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Exclusive Slayer Interview: Tom Araya - "That's What Evil Does"

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, May 17, 2010 @ 11:35 AM

"I think it has everything to do with the shit in life. I'm at the age where these things are supposed to happen. Some people are fortunate and it never happens to them. Some people just don't have a clue, they just drop dead."

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Slayer frontman Tom Araya is just a bit more "metal" than everyone else these days. Literally. A titanium plate now holds three of the cervical discs in his neck in place, the result of an operation earlier this year to realign his spine and relieve pressure on a nerve that had become a source of agony he could no longer endure. Thirty years of violent headbanging and hair-twirling during Slayerís legendarily intense live performances finally caught up to the 48-year-old Araya (who turns 49 in June) when the band was on tour in Australia last October. The injury and subsequent surgery have all but shut down Slayer for the past six months, forcing the band to postpone a tour of England and the American Carnage Tour of North America with Megadeth and Testament, and leaving their latest album, the awesomely old school World Painted Blood, with no visible means of support. Itís the second time in as many albums that Araya had to go under the knife ó in 2006 he had his gall bladder removed ó and thrown the bandís touring schedule for a loop.

But with his spine now firmly back in place and no longer creating havoc in other parts of his body, Araya and his bandmates ó guitarists Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman, and drummer Dave Lombardo ó are ready to roll again and in short order, beginning in late May, will make up the English dates, perform at a bunch of European festivals ó including a handful that will feature the "Big Four" lineup of Metallica, Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax for the first time ó and do the American Carnage Tour during which Slayer will perform 1990ís landmark Season In The Abyss album in its entirety.

During a phone interview a week before Slayer was to hit the road, an amiable Araya talked frankly about his injury, surgery and recovery and how the human body can only take so much for so long. He also offered his thoughts on the long-awaited meeting of the Big Four, thrash metal nostalgia and when Slayer will know it's time to hang it up.

KNAC.COM: Well the obligatory "how are you" actually means something this time, given your surgery. So how are you?

ARAYA: I'm doing good. I'm recovering good. I'm just getting ready for this tour that's coming up, getting ready for the rigors of the road. We're going to be doing Seasons in its entirety, so we're rehearsing that album. We've got a lot of touring to do and we're doing a lot of double dates in some cities so we have a lot of songs to learn so we don't play the same set (laughs). We've just got a lot of prepping to do, we haven't really jammed together in over five months, we've been doing that for the last week.

KNAC.COM: I know you're playing on the Jimmy Kimmel show next week, is that the only "gig" you're going to do before the touring starts?

ARAYA: It will be the first time we've performed anywhere together as a band, which is cool. And then we do the AOL Sessions and then we start the tour. So we're not really doing any warm up shows, if that's what you mean. But we've been doing this for so long; I don't think we really need to.

KNAC.COM: So feet first into the fire it is then?

ARAYA: Yeah. That's usually how it is. The one other time I had surgery, it was the same thing. It was right out of surgery and into the fire.

KNAC.COM: How long did you have physically lay low after this surgery?

ARAYA: I just had to take it easy. I couldn't lift heavy things. The heaviest thing I could lift was the remote (laughs). I'm being serious. That went on for about three months. But now there aren't any issues. Everything looks like it's still in place, so now I've got to start exercising for the shows we've got.

KNAC.COM: I take it you've strapped on a bass again?

ARAYA: Yeah, at the rehearsals I put a bass on. It felt comfortable; playing the instrument didn't seem to be an issue.

KNAC.COM: What kind of restrictions are you going to have when you play live? I'd imagine the headbanging and the helicopter twirling are big no-nos.

ARAYA: Yeah, I just can't do that. With a plate in your neck it's not a good idea to do that. The only disclaimer I can have for people is there's nothing wrong with headbanging, just do it in moderation. And understand at some point it could damage you. People are gonna do what they wanna do, and as long as they are aware that "this could happen to you" then they have a choice. I'm still gonna rock out, I just won't be able to metal out (laughs).

KNAC.COM: You've been doing that for so long, though, it's got to be innate behavior. How hard do you think it's going to be to resist the urge when you're tearing through "Raining Blood?"

ARAYA: I don't think it will be hard. But I don't know. I think I'll be able to resist the temptation. The pain I felt before it was fixed is still very fresh in my mind, so that should be enough.

KNAC.COM: If all else fails, you could do something radical like cut your hair off.

