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Faster Than You'll Ever Live To Be: An Exclusive Interview with HATRIOT frontman Steve "Zetro" Souza

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Thursday, March 27, 2014 @ 9:35 AM

"I'm a metalhead, this is what I do, this is what people have been listening to me do for 30 years. This is not fake, this is as real as it gets. My favorite thing is going onstage and making people go into a fucking frenzy. That's the greatest thing."

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To thrash metal fans, Steve “Zetro” Souza needs little introduction. His on-again, off-again, on-again 30-plus year thrash career began as frontman for LEGACY — which later morphed into TESTAMENT — before taking the reins as vocalist for fellow Bay Area thrash masters EXODUS twice, including their late ‘80s/early ‘90s Pleasures Of The Flesh/Fabulous Disaster heyday and 2004 Tempo Of The Damned comeback. He’s been a member of the loose-knit Bay Area thrash collective DUBLIN DEATH PATROL and ex-STRAPPING YOUNG LAD guitarist Jed Simon’s TENET project that yielded the 2009 album Sovereign. Two years ago, he formed HATRIOT with young guitar savant Kosta Varvatakis that later incorporated his sons Nicholas and Cody Souza on drums and bass, respectively. The band released its debut Heroes Of Origin in 2013 and followed that up in short order this February with Dawn Of The New Centurion. A much more active 2014 is in the offing for HATRIOT, and songs for a third album already are in the works. Not long before his 50th birthday, the ever-energetic Souza offered the following about starting over yet again, playing in a band with members who are half his age and the old school meets new school vibe of HATRIOT’s music, among other things.

KNAC.COM: I know you played a few gigs of late and have a few more scheduled in the near future, is this just to get things rolling for the rest of the year or will you keep playing sporadically like you did after the first album came out?

SOUZA: Actually we got the year pretty much planned out. It looks like we're going to South America in May, I think there's four or five shows there, then we're going to Europe for shows with ARTILLERY and ONSLAUGHT in July and then we're going to do the states with GAMA BOMB in October and we're going back to Europe in December to do the Eindhoven Metal Meeting and a couple other festivals and I think a two-week run with MUNICIPAL WASTE. So the year is planned out pretty good and we will continue writing the third HATRIOT record. I set goals for us and probably in January we'll be going to the studio to do number three.

KNAC.COM: So it was lay the groundwork with the first album and hit the ground running now?

SOUZA: I think that's what it is, and I looked at it that way too. I wasn't quite sure how it was going to work when Heroes Of Origin came out. Obviously, when I was in EXODUS, you'd do an album and a tour was waiting for you. But here's a new band, new kids, new scene, there's a lot of bands out there, a lot of bands vying for that spot. Because of all the projects I've done in the past, I don't know if many people were really taking me seriously enough, it probably just seemed like one more thing I was doing. And when we came back just 12 months later with a really, really strong album I think everyone was then like, "Well, Zetro's serious about this." So then the touring thing really started to fall in place.

That shocked us last year, it was like a month after the record was out my kids were like, "So dad, when are we going on the road?" And I go "You know, that's a good question. And if we're not, we're going to keep working, we're going to write a whole other record and keep busy and play shows as they come to us and we'll take what happens." And they were like, "But we just put out Heroes!" And I had to tell them, "I know, but just think about this, if we put another record out in a year, who the hell does that anymore? Nobody does that. We'll be able to solidify things. Like 'Hey, we're not screwing around, we're a real band here.'" And I think both of the records are stellar, there's some of the best stuff I've ever done on both of the records. We're really proud of them and I think by putting out material, and putting out good material, we'll solidify ourselves. I want my spot back, bro (laughs). I want my spot back.

KNAC.COM: And of course that's the trick. There's quality and there's quantity and you need to find the middle ground so you're not just churning stuff out for the sake of churning stuff out.

SOUZA: I think we've really done that. I thought Heroes was a great opening record, very brutal, thrash/death elements all over it and knowing that we were going to mature as a band I knew Dawn Of The New Centurion was going to be what it was. As we were writing I could just feel it. It is everything that I wanted it to be and it really exemplifies that this band is moving into its own and moving into itself.

