Exodus guitarist Gary Holt talks through the period of personal stress and creative recharging that led to their first album in seven years.
A fourth decade of physically embodying thrash metal is booted off proper this month for Exodus with new album Persona Non Grata, an album unparalleled in significance for the band by anything they’ve made since returning to the scene in 2004 with Tempo of the Damned.
After many years of steadying the ship with Slayer seeing them through to their final shows in 2019, walking riff arsenal Gary Holt returns to Exodus full time for their first album since Blood In Blood Out in 2014. Steve “Zetro” Souza solidifies his position as this band’s most recognisable vocalist with his second album since retaking the mic, and most importantly, sole original member Tom Hunting is emerging from a serious brush with stomach cancer.
It’s been a period of gritted teeth for this slumbering thrash giant but Persona Non Grata marks its completion, and the recharged, homecoming Gary Holt is ready to step on the accelerator again.
Persona Non Grata sees the return of Exodus on record after seven years. You had obviously spent most of that time playing with Slayer, so when it came that Slayer finally bowing out and you getting to return to Exodus full time, after that amount of time did you view this as an opportunity to try some new approaches or was it dialling really smoothly back into the old way of doing things?
Holt – Exodus is always going to be smooth to me, it’s been my band since I was 17 years old and it’s my first family with Slayer the second family. I was really, really itching to get back. You get negative people who ask “How could you have wanted to go back to that from Slayer?”, and I loved my time in Slayer where they treated me like family, but I missed this, especially from the point of view creatively. I needed to write, I’ve got millions of riffs and thousands I didn’t use cause I was too lazy to dig back into them. Getting back to this was just awesome, and the pandemic worked in our favour because we weren’t touring last summer, we were going to work on an album and we ended up really being able to work on an album uninterrupted because the world went to shit. We looked at it like the only thing that we control of was ourselves and the making of this record. It was super old school, myself with a half-stack and Tom Hunting behind his drums in a room, the way we used to do it.
It does feel a fair bit more diverse than Blood In Blood Out, the thrash core is always there but it moves out into more menacing and melodic material like Years of Death and Dying, and particularly the Southern style acoustic parts and percussion on Lunatic Liar Lord stand out. Was that conscious to up the variety?
Holt – It was not conscious. I think if anything it’s the result of the way that we record. Exodus typically always builds a studio somewhere, be it an old warehouse or a vacation home we rented somewhere, because we don’t like to travel back and forth sitting in traffic to go sit in some stuffy studio. We like to immerse ourselves in it and we still enjoy each other’s company, so you can put us together for like six weeks. This time we did it in Tom’s house up in the mountains, and for us these elements come into play because we are just constantly playing guitar. When we’re done recording someone fires up the barbecue and there are acoustic guitars everywhere, so we’re still writing and I got back to some more acoustic-based writing. That brings out elements like that twang because some of those riffs like on Antiseed were first played on an acoustic, and when you move it over to electric some of that twang still exists. We were able to create all day long, all night till we went to bed, and then I’d wake up in the morning and write lyrics before we’d gather for breakfast and head out to the studio again, it’s the perfect way to record for Exodus. Deep Purple and Queen, they’d go to Lake Geneva to record, we go to Lake Almanor.
Do you feel like you learned anything or picked anything up from your time in Slayer that you’re able to take with you?
Holt – Y’know, what I learned from Slayer is more on the business side of things. Musically, I’ve been doing this as long as anybody and if you wanna go back to the origins of the original thrash bands, we’ve got them all beat by a year or two. I’m stuck in my ways but I learned a lot about the business of running a full scale production and things like that, valuable lessons.
For you obviously Slayer got put to bed at the end of 2019 and then you did a handful of shows with Exodus but just as quickly, COVID hits. That must have been such a tease right as you were getting back into things.
