Tom Hunting of Exodus on how building a song is like building the best sandwich possible

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Exodus was founded in 1980 by a group of high school friends that included a pre-Metallica Kirk Hammett and Tom Hunting, the sole remaining original member of the act. The classic line-up also featured Paul Baloff on vocals and Gary Holt, who moved over to guitar when Kirk joined Metallica, just prior to the when the group recorded its debut album in 1985. Bonded By Blood is a landmark thrash record and was the first of many excellent subsequent offerings from Exodus.

See also: - Metal Alliance tour with Exodus, Anthrax and more at Summit Music Hall, 4/2/13 - Scott Ian of Anthrax on Worship Music, comic books and Doctor Who - The ten best metal shows in Denver this month

Like many of their peers, the guys in this band got into both hardcore punk and the New Wave of British Heavy Metal around the same time in the early '80s and produced thrash, a synthesis of the two that became and remains influential to this day. Thrash's Big Four -- Metallica, Anthrax, Megadeth and Slayer -- are rightfully credited as having the biggest impact on the genre, but it has often been said that should that Big Four could be expanded to the Big Five or Big Six, with the addition of Testament and Exodus.

After multiple line-up changes over a career spanning more than three decades, Exodus still puts out relevant metal, especially now that that form of music has experienced a bit of a renaissance. We recently spoke with the articulate and affable Tom Hunting about the early days of the band, Paul Baloff, Bonded By Blood and how writing a song is like making the best sandwich you could build.

Westword: You formed the band when you were fourteen or fifteen years old. How did you get into playing with guys that were a bit older than you?

Tom Hunting: I was just a big fan of music, and back then, there was all this hard rock like AC/DC. Prior to that that, I was into funk music. Going to school back then, music was heavily in the schools. It would suck nowadays for kids because art is being strangled everyday unless you're in a private school. But back then, it was virtually wide open. You could learn any instrument you wanted. If you wanted tuba, there were three different classes.

First I played guitar, and I always wanted to play drums and finally bought my own drum set. I met people through high school and jamming in my bedroom listening to "My Sharona" and shit like that. Then my brother brought home Pink Floyd's Animals, and that changed everything. So I just looked for people to jam with in high school and met up with Kirk Hammett. Gary Holt wasn't even playing guitar back then. He was actually Kirk's guitar roadie at first; then he picked it up and in six months he was just shredding. He was kind of a natural.

Why about Animals changed things for you?

I think it was just one of the "Pigs" songs that really struck me. That was a special time for music, period. It was the late '70s, and I stood in line to buy Back in Black. You know, to buy an album, that was when you actually had to work and go out and seek the music. I think in today's world it's instant gratification: point, click, if you like it, you like it, but you're still on to the next thing.

Back then, we would study the inner sleeve and read all the liner notes and look at the back of Stevie Nicks on Rumours for hours and hours as a young teen. It was a good time to grow up in, musically. Not just Pink Floyd. Everything was new and fresh. It was a special time, and the thing that made it special is that it'll never happen again. It's just going to get more and more digitized. I don't know. People who are fans of music, even older music, will never know that time.

There was an interview you did in which you had sung for Exodus at one point before Paul came in. Did you start out as the drummer?

I was the drummer. The earliest formation of Exodus was out of the East Bay. Our first singer ever was a guy named Keith Stewart, and we would trade off on vocals because he didn't really have a high voice. Back then we were playing cover tunes, and we were playing backyard parties and kegger parties. A good friend of ours, Merle, bought Iron Maiden's first album, which, by the way, R.I.P. Clive Burr. He bought it just for the cover.

Before we even put it on the turntable, we were like, "Ah...look at the cover." Nothing like that had ever been put out there. That inspired curiosity. Def Leppard's first album came out and there was this barrage of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal. They were playing in college radio stations here, KUSF, and we would stay up until two in the morning just to hear what's next.

I was the original singer, I guess, one of them. We had a guy named Dave Vanderhoof for a couple of weeks, and he was kind of a Van Halen clone, so we kicked him out. I was just the singer because I was the guy in the band that could also sing. But we always wanted to get a front man. Then we met Paul. Kirk introduced me to Paul at, I think, at a Hari Kari concert in Berkeley, circa 1982 or something.