And we already have two songs for the next HATRIOT record and the direction we're going there is just wild. It's like the same but different. Fans are gonna like it because there's a lot of other elements we're exploring with the next record and we're aware of what we're doing. We're like "we're gonna write it kinda like this, and we're going to listen to these guys to give us a little bit more of an influence." And that's what's worked for us so far.

Kosta V writes all of the riffs, he writes all of the music, it is all structured by this kid who is just 25 years old, every arrangement, every lead. It's just awesome. I've worked with [Gary] Holt, I've worked with [Rick] Hunolt, I've worked with [Alex] Skolnick, I've worked with [Eric] Peterson, [Glenn] Alvelais, Jed Simon, Phil Demmel, I've worked with the best fucking guitar players in the world and this kid is right up there with all of 'em.

KNAC.COM: That's the one really unique things about HATRIOT, there is someone with your veteran presence playing with a bunch of guys who are a lot younger and bringing a new generation's worth of influences. There's a lot more to bring to the table that way.

SOUZA: That's the whole element I'm coveting. If you listen you hear a breakdown every once in a while, you hear chanting backup vocals, you hear blast beats. That's not normal thrash metal music, necessarily. These kids are in tune with THE FACELESS, BLACK DAHLIA MURDER and the newer bands that are respected by them, but have a real feel for the old school. Kosta is a like a jukebox, if you go "play the third song on the fourth KROKUS album, B-side" he'll just start playing it. Stuff that was created way before this kid was even born, he can pull it out and play it. Unbelievable. He's so well-versed in what was good when we were kids, when we were coming up, it's great to hear that influence come through and come full circle with somebody who is writing and using some of the influences that even someone like myself gave him. It's interesting. It's really cool to work with him and really easy to pen these lyrics. I'm not having any trouble with his rhythms. I come right in and nail it.

KNAC.COM: I'm imaging your kids were fed a steady diet of old-school thrash when they were growing up?

SOUZA: You assumed correctly (laughs). They were tortured. They were living with one of the forefathers of it, you don't think that's what I listened to? I would be a sham, a mockery, if that wasn't the case. I don't listen to anything else but metal. I love metal. I'm going to be 50 on the 24th [of March] and I still listen to metal. It's what I am, it's what I love.

I don't really care for other forms of music. If someone puts the classic rock station on, I'll deal with it, but I don't listen to rap. I don't like rap at all, I can't stand it. I'd rather listen to MOTLEY CRUE or something like them rather than that. There's too much heavy stuff to listen to first.

I'm a metalhead, this is what I do, this is what people have been listening to me do for 30 years. This is not fake, this is as real as it gets. I love it. I love it heavy, I love it fast, I love it loud and hard. My favorite thing is going onstage and making people go into a fucking frenzy. That's the greatest thing.

KNAC.COM: After the second stint with EXODUS, you did some projects you mentioned earlier, DUBLIN DEATH PATROL, TENET, etc., but you didn't have a full-time band, we're you looking for a steadier gig and this is what came out of it, or did HATRIOT come together more by accident?

SOUZA: This was an accident. I went to see my son Nicholas play drums in one of his garage bands and that's where I saw Kosta, that's where I saw him play in his former band before HATRIOT and I was so impressed with his playing. And we had phone conversations for a couple weeks where I would just pick his brain about his metal knowledge, which was just stellar.

So the song that's on this album, "The Fear Within", was the very first song he and I ever wrote together and we went to Chuck Billy's studio and recorded it and I had all my heavy hitter friends listen to it. And my friends who didn't know were like, "did you join EXODUS again?" And I'm like, "No, it's just me and this kid I met." And they were like, "man, you've gotta pursue this."

At first I was thinking,"Christ, I've gotta come up with a name, I've gotta go hire new guys other than just this kid, I gotta get a studio and I've gotta write songs, I've gotta do a demo and then shop it to labels," all that shit I'd done in the past, but you have to do it to be a band. I wasn't really all that for it, but you know it just flows in my blood, it's what I am. I don't try to hide it.

I don't own a boat, I don't ride a Harley. I play heavy metal. That's what I do. And it just felt so natural to get together with this kid. And now we've just put this second record out and everyone's excited about the attention and the tours and the things that are coming up.

