EXODUS’ GARY HOLT - "We're The Five F*ckin' Musketeers Of Thrash"
December 9, 2021, a month ago
“Hell, the whole world's gone to hell!"
It has Gary Holt. And Exodus’ 11th studio album, Persona Non Grata, tells the tale of months in isolation, watching the world deal with its fabulous disaster as it were. This legendary guitarist isn’t an angry man, but what emerges from his hands is a seething reflection of what we’ve all been dealing with on a daily basis since early 2020. So, what does one of the greatest riff-masters in the history of the world do when he's locked in for a year and a half during this whole shit-show?
"Well, for one, he writes riffs! Well, actually we also develop a little bit of a drinking problem,” Holt admits. “Sorry, I've got like five deer in my driveway right now. You don't see the males around, but I've got a young male in my driveway. Anyway, yeah, you know I worked on an album, did intensive therapy for my elbow problems, and by the time I finished the album I couldn't play guitar anymore. I hurt it really badly, my arms would lock up. I dealt with that. I live in the country, so living in the country and dealing with your own issues, and also the pressing issue of your best friend battling cancer had me sitting around drinking a lot. That was a burden I had to rid myself of, but you know I'm feeling great now."
BraveWords: Well, this record certainly takes Exodus and anger to a different level for obvious reasons. It's a venting moment for Exodus.
Holt: "Yeah, it is. I mean I'm always venting about something. On this album it seemed like the venting happened in a very natural process. In the background while writing these songs, the vision of the world burning is basically going on. The pandemic, COVID deaths, riots, beatings, arson, looting, everything. I call it the soundtrack of the world catching fire. There was a lot of venting but it was never forced. I never thought that I had to vent about anything, it just kind of came out when pen hit paper."
BraveWords: Any particular Persona Non Grata that you are referring to, or are you just referring to everyone on the planet?
Holt: "Just kind of everybody. It's a song I like to leave open-ended because I think it could mean something different to everyone who listens to it. It could be your boss, your ex-wife, your ex-husband, your former best friend, Donald Trump, Joe Biden, it could be anybody. It is to you what it is to you. I like to leave that open to interpretation."
BraveWords: My list would be long.
Holt: "I'm sure it is!"
BraveWords: As a guitar player, how do you try to keep things interesting without repeating or stepping on your own toes?
Holt: "You know it's a fine line you have to walk because anything I do as a guitar player, a riff writer, it's gonna have my stamp on it, and when something has your stamp it's going to carry a familiarity with it. It's going to sound like you. But, it's also trying to take it and explore your ideas, and take it to new places. That's what we've always tried to do, that's why our more recent albums became more progressive. This one kind of steps back from the progressive side. Like Exodus meets King Crimson, although there's elements of that too. When it comes down to it, I just love writing riffs. And when you truly love doing something and it's authentic and genuine and you're not faking it - like that feeling that you have to write a fast song because everybody complains that we don't - well we're always writing fast songs. It would probably benefit us more if we did a couple of albums where we didn't because then, like a lot of other bands I won't name, they do one fast song and the whole world loses their shit, like, 'They're back!', you know? We play fast all the time. So it's kind of taken for granted, when we push the beats per minute to obscene levels. Someone else will play something that's like mid-tempo to me and they get more credit for going fast. It's funny. I love writing riffs. It's one of my passions, I do it even when I don't have a guitar around. I 've been doing it long enough, I know the fretboard, and I'll write a riff with just an idea and no guitar handy. I've written down the tab, using the notes on my phone, without a guitar around just because something is cool and I want to remember that for later when I actually have a guitar."
BraveWords: It kind of reminds me of when I spoke to (Tony) Iommi a couple years ago. How this Black Sabbath legend would have just a massive stable of riffs that he can just kind of reach out to, and I'm kind of envisioning your world is the same thing - this big barn with all these recording devices and you've got this major stash of riffs.