I'm not really a good metal singer. But back then, we were playing backyard parties, and we were playing Iron Maiden covers, and people thought they were originals because nobody had heard Iron Maiden yet and nobody had heard "Get Your Rocks Off" by Def Leppard. We're playing these songs at backyard parties just because we loved them. [UFO's] "Rock Bottom" was in the set. We were writing pretty cheesy originals back then, too. It wasn't until we were exposed to this heavier music that it took a turn.

Continue reading for more from Hunting.

How did you meet Kirk?

I was going to this high school in the ghetto in Richmond, and I transferred to De Anza High School, which is in a little suburb, El Sobrante in the Bay Area. I met Kirk, and he was really like-minded in terms of what he liked as music. He was a really good guitar player. It was such a simple time, and we connected more as friends first than musicians. We started setting up at Keith Stewart's house, and he lived literally a block away from high school, so we didn't get much school work done. We were mostly one hundred percent bent on learning music.

What was it about his way of playing that you appreciated at that time?

I just think we were just like-minded. We were all super young and super green. He was a couple of years younger than me. But we liked the same stuff, and we liked what we were hearing on KUSF Rampage Radio late at night. We both loved UFO. It was a formative for both of us learning our instruments, too. So I think that was a special connection as well.

You mentioned playing backyard parties. What kinds of shows did you play early on outside of that kind of environment?

In those days, we kind of lucked out. I come from a single mother [household], and she worked all day. So we would literally set up in the living room and have huge jams all day long and tear it down before 5:30 when my mom would come home. Or we would take it to Kurt's house. His house was about ten miles from my house, and we would set it up over there. We had really patient parents.

We actually would host our own parties and get someone that was 21 to rent a hall and get them to buy twelve kegs of beer -- you know, typical backyard party days. Kind of like Fast Times At Ridgemont High but on a smaller scale.

Where did you play early that was more like a club?

I would have to say we played the Mabuhay Gardens in San Francisco in the early days with Kirk. We played the Stone a couple of times. We played several gigs with Metallica -- which were, kind of, I guess, his earliest auditions for them. We played the old Waldorf. They had a thing called Metal Mondays, and Metallica played a lot of those, and then they moved up here. Before that, Gary was in the band when we were doing those early club gigs, and Metallica came calling, so Kirk had to go. I fully understand; that was a pretty good career move on his part. It turned out all right.

That time period, 1981-1983-ish, in the Bay Area seems like a fairly interesting time for music, generally. What made that, from your experience, an especially fruitful time?

Oh, it was great. Back then, none of these bands were signed, including ourselves. This was even pre-Metallica being signed. All of the music was being circulated through tape-trading. That's how our type of music got spawned. There was lots of college radio going on, and they were playing lots of punk rock: Suicidal Tendencies, D.R.I., Verbal Abuse and some of the Bay Area bands too.

We were heavily influenced by the punk also, and Discharge was one of our all-time favorites -- GBH, Exploited. We were just kids, and we would just sit and soak it all up, even reggae. We were super young, and we were just sponges. Punk has heavily influenced this band. A lot of my drum beats are ripped straight out of Discharge songs, you know? With a little bit of Keith Moon influence.

Did you play shows with bands like Dead Kennedys or Tragic Mulatto?

We never played with the Dead Kennedys. We did do some early shows with Suicidal Tendencies. They were blowing up college radio up here and in L.A. as well. Metal Church would come down from Seattle, and we played shows with them. Then we concentrated on recording. [Then] 1984, 1985 came around, and we got signed to a small mom and pop record label.

Paul Baloff is one of the great characters of heavy metal and rock music, generally. What are a few of your favorite stories about Paul?