ARAYA: (laughs) No, don't you know whenever you cut off your hair you lose your power. Check out the bands who've cut their hair, they lost their power.

KNAC.COM: I was gonna say Kerry cut his hair off, but it was falling out anyway, so that doesn't really count.

ARAYA: (laughs) Yeah, he didn't cut it, it fell. It's different.

KNAC.COM: So what exactly did they have to do to get this titanium plate into your neck?" Anterior cervical discectomy with fusion" sounds pretty ominous?

ARAYA: It was. Dude, they worked through a slit in my neck that was about an inch long. They did everything through that little hole to the back of my throat. They had to take everything and move it to one side, which is creepy. Then they did everything microscopically and put it all back.

KNAC.COM: Were your vocal chords ever in danger?

ARAYA: No, because it's literally to my spine that they did everything, so it's to the back of or behind my throat. It's like anything else, once you heal, the scar tissue goes away. I felt like I had a big lump in my throat but it's gone now. Eventually it really didn't feel like they did anything.

KNAC.COM: Have you really belted out some vocals during these rehearsals?

ARAYA: I'm singing, so I'm working that up. I don't immediately want to go into screaming, but I'm gonna have to work into that. I'm gonna need to run, I gotta get back to that cardio-vascular level so I can really sing. Headbanging was a way of motion for me, it's like a way of running in place, so I would get my blood pumping by headbanging.

Now I've got to figure something else out to get my blood pumping because I need to get that air in somehow. Headbanging and doing all that was physical motion, it was making me breathe hard and deep. I can wobble back and forth, but I can't shake my head like I used to.

KNAC.COM: You need to festoon the stage with ramps or something so you can run around.

ARAYA: But that's not me, evil doesn't run. It stalks (laughs). And it goes crazy standing still, and that's what I would do, I'd go crazy standing still and then I'd stalk the stage. That's what evil does.

KNAC.COM: The injury itself, is that something that came out of nowhere or was it a chronic thing that just kept building up until you couldn't take it anymore?

ARAYA: I think it's something that built up over the years, but the pain that I was feeling came on suddenly. I was in Australia when the pain came on. That's when I couldn't sit still and I was like "fuck, why is this hurting so much?" And it was in my elbow, which was the strangest thing, because it was my elbow that was hurting and it was hurting bad, too. Really bad.

We were in Australia for 10 or 11 days, and the fifth day it was the second day of pain and I was already on the phone to my wife to get a hold of our doctor to see who he knew that might be able to take care of it. From Australia on it was pretty stupid. I like to get up and walk around, see what's happening wherever we are. But I spent most of my time in my room, laying on my back hoping the pain would go away. You don't think about all the stuff you do to accommodate the pain until the pain goes away and you realize "you know, I did a lot of laying down and massaging the shit out of my elbow."

And when I finally saw the doctor, they gave me an injection right at the base of my spine where he knew the pain was originating, which took the pain away. The pain was gone. What a relief. I'm serious, it was such a relief. The initial shot took all the pain away, but left me with spasms that were uncontrollable and were freaking me out. It felt like someone was squeezing the whole left side of my chest. It was really weird.

KNAC.COM: After trying to treat the condition without surgery, how long did it take before that option was no longer, well, an option?

ARAYA: It was a three-week regimen, three shots. After the second one, which was two weeks after the first, didn't do anything, we knew. When the doctor asked me how I was feeling after the second one and I told him it didn't feel like it was doing anything he goes, "OK, there's really no point in giving you a third shot."

So they did another scan. They went into the area looking to find out where the problem was and they were able to isolate the nerve that was being irritated and go "OK, this is where we need to go." But in order to do that, they couldn't just remove a section of disc, they had to move the whole column. There were three discs that were compressed pretty bad, so they had to move them back and lock them in place with the titanium plate.

KNAC.COM: And that's your reward for 30 years of thrash metal?

ARAYA: That pain on my elbow came quick, that was sudden. But it makes you think, like you yourself, in your lifetime, how many accidents have gotten into? And I'm saying something as simple as falling on your ass, how many times have you fallen on your ass accidentally in your lifetime? Once is enough to fuck you up, but you won't know it then. You know what I'm getting at?

That's why when someone says, "well, what do you think caused it?" I say "well, I know what I was doing when the pain set in, I was performing and doing this and that." But, man, in the course of a lifetime, everyone is involved in at least one wreck, one car wreck. You may be healthy and strong, but it might effect you later in life because your bones got rattled. You're not gonna think of it, but I'm thinking of it because of the condition I'm in now.

