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Super-Violent Animals: Peter Atkinson's Interview with Exodus Guitarist Gary Holt

By Peter Atkinson, Contributor
Monday, March 15, 2010 @ 10:10 AM

“This album is a masterpiece. People are going to shit when they hear (it). I think it’s the best thing we’ve done since Bonded By Blood.”

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This was supposed to be a quiet time for Bay Area bangers Exodus, a chance to chill after two years of touring in support of 2007’s monumental The Atrocity Exhibition … Exhibit A. With the recently issued DVD/CD Shovel-Headed Tour Machine available for those in need of a live Exodus fix, the band was looking to re-energize prior to the May release of The Atrocity Exhibition … Exhibit B: The Human Condition, a 73- minute clusterbombing that blends the epic technicality of their more recent work with the hooky, jaw-busting thrash of old. But then Arch Enemy called offering a tour, as did Megadeth after the American Carnage tour was postponed to accommodate Slayer frontman Tom Araya’s back surgery. So any thoughts of relaxing were quickly put on hold and Exodus has spent much of the new year traveling around America, continuing to teach audiences a lesson in violence.

It’s largely through their rigorous touring regimen that Exodus have been able to climb back up the thrash metal heap after the tumultuous ‘90s cost them the bulk of their audience and eventually split them apart. Since Exodus regrouped in earnest for 2004’s Tempo of the Damned - following the 2002 death of original frontman Paul Baloff, with whom they had done some reunion shows — it’s been full steam ahead, despite some significant bumps in the road, such as the departures of longtime singer Steve Souza and guitarist Rick Hunolt, and drummer Tom Hunting’s ongoing problems with anxiety attacks. But with mainstay guitarist Gary Holt leading the way, Exodus have not only overcome, they have thrived as a resurgent thrash metal audience has been introduced to what is essentially a new band — rounded out maniacal frontman Rob Dukes, veteran guitarist Lee Altus and bassist Jack Gibson — that can still bring it like they did back in the day, nearly 30 years ago.

On the phone from Exodus’ bus, as it made its way to first date of the tour with Megadeth and Testament, Holt offered the following on the band’s longevity and new album, the new wave of thrash and the resurrection of the old guard, and smelly old sneakers and bad feet.

KNAC.COM: I know you’re on the bus right now, where exactly way are you?

GARY HOLT: We’re about two hours outside of the Bay Area on our way to Spokane. We probably won’t get there until tomorrow afternoon. So we’ve got plenty of time to kill. Right now we’re all watching the gold medal hockey game, drinking a few beers, doing what everyone else is doing. We’ve got satellite TV, which makes traveling a bit more tolerable than it was years ago when all you had was porn on the VCR (laughs).

KNAC.COM: You obviously must be pretty excited about this tour, this has got to be one of the highest profile one’s you’ve done in a while?

HOLT: Yeah. For sure, profile-wise. This tour’s getting a lot of attention, especially now that Dave Jr. [Ellefson] is playing with Megadeth again. Venue-wise, a lot of these venues are no bigger than what we’re used to playing. But the level of excitement is something I haven’t seen in a long time. Megadeth’s gonna be playing Rust In Piece and Testament is going to play The Legacy. We’re not doing the full album thing, but we’re getting in the spirit and we’re only playing stuff off the first three records.

KNAC.COM: You guys kinda jumped the gun when you did those Bonded By Blood shows a few years ago. Now everyone’s doing the play-the-old-classic-album thing?

HOLT: We’ve never done a tour with it, we did two shows in the states where we played it front to back, in Seattle and Hollywood. And we did two shows in Japan last year where we played a set and then came back on and encored with Bonded By Blood.
We did a bunch of shows with Paul where we played all the songs, but not in order and we mixed other stuff between them. And a couple tours ago when we were in South America we did the same thing without really realizing it because we were playing two-hour sets, mammoth sets. We haven’t done the full tour thing with the album, but we very well may at some point when we’re doing our own headlining tour.

