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SLAYER’s Tom Araya Talks To BraveWords Extensively About The Death Of Jeff Hanneman, Creating New Material In His Honour

“It Is Something That Has To Be Amazing And Extraordinary Because This Can’t Be Just Another Record”

Posted on Monday, November 18, 2013 at 08:59:56

By “Metal” Tim Henderson

For many of us, it was one of those high-profile “where were you when?” moments. In this case, I can remember the exact time (May 2nd, 2013) and place where I was out of breath, stunned and stopped in my tracks. A member of SLAYER had passed away. It was like a knife through the heart. As you go through life, very few musically entities will have a profound, long-lasting effect on you body, mind and soul. The image, the personalities and of course the sounds created. And Jeff Hanneman was a key player in writing and playing those sounds and songs that laid the groundwork for a healthy and vibrant metal scene. He helped create some of the records that are sturdy pillars of metal, some of the greatest music in metal history, music that never diminishes over time, music that has inspired and influenced countless people around the globe.

BraveWords recently had the opportunity to sit down with singer Tom Araya to talk about Jeff Hanneman’s tragic passing, the current status of the band with “new” recruits Gary Holt (of EXODUS fame), returning drummer Paul Bostaph and of course, his comrade in arms - and only other original member- Kerry King. The topics are sensitive and will stir you emotionally as Araya addresses the question of new material and creating a Slayer album using a fallen hero’s struggling visions.

BraveWords: I must start this conversation off on a note of condolences as we at BraveWords were hit hard with the loss of Jeff Hannemann.

Araya: “Yeah, it was kind of a surprise. Definitely a shock to me. That was a phone call that I wasn’t expecting. At that particular moment in time, the phone calls that I was getting were that he was in recovery and he was hoping to go home soon. So I was taken aback by the phone call that I got.”

BraveWords: We were all shocked. We all expected that he would return to the band and when news broke that he had passed away, we were all pretty much dumbfounded. It wasn’t supposed to end this way. It put me to tears.

Araya: “Exactly, this wasn’t supposed to happen. That was a correct statement. It wasn’t supposed to happen. We just never realize the extent of his health. Especially with his vices and excess of his drinking. Nobody knew the extent of the damage that he had done to himself. It wasn’t until after the fact. Just like anything else, they have to go in and find out what the cause of what went on. The extent of his cirrhosis of the liver was pretty bad.”

BraveWords: It had to be mentally destroying him that he couldn’t be out on the road with you guys and he couldn’t play at the level that he was used to. Slayer has four main pieces and it was kinda like the circle was broken with him on the sidelines. I don’t think any one of us could even imagine what was going through his head. Could you? ‘I want to be out there, what the fuck?!’

Araya: “Well you can, because you’re doing it right now. You understand it completely. It would be the same with me, not being able to be out there. Sitting and watching it all, literally running away from you. You’re stuck in one spot and it’s moving ahead of you, you can’t seem to catch up to it. I’m most positive that that was a big thing on his mind. There were times when he wouldn’t communicate and I would reach out to him and ask, ‘Dude, what’s going on? Do you want to be a part of this? We want you to come to rehearsals; we want to see how you are doing. We want you to start jamming. Are you practicing at home? You need to be out here,’ kind of thing. We made sure that he was well aware that we wanted him to be part of it and try to give him opportunities for him to come out, rehearse and work on new material. At the time, we were floating around ideas of putting out a new album. Sometimes he would make rehearsals. He let it be known that he was a little upset that we decided to move forward.”

BraveWords: It obviously put you in a difficult position to leave one of your bandmates behind. But what else could you do? You’ve built up this massive brand called Slayer and you need to keep the ball rolling.

