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Slay Ride

Christian-irking till its dying breath, Slayer has been the face of thrash music for over twenty years. In 1986, the band -- pioneers of a breakneck, full-throttle sound that combines demented guitar solos, thunderous double-bass drum kicks and toxic bellowing with surgical precision -- released Reign in Blood, a work widely hailed as speed metal's crowning achievement. Co-founded by six-string mutilators Kerry King and Jeff Hanneman in Huntington Beach, California, the legendary outfit features original timekeeper Dave Lombardo (who moonlights in Fantomas) and bombastic frontman/bassist Tom Araya. Relaxing at his ranch near Corsicana, Texas, Araya, 43, spoke to Westword about his band, his voice, prison letters, child rearing, God, world music and exploiting Satan for fun and profit.

Westword: You guys originally called yourselves DragonSlayer and wore makeup. Did you think that was scary at the time?

Tom Araya: C'mon, dude. We were based out of L.A. Everything that was coming out of L.A. was looking like girls, you know. We were putting on makeup to look like girls. But we wanted to put makeup on like men. So people would say 'Look, that's a guy.'

Did Slayer set out to be notorious from the get-go?

Yeah. That was our goal. And to be the fastest and heaviest band out there. That song "Aggressive Perfector" in my opinion is the template or the blueprint for Slayer. It's our first recording ever. We did one song for Metal Blade on Metal Massacre. After that, Brian Slagle wanted an entire album. So we went back to the drawing board and thought ŒWe gotta do everything like this.'

Did critics realize you were wallowing in parody?

No. People thought we were serious! When you come out with an album title like Show No Mercy, and then on the back we put 'side 666'? And Jeff's got his upside-down cross, playing his guitar. Back then you had that PMRC, who literally took everything to heart. When in actuality you're trying to create an image. You're trying to scare people on purpose.

Do you ever think that all the Satanic overkill is redundant and kind of dopey?

No. You know why? You just listen to Show No Mercy or Hell Awaits. And for the time and place, those records are amazing. Nowadays, production-wise, it's so under par. But for what it was at the time, those are amazing records to me. I guess we could go in and redo it. But why ruin it?

Do you have a personal-favorite Slayer album?

Actually, I like them all. They're like a photograph. They capture a moment in time. And they're all good. There was a lot of work in putting those songs together. When I'm in the studio, belting these songs out, I have to sound sincere in the words that I say and sing, you know? It takes a lot to do that.

It must take a lot to sing that way, too -- shredding the hell out of your voice night after night.

I'm not a very disciplined singer or musician. I've somehow learned the technique of how not to blow up my voice. I've only lost it once in the entire time that this band's been together -- knock on wood.

How's your hearing?

It's good. It's not great. Time takes its toll no matter what you do in life.

Given the technical demands of the music, do you guys need to practice playing thrash every day in order to continually be able to play it?

We'll usually get together about a week before we head out, but I think a lot of what we do is just playing the music. That in itself is enough to take you to the next level. We don't sit down. We run. We want to have everybody try to catch up. It's like you're at the starting gate, you know? And the minute that gun fires, you're gone. That's the best way I can describe it. The four of us -- we try to make sure we're all together. 'Cause if one person stumbles, it takes a while to catch up.

Has your set list changed much over the years?

There's a set number of songs that you have to play. The encore is always different -- that's the surprise ending. We're always trying new combinations and different medleys. And our medleys consist of entire songs. There's three lists: Our favorites, the list of the favorites that the fans want to hear and whatever's not on the other two lists. And those are the songs that you choose, in that order.

Speaking of fans, do you still get letters from incarcerated people?

Yeah. They're pretty out there. It's like 'Man, dude, maybe it's a good thing you are in jail.' They're genuine letters. I know that they're kids. It's great that Slayer inspires them to carry on. There's hope. Which is really odd to be saying. People say that listening to Slayer has helped them along in crucial parts of their life. I've gotten letters from Marines and different branches of the military. They're pretty trippy, too. Actual accounts of them in Iraq listening to Slayer while they're doing what they do. I'd like to think that it's the music giving them aggression and strength. It kind of recharges your batteries. It's like some of these athletes that we've met listen to Slayer to get 'em pumped up. Mostly in hockey and football. Hold on a second. [In the background is the sound of kids crying and Araya laughing.] Sorry about that. They're fighting over a necklace.

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John La Briola