Holt – We were lucky in a sense that our tour started when it did. We left on I think February 7th for Europe, we only had two cancelled shows at the end of it and we flew home on the morning of the flight restrictions taking place. We were being chased by COVID all across Europe. When we played France, at midnight that night they started putting restrictions on the capacity of gatherings. It was a really fun tour for me because of the welcome I got back, right above me in my office I have a banner that someone made saying “Welcome back to the Mothership, Gary”, it was phenomenal and then the world went to shit. Two months after the end of Slayer though, I was back out on tour and having a ball.
Despite how long he’s been back in the band now this is just your second album with Zetro back on vocals. Is that position a lot more comfortable in the band now than last time when it was his first back?
Holt – Certainly. When he was doing his vocals for Blood In Blood Out, I was in Europe with Slayer, so files were being sent back and forth and I was trying to communicate via e-mail and telephone what I wanted which is more difficult. The end result was good but I couldn’t participate the way I wanted to. Now we’ve had several years and friendships are even more solidified. The band is on a super united front, and it was a lot easier because we all lived up there in the mountains when we did the album, Zetro included. We could all go into different rooms and play with things and it’s just the only way to record, fuck giving all your money to a recording studio. So what, you pay a guy who goes and makes you a cup of coffee.
You got some pretty intense vocal takes out of Zetro this time, and his voice is so distinct and piercing. Is it remarkable to hear him still pushing that sheer edge in his voice?
Holt – Yeah, absolutely, none of us are getting younger and he’s getting more intense. On this album he broke out a couple of stylistic additions, where we’d be sitting recording and I’d say “why don’t you give me your version of a death metal vocal?”, which obviously isn’t going to be George Fisher but his version of it. He’s saying he’s never done that but I’m saying let’s try and do it and it’ll come out like you. We were able to put some different elements in and that has to do with the time we spent together working on songs. We brought Zet’s kids Cody and Nicholas in for the backing vocals. We all joined in as a band but after listening to our backing vocals which has never been our strongest suit sometimes, we needed some girth cause we sounded like a bunch of guys who don’t sing. They added some real power to it and it came out really good, so what you’re mostly hearing with those is them with a little of us in the background.
You’ve worked with Andy Sneap in some kind of capacity on most of your latter day records, so with you out in the mountains somewhere this time, who was involved?
Holt – Yeah, Andy is part of the family, him and I work extremely well together and totally see the same things with no arguments about what’s best for Exodus. He was going to record this album but the pandemic made travelling so sketchy, where even if we could get him to California we might not have been able to get him home. So it was just having to think of who we know who was available to engineer and I thought of Steve Lagudi who has worked with Exodus before and for a long time now has been Machine Head’s front of house engineer. He owns a large mobile ProTools studio and we shipped the whole damn thing out, it was ridiculous, and that’s why we were able to build this super involved studio with multiple rooms and two drum-kits mic’d up fully at all times. It was just funny watching him smoke cigarettes while fifty miles away there are massive forest fires! The air quality index is the most unhealthy thing you could be in and he’s outside smoking.
It feels like you could go anywhere in the world to record though, there’s probably a natural disaster not too far away at the moment.
Nowadays, yeah! You can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a disaster.
Former guitarist Rick Hunolt is also on the record, so how did regrouping with him go?
Holt – It was awesome, he came up and hung out and was part of the summer camp for a couple of days. He did a ripping solo on Lunatic Liar Lord and it was good to have him partake in the record. He’s always family and always my brother and it’s always good when we can jam.
With your style obviously being so foundational to the style of thrash metal which itself in the decades since has given rise to all sorts of really extreme forms of music, how do you view thrash metal and Exodus in relation to all the things that have come since and kept on upping the extremity?
Holt – I think that Exodus has certainly created our own branch on the heavy metal tree. You hear genres though that you influence and then years later, it comes full circle back to you and you start absorbing little bits of what they did. It’s very incestuous, heavy metal, but in a good way. We all interbreed musically with each other and that’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Thrash often had a more geopolitical streak to it in those days with the Reagan years and that is something that Exodus have kinda held onto. Is that social rage still a defining part of it for you?
