Sporting a goatee that hangs from his face like a small shrub and wearing camouflaged cargo shorts and a black Bounty Killer T-shirt inscribed with the numerals "666," Slayer guitarist Kerry King could pass as an escaped convict -- only his cell phone gives him away. In town to visit some friends and donate a guitar to the Hard Rock Café, King has the piercing eyes and pit-bull demeanor you'd expect from a guy who plays speed metal with his amps cranked to 11. While sitting at a table in the Tower City food court, King, who's the most vocal member of the group when it comes to discussing (and disrespecting) his metal peers, is already talking up the band's next album (due out in February) and a Slayer boxed set (due out in 2001) -- it's an attempt at promotion that smacks of desperation, undoubtedly fueled by the fact that Slayer was at the point of stasis for most of the '90s.
"We pretty much began our little niche, and when you begin it, you're the one who gets to last," King says when asked why Slayer hasn't changed since its inception nearly 20 years ago. "You don't have to change for the times, because people like you how you are. I think we add a couple of new type vibes to every record. We try to be Slayer, but we try to be fresh Slayer. We have the obvious fast stuff, but we got some cool slow stuff on this new record, too."
On its last studio effort, 1998's Diabolus in Musica, Slayer slightly shifted its speed-metal formula with groove-oriented songs such as "Stain of Mind" and "Death's Head." It wasn't enough to give it credibility with the rap-metal crowd, but it did suggest that the band, which once collaborated with rapper Ice T on a track for the Judgment Night soundtrack and had a guitar riff sampled by the militant hip-hop group Public Enemy, might finally be down with new metal acts such as Korn and the Deftones. King bristles at the suggestion that Slayer is trying to adapt to changing times.
"I think it was one of the Korn guys who said that we were trying to take lessons from them," King says. "Why don't we talk about who took lessons from Slayer in the first place? I didn't see ['Stain of Mind'] as an attempt at rap -- I just saw it as an attempt to give it some rhythm. We appeal to a handful of the new metal fans -- obviously not all of them, or we'd be platinum, too. I think people have been scared of us since day one. They think that Slayer is the devil. I think that still happens. I don't think people don't buy our records because they suck. I think they're just scared of us, and that has been passed down through the years. But you listen to music nowadays, and it's 'fuck this, fuck that.'"
On its first records, Slayer unabashedly made references to ultraviolence and satanic rituals. With 1986's Reign in Blood, 28 minutes of pummeling speed metal produced by Rick Rubin (Beastie Boys, Black Crowes), Slayer set the template for thrash bands to come. ("That's what everything is judged by today," King says of the album.) Filled with references to war (guitarist Jeff Hanneman collects Nazi memorabilia) and serial killers (singer Tom Araya's obsession), Slayer's lyrics represented every parent's worst nightmare. When King, who says lyrics "don't matter" anyway, writes, he generally takes aim at God -- something that doesn't sit well with Araya, who, ironically enough, is Catholic.
"I like to poke fun of religion," he says. "Sometimes [Araya] has a problem with what I say. He won't tell me; he'll tell Jeff [Hanneman]. I'm like 'Tell me. I don't give a fuck. I'm not offended by anybody's words.' I remember he told Jeff he didn't want to sing 'In the Name of God,' and Jeff said, 'Why not? We already had a song about the Antichrist, and you sang that.' He was like 'But Kerry means it.' Even if I did, what difference does it make?"
Controversies aside, to this day, Slayer hasn't had an album that's had the same impact as Reign in Blood, and to make matters worse, it's had to watch contemporaries such as Metallica and Pantera become more and more popular -- not that King shies from taking a shot at his peers now and then.
"I got a big mouth, and I say what's on my mind," King says. "I said [Metallica's] Kirk Hammett was the most overrated guitar player on the planet. The last thing I remember about seeing Metallica was that they had two drum sets, and Lars [Ulrich] did a solo and James [Hetfield] did a solo, and James kicked his ass. So I said something about that, too, and Kirk hit me up at some after-party later on, and I was like 'You know what? I didn't say you suck. I just said you were overrated. Have a pill, buddy.'"
King doesn't scare easily, though. In his spare time, he breeds snakes and dogs. It's a hobby he says he's had to put aside to focus on his career -- at least what's left of it.
"I realize that I've entered the second half of my career, and I don't want to waste it fucking around with snakes," he says, adding that he sold most of the 400 snakes he once owned. "I've got another five records to put out, and I don't want to be sidetracked. I have a handful of rare boas, and most of the rest are gopher snakes I work with. I thought about selling the rest of them -- I have this one breeding project that I created, and I offered it to a friend of mine. I don't have time to do it. There's no money in this. I got a rare breed of dogs that hardly anyone else is breeding in the States, and I got 13 of them I can't sell."
Sounds like selling rare breeds is a lot like pushing Slayer records these days.