The world of Slayer is glutted with grisly serial killers, unspeakable war atrocities, blasphemous utterances, and hateful diatribes. During their shows, the band members never smile, delivering their impenetrable thrash-metal classics with equal parts menace and malice. With Slayer, however, as with most metal bands, the show is an artistic representation of the band, an atavistic portrait of the men behind the music.
In person, band members all have biting senses of humor and they’re surprisingly laid back. Even Kerry King, the band’s co-founding guitarist and main spokesman, is soft-spoken and nonviolent. “I’m not a fighter. I’m a guitarist. I like my hands,” King told me before last year’s Mayhem tour. “But because of the way I look, people that don’t know me are intimidated by me. So I don’t have to get into fights.”
Admitting he doesn’t look for fights is about as personal as the hulking King gets. None of the members of Slayer are particularly revealing in interviews. They’ll gladly field softball questions about a new album they’re working on or a tour they’ve played. They’ll shift into autopilot and answer general questions with the same responses they’ve been using for years. But try digging under the surface about something the least bit sensitive and they become vague, disinterested, maybe even insensitive – like sensitivity is what you expect from a group whose biggest hit, “Angel of Death,” is about the horrific experiments of Nazi surgeon Josef Mengele.
Considering the recent shake-ups in the Slayer camp – they’re currently touring Australia with two of their original four members -- predicting the band’s future is as hard as trying to figure the conclusion of the next season of “Breaking Bad.” But there’s some evidence that the road ahead might be harder than the band’s music.
On February 21, original drummer Dave Lombardo posted a message on his Facebook page advising fans that he would not be playing with Slayer in Australia. Anthrax’s fill-in drummer Jon Dette is currently performing double-duty; Dette filled in live for the band in 1996. Lombardo’s problem with the band isn’t personality-based, it’s about money. And when he complained to the band and its management that he was only paid a small advance for all the touring he did in 2012, he was told – on Valentine’s Day – not to pack his suitcase for the Australian tour.
“I’m saddened, and to be honest I am shocked by the situation,” Lombardo stated. “Last year, I discovered 90 percent of Slayer’s tour income was being deducted as expenses, including the professional fees paid to management, costing the band millions of dollars and leaving 10 percent or less to split amongst the four of us.”
Lombardo claims he and vocalist Tom Araya hired auditors, but they were denied access to crucial financial documents. He also asserts he was told by the band’s management that he would not be paid until he signed “a long form contract which gave me no written assurance of how much or on what basis management would deduct commissions, nor did it provide me access to the financial budgets or records for review. It also forbade me to do interviews or make statements having to do with the band -- in effect, a gag order.”
King and the band’s handlers seem to be squarely on the same side, alleges Lombardo, who tried to rectify the situation by proposing a new “business model,” and was met by King with the cold, steely stare usually reserved for the audience. “Kerry made it clear he wasn’t interested in making changes, and said if I wanted to argue the point, he would find another drummer,” Lombardo says.
In response to Lombardo’s claims, Slayer’s management issued a lengthy comment to Blabbermouth, turning the issue into a he-said-she-said scenario reminiscent of the back and forth that went down between Black Sabbath and their original drummer Bill Ward.
“Slayer does not agree with Lombardo's substance or the timeline of the events, except to acknowledge that Lombardo came to the band less than a week before their scheduled departure for Australia to present an entirely new set of terms for his engagement that were contrary to those that had been previously agreed upon,” the statement read. “The band was unable to reach an agreement on these new demands in the short amount of time available prior to leaving for Australia. There is more to the account than what Lombardo has offered, but out of respect to him, Slayer will not be commenting further.”
True to their word, Slayer were not available for comment and Lombardo did not respond to a request for further elaboration on his claim.
As unstable as the band’s chemistry seems to have become, the truth is that Slayer has had trouble communicating for years. Onstage every night, they’re tighter than a shark’s teeth clenched around a seal, but behind the scenes and between tours, Slayer acts like work partners who understand the magic they create together without relishing the work required to conjure it.
After Slayer canceled two tours in 2009 and 2010 (because Araya required neck surgery on his fifth, sixth and seventh vertebrae to remedy damage from years of headbanging), Araya told AOL Noisecreep that he'd had little contact with his band mates during his ordeal. “We communicate [but] it’s very rare,” he said. “I’ve gotten three texts from Kerry, but Jeff doesn’t communicate with anybody. Dave sent two texts. But we see each other enough on the road. It’s an infrequent communication that we do. It’s enough to say, ‘Hi, what’s up. This is going on. Thought I’d send you this.’ So it’s kind of like they’re thinking of you.”
Maybe Slayer should hire Phil Towle, that touchy-feely band therapist Metallica brought on board for the St. Anger album, and who appeared at length in their film “Some Kind of Monster.” Even the comments King made about Hanneman since he was bitten by a recluse spider and acquired necrotizing fasciitis, a skin-eating disease that risked his life and severely damaged his playing ability, haven’t been the stuff of Hollywood tearjerkers. “He just can’t play guitar fast [anymore],” King told me,” with complete lack of emotion when I asked him how Jeff was doing. “He doesn’t have the intricacies of doing full-blown Slayer at the moment so that’s what he’s trying to achieve. If he can’t come back now at 100 percent, I don’t think it’s worth doing, actually.” Exodus guitarist Gary Holt has filled in for Hanneman since the incident.
For now, Slayer are effectively carrying on without Lombardo or Hanneman. Not only have they been playing gigs, they’ve also ben writing. During an interview with Eddie Trunk for Q104.3 from late January, King said Slayer have finished two new songs that were originally planned for an EP, and had one tune that needs vocals and leads. In addition, he said there he had written eight other songs that just need to be recorded. At the time, King said he worked on the songs with Lombardo and they had planned to record them once label owner Rick Rubin found a new distributor for his label American Recordings. But that was before Lombardo became an unknown entity.
Like all great cliffhangers, anything could happen. If Hanneman is able to step up his playing, he might enter the studio with Slayer to perform leads and possibly contribute to the new songs. If Lombardo irons out his differences with the band and management, he will be in the studio once again to anchor Slayer’s colossal sound. The future is theirs to write.
Jon Wiederhorn is the co-author of the book “Louder Than Hell: the Definitive Oral History of Metal,” which comes out May 14 on !t Books/Harper Collins. It features tons of revealing quotes from members of Slayer and hundreds of other metal bands.