Holt: "I have a large stash of riffs, but I'm also super OCD and I get infatuated with what the latest riff is during the recording of the album. Sometimes I have to be forced to go back and revisit some stuff. I'll play these little iPhone recordings for Tom Hunting and I'm just zooming through them, but he'll tell me to go back because something sounded really cool. I wrote about 75 percent of ‘War Is My Shepherd’ in 1987 and it got used in 2003. It's become one of our modern classics. Granted, it was kind of mid-tempo but from the beginning of the song to the solo section, it's exact. I never changed a thing. I found it on an old cassette tape."
BraveWords: The spotlight for the most part is on you, but Zetro is just this fucking maniac on this record, his voice. Is he trying to keep up with you or is there a back and forth relationship when it comes to the singer and the lead guitar player, working together?
Holt: “It's a tonne of back and forth. On the last album, at the start I was on tour with Slayer so we had to do everything with dropbox and phone conversations with 8-10 hour time differences. It made it difficult. Whereas when you're together in one room you translate an idea to him and then walk in the other room and do it. And then you find out whether it works or not. And on this album, not only were we together, we isolated ourselves up in the mountains together. We were able to demo stuff together and work on it and go over phrasings before it ever actually went full tilt. Then when he did, he had such good command of the songs that he was just able to fucking go for it, and I mean he just kills it on this album. It's amazing."
BraveWords: Can you describe this remote Tom Hunting studio experience creating Persona Non Grata.
Holt: "We always record on our own. The only difference from this one other than the location is that we did the drums as well because we shipped him enough equipment to do it. Typically you need a lot more microphones, preamps, a big room, all that stuff to do drums, and the rest you can - I mean people do it all the time - they sit in their bedroom and record. We've rented vacation homes and converted them into live-in studios, we've converted warehouses. Tom bought this house up in Lake Almanor in the mountains that had this huge mutli-car workshop in the garage that already had multiple rooms in it, with the huge garage part for a drum room, and Steve Lagudi who engineered it, he had so much equipment, a full-fledged mobile Pro Tools rig, not your home base one but, like, mega tracks, and we shipped the whole thing to California. We just set up shop and it was awesome. We don't want to have to fight traffic going to the studio every day. We want to have coffee and walk 20 feet and be in the studio. I always say, it's like an old-school way of doing it. Queen, Deep Purple, they would go to Lake Geneva. We went to Lake Almanor (in northeastern California). That's the way the old bands used to do it, they'd build studios in some castle in England or something and then they'd gather and work on an album, and that's how we like to do it."
BraveWords: If you look at half the Led Zeppelin catalogue it was done like that, right?
Holt: "Exactly! And I guess the main thing is you have to get along well enough as a band to want to spend that much time together, and we do, we enjoy it. We have fun and we laugh the whole time."
BraveWords: Do you think COVID and that whole studio experience made the band closer?
Holt: "Yeah, I think so. I think we're a band that truly appreciates each other. We went through our rough times. Steve Souza and myself, now we're really close and I don't know if I could have ever said that back in the day. We're friends of course, but we're really close friends now. And then with Tom's cancer battle, that really brought us closer together. We're the five fuckin' musketeers of thrash, you know? We've got each other's backs, even the ex-members, we've got each other's backs you know?"
BraveWords: That's sweet. But it must have been tough trying to work on a record while a guy is trying to save his life.
Holt: "Well, he didn't know he had cancer at the time. He was dealing with unexplained weight loss and he was getting as many tests done as he could from mountain doctors. I mean he felt fine, but you know Tom's a giant of a man, he's a big guy and he was weighing less than I do. He's got 4-5 inches on me and he's a big dude, and he felt fine. He got his cancer diagnosis in February I think, and as he liked to put it, because he knew going into the chemotherapy, that he had to make himself sick to get better, because he felt fine. But he had something growing in him that was going to kill him if he didn't get rid of it."
BraveWords: Now tell me about the art work because it's absolutely gorgeous. Was that you guys feeding Par (Olofsson) or were you selecting from something he had already created?