KNAC.COM: There’s gonna be a lot of thrash metal nostalgia on this tour?

HOLT: At first we didn’t want to do that, because we’ve never considered ourselves a nostalgia band. We play a lot of classics live, “Bonded By Blood,” “Strike of the Beast,” Piranha,” “Toxic Waltz,” crap like that, but we play a lot of new shit. We’re usually very focused on our new record when we’re out on tour. But for this tour we figured what the hell, why not just dust off the old stuff. We’ve got a new album coming out in a couple months and we can focus on that then and play a lot of new stuff when we go out to support that.

KNAC.COM: There’s been a lot of buzz about “The Big Four” lately, since Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer and Anthrax are playing together for the first time at some festivals in Europe. This tour’s kinda like “The Big Fourth, Fifth and Sixth?"

HOLT: (Laughs) Yeah, something like that. Exodus and Testament were on that plateau just below “The Big Four.” We sold a lot of records and had pretty good-sized audiences of our own back in the day, but they were definitely on another level. Being in “The Big Six” or the “Top 10” or whatever, it doesn’t really matter. There’s a whole lot of bands from when we came up that are long gone and forgotten. We’re still chugging along and a lot of people still like us. That’s pretty cool.

KNAC.COM: Since this tour came together pretty soon after the American Carnage Tour was postponed, did it just fall into your laps?

HOLT: Yeah, kind of. The original American Carnage was presented to us as well, but we had already committed to going out with Arch Enemy, and we didn’t want to cancel out on that. It’s a good thing we didn’t because it would have sucked to cancel one and then have the second one cancel (laughs). And now they’re just going to do it [American Carnage] later in the year with just the three of them.

But Dave [Mustaine] got in touch with us when they were talking about putting this thing together and we talked to Chuck [Billy] and Testament’s people, and when they confirmed that they were doing it we said “Yeah, we’ll do it. If Testament’s on board, we’ll definitely do it.”

KNAC.COM: Even though you’re not playing anything new, it will give you guys a chance to build some buzz for the new album?

HOLT: Yeah, for sure, that’s another main reason for doing it. We hadn’t planned on touring until after the album came out. The Arch Enemy tour was another one that just came up, they asked us if we wanted to go out, and it was like “Yeah, we’ve got a new DVD out” and they’re really good friends of ours and we hadn’t had the opportunity to tour together before, so we said “sure.” And when that was done, this one came up.

But it’s cool because I was only home for like three weeks and I was already bored and driving my girlfriend insane. She was like “you better get your ass back out on the road, you’re driving me crazy.” And she got her wish (laughs).

KNAC.COM: Has this stretch, since this line-up took shape for Shovel-Headed with Rob on board, been the busiest of your career?

HOLT: No, because even back to Tempo of the Damned we tended to tour a lot more than most of our brethren. We’re on the road constantly. But we time it so we’ve got little breaks at home with the family and I tend to have most of my summers free when my kids are on vacation from school so they can come stay with me. In the early days, we’d just tour and never stop, except to make another album to go back on the road. So we’re still really busy, but we’re smarter about how we stay busy, if you know what I mean.

KNAC.COM: Might as well make the most of this second life the band’s been given?

HOLT: For sure. The reason we’re out all the time is because people are still excited about Exodus, and we’ve managed achieve some level of prominence again, which is cool. People keep asking me if that has something to do with thrash metal’s comeback and I tell them maybe thrash metal’s comeback has something to do with Exodus (laughs). We’ve busted our ass nonstop for the last seven years, we helped bring it back.

KNAC.COM: What’s your take on these new re-thrash or retro-thrash bands that have been getting so much attention?

HOLT: I’m a big supporter and a big fan of these young thrash bands. I do anything I can to help them out. Some of these young bands are enamored with 1985 with the look and sound and all. When they start out, they sound like thrash metal karaoke, like if you took your old Kreator, Exodus, Testament demos and threw them in a blender. But as they advance it becomes less based on their love of a particular music or band and more based on their desire to work on their craft as musicians.