The headbanging and the head twirling wasn't really a good idea I guess (laughs). It didn't make it any better, whatever was going on in my body. You just don't realize those things until someone says "hey, you have a problem."

KNAC.COM: This is two albums in a row that you've had medical emergencies, is this becoming a Slayer curse?

ARAYA: No, you know. I think it has everything to do with the shit in life. I'm at the age where these things are supposed to happen. Some people are fortunate and it never happens to them. Some people just don't have a clue, they just drop dead. Everyone goes like "Well, what happened? There was nothing wrong with him." All of a sudden, boom!

But hey, life happens. After so many years of abusing my body, my gall bladder was telling me it had had enough (laughs) so I went in, they took it out, and I was supposed to recover for eight weeks, and six weeks later I was playing a show. I wish I would have taken the time to heal. People ask if I have any regrets, at this point in my life that's the one. I should have taken the eight weeks, but if I had taken the eight weeks, the tour would have been canceled, and we had already delayed it two weeks.

KNAC.COM: Are you feeling that same sort of pressure now, since the European dates and the Carnage dates have already been pushed back, in some cases more than once? Or was everyone else like "get healthy and we'll do the shows when we can do the shows?"

ARAYA: That's about it, it was "get healthy, we'll wait." We stretched it out. The surgery, the doctor signed off on it a month ago, I was good to go, but we went ahead and waited an extra month. And I think that had a lot to do with last time with my gall bladder.

On this one I told them "I want to heal up, I want to go out at 100 percent, 110." I kind of put my foot down and said "this is how it's gonna be, I'm not fucking off on anybody. This is something I need to take care of and I'm gonna take care of it and I'm gonna heal. And when I'm healed up, I'm gonna be ready. I hope everyone will understand." And they did.

I am eager to make these shows up. We ended up rescheduling nearly all of them, some shows we weren't able to because the buildings weren't available for the Carnage Tour. There's no Texas dates, which kinda sucks. But there's also October, and we should be coming back through in October and get the buildings we wanted to get, and maybe it'll be just us, which is even a bigger bonus (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Yeah, Megadeth went and did that Rust In Peace run with Testament, which kinda stole some of the Carnage Tour's thunder since they're going to play that album again this time.

ARAYA: Yeah, we're having issues with some shows because they've been all over the country and now they're going to do a repeat. To me, that seemed like jumping the gun, but they got Dave Ellefson back in the band and wanted to roll with that. I canít blame them for not wanting to sit around, but doing the Rust thing then, I donít know. But what's done is done. We'll deal with it and hope people come out to see us, because they haven't seen us do this [Seasons In The Abyss] yet.

KNAC.COM: The Big Four shows that are coming up in Europe, it's a big deal for the fans, is it a big deal for you guys?

ARAYA: Yeah. To me, it's a big deal. It should have happened years ago, in my opinion. Then it would have been a really big deal to me. It means something, but not as much as it would have 20 years ago when it was fresh and new and we could have conquered the world.

KNAC.COM: If you could have somehow combined your Clash of the Titans tour and Metallica's Justice tour back in the day, that would have ruled.

ARAYA: Yeah, it would have. It would have been amazing. To me, it's still cool that we're doing it 20 years later, the four of us together on a bill. It's about 10-15 shows and this tour, because it's being done in the Eastern Bloc of Europe, it's basically done to see how it goes. And if it turns out to be a winner I'm sure that thing will happen again. Expect more. I think more will come of this, but that's just me kind of guessing. I feel that more will come of it.

KNAC.COM: Some of the songs from Seasons have been show staples forever, but when was the last time you played something like "Expendable Youth" or "Skeletons of Society?" If ever?

ARAYA: We've may have played "Skeletons" once, but we've never played "Expendable Youth" and one other song, "Temptation." So this will be a first. Those are the songs that I know I need to work on. It should be interesting.

KNAC.COM: There's a whole bunch of anniversaries coming up for Slayer benchmarks, you could do these sorts of nostalgia shows for years if you really wanted to. Does that hold any interest for you, or since you already did those Reign In Blood shows is it getting old?

ARAYA: The whole album thing, we were all for it, gung ho, when we did Reign In Blood. And then when we thought we were done with that and people requested that we keep doing it, it became one of those things where you hope you never have to do that again. And then when this deal came up with Testament and Megadeth doing this thing where they were doing an album or material that was like a marker for them, we were asked if we would do the same and I don't know, what do you want me to tell you? You can hear it in my voice (laughs).

