"I'm changing strings as we speak,"
says Gary Holt
. Today is the first day for tracking guitars on the new Exodus
album and the guitarist is at home winding and stretching. When asked about putting on new strings himself he laughs. "Yeah, when I'm at home and stuff. I don't hire a tech to come change my strings sittin' at home. I still know how to do it."
Indeed Holt does. He's been the guiding light and main songwriter for Exodus for nearly 35 years now and though there have been bumpy patches along the way, he's never wavered from his vision of a band playing thrash metal in an extreme style.
Besides working with Exodus, Holt has been doing double-duty with Slayer
as the replacement for Jeff Hanneman
who passed away back in May 2013. It's a lot of work and dedication of purpose but the Oakland, CA native seems to feed on the activity. Just hours before he'll begin laying down guitar tracks, he talks about working with Exodus, Slayer and numerous side projects with which he's been involved - though he's not exactly sure which ones. UG: Does it feel good to be going in and tracking guitars on a new Exodus album? GH:
Oh, hell yeah. Right now I'm getting all the guitars I might possibly want to use strung. I have one more to go here. You think of the songs you're going to record and then bring in guitars that would work for those specific tracks?
Somewhat. More or less it's like having all my possible weapons available and finding which ones play the best and sound the best - it's a combination of both. 'Cause I know some sound a little better than others but I might be a little less comfortable playing it. So I'm trying to find that middle ground. You're mainly a Schecter guy?
Yeah, exactly. I've got a sh-t ton of Schecter
s but I'm bringing in a couple of Les Pauls and the non-trem things like a Jackson
I have. But I'm not that comfortable playing on non-trem bridges. I've been resting my right hand on a Floyd
my whole life. That's interesting because you think it would be the other way around?
Yeah, it just feels so different on my and just playing-wise. But non-trems can also sound so good. What initially attracted you to Schecter?
Just recommendations from some friends. I was looking for a home and I certainly found one. I love the stuff I got. The guitars I play live with Exodus and Slayer are production guitars. They're the same anybody could buy. I mean I have some in finishes you can't buy but they're the same guitar - not a one of 'em is custom shop. Your main Schecter is the V-1 FR?
Yeah, exactly. The Gary Holt Signature
, yeah. Which is kind of a modified V shape?
Yeah. Basically the existing V they had due to copyright laws and Gibson
and all that stuff, you can't make it exactly like the Gibson. The original one they made had the shorter wing on the top and I just said, "Why don't you rotate 'em and put the longer one on the top?"
Almost like a Rhoads meets a Gibson V.You've been a Michael Schenker fan - was this a nod to him?
Absolutely a nod to Schenker
. I played the pointy ones for many years like the Rico JR
's [B.C. Rich
] and stuff like that. But I wanted more of a traditional shape and something I wouldn't impale myself on. You actually began with Exodus as Kirk Hammett's guitar tech?
You can't call it a tech - that's a roadie. You're talking about high school kids, backyard keggers and moving a 2x12 combo in. To call me a tech is to call me a technician. That wasn't my job. I didn't change strings or tune guitars. I was just one of the little Merry Men
that part of the backyard party entourage. You liked the idea of being around guitar players and bands?
I always wanted to play. Kirk
showed me my first chords and six months later I was in the band. So it all worked out. Is that true?
Yeah, it was a Rolling Stones
song. I can't remember which one. "Jumpin' Jack Flash?"
Ah, I don't remember. Something much more acoustic. He showed me some basic chords and a few licks and stuff and I just learned really fast. You had a close relationship with Kirk?
Yeah, absolutely. When you joined Exodus did you actually do much writing with Kirk?
As time went on yeah. When I first joined the band we were doing half cover songs and it ran the gamut from all the early Iron Maiden
stuff and then early Def Leppard
, Judas Priest
to ZZ Top
. Then it just gravitated towards more originals and I was starting to write quite a bit and then Kirk joined Metallica
and then it was my show I guess you'd say. Were you bummed when Kirk left Exodus to join Metallica?
