In the early '80s, Slayer and Anthrax took elements of punk rock and heavy metal to form thrash metal, a new genre. Along with Megadeth and Metallica, the bands became known as the Big Four. Thirty-five years on, Slayer and Anthrax, who kick off a fall tour on Sept. 9 at Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, are still going strong.
Despite the tragic loss of founding guitarist Jeff Hanneman, Slayer has soldiered on with guitarist Gary Holt, who adds some vicious guitar work to the band’s latest album, Repentless
And despite various lineup changes, Anthrax continues to tour and record. The band recently released a new studio album, For All Kings
. In separate phone interviews, Slayer guitarist Kerry King and Anthrax guitarist Scott Ian provided some perspective on just how the once-underground bands have managed to persevere.
Talk about how this tour came together?
We did Europe last fall with Anthrax. We’ve known them forever, but we didn’t start playing with them a lot until the Big Four time. We haven’t done a stage with them as direct support in a while. Six years ago, it was Slayer, Megadeth and Anthrax on one of the legs we did, but this time it's direct support, so it’s a slightly different scenario.
We’ve done quite a bit of touring together in the last six years. In 2010, we did a big U.S. run in the fall. We’ve played countless festivals together in Europe. We did a full run in Europe. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve played about 150 to 200 shows with Slayer in the last few years. We’ve all learned that we enjoy touring together on a lot of levels. We’re friends, and it makes it really easy to be on our together. You can expect to show up a venue and see people that you like. You enjoy their company, which makes being on the road that much easier. I think the team-up is great for the audience. We’re two bands that people have heard of for a long time. If you’re into metal, there’s not a better show out there than Anthrax and Slayer back-to-back. We compliment each other really well. It’s just a great experience from a fan point of view.
Both bands first formed 35 years ago. How much did you know about the other guys in the beginning?
: I didn’t know much about them because they were from the other coast. Obviously, we knew about Metallica because they were originally from Southern California before they moved to the Bay Area, and Megadeth came out of that. But I couldn’t tell you when I first heard of Anthrax. Back then, there wasn’t the internet, so getting information wasn’t as easy. Back then, you had to search and find mom and pop stores with European magazines because the American press wasn’t covering any of this yet. I’m sure Scott [Ian] has better memories of our first encounter because he didn’t drink for the better part of his life like I did.
I heard the first Slayer record when it first came out. I didn’t meet them until 1985. They were in New York around the time of [the 1985 Slayer album] Hell Awaits
. We all happened to be at a Mercyful Fate show. That’s the first time I remember meeting them and having drinks together. For every one beer I had, those guys were having six to seven. There was an imbalance and that might have something to do with the fact I remember a lot from back in those days that Kerry doesn’t.
What do you remember about your first-ever show?
Back then, it was a big time glam and hair metal scene. We didn’t want to be any part of that. That drove us to be as extreme as we were. We liked extreme music anyway. Having that as fuel for our fire just made us angrier. Our first show was a battle of the bands. We sucked. I was 17 and had been in a band with [Slayer singer-bassist] Tom [Araya] prior to that. We had even played the same battle of the bands a year before that. It was fun. I’m sure we had a couple of things we nailed and a couple of things we failed.
Our first-ever show was in a church basement in Flushing, Queens. We didn’t necessarily rent it out. Someone knew somebody who ran this actual church, and they let us use this room to play. We did a lot of cover songs of Priest and Maiden. We were playing obscure Priest and Maiden, and they weren’t super popular yet. We sold tickets for three dollars to anyone we could, mostly our friends who felt guilty probably. We borrowed a PA from somebody. Other than thinking it was rad to be on stage, I don’t know what it sounded like. It was probably terrible, but it was fun. I remember it being a great experience to stand on a stage even though it was only in front of about 25 people.
What drove you to go against the grain?
There was so much rock ’n’ roll party music, but me and Jeff [Hanneman] weren’t into that. Jeff was getting into punk. We just blended Motorhead and Venom with hardcore punk, and that’s basically what Slayer came from.
We were just playing the music we liked. We were playing music that made us bang our heads. We were having fun, and that’s what it came down to.
Talk about how difficult it was to scrape together the money to record your very first album.
The only one who had a job was Tom. I was just getting out of high school. I didn’t have a job. Jeff didn’t have a job. We got a little bit of money from Metal Blade Records. We got a little bit of money from my family and from Tom’s family.
It definitely seemed like an impossible task. In 1981, nobody knew how to climb that hill, but we were going to do our best. I just wanted to do something band-related every day. I started college in the fall of 1981, but I would walk around campus with my headphones on listening to Iron Maiden and Run DMC. I wasn’t very focused. I would get out of school at noon and work as a messenger in the city, and I spent most of that time on 48th Street, which is where all the guitar shops were at that time. There was a whole block with music stores. I was friends with those guys and would check out new equipment and constantly try to push the name of the band. I would work and save money, so we could do more demos. We would write new songs and immediately go into the studio and demo them and hand tapes out to people. It seemed like an insurmountable hill but we kept moving forward until we met [producer] Jonny Z in 1982, and then we felt like we had a goal in mind. He was starting a record label and promoting shows. We knew we needed to be involved with him. He could make the things happen, but little did we know that he was flying by the seats of his pants just like we were. At least he had some money to invest into it to make it happen.
