April 15, 2007

Illusions of Grandeur

YOU WOULD think the man at the helm of a band halfway through their third decade of aggression would be as consumed by anger as the music he has helped produce, but Slayer frontman Tom Araya is anything but.

The man partly responsible for such genre-defining thrash metal anthems as ‘Angel Of Death’, ‘Seasons In The Abyss’ and ‘War Ensemble’ couldn’t be any more jovial, barely containing his laughter when recalling what makes up a normal day in the life of a master of metal.

“I was at my kid’s elementary school at a book fair!” Araya laughs. “I was selling books to try to make money for the school!

“For me, the family side of things is priority number one now. The band is what I do, and what I helped create, if you know what I mean. But for anything else the family is always first.”

Even though Araya and his cohorts have been at their full-time job for more years than most people in the workplace would even contemplate, as long as the Slayer magic remains there is little chance he’ll be looking for new employment any time soon.

“It’s still the same, I don’t feel any older,” Araya says. “Our audience definitely has changed, though. I guess 25 years ago I wasn’t selling books at my kid’s book fair either, but 25 years ago I wasn’t married!

“I can’t say that the thought [of moving on from Slayer] hasn’t crossed my mind, but everything takes its course, and you have to allow everything to take its course. I don’t know how much longer the course has for us, but everything has to take its turn.”

One turn in the journey that Slayer fans wouldn’t have expected in their wildest dreams is the return of founding drummer Dave Lombardo to the fold. Lombardo was ousted by the band, amid some animosity, in 1992, and was eventually replaced by Paul Bostaph who manned the skins across four albums from 1994’s Divine Intervention through to 2001’s God Hates Us All.

When Bostaph left the band in late 2001 due to a chronic elbow injury, the search for a replacement began in earnest.

“We were going to start a tour,” Araya recounts, “and our manager took it upon himself to call Dave and ask him if he’d be interested in sitting in while we looked for a drummer, and he was up for it. While we were doing the tour he got wind that we were going to start working on an album, and that’s why we wanted to find a drummer, so we could work on some new material.

“He let it be known that he was interested in doing an album, and one thing led to another, if you know what I mean. So then we just stopped looking for a drummer, and started working on new material with Dave.”

The result is last year’s blistering Christ Illusion longplayer, a record that sticks so closely to the brutal Slayer template it could have been recorded in 1985. Lombardo’s drum work has unsurprisingly drawn heavy praise from all quarters, but Araya says it is the riff-writing skills of guitarists Jeff Hanneman and Kerry King that have always driven the Slayer sound.

“The songwriting process that we went through didn’t change a lot, all we did was change drummers, period,” Araya states emphatically. “Dave helped Kerry work on his songs, and Jeff gave Dave a demo of all of his stuff which he learned and improved upon. That’s the way we’ve always done our writing process, with Paul it was exactly the same way.

“With Dave coming back in, things hadn’t changed; he helps Kerry, he works out Jeff’s, then all four of us work out the tunes together musically once Dave’s got it down. If we groove with it and we like it then we keep it  -  and if we don’t, then we trash it.

“We just get together and write songs,” Araya continues. “We don’t take influences from anything, we don’t purposely try to put anything in there. We just try to write really great songs. And we have to like them; if we don’t like them then we don’t record them. And as long as we like them then we put them on an album and we hope that everyone else likes them.”

With such a loaded title and tracks like ‘Skeleton Christ’ and ‘Jihad’ scattered across the album, Araya’s distrust of organised religion is obvious. Ironically, it wasn’t the lyrical concerns that influenced the album’s title but the cover artwork, drawn once again by one-time political cartoonist Larry Carroll (who did the artwork for 1985’s seminal Reign In Blood, Seasons In The Abyss and South Of Heaven).

“Our manager thought it would be great to get him back now that Dave was back, to kind of tie in with the original line-up thing,” Araya explains. “We sent him some lyrics that we had, because we didn’t really have any song titles at that stage, and he sent back that. Or at least something that was close to that, and we asked him what it was supposed to be. It was a guy standing with his hands in his pockets standing in the water, and he said ‘It’s Christ, he’s a heroin addict’.

“And we said ‘Well, you should make him look more drugged-out!’. So he came back with an arm missing, an eye patch, and his eyes rolling back, and these thorns on his head, and he was bleeding and stuff, and we were like ‘This looks cool!’. Then he came back with another one where he was missing his other arm and there were more bodies around him.

“So we looked at it and we decided to call it Christ Illusion. Like, from the song ‘Cult’, where I sing ‘Revelation, Revolution, I see through your Christ illusion’. That’s what I thought when I saw it straight away, and we had a big list of titles but eventually everyone saw things my way!” he laughs.

The art has caused its chare of controversy (32 bus-stop billboards were removed from a small Californian town after one resident complained), but Araya, it seems, couldn’t care less.

“You can’t please some people,” he shrugs. “It’s just going to be that way, and if you raise a stink all it does is cost money. We were just like ‘Well, that’s fucked’, but what are we going to do? We don’t need bus stop signs  -  we’ve got the internet, and we’ve got all our fans.”

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