No, I was totally happy for him. It kinda gave me the reins and the band was kinda like changing of the guard and I was ready for it. So it wasn't a daunting task what'soever. I was chomping at the bit and I was able to take the band and make its vision my own. You sometimes don't think of Exodus as contemporaries of Slayer, Anthrax and Metallica but the band has been around since 1981.
Yeah, we preceded all of those bands. But you put it down to us and Metallica as going back to who was actually playing thrash metal. All of us in all the bands played covers and stuff like that too. But if you listen to the early stuff when Kirk was in the band, some of it's on the Metallica records, hah hah hah. It just goes to show you what kind of music we were already playing. You can hear the Exodus influences that Kirk brought back to Metallica?
Well, I hear those riffs, hah hah hah. Were some of those riffs in an Exodus song called "Impaler?"
Yeah, and part of that riff ended up in "Trapped Under Ice
." And the chorus riff in "Dying by His Hand
" ended up in "Creeping Death
" - the die by his hands bit. But I've got no shortage of riffs so it's all good. Did you have any idea what these other bands like Anthrax and Slayer were doing musically?
No. I remember when myself and [Paul] Baloff
first heard Slayer and we were so stoked 'cause here's a band that loves Venom
as much as we do obviously. We heard a lot of those bands and we didn't know they were kindred spirits out there. We lived in the Bay Area and we listened to the whole New Wave of British Heavy Metal and Mercyful Fate
and all that stuff. We slowly started realizing there were other bands like us out there. The first time Exodus toured with Slayer was in 1984?
Yeah, with us and our heroes - Venom. So that was quite a wet dream for a bunch of young kids. Did you have a chance to talk to any of the Slayer guys?
Oh yeah, we hung out all the time. But we'd already known each other 'cause we played a couple of times in the Bay Area together. So we were friends by the time that tour came around. In 1985 you recorded the first Exodus album "Bonded by Blood." What was that like?
Oh, it was madness. We recorded an hour north of San Francisco and we lived there because they had houses on the studio grounds at Prairie Sun Recording. So we had a non-stop stream of our little posse coming up and there was a lot of drunken lunacy and a lot of fights and everything else that goes along with drunken friends. It was crazy. A lot of drinking?
Yeah, we actually went back for Tempo of the Damned
and did our drums there. Mooka [Mark Rennick]
, the studio owner, still remembers it and he said we let loose a level of destruction that was so awesome it had be admired, hah hah hah. An important feature of "Bonded by Blood" was trading solos with Rick Hunolt. That kind of tradeoff of solos between guitar players would become something a lot of thrash bands did.
Most of our heroes were like that: Priest
, Maiden, Def Leppard
and Thin Lizzy
. They were all these two-lead bands and we just never envisioned having one. You knew from the beginning Exodus was going to have two guitar players?
Oh, yeah. Exactly. In 1987 for the "Pleasures of the Flesh" album, singer Paul Baloff left and was replaced by Steve Souza. That was a major shift in sound for Exodus.
It's one of those things in hindsight and looking back its like, "Would I have done it again? No, absolutely not."
And that's nothing against Zetro
was a legend. I think we listened to the whispers of too many people in our ears about what we needed to do going forward. It's like one of those things now that I wouldn't do. But we all had the chance to play with again in the late '90s before he died and that was enough for me. That was awesome. Along the way you worked with various other bands and in 1990 you did a demo with Laughing Dead?
Umm, did I do the Laughing
demo? I don't think I did. Songs on that demo like "Mad Man Clash" and "Never a God" don't ring any bells?
Well I mean I know the band well and they're friends of ours. I'm trying to verify if I had anything to do with the demo what'soever. I don't know. I mean I might have stepped in and helped out a little bit but it's no credit to me for anything I did. You did work with Panic in 1991?
Yeah, myself and Rick
. I was up doing a music seminar in Seattle and went out afterwards and ended up in some bar and they were playing. I just thought they were an awesome band. You worked with Chris Tsangarides [Judas Priest, Gary Moore] on the 1992 album Force of Habit. What was he like?