If they do that, they’ll just naturally start evolving. And you’ve already seen that with bands like Warbringer and Evile, they’ve been able to put their own stamp on it and that’s important if you want to craft some kind of career out of it. They play longer, get better at it, they get more creative and start writing their own riffs. And that fact that people are digging it is great because it would be a lot tougher for old dogs like us if they didn’t. The new fans that are getting into these new bands are becoming our fans as well, and that’s good for everyone.

KNAC.COM: Since you’ve been around for both, does this new wave of thrash compare at all to the first wave back in the day?

HOLT: There’s no comparison. I think it’s great that people are enjoying what we do and there’s other bands making great records and there seems to be genuine excitement about the music, but then it was the birth of a genre. There was a whole movement, it was purely underground. You couldn’t buy our crap or anything like it at Wal-Mart or Hot Topic. It was dangerous and it was aggressive. It was a whole different vibe. A lot of these kids now, it’s like they were born in the wrong era. In 2010, you see kids wearing the clothes that they saw us wearing in 1985. But that was our uniform back then, now it’s like shopping for vintage clothes. You may like the look of vintage ball gowns, but it was a lot different when they actually wore them in Versailles.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but there’s only one original. We were creating it. Us, Metallica, Slayer, Anthrax, Megadeth, a bunch of other bands. You can’t compare the two, but it’s great that people are embracing the spirit of it.

KNAC.COM: It’s funny you mention “the uniform,” because some of the bands really like to look the part, all the way down to those old white Nike and Reebok high-tops. They must be tough to find?

HOLT: That’s what I’ve been saying for the last couple years, where the hell do they find ‘em? I wished I’d saved the ones I had because I could sell the hell out of them (laughs). I remember running out to the Nike outlet when they came out with first Nike pumps and those things came in plastic ice chest. In the lid of it there was a pump, because it had an external pump that looked like douche applicator (laughs), and they sold for like $190 in 1990. I can’t imagine what those things must be going for now on eBay. It’s kinda funny to think about some young kid in a thrash band going out and bidding on eBay like $250 for an old nasty pair of Nike high-tops or Converse Larry Birds.

KNAC.COM: To move on to your own stuff, is the new album supposed to be a continuation, counterpoint or companion to Exhibit A?

HOLT: It’s definitely a companion, but it’s definitely different. It’s super fast, super aggressive, but it’s a little more melodic at times but really brutal and a little bit more back to the roots. Not back to 1985 Bonded By Blood, but it’s definitely got the catchy choruses of songs like “Fabulous Disaster.” It’s a little less progressive in a lot of ways, but it’s also more progressive, if that makes any sense (laughs).

This album is a masterpiece. People are going to shit when they hear this album, it’s so good from front to back. People always say this sort of shit, but I’ll say it anyway, I think it’s the best thing we’ve done since Bonded By Blood. It’s awesome. I love all the albums that we’ve done, Force of Habit’s not my favorite, but out of the last three that we’ve done with this line-up, this one takes it to a new level.

KNAC.COM: I spoke with you after Exhibit A came out and you mentioned having four other songs already in the bag, did they end up making it onto Exhibit B?

HOLT: Oh yeah. We recorded so much stuff for the last album that there wasn’t enough room to put it all, so we picked the stuff that we thought would fit best on Exhibit A and saved the others for Exhibit B. And it wasn’t easy, it wasn’t like these were crappy throwaway tracks, they were as good as anything on the last record.

We just picked what we felt worked best as a cohesive record and kept these in the can so they were ready to go. Then we wrote new songs to go with them. And this album is very cohesive front to back as well. It doesn’t focus on religion as much as the last one did, this one is more about violence, death and man’s unhumanity to man. It’s heavy as hell. There’s a couple of epics on there, a couple of long ones, but there’s a couple short, fast, vicious ones on it as well. Exodus is a super-violent animal and we just want to feed, we’re hungry. We put everything we got into this record.

