Photo by Andrew Stuart
Slayer, 2016 Model: Gary Holt is second from left,
Gary Holt has two pretty good jobs these days. He's the guitarist in long-running Bay Area thrash pioneers Exodus. And for the last five years, he's been the guitarist in another thrash institution from just down the California highway, Slayer.
That last job, though, comes with its troubles. Holt stepped in as a temporary substitute for metal icon Jeff Hanneman in 2011. Following Hanneman's death in 2013, Holt's position now seems to be a permanent one. He's a replacement half in one of music's most essential guitar duos ever, attempting to be himself while simultaneously honoring the work of his predecessor.
Slayer plays The Ritz in Raleigh
with Carcass and Testament Saturday, Feb. 27. The band is still touring behind last year's surprisingly, refreshingly decent Repentless
. I spoke to Holt about the challenges of the dual jobs he has these days.
INDY: What’s your least favorite question to be asked about Slayer?
: I actually don’t do a lot of press now. I guess the thing I most don’t want to hear is “Hey Gary, you’ve got press.” [Laughs.]
No, no, I don’t mind doing press. I just got kind of got used to not having to, because of Exodus. I had pretty much done ninety percent of it in Exodus, so it was a good little vacation away in Slayer. But I’m totally cool having to speak about the band. There’s nothing really that annoys me.
How do you see your perception among Slayer fans? What do you think they think of you as a stand-in for Jeff Hanneman?
I’ve been here long enough—five years-plus—to where I’m pretty much well accepted now. In five-plus years, I think I’ve had a grand total of four hecklers in countless shows. The odds have been in my favor as far as acceptance, originally in the absence of Jeff and then after the tragic loss of Jeff. I think the acceptance stems from the fact that I am one of the insiders, I guess you would say. I’ve been friends with this band, Jeff included, for decades, since the infancy of thrash metal. I’m one of the originators of it, so I’ve got old-school street cred. It’s difficult being in two bands—I can’t always be in the same place at the same time. But I’ve been made to feel like family here since day on. As far as the band members, we are
family, going back to the early eighties.
When did you first hear Slayer?
I remember Paul Baloff and I, we had gotten our hands on Show No Mercy
. We were like, “These guys are from LA? They’re doing what we do!” Thrash metal was such an isolated pocket of music that, when you found someone playing music of the sort, it was a big deal. There weren’t many of us by the time I heard Slayer. It was us and Metallica. I had never heard another thrash band in my life playing a similar style of music. We were very excited when Slayer finally came up to the Bay Area and did a show with us. We were fast friends right away.
And how about the first time you saw them?
They did a show on their own at the Keystone in Berkeley
. That was the last show they wore the makeup, because the following night, they were playing Ruthie’s Inn—the infamous Ruthie’s Inn
—with Exodus. We told them, “That won’t go over well there.” It was extremely possessive and protective and violent and very much stuck in their own ways. They didn’t wear it and haven’t worn it since. After the first show they did without it, we completely destroyed their hotel room—with permission, of course, or at least their
permission. We heard the cops were coming, and we scattered like cockroaches when the lights come on. We created a new doorway, destroyed the TV, nailed pizza to the ceiling, and tore up the mattresses.
You mentioned four hecklers during the course of your time with Slayer. What did they say?
With most of them, it was fun; we were bantering back and forth. With one, on the first Mayhem tour, at the end of the set, this kid goes, “I just miss Jeff, man” and I said, “I miss Jeff, too.” I had one on my first European tour—this guy with this awful skullet, flipping me off the whole time. Little did he know that all I had to do was say something to have him beaten senseless by the Slayer road crew of thugs, but I didn’t. He did see our production manager looking at him on the radio, and he vanished. He kept flipping me off and tapping on his Slayer shirt. I mean, you knew Jeff wasn’t here, and you bought a ticket, anyway. That kind of shit just never made sense to me.
I had a guy in Milan of all places—which is a very good home to Exodus as well—who was kind of a dick. But I got in his face the whole time. I’m not gonna back down to anyone because they’re out trying to ruin my show. By ruining my show, they’re by extension trying to ruin Slayer’s set, because they’re trying to take down one-fourth of the band. I went right up and stood on the subwoofers and grabbed him by his hand. I got right in his face to see how much he had to say when I was within striking distance. He had nothing to say. He didn’t expect that, that I would step off the stage, hop a few feet over on to the subwoofer, to where I was directly in his face. The last thing I wanna do is break my hand on some dude’s head. I’m a thick-skinned guy, and that shit doesn’t mean anything to me. But I am going to give as well as I take, that’s for sure.
That guy in Milan almost sounds like an Internet troll—tough when anonymous, a lot less so in person. I know Slayer has some experience with that.