We were reluctant to say yes, but we did anyway. We went ahead and said "sure, we'll do that, too." In order to be in everyone's favor, and to be with everyone in a unit, we agreed to do it.

KNAC.COM: Take one for the team.

ARAYA: (Laughs) Very well put, and I'm glad you said that.

KNAC.COM: All this puts you in the weird situation where once you get around for doing a full-blown tour for your new album, it'll be like a year old. Have you played anything from World Painted Blood live other than "Psychopath Red"?

ARAYA: We've done "Hate Worldwide" and "World Painted Blood" itself, and we're working on another song, "Beauty Through Order." We've done three songs, we just haven't done them very much. After August is the earliest something like a real World Painted Blood tour would happen, I don't know what's going to happen, but it will probably be some time in the fall. We're definitely psyched to play songs from the album because we're really happy with the way it turned out, but when shit happens there's not much you can do.

KNAC.COM: Do you have any plans for like a do-over release where you stick some bonus material on there and put Blood out again?

ARAYA: I don't know. That's something we did last time when something like this happened. This time we're kind of in the same situation. We have a song where vocally I needed to get a really good performance on it, but haven't been able to do it yet, so we'll see if we can finish it up. Last time, we were able to do that because we were ready, [the extra track "The Final Six,"] was ready last time. This time we have a song, but it still needs some work. We'll see what happens.

KNAC.COM: Maybe you can win yourself another Grammy for the extra song, like you did with "The Final Six."

ARAYA: (Laughs) I donít know, man. I think that was our lifetime achievement award. I still canít believe they gave us one for that. It was cool and all, especially since I helped write it, but we lost this year. So I guess we had our moment of glory.

KNAC.COM: During the layoff, did you or any of the other guys start putting together any new material?

ARAYA: Not that I really know of. I don't think anyone's really done anything for the last five or six months, although Dave's been playing some with that band he has, Philm. At least nothing that's really fleshed out. I write lyrically, I'm always writing. I'll hear something where I like a phrase, I like a word, something that was said and I'll sit there and jot it down and then who knows?

Sometimes stuff flows and sometimes it doesn't. And I'm sure Jeff and Kerry do the same thing with their guitars, they'll pick up and record riffs or solos that come to them then to go back and listen to it and see if they can start writing something out of it.

KNAC.COM: The way things worked with World Painted Blood where the band pretty much jammed the songs into shape with your producer there and got a real natural sound, is that something you'd like to do again?

ARAYA: Yeah, I think that'd be kinda cool. I like how this record came out. It didn't allow for too much going over and over things. It didn't allow you to sit back and think about what you just heard. You had enough time to listen it and go like "wow, this sounds great." And someone would go, "how 'bout if we did this?" "Yeah." And they did it, and it was like "woah, that sounds awesome."

It was like a snowball, it just kept moving and there was never a point where anyone stopped it. That's what we really wanted, to just keep it flowing. We were capturing moments and that was pretty cool. It would be great if we could recapture that work vibe again, not necessarily repeat what we've just done but do it in the same way. I like working like that and I hope we keep working with Greg Fidelman because I think we all felt pretty good about the experience.

KNAC.COM: Last thing here, and I'm sure everyone has been asking you this, since everyone always seems to ask "how long will you guys keep going?" But with the surgery and what you were saying about being at the age where stuff like that is supposed to happen, has it made you think any more seriously about how long you guys will actually keep going?

ARAYA: It's hard to answer that, you know what I mean? That's a tough question to answer at the moment because of how I feel. At the moment I feel great. Six months ago, it was a different story. But like you said, or actually I said (laughs), I'm in that age frame where shit starts happening. Whatever synchronicity clock is going on in my body, I'm at its mercy. I feel great, but who knows, maybe you'll talk to me in six months again and I'll feel like shit. Shit, I could feel like that tomorrow, and say "fuck this crap." But I'm not like that, I'm not that kind of person.

Like we were talking about earlier, life happens and sometimes it makes you make decisions, sometimes you know you have to make decisions. And that's about the best I can say. Fortunately it hasn't come to that yet. But we'll know. We'll all know. We'll look at each and know "this can't go on any longer." Right now, I can think "well, when am I gonna look like an old man onstage?" But I think we're a long way from that.

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