Holt: "I told Par that I envisioned this three-faced seraphim angel looking over the destruction of the world, and he came back with that, almost nailed. That's why now this is the third time we've worked with him and I won't even look anywhere else now, I'll just make him my guy because he gets it. Some guys send back their concept and I'm like, ‘What the fuck is this?!’ Because it almost makes you want to laugh, it's fucking hilarious, like it's some kind of joke. Including some of our own concepts in the past. But he immediately sends you something back where you know it's almost there already, and then it's about fine details. His stuff is great and the cover looks amazing, I love it."
BraveWords: It's a far cry from the artwork for Pleasures Of The Flesh where you guys are just sitting at the bar.
Holt: "Well yeah, that was my reference to Exodus' own fondness for fucking marijuana and hallucinogenics, sometimes our jokes didn't translate well. Maybe when we were smoking shit-tonnes of weed we thought it was like the best idea in the world."
BraveWords: As an old-school fan I'm still buying all the hard copies and everything, I love the vinyl, but these days it's format-overkill. What kind of input do you guys have when you've got like 30 different colours of vinyl and fans are trying to keep up with this stuff?
Holt: "We have tonnes of input in it, and we're super hands-on, and why not? As a fan myself, I collect a lot of shit from certain artists, like Prince for instance, and his estate could put out ten different versions of Sign Of The Times, and I'll buy them all. They like it, you give 'em options and they pick what they want. We got a really cool version of the new album cover that pops up, it's really cool."
BraveWords: On February 12, 2011, it was announced that you would be temporarily filling in for Jeff Hanneman in Slayer. That’s a helluva addition to a resume! It was the 30th anniversary of Slayer’s A Decade of Aggression last month and I noticed in the booklet a photo of Jeff Hanneman wearing an Exodus t-shirt. Do you remember that photo?
Holt: "Yeah, I do. We hung out a lot, Jeff and I, back in the day. In those early days, those early tours. He's a really special guy. It meant the world to me, me filling in for him, and it was supposed to be a super short-term thing, a couple of months maybe, or a tour or two. I had his seal of approval on it because according to Catherine, his wife, he was bummed at first when he found out the band was going to use a fill-in, and then he asked her who it was and she told him it was me, and she said his answer was, 'Fuck yeah!', so that means everything to me. It's one of the fondest memories of Jeff I'll have and I wasn't there for it. Just knowing that he was excited about it. We hung out a lot back in those days and drank a lot, obviously. We had a good time."
BraveWords: How long did it take you to learn all that material to tour with Slayer?
Holt: "The first rehearsal I did, I played 17 songs. I just worked at home. They gave me a good amount of time, they gave me more time than Phil Demmel had when he had to fill in for me, that poor guy. But I went into Slayer not knowing any of the songs. I mean I knew some of the songs, but a lot of the material I wasn't familiar with. I'd heard them but I didn't have it buried in my head like a fan would, and not that I wasn't a fan, because I was. But your average fan off the street can hum all the guitar parts in the middle of At Dawn They Sleep. I could not, so I had to learn a lot of this stuff from scratch. I mainly really had to learn how they wrote because I had to learn the scales they chose that work, rather than my own. Once I got around to that it became a lot easier."
BraveWords: What did you learn working with and touring with Slayer? What was the biggest takeaway from being with Slayer?
Holt: "I learned a lot about how a major tour production is run. Other than that, I was playing guitar, and I already played guitar so I didn't learn anything from that. I learned that I had a lot of solos in Slayer. I didn't realize it going in, but some songs have three solos in that shit. It's kind of fun, I got to play almost a guitar hero role, my whole job was to go out and shred. But you see how it's done on that kind of level, and the professionalism in it was staggering. I tried to take that into my Exodus dealings."
BraveWords: I will never forget Tom (Araya) at the end of the Heavy Montréal 2019 show (pictured below), just like every show. I'm like literally standing there in tears because it was the last time I was going to see you guys. You probably saw a lot of eyes that weren't dry with all those final shows. It must have been really heart-wrenching.