He's a great dude and a great producer. It's also the album where we squandered and blew the most money. Chris was out producing a lot of bands and away from home and he wants to be at home so let's load up and ship thousands of pounds to London, hah hah hah. And go live there for a month and record. We spent a great, vast sum of money on that album. Was it worth the money?
The guitars are epic. They're huge, single-track. Just two tracks of guitars and it's a wall of sound and it's some of the best lead work Rick and I had done. But the album's got a lot of flaws. It's one of those things in hindsight like, "Yeah, I could go and fix it and make it a great record." I don't even listen to my own music. Once it's done and mixed, I've heard it enough times and I don't go back. You covered "b-tch" on the "Force of Habit" album. Was that the song Kirk taught you?
No, no. I can't remember the one but it was an acoustic song that he taught me. It wasn't even rockin'. I was just kidding.
He was showing me the basic D A D G C chords and that kinda sh-t. The cover of "Force of Habit" is from artist Ralph Steadman. Was that a piece of artwork he had already drawn?
He did it for us. It was an original, which was quite a coup but it wasn't what I expected. At that time we were like, "We can't tell Ralph Steadman it's not really what we wanted."
We wanted that style he incorporated in so many of his past works [Steadman was the artist for Hunter S. Thompson's famous classic 'Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas: A Savage Journey to the Heart of the American Dream']
. You didn't like what he did?
We got this big toucan with a turban. I don't know what it is, hah hah hah. It's still very cool since it was an original piece for Exodus.
Yeah, yeah. He painted it for us. You were a Hunter S. Thompson fan?
Yeah, certainly. After the tour for "Force of Habit," Exodus goes their separate ways.
Yeah, exactly. Uh, you know it was issues with Capitol Records and just stuff. It basically came down to we were free agents and we could have signed and went back to our roots and signed with a small label. But personality clashes led me to not want to do it anymore. I was a new father and the choice of being in a band I wasn't really enjoying my time in or spending my time with my child, it was a no-brainer. I was gonna stay home. Did you really think Exodus was over?
At least for a while. But you did come back in 2004 for the "Tempo of the Damned" record with Andy Sneap [Killswitch Engage, Testament]. Andy
started working with us on the live album with Baloff ['Another Lesson in Violence']
in '97. I always like to tell him, "We were one of his firsts and we made his career,"
hah hah hah. You know doing that live album broke him. He's been like a sixth member of this band ever since. We just put him on a plane home yesterday. He came out to get our studio set up and track drums and we're on our own now. He's just a really great friend. We were super comfortable with Andy in 1997. He worked on every album we've done since then. In 2005 there were all kinds of lineup changes. What happened?
Yeah, it was kind of a sh-tstorm of crap all happened at once. I'm a pretty single-minded of purpose kind of guy. If there's something I want to do, I'm gonna do it and I just kept soldiering forward. We all did. You never thought without those key players like Rick Hunolt [guitar] and Tom Hunting [drums] that the Exodus sound would be totally different?
No. As long as this band still has the riffs that have always completely unique to this band, it's always Exodus. This new lineup appears on Shovel Headed Kill Machine with Rob Dukes on vocals and Lee Altus on guitar.
I've known Lee
technically if you want to go back, I've known him longer than anybody in the band but Tom Hunting
and Baloff. I knew Lee back when Kirk was in the band and there was just no other person for the job. I never even considered anybody else. When Rick decided he had to walk away, I called Lee up and said, "Wanna join?"
and he said something to the likes of, "Well it only took you 10 or 20 years?"
But he's here and the lineup's stable and solid and hungrier than ever. By the time you recorded "Shovel Headed Kill Machine," what was your songwriting process like?
I used to do a lot of little home demoing with drum machine stuff. But now I kinda write more like I did back in the early '80s. I sit by myself and I write a riff and I know what it's gonna sound like. I know what it's gonna sound like with drums on it. I'm able to envision where it's going without all the tracking and overdubbing. So I just kind of work from there and then I might have subject matter or titles in advance but lyrics pretty much always come after. You produced "Shovel Headed Kill Machine" yourself.