One funny story is when we re-formed the band in 1997, we didn't know where to find him. We had heard that he was hanging out in Santa Cruz building sand castles for tourists and stuff. We heard a lot of stories. I can't confirm if that's true or whatever. But apparently he was living in one of those tiny, little, Airstream, egg-type trailers. He basically sold his trailer to two different people, and as one guy was driving away with the trailer, another guy was pulling up to pick it up. I guess, as he would do so many times, would slip out and head to the Bay Area and re-join Exodus.

When we met him, he was super energetic, and he loved heavy metal. He wasn't the greatest singer in the world. But as far as thrash music, man, he dug it way more than any of us even did at that point. He was a character. He kind of took care of us in the early days because he was older than us. He loaned me seven hundred bucks to buy my first drum set ever -- my first real drum set.

Prior to that, I'd only had pieces of shit. I got screwed. I went into [this music store] in San Francisco and saw an old Rogers Drums kit, and I immediate equated Rogers Drums with Thin Lizzy because their drummer played them. I probably could have got it for three hundred bucks, but I walked in a young lad and said, "I've got seven hundred bucks and I want to buy that drum set." And the guy said, "Okay."

Paul loaned me the money to buy that, and I believe he loaned Gary the money to buy his first Marshall half stack ever. We paid him back eventually. We all worked jobs in the summer. He had just received an inheritance, I guess, so he kind of looked at it like money in the bank. Even though we weren't the most reliable, we did eventually pay him back.

Paul was a good man. He wasn't too kind to his body, and in the end, it cost him. We learned a lot through our experiences with him. It was an education, and we miss him terribly. We didn't recognize all the physical things that were going wrong with him at time he passed away, but we knew something was going on. In hindsight, we all recognize those things happening in people.

As a singer, what did you enjoy about him?

He had good stage presence, and he got the crowd going. His unconditional love for thrash music and heavy music kind of just poured out of him and the crowd loved that about him. When [Steve "Zetro" Souza] came along, Zet just wanted to be a frontman and a star type of singer. Compared to Paul, in a metal environment, Paul just had that something on stage that you'd want in a metal singer. Even though he would hit wrong notes and be off time. Our band has never required anybody that could totally sing, you know?

Continue reading for more from Hunting.

Your first full-length album, Bonded By Blood, is not just a great first album but a benchmark for the development of thrash. That was recorded by Mark Whitaker. Was he still in college at the time?

Well, no. He was working with Metallica, also. He was their part-time manager and the full-time manager of Exodus back then. When we got our recording budget, we picked a studio in northern California in Cotati. It was very grassroots. We went up there and kind of camped out at the studio. They had places for us to sleep. Most of the album was written.

It was a different time compared to recording nowadays. There were no click tracks; there was no AutoTune -- not that we use it. It wasn't a digital recording. Whitaker was our producer for our first album, and he helped us with everything. We were so young, and he helped us with transportation, and he helped me to tune the drums because I didn't know what the fuck I was doing, really. I knew mechanically what they did, but I didn't know sonically how to make them sound good under a microphone.

Why did you re-record the songs for 2008 Let There Be Blood release?

At the time, it was an idea proposed by our manager. The band had gone through so many line-up changes throughout the years. Even myself -- I've been in and out of this band three times. We just kind of wanted to represent what the songs sound like now with the current line-up. It wasn't to replace the original -- you can't do that. We got positive and negative reactions from doing it. It's more of a companion record to go with the first one: this is what the band sounds like now if you come see the band.

How would you say it differs that reflects what the band is like now?

I think the slower stuff is a little slower, and the faster stuff is a little faster. I think it's an updated version with more modern recording techniques and crunchier guitar tones, and more experienced musicians, even the ones that played on the original. But I think our current catalog stacks up real well against our old. We still have the sound. When you put on Exhibit B versus Bonded By Blood, you can tell it's the same band.

Do you feel you've stayed directly connected with fans over the years?

Yeah, we're very approachable. We engage people that are still into it. I feel we connect. As long as we make relevant music, and they like it.

Why was that important to you?

Because we're not like rock stars. We're still hungry musicians, kind of. We never reached the upper echelons, made the big money. But we're happy to be doing what we're doing, and we humble ourselves to that. I think we have to. Engaging fans is part of the process. They want to talk to us and they're the reason we're still doing this.

What helped make the 1996 reunion of Exodus a viable thing?

We parted ways with Paul in 1986, and we wanted to reform with the original line-up. We even approached Rob McKillop, even though Gary and I were already playing with Jack [Gibson]. We wanted to see if he wanted to re-join and do it. Jack is technically a better bass player than Rob, but we wanted to keep it as original as possible. We felt the timing was right and metal was on a slight come-back at that point. I think we probably just missed each other so we put the band back together. Later on, we kind of all got involved with drugs. We never really split up; we just kind of went off and did things. Bad things.

How did you end up in Angel Witch, and when was that?

That was circa 1990. I'd split from Exodus in 1989 because I felt like I was having health problems, and I was kind of a mess. The band replaced me with John Tempesta, awesome drummer, a good friend also. Angel Witch, looking back years prior to that, was a big influence on our band, too. I had always loved [Kevin Heybourne's] writing and Kevin's playing, the way he sings.

It was a treat to jam with that guy for a while. We tried to form a Bay Area version of Angel Witch, and then Kevin got departed, and that put an end to that. We did a four-song demo, which I think got released on some kind of Angel Witch compilation. I did get to record with him at least on those four songs. I don't know how he's doing today. I hear various stories.

In 2011, you toured, opening for Rob Zombie. How did his audiences react to you?

That was a great bill. We fit in perfectly on that thing. It was Exodus, Slayer and Rob Zombie. And Rob's a metal fan. So they were at the side of the stage during a lot of our shows watching. Super cool dude. Super humble. He's just really good people and his whole band, Ginger Fish just re-joined them on drums, and John 5 was playing guitar. It was a pretty good line-up. The shows were amazing. We were playing huge places and selling out Canadian hockey stadiums. Zombie's show was awesome! We were in the crowd watching it every night, watching the fireworks and robots running around. We had a really good time, and Rob treated us awesome.

Metal has made a big comeback in the past decade, especially thrash in some ways. What do you like about how things are now and what do you miss a little bit?

I miss the album sales. People download it for free now. Bands like us, Death Angel and Testament, we have to play live. But it's okay because as long as people come out and support the music live, which they do; attendance is up, merch sales are up. The only thing I can equate that to is maybe people aren't buying the records, so they come out and support the music live. But this music is best delivered live anyhow.

We're not a slave to touring, but it's how bands like ours make money and are still able to sustain ourselves doing this. So, from that standpoint, it's a positive because I get to travel all over the world. As we get older, and I look at it realistically, I have this thing where I realize that we're a lot closer to there than we are to here, and there is the stopping point. Because, let's face it, this is going to stop at some point. So I'm going to squeeze all the adventure I can out of it between now and then and make some good music and really awesome connections along the way.

Is there anything you find these days that surprises you?

What surprises me is when you see young people in the audience who aren't forty-something and they're singing every word. Even people who speak very broken English or don't even speak English -- they still know what you're saying in the music. That surprises me, to see people that are young digging this type of music. Kids also, if they like something that's current and they're a fan of say Slipknot or Lamb of God, maybe they want to see what spawned all of that. Maybe they want to do some research. From that standpoint the Internet is a good thing because it provides exposure you normally wouldn't have.

There is talk of a new album coming out this year. How would you say you've challenged yourself as a musician to keep things interesting for you?

For me, personally, I think it's because I've stepped away from it a couple of times. Coming back, it was fresh and awesome again. I think it's nothing that was planned, any musical evolution and how our band sounds or whatever. But I like the process. I like the process of hearing a riff for the first time and putting a drum beat to it. Building a song from that form all the way to its recorded version. That's inspiring to me because I love the process of building the music and seeing it all get arranged. Forming a song is fun. It's like building a sandwich, like building the best sandwich you could possibly build.

Exodus, with Anthrax, High On Fire, Municipal Waste and Holy Grail, 6 p.m. Tuesday, April 2, Summit Music Hall, 1902 Blake Street, $29.99-$35-, 866-468-7621, All Ages

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