And what was the tour behind your first album like?
We went out in Tom’s Camaro and a U-Haul. A 19-year-old in 1983 compared to a 19 year old today was far more sheltered and far less savvy. It was an adventure. I think we took turns driving the Camaro. For our second or third tour, we graduated to a passenger van. Everyone drove that too. We didn’t get a tour bus until our third record. We’re not like the bands today that have the entitlement of tour buses immediately. We went the old school route and earned it. There’s far more history in tour buses now, so a much younger and less established band can have one because there are some old beat up sons of bitches out there. I hate to see the bus we had on the Reign in Blood tour if it still exists. That was 30 years ago. That bus has got to be crying.
We were in a van in the summer of 1984 opening for Raven. We played Cleveland and I’m pretty sure we played the old Agora. If I remember correctly, we stayed at Swingos. I’m pretty sure we stayed there. As shitty as it was, it was amazing to be out of New York and New Jersey. Western New Jersey would have been the furthest we had played outside of New York city. To just be out of our zone and out of the tri-state area opening for a band we loved and doing out thing. Our album had come out and people were starting to catch on. People knew the songs and it was unbelievably exciting.
How the hell did thrash metal become so popular in the ’80s?
I think people’s tastes adjusted. I’m a fan of metal. I always have been. I just base it on how I progressed. There was no way to find it back then. Growing up in L.A., I didn’t know who Judas Priest was. After British Steel
cam e out, they started getting played on the radio because they had more accessible songs. It’s a natural progression. When you find the sound you like, that’s where you end up. People didn’t know what thrash metal was. They were just experimenting with it and maybe seeing a show. There were some college stations that were good to us back then too.
There are so many factors, timing being one of the major ones. It was the right time for these bands. The audiences were really connecting. By 1984 and 1985 and 1986, Priest and Maiden had blown up and become massive arena bands. Even a band like Motorhead was certainly popular. Along came bands like us. We were our audience. We weren’t on some unreachable level. Priest and Maiden were literally gods. Our attitude was that if those bands already exist, we would just do our thing as well as we could. We didn’t dress like those other bands. The fact that we looked our audience and felt like our audience. We loved the bands that came before us. That’s who we were. It just so happened that we had guitars and wrote songs and were playing to people our age. That connection was what was different. As much as I connected with Priest and Maiden, there was an unattainable element, maybe because of the age difference at the time. I was 16 and those guys were in their twenties and were already doing it. It seemed larger than life. People just connected with us and Slayer and Megadeth and Metallica in a way they couldn’t exist with those bands that came before us because they were larger than life. The sound was something more aggressive, and I guess the timing was right for that too. Maybe there was a frustration out there and coming to these shows was different than going to a big arena gig. It was a different energy and that grew and grew. People came to their first thrash show told their friends. It was that kind of word of mouth because there was no other exposure. There was no other exposure. By 1987, we were playing to 8000 instead of 800. It was incredible how organically it exploded.
Talk about the approach on the new album. Did you set out to do anything differently?
Basically, just having something that sounded relevant and songs that sounded different to each other. With one dude writing 90 percent of it, it’s easy for the songs to all sound the same. I wanted to avoid that, thought I wanted it to still sound like Slayer. I wanted to come together as a good album. Recording with Gary, it wasn’t a lot different. He contributed some leads so when we would play live, he could contribute something. Slayer has always been a two-guitar band so that’s always in my mind. As far as writing the music goes, maybe I overthought it, but I thought Slayer fans might not be ready for a new Slayer writer. We used one of Jeff’s leftover songs. I think the lyrics are pretty typical. I always try to keep it really street. If we do demonic songs, of course, that’s just fictional thoughts I made up in my head. The political ones like “Take Control,” I write in such a generic form that anyone can get something out of it. I’m not just bitching about my government. Everybody wants to take control because the government sucks. Look at our scenario. People are thinking about voting for Donald Trump. What kind of farce is that? The two parties are so polarizing but they provide ammo for songs until the end of time.
Nope. We work the same way. We get in a room and start writing songs that make us want to bang our heads. Nothing’s changed. The lineup changes don’t matter. We just always move the band forward.
The band’s gotten some of the best reviews of its career. How has it been able to sustain such a high level of recording and touring?
I’m proud that people came out and supported this record the way they did. It was world-wide No. 2, which is unheard of for a band like us, and it’s unheard of for a band with a deceased guitar player and a carousel for drummers. The fans supported it, and we made a record they wanted us. The planets have aligned. That’s on us. I just feel that if I’m not doing my job, and I don’t bring it, don’t pay me.
We’ve stayed poor and drunk while everyone else has gotten rich and sober. There’s actually some truth to that.
Slayer, Anthrax, Death Angel, 7:10 p.m. Friday, Sept. 9, Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica, 2014 Sycamore St., 216-622-6557. Tickets: $29.50-$49.50, livenation.com.