I look back at when I was a kid, long before the Internet, the late-great-legendary Bon Scott died, and I guarantee not one soul in the crowd was flipping off Brian Johnson. I was there waiting in line to buy Back in Black
the day it came out, because I’m old enough to remember record stores. I went both nights, and I was completely stoked. There was not a negative vibe in the audience, but the Internet just breeds that. You get keyboard warriors. Then you’ll see one guy post something like, “All right, my metal brothers and sisters, we gotta stick together.” Now, that doesn’t happen. It’s so segregated. When I was a kid, I liked all kinds of metal. The Internet breeds all kinds of idiots, but it is great for spreading the word of new bands. You got an instant world wide outlet for spreading music.
You were in Slayer for a bit while Jeff was alive. How strange was that?
Yeah, I was filling in. But it was still his band, and it’s still his band now. I still come out on stage trying to make Jeff proud. He will always be a part of Slayer. He passed away, but that doesn’t mean he’s no longer in this band. He’s in this band forever.
When you play old Slayer songs, how much are you trying to simply play Jeff parts versus reimagine them as your own?
I try to be myself, and the band has never asked me to be anything but myself. On some of the older songs, Jeff had a lot of little melodic bits and pieces to his solo, and I try to keep those in there. I don’t think I would be doing him or myself any justice to try and go out and play Jeff’s solos. We are two totally different people. What I try to do is mimic a vibe—if he was playing something chaotic and fast, I’ll be chaotic and fast. I’m not out there trying to substitute completely ill-fitting chops into spots where he did something totally random.
Since becoming so familiar with these songs, are there elements to the writing that you find surprising or more interesting than you expected?
It’s mostly in the riffs. There are too many to count. There are so many little clever subtleties to his songwriting that you don’t really notice until you have to learn it. In the very beginning, I would start learning his songs, and I would get little parts wrong, because I was writing from my point of view, not from Jeff’s. But then you start learning the insight to his writing process, and it actually gets easier. You are more inside his head.
How did you think of your role when it came time to make Repentless?
I just went in and started shredding and going for it. I did my own thing, but I think just during my time spent in Slayer, Jeff rubbed off. It becomes a part of your subconscious. I didn’t go in and solo and once again play “ill-fitting bits.” I let it rip and knew when it worked. I didn’t write anything on the new album. Kerry wrote that. I was busy writing the last Exodus album, so he was doing one thing while I was doing the other. That’s Kerry’s baby. I just went in with very little idea of what I wanted to do and let the song dictate where it went.
You’re in two busy bands, Slayer and Exodus. Do you ever confuse the two?
I get frazzled all the time. It depends on how much I’m doing with on one band or the other. When we did the video for “Repentless,”
I went over to my spot on the set. I realized I was standing where I stand in Exodus, stage left. Kerry walks over and says “Wrong side, dude.” I went “Oops.” I had just been on tour with Exodus before this, and I realized I had to go to the other side. I’m confusing my right and left a lot these days.
And do you think that Slayer has rubbed off on Exodus and Exodus on Slayer, since you joined?
I knew Kerry well before I started playing with him. He’s always been a big fan of what Exodus has been doing, and he had always considered Exodus an inspiration, and vice versa for me so. If anything, it motivates us and drives us to bring it as hard as we can live.
What’s the difference between touring with these bands?
With Exodus, we do a lot more shows. I came from a world where we bust out 17 shows in a row. All the while, I had a broken rib. Here there are a lot more days off, and it’s a lot more relaxed. Exodus is a lot louder, because those guys like to party. These guys like to party, too, but it is a lot more mellow and laid back. People would think that we're slaughtering goats on the tour bus, but a Slayer bus is a very relaxed and quiet atmosphere. The Exodus bus is loud, with lots of laughter and mayhem.
I imagine no pizzas are stapled to the ceiling now.
I learned many, many years ago that you have to pay for what you do. I clean my room up before we check out now. I don’t wanna be viewed as a slob. I don’t make the bed, but my garbage does go in cans.
A lot of folks simply think Slayer should break up, that the core has been broken, no matter how good or familiar you are with the material. When do you think Slayer—or Exodus, for that matter—should quit?
I’ll hang it up when I feel I can’t do it at the level where I need to. I don’t want to fade away. I would rather burn out quickly. But Slayer and Exodus have shit tons of fire, and we bring it as hard as any band half our age. As long as we can keep doing that, then we keep going.
Once again, it goes back to the Internet, and it goes back to my youth. I never looked at my heroes like they should hang it up. In this day and age, people would never wanna hear Deep Purple’s Perfect Strangers
, a fucking monumental comeback album, because all they would talk about is how Purple should hang it up. They would have screamed for AC/DC to hang it up after Bon’s passing.
I never wanted to see my heroes disappear, even when they started making music that I didn’t like. When Ted Nugent had like twenty-five guitar players and a bass player in pink leg warmers, I didn’t like it, but I still went and saw it live. He lost it a bit, but I’ve seen too many great shows to wish them to go away. I wish his politics would go away half the time, but that’s a whole separate story. I’m totally able separate the two.