Araya: “With the initial news about him and his spider bite and his flesh-eating disease, we were caught in a hard place because we couldn’t communicate with him. He was out when I got word about what happened to him. When I got the call, he was in the hospital and they we’re trying to save his life. I remember the call as plain as day. It was my manager (Rick Sales) and he said, ‘Tom are you sitting down?’ I’m like, ‘No.’ He goes ‘Jeff is in the hospital.’ I’m thinking that something really major had happened. Of course this was major, but I thought it was some kind of accident or a random act of violence that put him out. Rick said, ‘He’s got a flesh eating virus.’ And I went, ‘What?!’ ‘They are trying to save his arm.’ I’m like, ‘Fuck, which arm?’ He said, ‘I think they’re going to have to put him in induced coma.’ I’m like, ‘Shit.’ ‘They’re trying to get control of it but you can literally watch it as it’s eating his flesh.’ It was pretty serious, and I’m like, ‘Damn, we have to play Australia in like a month.’ My manager said, ‘I know, you and Kerry need to talk and decide what it is you want to do, how you want to proceed with this.’ Then I thought to myself, ‘This isn’t something that’s gonna sort itself overnight. This is going to be a process.’ And we had an entire year lined out with four or five different tours, and it started with Australia. We had to make some really tough decisions. There was a lot at risk, a lot that was hanging over our heads. We had to make a decision, and what really bugs me the most about having to make such a decision, was that we couldn’t communicate with Jeff. He was out. He was just out for the count, he just wasn’t going to be available for a few months. He was just out of it. They were going to keep him out of it until they could get some control over his arm and the bacteria and all of that stuff. That was hard. It’s a lot easier to make a decision when you can talk to the person and reason with him and say, ‘Hey, we know what’s going on.’ But we couldn’t communicate with him at all. That was a tough decision for me. And I put myself in that position: ‘How would I feel if they went and continued on without me?’ I’d be pissed. I’d be mad. But you’d also understand that if they didn’t do it, it would kill everything that we built. It would stop right there.”

BraveWords: There aren’t too many higher entities in the metal world than Slayer, but at the end of the day it’s is still the music business and you can’t stop or people will start to forget about you. For the benefit of the band’s reputation you obviously made the correct decision.

Araya: “Yeah, that’s where we were at. If we don’t do this, and we lay off the entire year, nobody’s going to want to do business with us. There was too much money involved, too much business involved. It just wouldn’t have been good. And that’s where I was, because I’ve been in that position. I’ve been in the hospital, and lucky for me I was able to recover and we can still continue to do what we were doing. It was just delayed a couple of months and I was able to come back. But with this, there was no telling when he would come back. And then as it turned out, even when he was out of the hospital, and we were trying to encourage him to play, to rehearse and to try and build up his arm strength and his abilities again... we always left it up to him. ‘How do you feel? Do you feel well enough to hit the road?’ And he was always, ‘No, no, I need some time.’ So we were always waiting for him to say, ‘Yeah, I want to do it now.’ It was always left up to him; we never made a decision for him. We never said, ‘No we don’t think you’re ready.’ But he was always opting not to do it. Like what you said, when your ability to perform is not at 100% and you’re kicking your own ass about it, you are going to be your own worst critic. And he kept saying he wasn’t ready, he wasn’t ready. So that was a hard decision. And Kerry is like, ‘We gotta do something.’ And I go, ‘Man, I can’t even begin to think of who I would want to sit in for Jeff. I don’t want anybody to sit in for Jeff; that’s just not right.’ And Kerry said, ‘Well, we gotta do something.’ And I said, ‘Yeah I know we gotta to do something, but that is where my head is at. I can’t think straight.’ So we communicated and he got back to me and said, ‘I’ve been thinking, I’ve got a couple of names and people have suggested some names.’ He read off the names, and I didn’t know any of them. I knew the bands that they were in, but I didn’t know any of the people that he was naming. And then he mentioned Gary (Holt). I sat there and thought for a moment and said to myself, ‘Yeah that sounds good. I can deal with Gary. Gary is a friend. I know Gary; we’re cut from the same cloth. Gary’s actually a good friend, he and Jeff got along really well. I thought that Jeff would really like that. To me he was a familiar face. I didn’t want any fucking stranger, if you know what I mean. When Gary came in and sat with us, I said to myself, ‘Wow this is so cool. Okay great.’ And now he’s become somewhat of a permanent fixture (laughs).”

BraveWords: So describe the band vibe, because you also have someone that was with the band for ten years, back in the fold.

Araya: “Yeah exactly, with the Dave issue, that’s why Paul’s name came up. Fans are unforgiving, and this was another familiar face. Paul was part of this for a good 12 years. A lot of the fans will know Paul. Bringing him back was a no-brainer in my opinion and that was something that was communicated between the three of us; me, Jeff and Kerry. We were more than happy to give Paul a call. ‘Are you available, can you do this?’ He was like, ‘Yeah I can do this!’”