"Shovel Headed" I produced 'cause he wasn't available. He had total confidence in my abilities anyway. But we like having him there 'cause he's a great sounding board. But he's the first to say the band really doesn't need his help. He serves us more as an engineer 'cause he's one of the best in the world. But he's also a great help as a guitar player. He knows our strengths and weaknesses and he knows how to get the most out of us. And he knows how to get a lot out of Rob [Dukes]
and he's just awesome to have around. You rerecorded the songs from "Bonded by Blood" on the "Let There Be Blood" album in 2008. Why did you do that?
It was kinda like our tribute album to Paul Baloff. I see a lot of many, many lesser individuals getting tribute albums and no one was doing one for Paul. So I figured we'd just do it ourselves. Also in 2008 you played a solo on Destruction's song "Urge (The Greed of Gain)"?
I played a solo on it, yeah. I've never listened to it yet though, hah hah hah. Somebody gave me a copy of it and I have it somewhere in the house. I'm not one of those guys that sits and listens to his own stuff. But I did a solo and I did a solo on the Hyprocrisy record too and I don't know what that came out like. That was on "Scrutinized."
Yeah, that's one of the songs. I think that's it, yeah. When you're guest soloing on these other records, are you trying to fashion a solo to fit the band?
No, I just do what I do anyway and just let it ride. You put out the instructional DVD "A Lesson in Guitar Violence." Did you dig the idea of passing on your metal knowledge?
Certainly. I have no secrets. If I can help anybody along in any way I can in their career business-wise or playing-wise, I'm always willing to impart a little knowledge - what little I have, hah hah hah. You talked about Jimmy Page in one of the lessons - was he on your radar back in the day?
As a songwriter but not as much as a lead player. As a songwriter, he's just one of the greatest that ever was. What about some of the other early players like Ritchie Blackmore?
Oh, he's my hero. Number one of all time. I never have to think twice - Ritchie Blackmore
is god. That's unbelievable.
He's above all others. He's the greatest rock guitar player of all time. His solos were remarkable.
Everything. His rhythm playing and the stuff he does almost behind the scenes. Just blending in with the organ and guitar and stuff, it's quite complex and at times incredibly simple. But it's just him. Angus Young was another big influence?
Oh yeah, he's one of my heroes. He's a top fiver. Tony Iommi?
Oh yeah, Tony
's a top tenner. Top fiver as a riff writer for sure. How did you get from those types of guitar players and bands to the heavier stuff that Exodus would eventually do?
It starts and ends with the discovery of Judas Priest, Thin Lizzy and Motorhead
and stuff like that. You worked with Heathen on "The Evolution of Chaos" album?
Uh, I did a solo on it and I haven't heard that either. And you produced Warbringer's "Waking Into Nightmares" album?
Yeah, I did produce their second album and that was a lot of fun. We did the whole album in 11 days. They had almost no budget and no time and it was a lot of fun. You did a solo on "The Road Warrior" from that album.
Yeah, I kind of remember that one for some reason. I don't remember how it went. I just remember playing real fast and doing a lot of whammy bar stuff, hah hah hah. I've never listened to it either. You also played a solo on Witchery's Witchkrieg album on "The Reaver."
Yeah, I remember Sharlee [D'Angelo]
and Patrik Jensen
just sitting there and directing me what they wanted. They just wanted full-on, old-school "Bonded by Blood"-style lead playing so I did my best to oblige 'em. I have that album here too I've never listened to. Not the solo but I've listened to the record. I don't say, "Ooh, listen to this lead I played."
I barely remembered it until you mentioned it. Kerry King also played a solo on "Witchkrieg" from that album.
Yeah, and Lee did a solo as well. It was a lotta fun. When you produce another band is it exactly like producing Exodus?
It's the exact same mentality. You just try to get the best performances you can and lend an ear and listen for things you think can be improved upon. On the "Exhibit B: the Human Condition" record you cut an instrumental track called "A Perpetual State of Indifference." Do you like the instrumental side of guitar?