This is a dream if you're a kid. I've already done it once or twice or three times. So to get that excitement again is a blessing. It's like a football player, if you're Jerry Rice, if you have to retire maybe you don't want to but your body's telling you you have to. With music, you don't ever have to retire, man, you can do this forever. As long as you keep your head straight and got your chops. And honestly, I'm singing better than I ever have in my life, I've got more power and I still very pissed off, and I think that makes good thrash metal if you're pissed off, and I feel really strong and I think I'm still putting our really good music.

Thirty years later, I think I'm topping the stuff I did before because I listen to the old EXODUS records, and I sound better doing that stuff now. We're actually playing some of those songs, we've learned a corral of EXODUS songs so they can fluctuate from time to time, there's six or seven we all know, just in case we have to play them on a whim. I like to play two or three every night because that's what people know me for. We do songs they don't play anymore, like "Chemi-Kill" and "Faster Than You'll Ever Live To Be" from Pleasures Of The Flesh, and "War Is My Shepherd" and "Toxic Waltz" and "Last Act Of Defiance" and actually throw an old LEGACY song in there, "Reign Of Terror".

KNAC.COM: I was just going to ask if you did any stuff from way back then?

SOUZA: Oh yeah. I'm really proud of my history and I'm not naive to it, so there's no reason not to play it. We do unleash 'em, and when I say we unleash 'em, we definitely do unleash 'em. Plus we just got asked to do two songs on a DIO tribute record. We're gonna do "Sign Of The Southern Cross" and "King Of Rock 'N Roll". So we've got a lot things going with the band, I try to tell these guys when we come to practice it's not time to fuck around because we've got so much work to do. So much stuff to keep on top of, and it's great. And we keep that fire totally going.

I'm never losing sight of what we have to do. Since this record came out I've been doing press every single day from 7 in the morning [Pacific Time] until, well, after you I have one at 8 [p.m.] and one at 9:15. It's just coming really hard, which is great, I welcome it. I'm glad to be doing this because like I said, I want my spot back (laughs). So we're working hard.

KNAC.COM: You sure don't seem to have lost any energy, even after a long time away from a full-time band.

SOUZA: The energy is what I think keeps me focused. And I'm really excited. I'm excited to see my sons do what I got to do for the last 30 years. I'm excited for this kid Kosta who I met a couple years ago in this crappy little California town called Modesto. I was like “I'll make you a rock star kid, I swear to god, you will be a guitar god if you just listen to me, follow me, do what I tell you to do” and so far he's getting a lot of attention, and it's really cool. And there's always that element of excitement about what could happen. Anything can happen in this.

Any time I do a record, whether it's with DUBLIN DEATH PATROL or HATRIOT or whoever, you never know what it can be capable of. It could go out and a few people could like 'em or it could go “boom!” So far, Dawn seems like it's going “boom,” everyone is very excited, I haven't seen a bad review yet. The press has been really friendly with us, really good, and the fans have been very responsive. And it's all about the fans, and we thank them so much because they're the ones who make HATRIOT. It's great.

KNAC.COM: Are you worried at all about the younger guys in the band being able to match your work ethic. There's a fine line between being a mentor or a leader and being a slave driver?

SOUZA: I say this all the time, I'm a bitch. I'm a dick, but when it comes to music, I take it very, very serious and I don't see any reason why you have to be lazy. I never could understand that whole rock and roll mythos that you just have to be lazy. I'm not into that, I'm into working. So practices for us, I have them set up way beforehand. I know what we're gonna do.

For instance, last night, it was to finish learning “Faster Than You'll Ever Live To Be” and to implement “Chemi-Kill” so by Sunday's practice we'll have “Chemi-Kill” done and then we'll have finished all the EXODUS and LEGACY songs that we're gonna learn for now. Then we have a month and a half before we have to learn “King Of Rock 'N Roll” and “Sign Of The Southern Cross”, so for the next couple practices we'll focus on learning those couple songs as well as Kosta has new songs that he's bringing in. So we don't just show up and go “OK, what are we gonna do?”

I have an agenda before every practice, you know what tools to bring. You know if we're setting frames or doing hardware, you know what I mean? I'm almost anal with the attention that I give everything and discipline is very, very, very important. I want it tight and I want it to sound great. Don't come here and bring your B game, I want your A game constantly. And that goes for the live show. The live show, you better bring it for 50 damn minutes, or for however long we're up there. And bring it the whole time. I want to run riot onstage. I want you in the fans' face, I want them going crazy because this is their music, get 'em into it. So I run it like that, I'm like a football coach.