BraveWords: Well no disrespect, but is it kind of like a bunch of old pit bulls in a cage that are stubbornly not getting along. Is there any way that you could work things out with Dave?

Araya: “No. That decision is done. Like I said, that was a decision that was made between me, Jeff and Kerry. Jeff was well aware of the situation with Dave and all the legalities that were going on. But, there were some things that he didn’t know about, so when we communicated with him about what was actually going on with Dave he was taken aback. I asked Jeff if Dave had told him any of this and he said no. ‘He told me everything else but what you’re telling me right now.’ I said, ‘Yeah, I kind of figured that.’ So he was really upset, and he couldn’t understand why Dave was having the issues that he was having. And neither could we. It was all contractual, it was all legal stuff and we’ve been in that position with Dave before. That is why he left the first time (laughs). You know what I mean, it was a reoccurring thing with Dave. I’m going to be honest with you, when Dave came in to do the tours after Paul had left (in 2001), I was okay with that because he was just playing with us, just doing tours. And when they decided they wanted to do a contract with Dave—to make things more fair for Dave—I was a little apprehensive, because I knew that we would find ourselves in that same position. And sure enough we did. And I was trying to be his friend, I was trying to communicate with him. Like, ‘Dude we have come to this agreement but you still haven’t signed. What’s going on?’ And he had his reasons, and that’s where it was; it was a stalemate. And it had nothing to do with any of us, but it had everything to do with Dave. I was like, ‘Dude, the ball is in your court and you held it for fucking three years. What are you going to do?’ He had decided that he didn’t want to do it. We did what we did with Dave because he was somebody that we had hired. It allowed us the opportunity to move forward. And then what Dave said on Facebook (this past February: read here) was privy information. And he shared it with everybody, and that’s not cool. ‘Dude, you don’t do that.’ I didn’t want anybody to know all this. And I don’t want to talk down on Dave. Dave did what he did; I tried to be his friend. We all tried to be his friend. We tried to communicate, to speak to him. It was like, ‘Dude, you need to decide what you want to do. I know that you’re not happy with this, but this is everything that you’ve wanted.’ So we were stuck, and we decided to call John Dette up. ‘Can you do these (Australian) shows? There’s only five of them. Can you do them?’ And he was like, ‘Oh yeah, I can do them.’ So he sat in and did them. After that tour was over, we still hadn’t heard from Dave, as far as where he stood and how he felt. He never once called me or Kerry. Or for that matter even Jeff, about anything. He was leaving it up to lawyers. So we did what we had to do and just decided to move forward.”

BraveWords: And I presume the bond between you and Kerry is stronger than ever these days.

Araya: “Well, we have a bond (laughs). Let’s put it this way: out of the four individual members of the band, I think me and Jeff were the tightest. We were the closest. My relationship with Kerry... it was never a really close relationship. As the years went on, it never solidified. We are in a band together and at this point we are business partners. And we can respect each other along those lines. Yeah, we communicate, we talk and we get along. We don’t share closeness. Although what has happened recently with Jeff, it has brought us closer together, because it’s just the two of us now. At one point it could’ve been Dave as well, but Dave changed that completely.”

BraveWords: So let’s move on. Apparently Slayer have been in the studio demoing new material. Can you explain what that means? There was a lot of talk while Jeff was forced off the road he was still at home writing music for the follow-up to World Painted Blood. So he must have a ton of ideas.

Araya: “You know what, he has a ton of ideas, but I think whatever was going on inside him, he wasn’t able to channel his energy. There is a song that Jeff wrote that didn’t make it on the World Painted Blood album. It was a song that was complete which was a Jeff song that didn’t make it. It was actually a song that me and him were trying to finish up, but we couldn’t come up with lyrical ideas that would work with the music. So we were in the process of working on that and finishing that song up. That was shelved and is on the sidelines and is a great song musically. So that is one. And he managed to demo a song when he was in the studio with Dave and Kerry jamming out some stuff. He managed to demo out a song with his own home recordings that he had done, so that is there. So there’s three songs. But there’s other stuff that he had, but I don’t think he had enough time or energy to focus on them. For World Painted Blood, he had given everyone a disc of eight songs, three of which had made it on the album. There were three or four other ones that I really thought were great, and I was surprised they didn’t make it on the album. I had to remind Jeff about those songs that didn’t make it on the album and he couldn’t think of the songs or the music (laughs). Jeff said he remembered making a disk for everybody but he couldn’t remember what was on it! So I said, ‘I will send it to you.’ So I sent it to him. When he received the disk he said that he remembered all the songs but he couldn’t figure out why they didn’t become something more. So that was one of the songs that Jeff pieced together when he was in the studio with Jeff and Kerry. So there’s a lot of material there that’s not complete. There are structures of something that I thought were some really great stuff, but the question is do we finish the music as far as using what he has and add more to it? But I would prefer to work with stuff that he has completed. I wouldn’t want to take liberties at trying to make sense of something that he had partially done, because that would be unfair to him.”