Well I wouldn't really call it a full-on instrumental 'cause it's so short. I call it a musical interlude I guess you'd call it. Just a little something to tag onto the other song and build up. Plus I have no shortage of titles so I might as well title everything. I'll record myself tuning the guitar and give it a song title if I could, yeah yeah yeah. When did you first fill in for Jeff Hanneman in Slayer?
I started with Slayer at Soundwaves Festival
in Australia like three years ago. You played with Slayer again in 2011 on the Hell on Earth tour?
That was the first time I pulled double duty. What was it like playing with Slayer for the first time?
Oh, it was awesome. We're such good friends and we go back so far, there's no intimidation factor or anything. I did my homework and I showed up prepared. For the first day of rehearsal, I played 11 songs no problem and played several more that I just needed another night's work on once Kerry showed me some stuff. You went back and listened to all the Slayer albums?
Especially the older stuff, you're going off older recordings and Slayer's so fast there's riffs in there you just simply do not hear. But once you learn it you hear it every time. It's like, "Oh yeah, that's there."
But you just don't catch it though the f--kin' fury of unrelenting f--king riff-ge. In learning Slayer's material, did you recognize the differences in what they did as opposed to what Exodus did?
Well you know there's similarities in the aggression and the vibe. There's differences I think in that Exodus maybe is a little more based on classic rock structures sometimes for lack of a better term. While at the same time the ability to be dissonant as anybody. One thing I learned after a while about Slayer is how to wrap my head around how they do write. It made learning subsequent songs much easier 'cause I started thinking how they think and not how I would have done it. There's similarities and there's stuff that's very different. What is that like playing guitar with Kerry King?
With Lee and Rick, we run around a whole lot more and crash into each other, hah hah hah. But playing with Kerry has been awesome. He's just such a monster rhythm player and a killer lead player and a key cog in the Slayer live machine. I just try to bring my best to the table and try to make it sound as good as I can. What has that been like recording the new Slayer record?
Oh, I haven't. They haven't even begun recording it yet. I'm doing Exodus guitars today. I got that. Do you ever get confused what band you're playing in?
Occasionally, hah hah hah. I'm serious. Doing double duty with Slayer and Exodus has to be pretty intense.
The only thing that's demanding is I have joint issues with my hands and stuff. So that is the hard part. Other than that you just might deal with a little finger soreness but I keep myself in pretty good shape for an old guy. It's just music - there are guys out there diggin' ditches eight hours a day so I can easily handle playing three hours a night. Do you think playing with Slayer rubbed off on you so that you might bring their approach back to Exodus?
I try my best to keep everything out when it comes to writing with Exodus. I don't listen to music. I'll listen to old UFO records but whenever I'm in writing mode I don't listen to anything. People send me albums I normally would love to throw on in the car when I'm out driving and give a listen but I don't want anything creeping in. Can you describe in any more detail what the new Exodus album might sound like?
It's f--king awesome. Everybody wants to pump up and pat themselves on the back like, "Oh, this album's our 'Bonded by Blood'"
or "It's our 'Master of Puppets.' This is our 'Back in Black.'"
I just leave that for other people to decide. I just know this album's really, really good. When do you see a completion date?
We'll be done by the end of April. Then you go back out on the road?
Yeah, we start in May with the Slayer/Suicidal Tendencies
dates and then I have a bunch of stuff booked with Slayer. Then hopefully we'll have this album out in fall and everything works out well timing-wise where I continue to do both. Finally - give us 25 words on the current political scene.
Pure f--king bullsh-t, hah hah hah. I'm in the midst of signing up for Obama Care
right now. You know the thing that really sucks? I voted for him and now I'm like Lee and I've become a total right-winger in a lot of ways. Yes, there is a lot of socialism going on because my former cost of health insurance was skyrocketing. Now you're going to go and cut some Exodus guitars?
Yeah, it's f--kin' phenomenal. I can't wait to get guitars started here today. Are we going to hear some great guitar solos from Gary Holt?
I'll do my best. Solos are always the thing I have the least time to dedicate to. 'Cause producing and guiding the vocals along and doing rhythms, when solos come up it's the one thing I haven't given any thought to. A lot of winging it by the seat of my pants.Interview by Steven Rosen