The wood paneling in the Slayer dressing room gives off the vibe of one of those ’90s Calvin Klein commercials that reeked of pedophilia. There’s only one dimmed lamp turned on and the cavernous space is scary, like a waiting room to hell would be — except it’s really goddamn cold.
But Tom Araya seems to enjoy the sub-zero temperature and lack of light. And despite being only a couple of hours away from his performance in front of thousands of people on the first stop of the Mayhem Festival, he looks calm and relaxed as he takes a seat on a giant, black leather couch, wearing a peace symbol necklace and his long, graying hair in a loose ponytail. Araya’s trademark goatee, which is shaved to look like the hair of a billy goat, is almost white. It’s hard to imagine, but Slayer, the thrash metal band — hailed as one of the greatest metal bands of all time — is approaching 30 years old. And because it’s funny, this is where Slayer and Pat Benatar are mentioned in the same sentence: Benatar is celebrating a 30th anniversary and she, like Slayer, is also touring this year. And that’s pretty much where the comparison ends.
Araya remembers fondly Slayer’s first major tour. “We played the L.A. Sports Arena in 1990 when we did Seasons in the Abyss,” he recalls. “And it sold out — 15,000 people. That was a first.”
But it certainly wasn’t the last. The band would sell out many arenas in the years to come. Although “sell out” is probably a poor choice of words, considering Slayer, even after two Grammy awards for Best Metal Performance, recognition from both MTV and VH1 and a number-eight spot on the Billboard charts, managed to keep their fans (some of the most shirtlessly aggressive, tattooed, sweaty and violent beings on the planet). “We have like a lot of loyal fans,” says Araya. “From the very first day on you start recognizing people in the audience. I’ll look at them and they know that I recognize them … 30 years and they’re coming back, which is cool.”
Araya seems to genuinely enjoy reflecting upon his career. He’s sober now and feeling healthy and happy. “After [touring] for so many years … I’ve gotten to the point where I kind of isolate myself; I don’t socialize. I don’t want to see people. Everybody wants to hang out and party and I just don’t do that anymore,” he says, leaning forward on the couch, smiling. It’s obvious that Araya is content — even in a dressing room with a temperature that could keep raw salmon fresh for weeks.
When it’s time for Slayer to hit the stage, fans are visibly weary from a full day of metal and beer. Behemoth, Black Dahlia Murder and Killswitch Engage all played terrific sets. And now it’s Slayer’s turn. The curtain drops, pentagrams flash at the back of the stage and Araya, with no introduction, growls his way through a setlist with virtually no banter in between songs — just three decades’ worth of blistering metal. When Jeff Hanneman’s wailing opening riff to “South of Heaven” slashes through the speakers, Dave Lombardo’s drums ring out like the first shots of war. Guitarist Kerry King lumbers in his two-foot radius. And the mosh pit, as it has for the past 30 years at Slayer shows across the world, once again becomes a cyclone of tattoos, bad breath, swinging flesh, danger and a shitload of blood.