BraveWords: So it’s quite possible that we’re going to see writing credits and actual riffs and guitar work that he did?

Araya: “Yeah, there’s a good possibility of that. Like I said, there is a lot of stuff that he has and what he has demoed. I really, really want to listen to it and see what we can salvage and then complete the songs with everybody else doing their parts to what he has done. That is something that I want to put effort, time and energy into, because he has some really great shit that I think people deserve to hear. There’s some really great music. Like I said, the song that he sent everybody was sent to us literally about a month before he passed. He had been working on it, he was excited; he was like, ‘Hey, I’ve got this song that I completed and I want to send it to you.’ So I listened to it, and I said, ‘Dude, this sounds great.’ I told him I really liked it, because I could hear his performance abilities. I really had to listen to the music, to hear what it was he was doing. But I could hear what he was trying to do. I was like, ‘Oh my god this is really cool; this is good stuff.’ And that’s the way it was with his material.

BraveWords: Did he have names for any of these tracks?

Araya: “He had names, but I don’t want to ruin it. I don’t want to jinx it. I like his one title. The other one just had a working title, the demo that they put together while he was in the studio. I will give you that one, because it is a simple one: it was ‘JH13’ because it was the 13th track. And this was the demo that he put together when Dave and Kerry were in the studio putting material together. He came in one evening and Greg Fidelman said that they digitized his music because it was on tape. They sat in the studio and Jeff told Greg what he wanted and they pieced it together to sound like the way Jeff wanted it. Once they pieced it together, they had Dave do the drum parts that Jeff wanted him to play. But I recognized the song because it was one of those songs on that disk. And this was one of the ones that I thought was cool. And that one has the title of ‘JH13’. It was kind of eerie. Kerry also have a lot of material that he worked out with Dave. Then having issues that we had, Paul came in and Kerry went back with Paul and started re-demoing stuff, trying to work out the material and give it a second run. When you’re writing music and songs, sometimes you put it together and work with it and then you step away from it. And when you come back to work with that again, you either like it or you don’t. So Kerry went back and this time he was with Paul, and they redid some of the songs. That’s the process. It’s just like when you write your story, you’re going to come up with a shit load of rewrites until you get it right. It’s the same with music and an album. You step away from it and then come back and you say, ‘I really don’t like this song.’ So you trash it or you come up with some better ideas. With Paul being new blood, Kerry went back and started reworking a lot of the demos. At the time I was getting ready to fly out, but I threw my back out and I was in bed for about a month. I couldn’t function, I couldn’t get out of bed. The second month I called and made an appointment with my spine doctor. When I went to see him he gave me spinal injections and that helped it some, but I just needed some time. I couldn’t sit for long periods of time, it gave me severe pain. It screwed my schedule out because I was ready to fly out and start listening to their demos and start working on ideas. And when you start communicating with everybody, the ideas start coming out. I like to be a part of it; I like to sit in and be a part of it as they are putting ideas together so I know what’s going on, and maybe I can put in my two cents. So I wasn’t allowed to do that. This was before Jeff has passed, about a year and a half ago. So Jeff was there, but I was always calling because I couldn’t move. Greg Fidelman told me on the phone that the guys were working on ideas and when they came up with something solid he was going to mix it and send it to me.”

BraveWords: Not to make light of the situation, but really half of Slayer was falling apart!