Holt – I think so. Speaking on behalf of Exodus, when we were working on this album and were sitting around at night after tracking, in the background there’s just the world building. You couldn’t help but absorb a little bit into where you were going on the record. The only thing intentionally that we didn’t do on this album was write a pandemic song. I figured by the time this album comes out there was gonna be a hundred of them, there’d be ten albums called The Pandemic, COVID this or that, and so we purposefully avoided that.
For a thrash band, you normally make quite long records too going over the hour mark. What is it about Exodus that you think has seen you going more longform for a thrash band, for what was initially a style of music about short aggressive shocks?
Holt – Ah, maybe I just listen to too much Rush. To me, some of the beauty of metal is that there shouldn’t be rules. We wouldn’t have made Bonded By Blood in that case because it went against everything that was supposed to be marketable. To me, a song is done when it’s done, I don’t look at it and put a clock on it. Sometimes I’m not the best at self-editing maybe, but part of the creative process is just going where the song takes you in that moment. The only time that we really consciously looked at the time of a song in any recent years was The Beatings Will Continue because at one point it was slightly over three minutes, and we wanted to set a personal goal for three minutes or under and make that one really punk rock style just going for it.
As you said at the beginning, you must still have plenty of excess from seven years plus away.
Holt – Oh I’ve got millions of riffs, and sometimes there’s great, great stuff if I dig for it because it’ll be way way back after a million voice files on my phone, because I just put my phone in front of the amp and play. I do like to keep working on things that are new rather than spend too much time digging back but War is My Shepherd from Tempo of the Damned, I wrote three quarters of that song in 1987 but it was mid-tempo and then we double-timed it and sped it up into a full on rager. I had it on a little cassette and I found it back when we were doing Tempo under its original title of Zodiac about the Zodiac killer.
Do you think there’s any truth to that story about them finally deciding who it was?
Holt – Oh I’ve seen several documentaries and stories and no one is ever gonna know.
You said publicly that you quit drinking during the pandemic, Tom obviously had his cancer brush, but in general finally getting this record out, beginning to come out of this situation with being able to play some shows again, do you feel like you’re generally of clearer mind having gone through all that to properly take Exodus forward?
Holt – I hope so. It’s been a trying year. Tom is my closest friend I have on this planet and he went through a life-altering battle, where the cancer he had, normally the outlook is not good, but we just played our first show back with him last week at Aftershock Festival and it was fantastic, emotional, and one of the best forty-minute sets we’ve ever played in our lives. I developed a little bit of an excess drinking problem like a lot of people during the pandemic, I moved to the country and so in beautiful weather I’d sit outside among the oak trees and get drunk with nothing else for me to do. I was dealing with some serious elbow issues after so many cortisone injections over the years that turned my tendons to mush, and by the time we finished this album I couldn’t play guitar any more. MRI showed significant damage but I went through physical therapy and I’m playing again. I still deal with some pain but I’m playing, Tom’s playing. The band has survived and we’re strong. This band has survived a lot of shit and we’re not done yet. We don’t feel that we’ve accomplished shit.
With that in mind, the band hit their fourtieth anniversary a couple of years ago and now this marks fourty years of you personally being in Exodus. With being part of thrash metal’s DNA for that amount of time, now having played in two of the most legendary bands in its history, what are the goals that you set yourself at this stage?
Holt – I want this band to reclaim its throne. There are people that say some very kind things and say that of all the older thrash bands, no one’s playing with the kind of fury that we’ve got, but we have that chip on our shoulders and if I don’t have one I’ll find one and put it up there because it motivates me. Our fast stuff is faster than it ever was when we were 21 and it doesn’t get easier when you’re 57, but we still love doing it and still feel like we have to prove ourselves. A lot of our problems over the years were self-inflicted with drugs and all that stuff, but we survived that, we survived cancer, we’ve made an album that I feel is career-defining, and now I just want to tour.
The 11th studio album from Exodus in Persona Non Grata arrives November 19th via Nuclear Blast Records. Pre-order the album – HERE