KNAC.COM: Did Lee and/or Rob get more involved in the songwriting this time, or did you handle the bulk of the songwriting again?

HOLT: They wrote two on this one. I tend to write a lot. My riffs are like moonshine because I distill them overnight, but Lee’s are like fine wine because they take time (laughs). The album opener [“The Ballad of Leonard and Charles” about the serial killing team of Leonard Lake and Charles Ng] was written entirely by Lee and Rob, and it’s my favorite song out of all of them on both records. Those guys definitely contributed and we’re all working together well as a unit, everyone is involved.

KNAC.COM: This tour threw a monkey wrench in Lee’s plans with Heathen since they had to cancel some already scheduled dates to launch their new album [The Evolution of Chaos, which is superb] to accommodate the Megadeth shows?

HOLT: They’re just pushing them back. Lee’s taking off in late April to go to Europe for a bit, like three weeks, to do shows over there before our album drops. So that’s gonna keep him busy for sure. Hopefully we won’t have any conflicts down the road, but if we do we’ll figure something out.

Even though we’ve been so busy, he and Heathen were able to work it out with the studio they were working where they could take all the time that they wanted. So if we had a big gap, he went in and worked on it and he worked really hard on it. It took him a while, we call it his thrash metal Chinese Democracy (laughs), but the album’s sick as hell. It’s a masterpiece.

KNAC.COM: You guys aren’t 20 years old anymore, how are holding up with all the work you’re doing?

HOLT: We push ourselves, that’s for sure. I won’t allow myself to slow down. The idea that we don’t have to work so hard is ridiculous because we love doing this. We may end up with some injuries that pop up when you’re older. What’s fucking with me is I have two bad feet now, primarily my right foot, it has plantar fasciitis, that‘s a bitch. I love to play basketball and I hadn’t really played in months, so I went and got a new ball and played for like 45 minutes and I could barely walk after that. It’s a chronic thing, so every night is a setback. It may be feeling all right when we go on but at the end of the night it’s been re-aggravated. I got in the left one in 2006 and it took six months to heal. So you deal with that kinda shit, stuff that didn’t happen you when you were younger, but we just fight through it. Eli Manning played a whole season at quarterback with what I have, so if he can do that I guess I can do this (laughs).

KNAC.COM: You guys certainly tear it up on your new DVD. That wasn’t planned for the package it ended up being, right? It was supposed to just be a bonus disc for your new album?

HOLT: It started as just Rob chasing us around with a camera forever and then it led to our performance at Wacken, which was easily one of the best shows we’ve ever done. There was 80,000 people just going nuts. And the people at Wacken tape every show and they’ll send you samples to see if you want to buy the footage. We watched our sample and it like “this is just too fucking good not to put this out.”

So we made the purchase and now we had a live concert DVD. So we thought “OK, let’s put together a bonus,” a documentary of the last two years of the band, not like full historical thing. That’s something I’d like to do, but it would take years to work on something like that, just compiling archive footage would take forever.

But Rob had all this footage and he and Craig Cefola, this friend who’s been in some bands with him, did all the editing of it and they did an amazing job on the documentary part. So it turned into a nice little package with the concert DVD and CD and a documentary disc.

KNAC.COM: How was the premiere you had for it with Brendon (Dethklok) Small as the MC?

HOLT: It was a lot of fun. It was a tiny little theater, the Steve Allen Theater, and we had a group of fans watching it, drinking some beers. And Brendon’s a really good friend of ours, so he hung out with us, drank some beers and cracked some jokes. He had us all laughing, he’s a really funny guy. So it wasn’t like some big red carpet Hollywood premiere, it was more like just having a bunch of friends over. We had a good time.

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