Araya: “Yeah, I was at their mercy (laughs). So when they started to get stuff done, they would send it to me and I would listen to it. Some songs were good songs, and I put them in a ProTools set-up that I have at home on my computer and I just started cutting and pasting, putting together my renditions of what I was hearing. I did that to one song and then I sent it back to everybody and nobody replied (laughs). There was other stuff too that we had left over from the World Painted Blood recordings that were really cool and there were some jam bits that Kerry had done. I really liked it a lot, so I put together my own song from what Kerry was jamming out with Dave, just some really, really heavy fucking riffs that were cool. And I said that to everybody and got no response. But that’s typical—you don’t hear about stuff like that until after the fact. ‘Oh yeah I heard it.’ But why didn’t you fucking tell me! And like I said, Jeff had this demo that he did. I didn’t even know about it until I talked to Greg recently and I go, ‘I know Jeff was in the studio with you guys. Did he do anything, did he put anything down?’ And Greg said, ‘Yeah he tried to record some stuff, but he wasn’t really happy with how he was playing and I didn’t want to push him, push the issue with him. But we did manage to put together a demo, with his demos.’”

BraveWords: What did Greg think about his performance in playing?

Araya: “Greg was a little concerned, and he understood why Jeff wasn’t frequenting the studio very much, but when he did, he attempted to play, he tried to play. And Greg said that his abilities were not up to par and he could tell that he was really struggling to play and to get things down on tape. Greg said, ‘Jeff brought in a demo of a song that he wanted to rework, so we threw it into the computer and he told me what to do and I helped him piece it together. And that song should make it on an album.’ Jeff’s music is that good. Greg rearranged it a little bit but the song was good as it was; now it’s even better.”

BraveWords: Now things are on the back-burner, since you are on the road with this Old School Slayer tour:

Araya: “Out of everything that he’s done, Kerry has managed to finish two songs. There are two songs that are literally complete; they just need to be mixed. With vocals and everything. After listening to them though, there are a few things I’d like to do a bit different vocally. And there’s that one song from Jeff that we need to put lyrics to. There are some good tunes; we just need to sit down and put these ideas together and see if we are happy with them and make them work if we are not. But me and Kerry are going to have to sit down and figure out how to move forward. We are doing things right now because these are the things that we have to do. We’ve been put into the position to do the things that we are doing because it’s business. Once the business aspect of this is over, we will then know how we want to move forward with the band. However we move forward. This tour is giving Kerry and I opportunity, as you say, to get close, get reacquainted.”

BraveWords: This is a classic scenario of an example of the sum being greater than its parts. Four of you created this beast called Slayer, but now there’s only two of you standing. You’ve put more than 30-plus years of blood, sweat and tears into this, so you can’t let this dream go. This has to be one of the most difficult decisions and situations you will ever encounter in your life. It must be very troubling for you.

Araya: “Yeah, it’s a very complicated situation to be in. And you’re right, it is very, very, very tough.”

BraveWords: Hopefully you can feel the support from fans all around the globe.

Araya: “Some are (laughs). Once you put this interview on the internet, read the comments, and you’ll know what I mean. And that gives you a good idea, a good indicator of where people stand. Just read them, and read them with a grain of salt. Because they are brutal. It doesn’t drive me insane to read them, but I still read them. People are fucked-up, man.”

BraveWords: I presume you will be in the studio after the tour. Any timelines you’d like to share?

Araya: “No timeline. But I’m sure you understand this, that it is something that has to be amazing and extraordinary. This is after-the-fact, but I hope we put time and energy into it and we are in no hurry of a release date. I want to make sure that it’s the best and do it justice, because this can’t be just another record. And as I said, there’s a lot of communicating that Kerry and I are going to have to sit down and do. I feel strongly about having to put some serious time and energy into making it the best that it can be, because it just can’t be another average record.”

Slayer's Old School tour dates with GOJIRA and 4ARM:

7 - MTS Center - Winnipeg, MB
8 - Myth - Minneapolis, MN
10 - FunFunFun Fest - Austin, TX
12 - Bayou Music Center - Houston, TX
13 - South Side Ballroom - Dallas, TX
15 - Aragon Ballroom - Chicago, IL
16 - The Fillmore - Detroit, MI
17 - LC Pavilion - Columbus, OH
19 - The Fillmore - Washington, D.C.
20 - Stage AE - Pittsburgh, PA
21 - Ricoh Coliseum - Toronto, ON
23 - CEPSUM/University of Montreal - Montreal, QC
24 - Pavilion de la Jeunesse - Quebec, QC
26 - Oakdale Theatre - Wallingford, CT
27 - Theatre at MSG - New York, NY
29 - Susquehanna Bank Center - Camden, NJ
30 - Tsongas Arena - Boston, MA