Exodus' Gary Holt on Writing New Songs and "Going for the Throat"

Categories: Interview

Shannon Coor
Exodus headlines Slim's this Friday, Dec. 20.
Pioneering East Bay thrash-metal outfit Exodus could have imploded when Metallica nicked founding guitarist Kirk Hammett to replace drunken troublemaker Dave Mustaine in 1983. Instead, the quintet, led by principal songwriter and guitarist Gary Holt, has spent the better part of three decades cementing a deserved place in metal history with its neck-snapping lessons of violence.

From the mosh-pit anthems "And Then There Were None" and "Strike of the Beast" on the band's classic 1985 debut Bonded By Blood with original vocalist Paul Baloff through the commercial peak of Fabulous Disaster in 1989 with Baloff's replacement Steve "Zetro" Souza, Exodus always set the bar for sonic brutality high. That has been maintained in the more intricate thrash epics produced by the current lineup, which features singer Rob Dukes and former Heathen guitarist Lee Altus. While the busy Holt has split his time since early 2011 filling in onstage for ailing Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman (who sadly passed away in early May), Exodus remains his main passion.

All Shook Down recently spoke with Holt about his jam-packed calendar and plans to record a new Exodus album in February. Exodus plays a rare local headlining show at Slim's this Friday, Dec. 20, with SoCal punk-metal extremists Nails and SF thrash acolytes Hellfire.

I went back and was looking at some of the touring you've been doing in the past couple of years since you started filling in for Jeff Hanneman in Slayer and it's pretty nuts. How hard has it been hard to keep the two bands' schedules from conflicting?

It's not easy [laughs]. We just finished the fall Slayer run and everybody was kind of burned out after that. I had to remind them I've played about 50 more shows this year than they have [laughs]. As I get older, it doesn't get any easier, but I'm doing the best I can to keep both bands working.

Right now, I'm writing for the new Exodus album since I have a substantial break from the Slayer world for a while. I'm just using the time to the best of my ability to make sure that the Exodus record gets done while I have the opportunity to do it.

Do you anticipate additional challenges with both Exodus and Slayer recording in the coming year? Are you already mapping out when you'll be writing and recording with Exodus before you're back working with Slayer?

Well, we're planning on hitting the studio the second week of February with Exodus. I don't know what Slayer's plans are right now as far as a recording schedule. The next year is going to be super busy, but I'm up to the challenge. It may kill me, but I'll make it happen.

With all the touring, you've kind of been training for it the last two years...

Almost three. It'll be three in February.

I think I also saw what may have been the first Slayer show you did locally when you played the Shoreline with Motorhead and Slipknot for the Mayhem Festival in July of last year...

That was my first Bay Area Slayer show, certainly.

It was awesome when you kicked into "Strike of the Beast." It was unexpected for me and a lot of the people I saw losing their minds as you played it...

Yeah, it was cool. And on the fall run, we did it every night, but the first night in Hollywood. It was fun to have Slayer give a little nod to my other band.

It seems like your working with Slayer to fill in for Hanneman has been pretty seamless. Was it strange that your replacing one of the band's founding members was actually less controversial than Dave Lombardo's departure last year?

You know, it's kind of strange. For one thing, there's no replacing Jeff. I started this thing because Jeff was a good old friend of mine. I was just keeping his seat warm and then tragedy struck. I think in terms of reception, I had enough time for people to accept me in my role and people knew I had Jeff's seal of approval.

I think the circumstances with Dave were much different because he's alive and well and he's one of the greatest drummers on the planet. But having Paul back makes perfect sense. He has his own history in Slayer and he's been killing it. And he's a very old friend of mine, so that's great as well.

This latest tour touched on a lot of earlier Slayer material from the first couple of albums that hadn't been played in a while. Were there any particular songs you were excited about playing with the band?

Well, I like playing them all! They're all killer. I went down to rehearse for two days before the tour. I tend to do most of my homework at home, you know? So I was going down on a Tuesday and Kerry hits me up on that Sunday and says 'We're going to do "Necrophiliac."' I'm like, 'I haven't heard that song since 1987!' [laughs] But I sat down and burned it into my head and we played it. Actually, it's one of my favorites to play.

That's one of the more amazing things about what you're doing. Knowing and executing the guitar parts for either of these bands would be daunting for any guitarist. That you've got to compartmentalize your Exodus riffs and your Slayer riffs and unleash the fury with the solo spots ... it's really impressive. I don't think there are a lot of people who could do it at the level that you're doing it.

Thanks! Solo-wise, I just drop in and play as fast as I can. [laughs] I just go out and shred. Half the stuff I do with Slayer is improv. Some nights you just nail it and you're like 'I wish I could remember that tomorrow, but I know I won't!"

There are certain parts of the solos where they're kind of structured and some parts where I just kind of let it fly. But Kerry and Tom give me cart blanche to just let it rip. They've never asked me to play like anyone but myself.

As far as new Exodus material, are you still compiling riffs and ideas yourself, or are you already working with the other members on the material?

Right now I'm compiling songs and ideas and structures. Next Monday, we start rehearsing as a band.

So for the show at Slim's, there definitely won't be any new songs already worked out? It'll just be the old classics and more recent stuff?

Yeah, exactly.

Songs on the Exhibit A and Exhibit B albums tended towards longer, more complex song structures; do you think the new material will be in the same territory or is it too early to tell?

No, on this album, I've kind of gotten the Pink Floyd or Rush of thrash out of my system. Things are tending to be a little shorter, but I never put a limit on the song. The song is done when it says it's done. I'm not going to edit out parts because of time. But it's one of those wait-and-see kind of things to find out what happens and where the songs go and how much we have to say in them.

This line-up of Exodus has been together for the better part of the last decade. Does this version of the group write within a general framework where you come up with the riffs and maybe Rob writes the lyrics when the song is closer to finished form? Or do you bring ideas about lyrics and vocal melodies as well?

Well, I write 90 percent of everything. Rob and Lee will team up on a couple and contribute some. Usually when I start writing a song, I get kind of attached to it. It's kind of my viewpoint, so it rolls from there. But everybody has a say in everything. It's collaborative in that sense.

This might be hard to answer given the early stage of writing you're in, but do you foresee an influence on the new material from having played so extensively with Slayer the last couple of years?

No, because I write differently, but it's all thrash metal. There are influences going both ways. The more I learned Slayer stuff, the more I hear little bits of old Exodus in some of the songs. And I'm sure there are bits of Slayer in some of the stuff we do. But I think that comes from both bands being in a similar wheelhouse; both are super brutal and kind of going for the throat all of the time.

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