Holt: "Yeah. Every show on the final tour, Tom would really soak it all in. I'd go out and soak it in for a minute, but then I'd let him have the stage. The final show, I'm not going to lie, I was playing my final solo in ‘Angel Of Death’ with the guitar held by the whammy bar up above my head and I was fighting tears. It was an emotional time. And it's easy for me to forget I had just short of ten years in Slayer. What is that, a quarter of the band's history that I spent playing with them? I tend to forget about that, how long it was and how much time I spent there. I've got mad love for that band and the organization. They treated me like family from day one, and we always will be, but now I'm back with family number one and that's where I belong."
BraveWords: The whole social media thing, of course we follow you - you've got a human side, you're not this mean motherfucker all the time. Actually you're showing a lot of your family on social media.
Holt: "Yeah, well the Gary Holt at home, he likes to grow hot peppers and hang out with his grandkids, he likes to garden. We're not all sitting around drinking blood and shit. But, I'm also not an angry guy. I guess sometimes you look at the music and think that maybe I am, but that's just my therapy. I love my family life, and I love being at home. Right now I'd kill anything to be stuck in a van driving three hours to the middle of nowhere for a festival. I used to hate that, it was like, "Fuck! Goddamn, another one!". Then you take an airplane to fly to the next one which is too far to drive to, hoping they don't lose your fucking guitars and all that shit, but right now I would kill to do that again. Please, please!"
BraveWords: To finalize things here I’ve got two geeky Exodus catalogue questions for you. I've been trying to find the original cannibal scene artwork for Pleasures Of The Flesh. What do you have as a band member? What kind of memorabilia do you have around that original artwork?
Holt: "I think I still have the picture disc. I'd have to look in some of my tubs of memorabilia. Most of my memorabilia collection concerns the really oddball shit, and photos. I have thousands and thousands of photos. Back in the day you'd play a club and the next time you roll into town some fan would come up and hand you your own set of photographs. They'd hand you a hundred pictures of the last time you were there. I have all that stuff. I have really weird merchandise, I have an Exodus beret, it was made as a sample by a merch company to see if we wanted it, and I said, ‘Hell no’ and ‘that's mine!’ The thing is ugly, but I own the world's only official Exodus beret. I also still have my tour laminates and all that shit. I sold a lot of my Slayer ones and people ask me why, and doesn't it mean anything to me, but it's like, 'Dude! I have ten years worth of Slayer stuff!' If you knew the amount of shit I have, you'd understand why I'm willing to part with a lot of it. I mean, I have a fucking six-foot carved wooden throne."
BraveWords: You brought up Prince. What else is your focus in the non-metal world?
Holt: "I have all of the classic-era Madonna stuff. The book, everything. I used to be a huge fan. But mostly it's Prince. He is my hero and I've got tonnes of that. Musically, if you locked me on a desert island with any one Prince album, any one UFO with Schenker album and any Richie Blackmore anything, I'd be happy."
BraveWords: Well, there's the famous story of when Clapton was asked about being the greatest guitar player of all time, and he said, "You should ask Prince".
Holt: "Yeah, I agree. Every time I do a tribute around Prince's passing, I always get somebody who chimes in who's offended that I think he's that good of a guitar player and they go, "Well Dimebag...." Dime's a legend and he's borderline on the Mount Rushmore of guitar players but dude, if all you do is base a guitar player on how hard they shred and how heavy their riffs are, where does that leave Eric Clapton? Those guys must suck! I'm sure Dimebag if he were alive would tell you that Prince was bad as fuck."
BraveWords: Who does the spoken word intro on Deranged?
Holt: "That was a homeless guy on Church Street in San Francisco that we caught. We named him Tom Skid. He was just a homeless guy around the neighbourhood, and we brought him into the studio and recorded him."
BraveWords: Wow, that's pretty eerie actually.
Holt: "Yeah. Or pretty fucked up. You know, in this day and age people would accuse us of taking advantage of a derelict homeless guy because we did pay him a large jug of wine to do it. It's different times god damn it!"
"The Years Of Death And Dying" lyric video:
"Clickbait" lyric video: