Gary Holt, The Guitarist For Legendary Thrash Metal Band Slayer, Explains The Genre to a Novice

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Last month, I went to see Metallica perform at AT&T Park the day before the Super Bowl. It was the first metal show I’d ever attended — and it was terrible.

The music was loud and clamorous, the vocals were sinister and throaty-in-an-evil-way, and the overall experience was much darker and ominous than I’d expected. I spent three hours with my mouth agape in horror, resisting an urge to cover my ears.

But as I looked around the audience, I saw 40,000 people were vibing to the music. Cacophonous, raucous, and scary though it was, these people — normal-looking, not-dressed-in-black people — were digging it. Like, really digging it. The guy next to me stood up for the entirety of the show, and the guys in front of me couldn’t contain themselves from throwing up devil horn hand symbols every few minutes. It was clear something was afoot. But what?

I needed help. I would never be converted, but I needed to understand why people listen to metal. And who better to explain metal than Slayer, another legendary metal band of the 1980s?

From a hotel room in Wisconsin, Slayer guitarist Gary Holt took the time to explain the genre to me and provide some insight into why people are drawn to it. I still don’t get metal, but I at least now sort of understand the genre from a metal lover’s standpoint.

What is the appeal of metal? Why are people drawn to it?

That’s a question I hear a lot and it’s not the easiest to answer. One of the common answers is it’s music for misfits. It’s for the skinny long-haired kids in the back of the high school who don’t fit in with the popular crowd. I say that just because that was me in high school — and all my friends. We didn’t fit in anywhere else. Also, at my age, it’s just an extension of classic hard rock, just in a more extreme, faster territory (which eventually can get as extreme as a power drill to your temple). But, you know, it’s aggressions, it’s energy. It’s all about release.

Metal strikes me as kind of cacophonous and not really melodic. Is that just my ear not being used to the sound of metal?

That’s your ear not being used to it. The middle section of “Master of Puppets” is as epic a piece as has ever been written. They have tons and tons of clean, beautiful parts in the song, you were just focusing on the loud and bombastic. You’re kind of new to it, I guess. Your ears were focusing on the heavy and not the subtle.

What’s up with “scary devil” style of singing that metal singers, like Slayer’s Tom Araya and Metallica’s James Hetfield, do?

[Laughter. Evil, demonic laughter]. I’m not laughing at you. It’s rare that I ever speak to someone who’s so new to this. You’re the first person I’ve heard refer to him as “devilish” in many years. Slayer certainly is all about ringing the death knell, I guess you’d say. We’re not as big on subtlety.

Slayer covers a lot of violent, dark topics, like murder, necrophilia, Satanism, Nazism, and terrorism. What’s the motive for covering them?

People in bands such as Slayer and my other band Exodus get asked that all the time. But it’s like no one really questions when you see these same topics in movies and are bombarded by them on a day to day basis on the news. Maybe it’s because they feel music glorifies and everyone else reports. But I think in our own musical way that’s all any of us are doing as well: just reporting. And obviously there’s flights of fantasy mixed in with all the stuff. But it’s music. If you took the Slayer classic “Angel of Death” and removed the lyrics and changed it to “angel of life,” it just wouldn’t work. It wouldn’t have quite the same impact. Like our songs about Josef Mengele. If you made it about Mother Teresa, it wouldn’t quite work.

It seems like scariness is cool in the metal scene.

Absolutely. Some people like going to see a good horror movie and watching people get butchered. And some people love their music to be dark, too. Basically, some people want to see Taylor Swift and some people want to go to see Slayer.

Slayer’s albums have been banned or delayed in many countries. Does that ever deter the band from focusing on the material that it does or is that seen as like, ‘Good, we’re doing something right?'”

I would always view it as we’re doing something right. In this day and age, it’s like nobody’s banning anything. You can get away with anything. Hell, you can go onto YouTube and see far more offensive things. You watchTosh.0 and see more offensive things than you would at a Slayer show.

Do you remember when Elyse Pahler was murdered by three Slayer fans in 1996? What do you say when people ask if the music inspires people to do evil things?

I say that the countless scores upon scores since the dawn of civilization that have been killed in the name of Christianity far outweigh the one murder you mention by some obviously very unstable people. It kind of gets glossed over if someone slaughters 20 people in the name of Allah or Jesus Christ. But if someone kills an innocent random person, then … We make a perfect scapegoat.

You guys have also been accused of white supremacy and Nazism. Do you feel as if that’s valid? Or is that just the natural result of covering those topics?

I think that’s one of the most ridiculous things when people say that. [Late Slayer guitarist] Jeff [Hanneman] was a big World War II historian and Jeff wrote all those songs. I’m old enough to remember when the History Channel showed nothing but shows on history and then it was basically Adolf Hitler all day long. But if someone writes a song about it, it’s like all of a sudden, whoever wrote it is obviously a Nazi sympathizer, which is so untrue. It’s a history lesson. You’re covering dark subject matter and you’re looking for something that you find twisted enough to go with the riffs you’re writing for the song. You know, you can make a movie about it and it’ll win an Oscar, but a band writes it and all the sudden they’re Nazi sympathizers. I always found that to be completely ridiculous.

Maybe Slayer is an easier target because it’s so often embroiled in controversy.

Yeah, absolutely. In heavy metal, we’re all easy targets. But I think a lot of people are kind of shocked to find out that there are a lot of bands that actually possess a high level of intelligence. They think we’re all just idiots and easy targets, but there’s quite a large number of us that are well-equipped to defend ourselves in the debate on these things.