For Slayer's singer-bassist Tom Araya, thrash-metal has been a 30-year mission. On Saturday, his band joins Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth in Indio, California, for the Big 4 Fest – invading the site of Coachella while continuing a collaboration that began with several dates last year in Europe.
This weekend is the first joint appearance of these four in the U.S., where the revolutionary, speedy thrash sound was birthed largely as a Southern California collision of British heavy metal and American hardcore. Three decades later, it remains a dominate force in heavy music.
In an exclusive interview, Slayer's Chilean-born frontman talks about the challenge of playing to an epic landscape of moshpits and fans scattered to the horizon and offered an update on the condition of guitarist Jeff Hanneman, sidelined in recent months from a spider-bite and flesh-eating bacteria on his arm.
Araya also explained why most of Slayer didn't join the other bands onstage last year in Sofia, Bulgaria, to perform Diamond Head's “Am I Evil?” and why he would have much preferred the Mustaine/Metallica anthem “The Four Horsemen”:
Do you remember the first time you saw people moshing?
The first time we saw that was in San Francisco. Our album Show No Mercy came out in late '83, and we did three or four shows in San Francisco after the release. That was our first experience with stage-divers, crowd-surfing, people walking on people across an entire crowd. It was fucking awesome. L.A. was a little more tame at the time.
What were the shows like with the Big 4 last year in Europe?
They were huge. It beat all the expectations of the agent who put it together. The very first show we did was in Poland and we had over 80,000 people there. And all the shows after that were huge.
Do you play differently for a gigantic crowd like that?
The only difference between a gig like that where it's open air and there are so many people is you want to make sure you play well. Visually there really isn't much you can do. It will get lost. The majority of people are going to have to wear binoculars. When you're in a club or a theater or even an arena, yeah, you want visuals, you want a good light show. But Slayer has always been about the sound. We have to sound good. It has to be tight.
Do big crowds react any different?
It's the ones up front that get to see everything, and those are the ones that I relate to. Beyond the first 20 or 30 feet, they can't really see you. To fans in a festival setting it's like a picnic. You want to have a good time with your friends in that crowd. And in the background you hear the band play, “Oh, that's my favorite song!” everyone is there to enjoy the afternoon and that's about it.
Had you spent much time with Metallica before these shows started last year?
It's an acquaintance thing. We met them a long, long time ago. Then every now and then you cross paths. I talked to James Hetfield the night before the tour started, at a dinner with all the bands. We talked neck issues. I showed him my scars, he showed me his.
Why is it important to them and to you to do this?
Thirty years is a long time. I think it's the longevity of the bands, and the fact that we're still here and some of the bands are still viable. We're still making records, we're still selling tickets.
You guys started in the same part of the country at first.
When this genre of music started in America, Metallica was up north in California, we were in Southern California, Anthrax was on the East Coast. We each developed our own metal music, and after 30 years we're still playing our metal music.
Thrash turned out to be the one that lasted, unlike the glam-metal then dominating the Sunset Strip.
Everybody stuck their nose up at metal, and they glorified and hugged all these girl bands. Of that whole bunch, the only one that is still around is Motley Crue. They started the whole thing and they've left everybody by the wayside. They are survivors. They're still pulling a crowd in.
We were the sole band in L.A. trying to do metal. But you're in competition with all these pretty girl bands. They didn't want metal bands. We weren't pretty boys. In L.A. is where we had trouble playing, so we ended up playing in Orange County a lot. There was a club called the Woodstock and another one called Radio City, and they were within 100 feet of each other in the same mall parking lot. We ended up doing a show with Metallica at the Woodstock.
Do you remember that early show with Metallica?
Yeah, it was with the original band. It was with Dave Mustaine and Ron McGovney was playing bass. They were awesome. But so were we. It was a really good show.
What's the latest with Jeff Hanneman? Is he going to make it to the show?
From what I'm being told, he wants to do the show, but we don't really know what condition he's in. He's obviously doing well enough to play his guitar, so that says a lot that he's determined to want to play the show. Apparently he's healing well. He has two tender areas on his arm that cause him pain when he plays the guitar, but he's eager to play, he's eager to get back out on the road with us. I know that he's healing well enough to want to play the show. We'll see.
In the meantime, you've been playing with someone else.
Right now we're playing with Pat O'Brien, the guitar player for Cannibal Corpse. Before him we had Gary Holt from Exodus. When Gary Holt was brought up, it made it an easier decision to make. He's a friend, and that to me meant a lot. Then Pat O'Brien came in because Gary had highly recommended him. He said that he could do it and that he was a good guy. Those words mean a lot coming from him. I think Gary is going to come to the show in L.A. and obligated tours that we have, until Jeff feels well enough to come in and play. Gary has committed himself to it.
We'll see how Jeff feels or plays the day of the show. I'm hoping he'll be fine. What he's going through, there's a lot of rehabilitation to his arm. I just want Jeff to get better and stays healthy.
Most of Slayer did not participate when the Big 4 bands joined onstage in Sofia, Bulgaria, to perform “Am I Evil?” Why?
[Slayer drummer] Dave Lombardo jams with other people. I'm not a fan of that. I don't want to go onstage and fuck somebody else's set up. [Laughs] And then the song “Am I Evil” … if they were to say, “Hey, we want to do 'The Four Horsemen,'” I would have been on it. Shit, I'll do that one! That's the song I was hoping to hear. When they said they want to do “Am I Evil,” err… To me it just didn't represent the Four. It didn't represent what we do as bands. We play heavier than that. “The Four Horsemen” would have been more appropriate, because it was very representative of the bands. That's what we're doing: the Four Horsemen are riding.
If James came to you this time and said “Hey, we're going to do 'The Four Horsemen,'” you might have a different answer this time?
I would have a different reaction, oh yeah.
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