But I've done it before, I'll do it again. I'm not making my life any easier, I'm 50 years old, but playing twice a night is something I can still handle.

KNAC.COM: The fact that you've been able to dedicate yourself to both bands is great, and it's gotta be great for EXODUS now because all of your time with SLAYER has meant for a lot more publicity for EXODUS that they ordinarily wouldn't have.

HOLT: Certainly. I'm proud of my iron man status (laughs). If someone says “that dude works hard” that's great, because I work hard at everything. At home, in life. This week I've given myself a few days to just lay in bed and watch Dexter and some Netflix and I'm going to continue doing that through the weekend and next Monday I'm going to get back to work.

KNAC.COM: Kirk Hammett plays some leads on then new EXODUS album [on the track “Salt The Wound”], is that something you've been hoping to do forever and just weren't able to?

HOLT: It's nothing we really tried to do before. But through all the Big Four shows I've done with him me and Kirk have been really close again. When we'd hang out it was just like when we played at backyard parties. And finally I was like “Dude, you've gotta do a solo on this album.” And he was like, “Fuck yeah, let's do it.”

I was actually on my way back to Sacramento so I missed the actual tracking. He came in and did a bunch of takes and it was totally sick and killer and classic Kirk Hammett and then we drank beer and barbecued. It was awesome. He was totally stoked to do it. He founded this band, him and Tom, and it's the first time other than the one demo that we did back in the early '80s that he's ever recorded a note for this band. So he was super stoked, and we were too.

KNAC.COM: To turn to SLAYER for a bit, I guess you won't be writing for their next album but is the intent to at least have you play guitar or do solos on it?

HOLT: Yeah, I'll do some solos. Kerry [King]'s got all the songs written and the stuff's killer. He's working Paul [Bostaph, drummer] hard down in L.A., and I'm up here taking this time to work the EXODUS thing. So it's certainly easiest for me, when I get the call, to just go down and lay down some ripping solos as best as I can.

The album's killer, the songs are all fucking rad. People are going to be pleased. It's 100 percent SLAYER and Kerry's worked super hard on this record. People don't have any idea how hard that guys works. He's the only guy I know who works as hard as me and he's been working on these songs forever and he keeps writing more and more. He's completely committed to this. He'll be on tour for six weeks and once he gets home two days later he'll be back in rehearsal. That's the last fucking thing I'd want to do.

Right now, my job in SLAYER is to be a guitar player. That’s what they want and I’m totally cool with that. It’s their thing and I’m happy to help them out in any way I can. If in the future they decide they’d like me to contribute some riffs or whatever, then by all means. Because I’ve got lots of ‘em (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Have they given you any indication when they might want to have you come down? [SLAYER began posting pictures from the studio on Aug. 25, several days after this interview.]

HOLT: I have no idea. I know I'll get a call on like the shortest of notice (laughs). But I'm ready to go whenever they need it.

KNAC.COM: You've been playing with them for more than three years now, so the situation must be pretty comfortable for everyone?

HOLT: The comfort was there from day one because we were friends since day one of thrash. It wasn't like I was an unknown to those guys. When I had to leave the second tour I did with them to go with EXODUS to support IRON MAIDEN in Chile, at mine and Brian Slagel's suggestion they flew in Pat O'Brien [from CANNIBAL CORPSE].

We were like “Pat's awesome, he's killer, fans won't throw shit at him, he's totally rad.” Pat, I think, was a little bit overwhelmed. They were just my old friends, but I don't think he'd ever me them and we had to make him put his guitar down every now and then, because he flew out before I left so we could train him on some of the stuff and he would play until his fingers were blistered. Me and Kerry would make him put it down, “You gotta stop dude, come on. Night off. You're not going to forget everything by morning.”

Like I said, they were all old friends of mine. All of them, especially Jeff on the early tours. He's the guy I hung out with the most. We all hung out. So there was a comfort level there. And from there it's just wrapping your head around the SLAYER way of how riffs go and how to play 'em and some of those weird solos (laughs).

KNAC.COM: There was so much drama that went on after you came onboard, with Hanneman dying and [drummer Dave] Lombardo being fired again, if you'd have been an outsider that could have really made things difficult or awkward.

HOLT: Yeah. I think if I do any one thing great with SLAYER I just try to keep everybody smiling, everybody laughing and joking and having fun. I think that is as important as playing the songs, keeping the mood light. When you're not onstage, if everyone's all smiles, it makes everything easier to do. Because it's a hard job to do, playing in SLAYER, especially if you're not enjoying it. The songs aren't exactly easy.

I don't know if someone they didn't know and trust would be able to do that. It's hard for me to say, but yeah, it might have been tough for someone who didn't have a connection with the guys to be there during those situations, because that was a lot for those guys to handle. It was a difficult time for sure.

KNAC.COM: Do you see your situation continuing indefinitely, playing with both bands?

HOLT: Yeah, until someone tells me differently. I'm going to try to keep both bands going, do my best with SLAYER and keep my own band rolling as best I can and try to make sure I leave some time for recuperation.

KNAC.COM: If only this had happened when you were 30 years old instead of 50?

HOLT: Oh yeah. But I think at 50 I'm better prepared for it because I take better care of myself. When I was younger I was also a walking pharmacy. Now I know what to do and what not to do, and make sure I'm prepared for the following day. It's easy to do it once, go out and play twice, but if you out and start throwing down the hammer you're going to feel like shit the next day and you're really going to suffer for it. I know to pick and choose my battles and make sure that I get my rest and I don't wake up with my hangover.

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