KNAC.COM: Your last go-round with EXODUS didn't work in part because of family and personal pressures. Since this is a different situation where you're starting fresh instead of jumping back in full-time from the get go, and you've actually got family involved in the band, this has to be an easier transition?

SOUZA: Oh for sure. I don't want to say there's no pressure, but there's a lot less of it. Everybody works in this band. I've been a union foreman for 20 years. That was also why I can call my own shots. I make good money on the day job, I don't have to do this to pay the bills. I don't have to make money in this business.

My son Cody is a fourth year refrigeration apprentice, plus he goes to community college. He's a real smart kid. Nicholas has two jobs and works on nights when we don't have practice. Kosta works as a service mechanic, he'll come in and service your vehicle. Justin [Cole, guitar], he just got out of school, he is the only one who really doesn't work, so he's expected to know the songs. But he just turned 19, he's the baby in this band.

I preach working, I preach it. You have to because this business is not going to give it you. So I tell the guys, kiss your boss' ass and save money so when you go on the road, it's there. Because you never know. It's a big sacrifice, this business is very selfish. KNAC.COM: To switch gears a little bit, you've written lyrics on the last couple TESTAMENT albums with Chuck Billy. How did that come about?

SOUZA: He'll call me and sometimes Eric will call me or Alex will call me and say “Zet, can you write some lyrics, we've got a couple songs that Chuck has necessarily done the lyrics for?” It's not that he didn't have stuff for it, it's just maybe he was backed up on some other stuff, so I'll write stuff by myself, or sometimes he'll come over on a Saturday afternoon and we'll sit down and he has the music on iPad or something and we'll write to that.

I don't have a problem writing lyrics, I can listen to a song three times and be like, “OK, I got something.” It just comes natural to me. A lot of the lyrics I've written with Hatriot or other things I've done, I've done pretty quickly and there's not too many rewrites or go-backs. I'm very pleased with what I write and I'm very sure of myself, I don't fret over “how can I make that better?” I'm pretty confident in what comes out when it comes out.

KNAC.COM: Since you also are in DUBLIN DEATH PATROL with Chuck is that still a functioning thing, or does nobody have any time for it anymore?

SOUZA: Nah, I have no time. Neither does Chuck. They're actually in Tahoe now locked down in a cabin trying to write new TESTAMENT, all of them together. And I'm so wrapped up in HATRIOT. Even that second DUBLIN DEATH PATROL record, they committed to it and I ended up writing the lyrics for it even though I was like “guys, I've got other things to do.” I knew we weren't gonna tour for it, but they wanted to get something out, so we got something out.

KNAC.COM: You're not the only old-schooler who's still going, a lot of bands from back in the day not only are still active, they're doing well. That's got to give you some confidence going forward with HATRIOT?

SOUZA: Oh yeah. There's still and audience for this. Our fans are true and true forever. I always say this, when did you ever hear someone say, “Yeah, I listened to SLAYER last summer.” Never, you don't say that, you listen to SLAYER forever. That's the way it is. I think that stays with our fans because the music is so underground and not on the radio. Our fans do love it and they do covet it more than any other genre of music. Metal fans never will give up on metal. And we're old men still doing this, we're still up to it, so that's what we gotta do.

KNAC.COM: You mentioned doing some shows with MUNICIPAL WASTE and GAMA BOMB. They are like third or fourth wave thrash bands who are basically doing what you were doing 30 years ago? What do you make of the whole rethrash thing?

SOUZA: Sure, SKELETONWITCH, HAVOK, WARBRINGER. There's some bands out there. We're all aware of each other and I think it's a good idea that we keep it that way. I think everybody pretty much has everybody's back, I think that bond between the acts is very strong. It's all about thrash metal and it doesn't bother me that they might be poaching riffs or whatever from back in the day. Imitation is the highest form of flattery, right?

And that's HATRIOT. We steal even from stuff that I did before. I feel like because I'm one of the forefathers, I can take from anybody. And we do. We do (laughs). But we hide it quiet well and we put it together quite well. If you're going to be a thief, at least be sneaky about it.

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